Hey there, Mrs. Lovett's up and running again. I'm not going to say much this time around; these past few weeks have just been really stressful and I'm still trying to get back into the groove. I hope the writing is still up to par. xP
I've been brooding over this chapter for a while, but I think I've finally gotten it to where I want it. It's not too long, but it's pretty important. From here on out, the story takes a turn into a bigger development. You should have a pretty good idea about what is is when you're done with the chapter.
The sleepy town of Eterna was one of those places that never reached their prime.
It belonged to a rare class of towns that had been a part of Old Sinnoh, the inner ring surrounding the Coronet mountains that had been there since the continent’s formation. Eterna was one of the few that had withstood the test of time, and managed the miraculous growth from tiny village to self-supporting community. It carved its own roads and cleared away the woods to make room for buildings. Fertile soil allowed for continuous agriculture, and natural resources provided a modest supply for fuel and construction. Eterna was nestled in between two of Sinnoh’s most famous landmarks—the mountains loomed in the east and the famous Eterna Forest lurked in the west—but the town had nothing to show but graying asphalt and creaky doors. Trees that might have been standing since the beginning of time sagged over the streets, reaching for the sun with ancient, withered branches. The sky was colored the tired blue of a wasted day, and occasionally bore fat clouds that crept by with a senior’s pace.
The town had changed little in the past fifty years, as had the people. While the rest of the world was caught up in the forward march of technology, Eterna lagged in the dust, picking up bits and pieces left behind by the party. Every so often the townsfolk would be introduced to a new piece of gadgetry, which in fact had long been in use in other areas, and would be completely blown away by the ‘discovery’. Telephones were still considered an innovation that few were rich enough to obtain. Television consisted of a few boxes stacked together at the town market, and it was something to behold for the newspaper-reading residents. Cars were practically nonexistent; the only ones that passed through belonged to travelers, and those didn’t stay long. Looking from the outside, a tourist from Jubilife would see a primitive agricultural community, the kind that preceded the Industrial Revolution and looked too fragile to exist.
Indeed, being four years behind of everyone else would have frustrated any young adult, and for that reason, most of the populace consisted of either retirees, or families with little children. A vibrant, youthful face was a rare sight, and usually meant only a brief visitor who would be gone by the end of the week.
Bertha was the exception. Eterna had been home to her since she was a little girl, and just like a nasty weed coming out of the ground to choke a flower bud, it had grown on her.
Not so long ago, she had been the sweet little girl on Chestnut Road, the daughter of the best pie-baker in town, the one who was always playing with friends on the hill. Her childhood had been typical of that of an Eterna kid—swimming, biking, running, and all other outdoor excursions with sleep and food in between. She barely noticed how she had made the jump from five to twenty-five, how those long braids she used to wear had unraveled, and how her parents had suddenly become small and wrinkly. The town had a lulling effect on her; it seemed to wash away all sense of time. One day, she was wiggling her first loose tooth in front of a mirror, and the next day she was strolling about with a bra and manicured nails, looking to buy some coffee before she started her morning shift.
By that time, Bertha had grown so attached to the town that she refused to move away. While her friends moved on to bigger and better things, Bertha remained behind, willingly lost in her illusion of childhood. The home she selected stood within walking distance of a vast meadow, a vacant lot that formed the last bit of space between them and the forest. She had faint memories of skipping through it as a child, and still knew a few oldies who went bravely by it every morning, the routine having burned itself so deeply into their minds that it was nigh impossible to break away from. She planted a garden there, did some home renovations, and lived happily for a few years. She never looked back on her decision or thought about how different everything could have been, because as far as she was concerned, there was no world outside Eterna. Bertha had grown up walking the same streets, watering the same plants, and she reckoned that that was all she’d ever see.
Boy, had she been wrong.
On December 3rd, 1961 (she remembered the date exactly because she had been keeping track for months now), the lot was purchased by a company by the name of Team Galactic Enterprises. Bertha had gotten enough pleasure out of the meadow over the years to miss it when half of it got cut off by an electric fence, and when plans were made for the construction of a factory in its place.
After all those years of seclusion, Eterna’s first taste of modernization was like a slap in the face. Fliers were spread around the city, detailing Team Galactic’s purpose and their promise to the residents. The papers had been posted on lampposts, public bulletin boards, and mailed straight to houses. They still came about thrice a month, right onto Bertha’s doorstep in little stacks with multiple copies, lest she lose the ones from last time and suddenly forget what the hell was going on.
Bertha had heard of the Space Race, though it never seemed like something to worry about. She’d often catch glimpses of the news reports in diners, shop windows, and other places where TV boxes were so cunningly hidden. She’d see the same two anchormen every time, their crooked noses bent down over their papers while they droned on about some new innovation they found under a moon rock earlier that month. She didn’t see the big deal, and being a quiet, self-centered town that it was, Eterna didn’t either.
Supposedly, the factory would be making tiny bits of machinery—master computers, they were called—that would help the spacecraft's navigation system. Each copy of the flier had a simple diagram of the device, along with a list of its many promised benefits. The letters closed with an enthusiastic statement saying that Team Galactic was looking forward to be their new partners and neighbors for many years to come.
After six months, six painful months of plugged ears and foggy mornings, construction was completed. One morning Bertha and many others went out to stand in the meadow and saw the completed building in all its glory—glimmering tubes, towering smokestacks, and spinning turbines dominating the horizon. From the outside, it looked like a torture camp. Surrounded by all that quiet nature, it was like a metal spike sticking out from a pile of dirt; both intimidating and entirely out of place. It was close enough to her home for her to hear the constant dumm-de-de-drumm of moving parts rise up from the silence, and feel the rumble beneath her feet when she walked by. It felt almost like an earthquake.
From the day she had first seen it, Bertha knew one thing, and she kept it in the back of her mind until it refused to be silenced: She didn't care what they were making. The factory could be designing weapons of mass destruction for all she cared. It didn’t matter which, because one day she'd reach the end of her string.
After the battle, it had taken Michael and Henry less than two hours to pack their things, grab a quick lunch at the hotel café, check out, and be back on the sprawling streets of Oreburgh City, pushing along on their way.
In one of the shop windows, several TV boxes of different sizes were stacked on top of one another, all showing the same channel. An anchorman’s words sifted through the streets and into the hot summer air.
“Good morning Sinnoh, this is Teddy Ray live with your local weather on Channel Five. It is currently eighty degrees in Oreburgh City, sunny skies all around, with a fifteen percent chance of rain later in the evening. Looking good on the East side where, apparently, a new car dealership has opened...”
Michael and Henry kept to the sidewalks mostly, though they stopped at a little convenience store to pick up a map of Route 205. Michael held it in his hands, and Henry walked as fast as he could beside him, looking on over his shoulder.
“Route 205’s our only way out of this place, I think. It goes two ways—one to Cycling Road and the other to this nature path.”
Henry tapped his chin. “Ooh. Let’s go for the nature path.”
“It sounds like it’ll take ten times longer. I don’t want to spend three hours in a forest with Combees and God-knows-what crawling up my legs.”
Henry sighed. “But we don’t even have bicycles. Cycle Road only lets bikers on.”
“Shouldn’t they have rentals?” Michael said.
“I don’t think they do.”
Michael let out a groan. “Forget it. Cheapskates.” He rolled up the map and held it in his fist. “Fine, we’ll take the nature trail. But no stopping to smell the roses or anything, okay? We have to get to Eterna to book our next battles.”
Henry nodded. “Got it.”
They maneuvered their way through the rest of the city. Michael was already somewhat familiar with the roads, and some of the shops that lined them. They were able to walk quickly, since neither of them had that much to carry. The only extra luggage was the Stunky’s cage, but the pokémon too was becoming less of a burden now that it was being fed a steady diet with Henry’s pokémon food. When they passed by other pedestrians, Michael saw that it did not snap at the bars or growl, which he guessed was a good sign.
A few miles from the city, Route 207 split into two parts. The first, the trail which eventually came to be known as Cycling Road, was private property owned by a local business, and formed a bridge across a deep basin of land. The path was smooth and straight, but too brittle to accommodate the weight of cars. Due to popular tradition, but largely the business’s thirst for money, only bicycles were allowed.
Michael and Henry took the southern detour along the basin, following a thin strip of road that ran through it like a river. The valley was an enormous crater-like formation dotted with an odd mix of regular trees and evergreens, though as far as Michael could tell, they were more concentrated near the mountains. The path he was traveling was more dirt than anything, with the occasional tree here and there.
According to the map they were in the middle of a tangle of paths, each one breaking off from another to form a network much like the cross-section of a tree. They were traveling up the main road, Route 207, which ran a straight line right to the city. Cycling Road traced an arc overhead, its wired fences gleaming. Occasionally, Michael heard the elated shout of a cyclist shooting down the slope.
“I wish I had a bike,” Henry mumbled, looking up at the road with longing eyes. “It would make things so much easier, don’t you think?”
“Focus,” Michael said. “When we get the Championship, you can hire someone to drive you around. Even better than a bike.”
“Hmph.” Henry fell silent. As they walked he continued to stare up at the bikers, as if they were the luckiest people in the world.
About an hour later, the two boys emerged from the route and passed through the city’s southern entrance.
The first thing Michael Rowan noticed about Eterna was the emptiness of the place, the feeling of dullness and slowness that was far too different from Oreburgh’s environment. He could see no other kids his age, or anybody that even vaguely looked like a trainer.
The first street he encountered was Flint Avenue, marked by an old wooden sign. The buildings here were all small and gray, their roofs hanging limp with the burden of uncounted years. The trees moved lazily, their shadows spilling across the empty, quiet street whose only passengers stood smack in the middle, squinting with confusion.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” Henry said.
“There’s only one Eterna, as far as I know.” Michael looked at the map again, and began to trace their route with his finger. “Yep. This is it. Eterna City.” He looked up, and still couldn’t believe it. Apparently, all the League excitement that infested Orebrugh like a virus dwindled here, and he couldn’t decide what to make of it. Either the Gym here was so boring that all the trainers had moved on after their first battle, or it was so hard that they had all gone home.
“I wonder what type of Gym they have here." Henry craned his neck in search of the building.
“Assuming there is one at all,” Michael said. “This place is like a ghost town.”
Henry smiled. “Yeah, ‘cause it’s been around for an eterna-ty!” He began to giggle.
Michael continued to stare at the map. It didn’t offer a detailed outline of the city—only a tiny white dot in the middle of a pattern of large green squares. He rolled up the paper and sighed.
“Guess we’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way. Come on. We’ll follow the streets and do the best we can.”
They cut a twisting path through the city, heeding a random series of signs and crossing streets. The town looked much the same in every direction—drab, simple, and undeveloped. He could tell it was one of those small towns, the ones that didn’t seem to understand the meaning of modern times and hadn’t made repairs in over twenty years. The asphalt was gray and cracked, and in some places the roots of trees broke clean through to make little ripples in the sidewalk.
The jagged lines of houses began to set in as they went deeper. Where the city’s entrance had been something like an empty railroad terminal, now Michael saw large slices of green lawn trimmed with mechanical precision. Some gardens were more lavish than others, filled with mini statues and colorful flowers, and Michael thought he could sense the traces of neighbor rivalry behind their perfect petals.
They kept walking, sticking to the sidewalk and looking around. The silence was almost deafening. Michael’s neck grew sore from being pivoted back and forth, and his eyes grew tired of seeing nothing but blue roofs, gray houses, and trees. Henry had the other side covered, but by the looks of it he hadn’t spotted anything either.
“I don’t think we’re going to find anything here,” Henry said. “This just looks like a huge neighborhood.”
Michael tilted his head up and squinted, trying to see all the way to the horizon. Their street went on for what seemed like forever, intersecting with other perpendicular roads with houses of their own. Further down, the road vanished entirely, and there was a bare splotch of land right in the middle of everything. Here the people flocked, small clumps of them walking in and out of large barn-like buildings with paper bags in hand. Michael guessed it to be some sort of marketplace.
“The Gym could be there,” he said. “Let’s go.”
They came closer. A giant banner propped up on wooden stilts greeted them with a handpainted ‘WELCOME’, and beyond that was a scene that resembled a circus. A generous amount noise returned to Michael’s ears as he entered. It was like no other marketplace Michael had ever seen before—nuts and vegetables were piled in wooden chests, resting on tables beneath canvas tents. Meat was sold in booths, sometimes right out in the open. Michael passed several headless Grumpig bodies hanging from the ceiling like ornaments. Through it all, Michael diligently searched the crowd, hoping to find anyone who looked like a trainer, but saw nothing. In fact, no one even seemed to have pokéballs with them at all, nor gloves, hats, or anything else that signified the League. It was just a crowd of regular people living regular lives.
“Hello boys!” said a man behind a booth. “Want to buy some Nomel berries? They’re in season.” He tapped a box filled with tiny yellow berries.
“Uh, no thanks,” Michael said.
The man seemed genuinely surprised. “What? You know, the whole point of coming here in the summertime is to get the fresh harvest.”
Michael didn’t say anything, but walked on. Indeed, it did seem like there was some sort of special occasion going on. Every person seemed to be buying something, and some were carrying whole baskets filled with produce. There wasn’t a metal shopping cart in sight. But the one thing that surprised Michael the most was how familiar the people acted. It seemed like one giant party; everyone was laughing and joking together like they had been friends for their entire lives.
When he finally had enough, Michael stopped right in the middle of it all and dropped his arms to his sides. “What the hell?” he exclaimed. “Oreburgh was crawling with trainers! Crawling with them! What kind of Gym town is this?”
“Maybe it’s a test,” Henry said. “They’re trying to see how committed we are to the League. They probably hid the Gym on purpose to frustrate us and see if we’d give up.”
“Well it’s a stupid test,” Michael said. But the more he thought about it, the more logical it seemed. By hiding the Gym, the leader would be able to filter out all the whiners, the ones who weren’t serious about their goals and gave up on a whim. Those types of trainers were bound to fail from the start, and the leader wouldn’t have to worry about wasting his time on people who didn’t care anyway.
Two can play at that game, Michael affirmed. “Lets go, Henry. Whoever this leader is, we’ll shove his plan right back into his face.”
“Right.” Henry nodded.
They left the market and went back into the town, turning onto a new road.
“This time, keep an eye out for anything and everything,” Michael said. “The Gym’s probably hidden where we least expect it to be.”
“What if we passed it already?” Henry said. “I don’t want to go back all that way!”
“For now, we’ll keep going. If we don’t find it, then we’ll go back.”
“Fine. But this cage is getting really heavy. Can you hold it for a while? My arm hurts.” Henry held up the Stunky’s cage. In the full heat of day, the Stunky had fallen asleep. Michael took the cage and looked down at it with a snort.
“You’re mighty lucky, aren’t you? You get to sleep and be lazy while we carry you around everywhere.” He lifted the cage up to eye level. “It’s getting pretty fat too,” he observed. “It’ll have to start exercising.”
“What? I’m serious. We’ll get it a leash and it’ll walk on its own. It’s about time too.”
They were nearing a road named Meadow’s Road. Michael stopped at the sign and scanned the houses in front of them. The development was beginning to thin somewhat, and nature was slowly tightening its hold. Houses were more widely-spaced, and grass grew from cracks in the pavement. To the west, the land sloped upwards in a giant hill, but that was all he could see.
As he walked, Michael couldn’t help but notice that the houses here were larger and somewhat grander. Some had two, even three, floors. There were still no garages, but each house had a separate, smaller structure attached to it that resembled a large shed.
“I don’t think this is working,” Henry said. “Each house just looks like a house.”
“That’s the point.”
“No, I really think we should go back. The Gym wouldn’t be this far in. Remember Oreburgh?”
“So? If you haven’t noticed, this town isn’t exactly a copy of Oreburgh’s layout. Just keep going. We don’t have that far anyway. Just up to the hill.”
“But I’m tired!” Henry sighed. “I’m sick of walking like this! We’ve been walking nonstop from Oreburgh!”
“What, you think I’m not tired? I’m the one carrying the cage right now, and I’m not complaining!”
Henry stopped in his tracks and sat down on the asphalt, crossing his legs. “I’m taking a break. You can go if you want to. Tell me if you find anything.”
“Yeah sure, I’ll tell them how I found the Gym all by myself and this annoying whiner kid wanted to go home.”
Henry’s face reddened. “I never said that! I just want to take a break! Sheesh!”
Michael began to laugh, unable to help himself. Henry closed his eyes and lay down on the pavement. A second later, his eyes were open and he was back on his feet.
"Whoa! Do you feel that?" he said.
“Feel what?” Michael turned.
Henry sat down again, this time placing both palms onto the ground. “That... rumble.”
Michael perked an eyebrow. “What rumble? I don’t hear anything.”
“No, sit down! You have to sit down to feel it. It’s right beneath the ground. Sort of like a train.”
Michael sat down and placed the cage beside him. At first he felt only warm cement, but sure enough, he began to feel a distant churning rise up from somewhere beneath it.
Dumm de-de drumm de-de drumm...
Michael shook his head. “That’s impossible. Trains don’t go that far underground.”
“Is it an earthquake?”
“No, it can’t be that either.”
Henry looked at him for a moment, then rose to his feet. He walked forward a few meters, then stopped, and sat down again. “It’s louder now! It gets louder the farther you go!”
Michael got up and sat down at Henry’s spot. Sure enough, the sound had grown louder. “That’s really weird.” He got up and walked some more. They passed three more houses without any change, but after the fourth, the sound could be heard right above ground.
Henry looked around. “Where’s that sound coming from?”
“I don’t know.”
“So weird,” Henry said. “It’s kind of scary too, don’t you think?”
“Whatever, let’s keep going. Hopefully it’ll pass.”
They kept walking, though neither of them could resist a sideways glance here and there. In a few minutes, they had reached the end of Meadow’s Road. The street was cut off by the soil, and from there on rolled untamed nature. The sound had increased twofold, and Michael could almost feel the rumbling beneath his feet. Henry stopped and placed his hands on his knees.
“I really think we should ask someone, Michael. I really don’t think the Gym will mind if we’re resourceful.” Henry looked around, then pointed. “Let’s try them.”
Michael turned immediately to the spot. Henry was pointing to one of the last houses on the block, and this one stood noticeably separate from the others. A black Chevrolet Impala was parked beside the curb, and on the porch, two figures stood together. One, a woman, was holding open the door and looking down beneath the tiny roof. The second was a man in a suit and tie. He was looking up at her and shouting something angry and inaudible.
“Uh, they look kinda busy,” Michael said. Nevertheless, he crept closer. Michael could begin to sense the heat of an argument in the couple’s tone, and hear what was being said.
“... For the last time, I assure you, nothing harmful is being returned to the environment!” the man was urging, almost pleading.
The woman who was scowling down at him was visibly younger. Her blonde hair spilled down her shoulders in lovely curls and she had the round, supple cheeks of a flower-child. But at the same time, her eyes trapped an unspeakable anger that made the man shrink.
“Don’t give me that crap!” she said. “All you fancy managers come here and tell me the same goddamn thing every time, yet nothing gets done!”
“I tell you, it’s impossible! We inspect the premises daily!”
“Well it’s time to inspect again!” the woman spat. “Those gases are killing my plants.”
The man paused to take a deep breath. “If you want to file a complaint, I can give you the address of the supervisor—”
“I’m already filing a complaint! To you! Now you can go tell your supervisor that he can either check the shit he’s dumping into the ground, or go move his factory somewhere else!”
The man gasped, as if that had been an insult. “The factory produces materials for spacecraft! It’s vital to the Space Program, it cannot be moved!”
“Listen: I am giving him exactly two weeks to reply with a plan of action. After that, I promise you, I will kick you out of here and send your bare behinds to another town. Understand?”
“The Space Program is the beating heart of the country! You are disrupting innovation, simple girl! Without our aid, your town would be broke!”
“Have I made myself clear?” the woman repeated. “Or should I just go to the director right now and tell him what a lovely job you’re doing at customer service? I’m sure he’d love to hear how you called the people of your host town simple.”
The man drew back. He scrunched his nose and lowered his fists primly to his sides. “This is an outrage! You can be certain that I’ll be calling the director, Miss Herrida, but it’ll not be for the reason you think!” He slammed his hat onto his head, leaving the top crushed and askew. “Good day!”
The man hobbled off down the road, lost in a string of angry mumbling. He barely noticed as he brushed past Michael and Henry on his way to the Impala. The car tipped a little under the man’s weight and drove off, coughing up a trail of brown gas. Michael watched it go for a moment, then turned back just in time to see the woman close the door.
“Wait!” Henry called. He ran the remaining distance to the house and began to pound on the door, Michael stepping up after him. “We want to talk to you!”
The door opened a second later, throwing Henry back. The heat had not quite faded from the woman’s cheeks and she looked ready to shout again, but when she made eye contact with the boys, her face softened and her grip slackened on the doorknob. “Oh. Hello. What is it, boys?”
“Do you know where the Gym is?” Michael asked. “We came from Oreburgh’s Gym to get the second badge. You know, for the League.”
Michael was half-anticipating more confusion, but instead the woman’s face slackened and she slumped against the doorframe. “Oh.” It came out like uh. “You’re trainers, then. Right. Sorry I’m all over the place today. I’m just so damn tired. Come in.” She stepped back and beckoned for them to enter. Her house was sunny and spacious, though there wasn’t much to fill it. Her living room was furnished with only two armchairs and a coffee table in between. The woman went ahead of them, taking off her shoes by the doormat and replacing them with slippers.
“My name’s Bertha,” she said. “Sorry you had to see that little conversation earlier. I promise, I don’t yell that much.” She smiled, showing a softer side. “I’m the leader of Gym number two. It must have taken you quite a while to get here. I can see it in your faces.”
Michael braced himself for the accusation. Beside him, Henry nodded. “We looked all over for it.”
“I’m not surprised. Not everyone can find it the first time. I’m not calling you stupid, don’t get me wrong, because the camouflage is pretty good. We don’t have the money to build a real facility, so I use my house for the time being.”
Henry looked over to Michael and shrugged. Michael nearly laughed at the coincidence.
“Come on, I’ll show you the basement,” Bertha said. “That’s where I conduct the battles.”
She led them through a hallway, down a short flight of stairs and into a wide, musty room that looked like a garage. She turned on the lights, revealing an expanse of wood floor, brown walls, and tiny windows that closely resembled the Oreburgh Gym. This room, however, was much smaller and simpler. The boundary line was handpainted, and a water cooler in the corner added a touch of home. A wooden bench ran across the walls to seat a small audience.
“It doesn’t get any better than this, boys,” Bertha. “No professional paint, no welcome signs, just a roof and a floor to battle on. But it’s where the magic happens.”
She didn’t wait for them to agree, but went to sit behind an office desk that had been shoved into the corner. The room was half-office too, and there were several file cabinets and framed photos hanging from the walls. Michael and Henry took the two vacant seats in front of her.
"Okay, let’s cut to the chase." Bertha picked up a pencil and opened a journal. "Since you're here, I can assume you've beaten Byron?"
Both boys took out their badges, Michael from his backpack and Henry from his badge case. Bertha nodded. "And Byron checked your records, I.D.s, everything?"
“Yes,” Michael said at once. Bertha nodded again.
“All rightie, now I’ll sign you up for your battle dates. Who wants to go first?”
Michael and Henry exchanged glances.
“I guess I will,” Michael said. “My name is Michael Rowan.”
“Okay. Let’s see...” Bertha flipped a page and put her pencil down onto a square. “The next day I have open is tomorrow, at eight o'clock."
"No," she chuckled. "At night. I'm busy all during the day, and evening battles tend to be more interesting. If you don’t mind, of course, because I can always put you in for the morning after, but then your friend won’t be able to battle for another three days, which means you’ll be stuck in here even longer." Bertha looked at him. “It’s up to you.”
“Okay,” Michael said. “I guess I’ll take tomorrow.”
Bertha nodded. She jotted something down onto the square and looked up at Henry. “So, you’ll take the morning after? Nine o’clock?”
“Sure,” Henry said.
“Mhmm.” Bertha took another note. “By the way boys, if you’re not sure about the battle dates, tell me now. I’ve had kids come in here changing at the last minute, and just plain skipping matches. It’s a pain, and it sure as hell isn’t going to improve their chances of winning.”
“No, we’re sure.” Michael said.
“Good. Then it’s all settled. Thanks kids, you have no idea how easier this is on me. The only other thing I’ll have to ask you is if you’ve made any arrangements for lodging.”
“Lodging? You mean this place has a hotel?” Henry said.
“Nope. That’s why I asked. The mayor’s either too lazy or too broke to build one, which is why most of the trainers we get don’t want to stick around.”
Michael lowered his head to his shoes, realizing the problem. He turned to Henry. “Shoot. What are we going to do?”
Bertha answered for him. “Stay here, what else? I have a couple of guestrooms, and I clean them once or twice a week. It’ll do for the time being.”
“Wow, are you sure?” Henry said.
“Yeah. I run a house, a Gym, why not a hotel too?” Bertha chuckled. “Just don’t expect any special treatment. I tell it to everyone who stays here—in the morning I feed you, and at night I kick your butt in battle and send you packing for home. No mercy.”
Michael and Henry exchanged glances. Bertha rose from her chair and went around to the door. “Come on, I’ll show you upstairs. You can bring the little guy up too. I don’t mind.” She nodded to the Stunky in the cage.
Bertha led them out of the basement, and through another hallway that went deeper into the house. She unlocked two doors that stood side-by-side, revealing almost-identical rooms. Henry went left and Michael went right, though the differences weren’t great. Both had full-size beds, white walls, plain curtains, and nightstands—the median of comfort. The only thing that spoiled it all was the noise, which Michael had suddenly become aware of again. Dum-de-de-drumm, it went, over and over like an annoying song.
Bertha leaned against the wall and rubbed her temples. “Oh, that noise... it’s like taking a hammer and pounding my head with it... Sorry, again. You boys came on a bad day. Bad bad bad.”
“Where’s the sound coming from?” Michael said.
“The factory,” she mumbled. “The goddamn factory over the hill.”
“Is that what you were arguing with that man about?” Henry said.
“Yeah.” Bertha opened her mouth into a greedy yawn. “They’re a bunch of irresponsible assholes, pardon the language. Ever since that factory got built they’ve been dumping all these chemicals into the water as waste. I have a garden in what’s left of the meadow over there.” She pointed out the window, towards the expanse of green grass outside. “I grow my own vegetables instead of buying imports from the market. But lately, all my plants have been dying. Every time I walk up the hill to water them, I see all these flakes in the grass. They’re in the soil, in the water, everywhere. Sometimes, at night, I can see this big cloud of something right around the factory. It’s like fog, but it stinks. Once it left me coughing for days.”
Henry stuck out his tongue. “Yuck, that’s disgusting! Someone should really do something about it.”
“What, you think I’m not trying?” she blurted, slapping the wall. Henry drew back from her sudden anger. “I’ve been trying to talk to their director for months now, but all I get are loons like him!” She jerked her thumb back in the direction of the front door. “They don’t know what the hell they’re doing.”
“What’s the factory supposed to be making?” Michael said.
“Some computer thing that powers Galactic's spacecraft. I don’t know why that should involve using chemicals, but apparently it does.”
So they’re employed by Team Galactic?” His face lit up.
“No, they are Team Galactic.” Bertha smiled sourly. “I know, surprising, isn’t it? Behind all those flashy TV programs is hardcore industry, kids. There’s no getting away from it. They look for the smallest, most looked-over spots in the region to put up their buildings and they snatch them up like hotcakes.”
Henry shook his head in fervent protest. “But how can this town be overlooked? It’s a Gym town!” he said. “They’d never put up a factory in Oreburgh, so why here?”
Bertha shrugged. “The Space Program isn’t connected to the League. Now, the League is somewhat decent; it wants to bring people to the historic places of Sinnoh and try to get everyone to travel and cooperate a little more. But the Space Program sees everything through one lens. They’re only interested in what’s beyond our planet, not what’s already living on it.” Her expression took a wry turn, and she crossed her arms. “So far, the Gym’s been running pretty smoothly. I get kids coming in, I battle them, and they either move on or stay until they win. And I like it. I get to meet a lot of different people and help them take the next step in their life. You know, it makes me happy. But lately...” She looked over to the window again, at the base of the hill that was visible from here, and her words trailed off. As if in response to them, the factory’s rumbling grew slightly louder. “Lately, it’s just been a burden. That’s all I can say. Galactic is taking advantage of us, and I want to get them out.”
“How are you gonna do it?” Michael spoke, and his tone surprised him. It was daring, almost taunting, as if some inner part of him had risen up to defend his long-loved idol. To his relief, Bertha didn’t react to it.
“Petition, if I want to do it the ethical way. If not... well, that’s too much for you kids to know. I thought you wanted a battle, not an interrogation.” Bertha turned away, and by her expression Michael knew she would say no more on the matter. “I’ll make dinner later today. Pasta on Wednesdays. You both good?”
Michael and Henry nodded.
Bertha smiled. “Great. In the meantime, you can roam around if you’d like. Go outside, or whatever kids do these days.”
“Okay,” Michael said.
“It was nice meeting you,” Henry added.
Michael was about to turn for the door, when a sudden thought made him stop. He wheeled back around to face Bertha. "Hey, what type of Gym are you?"
She looked up. "Pardon?"
"I mean, what's your favorite type to use?"
Bertha looked at him curiously. "Well... I guess it would be grass. They help me with my gardening, and I'm around them so frequently that I started using them for battles too."
Michael nodded, hoping his inner smile didn’t show. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." Bertha nodded and walked off. When he and Henry were alone, Michael let his backpack slide to the floor.
“Leave your things here. Let’s go outside.”
When Michael got to the front porch, he took a moment to stand there, hands in pockets, looking out at the slow-arching hill. The sun was beginning to dip into late afternoon. The bare grass shivered like living hair, daisies nodding their heads in the wind’s direction. Henry joined his side momentarily. They stood in silence for a while, then Michael spoke. “Well, that went better than I expected. We have our battles. And the Gym is grass.”
Henry nodded. “So we need a Fire type? You know, because forest fires burn down trees.”
“I guess so. I can’t think of anything else off the top of my head, so we’ll go for fire.”
“What about pokéballs? Do you think this place sells them?”
“If the local market craze is Nomel berries? I doubt it.”
“But it can’t hurt to look around, right? We should go visit the market tomorrow.”
“No,” Michael said. “My schedule’s tight enough as is. I have to be ready for a battle by tomorrow evening. At least you get an extra night of sleep. If we’re going to make a capture, we’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way. By hand.”
Henry crinkled his nose. “Getting that Machop was just plain hard. And in the end, we still needed a pokéball. How are we gonna get by without one?”
Michael smiled. “Did I ever tell you the story of how I got my Stunky?”
“Well, it’s more of a demonstration. Three boys, armed with nothing but a net and their bare hands. I guess we can still get by with two, but you’ll have to be on your toes.”
Henry smiled. “Cool.”
“Let’s go. We’ll take a quick look around to see what this place has, then we’ll go back to get some equipment.” Michael stepped down from the porch. “Let’s start at the meadow. There are bound to be pokémon there.” He took several steps into the road when he realized Henry wasn’t following. Michael looked back, and saw that the boy was still standing on the porch, looking down at him uneasily.
“The factory.” Henry pointed. “Didn’t she say there was a factory by the meadow?”
Michael shrugged. “So?”
Henry’s gaze fell. “I don’t know... We shouldn’t go near it. What if someone catches us?”
“We won’t go into the boundary, stupid. There must be a fence around it if it’s in a public place, right? We’ll just look around the area by the fence, see if there are any pokémon worth looking at, then leave. No one gets in trouble for that.”
Henry maintained silence, and Michael was about to go over and drag the boy down himself, but at the last minute he jumped down. The two boys crossed the street and ascended the hill.
The grass on the hill was pale and soft; clearly it had been spared of the relentless daily treading that normally thinned city grass. The slope was uneven, steep in some places and flat in others. By the time he and Henry scaled it, his feet were slipping in their shoes and the hems of his jeans were soiled with dirt. The noise had also changed. It was no longer a single rumbling in Michael’s ears, but a pattern of swishes and crashes that were actually quite separated.
The fence he had anticipated stood about sixty meters away, and it was the tall electric kind. The green space leading up to it was utterly barren, like Professor Emerson’s giant bald head sticking out from the ground. Even the grass had thinned.
They crept closer, and Michael saw that a large notice was attached to the metal wiring:
HAZARDOUS WORK AREA!
NO ACCESS PERMITTED
TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED
AND ARE SUBJECT TO FINING
PROPERTY LICENSE: TEAM GALACTIC ENTERPRISES
♦ ♦ ♦
Beyond that was a giant gray building, its color nearly matching with the crisscross wiring of the fence. By the looks of the curve, the hill should have gone up some more, but the point had been chopped off and flattened by a large slice of white asphalt that stretched all the way to the horizon. The building was in the middle of it, surrounded by a second, smaller fence. The factory had four giant smokestacks, all spewing out tiny amounts of the same white stuff into the sky. It had no windows and no other visible openings, and the noises seemed to be coming from somewhere within. Michael’s eyes swept over the cold lines of its silhouette, then he felt a sharp jolt in his arm.
“Come on let’s go, I don’t want to get in trouble!” Henry’s voice was small against the rumble.
“We’re not gonna get in trouble. See? We’re just looking.”
This wasn’t enough for Henry. He shook his head and began to back away. “We’re not supposed to be here. I’m leaving.”
Michael rolled his eyes. “Fine. Baby.” He turned to follow him, but as he did, he saw something shift in the background. Michael jumped back towards the spot, and his eyes met a distant patch of trees. Something within their shadows had moved briefly, but whatever it was, it had vanished.
Henry stopped mid-step and looked at Michael. “What is it?”
“I think someone was there in the trees.”
“It’s probably just a pokémon. Now hurry up, I want to get out of here.” Henry beckoned. Michael’s eyes lingered on the spot, then he ran to join him.