Chapter Thirty-Two: Aww, She Thinks She’s People
Fifty-nine Manaphy, sitting on a wall,
Fifty-nine Manaphy, sitting on a wall,
And if one of those Manaphy, should accidentally be blasted repeatedly with lightning until its eyes fall out,
There’ll be fifty-eight Manaphy, sitting on the wall...
I should have been used to waking up to the sound of Puck’s voice by now, but I wasn’t. Especially when he was singing.
“Nooooooo,” I mumbled, through a blur of sleep and headache. “I can’t stand this any longer...”
“You’re fine, Kester,” came a familiar voice, and I squeezed my eyes shut as tightly as I could.
“Damn it,” I said, “you’re still here.”
“Thanks for rescuing me from Meteor Falls, Sapphire, it was really considerate of you. Oh, that’s OK, Kester, only doing what anyone would have done in my place. Now open your eyes and get up.”
I groaned. Reality, it seemed, was back and here to stay. I sat up slowly, peeling my eyelids away from the balls, and blinked blearily in what I thought was Sapphire’s direction.
You Charge Beamed yourself with a maxed-out Special Attack, with surprising results. Wouldn’t have defeated a real Rotom, but your thoughts seem to be made of electricity, so I think it scrambled your brain.
“You got knocked out somehow, and the Magmas failed to do anything productive. Team Aqua turned up and saved us – seems they didn’t realise who we were. Archie himself was there.”
I could see now. I was back at the Pokémon Centre; this scenario, waking up in a hotel room after an intense period of weirdness and action, was becoming all to familiar. Sapphire was lounging against the cupboard in the corner, hair wet from a shower, turning her hat over in her hands. It had a bullet hole in it now, which either ruined it or made it really cool – I wasn’t quite sure which.
“The lead Magma got away with a Meteorite, but the two who kidnapped me are still with the Aquas. Oh yes, and Professor Cozmo’s fine. So it all turned out OK in the end.”
Oh good. A happy ending’s always a favourite. Except with me, but only because I like to watch humans suffer.
“That’s good,” I said, relieved. “What time is it?”
“It’s just gone two,” Sapphire replied. “Do you want to get something to eat now, or go straight to Lavaridge?”
“Food now,” I answered. “God, I’m hungry.”
“Come on then.”
It’s nice to see you two getting along so well, Puck said. Perhaps Sapphire is one of those tsundere characters.
Please don’t say any more, I begged, you’re repulsing me.
We left the Centre and started combing the streets of Fallarbor for somewhere to eat. Every so often, we’d come across one of the streets we’d rushed down during our car chase; you could tell by the holes in the Stop signs and the wrecked cars at the side of the road.
“That reminds me – what happened to our taxi?” I asked. Sapphire looked at me blankly.
“I forgot about him,” she replied. “I wonder what happened?”
I reckon that’s all the explanation we’re going to get, Puck said. Which is a bit lazy, but true.
At this moment, a feathery blur of blue and white fell out of the sky, bounced once off my head, and landed on the pavement.
Aaah! The sky is falling, the sky is falling!
I whirled to look for it, and saw a small, powder-blue bird picking itself up on the pavement nearby. It used downy wings to brush flecks of dirt from its feathers, then put on a small hat and one of those pairs of glasses with a fake nose and moustache attached, and walked into a nearby bar.
Oh, it’s just a Swablu, said Puck, disappointed. Let’s keep going.
Sapphire and I exchanged glances.
“Yes. Did it—?”
Then, without further ado, Sapphire pushed open the bar door and ran in to investigate. I followed close behind: whatever this was, it was probably going to be very weird and worth watching.
Inside, the little bird – and I saw now that Puck had been right, it was a Swablu – had fluttered up onto a stool at the bar, and drawn the attention of the barkeeper and his sole other customer. They were both staring at it, somewhat stupefied.
“Aaarrrk!” squawked the Swablu, and slapped a five-hundred-dollar note on the polished bar.
“Who are you?” asked the other drinker, “who, who, who, who?”
“Is that a Swablu?” the barman said, confused. He reached out to pull the false glasses from it, but it jerked away and shook its head furiously.
“It’s trying to be a person,” Sapphire said slowly, staring at it with
The barman looked up at our entry, and looked relieved.
“Oh? Trainers, are you?”
Sapphire’s ball-belt made it obvious.
“Yes,” she replied. “Shall I get rid of her for you?”
How does she know it’s a female? I asked Puck.
How should I know? he retorted. I know a lot of things, but I’m not omniscient.
“OK. You might want to move out of the way.”
Sapphire dropped a ball and Toro appeared, springing from foot to foot; she hadn’t been let out for a while, and was itching for a fight. The barman took three steps back and hastily moved a couple of bottles of whisky out of her reach: mixing fire with alcohol was not going to be good for business.
The Swablu whisked off its false glasses and glared at Toro resentfully. It cheeped, and beat its downy wings; something barely visible parted the air, but the Combusken skipped sideways nimbly and dodged whatever attack it was.
“Ember,” ordered Sapphire, “but gently. We’re catching, not killing.”
Toro punched the air and a small burst of fire shot from her knuckles; it hit the Swablu square in the chest and set light to its feathers. As well as an inevitable screech of pain, the little bird started giving off one of the most unpleasant smells it had ever been my misfortune to encounter.
While it was thus distracted, Sapphire tossed a black and yellow ball at it, and the flaming bird was engulfed in a wave of red light. The ball shook once – twice – three times – and then lay still with a click.
Huh. I like to think I’d put up a better fight than that, Puck said. I’d possess the Poké Ball before it hit me, and then it’d be like Wings Have We, except I’m funnier and I’m too clever to get stuck like that.
I had no idea what he was talking about – but did I ever? I tried to ignore him, and watched Sapphire retrieve the ball.
“Thanks,” said the bartender. The lone drinker raised a glass to us in thanks. There was something familiar about him, but I couldn’t quite work out what it might be.
“Cheers,” he said. “That thing was weird.”
This was undeniable, but most things seemed to be weird nowadays.
“Er... all right,” I said. “Um... good capture, Sapphire.”
“We’ll be on our way.” Sapphire flashed a smile at the barman and his customer and led me back outside again, recalling Toro as she went.
“That was strange,” I said as we started walking again. “Did that Swablu think it was a person or something?”
“Don’t know. And it was a ‘she’, not an ‘it’.” She held up the Ultra Ball. “I’m going to keep her to use.”
“You’ve got one hell of a weird team,” I pointed out. “Toro, Rono, a paranoid Sableye and a Swablu that wants to be a person.” I paused. “What’re you going to name it?”
“Her,” corrected Sapphire. “I’m not sure. What do you think?”
Bertha Rochester, said Puck without hesitation, though I didn’t relay the message.
“Stacey,” I said, choosing the first name that popped into my head. Sapphire looked at me oddly.
“I think I like that,” she said. “Yes, she’ll be Stacey.”
Be prepared for a lot of work, Puck warned. Swablu are notoriously moronic.
Fair point, he admitted at length. I guess Sapphire can handle it.
“Can we get back to the whole ‘finding food’ thing?” I asked. “I’m hungry.”
I really was; nearly two weeks of irregular, widely-spaced meals had engendered a sort of near-continuous background hunger in the pit of my stomach. I felt like I could probably have eaten my way to the end of one of Trimalchio’s banquets.
“Fine,” said Sapphire. “We’ll stop here.”
She halted at a corner café, similar in appearance to Blintzkrieg; warily, I checked the sign, in case it was a chain and it really was another one. Thankfully, it was a completely different place called, for reasons best known to the owner, Fools Rush In, and I entered without fear of pancakes, though with my doubts about whether any angels would tread here.
As we ate, Sapphire let out Toro to sit next to us, since she’d been so restless back in the bar. The Combusken displayed an alarming aptitude for stealing my food, but I let it slide; she could probably break my legs if it came to a fight.
More than your legs, muttered Puck darkly. She could break bones you don’t even know you have.
I’m not sure if that’s a threat or just a logical statement.
Me either, admitted Puck. I just felt it was the right moment to say something.
“So after this,” I said, “we’ll go up to Lavaridge and meet Felicity.”
“She’s not going to be happy, is she?”
“Hopefully she’ll understand,” I said. “We were fighting Team Magma, after all.”
“Well, that’s your opinion,” Sapphire replied. “I thought she seemed pretty nasty, even when she wasn’t working for Team Aqua.”
“She’s... got a lot on her mind,” I said defensively, and somewhat lamely.
Sapphire gave me a look, and threw a scrap into Toro’s mouth.
“Why do you keep defending her?”
“I... just think you’re being unfair.”
It was a better response than the one I’d made last time, but it was still awful.
“Right.” Sapphire arched one eyebrow, and went back to her meal.
“Anyway,” I said quickly, “what’re we doing when we get to Lavaridge, exactly?”
“You tell me. This plan to stop Zero is your idea.”
She’s right, you know.
“Er... let’s meet up with Felicity and take it from there,” I decided.
“I’d better challenge Spike at the Gym too, if she gets elected in time,” Sapphire said thoughtfully.
Toro recognised the words ‘challenge’ and ‘Gym’, and looked up inquisitively.
“Not now,” Sapphire said. “You know, we said we were going to fight her?”
“I remember,” I replied. “Do you think you can beat her?”
“If she becomes a Gym Leader, she’ll have a team to match anyone’s level. So as long as she uses the right team, I can win. I’m willing to fight.”
Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, Puck said, and that’s Sapphire’s: fortitude. Then, for no reason I could discern, he laughed.
Not long after that, we paid and left. It was a quarter-hour walk from where we were to the public helipad, and when we got there we were told that it would be a further half-hour until the next helicopter arrived. The building at the pad wasn’t the most pleasant of places to wait in – it was glamorous on the outside, like all of Fallarbor, but the seats were damp and the air inside dank – so after Sapphire bought two tickets, we crossed the road to sit in a park. This pleased Toro, because it meant that she could run around and kick some trees. Watching her, I felt vaguely annoyed that I couldn’t be amused so easily.
It ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, said Puck, adopting the accent of a New York gangster. If she puts a tree in the hospital, they’ll put her in the morgue.
Sapphire dropped her Ultra Ball and released the Swablu. Immediately, she dusted herself down, adjusted her singed hat and pointed her beak in the air. Toro stopped kicking trees and stared at her.
“OK,” Sapphire said encouragingly, “your name is Stacey. Got it?”
Stacey gave her a long look, then flapped onto the bench and tried to imitate the way I was sitting. It was difficult for a bird – especially one that was near-spherical – but she gave it her best shot.
“Stacey!” snapped Sapphire. “You’re not a human!”
I picked up the little Swablu and tossed it back to her; she caught it and glared at me.
“Don’t throw her!”
“She’s got wings!” I cried. “It’s not like she’s going to fall to her death!”
Abruptly, Toro cheeped loudly; irritated, Sapphire recalled her.
“OK,” she said, “I can see you’re going to need some work.” She raised Stacey up to her eye level and stared into her beady little eyes. “You. Are. Stacey. Now, go over there.”
She put Stacey down and she fluttered over to a discarded newspaper, which she pretended to read.
“Here goes nothing.” Sapphire took a deep, calming breath. “Stacey!”
The Swablu kept reading.
Still no reaction.
She turned a page. By now, I was almost convinced she actually could read.
“Stacey, I’ve got a magic... humanising potion,” Sapphire tried unconvincingly.
The Swablu gave an almighty screech, shot into the air and landed in her outstretched hands. Sapphire stared at her with undisguised loathing.
“God,” she said, “you’re really weird, aren’t you?” Then she turned to me. “Why is it that every Pokémon you lead me to ends up being strange?”
“Lots of strange things have been happening to me lately. You might have noticed.”
“I’m not keeping this thing,” Sapphire said in disgust, recalling Stacey. “I’ll send it home to Dad to look at. He’s got a friend who likes to study psychological disorders in Pokémon.”
“Are they common?”
“Not normally. But we’ve got an albino Sableye who’s scared of everything, and a Swablu that’s convinced it must be a human. Something’s definitely up.”
You’re probably some kind of weirdness magnet, Kester, suggested Puck helpfully.
“Thanks,” I murmured ironically.
Sapphire spent the remaining time running over moves with Toro; according to her, Rono had once again leaped ahead of the Combusken in terms of strength. She didn’t even bother with the Sableye. His cripplingly low self-esteem made him all but useless as a fighter – his useful luminous eyes and potential for use as a tracking device were probably the only reasons she hadn’t put him into the PC and emailed him home to Birch already.
At length, I heard a thunderous sound, like a vast flock of Salamence flying in from the distance, and the helicopter shot overhead; I’d never seen one before in real life, and stared open-mouthed as it growled past. It was like an insect, a wasp or a Beedrill, but larger and more angular, and infinitely more angry. I caught a glimpse of a yellow logo splashed across the black side – and then it disappeared behind the helipad’s ticket-office-***-departure-lounge.
“Right,” Sapphire said. “Let’s go. Toro!”
There was no response.
We looked around, and found her hiding under a bush. Having had some experience of cities, the little Combusken could just about cope with cars and boats, but it seemed the helicopter was too much for her. Sapphire recalled her, and we crossed the road again, heading back to the helipad.
Behind the building, the helicopter was crouched like some great predatory bird, its rotors held still like hooded wings; though there was plenty of bare tarmac around it, it filled the space with its sheer personality. It looked like it was about to jump up and kill someone.
Now that’s a machine, said Puck, with the deep satisfaction of one who knows. I’d like to possess one of those one day.
I thought of what terrifying manoeuvres Puck might put the chopper through if he had control of it, and shuddered.
Not today. Please.
Relax. I’ve piloted a Boeing 747 before. He paused. Well, when I say ‘piloted’, I mean ‘crashed’. And when I say ‘Boeing 747’, I mean a bus full of orphans. I’m not even sure why I said it in the first place now.
Sapphire and I climbed aboard the helicopter; inside, it had been fitted with benches along the walls, and I judged its capacity to be about twenty people. Much of the area of the sides was occupied with windows, and as I took my seat I found myself eagerly anticipating the view we’d get.
One other person got aboard – it was out of season, and the Gym was currently out of action – and then the doors shut a few minutes later. The seats started to vibrate a little, and I heard the full-throated roar of the engine.
Oh, gorgeous, Puck cried ecstatically. Virizion’s curly horns, this is such a beautiful machine! I want to get right inside it!
That reminded me unpleasantly of that business last year, where several of the wrong things had got inside something else, and my mind came back down to earth with a bump.
That’s... weird, I told him.
If by weird you mean fantastic—
I meant weird.
The rotors started to spin, faster and faster, until the sound reached fever pitch; I hadn’t expected it to be so loud. We started to rise, and my stomach turned over; I glanced over at Sapphire, and saw her face was pale as paper and her eyes were large in their sockets.
“Oh, God,” I groaned. “Airsick too?”
She nodded apologetically, and threw up in my lap.
The floor dropped away beneath their feet, descending at least thirty feet in less than half a second; Barry felt like he’d left all of his organs up in the hut, and when Scarlett opened the door again, he almost outright fell over through it. The whole process left him with only one option: emitting a low-pitched incoherent roar.
“Excuse me? Can I help you?”
“I don’t need anyone’s help,” rumbled Barry indignantly, getting to his feet. He was in a tunnel hewn into the living rock, damp from nearby aquifers and supported by great wooden beams, their surfaces pitted with age. This was odd enough in itself, but he was also talking to a man dressed in rags and patches who looked like he would have been more at home in the circus than in a mine shaft.
“This is Barry Hawksworthy,” Scarlett piped up, skipping ahead of him. “Barry, this is Vladimir. He’s hired help.”
“Right,” said Barry dubiously. “Where is this place?”
“This is your Team Aqua’s secret tunnel, formerly an abandoned chromium mine,” Vladimir said. He had a faint accent, but Barry couldn’t quite place it. “My friend and I, we were hired to help man it, since it appears that none of your Team can be spared to come here.”
“Right,” said Barry. The dubious tone had not yet disappeared. “What’s all this about, then?”
“Come with me,” Vladimir said. “Shelly will explain.”
“Shelly’s here?” Barry’s head felt like it was on the verge of exploding. This was all far too nonsensical for him; he had been sent here to assist his Administrator, and he had ended up in an old mine with a ten-year-old girl (almost eleven, she would say) and a foreigner. He found himself thinking almost wistfully of Felicity, wishing she hadn’t gone AWOL after the Spectroscopic Fancy debacle; she might have made his life a living hell, but at least he was on firm, mostly sane ground with her.
“Yeah, Mum’s here,” confirmed Scarlett. “Come with me!”
As usual, Barry’s mind, fully aware of its own intellectual shortcomings, simplified the decision process here, narrowing it down to two options: go with Scarlett and Vladimir, further into this madness, or beat the hell out of them and leave Team Aqua, then the country. After wavering for a moment – he did hate Scarlett, after all – he decided, and not without some regret, that his loyalties to the Team demanded he stay, and took the former course of action.
The eccentric duo led him through a network of tunnels, illuminated only by a series of rather unreliable arc lamps attached to the beams; the flickering light turned the rough walls into seas of light and dark, tiny pitch-black shadows rubbing shoulders with crests of glistening highlight. Occasionally, one would go out, and Vladimir would poke it experimentally until it came back on, or he got an electric shock – whichever came sooner.
Eventually, they ended up in a small, roughly circular room, in which someone had, amazingly enough, installed a large sofa, a desk and a filing cabinet. Seated at the desk was a tall, thin woman surrounded by a great mass of her own violently-ginger hair; she wore a modified Aqua uniform, as was the right of an Administrator, and she was inspecting some papers through horn-rimmed spectacles when they came in.
“Oh! You must be Barry,” she said pleasantly, getting up and taking off her glasses. “I’m Shelly. It’s so nice that they finally sent someone to help out here.”
Barry looked around at the paintings somehow fixed to the walls, and the folder on the desk marked ‘INVASION PLANS’, and replied in a guarded rumble.
“Yeah. Here. Where exactly is ‘here’, and what exactly do you mean by help...?”
“They what?” Maxie leaped to his feet, found he was too angry to stand, and sat down again. Then he leaped up once more, and started pacing. “They what?”
“They caught Blake and Fabien, sir,” Tabitha said, eyeing his boss uneasily. “You know, the useless ones.”
“I know they’re the useless ones!” howled Maxie, his mouth an inch away from Tabitha’s eyes. The blast of saliva-laden air, hot and moist, forced Tabitha’s eyes shut, and he leaned backwards a little. “I know who everyone in this goddamn organisation is, Gerald!”
Tabitha was a tall man, but Maxie had no trouble in lifting him bodily from the floor and ramming him furiously into the wall.
“What the hell! You’re Gerald if I say you’re Gerald!”
“F-fine, sir,” gasped Tabitha, fighting for breath. He had seen this happen to many others in his time, but Maxie had never directly vented his spleen on him before – and the man had a seriously strong grip.
Maxie dropped him and turned away, scowling ferociously.
“Those two idiots could blow our entire operation,” he growled. “We can’t change the date of the Meteorite project, so I want you to go and get those two morons before Team Aqua gets so much as a word from either of them. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly, sir.” Tabitha licked his lips nervously; they had suddenly dried out. The resuscitated Mightyena was crouched in its puddle of darkness in the corner, and it seemed to have picked up on the heightened tension in the room; it was growling and snapping at thin air as if it wanted to bite him right now.
“Well, what the hell are you still doing here!” roared Maxie. Despite the phrasing, it wasn’t a question.
“Leaving, sir,” said Tabitha, and slithered out from beneath his descending fingers to exit the office at a run.
Felicity was sleeping.
She lay on an old iron cot in a darkened room, water flowing freely over her naked body from a hole in the ceiling. It would take time, but it was knitting together flesh and blood, reattaching tendons, locking pieces of bone back in place.
Zero watched her heal from his seat across the room, pondering. It had taken a surprising amount of torture for Maxie to wind down; he had been on the verge of stopping him when he finally ended Felicity’s torment. He really was an expert; despite the pain, she had been awake during the whole thing. Zero supposed that having your eyelids shaved off made it difficult to sleep.
In the end, the Magma boss had got all the information he wanted out of her. Before handing her over, Zero had told her what to say, muttering it in her native language so no one else would understand: the whole thing was an Aqua plot, and their goal was to delay the Magma’s progress in the grand scheme. She hadn’t wanted to say anything, but he had promised her that her torture would be swifter if she gave Maxie the information he wanted. As it turned out, that had been a lie, but that did not bother Zero. Very few things did.
A distant door clicked; Zero got to his feet and left the room. As he locked the door behind him and started to climb the stairs to the ground floor, he shifted persona: from the man who played chess with Hoenn to the loving partner to Courtney Staunton.
“Is that you, honey bunny?” he asked, hands on his mask.
“Yeah,” she called back, and he removed the mask; it didn’t matter if Courtney saw his face. He had ensured she would never reveal his identity to anyone, if she even knew who he really was.
“How was your day?” he asked, passing through the hall and into the kitchen, tossing his mask carelessly onto the table. Courtney sighed and dropped into his arms, exhausted.
“Awful,” she murmured. “Maxie’s furious.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“How do you do that?”
“Make everything better.”
“I don’t know,” he admitted, genuinely uncertain for once. “I don’t know, honey bunny.”
“Maybe it’s love,” said Courtney thoughtfully. Zero kissed the top of her head.
“Perhaps,” he said, eyes as dark and tumultuous as Heathcliff, “perhaps that’s exactly what it is.”
And he smiled that cold cruel smile that terrified Felicity and melted Courtney’s heart, and a little more of his plan fell into place.