PEDRO12, thank you for your compliments. I aim to please.
In other news, the next couple of chapters might be slightly late. I need to get working on a short story for a competition back in the real world.
Oh, and apologies for those of you who use dark skins - Zero's signature in his letter only looks as it should on a white or light-coloured skin. You may wish to change it temporarily, to get the full effect.
Chapter Thirty-Three: Lavaridge is Neither a Ridge Nor Lava. Discuss.
I don’t know about you, Puck said, but I’m finding it pretty difficult to think of any more Bond jokes.
Oddly enough, that isn’t really worrying me right now.
Sapphire had apologised, and attempts had been made at cleaning me up, but the foul stench of vomit still clung to me, as did several of the stickier pieces of our last meal in Fallarbor. Consequently, I was in a very bad mood – though Sapphire said she was now feeling a little better.
Let’s see, Puck continued blithely, we’ve got The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy who Loved Me, Octocloyster and Casino Royale to go. Damn, those are hard.
Shut up, I thought back. I’m sick of the sound of your voice.
Technically, I have no voice – these are my thoughts. But whatever.
The helicopter roared on, though within it we were silent; out of the windows, I saw the mountains rising like the teeth of the earth high into the sky, piercing clouds and shaking off the forests that cloaked the valleys. A flock of Altaria parted hurriedly at our approach, screaming abuse from their great white-cheeked mouths.
“We’re now approaching Mount Chimney,” crackled the pilot over the PA system. “If you look to your left, you can see the crater itself.”
I looked left, and could indeed see the crater; it was dark and full of bilious smoke that streamed out across the mountainside like a wave of black tears.
In a bit of a dark mood, aren’t you?
There were some barely-discernable figures atop the mountain, setting up some sort of machine; we couldn’t go any closer, but the pilot informed us of their probably purpose:
“You can see what are probably Lavaridge’s resident team of volcanologists, keeping an eye on things,” he said. You could tell he was proud of the long word he used. “Mount Chimney hasn’t erupted in seventy-three years, but the risk is always there, especially with the recent tremors.”
The other passenger, a man in middle age, looked up sharply.
“Tremors,” confirmed the pilot. “There have been a few minor earthquakes recently in the Lavaridge earlier. The scientists think that the tube that carries up the lava is probably blocked, and that the pressure has got to the point where it’s slowly forcing the blockage out, causing little earthquakes.”
It’s called ‘magma’ below ground, not ‘lava’. Puck sniffed. And to think this man flies over the volcano all the time! What other criminal activities does he get up to? Strangle kittens in his spare time?
I didn’t know what a kitten was, but thought it unlikely that the pilot strangled anything in his spare time, since so few people do.
We passed through a cloud, and the windows misted over; when they cleared, all I could see was red-brown rock, surrounding us on every side. I looked down, and as well as inflicting a stupendous case of vertigo on myself, I saw a medium-sized town spread out below, in a high alpine valley. Pools of dark water, almost black from this height, were liberally scattered across Lavaridge Town, congregating on the east side, where they nestled amongst the hot sand that cloaked the volcanic rock.
“We are now entering Lavaridge,” the pilot told us, somewhat pointlessly, and we descended towards the helipad. It was set about five hundred yards away from the main body of the town, atop a small hill, so as not to spoil the atmosphere of the place. I thought it was a futile trick, since the helicopter was loud enough to be heard all over town anyway, but that was how it was, and after disembarking we had quite a long walk to get to Lavaridge proper.
Upon reaching the town, we found it to be eerily empty; it didn’t necessarily appeal to families like Dewford, and relied mainly on elderly and cultured people for tourism. No one came there in the summer, either; it was a place that people retreated to in the autumn and the winter, to dispel the chill from their bones with the searing water that bubbled up from beneath the earth. I’d been once before, and had developed burns on the soles of my feet; I had seen the sign that cautioned against walking across the volcanic rocks without shoes a little too late.
You are such a moron, Puck said.
Easy for you to say, I thought back. You don’t even have feet.
The streets were lined with houses that were either four hundred years old or very well-disguised; they were built in the old Hoennian style, with mansard roofs and Tudor arches.
Oddly enough, that wasn’t my description, Puck commented. You learned that in Taste class?
“Kester,” said Sapphire, “come over here!”
I turned to look; she’d found a sign that bore a simplified map of the town.
“Here,” she said, pointing at a large red ‘G’, “is the Gym, but first we’d better find Felicity.”
Heh, Puck said, I wonder if that’s an original G?
“Excuse me,” came a voice from behind us, “did you say you were looking for Felicity?”
We turned sharply, Sapphire’s hand reaching for a Poké Ball out of instinct – but it was just an ordinary-looking man, dressed in a shabby grey suit and holding his battered hat in front of his chest as if halfway through doffing it.
“Who are you?” Sapphire asked suspiciously.
“No one,” he answered, turning his hat over in his hands. “I was just paid to tell you she’s gone.”
“Yes,” nodded the man. “Oh, and is your name Kester Ruby?” He looked at me inquisitively.
“Yeah,” I answered guardedly. He held out an envelope.
“Zero sends his regards,” he told me as I took it, and walked off.
I looked from the envelope to the man and back again. Sapphire seemed on the verge of running after the man, punching him to the floor and forcing him to tell us more, but I laid a hand on her shoulder to hold her back.
“Leave it,” I said. “If Zero’s half as intelligent as Felicity made out, that guy won’t know anything about his plans.”
Sapphire sighed and nodded.
“Fine,” she said irritably. “Open the letter, then.”
I did, and drew out a single sheet of paper, which, when unfolded, was revealed to bear a short, typed letter:
You really are doing spectacularly well, but I’m afraid you’re not going to
get much further in this matter. I applaud your audacity in attempting to stop me, but it simply isn’t going to happen. My plans are too well-laid.
However, you are affording me no end of amusement, so I’m happy for you to continue if you wish. Should you choose to do so, the next phase of my plan goes into operation two days from now, on the top of Mount Chimney. I’ll be sure to be there, so I can say hello if you turn up.
Wow, said Puck admiringly, I like that signature. Makes me wish I had hands.
“He took back Felicity, didn’t he,” I said. It was not a question.
“Yes,” agreed Sapphire quietly. “Almost certainly.”
There was a long pause.
“What now?” I wondered.
“We can’t give up,” Sapphire replied. “I don’t do giving up. Especially not against people like Zero.”
“Right. But what do we do?”
Sapphire looked at the letter.
“Two days from now, we go to the top of Mount Chimney,” she said. “That’s where it’s happening. Zero’s obviously really arrogant, and doesn’t think we’ll succeed, so he’s given us directions to try and stop him.”
“Those people on the mountaintop,” I said, recalling them from our flight. “They’ve probably got something to do with it.”
“Right.” There was another pause, and she looked at the map. “So, we have until Sunday, and we promised we’d challenge Spike...”
“You want to go to the Gym at a time like this?”
“Got a better idea?”
I thought for a moment.
Hey, wait a moment, Puck said uneasily, I don’t like the sound of that thought...
“We could investigate what’s happening at the top of the mountain,” I said. “You know, try and stop whatever’s going on before it happens.”
“Well, I’m going to the Gym,” Sapphire said firmly. “You can sneak around on mountaintops by yourself.”
I decided not to argue. I might be technically free now, but Sapphire was still definitely in charge.
“Regrettably, I can’t,” I sighed. “I have to take this moron with me.” I pointed at my head.
That’s not very polite, Puck said. And this spying idea is bad. I had a lover who was a spy once – and she died.
Are you complaining or making Bond jokes?
There was a pause.
Both, he admitted at length.
“Let’s go to the Pokémon Centre then,” Sapphire said. “We’ll get set up there, and we can go our separate ways.”
The Pokémon Centre was marked on the map with a yellow ‘PC’, about which Puck, surprisingly, had no joke to make, and since the town was so small, it took only a few minutes to get there. It was as similar to every other Centre I’d seen as it could be without actually being the same one, and the receptionist had the same weird dyed-pink hair.
“Good afternoon,” she said brightly. “May I see your Trainer Cards, please?”
I had forgotten about that. I closed my eyes and let out a silent groan.
Tabitha sat in his jeep and tapped his fingers against his thigh nervously. He hoped to God that everything was all right in there.
Two blocks away was the main Aqua stronghold in Fallarbor; this was Magma country, but the other Team had a presence here too. Excepting Slateport and Lavaridge, no settlement fell entirely under the control of either gang.
About half an hour ago, Tabitha had pulled up here – he never trusted anyone else to drive for him – and told his group what to do. They were the SHNB1, his personal troops and so elite and secret that not even he knew what the letters in their name stood for. Like all serious Magma units, they wore clothing of a darker red than mere field agents: these were men and women who killed by stealth, not with brute strength.
The SHNB1 force had immediately vanished, melting into the shadows like leaves blowing through the bars of a fence. Where they were now, Tabitha could only guess at; they were mist on the breeze, stealthy as leopards and vicious as Mernimblers.
“They’d better get them back,” he muttered for the hundredth time, clenching his hand into a nervous fist. “Or the boss will be...”
As it happened, the SHNB1 was having no difficulty at all finding and releasing Fabien. They had scaled the walls and climbed into the base through upper windows; from there, they had slipped from shadow to shadow and slit the throats of any unsuspecting Aquas in their path.
They moved in a needlessly complex and eerily silent series of acrobatic manoeuvres, from leaps and somersaults to pirouettes and flips; they clung to the ceilings and dropped onto their blue-clad foes, or popped improbably out of cupboards and garrotted them with thin, sharp red ligatures.
The SHNB1 had, in fact, killed the entire population of the top floor before anyone noticed they were there. They were alerted to this fact by the cutlass that removed the leg from one of their vanguards, and the Aqua in full piratical dress holding it. He then proceeded to pull a Horatius, and defend the stairs down against their superior numbers for an unreasonably long time.
By the time they managed to kill him, the SHNB1 faced a small army of Aqua shock troops, massed at the bottom of the stairs; a short but bloody battle ensued, in which rather a lot of guns were fired and katanas slashed about. The SHNB1, being considerably better-trained, better-armed and more prepared than the Aquas, took five minutes to butcher every last one of their opponents, having only lost three men, and proceeded to comb the building for signs of the two captives.
It turned out that they were actually confined to a chamber on the fourth floor, meaning that the battle had been a sickening and pointless waste of human life, but, never ones to let the past drag them down, the SHNB1 agents simply got on with their job. They picked the lock – they did not believe in breaking down doors – flitted in and dragged two very confused Magma field operatives out with them. They tossed them out of a window, and four of the SHNB1 inexplicably materialised down on the ground to catch them. From there, it was a swift thirty-second somersault-leap-walk back to Tabitha’s jeep, into the back seat of which four of them dropped from an unlikely height. They deposited Fabien and Blake there, then informed Tabitha that they had met with ‘slight resistance’ and left for Lavaridge by their own means.
“All right, you two,” snapped Tabitha, slamming a foot down on the accelerator, “did they get any information out of you?”
“What – what the hell was that?” Fabien asked, somewhat in shock.
“They didn’ get nothin’,” Blake said, more cool-headed. “We refused to talk.”
“Good,” said Tabitha, relieved. “That’s... brilliant.”
He rounded a corner at high speed and made an obscene gesture in the general direction of the honking horns that ensued.
“All right,” he said. “Listen up, morons. You two need to lie low for a while. You got that? Get out of uniform, go to the North District or something. Just for God’s sake, don’t attract any attention.”
“Why?” asked Blake.
“Because my unit just told me they’d met with slight resistance,” said Tabitha grimly, “and that means they killed everyone again. So Team Aqua aren’t going to be happy, and you two are the ones they’ll blame. So lie low, get drunk and stay off the radar. Capische?”
Tabitha growled with impatience.
“Do you understand?”
“Oh. Yeah.” Blake nodded, glanced at Fabien, and said, “'E does too.”
“Good.” Tabitha thought of something. He pulled Goishi’s Poké Ball from the glove compartment and tossed it back; Blake caught it in one massive hand. “That’s yours, I believe.”
“Much obliged, sir,” said Fabien somewhat stiffly, relieving Blake of the ball. “Could you drop us at the train station?”
“If you’re going to make demands of me, Fabien,” Tabitha said, a vein pulsing in his temple, “you can get out here and walk.”
So saying, he braked sharply, slewing onto the pavement, and threatened to shoot the pair of them if they didn’t leave in the next fifteen seconds. They hurriedly acquiesced, and Tabitha was left to complete his journey alone, half relieved but also half furious. Blake and Fabien really were maddening company.
Well, I can’t say this isn’t a pretty disheartening situation.
I was sitting on the kerb, and had been since I’d been thrown out of the Pokémon Centre. While this had amused Puck and Sapphire enormously, I hadn’t enjoyed the experience that much.
Cheer up, Puck said, things could be worse.
“Tell me how?”
You might be an undesirable person living in Germany during the war, Puck said thoughtfully, and be shipped off to the concentration camps. Or you might be chained to the Atlas Mountains, where an eagle eats your liver every day. Or you might be horribly smelly. Oh. Wait. You stink of vomit.
“Somehow, I’m not comforted.”
It had been a quarter of an hour now, and Sapphire still hadn’t emerged from the Centre.
Let’s run away, Puck said. Come on, we’ll go investigate Mount Chimney.
“You said you didn’t want to.”
Yeah, but life’s no fun without a good scare.
“Are you quoting?”
“All right,” I said, standing up stiffly and stretching. “I guess Sapphire’s having a shower or something.” I glanced down at my sick-stained jeans. “Not that I couldn’t use one.”
I started to walk off back towards the sign with the map on, in the hope of finding directions to a tourist information centre where I could find out how to get to Mount Chimney.
I found one a few doors down from the low brick building that called itself Lavaridge Town’s Pokémon Gym. I was about to go in, but my curiosity got the better of me and I went to investigate the Gym sign, to see if Spike had actually been inducted as Gym Leader in the space of less than twenty-four hours.
Lavaridge Town Pokémon Gym, read Puck. Leader: Flannery, ‘One with a fiery passion that burns!’
“That’s odd,” I said. “I thought she hated being called Flannery?”
Maybe she thought she needed a more serious name or something, suggested Puck. What amazes me is that she was made Leader so quickly, and that they managed to get a new sign painted up so fast.
“It is unusual, I’ll admit,” I agreed. “But I guess they don’t have much else to do here.”
True enough. Can we stop off at a power station and lick the transformers? I’m hungry.
“No,” I replied firmly, “and if you ask again I’m going to think about Felicity. Lots.”
Eeurgh, groaned Puck, how can you find a creature in such obviously poor physical condition attractive? Surely it points to a lack of suitability as a mate?
“It’s different for humans.”
Nah, not really. You’re no higher than other sentient beings with preferences – top-tier stuff.
Read your Singer, Kester. Preference utilitarianism, you know? It’s my kind of morality. Or it would be, if I had morality in the human sense.
“This conversation is going nowhere,” I said loudly, startling a few passers-by. “Let’s go to the tourist centre.”
Not stopping to say hi?
“Sapphire’s coming by soon,” I reminded him, one hand on the glass door, “she can do it.”
Inside, the tourist information centre was like a bird’s nest of leaflets; I’d never seen so much wasted paper in my life. Red, green, blue, purple; all parts of the spectrum were represented on their shiny surfaces. They burst from racks, formed stacks on shelves, sat neatly side-by-side in self-satisfied piles on a small table by the door. I felt a sudden and inexplicable urge to set fire to the lot of them, and, quelling it with effort, made my way across to the abandoned desk.
Sorry, said Puck, that was my sudden and inexplicable urge to burn these pamphlets. I once had a bad experience with some waste-paper, the Professor and Mrs. Flittersnoop, and I’ve been kind of phobic of vast quantities of loose paper since.
On the desktop was a small bell of the kind that you press, and, since there was no one around, I pressed it. It failed to make a noise, and the little button part stuck fast with a quiet but audible crunch.
Way to go, Kester, Puck said. You broke the bell.
“Shut up,” I whispered furiously. Then I called out, more loudly: “Er – hello? Is anyone here?”
With startling speed and silence, an elderly man with a long, flowing mane of white hair and matching beard materialised on the other side of the desk.
“My name is Hinzelmann,” he told me, with enough earnestness to crush my soul. “How can I help you?”
Another weird guy, eh? Puck gave a sigh. Never mind, we’ll get through it.
“I wanted,” I managed at last, “to know if it would be possible to go up onto Mount Chimney. Right up to the peak.”
“That’s pretty dangerous,” Hinzelmann said, his massive eyes fixed on mine with such intensity as was never known before. “Even the tunnels are dangerous.”
“It’s OK,” I said, as reassuringly as I could. “I... I’m a Trainer. I have experience of danger.”
“Oh, in that case,” Hinzelmann said, fishing out a small map from within a drawer of his desk, “you should take the Fiery Path.”
The map was of a network of tunnels that ran through the interior of Mount Chimney; I could see at a glance that it would be a long trip up to the top, and probably one that was interrupted multiple times by wild Pokémon.
“Isn’t there any other way?” I asked helplessly.
“You could walk up Jagged Pass,” Hinzelmann replied, after a short pause for thought, “but that’s tricky. It’s very—”
“Why, yes,” he said. “That’s exactly what it is. And, of course, there’s the Lone Altaria, but if you’re a Trainer he won’t bother you.”
“There’s an Altaria without a flock that circles the mountain above the Pass,” Hinzelmann explained. “He can be quite dangerous, but he’ll know you’re too much bother, since you’re a Trainer.”
I weighed up my options. I could go through the Fiery Path, take forever and be continually attacked, or I could climb the Jagged Pass, run the gauntlet of the Lone Altaria and get there quickly.
“Thanks,” I said. “How do I get to this Pass?”
“... so you see, this place is a forward base for mounting an attack on the W.R.I.,” finished Shelly. “I moved in recently to get the project moving again – it’s been two years – and hired Didi and Gogo to help.”
“Who’s that?” asked Barry, confused. The only other people he’d seen so far were Vladimir and Scarlett – and Scarlett was surely just here because of her mother. He seriously doubted she was hired help.
“Our nicknames,” explained Vladimir. “I’m Didi. Gogo’s not here right now, but he’ll be along shortly.”
“Is he sitting by the road again?” asked Shelly. Vladimir nodded sadly.
“It’s difficult for him,” he said soulfully. “He can’t quite kick the habit.”
For the sake of the preservation of his sanity, Barry decided not to ask what they meant by that.
“What am I supposed to do?” he rumbled instead.
“Well, tunnelling would be a start,” Shelly said, looking him up and down. “You look strong.”
“Strong? There’s no one stronger.” Barry was pleased with this new development. When physical power was involved, he was in his prime; he could probably have given Brawly a run for his money in a wrestling match.
“Splendid,” cried Vladimir. “The north tunnels need expanding if they’re ever to reach the W.R.I.”
“That’s true,” agreed Shelly. “Until we get there, Archie has refused to send any more troops. He says it won’t do to alert them to our presence.”
This, Barry thought, was fair enough. The Gorsedd Hoenn already guarded its compound with enough force to stop even the government interfering with whatever went on in there; if they got wind of a potential Team Aqua attack, the place would become virtually impregnable.
“Anything other than digging?” he asked, hoping there wasn’t. He would prefer to spend his time alone with a drill and pickaxe than have to consort with Vladimir, the mysteriously absent ‘Gogo’ and Scarlett.
“Yes,” Shelly said, “your record says you have a Pokémon, yes?”
“So you’ll be responsible for buying in supplies from Plain Rooke – I know there are Cleanse Tags, but it pays to be prepared, and I’m too busy to do it myself.”
“I can do it,” began Scarlett, but Shelly cut her off.
“Sweetpea, you already tried and you couldn’t carry it back. Mr. Hawksworthy will handle it.”
Mr. Hawksworthy... Barry nodded thoughtfully to himself. Shelly was a woman, which lowered her worth in his eyes, but she knew how to treat a man with respect, it seemed. It had been a long time since someone had called him ‘Mr. Hawksworthy’ rather than ‘Barry’ or ‘moron’ or ‘that big guy who just broke the table’.
“Didi!” cried a thin voice from outside. It had the same accent as Vladimir. “Someone came!”
“He already came, Gogo,” replied Vladimir wearily as another man in rags and patches rushed in, wild-eyed.
“I know, I know,” Gogo replied, “but it surprises me every time. It was a Trainer. We talked.”
“The brevity of human existence,” Gogo said. “I made him cry.” He looked thoughtful. “Then again, he was only eleven.” Just then, he caught notice of Barry. “Hello! Who’s this?”
“This is Barry Hawksworthy,” Shelly said. “Barry, this is Estragon, our other hired worker.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Estragon said, doffing his broken hat. “Wait. Is this my hat, Didi?”
“You never remember him.”
Barry turned to Shelly before his brain melted.
“Where do you keep your mining equipment, ma’am?” he asked. “I – er – think it would be a good idea to start.”
“Fantastic,” she said. “Gogo will show you the way.”
Barry suppressed a roar of rage, and let himself be led helplessly away by Estragon. Somewhere in the middle of his bottled fury, he wondered how long he would last before going completely insane.