I lied. I'm posting it now. *insert evil laugh* I got a nice bit of work done on this chapter, and (I think) it's my longest one so far. Hooray for new records!
Night crept over Eterna City in a silent whisper. Michael and Henry had gone outside a final time, spending the entire afternoon sitting idly underneath the tree. Their lack of a fire-type pokémon still nagged at Michael's mind, and he couldn't chase away that sense of hopelessness, the feeling he got when he studied for a test that would be held the next day.
"Are you nervous?" asked Henry.
Michael ripped a blade of grass and began to fold it into a tiny ball. "No.”
Henry was silent for a few moments, during which Michael heard him rummaging through his tote bag. The boy took out a pokéball, and held it up in the light. After a moment, he placed it into Michael's hands. "Here. I want you to have this."
Michael looked down. "For what?"
Henry shrugged. “For good luck, I guess. I’ve been thinking of giving her away for a while now... My Caterpie. It’s not that she’s not a good battler, it’s just that she doesn’t listen to me all the time. I can’t train her. Maybe you can.”
Michael took the pokéball.
“She knows a few basic moves, so you shouldn’t have a problem giving her commands,” Henry said.
Michael nodded. “Okay. Thanks.” He looked up at the darkened sky. “We should probably head out now. It looks like it’s about eight.”
They arrived at Bertha’s house in the nick of time. The porch was lit when they climbed up the steps. Michel rang the doorbell and waited.
The gym leader opened the door a few seconds later. There were little dark circles beneath her eyes, but other than that, she looked upbeat. "Well it's about time you got here!" she said. "For a minute there, I thought you wouldn't show."
She led them inside, to the familiar back door. The battle room was completely empty. The curtains were drawn, and four ceiling lamps lit the arena.
“All right, Michael, you’re up first,” said Bertha. “Now go on, pick a side. I prefer the left, but that's only because I'm a leftie."
"I’ll take the right then," Michael said. He handed his backpack to Henry, first withdrawing the three pokéballs that contained Turtwig, Machop and Caterpie. He had left his Goldeen behind, since it would only drag him down and (God forbid) make Bertha think he was incompetent.
With the luggage in hand, Henry stumbled over to the benches. Michael did not fail to catch the boy’s accusing glare as he sat down—apparently, Henry still had not forgotten their illegal peek at Bertha’s pokémon. But Michael was fairly sure that he would keep his mouth shut, for exposing him would expose Henry as well.
Bertha took her place on the battlefield. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail and took a sip of water. Her appearance was casual—she could have been preparing for a morning jog—and for some reason it made her look all the more intimidating. Michael found himself wondering. Could he really repeat his feat at Byron’s gym a second time?
"You're familiar with the rules, right?" asked Bertha.
"Yeah... single battle, first person to defeat the other's pokémon wins, right?"
Bertha nodded. "Spot on. All right, let's get going! Send out your first pokémon." She reached into her knapsack and pulled out a pokéball. "Go!"
The Cherrim came out of the pokéball, still wrapped in a narrow tube. Michael put on a look of mild surprise, and behind him, Henry cleared his throat.
"Cherri, come out!"
At its trainer's command, the pokémon unraveled itself, showing a smiling yellow face rimmed with pink petals. On the whole, it looked like it couldn’t hurt a fly, but if a Gym leader was using it, then it could obviously pack a punch.
Michael opened his first pokéball. "Go, Turtwig." The Turtwig sprang from the capsule and landed in front of Michael.
Bertha smiled. "Cherri, use Take Down!" She had not paused like Byron had; she jumped in immediately, and it took Michael a second to find his voice.
"Turtwig, Razor Leaf!"
Just as the Cherrim sprang forward, the Turtwig tilted its head back and launched a spurt of leaves. But Cherri easily skipped out of their way, letting them hit the floor. Its sprint uninterrupted, the Cherrim collided with surprising force against Turtwig, throwing them both to the ground.
"Good!" Bertha said. "Now don't let it get away! Use Bullet Seed!"
Michael clenched his fist as he watched Turtwig squirm. "Get up! Dodge the attack, do Razor Leaf again!"
The Cherrim reared back, spitting out a round of tiny pink globs from its mouth. They pelted Turtwig like bullets, forcing it to back down under their fire.
Michael groaned. "Come on! Use Razor Leaf!”
The Turtwig struggled to lift its head. The spray had stopped, and Cherrim was preparing for another round, dislodging more tiny seeds from within its petals.
Turtwig whipped its head. Its aim was true—the leaves hit the Cherrim full in the face, but instead of cutting its skin, they bounced off without leaving a mark.
Bertha grinned. “Take Down!”
“What? No! Turtwig—” Michael looked down just as Cherrim leaped forward, knocking down Turtwig and rolling with it across the floor. It was like watching a wrestling match in miniature, only Turtwig was more like a punching bag than a fighter. The pokémon pushed and tumbled, Turtwig nearly always ending up on the bottom. Though the Cherrim’s arms were tiny, they were doing a good job of holding on to Turtwig, whose four feet were flailing in an attempt to throw off its opponent.
Right then, it struck Michael how little he knew about pokémon battling. He could reason his way through the pokémon types, but when it came to an actual strategy, he was at a loss. The only two moves he knew, Razor Leaf and Tackle, had both failed him, and all he could do now was stand there with his arms hanging at his sides.
“Come on, get it off!” Michael shouted, hoping to not appear useless as the Cherrim began to whip Turtwig’s face with its arms. “Don’t be a wimp!” But the Turtwig was too busy sinking under the blows to hear him.
“Cherri, finish it off! Use Leech Seed!”
“No!” Michael said. His hands had reached up unconsciously to pull his hair. “Don’t let it finish you off, for Pete’s sake! Do something!”
Against his better judgment, he looked at Cherrim to watch what it was doing. The pokémon was throwing more pink seeds at Turtwig, who was still lying on the floor. But this time was different; instead of pelting the skin, they stuck to Turtwig’s body like spitballs, and began to glow a bright white.
What the…? Michael watched in wonder as the Turtwig’s thrashes lessened. As its muscles loosened, he noticed that the Cherrim’s body was healing, all the minor scratches from the tackle patching up before his eyes. The Turtwig, in contrast, was being drained.
“Leech Seed is a neat little move,” Bertha said. “I can tell you haven’t seen it before. It drains the opponent’s energy and uses it to heal the user.” She crossed her arms and waited. When Turtwig’s head lolled over and its body rolled on its side, she nodded. "Turtwig is unable to battle. Send our your next Pokémon.”
Michael looked down in bewilderment. Abandoning all cares, he knelt beside his Turtwig and began to shake it.
"Get up! You're not gonna get anywhere if you lie around!" He tried to hoist it up, but its legs kept folding beneath its body. Bertha let him for a few moments, but then she shook her head.
“Kid, trust me. I know when a pokémon’s done.”
Michael called the Turtwig back into its pokéball, biting back his anger. If Bertha could take down his entire team that easily, he would definitely lose. He fumbled in his pocket for a moment, then withdrew Caterpie's pokéball.
The slimy pokémon screeched as it fell to the floor. Bertha looked down at it for a moment, and Michael thought he could read the words that were running through her mind. Was this, truly, the best he could do?
"Bug Bite it," Michael said. His enthusiasm was deflating more and more by the second.
"Cherri, use Petal Dance!"
When he saw the Cherrim getting ready for the next attack, Michael exhaled sharply. "Come on! Do it quickly!" The Caterpie remained where it was for a few moments, clicking its tiny pincers. The Cherrim, meanwhile, was beginning to twirl around in circles, pink petals gently blowing around its body like confetti.
Caterpie looked up at its opponent for a moment, then began to move, inching forward with a speed barely above that of a rolling ball.
“Hurry up!” Michael urged. He wanted to pick it up and toss it for the remaining few feet, but that would have been against the rules. He resorted to tapping the ground behind it with his foot, each time giving the Caterpie a little jolt so that it crawled slightly faster. “Pick up the pace, come on, that’s it.” It felt like trying to teach a little kid how to ride a bike.
Just then, the Cherrim broke out into a spin. The petals tore through the air at lightning speed, in a storm of pink and red. Michael dove out of their way, expecting any moment to see Caterpie splattered against the wall, but their target was so small that most of the leaves missed Caterpie completely. Instead they bounced off the floor, some blowing straight into Michael’s face.
He staggered back, sputtering as the paper-thin petals fell all around him. In the sidelines, Henry began to laugh.
“How cute,” Bertha chuckled. “You look like you’ve been to a romantic dinner.”
Michael brushed off the petals, fuming. “Caterpie, Bug Bite, now!”
While Bertha had been busy, Caterpie had made surprising progress. It had advanced across the battlefield, and at Michael’s command, sank its teeth into the Cherrim’s skin. The Cherrim began to squeal, its knobby arms flailing, unable to throw off the parasite. By the time it managed to pry away the teeth, the wound was oozing some sort of green liquid, and the Cherrim was swaying.
“Bug Bite again! Again!” Michael said, jumping on the balls of his feet. Whatever the reason, the Bug Bite was working. The Caterpie threw itself onto the dazed Cherrim again, chewing every inch it could find with those teeth that seemed too sharp for its delicate body. There were a few moments of fruitless struggle, and then the Cherrim went limp, its eyes drifting closed.
Bertha’s hand, which had been gripping her belt moments before, now unclipped Cherri’s pokéball to send it back.
“Not bad, kid,” she said as the Cherrim dissolved away. “I had a trainer use one of those Caterpies on me before. I’ve never bothered with them, but they seem to give Cherri a hard time...” She switched the current pokéball with a new one.
“But we’re far from done! Go, Turtle!” A ray of white light shot out from the pokéball, taking the form of Bertha’s Turtwig. Michael was glad Bertha couldn’t see the expression of curious recognition it was giving him when it landed in front of her.
“Turtle, use Stealth Rock!” Bertha said.
The Turtwig jumped, and when it landed, the floor shook. Tiny cracks appeared around Caterpie, out of which a circle of sharp, rocky spikes sprouted like stems. The ring of stone crushed tight around Caterpie’s body, leaving its green abdomen sticking out like a tiny stem. It wriggled in an effort to free itself.
“Come on, get out of it!” Michael said. Caterpie’s tiny legs were working, pushing its narrow body out of the ring’s grip.
Her Turtwig rushed forward with surprising agility. As it ran, the ground cracked further, and the ring of rocks around Caterpie loosened and sank back into the floor. But before Caterpie could do so much as move, Turtwig jumped.
There was a sickening crunch as it landed in a bellyflop, crushing the tiny body beneath it. When the Turtwig rolled off and bounded back to its trainer, Michael saw a long, flattened body. He didn’t even bother.
"That does it every time,” Bertha smiled. “Caterpie is unable to battle." Michael avoided her gaze as he sent back the Caterpie.
His final hope was Machop. It came out of the pokéball all curled up, actually rolling a few feet before it realized that it was time to get moving.
Michael clapped once, and the Machop stood, stretching its arms in a way that was amusingly similar to what he did just before taking a nap in class.
“Machop, use Focus Punch,” Michael commanded.
Bertha took a sip from her water bottle and stepped back a few feet. She was getting ready for something; Michael could see the twinkle in her eyes.
“All right. Time to make things a little more interesting,” Bertha said. “Turtle, use Leaf Storm!”
The Turtwig tilted back its head once more, but it was different from the Razor Leaf attack Michael knew so well. It turned its head rapidly, and a small gust of leaves began to spin above its head, but instead of hurling towards Machop, they swelled into a kind of cloud, like a balloon filling up with air above the Turtwig’s head.
At that moment, Machop seemed to freeze. Its red eyes followed the growing cloud.
“What is it?” Michael said. “Come on, do the attack!”
The Machop did not move, and in every wasted second, the cloud seemed to double in size. Whatever was going on behind Machop’s shaking eyes, it sure wasn’t a battle plan.
With a cry, the Turtwig let loose. A jet of leaves shot away from the cloud and Machop dove to the side, evading the attack but not stopping at that. It continued to scamper around the battlefield, arms flailing, eyes panicking. Bertha chuckled, and Michael felt himself flush with anger.
“Come back!” he said to the Machop. “Now!”
The Machop ignored him. Its running game was becoming an inconvenience for Bertha’s Turtwig, who was launching wave after wave at its opponent, who quickly hurried out of the way. Some of the leaves hit the walls, others bounced off the lights and the photographs and knocked aside papers.
After a while, the Turtwig decided that enough was enough. With another wave of its head, it send the remaining cloud of leaves rolling after Machop, like a paper ball attached to a string. The cloud followed Machop wherever it went, and when it realized this, the poor pokémon ran all the faster.
Bertha chuckled. “I have to say, you’ve got a pretty energetic one there.”
Machop bounded around and between them, bumping against walls and the benches. Finally, its legs gave way. The Machop tripped, skidding on its knees before coming to a stop in the middle of the battlefield. It backed against the ground, its chest pulsing with rapid breath. The cloud of leaves swallowed it whole. Michael heard an almost-human scream as Machop scrambled to its feet and began to run around again, arms flailing in an attempt to shake off the cloud. But the leaves surrounded its body even as it ran, pelting relentlessly.
Machop continued its run for an impressive amount of time, screaming and kicking at the air. Michael stood there, wanting to do something but not knowing what, until the cloud cleared and Machop’s body was exposed, stiff on its belly.
“I think that’s it for you, buddy,” said Bertha. “Unless you want to wait a minute?” She looked at Michael.
The Machop didn’t look in the mood to get up. As Michael lifted the pokéball, he felt his throat close up.
I lost. To a freaking Turtwig.
For a minute, he couldn’t move. He was stuck staring at the pokéball, speechless. In the corner of his eye, he saw Bertha lean forward.
"Uh... is that it? Do you have any more pokémon?" Michael looked first at her, then at Henry, who gave him a sympathetic shrug. But his eyes had a very I-told-you-so look about them.
And suddenly, the idea came to him with all the glory of a shining bulb. Still looking at Henry, Michael grinned. "No, I have one more. My Starly."
Henry did a double-take.
"Okay. Send it out then," Bertha said. Michael walked over to the bench.
"Forgot all about it, sorry!" he said. Henry slowly reached into his tote bag and handed him the pokéball. His expression was clouded, but it was easy for Michael to ignore as he walked back onto the battlefield.
The tiny bird's form shot out from the pokéball, assembling in midair with a series of screeches. Bertha nodded.
"All right. Turtle, pin it down with Leech Seed!”
"Starly, peck it!" he cried.
Upon Michael's command, the Starly folded its wings and dove. The Turtwig didn't have time to complete the attack—it was knocked down on its back by a swift gust of wind. Starly landed right on top, and began pecking at the Turtwig as if it were a piece of fruit, its large black wings thumping.
When Starly flew off, Michael saw the remains—scarred and shaking. The Turtwig was on its back, its feet plowing pathetically at the air as it tried to flip itself over.
Bertha's jaw fell open. "Wow! Talk about a comeback! We’ll try another angle then. Turtle, use Razor Leaf!”
The Turtwig heaved itself onto its feet. Michael didn’t wait. “Peck! Peck again!” he shouted, and the Starly landed. It pecked some more, and the Turtwig offered little resistance this time. “Don’t stop, don’t stop!” Michael was clenching his fists so tight that it hurt.
Now, an edge of frustration had crept into Bertha’s face. “Hang in there! Use Razor Leaf!”
"Dodge them!" Michael cried, throwing his arms out in front of him. As the leaves were launched, Starly looped out of their way. It was not entirely successful, however. A single leaf struck its side, sending it spiraling backwards. Starly flapped, regaining its balance, then dove forward again, Michael hanging on to its every move.
“Hurry, this way!”
“I really don’t get why we’re taking this road. I thought it was—”
“Sssh! Just follow me.”
“But what if someone sees us?”
“No one will see. Just run. And be quiet!”
“You know, we could be breaking the law right now. Is all this really worth the—”
“Yuck! I think I just stepped in something...”
“Oh, grow up. It’s just gum.”
“Shut up! My God, how many times do I have to tell you?”
“I can’t see! It’s not my fault that these damn people were too lazy to put up streetlights, and now we’re bumping into things like a bunch of idiots! We could be walking right into a trap right now!”
“I really think we should shut it now. I see the building.”
“Right over there?”
“That light. See? it’s a window.”
“I see it! Everyone quiet! Ned, do you have the camera?”
“Great. Tom, Bobby, are the speakers ready?”
“Good. We’ll come in slowly. No one move without my command, got it?”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Two hands pulled apart a scrim of bushes, revealing the Galactic factory. The property was illuminated by blotches of white light, catching on the framework of pipes and chutes that laced the ground like vines. The buildings were plain and square, connected by metal roofs within the concrete jungle. A sign stood nearby, its letters screaming:
VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.
To Nancy, it might as well have said go.
She gave the signal, and Ned produced a large pair of metal clippers and snapped the lock on the gate. It fell into the bushes. Ned discarded the clippers and the crew shuffled into the lot, Nancy in the lead. She had expected some sort of alarm to go off when they had broken the gate, but none had. There were no security cameras she could spot, but she was still careful to move slowly, slinking around the perimeter with her team following behind in the shadows.
The factory opened itself to them like a multilayered shell. Though her heart was lodged in her throat and her hands trembled with her every move, Nancy couldn’t help but admire its beauty. The factory wasn’t just one building, as it had seemed from the outside—it was a compound of several structures, all of which were connected by a network of wires and lights.
Ned snapped several photos as they went along. The buildings were varied in shape and size, and some of them had enormous additions which poked out of the sides like the exposed flesh of an alien robot.
Some of the buildings had smokestacks, which struck out dramatically against the night sky. They were laced with some sort of material that reflected the dusty glare of the moon, and held Nancy’s gaze when she passed them. As they advanced, the noise from the machinery became like a deep heartbeat off in the distance. It was almost like a little piece of home.
It took her a while to realize that the voice was talking to her. A hand pulled her back, and she hit the fence alongside the rest of her team. Nancy was about to turn at them when Tom pressed a finger to his lips.
“Worker,” he whispered.
Nancy looked out. A factory worker—she couldn’t see if it was a man or woman—had appeared from behind a corner to pace about, looking up at the sky. Their back was turned. Nancy placed both hands behind her and held her breath. If the person were to look over in their direction, their presence would immediately be given away. And it was just too darn early for that.
She waited, but the worker did not look back. Their finger was tracing something in the sky, and they often looked down at a sheet of paper in their hands. They scribbled something, then disappeared again behind the building.
“Man, these people are weird...” Nancy whispered.
The team went on, their hands moving across the fence like rock climbers’. It was a while, but eventually, the building they were looking for came out from its hiding place. It stood alone, surrounded by a low metal fence that announced its division from the rest of the factory. This building was smaller, with a slanted roof and windows that glowed with room-light. It would have been completely missed by an observer looking in from the outside. It looked like a house in miniature.
Nancy rounded the building’s corner, searching for a good spot. She found one—a single square window that opened up at the side, the sill lined with flowerpots. The curtains behind it were drawn, though there was a slip of yellow light wide enough to obtain a medium-resolution image of the inside.
She motioned for the team to stop. They were in a pocket of shade beside the house, literally on the threshold of survival. Her palms tingled. The team crowded around her.
“Remember what we rehearsed,” Nancy said. “I come in with Ned first, then when the coast is clear, Tom and Bobby, you guys follow.” The three nodded their approval.
The next few feet were quite possibly the longest of Nancy’s life. She tiptoed first, then broke into an all-out sprint across the open walkway, and collapsed at her knees beside the fence. Ned plopped down beside her, rushing to turn the camera on. They were separated from the window by about five feet, but it was enough for her to tell what was going on.
There was a tiny crack between the curtains that allowed a slip of orange light to show. Ned aimed the lens, and Nancy looked over his shoulder at the image.
She was peering into what appeared to be a study room. It was flooded with books and papers, some tacked to the walls and others hanging out of bookshelves. In the corner was the edge of a large bed. A man sat at the desk, his back to the window, buried in paperwork. Nancy saw the tweed coat and hat hanging by the door, and with a jolt, recognized the man from the marketplace.
“Jackpot...” Ned zoomed in.
The man was reading. Not that interesting, but what held Nancy’s attention was the bulletin board hanging on the wall in front of him. It contained all sorts of diagrams and charts, and a detailed cross-section of what looked to be a very complicated piece of machinery.
“Ned, are you getting this?” Nancy said. “Look at the papers he has up there.”
Ned adjusted the focus so that the bulletin board took up the whole screen. The image was blurred, and she could only read the largest, most detailed papers. At that moment, Tom and Bobby sat down behind them.
“Whoa! What are those?”
“They look like cross-sections of something,” said Tom. “Can you get a closer shot, Ned?”
“Nope. This is the best I can do.” He snapped a few pictures.
“Look at that one.” Nancy pressed her thumb to the biggest chart. It was also the highest up, and cut off from the screen at the edge.
“It looks like… a rocket!” said Tom.
Bobby shook his head. “No way.”
“Yes way. Look, there’s the engine, and the thrusters, and the wings... my God.” Tom pointed to several points around the picture, and indeed, Nancy began to see the object’s three-dimensional outline. Her breath froze.
“Is that what they’re building, then?” she said.
“Impossible,” said Ned. “This place isn’t big enough to hold an entire rocket ship.”
“Well, obviously they’re making it in parts,” said Bobby. “Then all they’d have to do would be to send it somewhere else to be assembled.”
“Like Veilstone?” Nancy turned. “That would explain why Team Galactic’s headquarters is located there. The whole freaking city is surrounded by mountains. No one would be able to see a thing.”
“This might be a bit of a stretch,” said Tom, “but I think Galactic’s planning a space mission that they want to keep secret for some reason. Remember when the Rockets discovered that pokémon Deoxys?”
“Yes.” Nancy gritted her teeth. “Goddamn SNN just had to get the story. Of course Team Rocket would talk to them and not me...”
“But everyone already knows about Deoxys,” said Bobby. “What else would the Galactics want to keep from us?”
“Oh, loads. And it doesn’t matter, because they can keep whatever they want a secret. For all we know, Deoxys is some super hybrid alien that wants to launch an attack on the planet.”
The team chuckled. Nancy sucked in her breath.
“Well, we probably won’t get much praise for speculating, but it’s better than nothing. We’ll take some pictures, and tomorrow we’ll send them into Jubilife. Now all we have to do…”
She turned back to face the window, but to her surprise, the room was empty. The chair was pushed off to the side, and the man was gone.
“What the... where did he go?”
“That’s weird. I just saw him.” Ned adjusted the camera. “Maybe he went into a different room.”
Bobby shook his head. “Something’s not right about this place. I feel it… I think we should go.”
But before any of them could move, a new voice issued from the silence.
“Well, well, well.”
The team went completely still.
The man from the marketplace was standing behind them, flanked on either side by several security guards, their guns glinting in the orange light.
“It’s time we sorted this out. Take ’em.”
"Peck it, peck it!"
Michael’s eyes were narrowed in determination. Starly was in the process of attacking Turtle with its beak, and the Turtwig was flinching back under the force of the blows. The Razor leaves had done their job, but in the midst of the attack, Starly had trapped Turtwig in another close-combat face-off. The few minutes after he had sent out the Starly had turned the tables. For the first time, Bertha was beginning to back down, her taunting smile replaced by an unreadable stare.
Bertha was watching the struggle, clenching her fist around her remaining pokéball. “Turtle! Get him off!”
But the Starly was relentless. It continued to flap and peck, while the Turtwig’s head and legs inched further and further into its shell. When Starly finally moved away, Turtle had closed its eyes for good. Michael smiled.
"Yeah! Now that's what I'm talking about!"
From the side, Henry began to clap. “Woooooo!”
"Don't get too confident, we're not over yet!" Bertha said. She switched Turtle's pokéball with another one from her knapsack.
From a beam of white light, the Roselia-thing appeared before him. Bertha looked down at it longer than she had at her other pokémon, and Michael used the brief pause to ask his question.
"Bertha... is that a Roselia?"
"Yeah." Bertha held up her hand. "I know, I know, it looks different. I have no idea what happened; one day she was normal, and the next day I just took her out of her pokéball and found her like this. It shouldn't affect our battle, though. If anything..." she paused to wink, "she's gotten a lot stronger since then. So you better watch out! Rose, use Shadow Ball!"
Michael clenched his fists. "Starly, dodge it!" For a split second, he looked over to see a ball of black materialize in the Roselia’s hands. He turned back to the Starly, who was flying around in circles. "Come on, you're gonna get hit! Get out of the way!"
The Shadow Ball was released into the air. Michael closed his eyes, waiting for the pained screech and the thump that would accompany it. But nothing came. When he opened his eyes, he saw that Starly was still flapping away in the air, the Shadow Ball gone.
Bertha too seemed surprised. "Wow! I've never seen anything like that before!"
"What? What happened?"
"Your bird. It just absorbed the attack. Like there was some sort of force field around it." Bertha looked over to him, her eyes searching. "Has that ever happened before?"
Michael was still. "Uh... I don't know. I never really paid any attention to it. I guess."
Bertha held his gaze for a moment, then chuckled. "Well, you must have really been training! Rose, let's try something else. Use Poison Jab!"
"Starly, peck again!"
As Rose jumped forward, Starly met it with its beak outstretched. When the pokémon collided, Rose was sent back down, flailing. The momentum had taken its toll on Starly as well; its flight became irregular and labored.
"Use Poison Jab again, Rose!" Bertha cried. The Roselia struggled to its feet, the flowers on its hands curling into talons.
The Starly dipped lower, letting out what could only be its final screech of despair before it fell to the ground.
"No!" Michael shouted. "Starly, get out of the way! Move! Fly higher!" His words seemed to have no effect, which only angered him further. "Starly, move! Be a brave bird, for God's sake!"
At this, Starly's beady eyes widened. Its wings began to flap, and it steadily regained its height. As the Roselia broke out into a run, the Starly let out a loud, vibrating screech, folded its wings, and lurched forward, gathering speed. The tiny bird was literally hurling everything it had at its opponent.
Michael didn’t even have time to blink. The gray blur collided with the Roselia, throwing both bodies back against the wall. When they collided, the entire building seemed to shake.
“Whoa!” Henry rose from his seat. Michael went to inspect, and Bertha followed him. Rose's body peeled away from the wall, tattered and motionless. Several feet away, Starly was on the ground, groping for footing. Shaking, but nevertheless moving.
Michael's jaw dropped open.
"Well, there's the mother of all comebacks!” Bertha said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a match that close since I did my battling exam to become a Leader!” She looked at Michael. “What? Don’t just stand there. I’m sure your Starly doesn’t want to claw dirt forever.”
Michael took out the pokéball with shaking hands, and called the Starly back inside. Bertha did the same.
“I have to say, I'm impressed. I don’t like to believe that someone’s tough before I’ve seen it with my own eyes. You've earned yourself the Forest Badge."
"Yeeeeaahhh!" Henry shouted, jumping to his feet.
Bertha allowed the applause for a moment before continuing. “Now onto your review. Your battle style is good, but somewhat rusty. Back when Turtle used Leaf Storm on your Machop, you stood there for about a whole minute. During that minute, you could’ve done something to save yourself. A trainer never wastes time. Get what I’m saying?”
“Great then.” Bertha went back to her desk, rummaged a bit, then came out with a shiny coin. Its edges were jagged, and it was painted a bright green.
"Thanks," Michael said.
"Hold your horses, kid." Bertha reached into her knapsack and took out several bills. Their green was the brightest of all. Michael was still trembling as he took them into his hands.
"Pay attention now." Bertha snapped her fingers, and Michael looked up. "Next Gym's in Hearthome City. And by that face of yours, I can tell that you're a person who likes the green." She nodded towards the money folded up in his hands. "Don't lose your head there. Please oh please. Folks there are big on gambling, and I'll tell you right now that if you don't keep that money safe, you'll lose it all. Got it?"
"Good. Have a safe trip."
Michael turned for the door. Henry ran up to him, the cage clattering against his side.
"That was so awesome!" he said. "But why didn't you tell me you wanted to use Starly?"
"It was a last minute decision, okay? And besides, without it, I would have lost." Michael took a deep breath. “And I almost did. That was… intense. I never knew that trainers had it so rough.”
Henry looked at him. “How do you feel about challenging the League now?” It wasn’t a taunt, which came as a genuine surprise to Michael. “Do you think you can handle it?”
“Of course. I just said it was intense. All we need is a more rounded team for next time. In fact, we should work on that when we get to Hearthome.”
Henry beamed. "Totally. But wasn’t Starly the greatest?”
“Yeah. It totally swept Bertha's team.”
"I guess flying is effective against grass," Michael said. He chuckled in spite of himself, alleviating the quakes that still wracked his body. "I'll have to add it to the chart."
They left the battle area and walked up to their rooms. Before they parted ways, Henry stopped.
“Oh, and one thing,” he said. “Can I use the Starly tomorrow? You know, because...”
Michael handed him the pokéball. “Yeah, sure. Just don’t use the exact same moves I used or she’ll think that we helped each other.”
Just then, they heard the door to the battle room close. Bertha was coming.
“Shoot!” Michael slipped into his room. “See you tomorrow,” he said to Henry before closing the door.
“No, please! You don’t understand, we weren’t trying to—”
“Save it!” The guard tightened his grip on Nancy’s arm. She was being led down a long, narrow tunnel that was lit with buzzing orange lamps that left stains on her vision when they flicked by. Her heart was hammering in her throat, and her knees knocked together every so often, causing her to trip over her heels.
They reached a door at the end, which two more guards pushed open to reveal a tiny room. Nancy and her team were thrown down at a metal table. Their equipment had been confiscated, Nancy’s tape recorder smashed against the ground. Its splinters were probably being burned in the incinerator now, belching from the smokestacks she had been staring at scarcely ten minutes ago.
The chair she had been forced into was cold, unfriendly. A lone ceiling lamp heated her face, only dimly outlining the guards that stood at every corner of the room. They leered in the half-light. Nancy rose from her chair, wringing her hands.
“Please! We weren’t doing anything bad, all we wanted was—”
A guard forced her back into her seat. Then came the bang of a slamming door, and the man from the marketplace entered the room, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
“People have always fascinated me, you know. Your type in particular. You paparazzi just go on and on about your little business, oblivious to the personal cares of those around you. You poke your noses into things you don’t belong in. Isn’t a ‘keep out’ sign enough these days? Or should I really throw you in jail? I could, you know.” He put his hands down on the table. “There’s a reason we keep the public out of our operations. Our projects do not concern you. Do you understand me?”
Nancy nodded, but before she could insert her defense, the man went on.
“Trespassing. Defacing company property. Illegally recording classified material...” He tallied off their offenses with his fingers as he paced around the table. “Not to mention, a blatant ignorance of company policy!”
“What policy?” said Bobby. “Where does it say that we’re not allowed to interview you? We have freedom of the press!”
The man lunged at the table again, gripping the edge with his fists. “Freedom of the press my ass. Team Galactic is a closed-door company. That means we don’t take pictures, we don’t take interviews. Not from national corporations, not from a bunch of snot-nosed street rats with homemade cameras. End of story.”
The man leaned away, stepping out of the light again. “Now, I will explain this very clearly,” he said. “I have a direct telephone line to Veilstone City. I can call whoever I want, whenever I want, twenty-five hours a day. I can have you four locked up for life, and on top of that, I can shut down your little production company forever. Who do you work for?”
“No one,” Nancy mumbled. “Sinnoh Now is its own company.”
The man smiled. “Ah. Trying to make it on your own, eh? Hoping you’ll make the big time and have your own little TV show one day by snatching a quick one behind my back? But things didn’t go exactly how you planned today, did they?” He leaned in again, this time so close that Nancy could smell the cigarette smoke that reeked from his every word. “Because I can take that dream away from you faster than you can say ‘go’. And you know I will. You messed with the wrong people.”
He looked at each of them in turn, his gaze poking a hole through Nancy’s composure. She could actually feel the tears coming as he turned for the door.
It slammed, and two guards took their places beside it.
Nancy buried her face in her hands and began to cry for real. This time, none of her companions tried to stop her.
“Well, now what?” said Tom.
“We’re over, that’s what. Might as well pack our stuff and go home.” Bobby leaned back in his chair, arms crossed.
“If we don’t end up in jail, that is.”
“Man, now that I think about it, that guy was right,” Bobby said. “All this for a stupid story?”
“Will — you — STOP!” Nancy threw up her head at them, teeth clenched. Face red and mascara running, she once again resembled a monster. “At least I’m actually trying to do something! All you guys do is sit around and wait for me to tell you where to go! You never do anything by yourselves! Never! You just hang back and let me do all the work! You barely carry your own weight, and now you’re just quitting! Quitting on my work! All you want now is to save your sorry asses from jail. You don’t even care that everything we — oh, sorry, I — have worked for is being flushed down the drain!”
Tom looked at her in disbelief. “What? We’ve been with you every step of the way!”
“Yeah!” said Bobby. “Who was it that raised all the money to buy a van, huh? Who was it that put together that list of phone numbers for the interviews?”
Ned nodded his agreement. “Yeah, Nancy, you’re being completely unfair. You haven’t been a complete miracle either, you know.”
“Honestly, if we burst into tears every time something went wrong, then this project would have fallen apart years ago,” said Bobby. “I, at least, try to keep it together when life throws a little mud on my shoe.”
Nancy’s eyes flashed. “I, at least, have the organization to get things done around here! For some reason, I have the time to arrange meetings, map out all our routes, and pick up empty Coca Cola cans from the van’s floor that SOME PEOPLE are too lazy to throw away! And I don’t complain!”
“What’s the big deal if I forget once or twice? At least I learn from my mistakes and don’t forget to fill up the tank before we go, like this one.” He pointed at Tom.
“So you want to start this again?” Tom turned his chair to face Bobby. “That was one time! One freaking time!”
“You know what, Bobby?” said Nancy. “I think the reason you always hang on to other people’s mistakes is because you make so many of them that it’s nice to see someone else screw up for a change!”
Bobby threw up his hands. “Why are you all ganging up on me now? If you want to talk about mistakes, I’ll give you one right now — this! It was a mistake to come here from the beginning, but did anyone listen to me? No! Because no one ever listens!”
“Because you never have anything good to say!” Nancy said. “All you do is whine! ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do that, this is such a chore, blah blah blah!’”
“Nancy’s right,” Tom said. “If you at least pulled your own weight, then maybe we’d get things done a lot faster!”
Nancy turned her scowl on him. “Oh, don’t act so innocent, Mr. Stoic! Ever since we got put on probation by SNN, you’ve been nothing but a pain! Right when it’s our time to work, you decide to take a vacation—”
“How is that bad?” Tom retorted. “Sorry for not having a maniacal drive like yours, but I happen to be a human being who needs to take their mind off of show business every once in a while. What’s the crime in that? I work just as hard as you do, Nancy—”
Nancy gripped the edge of her chair. “IF I HADN’T PUSHED YOUR LAZY BEHINDS OUT OF JUBILIFE, YOU’D ALL BE DRIVING GARBAGE TRUCKS! DON’T YOU DARE TALK TO ME ABOUT HARD FUCKING WORK!”
“Well at least I—”
“Guys, just shut up!”
The bickering trio paused for breath. In their heated face-off, they had forgotten all about Ned, who had been listening quietly the whole time. His sudden outburst made them turn.
“What, Ned?” Nancy snapped. “Would you like to add to the discussion?”
“No, because the discussion is pointless!” Ned slapped the table. “Look at yourselves! You’re acting like a bunch of kids! Do you think that arguing will change anything about our current situation? We’re here, we’re in hot water, and nothing anyone has said in the past two minutes has helped us find a way out!”
Nancy and Tom exchanged glares, and settled back. Bobby rolled his eyes.
“Oh sure, sure, now everyone listen to Ned’s infinite wisdom—”
“Shut up, Bobby!” said Tom.
“See what I mean?” Ned said. “You guys are such... I don’t even know what to call it. Point is, you are a team. Everyone has their place, everyone has their job. Everyone’s important! You guys just hang on to every little thing that goes wrong. All people have their own problems, okay? But the point of making a group effort is to get past them and work towards a common goal!”
The trio exchanged glances again. Now that most of her anger had been let out, Nancy was able to take a deep breath.
“Fine. I guess you’re right. We should be worrying about how to get out of here, first of all...”
“I don’t think that’ll work out.” Tom looked at the tough-looking guards who stood by the door.
Nancy shook her head. “I can't believe this. All our footage… all our equipment, gone. This’ll cost hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars to replace! We might as well be starting from square one.”
“Don’t worry about the equipment,” said Tom, dropping his voice. “It’s not the worst thing that could’ve happened. They don’t know about our van.”
“And they haven’t sued us yet,” Ned added.
“But they can’t really put us in jail, though, right?” said Bobby. “I mean... what we did wasn’t that bad. Well, it was bad, but not bad bad. I understand a fine or something, but prison?”
“Didn’t you hear the guy?” said Nancy. “He said he has a direct line to Veilstone. He can call whoever he wants to call. Hell, he’s probably dialing the number right now.”
“He could’ve just been lying to scare us. Those big-business guys do it all the time.”
“I don’t know... Something tells me he’s not the lying type,” said Tom, twiddling his thumbs.
The team fell into silence.
Nancy ran her fingers through her hair. “Well, there’s no point in speculating. Let’s just not make things worse and wait it out. Hopefully, this whole thing will blow over and we can leave for someplace else tomorrow.”
How right she was.