Chapter 1: In The Night
The furniture jumped. A toy fell off the shelf with a loud clack onto the floor. Sarah opened her eyes and saw nothing. She waited.
So it wasn't a dream.
She sat up in bed, fully awake as the fact that the sound was real sank into her. Something was making loud thumps outside -- loud, and big enough to shake the house. It wasn't an earthquake. She looked at her clock: the display read 3:00 AM. What could be thumping around outside at this hour?
Sarah got up and looked out the window. All she saw were houses in the night. A few lights were turned on, and she saw her neighbor, Anthony, looking out of his window across the street. She opened the window and waved her arms out at him. He spotted her, and opened his window as well.
"What's going on? Do you know what's making that noise?" he called.
"No, I have no idea!" she called back.
A horrible screeching sound, like two beams of rough metal scraping against each other, blasted through the town. Sarah slapped her hands over her ears and nearly fell over from the noise; it was downright painful. She reached out one hand and quickly closed the window, but it didn't help against the sound. She decided the best thing to do would be to get her parents and see if they knew anything. As she ran out of her bedroom, the noise stopped. Her ears were still ringing as she knocked on her parents' bedroom door.
There was no reply. She knocked again. "Mom? Dad?"
She turned the doorknob and waited, but no one yelled at her to keep out, so she opened the door. The blankets were thrown over the side of the bed and their window was open. So was her mom's jewelry box, with all of its contents dumped on top of the dresser. Did someone rob the place? Sarah wondered. But if someone had robbed them, then why not take any jewelry? Her mom's diamonds and pearls were lying there. In fact, nothing seemed to be missing. And the window wasn't broken at all. It had been unlocked and opened from the inside. Her parents opened the window, and dumped the jewelry box? None of it was making any sense. She decided to check downstairs, to see if they were down there. It didn't occur to her that they might have jumped out the window. The bedrooms were on the second story, after all.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs, two of the three house Pokemon ran up to her, obviously frightened. It was Neo, their Nidoran, and Bones the Houndour, both male. They huddled around her legs, fur bristling.
"There there, it's okay," she said, kneeling down to pet them. She heard Piera the Pidgey squawking in her birdcage in the kitchen, and went to open it. Piera flew out and landed on Sarah's arm; Sarah hugged the bird close, feeling the Pokemon's quickly beating heart.
"Mom? Dad?" she called out again. She couldn't hear anything. The house was empty.
"Should I stay here, or go out and look for them?" she asked the Pokemon, who of course said nothing.
Before she could decide, she heard a terrifyingly nearby roar that sounded like it came from a monster bigger than a house. The Pokemon shivered against Sarah. She stood frozen, only her eyes moving to the window over the kitchen sink, where she saw a horned dark shape in the street. Moonlight shone off of what looked like plates of armor, and two straight horns jutted out of its head. I wish I had a Pokedex, she thought suddenly, And at least I'd know what it was.
It bellowed again, just as two more Pokemon rushed at it. In an instant the street outside was a flurry of attacks: gouts of rushing flame, beams of ghostly light and orbs of shadow. The huge Pokemon roared, its claws and tail flashing brightly, before it swung them around and knocked back its attackers with a sound like a ringing gong. Every time it moved, the earth shook with its weight. All Sarah could see of the battle was through the small rectangle of the window; she couldn't even tell who was winning, or what species they were.
Suddenly the kitchen wall was crushed as a river of boulders smashed through it. Sarah screamed and barely jumped out of the way, half-falling, half-running through the door into the living room. The metal-coated Pokemon stomped into the kitchen, its horns scraping the ceiling, its feet cracking the floor tiling. The two Pokemon behind it rushed it again, and its tail flashed and swung at them again. They flew backwards into the street, out of sight, and didn't attack again.
Sarah was scrambling for the front door as the huge Pokemon bashed through the wall into the living room. Piera and Neo were shrieking in panic; only Bones took a defensive stance, growling at the attacker four times his size. Sarah took a split-second glance over her shoulder at it; it was the color of stone and vaguely bipedal, covered in steel, and had huge metal jaws and small blue eyes. It snorted, and made a slapping motion at her: globs of thick mud appeared from its paw and splattered against her, like getting hit with soggy tennis balls. She spat mud out of her mouth and wiped it out of her eyes, as she felt it stomping closer, snapping wooden floorboards under its immense weight.
"What do you want with me?!" Sarah yelled at it, and blindly opened the door. She ran out of it, nearly falling on her face as she tripped down the front steps, just as the huge Pokemon charged with surprising speed and trampled through the doorway. She didn't have time to look and see if her Pokemon were all right; the attacker was only a few feet behind her now. She ran as fast as she could across the lawn, slipping on the dewy grass in her bare feet. As she bolted down the dirt path that marked the road through town, she barely even noticed the unfamiliar black car parked behind her parents' minivan.
The metal screeching sound filled her ears again, and she stumbled and ran into a mailbox in her confusion, knocking the wind out of herself. She felt a small whiskery face nudge her feet and little teeth tug on her pajama bottoms: Neo, trying to urge her on. She scooped him up and ran half-blind and half-deaf, covered in mud and splinters of her own house. She wasn't even thinking of figuring out what was going on anymore. Her mind was focused on just trying to get out of there alive.
Neo suddenly tugged on her sleeve; she looked down at him and blearily saw him pointing his paw to her right. She ran in that direction, and almost collided with a bicycle propped against a tree.
"No time to worry about being a thief," she said and mounted the bicycle. Neo jumped into the front basket, and Sarah pedaled hard, skidding on the grass for one frightening moment before speeding ahead. It wasn't a Mach Bike, but it was fast enough to get her away from the --
Suddenly another volley of mud slapped against her from behind. The back tire slipped at an angle; the gears started to jam. But there wasn't enough mud to do any harm; she kept pedaling on ahead. For a few minutes, she could hear the steady th-thump th-thump of the Pokemon galloping after her, but soon it quieted. She didn't dare stop, but rode on steadily into the night.
Chapter 2: In The Woods
Sarah Samson had been riding the bicycle for an hour in the middle of the night, and she only had the vaguest idea of where she was. Now that the adrenaline of danger had faded away, she realized how sore and tired she was. She'd only gotten five hours of sleep. She was cold, covered in bruises, and caked with grime. Her hair, normally smooth and black, was matted in gritty locks that stuck to her face and neck. Her pajamas offered only minimal comfort against the chilled night air. And the muscles in her legs felt as if they were going to slough off.
Neo had fallen asleep in the basket. Sarah didn't know what had become of Piera and Bones. If they had run away, they were probably fine. The attacking Pokemon only seemed to be after her, for some reason. And possibly after her parents, if that's what had happened to them, too. But it seemed like they had left the house first, before the thumping even started...
By now, Sarah was far out of town and deep in the local forest, where the road was only a set of dirt tracks curving through the brush. No car had driven on it for a while, it seemed; there were arms of thorny berry bushes stretching across it, and sprigs of fresh grass in the tire treads.
She stopped riding, too tired to continue, and set the bicycle against a tree a little ways from the road. She then found as smooth a patch of dirt as possible, and curled up on it to sleep. Neo remained snoozing in the basket.
Jagged rays of moonlight shone down through the thick deciduous canopy, jittering whenever a breeze ruffled the branches. The forest was surprisingly loud, full of the chirping and hooting of nocturnal Pokemon, and the occasional chorus of howls. Shivering with more than just the cold, Sarah shut her eyes tightly and hoped nothing attacked her in the night.
Sarah woke to the feeling of many tiny feet crawling all over her. She jerked up and started trying to throw them off; as her eyes adjusted to the darkness (for the sun hadn't yet risen), she saw the feet belonged to five Weedles. They looked discombobulated after having been tossed around, and glared at her a little. As she looked around the area, she saw many more Weedles, crawling among the grass and trees. She shuddered with a severe attack of the heebie-jeebies, and decided she'd no longer be able to sleep.
She didn't have the energy to ride the bicycle, either, so decided to walk it along by the handlebars instead. Neo still slept soundly, and she envied him. He looked very comfortable curled up in the basket with his paws over his nose.
She kept an eye out for the hundreds of Weedle, trying to avoid them while keeping to the road, but soon the path became confused and she found that she was trudging through very high grass; it must have been up to her waist at some parts. Still she kept on, wondering when the sun would rise, and realizing the forest would stay dark for hours after dawn because of the trees' thickness.
The front bicycle tire went over a lump, and she heard a squeak of a Pokemon. Sarah stopped and knelt down to inspect it; as she did, she felt something jab her in the ankle, and saw an angry Weedle scurry away, still squeaking and chittering.
"Stupid bug!" she said after it. It shook its stinger insultingly in her direction; she saw blood on the point of it. "Ugh, it stung me." She reached down to feel her ankle. There was a thin trickle of blood already congealing, and a knot of flesh like a marble under her skin where it was beginning to inflame. She had heard of Weedles being poisonous. She hoped the poison didn't affect humans.
Ten minutes of walking later, she was limping and using the bicycle to lean her weight on. Her ankle was red and swollen, and she felt her strength draining away every few steps.
Unfortunately, her bug troubles had only just begun.
She heard a loud chittering noise and looked to see the Weedle she had run over, up on a branch and glaring down at her. She blew a raspberry at it. It made some noises and seemed to point a stubby foreleg at her; a moment later, three very unhappy-looking Beedrills descended from the foliage onto the branch next to it. Each one was nearly as big as she was. Sarah froze, afraid to make any sudden movements that might provoke them. They buzzed their wings, lifting off of the branch and gliding toward her.
"I didn't mean to run it over!" she shouted at them, but they either didn't understand, or didn't care. They continued to approach, buzzing ominously, brandishing their drill-arms forward. Sarah finally grabbed Neo in her arms, turned, and ran. The Beedrills immediately sped up to chase her; she could hear leaves flapping as they were flown through or shoved aside. Neo was awake now; he raised his head and cheeped sleepily.
Sarah felt the poison acting faster with her exertion. Her health was rapidly leaving her and spots were appearing in her vision. She started to slow down, her feet shuffling heavily and tugging on tree roots and rocks. As soon as she did, the Beedrills closed the distance between them and attacked her in a flurry of jabbing arm-spikes and stingers. She tried weakly to wave them away but finally crumpled to the ground in a tight ball around Neo with her arms over her head, too weak to resist or to run anymore.
Suddenly there came an eerie howl from further in the forest, and then a lithe, black shape darted onto the scene, spitting flame from its jaws. The Beedrills hummed resentfully and dispersed, leaving trails of smoke from their singed abdomens. Sarah tried to turn her head to see her rescuer more clearly, but fell onto her side with the effort. She could feel almost nothing now except a dull throbbing pain in her entire body, and her vision was spinning. Neo cried out in a panic and pushed against her with his paws, tried to urge her up, but she couldn't find the strength to move.
The last thing she remembered before the world took one last spin into darkness was Bones whining and pulling on her pajamas...
Chapter 3: In a White Room
Sarah slowly opened her eyes, trying to make sense of that bizarre dream from last night about her house being attacked and --
Wait a second. This wasn't her bedroom. So it hadn't been a dream.
She looked around at where she was: it was a very clean, very white room with paintings of dancing Bellossoms and Roselias along the walls, and bonsai plants on a nightstand. All of this was to give it a cozier feel and to cover up the air of a medical center, which is unmistakably was, given that there was a counter with a sink, a box of rubber gloves next to a box of gauze strips, and a bin full of used healing potions.
Sarah sat up slowly, still feeling very weak although also rather rejuvenated. It looked like it was about lunchtime outside, and the sun shone brightly through the window next to the bed. And at the foot of the bed were...
The Houndour and Nidoran both sat up immediately when they heard her voice, and bounded up to nuzzle against her. She hugged them tightly and scritched them both behind the ears.
The door to the room opened, and a nurse entered with a tray of food: two bowls of Pokemon food, and a plate with slices of some curvy, pink and yellow fruit. "Oh, you're awake. Good afternoon," the nurse said to Sarah, and set the tray down on the nightstand. "I hope you don't mind the shirt."
"Huh?" Sarah looked down at herself, and saw that her pajamas had been changed to an exceptionally oversized t-shirt with a cartoonish illustration of a Wooper on it.
"We're not really built to accommodate human patients," the nurse explained, "So we don't have any hospital gowns. We used one of the shirts from the gift shop...your clothes were really too dirty to let you sleep in them."
"That's...okay," Sarah said, feeling a little confused. "Where am I? What happened?"
"Well, these two dears dragged you all the way here from the forest this morning. We couldn't tell if they were yours or not, but they wouldn't leave your side. We were wondering what happened to you. It looks like you got in a Pokemon battle and forgot to use Pokemon to do the fighting!" The nurse laughed a little at her own joke.
"I...got attacked by Beedrills. And they're my parents', but...my parents...I don't know where they are. They disappeared, and then some huge Pokemon attacked, and it almost killed me, so I just had to run into the woods, and..."
"Oh, my! Disappeared? Last night?"
"M-hm..." Sarah nodded. She was started to feel more frightened about it than before, now that the adrenaline and exhaustion were completely gone.
"There's a phone downstairs if you want to use it. It's free, of course. If they're not home by now, we should call the police. But first, eat your breakfast! It's mago berry, it's very good for you." The nurse then turned and left, shutting the door behind her.
Sarah picked up the berry slice and assumed it must taste awful, because every time grownups said something was good for you, it tasted like it was deep-fried in dirt juice. She took a careful nibble, and was surprised to find that despite it being rather hard, it was juicy and sweet. Soon she found herself scarfing down the entire serving, while Bones and Neo munched away on the bowls of kibble.
After she was finished eating, she used the plate as a mirror. Her black hair had been washed and combed. She inspected her ankle: the wound was completely gone, almost as if it had never been there. The blisters on her feet were gone, too. They really did a nice job of taking care of her, for a place that usually didn't take humans.
She headed downstairs, feeling a little self-conscious to be wearing a huge shirt as a dress, but no one seemed to notice. The main room was built to look like a lodge, with all wooden floors and wall paneling, and chandeliers made out of wagon wheels. This was in start contrast to the gift shop full of bright toys and clothes, and the row of computers and video phones lined up against the wall. Outside the windows, Sarah could see yet more forest.
She made her way over to the video phones with her Pokemon following along at her heels. She pressed the CALL button, and a woman's voice spoke out of the machine: 'Please say the name of who you want to call, or the address of where they are.'
"Michael and Johanna Samson," Sarah said, feeling weird to use her parents' first names.
'Calling... ... ... I'm sorry, this phone is out of service. Would you like to call someone else?'
She sighed, and said, "Yes. The police."
"That was definitely an Aggron that attacked your house," said the officer, taking down notes. "But those are almost never found in the wild, and when they are, it's always in the mountains."
"But what was it doing attacking my house?!" Sarah whined.
"It wasn't a random attack. This Pokemon was owned by someone. You said it sent a cascade of rocks into your house?"
"That's an ability called 'Rock Slide'...and Aggron can only learn it from a machine. So a trainer probably attacked your house, and might have kidnapped your parents as well...we just don't know why."
"What should I do?!"
"I've already called the chief of police from your town. They're already investigating the scene down there, but they can't find anything to tell us where your parents are right now. Do you have any other family you can stay with?"
"N...no..." Sarah felt a wave of fear and sadness crash into her. She was only nine years old! She wasn't old enough to handle this kind of crisis! "My parents never talk about their families...and I don't have any uncles, or aunts, or cousins, or anything..."
The police officers gave each other meaningful glances, then looked back down at Sarah. "Alright. Maybe you should stay here. We'll get in contact with you if we learn anything." And with that, they left. Sarah got the funny feeling that grownups didn't really care about kids not having parents or houses of their own. She figured if she didn't have Pokemon to help her out, their feelings would be much different.
"Hey there," someone said. She looked up and over and saw a thin, short man in thick glasses and office-work clothes. He looked like he spent a little too much time around computers and not enough in the sun.
"Sorry to bother you," he said, adjusting his glasses even though they didn't seem to need it, "But you don't seem to have any Pokeballs."
"That's right. They're my parents. They never caught them, they bought them as pets."
"Oh! Well, you should still get some. I'm an aide to Professor Zelkova in Pewter City. Do you know where that is?" he asked, in that annoying voice grownups used when they were trying to be polite to children they thought were younger than they really were.
"I forgot," Sarah lied. She knew he wanted to tell her anyway.
"It's just north of here, through the rest of the forest," he said with a smile.
"Thanks. I don't want to be a Pokemon trainer, though."
"If your Pokemon ever get injured, a Pokeball is a safe, easy way to transport them without hurting them! Even if you don't want to fight, they can still get hurt, or sick!"
"Okay. Thanks." She knew all of that already, but she didn't think a nerd like him would understand that she just liked having Pokemon physically next to her, not locked up in a little capsule. He smiled obliviously and went away.
"Pewter City," she said to herself. "I guess I'll go there anyway. Maybe this Professor can help me out." And she walked out the front door and headed North, knowing full well those police weren't going to learn anything on their own.
Chapter 4: In Pewter
"Maybe I should head back to Viridian," Sarah said aloud, as she walked along the path through the woods. It didn't seem to be the same path as before (and she wondered where that one went); this one was a footpath, a few feet wide, smooth and not overgrown. Berry-bearing trees grew in patches of well-tended dirt next to the path. She picked a few more mago berries, and a few berries she didn't recognize, to eat on the way.
If she stayed at the Pokemon Center, she'd have free food and lodging, but she'd also be stuck waiting around. And if she was being pursued, she thought it would be safer if she kept on the move. She wasn't stupid: she had noticed that nobody else's houses had been destroyed last night.
For the same reason, she didn't want to go back to Viridian City. She didn't think her parents were anywhere in the city anymore. She thought they had probably been kidnapped, although she had no idea why. But that didn't change the fact that someone had sent an Aggron after Sarah, and she didn't want to risk it if they were still waiting back home to catch her if she came back.
Pewter City sounded promising, though. She didn't know what a Pokemon Professor could do for her, really, but it might be exciting to meet one.
Soon the forest broke and Sarah, Bones and Neo emerged into bright spring sunlight that poured warmly down over the pasturage. The tall grasses rippled like a green silken sheet, waving and shining in the wind. There weren't any visible buildings, just the crooked dirt trail cutting its way uphill, and a wooden signpost marking it as Route 2. In the distance, Sarah could see a tall, unnatural mound of earth bulging up next to a thicket of trees: the Diglett Cave, a huge tunnel carved out by Digletts and other subterranean Pokemon over many years. She wouldn't be going through it, though she thought it would be neat to do so one day.
The sun was hanging low in the sky by the time Sarah arrived at Pewter City, and dusk was already setting in when she finally found out where Professor Zelkova's laboratory was and made it there. It was next to a large museum on the tallest hill in the town, backed by trees, with one of many pleasant little flower gardens planted in front. She knocked on the door, and hoped someone was there to answer it. She didn't want to get stuck outside at night...again.
Luckily the door opened a minute later, by an unfamiliar man in a lab coat. "Yes?"
"Are you Professor Zelkova?" Sarah asked him.
"No. He's doing research at the moment. Do you have an appointment?"
"I need an appointment to see a Pokemon professor?"
"No. I just like making guests nervous. Come right in." He man stepped aside with a half-suppressed smirk. Sarah made a scoffing noise at him and walked in.
Sarah had never been in a lab before, but it was a lot like a hospital, only less frightening and more of a curiosity. There was a shelf stacked with fossils and chunks of amber, each one labelled something like OSTAR-04 or KTOP-11. There was a table covered with a huge microscope and a tray of slides. There were three desks with computers on them, two of them crunching numbers with only a soft hiss to indicate how hard they were working. Against one wall was yet another shelf, its metal platforms cluttered with an array of what seemed to be be huge uncut gems of assorted colors, some still in their bisected geodes, alongside rows of teeth, scales, and metal trinkets.
"Where's the professor?" Sarah asked as she saw that no one else seemed to be present. Suddenly, entering the building with a man she didn't know didn't seem like such a good idea.
The lab-coat man seemed half-indifferent to her, and half-concerned -- not for her, exactly, but he gave her an uncomfortable look when she walked too close to the shelves and only seemed to relax once she gravitated to the center of the room again.
"Don't touch anything," he said, even though she wasn't. "He's doing research, like I said." The man pointed with his chin towards a door she hadn't noticed, before he crossed over to give it a rap of his knuckles. He exchanged words with a voice beyond the door, then moved over to check the computers and gave them each a long, searching stare. Sarah entertained herself by imagining he didn't really understand the numbers and code moving across the screens, but that he was only pretending to look smart in front of her. Whether or not this was true, he straightened up after a moment and tapped his foot, looking around at this or that and trying to avoid eye contact and just seeming very uncomfortable to have a child in his workplace.
"What are you researching?" she asked, trying to pass the time though also genuinely curious.
"Oh." He tugged on his lab coat and looked very smug all of a sudden. "Various things. As you might know, we were one of the pioneers in perfecting the art of cloning extinct Pokemon from their own fossils."
Of course Sarah knew that; everyone knew that.
"We've been performing many kinds of tests on these: evolution-inducing items," he said, gesturing to the second shelf.
"What kinds of tests?"
He began speaking before she even finished asking; clearly he would have continued even without her prompting. "Well, to see if their energy can be used to power machinery, or if it can be used to enhance humans, or if the substances in them can be broken down, reproduced and synthesized..."
He began to drone on about the research in increasingly scientific terms until she no longer understood what he was saying. If he realized this, he didn't care; he probably didn't have a lot of people to say anything to.
Finally the door opened and out emerged a man wearing - to no one's surprise - a white lab coat. He was older than either of his assistants, also not very surprising. He looked genial and jovial.
"Hello there!" he greeted heartily. "I'm Professor Zelkova! And what's your name?"
"Sarah," she said, unable to put as much buoyancy in her voice as he had. He didn't seem to notice. Grownups didn't seem to notice much about her tone and words; they carried on as if they were the only ones in the room sometimes.
"And what brought you all the way up to my lonely little laboratory, hm?" he asked with a grin, hands on his hips.
"Well, one of your --"
"I can see you don't need your first Pokemon, you've already got three! Haha! Maybe you'd like a Pokedex?" He reached into his inner coat pocket and produced a gleaming little 'dex half as big as his own hand and flat as a school notebook.
"Actually, I'm --"
He ignored her, pointing the small machine first at Bones, smiling at her when the tinny word "Houndour" spoke from the device. As if she didn't already know the species of her own Pokemon.
But then he pointed it at Neo in her arms and something strange happened. What should have been identified as obviously being a standard-issue Nidoran, the likes of which are encountered in droves by prospective new trainers, was only called out as, "Species unknown."
Zelkova gave his Pokedex a funny look, as did the lab assistant. Then they both gave Neo the same look. He pointed the machine at the critter again. The tiny light at the top blipped once, the screen threw up a big green question mark, and it announced again, "Species unknown."
"Well, maybe you don't want this Pokedex," the professor laughed, setting it on a desk and forgetting all about it. "I can't go around giving you a computer that doesn't even recognize your common Nidoran! Say, that isn't some rare, legendary Pokemon in disguise, is it?" he said with a coy grin, and laughed once more. Despite herself, Sarah found herself smiling a little.
"So, what brought you up here?" Zelkova asked again.
Sarah's little smile vanished. "I think my parents were kidnapped. And I think who took them is after me."
Chapter 5: In a Hurry
The happy professor's face was not so happy now after Sarah's words, and the lab assistant busied himself on the other side of the room as if the conversation was too personal for him now.
"Kidnapped?" Zelkova repeated incredulously, scratching at his gray sideburns.
"Yes. A big Aggron came in the middle of the night and wrecked my house down like a wrecking ball, and my parents were already gone, and then it came after me."
"Are you sure it wasn't a wild --"
"No, the police said it wasn't because it knew a TM attack."
"Aggron don't live wild around here anyway," the assistant said from a computer without looking over.
"Right." The professor nodded. "Right. Where are you from?" he asked Sarah seriously. His silly clown-acting was gone now that he seemed to grasp that she was having a situation that most adults never faced.
"Hm...What else did the police tell you?"
She sighed a bit. "They told me to wait at the Pokemon Center until they found out more. But come on, I had a huge Pokemon throwing boulders at me! I didn't want to just wait around for it to find me."
"Why did you come here, though? I'm a scientist, not a detective." Professor Zelkova's tone was sympathetic; he sounded like he regretted not being in a position to help.
"Because...I don't know. Some assistant of yours told me to come here to get some Pokeballs. And I didn't know where else to go." When the professor started to ask a question, Sarah cut him off. "No, I don't have any family. None."
He gave her a pitying look, stroking his beard in consternation. "Who are your parents?"
Sigh. "Michael and Johanna Samson, just like I told the police..."
Both men froze, the assistant whipping his head around to stare over his shoulder and Zelkova standing with his hand still on his chin, eyebrows up to his hairline. Sarah exchanged confused glances with Bones and Neo. This was not a normal reaction to a couple of names.
"...Did you know them?" she finally asked. Now the two scientists exchanged a look, a very troubled one, before looking back at her.
"In a manner of speaking," Zelkova said. "I worked with them...years ago."
"What do you know about your parents?" the assistant asked from the background.
"Just...I dunno. What's there to know? They're my parents. Where did you work with them?" Somehow she couldn't think of her parents as being scientists in the past. Not when they worked in a Pokemart nowadays. It seemed like too much of a downgrade.
"Umm..." The professor stalled and stammered. "It's...it's not important, really. N-not if you don't already know, it's not really my place to tell you! Um..."
A phone in the back room began to ring, a jaunty tune interspersed with a voice announcing, "You have a call!"
The assistant frowned. "You know who that's going to be."
Zelkova halfway turned towards the door to the back room, and then turned halfway back towards Sarah, looking nervous and indecisive. The assistant pressed on, "Are you going to answer it or leave them hanging? They'll probably come here. What are you going to do with her?"
Sarah edged away towards the exit.
Zelkova looked at her with a small frown, and shook his head. "No, we'll release her." He addressed her directly: "You need to go."
As if she hadn't figured that out already.
He picked up the Pokedex again, pressing buttons quickly and then holding it down for her to see. The screen enlarged holographically, revealing a map of the Kanto region. "The most obvious choice would be to travel through Mt. Moon to Cerulean," he said, "But they'll be expecting that. It's possible for you to cut south through the forest to Celadon." He pointed out the path on the map, which wasn't so much a path as just the thickly-wooded divide between Pewter and Celadon, the dot nestled on the northern curve of the bay.
Why did everything have to be a forest if it wasn't a town?
"Why am I going to Celadon?" she asked blankly.
"Well, just...do you want to be in the wilderness forever? You've got to stop and rest some time."
"And it isn't any worse than being here," the assistant muttered. "The phone stopped ringing, you know. They're definitely going to come here now."
"They were probably already on their way," Zelkova sighed, to himself it seemed.
"Who's 'they'?” Sarah demanded. “You keep saying 'them' and 'they', who is it? Why are they after me? What do you know?"
“It, um. It isn’t important right now. You just need to go.”
He ushered her and her Pokemon swiftly to the door, and handed her the Pokedex. “Sorry I can’t tell you how to use it; I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” he said, just before closing the door.
Right. So now she was pretty much right where she was before -- that is, situationally and not locationally. She was still on the run, still going to traipse through the wilderness on her own, still having no idea what really happened to her parents or who is after her or why. Maybe they weren’t all that bad. Maybe it was her parents looking for her, and the scientists were the bad guys, trying to keep them apart for who-knows-why.
Speaking of her parents, just who were they, really? They used to work with a Pokemon professor -- but now they were clerks in a store? Nothing was making sense.
Bones nudged her leg with his nose and whined a bit. He was right, she had to hurry. Those people after her probably had transportation that could get them here a lot quicker than she could get to the next city, and she needed all the time she could get. She hopped quickly down the hillsides and ledges of Pewter City, avoiding the heavily populated areas and moving through the quiet suburban neighborhoods instead, until finally ducking into the dark depths of yet another Gigantic Lightless Forest.
She was tired. She was wearing an oversized t-shirt for a dress. She had no supplies, no food left, no water, no sense of direction, and no clue -- and night was already falling.
Chapter 6: On The Menu
It was dark.
Really, really dark.
It was deep, cold, inky-black dark, the only kind of real darkness you can get by wandering out to the absolute zenith of wilderness at the maximum distance possible from any civilization whatsoever. There was a reason no one had built any roads here: it was a rocky, tricky landscape that had Sarah often tumbling face-first off of (blissfully short) ledges and stumbling over loose, pebbly sand or knocking her knees into boulders -- that is, when she wasn’t doing the same things to tree trunks and roots.
She couldn’t see, and she was banging herself up on everything.
Yessir, there was no light here. The trees were ancient and a perfect mix of insanely tall evergreens and bushy, broad-beamed deciduous that she only caught small glimpses of the sky through every once in a while. The moon must have been new, or nearly so, for the only light she spotted were small specks of stars. She knew if this were an open field the stars would look like someone shook an open bottle of milk at a black canvas, but from down here in the woods, all she saw was a lone spot now and then. And there was no glow of the cities here. Nothing. It was dark.
It was also loud, at least, for the first couple of hours after nightfall. Almost as loud as the city, even: birds, beasts, and bugs made all their noises now, only getting louder as it got darker. And then they reached a crescendo, and the noise dimmed, and quieted, until all Sarah heard was the sound of herself and Bones tripping over the rocky, rooty ground.
And then a new sound began: soft fluttering, like leather cloth being lightly tossed. It was coming from everywhere at once, all around her and overhead. She looked up, and saw that the one star she could see a moment ago was blotted out by flickering shadows moving with almost complete silence through the air.
With Bones pressed up against her legs and Neo huddled in her arm, she very slowly lifted the Pokedex, and flipped it open.
The sudden flare of the screen caught a dark animal’s face, its fanged mouth gaping open and big enough to eat her hand. She only caught the sight for a second for the beast flapped back into the shadows. Now she knew what that sound was: wings. Possibly hundreds of them -- and the creatures were nearly as big as she was.
She was about to quietly close the Pokedex again, hopefully without being noticed too much (despite the horribly bright screen, floating there in the blackness), when suddenly its voice, as loud as a gunshot in the silence, spoke out: “Golbat.”
The fluttering increased. She could feel a breeze now -- the air, kicked up by so many wings. They were beginning to converge on the sound and the light.
She pulled the device close to her body and tried to hide the screen against her torso while she blindly sought out the hinge to close it shut again, but in her sightless searching, she pressed the wrong button.
“Golbat is a Flying-Poison type that becomes most active on dark, moonless nights --”
They were all swirling about her now, a stifling thick whirl of bats. She fumbled around, trying to close the Pokedex, but it just kept talking.
“--to prey on both people and Pokemon, using its sharp fangs to pierce the skin and gorge on over ten ounces of blood.”
Sarah didn’t know how many ounces of blood were in the human body, but she was pretty sure it was less than ten.
The first of the dark forms smacked against her and she lost her composure, screaming and dropping the Pokedex. It flipped end over end, its panel of light arcing through the air, illuminating a dozen hungry fanged faces before landing face-up on the ground, the only light in a sea of utter darkness.
Fangs as large as fingernails popped cleanly into the flesh of her wrist like she was made of butter, as leathery wings folded around her arm and clung there. She could already feel it drawing the blood from her, feeling its weight increasing in turn -- not that it didn’t already weigh more than she did. Unbalanced, she stumbled and fell over, landing on top of the creature but not dislodging it. She started to scream recklessly in terror, dropping Neo and trying to yank the Golbat off of her.
“Get it off, get if off!” she wailed, clawing at it and then beginning to punch it with all her strength. She felt the fangs dig deeper into her arm and drag as it was jostled, tearing her arm up but not doing any good.
Neo, for all he was worth, tackled the Golbat with his imposing twenty-pound physique, but for all his biting and stinging, couldn’t get the huge bat off of her.
Bones gave a mighty howl and threw himself into the fray -- quickly becoming a painfully heavy, three-’mon battle on top of Sarah’s arm -- and began to spit chunks of burning ember. The Golbat, being burned at point-blank range, finally unattached itself and flew back up to rejoin the swarm.
Sarah grabbed her arm with her other hand. There was a lot of blood, more blood than she’d seen in her life, and it was still bleeding freely from the four large punctures. She tried to remember things she’d heard about first aid. Did you hold a wound above your heart or below it? How could you stop the bleeding? When did you have to worry about infection? She wished she still had a mago berry on hand, but even if a fruit tree was right overhead she wouldn’t have known it in this darkness.
Bones was leaping and biting at any Golbat that strayed too low, still giving out eerie bays and howls and roaring out flame. Bats were catching alight, some fluttering off in retreat and some crashing into trees. Too many, however, were merely shaking off the fire like it was nothing. Neo, helpless out of melee range, stalked around on the edges of the Pokedex’s halo of light, making ferocious noises that mismatched his tiny purple body.
The Golbats had them outnumbered and out-muscled. They were just toying, testing them out. They were going to attack again any minute now. Sarah sat there, shaking and clutching her arm as hard as she could to stop the bleeding, already light-headed from the first bite.
Then, one of the Golbats finally caught alight -- really alight, not just a little singed -- and it began screeching like nobody’s business, making a painful, ear-shattering racket as it bobbled wildly through the flight. It knocked its fellows out of balance and scorched anything it hit, seeming to have lost all control of its motions. Finally, leaving a trail of smoke, it spiraled out of sight with a sound of crunching twigs and leaves.
A moment later, those twigs and leaves also went up in flame.
The yellow light grew as the hungry, wild flames began to feed themselves on all the forest debris, eating their way up tree trunks and spreading out through patches of grass. Sarah could feel the heat already, growing and beating like a huge heart.
The Golbats began to scatter as the air filled with smoke. It was unusually thick -- and Sarah realized that the dense canopy was locking it all in, smoke, heat and everything, like a furnace made of trees.
Neo tugged on her shirt with his teeth, and Bones bounded over to help her up. She stood, very weakly, leaning most of her weight against the Houndour and letting the two of them guide her along.
“The Pokedex...” she said, feeling bad to leave the gift behind. But there was no time to get it; they all three kept onwards.
And then, they ran into a wall.
It wasn’t a completely vertical cliff, but it was definitely too high and too steep to climb, especially when you only had three functioning limbs and one that was effectively dead weight. Both Bones and Neo ran in opposite directions along the base of the cliff, returning a moment later. Bones pushed Sarah along in the direction he had just come from, apparently having found a way up.
But the fire was coming too fast, and she was getting too weak to go on.
“You...go...” she mumbled, giving Neo a weak push. He whimpered slightly, but finally turned and bounded away to safety.
Bones diligently pawed and pulled at Sarah, but her strength had given out, bit by bit, until she collapsed, first onto her knees and then her stomach. She knew she should move, but she was so tired. The incredible heat was closing in, the yellow light bright and consuming her vision now. Nothing but the sound of the roaring, crackling flames...
Chapter 7: In a Wasteland
Sarah was real tired of ending every night by fainting in a forest.
She woke up coughing, inhaling cinders and coughing worse. Everything around her was blackened: trees, spindly and skeletal, the once broad canopies leafless and open to the sky. No grass was left, and a husk of the undergrowth like fragile snakeskin was warped and flaking. A breeze would blow, rattle a branch or bark, and dislodge it with a subtle crack where it fell to the soot-covered earth. A plume of black billowed into the sky on the horizon where the fire raged on.
Last night, everything had been black without light. Today, it was all black with ash.
Sarah rolled onto her back, looking up at the sky, blue powdered gray. She had no idea why she was still alive.
She was afraid to look at herself, knowing she must be burned beyond recognition. To consider anything else seemed like a hopeless fantasy. She was going to die on this dead forest floor looking like a big chunk of smoked beef jerky.
Finally she sat up, her light head spinning. She looked at herself, bracing -- but there was nothing. She was sootier than a flue, but beneath it, unmarred. Only her arm was injured, a sticky mass of congealing blood wadded with the ash into a brackish poultice wrapped around it. It was heavy as lead and hurt worse than she thought anything could hurt and she was afraid to wipe off the blood in case the bite marks reopened.
But why wasn't she burned?
She leaned back against the cliff wall, tired, hungry, aching, her lungs feeling like the dusty underside of her bed. Overall, miserable. The scenery was despondent, she was alone, and everything hurt.
The strong face she'd been wearing finally fell away. Enough was enough. She rested her head against her knees and tried to cry, but her raw, dusty throat only make dry sobs and chokes. She couldn't squeeze out a single tear; she felt all dried-up. It made her feel worse. She couldn't even have that as a release.
She realized that she had to find something to eat to recover her strength, since sitting around trying to pity herself wasn't helping the situation. She pulled herself to her feet using cracks in the cliff for support, and walked weakly along in the direction she remembered Bones going. It wasn't too long before she found a place where the cliff had collapsed. The piles of stones in the broken wedge made for a difficult, but doable, climb to the next level.
Above, the devastation of the fire had swept as far as she could see. The cold stillness and charred landscape made her feel like she was walking on an alien planet.
A shadow swept overhead, and she ducked in fear, expecting another Golbat attack -- but it was a mere Taillow. It flitted down low, looped around her, and then flew quickly back whence it came, from the same direction she had.
That couldn't be a good sign.
Before she could pick a direction to start running, a fiery form burst over the edge of the cliff and galloped toward her: a Rapidash, bearing a rider. She didn't bother trying to run now. She felt frightened despair fluttering in her stomach like so many Butterfree as she helplessly watched the rider approach.
Her bad feeling got worse when he pulled to stop in front of her and she saw his attire: a black business suit, black cowboy boots, black gloves, a red handkerchief tied over the lower half of his face, and a full complement of Poke balls on his belt. He looked like a regular bandit from the Wild West.
The Taillow swooped down to land on his shoulder, as he said, "Samson?"
Sarah only nodded.
"Good. You're already weakened."
The sinking feeling in her gut deepened. She swallowed and squeaked out, "W-what do you want with me?"
He didn't reply, only unclipping one of the Poke balls from his belt.
"What happened to my parents?" she asked, feeling almost ready to cry again, terrified of him and everything she didn't know.
He ignored her, seeming to weigh the ball in his hand for a moment, the expression behind his bandit-mask unreadable, before finally saying, "Let's see if this works."
He held it up. "Return."
Chapter 8: Across The Street
It was 3 AM and Anthony had just fallen out of bed on account of being startled awake by the neighborhood rumbling at regular intervals.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
He jumped up and ran to the window, both frightened and excited. It sounded like something big was stomping around! Maybe it was some kind of cool Pokemon!
In the window across the street, Sarah's face was illuminated by moonlight behind the paned glass. She spotted him and opened her window, waving her arms at him.
He opened his own window and poked his head out. "What's going on? Do you know what's making that noise?" he called over.
She shrugged. "No, I have no idea!"
At that moment there was a shrieking like two sheets of shorn steel grinding against the other's grain. Sarah ducked inside her window and slammed it shut, vanishing into the darkness of her bedroom.
Oh well. She'd probably be alright if she sat tight. She had her parents and they probably had all sorts of Repels and stuff from their shop to protect the house. Anthony just had his grandmother, who was currently sleeping like a rock. Under the right medication, not even your house shaking will wake the elderly!
Anthony, of course, saw this as opportunity to investigate without interruption. Nighttime was the best time for matters of secret sleuthing when your guardian wouldn't be conscious until tomorrow. He wasn't stupid enough to go out alone, however. No self-respecting ten-year-old didn't have a Pokemon.
He had a Charizard inherited from his Dad. The Charizard's name was Storm and it was basically the coolest thing ever.
The huge reptile was already awake when Anthony came downstairs, eagerly waiting by the front door. He jogged over and opened the door to peep out. The glinting carapace of an Aggron was at the street corner, a figure in all black barely visible standing next to it. Huh! Who would bring a big Aggron stomping around Viridian City at 3 in the morning?
Even more oddly, an Umbreon -- nay, a shiny Umbreon! -- and an Arcanine sprinted from the shadows and leapt at them! The street lit up with flashes of flame and blacklight, the Aggron shaking the houses again with its ear-splitting roars and screeches.
It was over quickly, though. The person in black held up a Pokeball in each hand and casually recalled the attackers. Wait a moment, the trainer's own Pokemon were fighting each other? This wasn't making any sense.
What made even less sense was when the Aggron suddenly turned and sent a cascade of boulders avalanching through Sarah's house.
Anthony froze, his throat tight, as the steel Pokemon began to rampage through his friend's house, screeching and slinging mud and rocks. Screaming and the terrified sounds of her Pokemon followed them outside where she scrambled in the mud, ran blindly into a mailbox, and finally jumped on a neighbor's bicycle. The Aggron galloped after her, but moments later it came back empty-handed. The trainer returned it without a word, and just like that, the town was silent again.
Silent except for the people starting to drift onto the sidewalks, muttering in confusion, and sirens in the distance beginning to approach. Anthony ran outside with Storm following, and darted across the street.
A strange black car was parked behind the Samson's minivan, and the passenger-side door shut just as Anthony drew near. He didn't bother to jump out of sight, but watched in equal numb shock and frustration as the car pulled out and sped away in the direction Sarah had rode off.
This was it. This was the chance... to be a hero. It was up to Anthony to go find his friend and fly her to safety!
He jumped onto Storm's shoulders, clinging to the Charizard's neck.
"Follow that bicycle!"
Chapter 9: In a Capsule
Nothing was there and Sarah was nothing.
The man said, "Return." Red went all around her and seemed to eat her up, dissolve her, pinch her down into nothing. There was no pain, but a strange clamping sensation as if on her very heart, a will over her own, and she couldn't fight back and reform herself. She tried to scream, but she had no mouth. She tried to move, but she had no body, just a discombobulated jumble of molecules pooling in a spherical blackness that felt tiny and infinite at once.
She wanted her body back. She wanted her parents. She wanted to go home. But all she could do was wait in nothingness, as nothing herself, for a release she wasn't sure was even coming.
At least she had her mind, still, as crushed as it was beneath the man's external willpower, preventing her from escape. With her thoughts no longer occupied by frantic attempts to flee and survive, she had the opportunity to put the clues together. However, she didn't feel too fond of her own conclusions.
Either the people chasing her had invented Pokeballs that could capture humans... or she had never been human at all.
But that didn't make sense! She had a human body, human memories, human parents, and no magical powers!
Were her parents human?
Of course there were. They had to be. They weren't magical. They all spoke English! They had a house. Jobs. Clothes, jewelry.
But no history. No stories to share. No family. No photographs, records of anyone that came before them, no connection to anyone in the town before Sarah even had been born, they had only been human for as long as she had existed, when they severed ties to the laboratory and settled down to live an invented life.
Were they even really --
she hissed out a strangled cry as her form lapsed back into reality like driftwood breaking the surface of the sea. Air and light stung her once more and she collapsed with a gasping breath on a cold marble floor. She shivered and shook and tried to make sense of herself again.
She lifted her head. The hard lights of a lab drilled into her skull; she felt her pupils contract sharply. The bandana'd man stood there like a silhouette, arms crossed.
"W-- what--" she started to say, though she couldn't decide on one question out of the hundreds.
"Sarah Samson," he said, "What do you know of yourself?"
"Nothing!" she shouted. She swallowed hard. "I don't know anything anymore!"
He seemed to frown. "Do you think you're human?"
"I... I did," she said. "Until now."
He walked away, to a computer, and began typing as if she didn't exist. Ignoring her embarrasment, she stood and attempted to look confident. "What am I? What are my parents?"
"They are an Arcanine and an Umbreon."
She suddenly recalled that night that now seemed so very distant. "Th...the Aggron... is yours."
"So are they. And you." He kept typing.
No, no, no, it wasn't true, it was just an anomaly, she was human, right?! This wasn't happening!
"Very... extensive... research project," he said distractedly, not looking over. "Inclusion of Ditto and other Pokemon without fixed forms... long-term selective breeding project..."
She backed away, trying not to panic. "I-I'm not -- you, they won't --"
"You're nine years old for Arceus' sake, physically and mentally as well, apparently, so no."
"Where are my parents? What's going to happen?"
"Here." He indicated the Pokeballs on his belt with his hand. He cut her off before she could speak. "I'm not letting them out in here."
"What's going to happen?" she asked again, backing up to the wall and sinking to the floor.
"We're going to find out what you are."
Chapter 10: On The Trail
Man, being a hero was so boring sometimes.
Anthony fell asleep and stayed that way for most of the flight, as Storm kept a lookout for signs of Sarah, but she'd lost them by traversing into the many, many forested areas surrounding Viridian.
They landed at one of the Pokemon centers to the north, but no one had seen Sarah there. Figuring they must've gone the wrong direction (rather than assuming he'd outsped her by flight), Anthony ordered Blaze to go south instead. But Pallet Town turned up empty, too, and they glumly returned home. Anthony kept vigil by his bedroom window until dawn, waiting to see signs of Sarah or her parents returning. By then he fell asleep again, and the toils of travel kept him asleep 'til noon.
He woke to the sounds of his grandmother gossiping with the nurse that came to visit, and a tapping on his window. He looked up to see a Pidgey on the outside windowsill, pecking at the glass.
Pidgey weren't rare around here, but its behavior was strange. He opened the window and it flew circles around him, chirping in a panic, when he finally realized it must be the Samsons'.
"Piera?" he said. It landed on the sill again and ruffled up its feathers.
"Do you know where Sarah is?" he asked excitedly. It cooed affirmatively.
He ran downstairs, informed his grandmother he was taking Storm out for a fly, and proceeded to follow Piera through the air.
She led him to straight east to his confusion, over the deep, untamed wilds between there and Celadon. But soon his confusion turned to alarm when he saw the telltale smoke and glow of a wildfire. "Oh no!" he exclaimed, steering Storm toward the blaze.
They arrived to see flocks of Pelippers had been sent to douse the flames. A police officer mounted on a Fearow circled the area high above. Anthony directed his Charizard up to meet her.
"What are you doing here, kid?" she said from behind her surgical mask and safety goggles. "You didn't start this fire, did you?"
"No!" he said quickly. "I'm looking for a friend! She went missing the other night, and her Pidgey led me here!"
"We haven't found any bodies-- anybody here," the officer said. "What's her name?"
"Sarah Samson. I think her parents are missing, too, because they haven't come back all day!"
"Hey, that name's familiar... Wait, from Viridian, right? An Aggron knocked down their house?"
"Part of it... Did you find her?! Is she okay?"
"I haven't seen her, but she filed a report yesterday. She was up at the Pokemon center between Viridian and Pewter, but she disappeared again and hasn't been heard from since. Do you have any more information?"
He tried desperately to remember something important, but nothing came. "No... sorry."
"Well, don't hang around here, there's too much smoke." She looked over his Charizard, apparently decided he'd be all right otherwise with it, and said no more.
Great, a dead end. Anthony sighed and looked over to shout, "Stupid bird!" but noticed the Pidgey making a beeline for the ground. Curious, and cautiously hopeful, he followed her down.
She landed on a low plateau among the husks of trees, and cooed at the dirt. Anthony hopped off of Storm and approached.
Hoof prints! Fresh hoof prints, in the dust!
He followed them eagerly, kicking up ash, and noticed a set of human foot prints! Small, bare feet in the dirt! Those must be Sarah's!
But then something strange. The human prints stopped at one point, and pointed back around where they came... but then they didn't go anywhere else. The hoof prints led up pretty close, but no way close enough for Sarah to have gotten on whatever it was. So... what happened?
"I don't get it," Anthony said aloud with a frown, looking around and hoping not to find any piles of ash and human bones. Luckily, there were no such remains. Only the hoof prints forming a returning path.
"I guess I have no other options," he said, remounting the Charizard. "Storm... follow those hoof prints."
Chapter 11: In Limbo
Sarah saw many faces, but learned no names.
Who were these people? To what organization did they belong? They barely spoke to her except to ask her questions, and never answered any themselves.
It became obvious to her that no one here planned to treat her as a human. It also became obvious they had known about her for a lot longer than today. Her existence and upbringing had been monitored, all information on her gathered in the hopes of relevancy and interest. Apparently, there was very little of either, her life mundane until now.
Although, looking back, little things started to make more sense in retrospect, mysteries showing their truths now that the lies were shorn away.
Wondering why the PSAs always told you not to touch the burners, because she did once and nothing happened.
Wondering why none of their pets had Pokeballs, and now knowing it was simply because a Pokemon could not own another.
Wondering why eating poffins stolen from her parents' store had been so invigorating.
Now she was only left wondering what was going to happen next. Like a worrisome, undiagnosed disease, she was an untested enigma to these strangers, and her entire future was an unknown to herself. Only they knew their plans, disinclined to share.
They'd at least given her some (rather baggy) clothes, and hadn't caged her, considering her a zero threat. Though then she'd lost one sleeve when the man had his Rapidash use flames against her arm as a test. As expected, she didn't burn. At all. "Flash Fire," one of them announced. "One mystery solved, at least."
"We won't get anywhere without pitting her in battle for real," said another impatiently.
"We have no idea if she even knows any moves! For all we know, she's just a useless almost-human who happens to be fireproof. While I'm sure that would have some practical applications in firefighting or circus acts, it's a far cry from what we hoped for."
Sarah bit back her many questions, having learned already not a one would get answered. The two strangers bickered back and forth while the man with the bandana (currently removed) silently observed.
"We could test a TM on her. There are a few that practically every Pokemon can learn," one of the others said. "Hidden Power, of course. Bide, Protect, Substitute, Toxic, Attract... it would be interesting to see if Attract would even work on another Pokemon, or on humans, due to her current form."
"I am far more interested to know if she even has other forms; after all, she was born human."
"Samson, order her to transform."
Sarah looked up in surprise as they addressed the man. What?!
"Your n--" she began, but he cut her off.
Chapter 12: Inconclusive
"Bah!" one of the observers grumped.
"Let's try handing her a Plate," said another, leaving the room without waiting for a reply.
"Why do you have my name?!" Sarah said to the man. He looked uncomfortable.
"For convenience," he said shortly.
"Your parents'! They needed a surname. Mine was easy." He looked aside to one of the few remaining observers. "Fetch a Potion or something." The stranger nodded and exited. Sarah had nearly forgotten her injury, but felt the stinging throb in her arm again at being reminded.
She looked at the array of Pokeballs on the man's belt, knowing her parents were in two of them, feeling frustrated that they were so close yet still completely shut off, kept away from her.
One person returned with a Potion and sprayed it on her wound. It stung briefly before the pain faded entirely. Another person returned with an odd plate of colored metal, and handed it to her without a word. Everyone watched her intently, and she wondered if she was supposed to do something with it, but they simply took it back and clearly weren't going to explain.
"Have you ever been in a fight?" one of them asked.
"Not a Pokemon fight. I mean... I guess... these past few days, yes..."
"And, an Aggron chased me down and threw mud and rocks at me," she said crossly, pointedly pausing to glare at 'Samson', "And a Weedle poisoned me, a bunch of Beedrill chased me down, and finally a Golbat bit me before my Houndour set it on fire. And the whole forest."
"Hmm... And you took damage from these mud and rocks?" the other stranger asked.
"Do I LOOK like I got crushed by boulders? I got out of the way! The mud... it... did hurt, I guess."
"Not immune to ground or poison, hm..." The person took notes. "Golbat's attack could have been anything, and the rocks were dodged so that's inconclusive... What about fights with other children?"
"I never -- " No, wait. "Well, once."
"AAAND, I had a fight over a toy with my friend Anthony once." She felt embarrassed to even mention it. How stupid she was five years ago. "And I bit him on the arm." She sighed.
"How did he react?"
"He cried, what do you think?!" she snapped. She did not enjoy talking about hurting her friend. "I don't remember if it was super effective or not," she sneered.
"Biting is a fairly basic action. Again, inconclusive..." the person said. "Let's just have her battle one of ours, hm?"
"I don't want to battle! I'm not going to get beat up just so you can learn something!"
"You don't get a choice in the matter! If you're ordered by your master, you will!"
Sarah fell quiet, disquieted by those words. The more she learned of how little ownership she had over her own life anymore, the more anxious she felt. She didn't like any of this.
"Samson?" they asked the man. "Well?"
"Further tests first," he said simply. He allowed them to lead her away, and did not follow.
They set her on a treadmill and she tried to tell herself this is all it would be: tests of speed and endurance, maybe hit a punching bag or throw a ball at a target.
She knew better. Sooner or later, it would come down to violence between her and one of their monsters.
Chapter 13: Inhuman
Another day ended, or maybe a night; Sarah couldn't tell by this point anymore. She hadn't seen sunlight in what seemed like a very long time, standing outside of Pewter City on her way to see Professor Zelkova.
Yet another adult in her life who did nothing but keep secrets. She was tired of that.
A lot of boring, if taxing, tests on her statistics went by in a somewhat sweaty haze, and meals of highly satisfying poffins, before Samson returned to retrieve her (as much as she hated thinking of him with her name, she hated thinking of him as 'Master' even more).
He held up the Pokeball and her heart jumped. "Wait!" she cried, and he did, to her surprise.
"What?" he said.
"I don't like it in there. Can't I have a bed? Or even a floor? I don't care..."
He considered. "Sure," he said, and walked briskly down a hall. She juggled the thought of trying to memorize the halls, but knew she wouldn't be able to anyway. The place was too large and... boring. Plain labs, plain hallways, plain office cubicles they passed, everything was so corporate and normal.
"Did you capture my parents?"
He didn't look back over at her. "No."
"Then who did?"
"No one. They were bred here. No, I don't know your grandparents. I was given ownership because I was available." He sounded very much like he didn't care for this line of questioning.
As they entered an elevator, she asked, "Are your other Pokemon people too?"
"Then where'd you get them?"
He gave her an irritated look. "A cave. A field. A route. What does it matter?"
"Well I don't know anything about the people I thought I knew anything about!" she said. "Not even me! I don't know me, my parents, or anyone! I don't have a real family and I guess I'm never going home again, so the only person left to know anything about is you! My parents are just a couple of animals in a couple of balls so you're the one who's going to raise me now! And I don't even know your first name!" Her voice rose higher until it threatened to crack.
The elevator dinged. He regarded her, unreadably, as the doors opened and closed again.
"This was a lot easier when I thought you were just a Pokemon."
"Yeah, YOU'RE the one having a hard time!"
"I had hoped you were just some Ditto-thing taking human form. I had hoped you were an adult who knew what was going on already, like your parents! I don't know them either. They were assigned to me because I had spare room on my belt, so they could go live in Viridian City on some experiment, to see if they could pass as humans, I don't know! My only business was to drop them off, without questions, and to pick them back up, without questions. I don't care why the higher-ups want them, or you, I don't!"
He was shouting at her and leaning down toward her; she leaned back, with nowhere to move to. She didn't like people getting in her face. She didn't like people yelling at her.
"I, am not your parent," he went on, "okay?! I'm not going to get to know you, I'm NOT going to raise you! I didn't sign up for this just so I'd end up with a kid! I will not tell you my name because I don't want to know you! I don't care about you and I don't want to care!"
"Then give me back my parents," she said. She tried to sound assertive, but it came out very pleading.
"So they can set this place on fire? I had to fight them into submission just to get them back in the first place. The only reason you're still out here is because you're not an apparent threat yet -- so just, stop with the emotional crap, shut up and cooperate before I put you in a computer box so I don't have to look at you!"
She had nothing to say anymore, nothing left in her to ask for any leeway or answers. Satisfied that she wouldn't argue, he led her down the hall to a small, barely-bedroom (containing what barely could be considered a bed) with a keypad which locked it from the outside. He shut the door on her without a word, leaving her to empty her tears into the swallowing darkness alone.
Chapter 14: In Memoranda
This wasn't at all how Anthony had planned his Pokemon journey would go this way at all. He was going to take Storm and take on all the gym leaders and see the world and not worry about a thing except having fun along the way!
He actually could've been off doing that already, but he wanted to wait until Sarah turned ten so they could go together. He didn't really like traveling alone. And he didn't have a lot of friends his own age, since Viridian was something of a small town.
Traveling alone because your friend was in trouble, maybe dead, was the worst. He wasn't very excited about making his journey after this if... if she never came back.
He tried to shake those thoughts out of his head, because he couldn't even imagine them, no way. It was bad enough his own parents -- he just couldn't. Sarah's family was like his family. They took care of him when his grandmother couldn't. Now he had to repay the favor and save them from the bad guys.
The hoof prints were pretty obvious to follow, and he felt like he was making good time by air, but eventually they ducked into the green woods again and he was forced to go on foot. Storm followed along behind, with Piera perched on his scaly shoulder.
But not long after that, the weak forest path came upon twin tire trails in the grass, where the hard earth grooves couldn't take prints. On a guess, he went in one direction. On serendipity, the road, after a time, came upon a structure nestled in the woods.
"This is it," he said quietly, "This must be where she is." It had to be where she was. "It's my chance to be a hero."
He looked over at Storm, who calmly awaited orders. If not for his Dad's last Pokemon, Anthony wouldn't be brave enough to do this. But he knew he could do it -- he knew they could do this, together.
"We're gonna break into that building. We're gonna get Sarah and her parents back!"
At some point the darkness broke to be replaced by another, closely familiar one. This time, it seemed less suffocating, just a little, as Sarah regarded the space with familiarity, and noticed a sensation of being curled upon herself like a cat in a bed. She assumed it an illusion meant to make the experience tolerable. She didn't care by this point, realizing this would be her future now, spent encapsulated on the whim of another.
This time, something else happened within that space.
All of a sudden a notion like bright lights pierced her mind, a digital procession of data formed and reformed, a rush of knowledge of skill, implanted forcefully, and the sensation of some long-buried technique lost, erased and replaced.
Knowing they could now rearrange her capabilities by placing her in a computer like a disc to be scratched, this would have frightened her if she had room left to be frightened. It was such a small thing, compared to the total subversion of her life so far.
She reappeared in an empty room with observatory windows along one wall, and recognized it as a medium-sized arena.
A flash of red preceded the appearance of a Tangela on the opposite end of the room, where Sarah saw another standing near the far wall. Had she seen this person before? She could no longer tell. Looking behind her, she saw Samson and a stranger with a clipboard.
"We're testing your capabilities," he said with crossed arms. "And the new attacks you learned through Technical Machines."
"What if I just don't fight? Then you won't learn anything."
"Then you'll be defeated and will fall unconscious," he said. "And we'll have to try again."
"It is unlikely you'll be able to disobey," said the woman, "since you were born in his possession."
The other trainer shouted, "Are we ready to begin?" Samson nodded.
"Sarah, use Toxic."
"But --" She didn't know how to do that! She couldn't -- there was no way -- but the command fell like a hammer and there was no denying it and she felt a strange horror as she realized she did know how.
It happened the moment she tried to speak. With a sense of alien detachment at her own actions, her words were cut off with a torrent of viscous fluid. The purple putrescence shot with an inhuman force at the Tangela, gobbing on its body and seeming to instantly absorb into its vegetation flesh.
Sarah touched her face and mouth, expecting to find herself grown a pair of poison sacs, as he fought back nausea at the experience. It was wrong, all wrong and awful.
The enemy said something and the Tangela's vines extended like living ropes as it advanced on her. She wanted to dodge, but there was nowhere to go.
The sound of shattering glass broke their concentration, as all eyes in the room turned up to the observation window as a shower of glinting shards fell from its panes. A Charizard jumped through, with a familiar bird and boy on its back.
"Anthony!" Sarah gasped.
"Sarah! I'm bustin' you outta here!"
"Perfect," the woman with the clipboard said. "This will provide an opportunity to test her abilities on humans."
Chapter 15: Inhumane
"Storm, use Flamethrower on that Tangela!"
Storm blasted the shuffling pile of vines without delay. Its trainer returned it with a glare.
"Well, Samson? Take care of this intruder. You're the only one with a full team right now," said a woman. Anthony was confused; Sarah didn't have a team! She didn't have any Pokemon around at all, except for Piera, who probably never fought anything before.
Then he noticed that the woman was speaking to a very cross-looking man in a black suit, and Sarah looked really scared and sick for some reason. Wait, was this guy her uncle or something? He never heard of -- oh well, it didn't matter now. The guy was obviously a villain!
"Hey, you! You let her go home or I'll -- I'll have my Charizard use Seismic Toss on you!" Anthony shouted, pointing the man out.
"It's just another kid. Can't the guards escort him out?" he said to the woman.
"A-Anthony, it's not safe here," Sarah said.
"You'd really risk the security, the information here -- you'd risk your job on this?" the woman said. "We have more than enough to anonymously tip the police, should your employment ever cease."
"Come on, Sarah." Anthony ran over to her and grabbed her arm to pull her to Storm. "Let's go while they're talking!"
"Sarah, use Bite."
She tried to shout a refusal as her jaws clamped down on Anthony's arm. This was not like the gnaw from their childhood fight; now it took on a brutal, crushing strength, unwillingly as uninhibited as breaking through a piece of tough jerky. The sensation was hideously similar, and frighteningly easy.
Anthony let out a scream too close to her ears. She pushed him away and gagged on the taste of blood. He stumbled back and stared at her in horrified shock. "W-what are you doing?!" he cried.
"I can't-- he, he controls me--"
"Sarah," Samson's voice cut in, "Attract."
This time, she made no apparent motions, no outward show of affect, and she wondered if this was something she even knew how to do. But she felt it, some pulse of energy like an aura, a literal wave of personal magnetism that caught Anthony like the sea tides catch sandcastles. Just as easily, he fell to it.
He froze for a moment, his expression shifting to one of confused abashment. Sarah saw all his worry and pain erase into romance, as if she hadn't just torn into his bicep with her teeth. He stared like he couldn't tell what to make of her anymore, his commen sense drowning just below the surface. "Wha... what..." he said, blushing.
Oh no, oh no. Sarah wanted him to run -- heck, she wanted him to use Storm's Seismic Toss on Samson! But he couldn't. She had just brainwashed him into total defenselessness.
"Please don't make me hurt him," she pleaded. "Just let him go. He doesn't know what's going on!"
"He knows enough," the woman said. "Samson, continue."
"Sarah, use -- "
" -- Flame Charge."
Sarah grounded her feet with two stomps, and felt a rush of intense energy billow up around her, the air rippling with red heat. "Anthony, run!" she shouted, but he could only stand dazed in front of her. She bent her knees and sprang with unearthly force.
The bubble of heat exploded into searing flame as she charged him. She saw his skin turn from flush to crackle in the instant she slammed into him, her tiny frame ramming him with a strength she should never have possessed. He flew from her and hit the hard floor at a half-roll and she heard him give a strangled, whistling gasp and saw his spine contort with pain.
The swirling flames around her disappated just as quickly as they'd come, and she stood still with shock. "No! No, no, no no NO!" she cried shrilly.
Storm landed between them with a whump, growling intimidatingly at her. She backed away, shaking her head. "I can't stop it! I-I didn't want to hurt him!" The Charizard gathered up Anthony in its arms. She let out a sob at the deep burns covering her friend, the hazy gaze of half-consciousness.
She turned to Samson. "Stop it," she said through furious tears. "Let him go. Let him go or you'll be a child murderer!"
The man walked over. Storm snorted smoke at him. He didn't stop, standing close enough to speak too lowly for the others in the room to hear, "He can only go if they think he's dead."
"He will be if he doesn't get to a doctor!" Sarah said.
"Shush. I'll let him go. Play along." The man leaned close and felt Anthony's pulse. "Stay limp. Don't move." The boy didn't seem well enough to move regardless. Storm's face hovered over Samson's, poised to bite. Finally, the man stepped back.
Chapter 16: In Secret
Storm fled with Anthony before they could be stopped. Piera cast a sad glance back at Sarah before flying away after them.
Samson silently led Sarah from the arena, down another set of unfamiliar hallways. She wiped the tears and blood from her face on her sleeves. She tried to tell herself her friend would be all right. Storm would take him to a hospital and they'd fix him up and everything would be okay, and he wouldn't try to be a stupid hero and save her again. He'd just stay away and survive.
They arrived in unknown quarters, which actually looked lived-in and habitable as opposed to her own. Clothes filled the open closet, the bed had actual bedding, boxes of instant food sat next to a microwave and dishes on a tiny refrigerator.
Samson began going through drawers and satchels in an obvious hurry, and it occurred to her that this was his room.
"What are you looking for?" she finally asked.
"You'll see," he said brusquely. She stood awkwardly off to the side as he proceeded to ignore her as usual. She watched him, trying to see what he was retrieving.
He pulled out what seemed to be a stick of charcoal, and quickly tied a cord around it, then turned to hand it to her. "It boosts fire-type moves."
"I don't want to --"
"Just wear it and don't be difficult," he huffed. He turned away again. Sighing, she donned the makeshift necklace anyway. Looking around, she noticed a photograph of a younger Samson riding a Ponyta, with a Taillow on his shoulder and a tiny silver Pokemon in his other arm, with huge blue eyes. She guessed it was a baby Aggron.
While he was distracted digging in drawers, she went over to look at the picture, and spotted a smaller one next to it, of an even younger Samson sans Pokemon, smiling in a half-hug with a middle-aged woman, a massive city skyline seen in the background. It was very odd for him to be so ... not cranky there, let alone in plainclothes rather than his usual high-end attire.
And on the very edge of the same shelf, Sarah saw an envelope, where her eyes were drawn to the name Katelyn Samson on the sender's address in --
He pushed the photo face-down over the envelope and very intentionally interjected himself between her and the shelf until she was forced to retreat to preserve her personal space.
"Who was that?" she asked.
"Put these in your pockets. Do not open them." He held out his open hand. Two Pokeballs, a small rectangular box and a folded up piece of paper sat on his palm.
She took them, strongly considered opening them on the spot, but thought better of it and shoved them all in her baggy shorts' equally baggy pockets. The items' presence would surely go unnoticed from the outside. "What are these?"
"I told you, you'll see," he said impatiently. "Did your parents ever teach you how to tell north?"
"What? No... Why?"
"It's when the setting sun's to your left. Do you know which way is left?"
"I'm nine, not five."
"Alright. Come on." He didn't wait before heading out the door again. She followed, feeling confused.
"Is Anthony going to be okay?"
His shoulders dropped slightly. He didn't respond.
"Samson, where are you going?" a familiar female voice said from behind. They both looked over at the woman with the clipboard. "I'd like to see more of her in battle against other Pokemon."
"I thought I'd -- teach her another TM move first," he said.
"We've already used three on her. She'll learn more in time. Come on. She isn't wounded and there's no reason not to continue now."
"What about the Tangela? It's out."
"And that's the only other Pokemon in the building? You'll battle mine," she pressed. "Come."
Sarah looked between them. What was going on here? Why was he backing down now?
The woman tapped her pencil impatiently on her clipboard, and her pointed shoe on the hard floor. "Well?"
After another moment's hesitation, he said, "Yes, of course," and the three of them returned to the arena. The glass had been swept up already, and the other trainer had left.
The woman sharply strode to the opposite end. "Aerodactyl! Go!"
A huge stone beast of a bird appeared with a gravelly screech. Its long snout was full of sharp, shark-like teeth, its hide was granite, and its wingspan was easily three times as long as Sarah was tall. She did not want to fight this thing.
But before she could step forward, Samson held up a Pokeball, and she flinched, expecting to be returned. Instead, the red laser swelled to release a massive form, and Sarah gasped as she recognized his Aggron from before.
Chapter 17: Out The Door
"What's this?! I don't need to see your Aggron! Send out the girl!" the woman yelled.
"Aegis, Mud Slap!"
The Aggron raised its hands and jetted mud at them both. The Aerodactyl simply flew out of the way; the woman was knocked back and gave a frustrated and disgusted shout.
"What's going on -- " Sarah began, but Samson grabbed her sleeve and ran for the exit.
"Aerodactyl, use Roar!"
It let out a roar that sounded like splintering boulders and screaming tidal winds. All notions left Sarah but for fear, an intense and instant panic that meant nothing but to flee as far as possible, find a corner of the world where the terrifying sound couldn't reach her. She shrieked and her legs bolted, and she was wrenched back as her shirt collar yanked against her throat, her sleeve still held by Samson.
He let out a curse of surprise and grabbed her with his whole arm as she flailed in blind fear. "Aggron, hold them off! Iron Tail the 'dactyl!" he shouted as he pulled Sarah through the door. She heard the sound of another Pokemon being released in the arena as they left.
The panic finally faded as she was half-carried down the hallway. "W-- what's going on?" she asked again. "What are you doing?"
"Leaving," he said.
He stopped before a metal pair of double-doors clearly marked Fire Exit and shoved them open. An alarm blared. He pulled out another Pokeball, releasing his Rapidash just outside the doors.
Sarah saw a swift yellow form charging at them from up the hall. "Samson!" she warned. He quickly glanced over and shoved her out the doors, jumping after and slamming them shut. "Get on the Rapidash!" he said.
She was far too short to attempt to mount an unsaddled horse, and instead he leaped on before pulling her up in front of him. "Go!" he ordered the Rapidash, and just as it began to gallop, the doors behind them burst off their hinges with a blast of electricity.
Their fiery steed easily cleared the rocky landscape around the building. Samson kept one hand on the reins and clamped his other arm around Sarah to prevent her from falling off. She in turn did her best to get a hold of the animal's neck, its flaming mane harmless. She thought it ironic that the Pokemon used to hunt her down were now the means of her escape.
But the yellow creature was gaining on them. For every rock or log the Rapidash blew by, their pursuant jumped twice as quickly.
"You'll have to fight soon," he said. "All I have left is my Taillow and this."
"Would sooner attack me."
Sarah saw the Aerodactyl stream out of the building as well, with a speed belying its heavy-looking form. "I can't take them on."
"You have no choice. Veloca will help." He nodded at his Rapidash.
The Aerodactyl proved swifter than imagined, and as it drew near, Sarah saw the woman riding on its back. It sped past them and landed on a boulder before them. Samson swerved aside, but as the Aerodactyl stomped its feet, waves of shaking earth radiated out and bucked the very ground below them. Veloca whinnied as she lost her footing, falling with both riders half-trapped beneath.
As he pushed the Rapidash to her feet, there was a sudden crack of thunder, a white flash, and a sizzling burn in all three of them. After the initial stun, Sarah looked back to see the yellow cat-like Pokemon, its quills bristling with sparks.
"Veh-- Veloca," Samson said as he stumbled up. "Fire Blast the Jolteon!"
Veloca reared and a roaring blast of kanji-shaped flame flew out to strike the Jolteon. "What should I do?" Sarah asked. She didn't want to fight, but she knew she had to.
"Toxic on the Aerodactyl," he said. It didn't carry the weight of a Command this time. She faced the Aerodactyl, steeled herself, and spat the familiar sludge at it. Its owner looked unconcerned.
"Jolteon, Thunder again! Aerodactyl, Ancient Power!"
Simultaneously, thunder struck Veloca with a deafening boom and several chunks of rock lifted from the ground with a glowing aura, and slammed into Sarah with a sickening crack. She fell hard and felt as if every bone had been broken. Which was entirely possible.
"Sarah, the box," Samson said.
It took a few moments in her daze to remember what he meant. She withdrew the tiny box from her pocket, even as her muscles screamed in pain, and opened it.
Chapter 18: In The Box
"I don't have to kill you!" the woman said from atop the boulder. "You know that leaving us is practically suicide as it is, Samson. Come back willingly and this won't have to get ugly."
Sarah stared in disbelief at the contents of the box.
"It already has, Mabel. You killed a child."
"No, you did. Or more specifically, she did. I don't want to waste capital by killing her. She is clearly a success. Return, and no one else will have to die today."
Orange and glinting and glowing from within, it was a Fire Stone.
Sarah didn't know what would happen next, and she wasn't sure she was ready to find out. Would it hurt? Would it kill her? Would she ever be human again? But she had no choice. It was either fight to win now, or go back and likely lose any leeway she had before, along with any future chances of escape.
She put her hand to the stone, and it filled her with light.
Everyone stopped to watch, as the brilliant white light spread from her hand through her entire body, until she was nothing but a shining silhouette. And then, as nothing but light, she shifted, grew, radiated outward into something large and powerful. It was painless. It was exhilarating.
When the light dimmed and left her in her skin again, she felt her newfound volume, strangely buoyant with an inner heat. She rolled onto her feet, now four, and looked down at them, trying to determine what, exactly, she was now. Something furred and pawed and red-orange. Her wounds and bruises weren't gone, but she felt that somehow she'd filled to make more space for them in her fortitude, an addition to her health to balance out the subtractions.
Mabel looked her over appraisingly like a gem. Samson smiled in weak relief, before his expression turned determined again.
"Sarah, run in front of Veloca and use Flame Charge on Jolteon! Veloca, Fire Blast!"
Sarah's suddenly-strong legs carried her to the Jolteon like wind as she bore forward like a fiery bullet. She felt flames roar by her, and the inferno energized her with a surge of extra speed. The twin blazes engulfed the Jolteon, and when the explosion cleared, it lay on the ground, charred and unconscious.
Sarah had no time for remorse. She and Veloca both faced the Aerodactyl. But it seemed to droop, looking ill, and Sarah remembered the Toxic.
Both trainers shouted desperately at once.
"Bite! Double Kick!"
Through the battering onslought of boulders, Sarah and Veloca galloped forward. Two flashing hooves smashed into the rocky body like steel chisels, and one set of massive jaws crunched down on a wing and broke through the stone limb like she was taking a bite out of her morning toast.
The Aerodactyl fluttered and screeched before falling unconscious.
Mabel glared, withdrawing her Pokemon. "Defeating me doesn't save either of you from the repercussions of this," she said.
"I clearly don't care," Samson said.
"Why the change of heart? You were perfectly willing to take responsibility for Michael and Johanna."
"They were adults. They were allowed freedoms."
"Yes, until this week. So do you only feel sympathy for them now that your actions extend to their child? It's not like you didn't know they'd be retrieved someday."
He crossed his arms. "Murdering a child was the last straw."
"As if murder is new to you," she said. "You won't last long out there. Return now, and... we won't have to tell the police everything you've done. You are nothing, socially, without the Team."
"I'll live." He pointedly turned his back on her as he went to Veloca's side. Noting her injuries, he returned her instead of mounting.
Sarah looked at him with incredibly mixed feelings. He had murdered people, and might have actually killed Anthony -- made her kill Anthony. He kidnapped her and her parents and made her life hell. But... he helped her escape. He let Anthony escape too, in the only way possible. She wished she had some clearcut answer on how to feel about this man, some obvious cue like in the cartoons, where nobody's standings were so ambiguous.
"Sarah, I --"
There was a crack like tiny thunder. Samson stumbled, and put his hand to his red shirt, and seemed to pull the red right off it.
"I told you," Mabel said, gun in hand. "Leaving is suicide."
Chapter 19: In Reverse
Sarah tried to speak, but found her new mouth couldn't quite make the sounds, and a confused-sounding mumble only came out instead. She went over to Samson and could smell the blood before she saw it.
"You can run," he said, now on his knees.
He was right, she could. Why stop to help him? It was his own fault, this and everything leading up to it. She could run away and never look back.
Or maybe not.
She looked up at Mabel, and the gun still pointed down from her standing on the boulder. "Sarah, you should come with me. If you bring him along, he can get treated by the medical staff at the base."
Sarah hesitated. Mabel continued, "I doubt a girl of your age wants two deaths on her conscience. He's been a valuable asset. We don't want to lose him, you understand, but I have to put this choice in your... hands, because you're an even more valuable asset. I'd rather not shoot you."
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Sarah's eyes drew up to the shape that loomed over Mabel. She turned, gasped, and fired. The bullet bounced off with a harmless ping!
Aegis' tail flashed silver, and the Aggron spun with surprising speed. The great metal tail collided with Mabel's body and sent her flying. She struck a tree head first and collapsed to the ground in a broken heap, and the place where her shirt had torn over her stomach revealed a vast nebula of blooming bruises. She did not move again.
A week ago, that could have been Sarah.
She dashed the thought and tried to communicate to Aegis, but her jumbled noises made no sense even to her. It let out a low grumble which she likewise didn't understand. She had hoped this new form would transcend language barriers. She just shook her head and made a questioning sound.
The Aggron went to Samson, briefly rubbing its snout against his head before tapping one claw delicately on its own Pokeball and vanishing inside.
"Sarah," he said, sounding weak. "Can you change back?"
She didn't know. She tried, though she didn't know what trying should entail. Nothing happened.
"You can still go," he said. "Your parents... are there." He pointed to her shorts, which had miraculously survived (well, sort of) the transformation. "In the Pokeballs."
He had given them up? All along, he intended to send her off with them?
She shook her head, and, lacking hands, bent down to grab his sleeve with her teeth to pull him up.
"A-ah, ah, AUGH! Stop!" he yelped, and she dropped him. He bent over double, breathing heavily. "I'll bleed out before we get anywhere," he said bluntly. "If you can control... the amount of fire... you need to cauterize the wounds."
He removed his jacket and began tearing it at the seams. Sarah focused on how she had used Flame Charge, on making the fire. She felt the heat inside her now, a tangible furnace. She could tap into it easily now, but if only she could do so carefully, just enough...
She raised a paw to the exit wound and tried to release a small amount of flame. Instead she jetted him with a short, sharp blast and his face screwed up with a grimace. She smelled burnt flesh and was too afraid to look.
"Guh-good enough," he gasped, wincing. "Other side."
She repeated the procedure more precisely on the entrance wound on his back. He quickly wrapped the strips of torn jacket around his torso as makeshift bandages. "I don't see why you're helping me," he muttered. He stood slowly, looking pale and sick.
Sarah wondered the same thing, herself. Maybe she just wasn't ready to see that many people die in one day.
As he obviously wasn't fit to walk, she indicated her back, and he grudingly climbed on. "Go east... the sunset behind you..." he said weakly. Following the rays of the setting sun, she set off at a quick pace, as he eventually slumped against her mane, slipping away from consciousness.
Chapter 20: In Unison
Sarah spent yet another night running through the forest. This time, nothing harrassed her. She guessed this was due to being huge with sharp teeth. There were some up-sides to this after all.
In the blue hour of early spring twilight, the forest broke for Celadon City. She had never been here before, but recognized it from television. Unfortunately, she had no idea where the hospital was. She ran along the street, suddenly self-conscious of the fact she was, presumably, an unidentified species of Pokemon at the moment, as people in passing cars slowed to openly stare.
Samson was no help, having long ago lost consciousness. She searched for anyone who might help, trying not to panic. Finally, a police officer pulled over next to them and stepped out of the vehicle.
"Hey, there..." the officer said in a soothing tone. "What's wrong?"
Unable to answer, Sarah simply stood still to let the officer approach and inspect Samson. The officer's face blanched at the blood stains. "Oh," she said. "Okay. Come on, let's get him in the jeep." She dragged him into the passenger's seat before jumping into the driver's side. "You're too big to ride," she said to Sarah, "You'll have to follow."
The jeep raced ahead. Sarah ran after it on the sidewalk. By the time they arrived at the hospital, the blue had burned away and the glass buildings gleamed golden. The police officer parked and rushed inside, shortly returning with medical personnel, none of whom took any great notice of Sarah herself. Her ability to play a role now passed, she padded away to avoid potential attention.
For the first time in forever, she finally had a chance to relax and take stock of everything without being rushed, on the run, or held captive. Or fighting for her life. Ugh, other children her age didn't have these problems.
She found a nearby lot sheltered by trees, plopped down, and awkwardly fumbled with her oversized paws until fishing out the Pokeballs containing her parents, and hit the buttons on both simultaneously.
The lights revealed an Arcanine, and an Umbreon with blue rings, and Sarah realized she had no idea which was which. They looked around in confusion, briefly taking defensive stances, before relaxing to stare at Sarah in puzzlement. Great, they didn't recognize her either, and she had no method of communicating. Maybe if she scratched a message in the dirt...
But that was solved quickly, as to her amazement, both shifted to human form, clothing and all (which didn't make sense to her). She suddenly saw the connection between their forms: her mother's buoyant mane of straw-blonde hair and tall stature, her father's short black hair and small, lithe frame.
"Sarah?" they asked in unison. She nodded.
"We are so sorry," her mother said. "We didn't know he'd come so soon."
"Can you change back?" her father asked. Sarah shook her head. "Then we'll teach you."
"Imagine, as hard as you can, what it feels like to be human -- " her mother said.
"Force your own body back into its shape."
"You can mold basic clothing too. ... Hopefully. We can."
Sarah concentrated hard on their instructions. Maybe imagining what happened with the Fire Stone, only in reverse... She struggled for a while on the concept, but with their gentle goading, finally became human again, and nearly fell over from the drastic change of weight and shape. She also felt her injuries more acutely now, and the blood drying on her back, and the mud on her hands and feet.
With additional concentration, she managed to materialize the most boring tanktop in the world. Its texture was off somehow, and she wondered how forming clothing was even possible, until she remembered Pokemon like Hitmonchan which were apparently born with clothing. Of course a Ditto would need to adapt to that.
But. They weren't Ditto themselves. "What am I?!"
"We... don't know," her mother said. "You were born human."
"Your other form resembled an Arcanine-Flareon mix," her father said.
"Okay." Sarah stood. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"We didn't know you'd ever be anything else," he said.
"We didn't want you to feel different. We didn't want to scare you with stories about a past that might never become relevant," her mother added.
"So you just lied to me! My whole life, about everything! About you and where you came from! About me! I only exist because of some, some scientists, and their breeding program, for what?! Just to see if they could do it?! To sneak attack people with humans who can breathe fire?!"
"We honestly don't know their motives," her father said.
"No kidding! I didn't know anything when they suddenly chased me down! I thought you were dead!" Sarah shouted. "Anthony's probably dead, too! And I have no idea where our Pokemon are, the last one I saw alive was Piera!"
They looked shocked. "Anthony? How - " her mother started.
"Because he saw me get attacked and tried to rescue me, because he had no idea what was going on, or how dangerous it was! Neither did I, all I knew was someone was hunting me down, I didn't know if they were going to kill me or what! I didn't know anything!"
"Sarah, oh sweetie, I'm so sorry." Her mother wrapped her in a hug. "We didn't know either. If we knew what was going to happen..."
"It's too late for that now," her father said. "What happened? Where are we now?"
"Celadon," Sarah said. She closed her eyes, leaning wearily into her mother's warm embrace. "A lot happened."
"Where's Roger? How did you get us out here?"
...Huh. "He handed you over. Right before someone named 'Mabel' shot him. He's in the hospital. So's Anthony... I hope." There was no reason for Anthony not to be in a hospital right now. No good reasons, at least.
"He... he gave us to you? I don't understand," he mother said.
"And what happened to Anthony?"
"Sam-- uh, Roger, helped me escape. Because I'm a kid... because Anthony's a kid and they wanted me to kill him." Sarah's eyes stung. She cleared her throat. "He... I... they made me attack him... he's hurt really bad. I don't think he'll make it." Her voice broke with tears on the final sentence. Her mother held her close; her father moved over and put his arms around them both.
Chapter 21: In Planning
Sarah slept fitfully, woken often by images of Anthony, blistered skin peeling away, a ring of bloodied teeth marks in his arm, slowly getting larger. She dreamed of being Golbat, gorging herself on human blood, and of being Bones, setting fire to them all. A shocked boy's face black with burns, a woman's bare stomach black with bruises. Of running helplessly over deep sand, and an icy tide swallowing her down to ink of lightless places, the cold of sunless caves...
She woke always in her mother's hold, which at some point became a nest of thick fur, a large canine head sheltering her like a canopy. Sometimes when she tossed awake, she saw the soft blue glow of her father's markings, as he patrolled around the lot or stood comfortingly nearby like a nightlight.
If her parents hadn't been there, she likely would not have slept at all.
An overcast afternoon saw her wake at last. She did not feel particularly rested. Her joints ached in agony with movement, and she saw many bruises on herself she'd failed to notice before. She would attempt more diligently to avoid getting hit by rocks in the future.
Her parents were human again in an instant. "Honey," her mother said, "We can't go back home right now."
She knew she should have expected that, but it still made her heart sink. She just wanted things to go back to normal, before all of this happened. "I know."
"We'll be much safer, now that we're together," her mother said, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"Where are going to go?"
"We should leave this region if we can," her father said. "Avoiding civilization is best."
Sarah clenched her fists. "No. I'm tired of running."
"We don't know how long they'll be after us --"
"So we should tell the police! Why can't we do that?! I already told them you're missing, and that someone's after me, they know about the Aggron!"
"It would be hard to explain --"
"No it wouldn't! They don't have to know everything. Just... just the details like... how we got kidnapped, and attacked, that they sent Pokemon after us, we don't have to say why... A-and even if we do, it doesn't matter! It's better getting the police involved and everybody knowing what we are than having to run around in secret and nobody knowing about us, 'cause then they can't help us!"
"We don't know if that will actually stop them from hunting us."
"Yeah, then, what's it matter either way? If we go for help, if we don't, they'll still be after us. It'd be better having the police around for back-up!"
"She's right, Michael," her mother said. "But there are still details to work out." She looked at Sarah. "Like what happened to Anthony, since he's involved now too."
"We'll say a Pokemon attacked him. I mean, who's going to believe I... I can do that, anyway? They can't prove aynthing."
Her mother nodded. "All right. What about Roger? You said he let us go. But he still kidnapped us in the first place."
"I don't know." Sarah looked at the ground. "We can just leave him out of the story."
"That will be difficult. But it can still work..."
"It'll be hard to prove any of this in court with so many missing details," her father said. "Why do you want exonerate him, anyway?"
She wasn't quite sure what that meant, but could guess. "Well... he let us go. I know it's his fault we were there anyway, but... I feel like... it balances out... and I'd be some kind of backstabber if I turned around and turned him in."
"Even after all that? I'd say you're even."
"He got shot! And then... his Aggron killed her." Sarah paused, the memory of watching the woman die suddenly quite fresh and vivid now that was wide awake. "Ah... he... she said if he left they'd turn him in... I think... maybe he was only there because they were blackmailing him, maybe."
"Sarah..." her father said gently. "He joined them voluntarily at some point. He knew what kind of people they were and what he was getting into. He's not your responsibility. Going back on what he'd already done doesn't make him innocent."
"I..." She put her hands on her head. "I don't wanna talk about it anymore. I want to go see Anthony. He's in this hospital, right?"
"We have no idea," her mother said. "But you're not family. They might not let you visit him anyway, sweetie."
Sarah gave a frustrated groan. "Well, can we turn invisible or teleport or something? I'll just sneak in."
They both laughed lightly. "We can ask the people at the front desk. Maybe they'll pass a message along to him."
"But..." her father said, "don't get your hopes up."
"About getting in?"
Chapter 22: Intersection
"What was in your jewelry box?" Sarah asked as they walked back to the hospital.
"This," her mother said, reaching over to touch the stick of charcoal.
"And these." Her father pulled out a pair of shades and wore them.
"I was hoping it was something more interesting than that..." Sarah sighed. All that time she thought the unknown missing contents might be some vast clue. Instead they were only a couple of power-boosting items. She asked next, "What did Professor Zelkova do, exactly?"
"We don't know, exactly," her mother said.
"Just that he did work in their lab," her father added. "Things to do with genetics, I wager."
"Evolution-inducing items..." Sarah mused quietly, thinking back to his lab in Pewter City. "Why do you two work in a PokeMart?"
"We know the items. The Team set us up with everything we needed, to live as humans. Jobs, a house, even Bones, as a pet."
She felt another worried stab in her heart. "I don't know if he's alive either... Last I saw him was in a forest fire..."
"He'll be fine. He has Flash Fire. I... I'm guessing you do, too." She nodded.
They arrived at the hospital and entered. Sarah realized this was the first time she'd ever actually seen a human medical ward in person; she only recognized them from on TV. It also occurred to her that her parents must have specifically avoided taking her to any doctors just in case they discovered anything... well... inhuman about her.
"Hi, we're looking for Anthony Talotta," her mother said at the front desk. "We think he might be at this hospital."
"Are you relatives?" the receptionist asked.
"No, but if you could pass on our tidings, we'd appreciate it."
The receptionist looked through the computer while simultaneously answering several phone calls in quick succession. Sarah surveyed the waiting room in the meanwhile, and noticed people giving her parents unpleasant looks. She realized she was still covered in bruises, blood and mud.
"Uh... Mom, Dad? I need a shower. And maybe some mago berries..."
They looked down at her and frowned at once. "Of course," they said in unison.
As they walked away from the desk to wait, a woman on the younger end of the elder spectrum moved ahead with a parcel in her arms, and asked for Roger Samson.
All three of them became alert at the name, but only Sarah recognized the woman. "Katelyn?" she said on a guess.
The woman looked behind her in confusion. "What? Who are you?"
"Sarah Sssuhh, no one, just Sarah. Um... are you Katelyn?"
"Yes." Katelyn regarded her in an uncannily familiar manner. She looked up at Michael and Johanna, who seemed slightly alarmed by this situation. "Are these your parents?"
"Yes." Sarah considered introducing them, but thought better of it. Their names tended to draw too much attention lately.
Katelyn was visibly relieved by her reply, for whatever reason. "Ah, good. Nice to meet you...?"
Welp, there went not saying their names.
They all sort of stared at each other awkwardly for a moment. Finally Katelyn asked, "Are you friends of Roger's?"
Now the family stared at each other. Her parents gave Sarah a very pointed, scolding kind of look, probably for talking to a stranger. "Just acquaintances," Johanna eventually said.
"I recognized you from your photo," Sarah said. Her parents' glaring doubled. Now that she thought back, the skyline must have been Celadon's in the picture.
"My -- " Katelyn peered at her. "Do you know what happened to him?"
"No," Johanna said.
"Yes," Sarah said.
The older woman's voice lowered. "Could you explain to me how it happened?"
"Dear, it's obvious you've been in some sort of altercation recently. I'm guessing it's related."
"We shouldn't talk about this here," Michael said.
"We're here to see someone else, anyway," Johanna added. "We really should wait to see if he's all right."
"Someone else involved in this altercation?" Katelyn asked flatly. When they hesitated, she said, "Please, I know him. I know the people he runs with. This isn't the first time..." Sigh. "I'm very sorry if he's hurt anyone." There was a lingering, unsaid, 'again'. Sarah wondered exactly how much this woman knew, and how much was safe to say.
"I'm pretty sure he won't be running with them anymore, 'cause they're the ones that tried to kill him."
"We can not talk about this in public," her father interjected. "Let's at least move to a hallway."
"I'll stay here in case the receptionist says anything," Johanna said. The rest of them walked away from the crowded waiting room, to a quiet section of the nearest hallway.
"Before you say anything," Katelyn said, "is it going to make me liable under the law?"
"I'll leave those bits out," Sarah said.
"Good. I would prefer not to testify against him."
"You're taking this all in stride," Michael commented. "I mean, surprisingly so."
"I've learned there's a limit to what I want to know. I haven't seen him in person for over ten years and now he has a bullet hole in him, and the only reason I know that much is because they found my contact information in his wallet." She sounded frustrated, but still calm. "Since yours is starting young, by my age you'll be used to taking these things in stride, too."
He scratched at his jawline uncomfortably. "I, uh..."
"Okay, you know the people he works for, right?" Sarah said. "They kidnapped us, and while we were escaping, they shot him."
Katelyn paused, giving both Sarah and her father a surveying glanceover. "I'm not going to bother asking why. But I will ask if anyone is going to show up and put any of you, or him -- or me -- in danger now."
"Maybe," Michael admitted with a sigh. "I'm s--"
"Don't apologize for these things! Is going to the police an option?"
"Maybe," he said again. "If, uhh... if we get... all our stories straight."
"The one that shot him is dead," Sarah said quietly. "Way in the woods. Dunno if they'll ever find it. His Pokemon did it, if that helps, not him. He didn't order that."
"I'm sure that's more than I need to hear, but that is somewhat reassuring," Katelyn said. She sighed, rubbing her temple. "What about your hospitalized friend?"
Sarah hesitated a long moment, before finally saying, "A... a Pokemon did that too." Katelyn eyed her disbelievingly, but nodded and asked no more.
"Since it's obvious you've all been sleeping in the dirt, you may come to stay at my place," the woman said. "I have a feeling we need to do some more collusion anyway. And company's better when you might get unwanted guests..."
"Oh, we couldn't --" Michael started. She interrupted him by ripping an address sticker off the parcel and shoving it into his hands.
She began to turn away, apparently finding the conversation over. "I understand you're probably trying to lay low," she said as she did, "But for Arceus' sake, wearing sunglasses indoors is just silly."
Chapter 23: Inpatient
Anthony was alive.
The receptionist had flagged them in with a suggestion to help clean up while they were in there. They arrived to see another patient pushing in a food cart. The patient smiled at them and left a tray behind by Anthony's bed.
Sarah hated the sight of the tube leading into his arm, the bandages on his face and neck, the relentless beep of an EKG, and the overwhelming fragility present now, which she had never truly appreciated before.
"I'm so sorry," she said, just as he noticed them there.
"Sarah?! ... Your parents!" His surprise turned to relief. He smiled weakly. "You escaped..."
"It's not over yet," she sighed. "But hopefully you won't be -- "
"Wait, wait a sec," he interrupted. He squinted at her a moment. "Okay."
"Just making sure... whatever it was, wasn't going on anymore," he said with a hint of sheepishness. "'Cause that was really weird. You're like my sister."
She couldn't think of a reply, so she just sat down in the guest chair. "They think you're dead, so they won't come after you."
"Gram doesn't," he said. "But she can't travel all the way out here... I'm glad you guys are here."
"How are you feeling?" Johanna asked gently.
"Not bad, but kinda bad. They gave me ana... anice... painkiller," he said. He then frowned. "I really messed up. I don't think I did any good."
Sarah's heart broke to hear such defeat in his voice. She especially hated to know he was right; all he did was get himself hurt. "You interrupted the battle," she offered. She hoped it sounded reassuring enough. "Uh, and defeated that Tangela."
"I thought it'd be no trouble for me and Storm..." He closed his eyes. "Dad got so many badges with him."
"You didn't know what would happen," Johanna said. She went over to lay a hand over his. "It's not your fault."
"I'm still not sure what happened..." He opened his eyes to look up at them half-hopefully, seeking answers.
"It's best we don't tell you too much," Michael said. "At least, not now."
"But we can tell you we were all taken by bad people," Johanna said, "but one of them let us go, and we're safe for now."
Sarah wished she could believe that much. "We're gonna tell the police about it. And they'll make sure it doesn't happen again."
"How did you do that, anyway, Sarah?" Anthony asked, looking aside at her. All three of them fell quiet, and her parents looked at each other and at her, unsure of how to reply.
"I..." she started, but it went nowhere. She looked at her parents. "Should I tell him? I-is it safe?"
"Are you like, psychic?" he asked.
She let out a short laugh. "If only..."
"I'm..." She rubbed her head. "We're all... uhh... Pokemon."
He stared. Then, he laughed. "Come on."
When he saw and heard the seriousness in her voice, his laughter stopped. His glance moved quickly between them all. "But... I've known you forever."
"It's a long story," Johanna said. "We have to lie about it to keep ourselves safe. We don't know what people would do if they knew. So you can't tell anyone, okay?"
He nodded, still stunned.
"Just remember that it's still us. We're not dangerous. We're just like normal people, trying to live normal lives."
"I promise I won't tell," he said. Then he smirked. "But, it's pretty cool. I wish I could tell... I'd brag that my best friend's a, uh... what are you?" He looked at Sarah. She shrugged.
"A Sarahmon," he joked. "But... so... what are you gonna do now?"
"Tell the police, like she said," Johanna answered. "We're not going back to Viridian City just yet. In fact, we can probably stay here until you're better."
"That'd be nice."
A nurse came in to add more morphine to his drip and change his dressings, and the family quietly slipped out before they could be asked any questions. Sarah knew they wouldn't suspect her causing the burns, but sooner or later they'd wonder about the teeth marks which undoubtedly matched hers perfectly.
As the three of them headed downstairs, she thought about their immediate future, and unappealing prospect of vagabondism. Sure, most kids her age were out seeing the world by now, but it felt a lot different to go on an adventure because you wanted to, than because you have no home left to return to. The knowledge that they couldn't return made her weary. She imagined that actual Pokemon trainers at least felt secure in knowing a home and family waited for them if they ever got tired.
She wasn't sure what the police could do, or would do. Were they allowed to go bust down the doors? Or was there not enough proof? Would it even result in dismantling the organization, or would it be as futile as mowing weeds without uprooting them, allowing them to regrow? She didn't like these unsurities, these too many 'if's casting a shadow over their fates.
She couldn't keep running anymore. She was no longer clueless, nor caught off-guard. She knew exactly who the enemy was, where they were hiding, and what she was personally capable of.
Anthony hadn't been wrong. He'd done the right thing, because hoping to avoid misfortune by sitting on your butt wouldn't do any good. His only mistake was not having strength in numbers.
Chapter 24: In a Complex
Beyond the building, the city of Celadon shone like silver under a spring rain, and the far western horizon glowed butter-yellow beneath the flat underbelly of the clouds.
Johanna balked under the hospital awning. Sarah thought back, recalling with strange clarity how she'd never seen her mother go out in the rain before. She also remembered always hating the rain herself, and baths less than scalding. Of course, she'd always assumed that everything about her was normal and everyone else was just the same.
The rain went on, filling the air with the scent of wet asphalt. Headlights twinned themselves on puddles like low moons over lakes. The family waited under the dry shelter just outside the hospital doors, as Sarah started to form a plan. Between her, her parents, Storm, and Roger's Pokemon, it might be enough...
But enough for what? She didn't want to go kill people. Maybe just scare them. If she challenged and defeated them all -- well, then they'd probably just want to capture her even more for being too good for her own good. Although she probably wasn't that good.
Maybe destroy the building, the headquarters itself. Then they'd have nowhere left to hide and plan, no fortress to fall back on if routed. Of course they probably had other places, but, it was something, wasn't it? She just wanted to do something, to take a little bit of control back.
The doors behind them opened with a swish. "Oh, good, you're still around," Katelyn said. The family turned to her, as she held out a Pokeball to Sarah. "He said this was yours."
"As in it belongs to you."
"Oh... yeah. Thanks," Sarah said, accepting and pocketing it. "So you told him you ran into us?"
"I was curious how you ever saw a photo of me. I had to be sure." The woman frowned out at the rain. She lacked an umbrella.
"Sure of what?"
She gave Sarah a wry look. "You're as old as I haven't seen him for. This would have been the worst time and place to discover I had a grandchild."
"She's ours all right," Johanna said.
"Trust us on that," Michael added.
"I'm glad for that," Katelyn said. "You're welcome to accompany me home if you don't mind the rain. I walked, unfortunately."
"We're not fond of it," Johanna said.
"Uh, besides," Sarah said, "we should probably go to the Pokemon center first, since, this one is injured..." She gestured to her pocket. Her parents both nodded in understanding.
"Well, hold on to that address," Katelyn said, "and stop by when you're done at the center. I haven't entertained guests in a long time." And with that, she turned and walked away into the rain.
Night had fallen by the time the rain let up, and warm mists rose from the streets as Sarah and her parents went to the nearby empty lot once more. They returned her to her Pokeball, which she found an increasingly familiar and decreasingly distressing place to be. She allowed her thoughts to float away into the cozy void, though she couldn't be sure if she truly slept.
She heard a musical chime echo from the outside, and a flush of healing energy washed over her. Even in her formless state, she felt rejuvenated.
The red light summoned her again some time later, this time in an empty, narrow side-street. The pavement was dry, and the sky was pale cornflower. She must have slept on through the night. For once, she actually felt fully rested. The blood and grime had been magically cleaned away as well, for which she was intensely glad.
"Where are we?" she asked. Her parents stood there with her. Her mother also looked cleaner - her clothes less rumpled, her thick straw hair less ratty. Her father, on the other hand, seemed only more tired. Sarah quickly understood that he'd stayed away while they both rested and were healed at the center.
"Close to Katelyn's address," he said.
Sarah didn't ask more as they walked along, now on the main street, which still wasn't very wide. The buildings were less shiny here, less tall but more narrow. Pidgeys pecked at food scraps on the sidewalk, and a Meowth watched them around the corner of a shop, its curled tail twitching.
The place looked different than any Sarah was used to. Whereas Viridian City had green suburbs and widely-spaced homes with plenty of pasturage, and Celadon proper had its gleaming skyscrapers and rushing streets, this neighborhood seemed cramped and worn-out like an old toy in a chest. It wasn't the sort of place one lived if they could afford not to.
The family entered one of the many apartment complexes, and Johanna knocked on a numbered door. Sarah idly wondered what good visiting Katelyn would really do, but the girl wasn't about to turn down a chance to sit down somewhere safe and maybe get a bite to eat.
Half a minute passed, and Johanna knocked again. An entire minute passed after that, and the three of them looked at each other and shrugged.
"Maybe she's at work --"
The door opened.
Katelyn stood there in a simple blouse and long, loose skirt, appropriate for the season. Her graying auburn hair was loose. Her expression was strained. Sarah noted how alike the woman looked to her son when glaring uncomfortably.
"You shouldn't be here."
Chapter 25: On The Lam
"What? Why?" Sarah asked in surprise.
"You invited us," Michael pointed out. "Was that only for yesterday?"
Katelyn continued to stare them down, keeping her hand on the door. "Yes."
"We're sorry to bother you, then," Johanna said with a frown. She set a hand on Sarah's shoulder and began to steer her away, but Michael didn't move.
"What changed?" he asked.
Katelyn's unwavering gaze bored into him. Her brows were tightly drawn, though not with anger, but something else - but what? "My mind. I changed my mind."
"Are you in danger?"
The corner of one eye twitched. "Just get out of here, Michael! I can't take on freeloaders!"
She stepped back to shut the door. They all felt the air vibrate as it split behind them in the hall, a dark yellow form shaping itself out of it. The Pokemon held a spoon aloft and resonated with power, humming with energy that made their heads hurt.
An invisible force suddenly gripped Sarah and her mother, lifting and pinning them to the wall.
"No!" Katelyn gasped.
Michael stood unaffected, even as the moustached, fox-like Pokemon focused intently on him. He flicked a glance at the still-open door, and then made a leaping tackle at the Pokemon.
It stumbled, claws scrabbling on the floor, and fell backward. "Khaaa!" it hissed, the red star on its forehead flashing intensely. Sarah's head throbbed as if held in a vice. Even Katelyn looked affected, grabbing her head and bending her knees in weakness.
Michael wrestled with the Pokemon's arm, and wrangled away the spoon, throwing it far down the hall. The intensity of the Pokemon's power waned with its absence, the mental vibrations emitted lessening their pressure.
The star burned white, and a radiant beam of many colors shot up like a spotlight, striking Michael directly in the face. It did nothing but cast his silhouette on the ceiling, as he continued to pin the Pokemon to the floor. Once forced into melee against an opponent it couldn't effect, there was little it could do. With its power focused on Michael now, Sarah and Johanna were released from its telekinetic hold and dropped to the floor.
"Run!" Michael barked.
"You're not going anywhere!" shouted an unfamiliar voice. They all three looked up in time to see a man fling the door wide open and grab Katelyn by the arm. "Kadabra, to me!"
The Kadabra disappeared from under Michael, appearing next to the strange new man instead.
There's always someone, isn't there? Sarah thought.
"You're the ones we want," the man said, pointing at them.
Michael jumped quickly to his feet. "We're not going anywhere with you."
"You or her!" The man's hand tightened on Katelyn's arm until her flesh turned white around his fingers. She grunted but didn't flinch or attempt to struggle.
"She has nothing to do with this."
"Then why does she know your names? Why did she invite you to her house? She's the mother of your owner, that's no coincidence!"
She gave them a surprised, confused look. She obviously didn't understand the truth about them.
Johanna marched forward, staring down at the man from her full height. "You will let her go," her voice rumbled. She had taken on a commanding presence, her demeanor suddenly intimidating. The man's hold loosened, and even the Kadabra took a half-step back.
Michael's form seemed a blur as he moved to rush forward. The man raised his free arm to shield his face - and his legs went out from under him instead, as Michael's smaller form easily bent low to strike at them. Katelyn half-fell with her captor, and wrenched her arm away.
The Kadabra began to react, but whatever it had planned was never seen, for Michael conjured an orb of opaque shadow and fired it like a black rocket. It struck head-on with a burst of dark smoke, knocking the Kadabra back into a table in the room beyond. It slumped to the floor, unconscious.
"We need to go," Michael said to Katelyn, but she backed away, her mouth hanging open.
The Kadabra's owner half-rose, hand flying to the Pokeballs on his belt. "I choose you, R--"
Johanna's impressive physique barreled the villain over with an audible wham! The collision sent him sprawling and dazed, though it left a bruise on the elbow she'd used to ram him.
"What are you?!" Katelyn said.
"Not human," Michael answered simply. "And it's not safe here. Let's go."
"How can I know I'm safe with you?"
"Because we're against the bad guys too!" Sarah spoke up. She had been quiet until now, amazed at watching her parents fight. She saw the obvious practice in their moves. They'd done this a lot before.
"Was he trying to find Roger?" Johanna said.
"Yes," Katelyn said. She glanced back at the battered Kadabra. "'Owner'... Are you -- what are you, really?"
No use hiding it now. "Pokemon," Michael said. "It's a long story."
"Did you tell him anything?" Johanna said.
Katelyn gave the other woman a defiant look. "Nothing."
Johanna smiled faintly. "Of course not. You wouldn't sell out your child."
An angry, aged voice erupted from somewhere down the hall, "Just what are you doing up there?! It sounds like you're having a Pokemon battle right in the hallway!"
"More will come," Michael said quietly.
"And coming with you will solve what? It's you they're after," Katelyn said.
"We can protect you," Johanna said, then sighed. "It's our fault you --"
"No, it's Roger's, I know that perfectly well. Yes, I know this happened because he tried to sever ties. I'm assuming he let you go and they didn't like that, hm?"
The family nodded.
"I don't have anywhere to go. And neither do you."
"It's better than staying here, waiting for more of them to show up to get information out of you," Michael said.
"We can ask the police to protect you," Johanna added. "If we explain the situation, they'll probably protect you. And Roger."
"So we'll make a run to the police station!" Sarah said.
"No, but we'll go quickly," Michael said. "Quick but inconspicuous."
"Grab anything you need," Johanna said.
"I'd rather not be here when they wake up," Katelyn said, glancing at the Kadabra and its trainer. "Let's go."
They moved out briskly, keeping their eyes out for enemies. Katelyn led the way. Sarah hoped they got there before anyone else attacked -- and hoped that getting there even made a difference.
Chapter 26: In The Blood
I don't know your grandparents.
"Jolteon's egg hatched not long ago. The full pedigree is on file if you care." Mabel's heels clicked on the floor. "It's aging like a normal Eevee, and should hit maturity in only a year at most. On the up-side, that means it can be useful sooner. On the down-side, we can't enter it into civilization until then."
"That doesn't matter to me," he said, but with a questioning raise of his eyebrows.
They had reached a storage room. "It will. They're assigning it to you. The Growlithe too."
"Why?" he asked. At her narrowed eyes, he said, "I mean, what's my objective?"
"Train them, raise them. Keep them together. We don't care if they're battle-ready or not, they need to be humanity-ready. They need to know how to speak, how to balance a check book, how to act normal."
"Right now." She opened a cabinet, took out two Pokeballs, and pushed them into his hand. "Oh, and we need to call them something other than their species. Think up some names, will you?"
I don't know your parents.
He had personally caught exactly three Pokemon in his life, and unlike other trainers who obsessively collected Pokemon like stamps, he was quite content with those few he had. He refused to act like some restless man-child clinging to flighty adventures well into adulthood, one of those detached trainers who had a higher turnover rate of team members than a low-paying supermarket, as if dropping them off in the wild again erased any debt of responsibility. He saw no need to add to his three.
But now he had five. And someday the Team expected six.
A Growlithe and Eevee looked up at him in equal parts youthful naivete and human sapience. In them were minds on par with people, yet their forms were bestial and their potential intelligence as yet unhoned.
They tipped their heads in unison at him.
He found it easier to teach them alongside his other Pokemon, to act like this was any other kind of training.
The Growlithe tried to race with Veloca, and ended up lagging several laps behind. The Rapidash trotted circles around it. It didn't stop until it completed every lap, following Veloca with determined obedience. Its legs wobbled but it glared over at him with a proud defiance. He ordered it to take a rest; it refused. He allowed it to practice firebreathing with Veloca instead.
The Eevee acted like it had nothing to prove, and frequently refused tests and training exercises if it saw no point in participating. But it watched him intently, ears always alert, absorbing information. When it turned up its nose at a battle against one of his coworkers, he threw up his hands in frustration and turned away. It tackled him solidly in the back of the knee and sent him sprawling.
The other trainer sniggered as he turned over, grumbling. The Eevee casually cleaned one paw and gave him a very smug, self-assured grin. Just because I don't obey doesn't mean I'm weak, he could imagine it saying.
Of course, the Team didn't want him to imagine them speaking. He -- not one remotely given to prolonged conversation, if he could avoid it -- found such teaching well outside his comfort zone. He casually mentioned one day that a mere Meowth already had mastery of the human language, but of course he didn't expect these two to pick it up, it would be far too difficult with all their other training, so maybe he shouldn't bother.
The Growlithe looked outright rebuked by the insult, then resolute. The Eevee shook itself and stretched out and then uttered a simple, "No."
It had been learning all this time.
I don't want to know you.
The Eevee, of course, was the first to take a human form. Small, lightweight, befitting its normal form. He expected a pale, tawny appearance, but it had black hair and a swarthy look potentially, subconsciously, modeled after his own.
When outpaced, the Growlithe (of course) strained itself to keep up, to prove itself. Failing to transform, it gave a howl of shame. Standing nearby, Mabel gave him a frown, which he took and directed at the Growlithe. It silenced obediently.
"Speak English," he grunted. "You can't go around howling as a human."
The Eevee stepped in, explaining as best as its vocabulary would allow, tutoring the Growlithe. It transformed on the next try, into the form of a tall, sturdy woman who looked every bit the guard dog it acted.
He realized he'd have to stop thinking of them both as "it".
I'm not going to raise you.
He found it somewhat troubling to continue battling with them after that, especially since Mabel insisted they remain in human form as often as possible, to get used to their limb arrangements and adopt more normal mannerisms.
He resigned himself to teaching them about humanity, but the nuances were extreme yet crucial. He sunk a paycheck into a used television and several second-hand university textbooks, letting the pair absorb lessons on important matters such as economic elasticity and tipping waiters and traffic laws and performance arts and sporting events, things he realized they didn't know and he couldn't (or didn't feel like) elucidating for them. They learned about civilization the way most humans did, via plentiful media exposure. Although most humans, by their teen years, were already on their adventures raising Pokemon of their own.
An uncomfortable moment came after a news story regarding his own coworker's... activities at large. No names were posted (no evidence was left) but the organization was clearly mentioned.
"You're a criminal," Johanna said quietly, almost sadly.
"It pays the bills," he grunted.
"Whose?" Michael asked. The two of them had a way of ganging up on people in a conversation.
One doesn't need to pay rent when living on the base.
"You've been lax in your training lately. Let's go."
Roger turned and heard them sigh behind him.
I don't care about you.
It happened entirely unexpectedly.
The woods surrounding the base made good training grounds, full of wilds generally untouched by humans, home to a great amalgam of species to hone a Pokemon's skills against. He'd been there plenty with Veloca, Aegis, and Skyree. And, lately, with Michael and Johanna.
Being in human shape did nothing to dim their determination to train, and he supposed Pokemon just had some natural instinct to better themselves or something. Johanna tested her speed by bolting through the forest, running her own one-woman triathlon. He knew she wouldn't flee, although she could, if she wanted, easily escape and never be found. But she wouldn't. She was too loyal.
The sun had begun to set by the time she returned. Michael had instead tested his prowess in melee against the local wild Pokemon, who all seemed incredibly surprised to get attacked by a human.
As the last ray of yellow sank below the dark treeline, Michael began to glow.
They watched him in shock and awe as he melted into light and back again into an Umbreon, rings gleaming like blue moonlight in the shadows of dusk.
He shifted back to human form and Johanna grappled him in a bear-like hug of congratulations, lifting him easily off the ground. They suddenly shared a long glance between them, and Roger turned politely away.
They walked around him back toward the building, holding hands.
Stop with the emotional crap.
"It evolved?!" Mabel said. She laughed like a cold wind.
"He," Michael quietly corrected. She arched an eyebrow at him and he stared evenly in return, forcing her to acquiesce. After all, she had wanted them regarded as humans.
"Yes. Of course... 'He'." She drew out a Pokedex and pointed it at him.
"Umbreon. The Moonlight Pokemon. Evolves at night when an Eevee has sufficient training and affection for its trainer."
There was a very long moment of silence when the digital voice finished.
"Is there a Fire Stone available?" Roger said stiffly. "Johanna could benefit from better stats, as well."
My only business was to drop them off without questions.
"I can't believe you don't have a license," Mabel said with an impatient sneer. "Aren't you a city kid? Or was it revoked."
He stared ahead, not looking at her. "I never got one."
"I thought people tended to drive in the cities. Could your parents never afford a car?"
Normally he'd lie, but he was too tired to bother. "No, she couldn't." Before Mabel could needle him with more antagonistic inquiries, he added, "Veloca's faster, anyway."
Johanna and Michael sat quietly in the back, holding hands. Johanna's spare hand held a swaddled newborn. That had ultimately been the trigger to hustle them over to Viridian (which kept them away from urban centers with too many police, but close to certain other parties, should an emergency arise). They'd been told to pack their meager belongings, been given a pair of (fake) wedding rings, forged papers and records needed to own a home (paid for with stolen money, of course) and enough spare cash after that to spend on what they wished ("Furniture, to look normal," Mabel had said. "Food and medical supplies," Roger had suggested practically).
The drive was long, being forced as they were to follow the roads. It was also incredibly uncomfortable.
Twilight settled in as they pulled up to the darkened house, the only vacant one on the street. "Mostly retired people here," Mabel said. "Quiet neighborhood. Remember to avoid getting hurt, if you can. You can't just take yourselves to the Pokemon center. You will not have your Pokeballs with you, not even your daughter's. And I do not recommend going to a human doctor, either. Zelkova will bring you some leftover Pokemon to help keep you safe."
"Buy potions. Grow berries," Roger said. He glanced up at the mirror, caught their anxious faces in it, and shifted to the side of his seat so they couldn't see his in return.
"Can we call? If something happens..." Johanna said.
"We'd rather you didn't," Mabel said. "We'd also rather you live as independently as possible. Here." She tossed a set of house keys over her shoulder.
The pair got out of the van to unpack their things.
"We're so lucky their offspring was born human," Mabel said.
The back of the van shut. Two dim figures pulled suitcases up the path to the porch.
Roger watched them enter the house, saw the lights turn on inside. "Let's go."
This was a lot easier when I thought you were just a Pokemon.
He wrote the usual check for his mother. Peanuts in the long run, but enough to give her a bit of a safety net.
He told himself this was the best way, had always been the only way. He'd had his fun on his adventure briefly, even got to see Johto. Surely this, instead, was the most responsible path. And though he'd neglected his holiday visits this last year, next year, surely, he'd attend to them again, dutiful to his relations. Next year. He would do it then. He was the better man here. There was no reason not to go home. He had nothing to hide, nothing to explain. They were just a couple of Pokemon, that's all. Weren't all Pokemon intelligent, anyway? They weren't any different. He'd never get-- never have to see them again, so he could just blissfully ignore any memories of them. Pokemon trainers did that all the time! Abandoning-- releasing their charges when it became convenient-- necessary. Yes, necessary, wasn't it? Wasn't it?
Of course, it was all a lie, a handful among many.
He stared at a blank sheet of parchment for a long time, traced mindlessly over the faint outlines of decorative Wingulls, eventually filled one all with ink.
In the end, he only mailed the money.
Chapter 27: In The Station
Katelyn kept casting baleful looks at the peak of the hospital on the skyline.
"They won't know he's there," Johanna said reassuringly.
"It's the only hospital for miles..."
"And they have no reason to think he's there," Michael said.
Not unless they follow the trail, Sarah thought. An open back door, hoofprints in the dirt, cracked earth and boulder remnants, scorch marks and blood, two bullets and two casings...
And Mabel's body. Sarah shuddered, wondering if those black blossoms of blood across the woman's abdomen would ever leave her mind.
From there, her own heavy paw prints. And clearly, the bad guys had already thought to check here anyway, even if just to see if Roger had gone to hide with his mom. But maybe, while they were here, they'd ask other people, too. Ask around if they'd seen him -- or her, or her parents.
Then again, asking around for missing persons would look extremely suspicious, but Sarah wouldn't put the possibility out of her mind. It was too risky not to think of everything the enemy could do, to plan for every contingency, and not assume you had as much time as you thought.
She ached to see the police station already. They couldn't walk fast enough! She'd spent so much time running, running, wanting to rest, and now here she was, wanting to run again. Any moment now, a black van or an enraged Pokemon or gun-wielding maniac would jump out.
They entered the station. Sarah's parents approached the front desk.
"We'd like to report a kidnapping," Johanna said.
"That is, we were kidnapped," Michael said, "but escaped. They're still after us, though, and her too." He indicated Katelyn.
The officer eyed the older woman as if trying to remember if he recognized her or not. Eventually he shook his head and asked, "Do you know who it is that kidnapped you?"
"Yes, uh," Johanna began, and faltered. She glanced at Katelyn who gave no indication of what they should say.
"Team Rocket," Michael said.
"And your names?" the officer said.
"Johanna, Michael and Sarah -- and Katelyn -- um... Samson."
"That's your last name for all of you?"
The couple nodded and Katelyn's eyebrows lifted in surprise.
The officer had been typing this into a computer, and then said, "Ah! The missing persons! Good, you're not missing anymore... hm." He looked up and around at all of them. "Was Roger Samson involved, by any chance?"
They said nothing, exchanging uncomfortable glances.
At this time Sarah turned away, and saw out the glass door a small purple shape on the sidewalk several paces away. "Neo?" she said to herself incredulously.
How was that possible? She tried to remember the last time she saw him. He wasn't there when Anthony came, that was Piera. And only Bones could have survived the fire.
Unless Bones took Neo and they escaped together somehow. But then where was the Houndour now? Something didn't feel right.
She turned back to the grownups, who had started talking again, filling in details. She didn't know if they'd glossed over Roger's involvement or not.
"We'll put you in a safe place for now," the officer was saying, "unless you'd rather return home with a police escort?"
"Hey, Neo's outside," Sarah said.
"What?" Johanna and Michael both looked at her, and then out the door. They gained dual expressions of puzzlement.
"Did you bring him with you?" Michael asked.
"Only until the forest fire, then we got separated. But he's not with Bones... and Piera's with Storm..."
"What's that, one of your Pokemon?" the officer asked, craning his neck to see over them.
"Hey, Officer, what happened to the forest fire?" Sarah said. "Did it get put out?"
"Sure, we sent a bunch of water Pokemon over to put it out. Why?"
Something didn't quite click. There were whole sections of the forest put out before she even woke up, and she didn't see any water Pokemon there. Of course a lot of it had simply burned out on its own, but not all of it so quickly, could it?
"Mom, Dad, where'd you get Neo?"
"From the --" Johanna started. "From Professor Zelkova."
Something gnawed at the back of Sarah's mind and she tried to think of what it was. Something very wrong but somehow should be very obvious.
And then she remembered. Something else lost in the fire, given in lieu of one apparently malfunctioning.
She wondered if that Pokedex had really malfunctioned at all.
"'Species unknown'," she whispered.
Neo, still watching them, stood and began to pad towards the station.
Chapter 28: In a Glass Case
"I don't get it," Katelyn said. "It's just a Nidoran. What's wrong?"
"It shouldn't be here is what," Sarah said. "There's no way that little guy could've made it out of the fire and found me right here."
"Clearly it did. Are you sure it couldn't track you?"
"Not if he's normal."
Neo reached the door and tapped on the glass with one paw.
"You can let it in," the police officer said.
"We can see to it later," Johanna said.
"No. There's no point in waiting," Sarah said. "It's just a Nidoran, we can take it on." She stalked toward the door.
Her parents made a move to stop her; the officer said, "Hey now, no battling in here!"
She opened the door and Neo stepped in.
She searched the Pokemon's eyes for any sign of intelligence, any indication that he was like them. Was it possible? If it came from Zelkova, then couldn't assume it wasn't. She couldn't trust anything by appearances anymore, not when the lines between species had become so blurred.
Instead of sapience, she saw a dullness to his eyes, as if what little cognizance he possessed had gone to sleep inside him.
"He looks hypnotized," she said. "Neo, are you on the run too?"
He flashed brightly, releasing a spray of lightning throughout the room. Everyone fell, singed and stunned, both mentally and literally.
Of course. Their last resort, a sleeper agent, in the most unassuming form ever. Either that or he fell onto a Technical Machine and flew off the handle about it.
Through the open door stepped another figure, one more unbelievable than the last, and Sarah began to wonder if she'd been unconscious and dreaming the entire time.
Mabel, slightly hunched, shoeless, filthy, walked in. Her blouse was still torn over the stomach, which was still hideously blackened.
"You," Sarah gasped, looking up from the floor. "You died!"
"Yes. But not when you think. Where are your Pokeballs?"
Sarah pushed herself up, struggling against her seizing muscles. "N-no... I won't... I won't go with you."
Mabel tipped her chin up, staring coldly down her nose. "I am tired of this. Don't make this any more difficult."
"I'll fight you! I won't go back! You can't make me obey you anymore, Roger is -- is dead! He's dead."
"Really. He was alive when you left."
"He died on the way. Never made it to the hospital."
A cold smile lit Mabel's face faintly. "Good. So if I throw a Pokeball at you right now, it'll work? Or were you inherited by his mother?" She glanced at Katelyn, who could only stare in confusion and fear.
The police officer stood, the paralysis wearing off at last. "If you're the owner if this Nidoran, you're under arrest!"
"No." She looked down at Neo. "Shock them again."
The Nidoran bristled and released another blast of electricity. Anyone who had managed to stand by then only fell again. Fortunately it did very little damage otherwise -- it must have been a paralysis-specific attack.
Mabel marched over and searched their pockets until finding all three Pokeballs. "I'm no longer in the mood to bother with secrecy."
Sarah tried to will herself to move, but her body only buzzed and kept still. She tried to will herself to exude an attack, some kind of energy, but nothing happened. She could only watch helplessly as the woman she saw die stood over her and returned her to the darkness of the capsule.
Sarah tumbled out onto a smooth floor.
As she stood, a whirring sound drew her attention to a robotic arm that reached down from the wall and pressed the buttons on two more Pokeballs set on a pedestal with round depressions. Her parents appeared, her father not quite free of paralysis. Johanna knelt next to him as he slumped to the floor.
Sarah took in their surroundings: a square room, walled with thick glass, inside another, normal room. Mabel stood outside, in new clothes. No one would've known, from her appearance, of her apparent death the other day.
"What do you want with us?!" Sarah asked in exasperation.
"What I want and what the Team wants are not exactly the same thing." Mabel's voice came from a speaker on the ceiling; the glass was too thick for sound to penetrate.
"Then tell me both!"
"You, your parents, Neo, and the rest of your line exist due to an effort to duplicate my success."
Sarah's gears turned for a moment on that. She looked up at the woman. "You're a Pokemon, aren't you."
"Do you really believe that all the species and spirits in the world can be neatly compartmentalized into mutually exclusive kinds? You're a half-breed yourself, an unexpected development. Normally Pokemon only inherit their mother's species."
"So I would've been, uh..."
"A Growlithe. We didn't actually know what you were at first since you were born human."
Johanna stood. "Haven't you ruined our lives enough? Can't you just let us live in peace?" she said, moving protectively near Sarah.
"No. Now, you are the closest to achieving our goals, probably the closest any will be."
"You know it's impossible for any of us to live incognito now! You made a public scene, and the police already know the Team kidnapped us in the first place."
"You think I care?" Mabel sneered. "I'm tired of this charade."
"Is Neo a person too?" Sarah asked.
"They wanted him to be, but like most, he turned out 'normal'. Maybe just more intelligent than the rest."
"How can you own a Pokemon? I thought Pokemon couldn't own each other."
"I don't. Technically. Anyone can press a button on a ball, even a robot." Mabel nodded at the robotic arm. "Ownership's a funny thing. The first one that gets a Pokemon in a ball has tagged it forever. Something in the capsule overwrites your free will as long as that one person exerts their own. Since your parents were technically some scientist's property originally, they can disobey Roger. You were born in his ownership, and have no choice." She paused. "But now his mother owns you I suppose, so it doesn't matter anyway."
"So who owns you?"
"Some useless peon I haven't seen since the higher-ups confiscated me. Very few people know I'm not human."
"You might not have an exact species," Johanna said, "but you must have an element."
"Trying to find out my weakness?"
Mabel paced in front of their cell, heels clicking. "Since most everything's out now, I want to share a story."
"Like we have a choice?" Sarah grumbled.
Mabel stopped pacing and faced them directly. "What happens when you die?"
Johanna put an arm around Sarah with a glower. "What kind of a question is that?"
"One you don't realize the importance of."
"I get the feeling you already know the answer," Sarah said.
"One day, on the late shift at my convenience store, several youths entered to rob it. They threatened me with their Pokemon, and started vandalizing the place, even after I gave them the money. I was knocked unconscious. When I woke, the building was on fire. Was it an accident, or intentional? I don't know. They were gone, and it was too late to escape."
The Samsons said nothing, only listening to the dread tale.
"Sometimes, for reasons no one knows," Mabel said, reaching up to set a hand on her face. When she squeezed her temples, dry cracks appeared in her skin, spreading out from her fingers to outline her jaw. "...The very unlucky fail to move on."
She jerked her hand, and the cracks became fissures with a sound like splintering marble. She pulled her hand away and pulled her face right off, a simple static mask. Instead of muscle beneath was only opaque black smoke, set with two glassy red eyes like lucent rubies.
"Sometimes we move sideways and become monsters instead."
Chapter 29: In The Base
Sarah stared at the empty hole that was previously Mabel's head, now only roiling black smoke. She clung to her mother, eyes wide. "What are you?!"
"I literally just told you," Mabel said. Sarah had no idea how the woman spoke without a mouth, but her voice had taken on a grave hollowness that made her shiver. Of course, it remained as arrogant and sardonic as ever.
"Were you human?" Johanna asked.
"Yes. And now I'm not." Mabel paced again. "There was a scientist among us once, who kept the disembodied spirit of his dead daughter in a computer system for years. There is a maiden whose spirit has haunted the same seaside cliff for over two thousand years. There is a Pokemon made of one hundred and eight human souls fused together. How is any of this determined? Who knows that when they'll die, they'll be stuck on a peak for the rest of eternity, or trapped inside a laboratory machine, or risen as a Pokemon to be captured and bred!
"The living fear death. The dead fear never getting to die!" She let out a laugh that echoed like a winter gale.
"So what do you want?"
"To regain control."
"You mean escape them?" Sarah said.
"Escape? You should know how impossible that really is. When they really want something, they find it and keep it. They've made mistakes before -- not anymore."
"I was doing pretty well until you showed up again!"
"I wanted to get you back. I had hoped you'd be... more subservient by now."
Johanna said, "That's a little hypocritical, isn't it? You want freedom, but you want to enslave others to do it?"
"You and Michael were perfectly content with your life in captivity up until now. Did you only resist because you had a daughter?" Mabel said.
"Of course. She had a human life. She deserved to keep it."
"It's unfortunate she can still be useful, then, or I would have killed her and given you no reason to stay outside."
Johanna scowled, her hold on Sarah tightening. "Stop yammering and tell us what you want us to do already."
"We're deep inside Headquarters. I want to release you and take them by surprise as you help me kill them all."
"We -- we don't kill," Johanna said.
"Isn't there another way?" Sarah asked. She felt briefly guilty for considering this solution herself not so long ago.
"You've run ideas through your heads by now, haven't you?" Mabel said. "You've thought of this, you've thought of bringing the authorities down on them, but what can the law accomplish? What can anything but cutting off the head accomplish?"
"We were going to just keep running and stay hidden..."
"Oh, perfect. How would that go? Is that the life you really want? Or do you want back your comfortable, stable, suburban upbringing to continue?"
"Well I'd rather go live in the woods than kill someone!"
Mabel laughed coldly again. "You seem to think I'm offering you any options. I don't have to release you at all. I don't have to feed you, either."
"No! Please," Johanna said. "I... we'll comply. Just Michael and I. Don't involve her."
"What, you want me to just let her go?"
"That'd be a waste, wouldn't it? We only had to relinquish you so you could raise her, so she could be an asset to us. If I let her go now, then what was the point of all that?"
"You still can't make me listen!" Sarah said. "I'll just sit in here and -- and starve! I don't have to do anything, and if I die then that's a waste too, isn't it!"
"A completely obstinate Pokemon is nothing but a liability. I will have lost nothing if you chose to die rather than obey. On the other hand, releasing you lets you go get help, form a plan, and possibly retaliate."
"Yeah? Fine. I'm not a murderer, not like you."
Mabel hissed and moved swiftly up to the glass, setting her hand on it. "I stopped caring about human life the moment I stopped being human -- and that's something you will never have. I offer you mercy because you are like me. Because you are my blood."
Sarah sucked in a breath. "Your what?"
"Like I said, they tried to duplicate my success -- to reverse the process, if you will. If a human can become a Pokemon, why not see if there's a Pokemon that can become a human? One besides ghosts and legends, at least. You're very successful, Sarah Samson. Born and raised human with all the magical talents of a Pokemon, as good as it gets. What do you think would be your fate as an adult, here?"
Sarah felt that same sick fear as when they first captured her, that terrible foreboding and helplessness. She didn't want to think about that fate.
"The same fate," Mabel said, "that I had. Unless you help me, my progeny."
"Mabel," Johanna said, "you wouldn't want to put someone through what you've experienced, would you? Surely you have compassion..."
"I do not. But I do not want to you through more than what's necessary. I want you to kill. I want the Team wholly dismantled. And then I'll let you all go on your merry way and we'll never have to see each other again."
"Sarah has no experience; even if she wanted to, she might not be as useful. But Michael and I can help."
Mabel considered this. "Then she'll be held as collateral. Fail me, and she dies."
The woman walked over to a control panel on the outer room's wall and punched a code. With a hiss of air, one of the cell's glass walls swung open from its metal framing.
Johanna knelt to hug Sarah, kissing her on the head. "It'll be okay, I --"
Michael sprang up and knocked them both out of the cell in a full-body rush before rolling onto his feet and firing a pulsing beam of black-and-ultraviolet light at Mabel.
She yelled hoarsely in pain and surprise on contact, more of her human shell blown away like foliage off an autumn tree. Wisps of smoke curled up from holes in her false skin. She dropped the mask of her face and it shattered on the floor, as she stumbled and looked momentarily stunned.
"Run for the exit!" He shouted. Johanna grabbed Sarah's hand and pulled her up as she ran for the door.
Mabel howled like the wind -- no, that was the wind, a sudden whistling torrent swirling around her. Michael shifted into his Umbreon form, blue rings gleaming. He held his ground as the wind cut against him.
Johanna and Sarah ran through the door into an unfamiliar hallway, dashing along its turns and corridors as quickly as possible, hoping it would lead to freedom. As they passed an elevator, it dinged and its doors slid open, revealing its cargo of several scientists. They looked at the girls in puzzlement, and then recognition.
"You! You're the girl they brought in!" one said. "I thought you escaped!"
"Uh -- "
"Everybody out of the elevator right now!" Johanna roared, tongues of flame flickering on her breath. The scientists scattered, and she pulled her daughter into the empty lift.
"Dad's still --"
"Stalling so we can escape." Johanna pressed the button for the ground floor -- it seemed they were several floors below ground.
A rush of wind from the hallway told them of Mabel's approach, and a second later, her smoky, ghostly form burst from the wall directly across from the elevator. She had shed anything human about her. Her red eyes gleamed as the doors slid shut.
Sarah held her breath tensely, expecting shadowy hands to reach out of the shadows at any moment.
The elevator came to an uninterrupted stop at the bottom floor. The doors opened, and she stepped into the new hall with her mother. This place looked familiar now. Sarah had been here before, but couldn't remember enough to know the way. Johanna looked back and forth with an expression mirroring her own. "It's been so long..."
A shadow dropped through the ceiling in front of them and coalesced into a humanoid shape, solidifying, wrapping the smoke in skin and cloth once more. Within seconds, Mabel had taken human shape -- but not as she had before. She stood before them as a much younger woman, a teen perhaps, covered in smoke stains with embers lighting the hems of all her clothing, burning but not consuming and never going out. Nothing about her resembled the woman Sarah had met, even given the difference in age. And then Sarah saw the name tag, glinting on her shirt, reading 'Aleza'.
"Don't look so surprised. I dropped my mask."
"You can look like different people?" Sarah said.
"I can take over different people," Mabel -- or Aleza, or whomever -- said. "Why are you running? Do you think you can ever escape? Help me and I'll let you free, and we'll never worry about these people again."
"We'll be free on our own terms," Johanna said.
"Why don't you just do it yourself? Why do you need us to help you?!" Sarah said.
"If I thought I could succeed at killing them all before they reined me in again, believe me, I would have done so a long time ago. You don't even have to kill them directly. Set this building on fire. Flame Charge your way down the halls. You're fireproof, you'll be fine."
"You'd kill people just like you were killed?!"
"It's exactly what they deserve," Mabel said, smiling without humor, "for taking advantage of my death and never letting me rest. It's too bad Samson isn't here to burn with the rest of them." She spit the name like poison.
Something clicked. As if murder is new to you.
Sarah didn't have time to finish the thought. Both her mother and Mabel acted at once: Johanna surged forward with a gout of flame, Mabel rushed her with arms outstretched, fists black and shadowy again. They collided with a burst of fire and smoke and snarled in simultaneous pain.
Sarah scrambled away as they toiled in hand-to-hand combat, Johanna breathing fire and Mabel batting it aside with gusts of wind and her ghostly clawed hands.
"Go!" Johanna shouted.
No, not again. She wouldn't run away, wouldn't let them take her parents again!
There was a hideous crack and Sarah thought someone's bones had broken. Mabel had detached her face once more, and before Johanna could react, slammed it onto hers.
Johanna gave a muffled cry and fell back, struggling to remove the mask-face, as the rest of Mabel's body dissolved into smoke and overlaid hers like a filmy shroud. Her movements became jerky, resisted, as if two minds fought to control her limbs, before the smoke and mask absorbed themselves into her skin and disappeared. She straightened up, and Sarah knew this woman was not her mother; it had her mother's face and body, but the cold arrogance and dispassionate gaze of Mabel.
Johanna's voice came in Mabel's tone. "I got tired of waiting."
Chapter 30: On Fire
Sarah backed away in horror. This dissonance of behavior made her skin crawl, a monster right out of the uncanny valley. It felt like a nightmare, when someone you know looks like someone you don't.
"Give her back! G-get out!"
"If you listen to me, I'll release her, safe and sound. If you don't, I will kill her. Understand?"
"I-- no, don't, please..." Sarah's voice broke. The fear came down on her so heavily, too heavily; tears sprang from her eyes.
"Hey, you!" a new voice shouted. Both of them looked; a grunt had just turned the corner. "I know you, you're wante--"
Mabel blasted him with flame and his words turned to screaming. Sarah cried out and covered her ears.
"You can give them quick, clean deaths, if you choose," Mabel said.
Sarah looked up, searching the woman's eyes for any sign of her mother within, any hint as to what she should do. Instead was only the chilly, apathetic stare of her enemy.
"Maybe I, I could," she said, trying to think of some way to avoid this, "I could help you another way, I could go and... and get in the lab, they might take me back in to try to test me again, but I could wreck the lab equipment."
"Then no one can come back and do those experiments again, or any of it, not without starting from scratch, right? Y-you don't need any of it, do you?"
"I suppose not. I may save some data for later, but mostly it's useless to me. Fine. Go ahead, but leave the computers themselves alone. Do not warn anyone I'm coming."
Sarah shook her head. "I won't," she said quietly. Hopefully she wouldn't need to anyway. If she started destroying things, maybe she could chase the people away without hurting them. They couldn't be all bad, right? People like Roger or Professor Zelkova had helped her escape in the long run.
"Most of the labs are that way." Mabel pointed down a hall. Apparently done with the discussion, she turned and marched up the hall, breathing small patches of flame on the walls as she went. Sarah knew she had to hurry before the fires spread.
She darted down the indicated hall and nearly collided with a metal door when it swung open. Tired-looking scientists exited from the stairwell beyond. "You!" one said between breaths. "You're... huff... in big trouble!"
"I figured. I'm, uh, turning myself in!" She offered her wrists as if to accept hand cuffs.
"Great, we can stop worrying about research deadlines so much," said another scientist. "Wait, where is Samson?"
"I lost him in the woods," she said quickly. Did they not know about his aide to her, or the altercation in the forest? Clearly they knew enough to investigate Katelyn -- or someone did, but not everyone. She thanked their poor internal communication skills.
"But you came back anyway?" The scientist narrowed his eyes dubiously.
"I was... I... My parents were still here. I couldn't leave them."
"He didn't have them?"
"N-no, he left them, uh, as hostages, so I couldn't just swipe them off his belt." She hoped that sounded logical enough to fly.
"Mmmmm, call one of the grunts to check out his room," the scientist said to the one still huffing, who nodded and left.
The third one said, "Didn't he go missing along with Sutcliffe five days ago?"
"What, really? Nobody tells us anything down here!"
Sarah didn't have time for this. "Just take me to the lab already!"
The two regarded her suspiciously. "What's the hurry?"
She tried to think of a lie, found none, and just growled out, "Fine! I'm going to bust up the lab so you can't use it anymore! And if you know what's good for you, you'll stay outta my way!" She tried to summon whatever quality of intimidation her mother held that made people think twice about staying to disagree.
Their initial surprise turned to laughter. "Okay then. Let's get the little renegade to a holding cell instead." They attempted to usher her away.
Clearly they didn't know what she had learned in five days.
Her human form had worn out its use. The only diplomacy worth beans here would be found with four feet and huge fangs. She shifted, swiftly and easily now, taking up a good portion of the hallway, and growled menacingly at the men.
They stumbled back in surprise. She pointed her head back where she'd come; they took the hint and ran by her, leaving the way ahead clear.
She dashed on, soon finding the familiar set of hallways lined with doors to laboratories of assorted size. Most of them she hadn't entered, and peering through the glass windows on the doors, she couldn't guess what they studied inside.
It didn't matter. None of it could be good, or at least, used for good by them.
She shoved open whichever unlocked doors she found, allowed the frightened employees to flee, and then began destroying the equipment within. Books and stacks of paper, strange tools, tubes and cylinders, treadmills and ECGs, tanks and cells and empty terrariums, petri dishes and microscopes and shelves lined with bones and flesh samples, and stranger things she didn't recognize. She crushed it underpaw, and set paper aflame.
If she didn't do this under duress, she would probably have enjoyed it.
It didn't occur to her that certain chemicals might explosively react to flame.
Chapter 31: In Ruin
Muffled ringing in her ears. A biting, acidic scent. Smoke, so much smoke.
Sarah didn't know which way was up. It took a long moment for her to realize she was here, and awake, and lying in rubble. Her ears felt stuffed with cotton. Noise was trying to get in and not succeeding.
She found her four feet and then found a surface to put them on. She stood shakily. She felt bruised all over. There was fire everywhere, and broken glass and twisted bits of metal. Something she'd tried to destroy had tried to destroy her right back. She tried to remember the last few minutes, or however long it had really been -- she couldn't tell in her daze.
The lab equipment, the chemicals, the computers. She'd set them on fire. And then something had exploded, or many things. She didn't think of that. How stupid! This dangerous, terrible place was no unbreakable fortress. It was as fragile as all things.
The fire couldn't harm Sarah, but everything else still could, so she padded carefully along to try to find -- what? What was she even looking for anymore? Her parents. Her dad had been on an upper floor, trying to distract the deranged Mabel, before Mabel came downstairs and possessed Sarah's mom.
Sarah called out with a roar she couldn't hear. She could hardly see either. Piera's Gust would be useful right now.
The floor rumbled and a section of wall came crumbling down, sending up plumes of dust before settling. The building wasn't totally destroyed, but it was badly damaged, and Sarah didn't know how long it'd last. She had to find her parents and get out.
The still-standing parts of the complex weren't faring well either. Mabel-Johanna's fire had become a rapid conflagration. Sarah squinted in the smoke-filled halls, trying not to cough. She decided against roaring again; she didn't want to open her mouth here.
Another rumble from above sent her loping out of the way as the ceiling caved in, bringing down sections of several upper stories with it. The walls and roof kept splintering and Sarah kept running, trying to clear the cave-in before it crushed her.
At last it stopped, letting dim natural light try to pierce the smoke. She heard shaking and cracking further away, a resonance cascade bringing down other areas of the building.
The stuffy feeling in her ears was letting up, and a thin, hardly-audible noise reached them: a pained, bestial sound. She ran toward it, and stopped at the rubble blocking her path. She used her mighty paws to push and dig, and bit through cables and wires hanging over it all like metal cobwebs. Another insistent whine came, this one louder, more clear.
At last she dug through to find her father, in his Umbreon form, lying weak and bloodied in the debris.
Sarah's efforts quadrupled in desperation. He wasn't moving, but he was breathing and barely conscious. He didn't try to make any more noise now, but waited with bleary eyes as she dug him out.
He looked so small now, limp and wounded like that. Smaller than her, weak and fragile. Like Anthony in the hospital, like Roger with a bullet hole in his torso, like everything in her life.
The building shuddered. Dust and rocks fell through the hole in the ceiling. Sarah couldn't stand there brooding, she had to act. She picked up her father by the nape of his neck with her teeth, and looked around for an escape route. The once orderly headquarters had become nothing but a confusing maze of tunnels.
She saw a promising hallway open through the ashen haze. She bounded over the rubble and bolted down the hall. Even as she ran, the building gave its final throes, groaning stone, keening metal, screaming, shattering glass. All its sounds formed one roar as its last supports buckled and everything left standing began to collapse at once.
Cinder and cinders filled the air. Sarah charged blindly now, through swirls of black and white, a blizzard of broken concrete. Another explosion resounded nearby as the blaze reached another lab of volatile materials. Flaming hailstones pelted them, rolling off her own fur and burning her dad's.
At last her feet found grassy earth. She didn't stop running, as the building continued to collapse and explode behind her. Tsunamis of smoke rolled out over the forest surrounding them, pulling a shroud over the sun and sky.
When she thought they weren't in danger of being crushed anymore, Sarah stopped wearily on a rise and dropped her dad in the dirt. He'd already fainted. His breathing was shallow, but at least he was breathing.
Sarah gazed out at the burning ruins behind them, only one thought left on her mind: What about her mom?
Chapter 32: Under a Curse
Hold on a little longer, Dad... Please nobody hurt him.
Sarah knew she had to leave her unconscious father behind to find her mother. His blue rings weren't glowing, so she set him under a large bush, hoping no one bad would find him.
Through the smoke Sarah caught glimpses of Pokemon and humans fleeing out into the woods, some taking to the air. No one tried to stop the blaze or pick through the rubble. She wondered if anyone working here would ever understand what happened, and why, and how. Would any of them know the whole truth about Sarah's family, and Mabel, and the project?
Sarah cautiously crept along over the ruins. She paused frequently to listen for Johanna's voice, or sounds like someone trapped or calling for help. She heard nothing but the crackling blaze and occasional grumble of settling debris.
At last she spotted a humanoid form standing amidst the rubble, staring, not moving. As Sarah approached, she recognized it as her mother.
Sarah shifted back to her human form. "Mom?"
Johanna lifted her head at the voice. "No."
Sarah stopped, not going any closer. "Please. Get out of her. You said you'd let her go if I helped you."
"I am a liar, child." Mabel turned. Johanna's skin was smoke-stained, bruised, and bleeding.
"Why? What else do you want with her?!" Sarah shouted. "You got what you wanted! You destroyed everything. The project is over, all the Pokemon got free and ran away, you're free now too!"
"No." Mabel bent down to sift through the mess. "I thought I would be. I hardly feel free. Do you? There is no freedom for us. There is nothing."
"Then just get out and leave us alone!"
"And spend eternity as that half-shred of a thing, bodiless, faceless?"
"You can't stay in my mom's body forever either! It, she -- people know she's missing, so if they see you they'll think you're her, and the cops will be after you, so --"
"Quiet." Mabel's voice was soft, cold, firm. She stood with some small object in her hand. "I thought this fire would free me. I thought if my unfinished business were finished, this world would let me go, if they died as I died. I thought I would feel relief."
"Then... what do you feel?"
"Tired." She opened her hand and held it out, revealing a single iron nail. She waved her other hand over it. A crimson light suffused it, levitating it, standing it straight up on her open palm.
"What are you doing?" Sarah asked nervously.
"A simple curse. It needs a ghost and a victim. I've never seen it done while they share one body. If I'm lucky it will end us both."
Mabel slammed her palms together.
Sarah ran forward, as she watched her mother fall, Mabel screaming in pain with Johanna's voice. The smoke seemed to gather around her, coagulating into a shadowy aura, turning the hot air cold.
"NO! What did you do?!" Sarah said. "What's -- stop it! Stop it!"
She dropped to her knees and shook her mother's shoulders, trying to rattle the ghost out of her. Mabel seized, limbs contorting with pain.
"You think you can get out?! You killed the real Mabel and you still didn't die!" Sarah shouted hoarsely. "Aleza! This isn't how you escape!"
Sarah watched in horror as her mother's body visibly wasted away, wounds deepening and widening, muscles withering, flesh paling.
"Maybe you have to be a ghost because you're a bad person! Maybe you're stuck here because you couldn't let go, you just got angry and vengeful and started murdering people to make yourself feel better! But look where it got you!"
The frigid shadows swirled around them. If Mabel -- if Aleza could hear or understand anymore, she didn't show it, she just wailed in agony as her cursed soul devoured her living vessel.
"You got stuck right where you died! Nobody held you back but YOU!" Sarah screamed. "How many people have to burn with you before it's enough?!"
"ALL. OF. THEM."
Sarah grabbed the nail head, trying to pull it out, but it held fast through flesh and bone, not budging an inch. It wasn't working. Johanna would die, and Aleza wouldn't. It would just keep happening.
"Fine! Well you can't just go die if you've got unfinished business! Roger is still alive!"
Aleza's eyes snapped to focus and her wail became a shrieking gale. All at once her ghostly self ripped away from Johanna's body like a molting Kakuna. The black winds whipped and whistled. Sarah bent double and gripped the ground to keep from getting knocked back.
As the last trail of shadow left Johanna, the dark winds vanished. The nail popped out of her hand and hit the floor as the curse went inert. She lay there unconscious, draped over death's doorway. Fragile, but alive. For now.
Aleza hovered over Sarah, looking even less human than before. Her ruby eyes stared unblinkingly out of the shadow that was her un-body. She held her mask-face in her hands.
"Take me to him."
Sarah raised her head and stood, glaring right back. In truth, she was terrified. This monster had just come seconds away from murdering Sarah's mother -- and now wanted to finish the job on Roger. How was she to lead Aleza away from Johanna and Michael without getting anyone else killed?
"Only if... if you don't kill him right away," Sarah said. "You have to talk to him first."
"Talk to him? What would I have to say?"
"You..." Sarah hesitated, mind racing. "You never told him who you really were, did you? He doesn't know that -- that he killed you."
"He knows what he has done. Does it matter if he knows it was me?"
"You could have killed him all along, but you didn't. Maybe you had a reason."
"I did. That reason was keeping the secret. Now it doesn't matter one way or another. I have nothing to hide. I have nothing to tell."
"Well, maybe you... Maybe you just want to see the look on his face when he finds out," Sarah said. "Maybe you want t-to kill him letting him know who's doing it."
"Fine. I will kill him in the end regardless. Now take me to him."
Sarah didn't believe for a second that Aleza would really wait and chat -- and even if she did, what good would it do? Stall her long enough to stop her somehow. But how? She was already dead!
"Well?" Aleza said.
"O-okay," Sarah said. "It's a long walk."
She set off into the forest towards Celadon City as the sun set, Aleza silently drifting behind her.
Chapter 33: In The Past
Walking in the woods in the night with a vengeful spirit at her back made Sarah increasingly nervous.
Aleza's presence chilled the air despite her appearance of always burning at the edges. She'd lost distinction after the battle, her edges less defined in a way that made it hard to distinguish her arms held in front of her. She looked more like a backlit silhouette, and not even that once night fell -- only a pair of floating red eyes that never blinked but shone as if a flame burned within her very skull.
Sarah resumed Pokemon form eventually. Hard paw pads made it easier to travel the rough terrain. She had the entire trip to try to think up a plan, but nothing came. If she tried to lie and take Aleza anywhere else, Aleza could just possess and kill her, or go back and kill her parents. But if she took Aleza to Roger, defenseless in a hospital, he would be killed.
And that wouldn't help Aleza pass on. Thinking he died in the first place didn't do any good.
Sarah thought the woman's physical diffusion represented a loss of mental cohesion. Maybe a part of Aleza's soul just never really came back, or maybe she really was a bad person all along, even in life.
Whatever the case, Aleza was unhinged and unreasonable. She wanted blood and fire and death and didn't care whose it was anymore.
The trees thinned and Celadon rose up twinkling against the night sky. Sarah took human form and walked slowly down the street. She was running out of options. Could she really risk letting this mad ghost loose in a hospital?
The few people they passed gave them frightened looks and a wide berth. Aleza didn't even notice. She kept staring intently at Sarah.
"If -- if you go around like that, you, um," Sarah said, "you'll spook people."
"I don't care."
"I-I know you don't care about what people think, but it'll make things complicated. If people freak out, they might get in the way."
"And what do you propose?"
"Let me go on ahead and get him. I'll bring him out alone."
"Fine. You have an hour. I'll start killing people if you don't return," Aleza said, and turned to drift back to the treeline.
Sarah let out a shaky breath, then sprinted to the hospital. What was she really going to do? She couldn't lead him to his death. But once again she she only had a choice between one death or another.
Maybe he'd have an idea. Maybe his Pokemon could knock Aleza out and give everyone time to plan.
Sarah reached the hospital and breathlessly asked to visit Roger Samson. It was too late, they said, visiting hours were over. If she'd only come back tomorrow, they offered. She lied and said sure, and asked what room she'd find him in. They told her and she thanked them and said she'd use the restroom before leaving.
Once she was down a hallway out of sight of the front desk, she hopped in the nearest elevator and rode it up to his floor.
Only a few nurses and one Chansey were on shift, making their way from room to room, pushing along carts of supplies. Sarah moved only when their backs were turned, and ducked into alcoves when they might cross her path.
She reached Roger's room and slipped in, opening and closing the door gently to avoid making a sound, then sprinted over to the bed.
"Samson!" she hissed. "Roger!"
He woke with a start and looked around in the darkness with confusion. "Wha--"
"It's me, Sarah." She found a light switch and turned it on.
He furrowed his brows. "...Why?" He then looked to the window. "What time is it?"
"Late. It doesn't matter! I don't have much time."
"Where are your parents?"
"Almost dead! Listen, Mabel's not Mabel. She's not dead either. She was possessed all along by a ghost, and now she's back and she's trying to kill everyone. She blew up the Team headquarters, and now she wants to kill you."
His brows unfurrowed in order to raise instead. "That's... What?"
"She's been dead all along. Her real name is Aleza."
Roger sucked in a sharp breath, eyes widening.
"And," Sarah went on, "she wants to get revenge on you. F-for killing her."
His mouth opened soundlessly, then snapped shut. He sat still as a statue for several moments before letting out a long sigh, shoulders sinking, and set a hand on his brow. "By Arceus. This was years ago..." he muttered.
"Yeah, and it's caught up to you now. And I'm caught up in it."
He made a throaty grumbling noise and looked away. "We were friends," he said stiffly. "We were young. We robbed a store."
"She was the clerk. She said --"
"Yes. She helped us. She opened the register. And then one of her coworkers showed up. Before the rest of us knew what was happening, Aleza shot him dead."
"Then how did she die?"
"She wanted to hide the evidence." His voice lowered. "The rest of us panicked and went along with it. We'd take the money and burn the store down."
Sarah shivered and hugged her arms. "...Who set the fire?"
He lowered his head.
"Roger, I've been on the run for what feels like forever now. And my parents were hiding from their pasts, and hiding it from me. But it doesn't do any good," she said. "Running from your past, even running from things you can't change or can't control, it doesn't stop them from being real and all it does is get innocent people hurt."
"I don't need a lecture from a nine year old!" he barked, glaring at her.
"Maybe you do!" she said. "Maybe everyone needs to just stop running and hiding and lying before anyone else gets killed!"
"What good is it going to do?"
"She's going to kill you, can't you understand that? Lying here doing nothing isn't helping, so we need to do something! She tried to kill my parents already, and --"
"And you want me to just let her kill me?" he said.
"No! But maybe if you just owned up to what you did --"
"I didn't -- It's not liked I tried to kill her! I -- Veloca started the fire."
"But you ordered Veloca to, didn't you?"
"It's not -- I didn't know --" he stammered. "We thought Aleza was right behind us when..."
"And then instead of coming clean you just ran away to join Team Rocket!"
"What was I supposed to do? Where else could I have gone? I took part in two murders!"
Sarah put her hands on her face, breathing deeply to steady herself. "She's going to commit more murders if we can't stop her. I don't know what to do, Roger. I need your help."
"I --" He sighed. "What am I supposed to do?"
"Fight her." Sarah lowered her hands. "She's a Pokemon. You have Pokemon. They're healed now, right?"
"Yes, and I still have a hole in my gut."
"She'll do a lot worse to you if you don't do anything at all. She's pretty good at finding people. Must be annoying to have someone hunting you down, huh?"
He gave her an irritated look and grumbled, "Alright, I deserved that."
"No kidding. I'm really tired of having to pay for your mistakes."
"Don't push it, kid."
"Hurry up and get out of bed already. She gave me an hour." Sarah marched back out into the hall without waiting for his response.
A few minutes later he emerged, having changed from a hospital gown to fresh clothes. He walked with a slow, agitated gait, wincing every so often.
"What kind of Pokemon is she?" he asked.
"A ghost, that's all I know," Sarah said. "When she -- lost her body, she looked like a shadow shaped like a human, with red eyes. And she can pull her face off and put it on you to possess you. And it's really cold around her all the time."
"Hrm. Yamask and Gengar? She might be immune to Ground or weak to it..." he said. "She's definitely immune to Fighting and Normal." His musings trailed off as they exited the hospital onto the sidewalk.
"You grew up in Celadon City, didn't you?"
He side-eyed her. "Yes..."
"Then... is this where she died?"
He didn't reply at first, instead looking up and around at the skyline as if trying to spot something in the distance. "Yes."
"Do you think..." Sarah hesitated. "If she saw where it happened, would it help her move on?"
"How should I know? I'm not a medium. What if it makes her angrier to revisit the scene?"
"Why are such a downer? Don't you have any hope about anything?"
He gave her a flat look. "At this point? Not really."
"Why? Wait." She frowned. "You don't think you're going to survive."