Chapter Nineteen: Ho Ho Hobo
Half an hour later, with a pile of eleven Rotom-boys behind him, Blake stared down the path to the south and raised his eyebrows.
“Fabien,” he called. “You migh’ wan’ to have a look at this.”
Fabien emerged, trembling a little, from the cover of the trees, and looked to the southwest. He saw them, and his face turned ashen in an instant.
“May God have mercy on our souls,” he whispered.
That was when the three Magmas decided to abandon their plan, and run for the hills.
For there is nothing quite so supremely disturbing as fifty copies of your enemy strolling towards you down a twilit path at sunset.
You know, if you keep this up, you’re going to pass out from overexertion, Puck said in an offhand manner. No one can keep using a move forever, and certainly not such a draining one as Double Team.
“Quiet, you,” I hissed, concurrently with the second batch of Kesters. They numbered about thirty, and the sound we produced brought to mind a major gas leak. It also reminded me painfully of that business from last year – especially the part with the Seviper.
You don’t actually have to talk to me either, if you want to communicate with me, Puck added. I can read your thoughts.
Why did you wait so long to tell me that? I thought angrily.
I forgot about it. Puck paused. Hey, it’s a lot quieter if we talk like this. The illusions don’t copy you.
“Kester!” said Sapphire. “Stop Double Teaming!”
“I’m trying!” we cried back.
“Not hard enough, it seems,” she said, looking at the newcomer. “I can’t have you generating endless duplicates every time I let you out of the ball!”
“Neither can I,” I and my clones replied. “It’s getting tiring. Puck says I’ll pass out if I keep it up.”
“You will,” Sapphire said. “It’s really bad for you.”
“If I can stop this, I am never using this move again,” I groaned. “I hate it so much!”
Calm down. Deep breaths, Puck said. I tried this, and found that deep breaths were indeed conducive to tranquillity.
OK, I thought at him. What now?
Just keep trying, he replied. Come on, concentrate properly on ending the move, on all your clones disappearing...
I focused hard, and another doppelgänger appeared with a pop.
Seriously, Kester! This is getting annoying!
“I’m focusing!” I cried, and focused even harder, imagining all the clones vanishing, and no more appearing...
Pop! Pop! Pop!
Three appeared in quick succession, and Sapphire slapped me.
“I am concentrating!” I howled. “It’s just the harder I concentrate... the more seem to appear,” I finished slowly, eyes widening. Sapphire looked at me, and I could see the penny had dropped for her as well.
“The more you think about them—”
“—the more of them appear,” I said. “Yes. I need to ignore them!”
Oh, that should be easy, commented Puck. There are only, what, thirty-five of them?
“Shut your eyes,” Sapphire said. “Think about something else. Something that can take up all your attention.”
I did as I was bidden, and thought about home in Rustboro. I wondered what was happening there, and if my mum had been fired from Devon after all, and what my friends thought of my sudden disappearance, and how it was going to be impossible to mend my relations with the girl I had been trying to get a date with. That thought was kind of depressing, and I hurriedly shied away from it – only to remember all the clones around me.
Damn, Puck said. So close.
“Kester? Keep trying,” said Sapphire.
“I’m working on it, I’m working on it,” I muttered back; I might as well have shouted it for the noise it caused.
I thought of shoes, and ships, and sealing-wax, and cabbages, and kings; of why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings; and why exactly the Walrus had thought that these were absorbing topics to muse about in the first place, because they weren’t.
Hey. I found another inconsistency in your knowledge of English literature, Puck said.
Shut up, I thought. I’m trying to think.
I thought about Felicity, the Aqua girl, then; at first in vengeance, but soon in earnest. She was a very absorbing topic, I found, and if, at any point, I tired of her, Natalie was also pretty interesting. So engrossed in my thoughts did I become that I failed to notice the whooshing noise around me, or the sudden rush of air, and only emerged from them when Sapphire delicately prodded my right eye with one finger.
“Ow,” I said, opening my eyes and looking around. “Oh, hey! They’re gone!”
“Don’t mention them,” hissed Sapphire. “I really don’t want you using Double Team again.”
Yes, put any thoughts of duplication far from your mind, Puck hastened to tell me. We don’t want a repeat. Another seventy-odd clones and you’d probably have been dead for a ducat.
“OK, OK,” I said wearily, sitting down and prodding the remnants of the fire with a stick. Sapphire sent out Toro, who reignited it. “God, I’m tired.”
“I’m not surprised,” Sapphire said. “You generated nearly ninety perfect copies of yourself, all of them fully solid and all just as intelligent as you were.”
I had a feeling that she was insulting me somehow, but I was too tired to work it out.
“I’m going to sleep,” I said.
“All right. Goodnight, Kester.”
I got up and was just about to head for the tent when the red light engulfed me.
“Damn you, Sapphire,” I murmured, and lay down on the steel floor to sleep.
“OK, OK,” said Fabien, hands trembling. “I think we’re safe now.”
The three Magmas were sitting in a huddled group on one of the crossbars of the supports that held up the overpass road to Mauville; it had taken them about half an hour to get up there, and they had been watching the path below ever since, just in case the army of Rotom-boy clones decided to come and get them.
“Wha’ the ’ell was all tha’?” Blake demanded to know. “There must’ve been fifty of ’em!”
“I know, I know!” cried his partner. “It’s impossible. I would have said he was just doing a Double Team, but they were all real, all solid...”
“Ee-eeee-e-EE-eek,” Goishi put in, with a shiver.
“I know,” repeated Fabien. “I think we had a lucky escape there. Obviously they sensed our presence and...” He broke off into a protracted shiver, which made him look like he was trying to remove his shirt without using his hands.
“Prob’ly best not to think abou’ it,” Blake said. Goishi nodded, a complex manoeuvre that involved bending his mouth in the middle.
“You’re right,” replied Fabien at length. “Let’s just wait here a bit, until we’re sure they’ve gone.”
Blake and Goishi nodded their agreement, and the three Magmas settled down to wait out the night.
Felicity and Barry did not set out at noon, as planned. Nor did they set out at one o’clock, or two o’clock, or five o’clock.
In fact, by the time Barry arrived, somewhat sober and rather bruised, at Cadogan Square, it was twenty past seven, and Felicity was nowhere to be seen. He looked around, hoping against hope that she might be there with a car and instructions, but she was gone. The square was broad, with a fountain in the centre and statues at each corner – but there were no people other than the odd tourist and a few workers heading home after work.
Barry sighed, and was about to leave when a nearby payphone began to ring. He knew that would be for him – only the Teams and Devon communicated like that – and answered it.
“This is Felicity,” said Felicity. “I’m calling from Coffen Spit, and I can see Ruby and Birch from where I am. Wherever you are, get over here now, or I’m going to call the boss and tell him you didn’t turn up.”
Barry listened as she hung up, then replaced the receiver sadly.
“I need,” he said to himself, “to sober up. She’s been winning lately.”
What Felicity was winning was the little war that raged between them; Barry was acutely aware that he’d fallen behind her in terms of achievement recently, due to his drunken episode.
He sighed, and hailed a taxi.
“North Canticle Street,” he said, “and quickly.”
Felicity was sitting in the upper branches of a tree, about five metres from Birch and her fire. She was chewing on one pale knuckle, and wondering what she ought to do.
It wasn’t as if Ruby would be hard to subdue. He barely had control over his own abilities, as the amusing incident with his Double Team had shown her. While Felicity herself wasn’t able to use the powers of the creature within her without it taking control of her body – something she was keen to avoid – she still had a shotgun, and she was certain that she was much stronger than him anyway.
No, the problem was that her Aqua superiors had ordered her to capture Ruby, and if possible Birch as well. Now, Zero had given her no orders other than to obey the Aquas, but she had her doubts about whether or not he wanted her to do this. From what she knew of his plan, it would better serve him if Ruby fell into the hands of the Magmas.
Then, of course, there was Felicity’s own will. She didn’t like Ruby; in fact, she detested him. He was moronic and spineless, a worm of a creature; he was nothing but a pawn that was shunted around the chessboard by Birch and Zero.
Felicity, too, was a slave to Zero, and also to Archie of Team Aqua. She had no real say in her life. And despite her animosity towards Ruby, the similarities between his position and hers were too similar to deny, and she couldn’t completely rid herself of a strange sense of solidarity between them, a feeling that it was somehow her and Ruby against the world.
Because of her inability to settle on a course of action, Felicity had opted to not do anything until Barry arrived; she hated to admit that she would ever follow him, but it was easier than making the decision herself.
“Shut up!” Felicity hissed, twisting the volume dial up on her headphone. She had never imagined that she would ever use it to quell a voice in her head, but she was glad of it now; music pulsed through her head and left silence in its wake.
Hot and cold shivers shot through Felicity’s body; her arms and legs felt heavy and useless, with the weight of lead and the flexibility of rags, and she fell back against the tree trunk, almost slipping off to plummet to the ground below. Panicking, she tried to breathe, but her chest wasn’t moving; her body was paralysed, limp and useless. The world was darkening, and there was a strange feeling of lightness coming over her. For a moment, Felicity thought she was dead, and the most frightening part of that was that it seemed a good thing; she felt so calm that she almost forgot Zero and Ruby...
Then, all at once, sound and light returned to the world, and Felicity sat up, gasping for air. Whatever it was, it had gone.
“I’m not going to lose,” she said, clenching her fists so tightly that her nails broke the skin of her palms. “I’m not going to lose to you!”
So saying, she wedged herself securely against the trunk of the tree and fixed her eyes on Birch, who was going into her tent. The monster within was going nowhere.
In the morning, Sapphire, in her infinite grace, let me out of the ball so I could pack her tent up for her; this done, we continued up the path towards Mauville. The soft dirt track was covered in thousands and thousands of footprints, all left by my shoes: an unwanted reminder of the armada of fake Kesters that had walked this way the night before.
At around half ten, we encountered a pugnacious green canine with an ovoid excrescence on its head that Sapphire said was an Electrike; Rono, who was in need of training, beat it senseless with ease, and we continued without stopping for longer than five minutes. The casual manner in which Trainers challenged each other or thrashed wild animals was still unsettling me, and I had to think hard about Sapphire’s earlier statement that most Trainers lost their minds at some point during their careers. If this was the way they lived, I thought, it was a wonder we weren’t knee-deep in psychotic sociopaths here in Hoenn.
No, Trainers are usually weird-crazy rather than stabby-crazy, Puck said. Well, I say that, but in England before I left the news was full of this Trainer-turned-serial-killer called Steve Jobbs. He and five Beedrill stabbed their way through about seventy-odd people before they were stopped. It was quite funny – all it took was one Charmeleon, and all those Beedrill just... Poof! Went up in flames. The weird bit was, Steve did too – turns out, he was made of petrol.
“That is so not true.”
OK, so Steve Jobbs wasn’t made of petrol. But the rest is true.
When my watch beeped one o’clock, Sapphire decided it was time to stop for lunch. This was something I happily agreed to, since it involved both food and rest, and we sat down just off the road to eat. I had just started to enjoy my meal when I noticed an old man dressed in ragged brown clothes creeping out of the undergrowth behind Sapphire. Recalling my last experience with an old man, back at the Wharf, I felt it was my duty to warn her.
“Sapphire,” I said, “there’s an old man behind you.”
She turned around, and he froze. He had a very round face, and a bushy grey beard; his mouth was stretched wide in a grin.
“Who the hell are you and what do you want?” Sapphire asked aggressively.
She didn’t actually say that, Puck put in. She said something much, much ruder, but I don’t think we can put it in.
The old man laughed uproariously, which didn’t strike me as the right reaction, and dropped into a seated position next to her.
“I’m just a harmless old hobo,” he said, in a voice roughened by years of cigarettes and alcohol. “Me and Jess are wandering around, heading for Mauville.”
Sapphire looked like the reply she wanted to make was a punch to the face, but what she actually did was say:
The old man looked around and then shouted:
“Jess! Jessie! Come out here and meet these two nice young people!”
The bushes nearby rustled, shook, and finally disgorged what appeared at first to be a giant Poké Ball; closer inspection, though, revealed it to be the wrong way up, and in possession of a pair of pinprick eyes above a manic grin. Together with a set of pencil-thin eyebrows, these features combined to form the most disturbing face I’d seen since the Sableye’s Dustox doll.
This freakish apparition rolled towards us, heedless of the twigs that stuck into its mouth and eyes, and settled next to the hobo, where it gave an indescribable noise that sounded to me like the death cry of a mortally-wounded electrical substation.
Sapphire leaped to her feet and backed off to the other side of the clearing, Rono’s ball appearing in her hand.
“What the hell!” she shouted. “That isn’t safe at all!”
The old man laughed at that; for myself, I was just confused.
Don’t worry, said Puck. That thing can’t really hurt us. Hurt Sapphire? Yes. Destroy a large area of forest? Yes. Do anything to us? No.
“Sit down, lass, sit down,” said the hobo. “She’s tame, don’t worry.”
The giant ball buzzed, crackled and spin on its axis. What that meant, I had no idea.
Sapphire sat down as far away from the ball as possible, eyeing it and its owner distrustfully.
“We didn’t invite you here,” she said. “Go away, please, and take your Electrode with you.”
So that was what an Electrode was! I had heard of them; they were supposed to hate the entire world with a violent passion, and explode at the slightest provocation. I gave it a look of concern, and edged away from it.
I told you, it can’t hurt us, Puck said. Explosion is a Normal-type move, so we’re immune to it.
The hobo laughed. This was beginning to get on my nerves.
“Don’t be like that,” he said. “We just wanted a chat. Right, Jess?”
The Elecrode somehow leaped about a foot into the air and spun rapidly. It looked like a basketball trick without a basketball player.
“Well, we were just going,” Sapphire said, standing up and shouldering her bag. “Isn’t that right, Kester?”
“Uh – yeah,” I agreed, surprised. I stood up and followed her back to the path.
“Wait!” cried the hobo. “Where are you headed?”
“Mauville,” I replied; Sapphire elbowed me in the ribs.
“Don’t encourage him!” she hissed. “He’s crazy. No one goes around with an Electrode! You do know they’re military-grade weapons? They were deployed in the First World War!”
“Mauville!” said the old man, catching up with us. “That’s great, that’s great. We’re headed to Mauville, too!” He laughed merrily at this happy coincidence.
“Oh, joy,” murmured Sapphire.
With the hobo and Jess the Electrode in tow, we walked on; according to Sapphire, we would make Mauville by the day after tomorrow at the latest, but we travelled so quickly in our attempts to shake off the hobo, that she said we’d probably reach it tomorrow evening.
“Do you like Marmite?” the hobo would say, or: “Have you ever been to Disneyworld?” He peppered us with inane questions, the answer to which was almost always ‘no’, in some bizarre effort to start a conversation. Despite this, however, Sapphire and I remained stubbornly uncommunicative, though by three o’clock I did start pleading with Sapphire to let me back into the Master Ball so that I wouldn’t have to listen to him.
“No,” she replied. “If I have to put up with him, so do you. Besides, I can’t just recall you with him watching.”
Also, put in Puck, he’s quite entertaining. I mean, ‘have you ever inhaled salt?’ These questions are brilliant.
So it was that the day wore on, until finally we stopped in the shadow of one of the piers that supported the elevated motorway. Here, amongst a stand of trees at the crest of the beach, we made camp for the night. Toro lit us a fire, and Sapphire got out the food – though she made a point of not offering any to the hobo. He didn’t seem unduly bothered by this, though, and simply took several long swigs from a hip flask.
“This is nice,” he said. “Three Trainers, sitting round a campfire. Reminds me of my youth.”
Neither Sapphire nor I said anything. He laughed, and asked if anyone wanted to battle him.
“Come on,” he cried. “I’ve just got Jess here. You’ll battle me, right lad?” His face drew alarmingly close to mine, and I caught a whiff of breath that reeked of Tabasco. I wondered if that was what his flask was full of, and, if so, how he’d managed to gulp it down like that.
I withdrew awkwardly and declined his offer.
“Er – sorry – don’t really think that would be a good idea.”
“What about you?” he asked of Sapphire. She answered with the look in her eyes; for the first time, the message that she didn’t want him with us seemed to reach the old man, and he coughed, saying hastily, “Well, doesn’t matter so much, anyway. It’s the being here with other people that counts. Why, that’s what Trainers do! They gather in little groups, and travel together on the road.”
“Yeah. Great,” I said unenthusiastically.
As it turned out, there was actually one good side to having the hobo with us. Since Sapphire couldn’t risk letting him know I was a Pokémon, she couldn’t recall me, and so I was allowed to spend the night outside the ball for once. Better yet, she wanted me to use as a shield in case the Electrode went off in the night, so I was even allowed into her tent. Even if I was only here as a spectral blast wall, I felt extremely privileged – which, as Puck noted, just went to show how low my standards had fallen over the last few days.
Well, he didn’t put it quite that nicely. He said:
Kester, you’ve fallen to the level of a beaten lapdog. Judging from your memories, you didn’t have much dignity before, but this... this is a new low, even for you.
I slept lying across the tent’s doorway, so as to provide maximum protection for Sapphire if the worst happened, and also within easy reach if she need to drag me atop her for use as a shield. This meant that I had her feet jabbing me in the back all night, but I was still lying on a blanket instead of steel and I got the best night’s sleep I’d had for quite some time.
On balance, then, I enjoyed that night, though I wish I could say the same about the next morning. No one had tried to kill, capture or seriously injure me that day – but it was a high that couldn’t last for long. Tomorrow, it would be business as usual, and I was going to hate it.
“Birch has acquired a new Pokémon,” Felicity said to Barry as they walked up the path. About five hundred metres ahead of them were their targets; they hadn’t yet looked back, but Felicity was ready to leap into the bushes and hide if they did.
“Urg,” replied Barry. He was hung over; consequently, he was currently very irritable and found it difficult to communicate in words of more than syllable without clutching at his skull and whispering quiet moans of pain.
“It’s a Sableye.”
“I saw it when they came out of that strange house a few miles back.”
“Honestly,” said Felicity, with an exasperation that she didn’t feel, “it’s like having a conversation with a caveman.” She paused. “Oh. Wait. I am having a conversation with a caveman.”
Felicity didn’t know how much longer she could keep up the act. She hated the double identity she was cultivating, but she was doing so on Zero’s orders; her real self didn’t suit him, or perhaps just didn’t amuse him as much as this one. In the end, it didn’t matter. If she failed to follow orders, he wouldn’t remove the creature, and she would die.
“Are you going to keep this up all day? Because it could get boring real quick.”
With a colossal effort, Barry mumbled four rumbling syllables.
Felicity raised her eyebrows.
“Well, someone knows how to endear themselves to a lady.”
Barry attempted to make a rude gesture at her, but found that the effort of raising his fingers gave him a headache, and so desisted.
“We’ll attack them tomorrow, at dawn,” Felicity replied. She was still putting it off. “A whole day without us or that Devon researcher coming after them should make them lower their guard.”
“Got quite a way with words, don’t you?”
Barry gave up on Hoennian and decided to revive the ancient art of preverbal communication.
Felicity shook her head in exaggerated despair, and the two Aquas walked on.
Streamers of light flew from one end of the horizon to another, in all the warm hues in nature’s palette; the early rays of the sun glanced off the waters of Bay of Cadavers. This was dawn on Route 110, and in the shadow of the overpass, within a little copse, two teenagers were asleep in a tent, and Felicity and Barry were standing in front of it. They would have already snatched the kids if there hadn’t been a plump old tramp standing between them and the tent.
The old man laughed, but his eyes were hard.
“You’re from Team Aqua,” he said merrily. “What brings you here?”
“This doesn’t concern you, old man,” rumbled Barry. Today, he was back to his usual self: bold, brash and unable to speak without growling. It also seemed that he was about as ageist as he was misogynistic.
“If Team Aqua is around,” the hobo said, “then it concerns me. I’m a law-abiding citizen.”
“I seriously doubt that,” sneered Felicity, looking him up and down. “Get out of the way, and then I won’t have to shoot you.”
The old man laughed again, but this time it had a distinctly unpleasant edge to it.
“Lass, you’re too young for guns, or Team Aqua.” Felicity raised her shotgun and her finger tightened on the trigger. She had never yet fired it, but she had killed before. Before she had fled her home country, there had been several situations where it had been necessary.
The hobo grinned broadly, and his teeth were very white.
“Jess,” he said. “Rollout.”
An Electrode appeared from behind him and shot forth, rolling towards Felicity at a speed her eyes could barely register; it seemed to be a thick, solid line of red and white rather than a distinct sphere. She lowered the shotgun as fast as she could, and a deafening report cracked the air—
—but the Electrode was already past the shell, and the pellets scattered across the leaf litter. Felicity’s eyes widened fractionally. She could already feel the Pokémon smacking into her shin, shattering the bone—
—and then she was suddenly five feet up in the air, legs dangling beneath her, and the Electrode whizzed past below, a bright blur against the loam.
Felicity dropped back down, spun and shot the Electrode. It lifted bodily into the air and slammed into a tree, then fell to the floor, cross-eyed and bleeding from a dozen small shrapnel wounds. She turned around to face the hobo, who looked significantly less jolly than he did a moment ago. Behind him, Ruby and Birch were scrambling out of the tent, alerted by the two shots.
“What’s going on now?” Birch shrieked, angrily. Then she saw the Aquas, and an Aron and Combusken materialised in front of her. Ruby sauntered as casually as he could behind her, but, as he was taller, it didn’t do a lot to make him less of a target. “You!” Birch cried.
“Warfang!” roared Barry, and everyone turned to stare at him. This statement appeared to make slightly less than no sense. Barry reddened, then pointed to the levitating red and blue fish that had appeared in front of him. “It’s his name.”
The Carvanha darted forwards in a blur of bubbles, smashing Birch’s Combusken in the face and leaving it in a crumpled heap on the floor; before anyone could react, it rammed its spike-finned head into the Aron’s eye and threw it into the fallen Combusken’s side. It made a weak attempt to get up again, but Warfang repeated the assault on the other eye, and it slumped into a daze, thick grey blood trickling slowly from its eye sockets.
Then Warfang dropped to the ground in a dead faint, and Ruby lowered his still-sparking hand with a sigh.
“Look, you two,” he began, and then Barry rushed him and punched him in the face.