Chapter Thirty-One: The Importance of Being A Meteorite
Sapphire burst through the spray, Rono rolling half a step ahead of her; the sight she met was not a comforting one. Kester was already unconscious, lying almost under her feet, right at the end of the bridge.
She stepped over him and took a few paces towards the Magmas and their captive. Between them was a large, pitted lump of blackened iron.
“All right,” Sapphire said authoritatively, “whatever you’re doing, stop it and let Professor Cozmo go!”
The tall, thin Magma with the hood looked at her as if she were an interesting butterfly specimen.
“Fabien, Blake,” he said. “Kill her.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Blake, the burly Magma, and started to take a gun from his pocket; before he had it even halfway out, a blur of stone and steel rolled across his feet, eliciting a roar of pain and making him fall over. Rono uncurled and growled a thin, tinny growl.
“Get up,” ordered the hooded Magma. “Try again.”
This was nowhere near as impressive or dangerous as Sapphire had imagined it would be. Blake started to rise, and his partner Fabien took a Poké Ball from his pocket, but Sapphire crossed the distance between them in three giant strides and punched him square on the nose. It crunched satisfyingly beneath her fingers, and he dropped the ball and stepped back, squealing and clutching at his face.
Blake leaped up and loosed off a shot at Sapphire, but it passed harmlessly and improbably through her sodden fedora; Rono made an ineffective leap for his gun hand and landed on his foot again. The Magma cried out again and shot Rono, but his steel hide turned the shot and the bullet bounced, as it could only do in a cartoon, straight back and flicked the gun from his hand. It clattered over the rocks, and he dived after it – but it slithered over the stone and vanished into the depths of the milk-white river.
Meanwhile, Sapphire turned around and swiftly grabbed Cozmo by the hand; she was about to haul him across the bridge when a red flash lit her vision, and something big appeared between her and safety with a thump that shook the ground.
It was large, it was shaggy, it was orange, it was blue; it snuffled and snorted, smoked and smouldered; it began with four flat feet and ended with two stony humps. Its head was low-slung and its eyes cantankerous; its thick tail swished back and forth, and occasional tongues of fire leaked from the volcanic excrescences on its back. It was a Camerupt, and it was not happy.
“You two are absolutely useless,” came the voice of the hooded man, and Sapphire glanced back to see him push his two subordinates out of the way. “I’m amazed you managed to catch him.”
He waved a hand in Cozmo's direction, but the Professor did not seem to appreciate the gesture; he shrank away and retreated to the metallic rock in the centre of the island.
“Let him go!” commanded Sapphire, though with significantly less bravado than she felt.
Fabien sjirachied through a torrent of blood.
“Oh, she makes demands at a time like this!” he cried theatrically. “Well, I can tell you that’s not about to work! As the main cha—”
“Fabien,” said the hooded man without emotion, “if you don’t shut up I’ll push you into the river.”
Fabien suddenly acquired an intense interest in picking up and polishing his Poké Ball.
“Little girl,” the hooded man said, “my name is Tabitha.”
Sapphire couldn’t help it; she burst out laughing. Even Cozmo gave a nervous chuckle.
“Tabitha?” she asked incredulously. “Your name is Tabitha?”
The Camerupt gave an impatient snort, and Sapphire’s laughter died on her lips.
“I had hoped you might have heard of me, and have cause to fear my name.” Tabitha sounded somewhat disappointed. “Never mind. I am one of the Administrators of Team Magma, and I will do as I please. Including kidnapping the good Professor, and including taking your little Aqua head into our custody, as well as your somewhat...” – he glanced at the prone Kester – “explosive friend.”
“Oh, of course,” Sapphire said sarcastically. “I’m going to let you do that, no question.”
“Good,” began Tabitha, and Sapphire sighed.
“That was sarcasm,” she explained. “I’m actually going to do everything I can to make this harder for you. Rono, Roar!”
The Aron crouched down on his tiny legs, tipped back his ovoid head and let out a spine-chilling roar out of all proportion to his size; it was like the war cry of the Royal Bengal tiger mingled with the bloodthirsty shriek of the hunting Archeops; the Camerupt, startled, bucked and fired a plume of fire thirty feet into the air, instantly boiling the spray that arced over it. Sapphire had planned to grab Cozmo and run in the confusion, but the volcanic Pokémon turned tail and thundered onto the bridge, heavy feet pummelling the slats. It managed to make it to the other side before the whole thing fell away into the all-devouring water, and Sapphire was left staring at the remnants of her only escape route.
There was no time for anyone to react to the sudden destruction, however, for on the back of it came a terrified scream that rose high above the crashing waves: the Sableye had taken offence at Rono’s Roar, and had risen from his hiding place in Kester’s sodden T-shirt to express his fright through a series of arm-flailing manoeuvres.
“What the hell is this?” Tabitha shouted. Sapphire made the only honest reply she could: a shrug. “You’ll pay,” said Tabitha, and a gun appeared in his hand, the black circle of the barrel dead between Sapphire’s eyes.
The roar of the water seemed to fade away; Sapphire could only hear Tabitha, and the furious beating of her heart. She wasn’t afraid – she had faced too many potentially fatal situations over the last week to really be afraid of them – but she was wary.
“I mean, you didn’t have to make everything so difficult,” Tabitha said, aggrieved. The Sableye noticed the gun, identified it as something foreign to his experience and therefore scary, and hid under Kester again. “We were only going to question you and force you to work for us.”
“It’s probably better for you to shoot me, then,” Sapphire rejoined. Tabitha looked stung.
Reflexively, his finger snapped back on the trigger, and a loud report rang out through Meteor Falls.
Spike moved down the slopes of Jagged Pass slowly, reluctantly; the closer she got to Lavaridge, the more her pace slowed. The red rocks crunched beneath her feet, and a lone Altaria, one that hunted without a pack, circled the mountain’s peak above her head. She knew that Altaria. It had been circling here for as long as she could remember; whether it had ever dived and killed something was another matter entirely.
At her side, her Torkoal stumped gamely forth on thick legs; it was a mark of how slowly Spike was walking that the Torkoal kept pace with her easily. She left a trail of oily white smoke behind her, like a gaseous snail, and where it touched the rocks it left beads of whitish-yellow liquid: the residue from the fires that burned within her shell.
Spike stopped altogether when the monastery came into view. It was the very same vihara she had robbed all those years ago, and the sight of its low grey walls was enough to strike fear into her heart. The bhikkus would have forgiven her – they forgave everyone for everything – but the townspeople of Lavaridge had never quite got over their animosity towards her. That was assuming they even recognised her now, with her wild hair and piercings.
She chewed her lip, avoiding the ring in it. Could she return? Should she return? Would it be better if she didn’t come back, if she stayed in exile; the delinquent girl who disappeared one day and never darkened anyone’s doorstep again?
Spike released her lip from between her teeth and sighed.
The sound of her own voice was almost startling: save for that, Jagged Pass was very nearly silent. Only the swishing of the pine trees in the valleys below and the distant chanting of the bhikkus broke the still calm of the mountain air.
“I’m going to regret this,” said Spike, and walked on.
Like some strange love-child of Voltron and Optimus Prime, Rono expanded. Sections of armour slid out from beneath others; his steel skin swivelled in panels, telescoped out and reformed again. Limbs retracted into his body to reveal others in their place; his head rotated into his body and another swung out to replace it.
Unlike the famous Autobot, however, Rono did not change into a truck: he was a larger, meaner version of himself, more resembling a crocodile crossed with an industrial excavator than a cute baby dinosaur. The bullet meant for Sapphire glanced off his metallic forehead with a ping, and his new, considerably meaner blue eyes glared at Tabitha with an expression more usually seen on the face of heavyweight boxers, just before they go in for the kill.
“The hell?” said Tabitha, eyes widening. “How did – how the hell did...?”
“Spontaneous Defensive Evolution,” murmured Sapphire, her eyes, if anything, wider than his. “Now that is rare.”
It was a well-documented phenomenon, the sudden evolution of Pokémon in response to extreme danger; it had happened to a wild Chingling suddenly faced with a landslide, to a Snover that had been on the verge of being devoured by a Luxray, and even, once, to an Absol that had fallen from a cliff – despite the fact that they could not normally evolve. It happened, too, to Trainer’s Pokémon: one of the most famous cases was that of a Poliwag belonging to Red Pastelle, the renowned four-times winner of the Indigo League Tournament. It had evolved once into a Poliwhirl to save him from drowning, and again into a Poliwrath to save him from Lieutenant Surge, the corrupt Gym Leader of Vermilion City.
Now it seemed that Rono had done the same: too low-level to evolve to Lairon, he had done so anyway, purely with the aim of saving her life. If there was ever anything to make a girl feel wanted, surely that was it; in the midst of her surprise, Sapphire felt a warm glow of affection for the steely monster.
“OK,” she said to Tabitha, “let the Professor go. I seriously doubt you can handle a Lairon without your Camerupt.”
Tabitha stared at her.
“You’re an idiot,” he said at last. “I can’t let the Professor go, because the bridge is gone!”
“Ah.” Sapphire’s face fell. “That is a problem,” she admitted.
A mournful sound halfway between the bellow of a cow and the rumble of a trash compactor echoed out across the waves; the Camerupt stared balefully at her through the spray. Tabitha holstered his gun, realising it was useless against Rono, and had an idea.
“Camkor, return!” A beam of red light lanced through the spray and snagged the volcanic camel across the water; it was a risky recalling, for at this range the ball might well have failed and dropped the Camerupt into the river, but it worked. The next moment, Tabitha had sent it out again, and now it stood between him and Rono, blinking and looking very surprised. Its tiny brain looked to be having some difficulty understanding where it was and why.
“Now what will you do?” asked Tabitha. “There’s no way for you to leave here, and there’s no way you can beat Camkor. I also doubt you’ll want to leave your friend there.”
Sapphire glanced at Kester. He looked very wet, and very pale. She’d forgotten about him, and some strange part of her wondered if he was all right. The shape of the Sableye’s head could be discerned beneath his shirt, quivering slightly beneath the waterlogged cloth.
Tabitha took her lack of response for submission.
“I thought you might agree with me,” he said. “Now, Professor, I—”
“Hold it right there!” roared an unknown voice. Everyone on the central island looked around wildly for its source, and it took only moments to find it: a stocky man in a dark blue suit, the jacket buttoned shut over his bare chest, standing atop an island further upriver. A blue bandanna was wrapped around his head, and a thin beard lay snugly about his square jaw. He looked like a rather effeminate pirate, but his presence made everyone stop and stare nevertheless.
Tabitha swore fluidly and screamed a command at Fabien. Reluctantly, Fabien handed his Poké Ball to his superior, and Tabitha recalled his Camerupt. The next moment, he had shoved the metallic rock from the floor into his bag and risen into the air, clasping the legs of a familiar-looking Golbat. Swiftly he fled across the river towards the tunnel that led to the surface, leaving the rest of them to the mercy of this newcomer.
The man in the bandanna and suit strode towards the edge of his island and, for a moment, seemed to walk across the water towards them; it took Sapphire a second to realise that he was walking across a series of strategically-placed Wailmer, and wondered how long he’d spent planning this. A series of blue-suited minions popped up from nowhere to follow him, and with a jolt Sapphire realised who this was.
This was the leader of Team Aqua himself, Archie Taniebre.
“It’s good to see you all,” he said, alighting on the island. Fabien, Blake and Sapphire stared, and Cozmo cowered; he sounded a lot like Marlon Brando. “I trust you know who I am?”
“Pardon?” asked Sapphire. “You’re mumbling.”
“You know who I am?” he repeated, this time at a volume audible over the water.
“Oh, that. Yes.”
“Well,” Archie said, “you should be afraid, then, Team Magma. It seems I have interrupted your nefarious deeds once again.”
It sounded like a poor-quality movie script, and Sapphire would have said so if it weren’t for the five gunmen standing behind Archie. Instead, she just exchanged a glance with Rono.
“Now, I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse,” the Aqua Leader went on, spreading his hands. “Come with me freely, right now, and you won’t be killed.”
Blake and Fabien looked at each other.
“Sounds good to me,” said Fabien, and they hurried over to the Aquas and allowed themselves to be searched for weapons. Archie, meanwhile, looked at Sapphire with a raised eyebrow.
“You prefer to die?” he asked. “How honourable.”
“Oh no,” said Sapphire quickly. “It’s just... I’m not with Team Magma. My friend and I were just... nearby and felt we had to stop them.” At the word ‘friend’, she gestured towards Kester. “Er... our sympathies have always been with Team Aqua,” she added for good measure.
Archie nodded slowly and impressively.
“A loyal Trainer and citizen,” he said. “Come, child. We will escort you from this place.”
Sapphire glanced at Rono again. The look in the Lairon’s eyes seemed to say: He’s clearly an idiot, and Sapphire had to agree. Then again, every single member of either Team had turned out to be an idiot so far; why should she be surprised?
She recalled Rono and the Sableye, then hauled Kester upright as best she could. Immediately, a burly Aqua came to take the burden, and hoisted him onto his shoulder.
“And who might you be?” asked Archie of Professor Cozmo. “Some sort of Magma scientist?”
“N-no,” stammered the Professor, in a weak and wavering voice. “T-they kidnapped me... I had to find them a M-Meteorite...”
“You will provide us with useful information,” said Archie flatly. “Come with us, and you can go home later.”
All in all, thought Sapphire as she walked across the chain of Wailmer, which had moved to connect them to the exit tunnel, the situation had turned out quite well. Team Magma had been thwarted, and now Team Aqua were conveniently rescuing her.
However, there was one thing she failed to register, and that was Fabien. He had watched the whole exchange with interest, and it had given him pause for thought. If Team Aqua didn’t know who Sapphire was – and she clearly didn’t work for Team Magma – then what exactly was going on?
“Sorry, kid,” said the caretaker of the Gym, after taking a long, faintly disgusted look at her, “Uriah’s dead. Ain’t no one challengin’ this place for a while.”
Spike gave a forced smile. At her side, her Torkoal rumbled uneasily.
“I’m not here to battle,” she said. “I’m here because my granddad’s dead.”
The caretaker’s eyes widened, then narrowed, then widened again.
“Flannery?” he asked incredulously. “What the hell’re you doin’ back here?”
“I just told you,” replied Spike. “My granddad died. You might have heard about it.”
“Don’ you get smart with me—”
The caretaker started forwards, but Spike held him back easily with one hand and pushed him aside.
“You always were a grazhny bratchny,” she told him conversationally, and shoved him into a herbaceous border before barging the door open and entering the Gym.
It was just as she remembered it: a maze of long, low rooms, the wooden floorboards covered in sand. This covered a series of holes that would drop you down to a lower level; depending on which room you landed in, you could climb stairs either back to the start or to a different room. It was pleasantly warm without being too humid, and Trainers often chose it as the stage for official battles; today, there was no one here save a few policemen and a man in a red suit, whom Spike could just see in the distance, on the Leader’s podium.
It did not take long for her to negotiate the Gym’s maze. She knew it of old, had run through its halls before the soul-crushing stagnation of Lavaridge had started to get to her. Before the people of the town had decided that children caused more trouble than their cuteness made up for.
“Who’s there?” asked one of the policemen, and they all turned at the sound of her boots crunching on the sand. “How did you get in?”
“I pushed Jenen out the way,” Spike answered. “My name is Spike Temulence, and I’m Uriah Moore’s granddaughter.” Her eyes were shiny with defiance and emotion as she raised her face to the group clustered around the Leader’s chair. “Now, tell me what happened here.”
Barry was currently in the middle of wondering when exactly Scarlett was going to shut up.
“... and that’s how I hurt my hand,” she finished, concluding a ten-minute epic on the subject of the origins of a small cut on her thumb. Personally, Barry was of the opinion that the part about the unicorn was just the tiniest bit unlikely, but he didn’t care enough to say. He was more concerned with where they were going.
They had been heading north for about half an hour now, and had just entered the Akela Jungle, following the non-Trainer path, the one with Cleanse Tags hung up to repel any wild Pokémon; it was dark and cool under the great green leaves, and the light was filtered so that it seemed as if they were walking along the bottom of the sea. All around them rose colossal trees that Barry doubted even he could have broken the branches from, and flowers and butterflies filled the undergrowth with a riot of colour and movement. From the distance came the rattling tin-can cries of Skarmory, and the mournful lowing of Tropius; closer, Barry could hear the soft sound of Gloom dragging their feet, though he never once saw one. Once, a blur of brown and yellow had buzzed past, so fast that Barry hadn’t been entirely convinced it was real; only Scarlett’s testimony had been able to make him believe that he had indeed just seen a rare Ninjask.
“What’s a samoflange?” asked Scarlett suddenly.
“Huh?” Barry had not been expecting this. Truthfully, he had expected very little of what had happened today.
“What’s a samoflange?” repeated Scarlett insistently.
“I don’t know,” he answered after a great deal of deliberation, “but you should keep your foot off it.”
“I don’t know!” bellowed Barry, frustrated. “Please be quiet!”
There was a long silence, during which Scarlett was silent and her lip quivered ominously. Then she spoke:
“I’m going to tell Mum that you shouted at me.”
“No!” cried Barry, not knowing the consequences but knowing it would be bad to be on the wrong side of an Administrator. “No, don’t do that!”
“Make it worth my while,” Scarlett replied, dropping the tearful act, “and I won’t say anything.”
Barry halted, looked down and stared at her.
“You’re ten,” he said.
“Yeah!” replied Scarlett happily.
“And you’re blackmailing me?”
Barry rubbed one massive, meaty hand over his face and concentrated on not picking up the girl and throwing her headfirst into the nearest tree.
“Fine,” he said, sighing. “What do you want?”
“Do you have any sweets?” Scarlett looked very hopeful, and she currently had more power over him than Barry would have liked, so he dutifully searched his pockets. Regrettably, they were devoid of anything save some keys, loose change, his lighter and half a pack of cigarettes.
“I don’t have any.”
“See that you get some,” said Scarlett coldly. Barry blinked in surprise. For a moment, she had seemed about ten years older than she actually was.
“Uh... OK,” he agreed dismally.
They continued on their way along the path, and Scarlett seemed to revert to her normal self: she started chattering about drawing and how she was the best artist in her class and probably the whole school, and people even paid her for her pictures. Barry was utterly bamboozled; her character was so normal for a ten-year-old that he wasn’t even sure that the blackmailing thing had even occurred. The only unusual thing about her was her artistic talent – which was unquestionably real, given the look she had insisted he had at her sketchbook. It was full of pencil sketches and watercolour paintings, and though Barry knew nothing about art he could tell they were good. He sighed. Being around so many people who were better than him at so many things was starting to get on his nerves.
Eventually, Scarlett turned off the path, grabbing a Cleanse Tag from a tree to take with them in case of Pokémon attack. Barry followed, slightly confused, and they made their way through the trees to a small clearing that contained nothing at all except a small wooden hut, barely the size of a phone booth, adorned with scaly yellow talons at the four corners.
“This is where we’re going?” queried Barry.
“Yep,” confirmed Scarlett cheerily, fiddling with a lock of her hair. “Come on!”
She walked up to the hut and pulled open the door, then motioned for Barry to get in. He did, and with some difficulty, Scarlett squeezed in after him. Then she pulled the door shut, and, as they stood confined in the pitch darkness, something extraordinary happened.
“I’ve seen so much I’m going blind,” said Tchaikovsky philosophically, and knocked back another drink. He was in a bar in Fallarbor, and he was talking, as the lonely man does, to the barman.
“That so?” the barkeeper replied, polishing a glass. All barmen polish glasses, almost all the time. It’s a tradition, or an old charter, or a joke shamelessly stolen from somewhere else.
“Yep,” Tchaikovsky affirmed.
“Bodacious,” replied the barman, after giving the matter some thought.
“You must be new,” Tchaikovsky said, indicating that he wanted more alcohol. “No barkeep says ‘bodacious’.” He sighed. “I think I’m seeing a pattern emerging,” he went on. “They’re going up against each other so much more than usual... something’s coming.” He stared into the amber depths of his newly-refilled glass. “But I can’t find the reason for these extraordinary intergalactical upsets. There’s got to be something...”
Tchaikovsky sighed and drained his glass. Unbeknownst to him, he had just entered Zero’s plan, another set of values to be totted up.
And the total did not look good.