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Private/Closed Planet of the Pokérus

Discussion in 'Pokémon Role Play' started by rawheight, Jun 23, 2018.

  1. This month Leon would turn sixteen years old. That meant a lot of things were about to happen, and they were about to happen very quickly.

    Leon had lived at Academy 119 since he was three years old, when his parents died of the infection that had somehow spared his own life. Most of the kids here shared a similar story. Parents, often in search of the basic necessities, ventured out into a world that was growing more dangerous with every passing day. They were either murdered at the claws of a feral Pokémon or left alive long enough to die of a Pokérus infection - an incredibly excruciating process. This left behind hundreds of orphaned children, far too young to care for themselves.

    Leon didn't remember much from before the Academy. But he did remember his rescue by the heavily armored members of TAP - the Taskforce Against Pokérus. It was dark, and he had been sleeping. Suddenly there was a commotion outside his door, and he could swear he remembered-

    He could swear -

    He heard a woman scream. His mother scream.

    But the counselors at the Academy assured him it was a false memory, conjured in place of the reality his brain did not want to accept. His parents were dead, and he was all alone in this world.

    Alone, but not without purpose. TAP had rescued him for a greater cause.

    Academy 119 was housed in what used to be the old Weather Institute on Route 119 in Hoenn. The building was quickly abandoned when everything went south in the original Pokérus outbreak, forty-something years ago. Long enough ago that Leon didn't know any other world than this. But the building was sound and it was a good size, and the scientific instruments that had been left behind were repurposed for all kinds of missions. About a hundred students lived here, packed into small living spaces in one wing of the Institute where they shared space four to a room. Twenty support staff, adults of all ages, taught classes and administered discipline, raising these children into soldiers for one endgame: the eradication of the virus and the return of a peaceful lifestyle between Pokémon and humans.

    Somewhere out in the forest, a few humans still lived. The few Breeders left with an immunity to Pokérus. They raised teams of Pokémon for the Academy's use, allowing young trainers to remotely control their teams in order to explore the surrounding area and capture any Pokémon they could find. These Pokémon were then transferred to Kanto where most of the research on the virus was being conducted. What exactly happened to the Pokémon there, Leon was unsure. The teachers at the Academy were vague in their responses. But the general idea was to cure the Pokémon of the virus that at some point had mutated to become deadly to humans and then release them back into the wild.

    The scientists in Kanto must be having some success with that program, Leon thought, because every once in a while they would get in a huge shipment of recycled Pokéballs to the Academy, ready to be used again.

    "LS! Over here!"

    Leon looked up as his nicknamed was called - his initials, really - and took his tray from the cafeteria line to sit at a table with a handful of trainers a few years younger. He already knew what they were going to ask him.

    "Are you scared?" One boy asked, leaning over the table intently.

    He gave a lopsided smile. "Scared? Scared of what?" he asked incredulously, tearing a roll in half and dipping it in a puddle of gravy. Leon was well-mannered, polite, and friendly. He got along well with just about anyone, but he wasn't particularly interested in making friends. He was focused on his training; focused on graduation.

    Not every student that graduated the Academy was allowed into TAP. Only the best of the best were sent to the Taskforce where they operated real missions in the real world with their real Pokémon. Doing things like saving orphaned children from dying alone in a hostile world. They donned the armor and fought the most vicious fight humanity had faced since the dawn of their species.

    TAP had been Leon's dream since as far back as he could remember. So he remained focused on his training and fought hard to be the best, but it was a struggle. He wasn't the only student at the Academy who wanted one of those coveted top slots at graduation that would assure them a place in TAP.
    He had a 100% catch rate in the sims, which translated to about a 94% in the real world where you had to deal with things that the computers couldn't compensate for. Despite this Leon often came in second place during missions, focusing more on accuracy than on quantity. But catching Pokémon was the name of the game, as many and as often as possible. So his instructors usually had a few words for him after a sim or mission.

    The students around him continued to chatter, regurgitating rumors of what it was like to graduate and the transition to TAP. Not much was known about the organization, really. Everything was Top Secret and even if the instructors here at the Academy knew anything about it, they sure weren't telling. But every once in a while they would get a visit from one of the TAP soldiers. Their helmet with the luminous yellow eyes tucked under their arm, hair plastered to their head with sweat, deep gouges in their armor from what could only be assumed as violent battles with feral Pokémon... they were badass.
     
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  2. https://pokecharms.com/threads/planet-of-the-pokerus-discussion.19457/

    A few miles out to sea from the Mauville Beach, a luxury cruiser coasted northward through the waves. It was called the S.S. Melbourne, and those who lived aboard might have appreciated the irony of its original function in the modern world . . . if any of them had been alive back when it was first constructed. That was a different time: a time when ships could sail for enjoyment- not just survival necessity- and pokemon battling was a decadent sport for amusement rather than a fight to the death.

    "Captain on deck!" barked a uniformed man in armor that partially masked his upper face. The ship's crew, consisting overwhelmingly of youths in their mid-teens, snapped to attention as a white-haired elderly man approached them from the forward bow. One of the crew took a second or two to catch on before copying another boy's salute, but the Captain took no notice. He set his arms behind his back and spoke out in a slightly rasped, but resonant voice.

    "First of all," he said, "I congratulate all of you for passing your prerequisite exams. No matter how tomorrow's practical test goes in the field, you should all feel proud, knowing that you got this far. You are now stronger than any of the pokemon you own, as you should be. That said . . ." He paused, then continued. "The pokemon you will face in Fortree Settlement will be numerous and relentless. When we last were in contact with Fortree TAP, their forces were already thin at the border. By the time we arrive, the animals may have already gotten through the barricades, which of course means that you won't be able to bring your own pokemon within the Settlement's limits.

    "Your mission will involve two phases. The first objective: reestablish a secure perimeter around Fortree Settlement, at least long enough for the TAP Rangers to hold the line. The second objective: when the Rangers give the go-ahead, proceed into Fortree and eliminate any pokemon within the safe zone. Due to the severity of the situation, deadly force is authorized. Be advised that, as the battles will be real, and not training, there is a real possibility that not all of you will return alive. Do any of you wish to exempt yourselves at this time?"

    The last question was, of course, rhetorical. The Melbourne Floating Academy was like all Taskforce academies, training pokerus-immune warriors from extreme youth to become fighting machines in the lopsided war for humanity's survival. You didn't say "no" to the call of duty after twelve years of tempering.

    The Captain waited a moment, considering the stone-faced expressions of the young combatants, and presently nodded with satisfaction. "Honor before life," he said stoutly. "Even those who fall may have the peace of mind that the TAP Rangers will ultimately accomplish the objective. They always do." He nodded again, this time at the silent, armor-clad adults who stood at the outer boundaries of the teenage crowd. "When the Rangers assign you to squads, they will give you all a more indepth briefing. But before I dismiss you, let me share one more bit of encouragement with you.

    "Academy 119 is in close vicinity to Fortree Settlement. We function independently, but in the likely event that Fortree has petitioned them for aid, expect reinforcements. We're still waiting on confirmation."


    ***


    Matt McCallister had been among the students on the deck to hear Captain O'Bannon's speech. Specifically, he had been the one who was slow to salute, for he had only been on the Melbourne for a couple of weeks now and was still learning the ropes. Being a recent transfer from another Academy did nothing to aid his insecurity, which was why he now stood outside a certain cabin door as the darkness of evening crept over the ship.

    He knocked, waited for a second, then pushed open the door, walking past the label "chapel." Down past the pews, sitting at the foot of the altar, was a green-and-white pokemon wearing a glowing collar. It looked up as Matt entered, and for a moment, its facial expression conveyed surprise. Then it got up from its cross-legged position, and seemed to smile at its visitor.

    "Welcome, my son," it said warmly- or to be more precise, the collar spoke the words, while the creature radiated a friendly aura. "Matt, was it? You should be in your quarters . . . the ship is supposed to levitate up a waterfall soon, and it gets dangerous."

    Matt grinned apologetically, scratching his head. "Yeah, I'm still wrapping my head around how Matrix gets his Gyarados fleet to coordinate that so well. I wouldn't have come if it weren't important, so I'll- I'll be quick, Gallade."

    "Please. Call me Father Freeman."

    "Father-?" Matt blinked, and shook his head. "How about Freeman? I'm not Catholic."

    The Gallade emanated gentle amusement. "Freeman, then. I can spare you three minutes, but for your safety, that's it. What's troubling you, my son?"

    Matt tilted his head. "You're a psychic pokemon, and the ship counselor. Shouldn't you have a pretty good idea?"

    "Yes," said Gallade- Freeman- with light laughter, "but I want to meet you where you're at. Let me hear it from you."

    Matt sighed and nodded, his expression turning serious. "I may die tomorrow, or next week, or in a few years to come," he said, not looking Freeman in the eye. "And I haven't made peace with what's waiting for me on the other side. But at least on this side of mortality . . ." Now he did glance up, looking the Gallade full in the face. "I need to know. Am I doing the right thing? I've lived all my life knowing that pokemon are dangerous, yet they aren't necessarily evil. I've trained enough of them to be convinced of that. You're a pokemon. What do you think of us humans killing off your kind?"

    Sadness welled up in Freeman's eyes, and he gave off an aura of melancholy. "I told you I would spare you three minutes," he said softly, "yet how can I answer something like that in such a brief period? Nevertheless, I will try.

    "When I was cured of my pokerus, it was like a demon had been exorcised from my body. Before that, I had known nothing but the insatiable urge to rip, and cut, and mutilate, and dominate, without any sense of peace. I lost my innocence barely after becoming a Kirlia, when the virus struck out of nowhere. Being driven thus, mindlessly, endlessly, a slave to the violent tendencies inherent in every pokemon multiplied tenfold . . . it is a fate worse than death. At least in my experience, humans got off easy."

    Matt withdrew slightly as the Gallade bent an incredible wave of conviction upon him. "Do not mistake me," Freeman continued gravely, "I can speak only to my own experience. Though the quarantine and killing of pokemon is a mercy in this fallen world, there will also be younglings who hatch from eggs, who will never see their parents. There will be virus-immune pokemon, even as there are virus-immune humans, who will be killed by mistake for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This will only worsen as the darkness of the pokerus is pushed back. Yet humans are still our most immediate salvation, and we, their doom. They have a right to self-defense, and as one who was saved by the resourcefulness of humans, I will do what I can to aid you."

    Freeman relaxed his psychic aura, and Matt felt as though he had been holding his breath for hours. He let out a long exhale. "Thanks. That helps a little, I think. God, what a sucky world we live in."

    "In time, it will be made right again," Freeman encouraged. "But with that, I must insist you return to your station. We will speak again if you like . . . until then, good-night, Matt McCallister."
     
    #2 Pokemon Fanfiction Novels, Jun 24, 2018
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2018
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  3. Leon had no sooner finished scraping the last bit of food off his plate (not because it was particularly tasty, but rather because every ounce of food was grown, cultivated, and harvested under the duress of an attack from a Pokerus-infected Pokemon, and he respected it as thus) than he heard his name being barked out across the cafeteria.

    "Cadet Samuelson," the words spoken as a command rather than a question.

    Leon stood to attention, then turned on his heel to face the officer who filled the doorway of the cafeteria. He was tall, imposing, with short salt-and-pepper hair and a matching beard. Beneath his right eye were three deep scars - the mark of a Pokemon attack from long ago. The man looked familiar to the young cadet, but he couldn't quite put his finger on when or where they had met before.

    "Sir, yes sir," the youth responded with a brisk salute. The patch on the sleeve of the officer's uniform bore the half-camouflaged Kecleon mascot of the TAP's 119th Division. What was going on...? He wasn't due to graduate for another two weeks almost. TAP never wasted their time visiting the Academy unless they had urgent business with the staff.

    Major Glascoe gave the cadet a brief look over. Just a boy. But they all were. Every silent, soft, round face in this room staring at him with those wide, innocent eyes. With no idea what was really out in the world. No idea what they were really training for. No idea just how close to death they all were, even in this very moment. Glascoe blinked and refocused on Cadet Samuelson, giving him a curt, acknowledging nod. "Follow me." And without waiting to even see if the boy was following, he turned and exited the room.

    ---

    Though not exactly short himself, Leon had to almost jog to keep up with the long strides of Major Glascoe, who had spent the last fifteen minutes filling him in on their predicament. Fourtree, one of the few remaining human settlements, was under attack. Hidden deep in the woods - deep in Pokemon territory - it was a miracle it had survived so long. But at this moment, that miracle was in jeopardy. The S.S. Melbourne, part of TAP's naval branch, would be docking soon and sending troops in to begin mitigating the loss. The 119th, desperately dependent on support and supplies from Fourtree, would be coming out in force. Leon was graduating early.

    "We've already harvested your Pokemon from their Breeder," Glascoe didn't slow his pace, but held his hand out to the cadet who caught the four miniature Pokeballs as they were dropped.

    Leon stared down at them in awe, whatever the TAP Major was saying fading out of hearing and into the background. Pokemon. His Pokemon. They had trained together over the past six years in a variety of missions, but he had never before seen them in person. And now they were here. In his hands. His Pokemon.

    "Samuelson," the Major barked irritably, getting the boy's attention. Once he saw Leon's dark brown eyes snap back into focus he spoke again, his hand resting on the doorknob to Academy 119's front door. "This is your last chance. Once you exit this building, there is no turning back," it was a warning. "What is your choice?"

    Leon looked from the Major to the doorknob, then down to the four Pokeballs in his hands. Then, with his heart racing with excitement beyond description, the boy gave a huge grin. "Sir, with all due respect, I'm not turning back."
     
  4. "Pokerus does not merely enhance a pokemon's power and aggression. It raises its intelligence. Scientists doubt pokemon will ever become as capable of reason as humans, but the increased trend of coordinated attacks by different species is worrisome."

    ***

    The once open sea had narrowed into a river, to the point that Melbourne Academy could barely fit between opposite shores. If not for the Gyarados tug fleet, the ship could never have come this far inland. This was considered a dangerous position, because out on sea, the Melbourne was vulnerable almost exclusively to water-type pokemon, which were easy to counter. On land, any of the eighteen types could potentially launch a raid, and escape routes were relatively restricted.

    A general air of tension on the ship became increasingly noticeable to those who paid attention to subtle body language. As the TAP Candidates were grouped into squads, the senior personnel went to high alert. The Academy's defense force, not-so-subtly dubbed the "Praetorian Guard," doubled their lookouts and uneasily rechecked their equipment. The offensive force, the "Vanguard," gathered the leaders of each student squad to brief them on the pokemon most common to the Fortree area, so that they could then pass the information to their teams.

    Matt had been placed into Squad B, a three-man team consisting of himself, an asthmatic, and a failure from the previous year's field exam. The asthmatic was called Melvin, and the boy was living proof that you didn't have to be a specimen of human fitness to be pokerus-immune. He was prone to getting light-headed and fainting from any excessive physical exertion, and his wheezing put any hope of stealth warfare out of the question. The other member, Haku, functioned as the squad leader. However, Matt had quickly picked up that Haku lived in a state of perpetual rage, and he took it out on anyone who was conceivably beneath his authority. It certainly didn't help that he was going into his second graduation attempt with a boy at death's door, and an insecure newbie.

    "Alright, assholes," Haku murmured, pointing offdeck at the eastern woods just beyond the shore. "Listen up, because we're moving out in two minutes, and I don't feel comfortable with you two guarding my back if my pokemon dies. The name of the game is 'Follow the Leader,' and when that isn't me, it's the Rangers in the Vanguard. Lose sight of either of us in that forest, and you can pray to Satan to be merciful for all the good it'll do."

    Melvin withdrew a little as Haku bent his fingers into claws. "There are Mightyena and Absol in there, Linoone and Kecleon. The scouts say they're cooperatin', so if they ain't eating each other, that leaves you. Obviously, since it's mostly Normal and Dark types, you'll want to have a Fighting-type out if you've got one. Otherwise, you'd better put the Academy karate classes to good use-"

    Haku paused for a second and stared disbelievingly at Melvin; the latter had his hand raised slightly, timidly. "What is it, mouth-breather? I don't recall giving you permission to speak."

    "I didn't pass my karate final," Melvin mumbled, adjusting his glasses and not looking at Haku. "And I don't have a Fighting-type. Can we accommodate for that?"

    Haku lifted his arms in a gesture of frustration, like he wanted to strangle Melvin. Instead, he turned to look at Matt. "Okay, you. New guy. Your job is to make sure this pansy doesn't get mauled to death in the jungle. Please tell me you have a Fighting-type pokemon."

    "I don't," Matt stated in an even voice, determined not to be daunted by Haku. "I'm covering that role. But I'm surprised you even care enough about our welfare to ask."

    Haku raised his eyebrows. "Catty. Well, new guy, I confess that I don't care. But I'm team leader, and I lose too many points if a squad member dies, so . . . let's do this." He pressed a palm to his forehead, like the whole affair was giving him a giant headache, and pointed at Melvin. "I'm certain that the Captain made Squad B the Loser Squad, but both of you had to have made it this far somehow. Give me a list of all the things you're good for. You first, mouth-breather."

    If Melvin had any sort of response ready after being put on the spot so suddenly, he was saved by the bell. The noise of an air horn, multiplied tenfold, blared through the ship's speakers, followed by a calm but equally-loud voice. "The field exam has commenced. Squads A through J, secure the Fortree Border."

    "Damn it," grumbled Haku, raising his pokeball. A moment later, an Infernape appeared with a shriek, and Haku rushed forward, waving his arm. "Looks like we're skipping the ice-breaker. Let's go, assholes!"
     
  5. The march through the forest was a dangerous one and for Leon, more than just a little overwhelming. He had only been in the Pokemon wilds a handful of times in his life, and always with a heavy escort. In school, the simulations he fought in confined, safe spaces, were intense but never life-threatening. Leon was realizing now just how little they correlated to this very real world. His thirteen years of experience in the Academy paled in comparison to this one moment, here and now. Every rustle in the forest could mean danger. Every chirrup of some far-off Pokemon the sound of a rallying cry. Every moment of silence the forewarning of an ambush.

    There were about sixty members of the 119th, and almost all of them had been sent on this mission. Only a handful stayed behind to guard the base they left (a base Leon still had not seen). Among their fighting troop were some incredibly fierce warriors - Pokemon trainers Leon had only ever heard about.
    Captain Jupiter Maxxon and his team of Kecleon, Stufful, and Bewear. It was said the Captain had made his way to Hoenn from a completely foreign region all on his own without any backup save for his Pokemon. He was in charge of the scouts and infiltration.
    Major Glascoe, who had come to pick Leon up, was second-in-command. His team were all brawny fighters. His prized Machamp was out in the lead, clearing any debris or fallen trees from their path. They had already encountered a few roadblocks that almost seemed like they had been deliberately set up. As if the wild Pokemon knew the path they were going to take through the forest.
    And then there was Lieutenant General Benjamin Credit, officer-in-command of the TAP 119th Division. He was an incredibly large man, lean and muscled. He had black hair and black eyes and every patch of skin that was showing, save for his face, was covered in black tribal tattoos. Leon had heard from rumors at school that General Credit's team consisted only of poison and ghost types, but currently his Braviary was flying high above them - just a dot in the sky - keeping an eye out for any ambush or attack.

    Leon's Taillow is up there too, though flying not nearly as high as the Braviary. In their debrief at the beginning of the trek, Major Glascoe had allowed each team member to choose one of their Pokemon to keep an eye out for them and defend them if an attack came. Only one, in order to keep their march as small and contained as possible. Then, once they made it to Fortree... well, that was a different story altogether.

    As they broke through the forest into a clearing, Leon froze in surprise. In the distance he could see a strange orange glow on the horizon in the direction of Fortree. The wild Pokemon had started a fire. But how? There were no fire-types native to this area! Major Glascoe ordered a halt, and the company began murmuring to themselves. They had a few water Pokemon amongst them, but would it be enough to put out a forest fire?

    Just then, Captain Maxxon appeared out of thin air, a Kecleon on either side of him. Two scouts materialized as well, each folding up a painted sheet of material that had helped them blend in with the background of the forest. The scouts mingled with the rest of their troop while the officers all gathered 'round to discuss the findings. Leon watched the group, though he couldn't make out anything that was being said. This was his life now, he supposed. He would only be given the information he needed, not the information he wanted. It was a strange, cold, plummeting plunge from being on top of the Academy to the bottom of TAP.

    But this was his dream, right? This was his dream.

    Major Glascoe broke from the officer's meeting to address the 119th as a whole. "Anyone with a water Pokemon, you're on me. Everyone else, break into your squads. The people of Fortree are taking refuge in their houses in the trees. The children are locked in the gym, the strongest structure in Fortree. The wild Pokemon are trying to burn them all out. We don't know how the fire started, but those 'Rus beasts have sure figured out how to use it. The forces from the Melbourne have just made land, and will be approaching the settlement from the south-east. My squad will focus on putting out the flames - the rest of you know what to do. Let's go! We're just a mile away now. Double-time." Glascoe barked the order, his calm and confidence bolstering the courage of the 119th. There was no time for fear - there was a war to fight.

    Leon slid the helmet of his new TAP suit over his head, hearing the click as it locked into place. And he allowed the surge of pride and excitement at seeing his dreams come alive wash all over him.

    ---

    Leon had traded his Taillow out for Crawdaunt, arguably his most powerful Pokemon. He was grateful to be in Major Glascoe's squad on this mission, for even though the TAP Pokemon were marked with bandannas or sometimes even makeshift armor bearing the Kecleon symbol of the 119th, once they had delved into the foray it was difficult for Leon to tell them apart from the other 'Rus Pokemon. The battlefield was like nothing Leon could have imagined. It was just pure chaos.

    Fortree looked bad, too. To the north, the trees bordering the clearing of the settlement were all ablaze, and the wind was blowing south. It was only a matter of time before they caught the tops of the treehomes alight, and with the end of Fortree would be the end of half the 119th's supply shipments. The other squads were already beginning to clear out the wild Pokemon, and had secured several of the tree homes to use as operating bases. But there were not nearly enough of them. There seemed to be four 'Rus for every one of the trained, Pokerus-immune Pokemon. Without the backup from the Melbourne, they were fighting a losing battle.
     
  6. "Contact!" came a distant yell from behind Matt, as he pushed himself to keep pace with the other runners. He was half-tempted to turn around and assist with the ambush that those in the rear had encountered, but protocol dictated that he keep pressing forward. Had the call come from further ahead of the line formation, his squad would have eventually caught up and come across the enemy, in time to help neutralize the threat. Thank God for the Vanguard. Even if there was nobody else to run up and aid the squads in the rear, a couple TAP Rangers hung back to keep their flank secure. It wasn't exactly consistent with the "vanguard" title, but the last squads would be grateful, nonetheless.

    "What's our ETA?" wheezed the exhausted voice of Melvin from beside Matt. In front of him, Haku didn't turn around, but remarked, "about this time tomorrow, if you don't get your ass moving. We lose points if Squad C overtakes us, so suck it up!"

    At the moment, two thoughts occupied Matt's mind. First, the observation that Haku really loved the word "ass." Second, wonder about Melbourne Academy's pokemon rule of march. For non-stealth operations, you were permitted to have one pokemon out at a time, on condition that you didn't ride it. Perhaps this was understood among those who had been with Melbourne from early youth, or maybe it was a case of "theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die." Matt had no choice but to assume that the higher-ups had taken the time to think it through, and had perhaps concluded that an all-human march would make for a more consistent pace, despite being slower. Obviously, Melvin was a factor that fell outside such calculations, but if push came to shove, he would carry the asthmatic himself.

    For a moment, Matt took notice of an orange glow in the distance: northwest, the direction they were running. Before he had time to question it, however, a second cry of "Contact!" came behind some foliage just a few paces ahead. He instinctively groped for his pokeball belt, just as the threat came into view.

    Before his eyes was a translucent wall of yellow dust, in the midst of which stood the outline of a lone, humanoid shape. Matt recognized it as a Ranger wearing a gas mask, and he knew that this was some kind of powder attack that he had almost rushed into. Just in front of him, Haku's arm shot out to halt him, nearly clothes-lining Melvin in the process. As he struggled to drag on his mask, there was a burst of light from his left, and a Staraptor emerged from one of Melvin's pokeballs. The boy dropped to a kneeling posture, doubled-over wheezing, but the Staraptor autonomously whipped up a Gust attack, blowing the powder up and away. It was dispersed, but lingering residue remained in the air, and who knew what it might be?

    Out from the woodwork (literally) marched a wall of enormous sauropod-looking animals. After a moment, Matt recognized them as Tropius: diplodocus sized Grass-types in this brave new world, despite being barely horse-level tall back before the epidemic. At their feet, darting around cautiously so as not to be trodden down, were packs of Gloom. Matt's eyes widened as he secured his mask under his jaw. Was this their strategy, then? Incapacitate the enemy with unbreathable air, then stomp them to death?

    He raised a pokeball, and gave it a toss. "Arcanine!" The ball burst open, but what materialized in the white summoning light was not his fire dog, but a tiny, cheerful-looking creature with fairy wings. Togetic. He'd grabbed the wrong ball . . . but with type advantage intact, it was close enough.

    "Infernape!" barked Haku in front of him, pointing at the collective of Grass-types. "Heat Wave!"

    "Belay that order!" cried the Ranger, but it was too late. In an instant, Haku's Infernape lowered its head and loosed a pillar of flame that saturated the Tropius and Gloom in cleansing fire. By the time it was over, the Grass-types were partially cremated, and the trees behind them burned enthusiastically.

    The Ranger wasted no time. "Greninja, Water Shuriken!" he snapped, as he turned to face Squad B. Even as he spoke to them, great spurts of star-shaped water pellets burst in the background from seemingly nowhere, striking the hottest parts of the flames with remarkable accuracy.

    "No more Fire-type attacks," came the muffled voice through the mask. "They're counterproductive to the mission. Fortree is now burning with a wildfire we didn't create, and our new priority is to stifle the flames before they reach the civilians in the settlement. Do you three have Water-type pokemon?"

    The trio nodded wordlessly.

    "Good. Then I'm reassigning you to firefighting duty. If any of you have riding pokemon, you may use them to catch up to Squad A and fill them in. From there, avoid battles when possible until you get to the heart of the settlement. Guard your Water-types while they work, and if they are overwhelmed, get creative. Move!"

    Well, thought Matt, as he called out Arcanine and followed Haku's Tauros, there's one silver lining. He glanced back behind him at Melvin, whose mask probably obscured a very grateful face as he clung to his Sawsbuck. My teammate's been temporarily spared.
     
  7. There were pained, gutteral screams echoing through the forest now that Leon couldn't place as human or Pokemon. Either way, every time one was uttered the hair on his neck stood on end. There was no way to train for the violent massacre that was occurring The 119th up in the trees were literally throwing wild Pokemon down to their doom on the forest floor. The fires raging below made no distinction between Pokemon with the Pokerus virus and those without - it devoured them equally with pleasure. Somewhere in the distance, there was the high falsetto of children screaming.

    If Leon had the chance to talk to one of the commanders, he would have known that things were actually progressing in their favour. The Melbourne's Vanguard had finally reached the settlement, and with their combined forces they were now beginning to beat back the concentrated 'Rus attack. About a quarter of the forest fire had been put out, and with the Melbourne's team approaching from the opposite end they would soon meet in the middle with the blaze extinguished.

    But the newest member of TAP's 119th Division had no way of knowing this. All he heard were the screams, the crackling of boughs bursting into flame, the thunder of some huge herd of Pokemon rampaging through the forest. His mind had subconsciously created a barrier to the horrors, so that he was seeing in tunnel vision. His focus was on his Crawdaunt, and nothing else. Together the water-types had collectively performed Rain Dance, and while the clouds gathered overhead to shower the settlement they attacked the inferno with whatever moves they could. Leon himself would have his Pokemon use Surf on one tree, then methodically move to the next, looking at nothing save for what was exactly in front of him. He was grateful for the Rogue Pokemon's aggressive nature that didn't question anything as long as he had the opportunity to use his attacks.

    After about a half hour of simply moving from tree to tree to tree, the young trainer was side-stepping to the next patch of brush fire when he bumped shoulders with someone next to him. Surprised, Leon blinked and drew back and for the first time since being set on the firefighting crew took in his full surroundings: The fire had been extinguished, the TAP had cleared the tree houses of wild Pokemon, and the noise in the Settlement had died down. "Er, sorry man," he apologized to the young man he had just bumped into, realizing now that he didn't recognize either his face or his uniform. He sure did have a foul mouth, though.

    But before he could say anything more, there was another terrified cry of a child, this time from the very center of Fortree. There was a commotion amongst the leaders as heads shot up all around, trying to understand what had just happened. Startled, Leon recalled his Crawdaunt and quickly ran to join the crowd that was rushing toward the Gym, where supposedly the children were being housed for safety reasons. Despite being previously overwhelmed by the chaos of the battle, the young TAP soldier found himself grossly interested in these new developments. He slipped his way to the front of the semi-circle surrounding the Gym and then froze in his tracks.

    There, in front of the building, were a handful of dead soldiers from the 119th along with their Pokemon. This special task force had been ordered to move in, neutralize any threat inside the gym, and release the children back to their parents. Instead, whatever was hiding inside the building had chewed them up and promptly spit them back out.
     
  8. Firefighting under attack was a never-ending game of priorities, which made Matt's head spiral. Was his Sealeo under attack while using Water Gun? Identify the aggressor(s) and respond with the proper type. Was somebody in immediate danger of getting mauled and/or eaten? Temporarily refocus attacks. Were his teammates spreading too far apart? Reposition so that you covered at least one person's six. Was an additional fire picking up momentum? Leave the current job and snuff it out first. Was Sealeo almost parched of water? If safe, take a minute to dig for a Leppa Berry in the rations pouch. Did he dare revive any of his (now three) downed pokemon? Only if there was time to spare that didn't already involve the Leppa Berry.

    It was a madness that wore his focus so gradually that he didn't even notice his tunneling vision, or the decline of his reasoning ability, or the sudden absence of Haku's Feraligator. He did, however, suddenly look around to realize that there were more people. Most were civilian evacuees, but there were also uniformed men of TAP dress, and they weren't Melbourne Academy's. Matt relaxed his focus momentarily to try remembering who they were- or rather, his brain cut his focus off, demanding a moment to recuperate. Unfortunately, something heavy and burning dropped down from the tree leaves above him right then, hitting Matt on the shoulder and knocking him prone. He gave a half-scream, half-yelp from the pain, and struggled to roll away and pat himself out. When he chanced a look at the burning thing, he couldn't perceive much. It was either a small pokemon, or a human infant. He prayed it wasn't the latter.

    "Matt! Hey, new guy!"

    Someone was pulling at his good arm. He looked to see that it was Melvin, with his glasses now fogged and his face covered with sweat and streaked soot. There was an ugly gash down his right cheek.

    "Didn't you . . . hear the command?" Melvin asked, wheezing so hard that he could barely get more than three words out between breaths. "We gotta . . . move inward. Trouble . . . at the gym. Come on!"

    Matt nodded and recalled Sealeo, then half-ran, half-limped after Melvin through what was now a forest of blackened brush. The fires were mostly out now, upgrading Fortree Settlement from a burning death trap to a fragile husk of a former village. Melvin held his side, and Matt looked down at it, concerned.

    "You okay, dude?"

    "Yeah. I don't . . . think it's broken. Just have . . . a stitch."

    "Okay." Matt twisted his head to look behind him. "Where's Haku?"

    "Dunno. I thought . . . he was with you."

    Damn him, Matt thought, angrily. He's the one who kept demanding we be accountable for ourselves, and now he's gone and vanished.

    By the time they reached Fortree Gym, the two boys were breathing more regularly. They paused when they came upon a small group of other foot soldiers. These were about graduation age, and were looking fearfully at the scattered remains of the TAP Special Forces who'd been charged with storming the gym. That had been their task- and they had failed. Until someone else stepped up, the greenhorns could do nothing but form a perimeter as close as they dared to get.

    Matt glanced sidelong at Melvin again, and noticed his face. His eyes were narrowed in concentration, and his mouth was moving soundlessly, as though he were talking without a voice. There was no fear on his face, only cold, calculating assessment. Matt tapped his elbow.

    "Hey. What do you make of this?"

    "They're smart," Melvin murmured, and then began rattling off what he must have been thinking. "Pokerus enhances the reasoning ability of some pokemon, usually those which use Special-type attacks. The pokemon in there left children alive deliberately, to lure their would-be rescuers. It could be one, but it's probably many, because they were able to efficiently deal with each approaching soldier almost at once, individually. I wish I could tell if the men were shot down and dropped dead on the spot, or if they went in and got tossed back out after death. I can't even tell if their burn marks are pre or post mortum."

    "What would you guess?" Matt asked, trying to hide his amazement at the sudden revelation of Melvin's deductive skills under pressure.

    "They went in and got cooked," Melvin replied. "Not many pokemon exist that shoot from a distance. Furthermore, the animals in there are likely Fire-types. Despite the inferno, I haven't encountered one Fire-type pokemon since I got here. We have to take back that gym. The longer we wait, the likelier something will slip out to rekindle the fires we struggled to stop."

    The small group of graduates was now listening in, and a girl spoke up. "How do we do it? My pokemon are all out of water."

    "Yeah. They were probably counting on that by the time we reached this far." Melvin crossed his arms resolutely. "Well, we just have to get creative, like the commander said. Whatever's in there is hiding, so let's deny them a wall to hide behind. I need someone with a pokemon capable of blowing a big hole in the side of that place. Like an Electrode or something- the bigger explosion, the better."

    Melvin turned to look at Matt. "They'll probably still wait for us to come to them, because I think their strategy is to cut down the trainer before he can use his pokemon. Can you do anything to improve our armor?"

    "Besides having Sealeo drench us before going in?" Matt thought a moment, then took a pokeball off his belt. "I still have Mr. Mime. If we stick close to him, I can have him maintain a Light Screen."

    "That'll do. Okay, let's get ready to breach." Melvin raised his voice. "Who else is coming with me? Where's my bomber?"
     
  9. Primarily, the only thing Leon could hear was the sound of his heart pounding in his ears. Adrenaline raced through his veins and activated that ancient fight-or-flight response that he had long trained to skew one direction. But here, in the face of danger and chaos and madness, his flight response was stronger than ever. One of the massacred TAP rangers lay face-up, his eyes stretched wide in a horrified death-stare. Whatever he had last seen so frightened him that it distorted his features forever.

    Slowly, the newest member of the 119th was rising out of his own thoughts, becoming aware of someone talking beside him. No, not just someone... two people. Assessing, addressing the dead bodies. Leon blinked, and turned his head to look at the young men beside him. One was significantly smaller in stature than the other, but it was he that was keeping a cool, calculated eye on the torched bodies. The burns received by these TAP rangers had occurred inside the gym, and not as a result of running around the burning forest? The youth felt a chill crawl up his spine, and his eyes lifted to the door of the gym.

    Leon was still only half paying attention to the plot of the boys beside him, instead keeping an eye on his commanders as they examined the bodies and talked in hushed tones, when suddenly something piqued his interest.

    "Whoa, whoa, hold on a second," he turned to the boys from the Melbourne, alarmed. "You're talking about blowing up part of the building?? There are kids in there! How are you going to make sure they're not harmed by the blast?" He asked, though suddenly self-conscious for speaking up. It wasn't like he had a better plan.

    Another young recruit nearby shrugged. "We don't even know if the children are still alive in there. If those Rangers came out smoked, isn't it likely the hostages are too?"

    Leon frowned, not daring to consider such a possibility. If he did, the image would haunt his dreams for weeks. "There's got to be a better way," he said firmly. "Either we have to make certain the kids will be safe from the explosion, or we find another way," he turned to Melvin now, again unsure of himself but speaking out nonetheless. "What about a ghost-type? Something that could sneak in unseen, give us an idea of what we're dealing with?" he suggested.

    The previous TAP members had perished before being able to report what they were facing. Just how many 'Rus Pokemon were inside? Were they truly fire-type? And if so, what kind? There weren't too many fire-types native to Hoenn... could it be Pokemon once owned by a trainer but now lost to the virus? Or perhaps a strong mated pair, seeking to find a safe place to lay eggs? That would give them all the cause needed to wreak such havoc. Made mad by Pokerus, then driven right insane by the need to protect their offspring. There was no telling. The world had long since ceased being so predictable.
     
  10. Matt looked back and forth, between Melvin and the newest 119 guy on the scene. The constant warfare had reduced his cognitive thinking level almost to that of a small child, but hearing plans talked out brought him steadily back to himself. The new guy's counterargument to Melvin's "blow a hole" approach triggered a memory of an old proverb Matt had heard.

    The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.

    "Acceptable losses are one thing, but he's right," Matt murmured. "These are kids we're talking about."

    Melvin's eyes flashed from behind his glasses; when he wasn't out of breath or being cowed into submission by others, he showed a certain fiery spirit himself. "I think we're a little past the point of 'acceptable losses,' Matt! The people specially trained for the task of extracting hostages tried the moral and conventional ways, and look at them now!"

    He stomped his foot emphatically, pointing his finger to Leon. "Anything in there smart enough to take hostages will expect us to tiptoe around them for the hostages' sakes. Even sending in ghosts for a look is lambs to the slaughter; they may be able to go invisible, but they'll leave cold-spot signatures that are extra obvious in these heat conditions. God knows I'd love to check in there before finalizing a plan, but we can't know while there are walls up blocking the view!"

    "I never said no to blowing a hole in the wall," Matt protested, putting up his hands. "I'm just saying, maybe make the biggest hole possible while causing minimal damage. If my Tyrantrum were still conscious, I could've had him find a burned section and bust the weakened spot open with his tail."

    Matt's eyes widened as something else occurred to him. "Wait. Wasn't Fortree known back in the day for its gym being Flying-type?" he asked. "We can't see from where we're standing, but what if the hole is already there? What if there's no flat roof up there at all, but just a great big gap for the birds to fly in through?"

    Melvin considered the thought for a moment, but let out a huff of exasperated breath. "But once again, don't you think the professionals already tried that?"

    "Yeah, and maybe they learned something before they died. It's better knowing than not knowing and depending on unconventional strategy." Matt frowned. "I can't get the GoPro camera up there, though. It would've been strapped to Togetic, but Togetic is down too."
     
  11. Leon watched the two young Melbourne soldiers converse back and forth, a faint frown growing on his features as the smaller one jabbed a finger at him. "I mean, you're not wrong," he admitted reluctantly. So, the ghost-type Pokemon wasn't a great idea after all, but he couldn't help but feel a little indignant at the bespectacled boy's lack of consideration for human life. They all had been born into a world of constant warfare. For thousands of years previous to their lives, the birthrate had grown exponentially. As it was now, with the Pokerus virus dominating wild intelligence, humans were on the verge of extinction. Every life mattered. That had always been true, but now it was also imperative to survival. He was about to butt in and say as much when the taller of the two Melbourne TAP spoke up again.

    Leon's gaze followed to the top of Fortree gym, which was at such a height that made it impossible to see the condition of the roof from where they were standing. He tilted his head back further and saw, thousands of feet up in the air, a black dot circling the gym. General Credit's Braviary. He looked back down again, this time focusing in on the officers who had gathered once more, obviously discussing a plan. A feeling of urgency welled up within him, and a desire to prove himself and make his name known. It was pride, he knew, but he was young and bull-headed and while he knew he wasn't invincible, he still felt that way, even in the face of all this death.

    "My Taillow can do it," he offered at the chance, looking back at Matt. "He's small, but he's strong and quick. He can carry the camera up there, and move quick enough to dodge any attacks that might come his way," Leon said with a determined look, releasing the flying-type from its Pokeball.
     
  12. Matt nodded, and knelt to remove his rucksack. His stomach knotted for a moment as he noticed a gaping tear in the nylon for the first time. When had that gotten there? Checking inside, he saw the lightweight camera still snug in its compartment, though the MREs by the rip were all gone. How had he failed to notice the reduction in weight? But there was no time to wonder; he drew out the camera and passed it to the Taillow trainer.

    "You're responsible for your bird pokemon, but I'm liable for this thing," Matt murmured, standing by in case the 119 needed him to strap the camera onto Taillow properly. "We're in this together now, man. Melvin here's my teammate, and I'm Matt. What's your name?"
     
  13. The Taillow released from its pokeball like a shot, zipping across the clearing and then pitching suddenly upward. It arced in a high loop before coming back down to land on Leon's outstretched arm. The bird chirruped, using its beak to settle itself on its perch before it peered curiously at the camera the Melbourne boy was holding out.

    "Matt? I'm Leon," he introduced himself, holding out his free hand. "And your friend?" he asked with a look down at Melvin.

    "That's fair enough," Leon said in response to Matt's comment about the camera and letting his new acquaintance affix the rig onto his Pokemon. "I just hope it gives us the view we need."

    With one last look at the officers huddled together finalizing their plan, Leon thrust his arm into the air, giving the Taillow extra power as it shot into the sky. Its first few flaps were awkward, so encumbered by this new contraption on its back. But within a few moments the small bird had re-adjusted itself and was handling the extra weight without an issue. The flying-type let out a call, and then took a quick pass over the top of the gym. No fire-type attack erupted from the roof - so far, so good.
     
  14. While Taillow remained airborne, Matt watched curiously with his arms crossed. He felt a tap on his elbow, and glanced down to see Melvin pointing intently at his pokeball belt.

    "Call out your Sealeo," he said. "Mr. Mime, too. My Water-type's down, and I'm out of revival herbs."

    "Uh, okay." In a flash of light, Matt's two pokemon were standing on either side of him. Melvin took off his glasses and beckoned to his group of fellow onlookers. "Tell him to use a light Water Gun on us. I don't know what that video may show in playback, but I'm all in on my Fire-types bet."

    "So what if you're wrong, and it turns out they're Electric-types?" Matt countered.

    A sudden, high-pitched scream of child pain issued from the gym. Melvin tensed, visibly more anxious than ever. "Then your Mr. Mime's Light Screen will make up the difference. Just do it already- we should've been in there by now!"

    Matt signaled to Sealeo, and the water burst came. It was not refreshing, even after being in close proximity to fire for so long. No liquid from inside a Water-type's body ever would be. By the time it was over, Matt had almost reached full saturation capacity, and Taillow was back with the footage. With extra care (in case it wasn't waterproof), Matt checked the tape while the others crowded around him.

    "Okay, good," he murmured, speaking as he viewed the footage, "the roof is open. I guess the gym's previous occupants never got the chance to put the weather tarp back in place. Uh . . . shoot. Leon, I'm not ungrateful, but your Taillow really got the picture blurred up. Wait- what's that thing?"

    Matt paused the replay, and pointed to a small white object floating almost direct center of the gym. There was a moment's silence, then someone from Academy 119 blurted out: "That looks like a Castform!"

    Matt glanced over at the TAP recruit. "You sure about that? It's not, like, a lone Zigzagoon or a random chunk of debris?"

    "It's a Castform," the boy replied with grim certainty. "Before it became my school, the Academy was a Weather Research Institute. Military scientists were trying to figure out ways to manipulate the weather for tactical warfare advantage, and they used Castform as their primary test subjects."

    "Damn," Matt muttered as he continued playing the footage, "those wouldn't have been ideal conditions for human/pokemon relations."

    Melvin spoke up, his voice tight and strangely high-pitched. "Can Castform learn Fire-type moves naturally?"

    "Level thirty-five. Fire-type, Water-type, Ice-type-"

    He was interrupted by a child's scream of pain. It was the same as the one from two minutes prior, only now it was issuing from the video playback. Matt paused again, then reversed slowly through the frames to see if anything had moved. Taillow's ever-changing direction made it challenging to find a picture focused enough to reveal anything.

    Then he saw it. There was one image with a young boy cowering on the floor, his mouth open in mid-scream as a long, red gash appeared on his arm. By it was a green claw, extending into an arm that grew fainter as it continued up, until it reached a completely invisible body.

    "Holy s^%#," someone whispered. "Kecleons."

    Kecleons. Immediately, Matt understood how a team of professionals had fallen so quickly, and why overhead spy footage had revealed seemingly nothing but a lone Castform. It wasn't alone at all. It was accompanied by God-knew-how-many creatures capable of invisibility. Long ago, the Devon corporation had developed a scope capable of seeing these particular pokemon. But with over a thousand species of pokemon in the world, who would have invested in something so situational and area-specific?

    Well, there were several mysteries solved, but it was hardly progress. Rather than an access point in the wall, there was a far less accessible gap in the ceiling. Rather than Fire-types, there was one (maybe more) Castform that had probably only ever known the subjugation and prodding needles of human scientists. Rather than a manageable horde of pokemon that could be hunted down, they were dealing with chameleons that would go right around your pokemon and bite out your jugular before you ever saw them.

    They were in over their heads. Now, Matt found himself agreeing with Melvin's initial assessment about the gym, and more. Nuke it from orbit. It was the only way to be sure.
     
  15. The pained cry of a child from within the hidden chambers of the Fortree Gym made a chill run up Leon's spine. His teeth ground together, frustrated at their inability to do anything to help. Frustrated at the loss of life that had already occurred. Frustrated at this planet that left you in a perpetual kill-or-be-killed situation.

    Did the ends justify the means? If they blasted down the wall of the gym and a few kids were killed in the process but they were ultimately able to gain control... was that worth it?

    How much sacrifice was too much?

    Leon folded his arms across his chest as his Taillow returned, the bird patiently waiting as Matt took the camera off but keeping a keen eye on him the whole time. Once the Melbourne Ranger had retrieved what he needed, the flying-type hopped up to perch on its trainer's shoulder, preening its feathers.

    The young man squinted to try and make out the white blur Matt had paused on - but he recognized it the second the other student from the Academy spoke up. Castform. Of course - its Sunny Day move would allow even the weakest fire-type move to start a forest fire. But it didn't end there.

    "Kecleon," he murmured, absently brushing the patch on the sleeve of his new uniform. The mascot of the 119th. These particular Pokemon had been common in the forest before the Pokerus outbreak, but now they had spread like wildfire. Their ability to camouflage allowed them to hide expertly whenever the Rangers came through to hunt. Kecleon attacks on humans weren't unheard of, either.

    "They're not that difficult to kill, actually, if you can hit them with a quick type super-effective moveset back-to-back," Leon blurted out quickly, knowing what must be on everyone's minds. How could you fight an enemy you couldn't see? But he just couldn't bring himself to attack defenseless children. He wasn't sure he could let others do it, either. Time was running short - the longer they stood here, the more he could see it on everyone's faces: they just wanted to bomb the place and be done with it. Casualties were a part of war.

    "I'm going in with my Combusken," Leon decided, quickly recalling his Taillow and releasing his primary Pokemon. The bird might be awkward-looking, but it was incredibly powerful and skilled in hand-to-hand combat. A double-kick/aerial ace combo would have no problem dispatching these Kecleon. They'd practiced that moveset hundreds of times in the simulators. "We'll use sand-attack, stir some dust up in the air. Even the Kecleon can't hide effectively in that," he told his companion Pokemon, who nodded in determined agreement.

    Leon felt his heart pounding in his chest. The adrenaline pumping through his veins was unreal, and he knew that if he didn't do something with it then he'd probably just crumple in a panic attack. He took one last glance around the clearing and saw two of the Academy 119 officers looking at their small group of gathered soldiers. Captain Maxxon seemed to have disappeared from the huddle.

    Without stopping to give another thought to what he was about to do, knowing it was stupid and foolhardy, Leon let his Combusken lead the way with a flamethrower attack to clear the entrance to the gym. Drenched from the Sealeo's move, the young cadet followed close on his Pokemon's heels.
     
  16. "Wait a second!" Matt yelped, as Leon rushed in. "Those things aren't just going to leave the children unguarded while they fight you! How do we get at the ch- ? - damn it. Melvin, blockade the entrance!"

    "What?! You're going in too?" Melvin asked disbelievingly. "Even with your pokemon, what can you hope to do that the Task Force couldn't?"

    Matt only steeled his resolve and shot forward, his Mr. Mime a step behind him. As he burst through the singed remains of the gym door, he could hear other TAP members rallying each other behind him. There were shouts of "Get a sandstorm going!" and "Check your aim; no friendly fire!" Before his eyes was the sweeping emptiness of a building whose primary function was open space for aerial maneuvering. Only Leon and his Combusken were clearly visible, with a somewhat-obscured floating thing further back. It had to be the Castform.

    Despite the apparent open space, subtle scratching sounds emanated all around them. The untrained eye might have noticed a hint of shadow flicker across the floor, but dismiss it as an overhead bird or a trick of peripheral vision. Matt knew better now. This room was indeed very, very full. He didn't even have to look behind him to know that he'd already been cut off from the back by at least two Kecleon stalkers. This had to be their game: let the prey wander into their center, then surround them and attack. Matt twisted his body into a low, balanced stance. Within a few seconds, invisible claws and teeth would find his vital spots.

    But they wouldn't get the chance to dig in. They would bite him only because he would let them.

    Even as the first sting of hardened points put sudden pressure upon his knee, Matt felt the resistance of Mr. Mime's barrier push back. With a primal yell, he brought his elbow down, mashing something between his elbow and his knee. It gave a gurgled scream, just before Matt whipped his leg around and ground it into the floor. The figure of the now-dead Kecleon flickered into view at his feet, its head twisted at an unnatural angle. Matt resumed his defense posture, breathing in deeply and letting it out.

    There was only a second's delay, before two more claws and teeth found his wrist and left ear. Once more, Mr. Mime's invisible barrier dampened the sharpness of the attack, but the sudden weight in unfamiliar places nearly threw Matt's balance. He made his decision in a split-second and toppled over, grabbing hold of one invisible enemy and holding it in place as he headbutted it into the floor. Firing two quick thrusts with his free arm, he punctured through soft underbellies and pulled back a glistening hand. The iron grips upon him relaxed.

    This was what it meant to be a pokemon trainer in this fallen day and age. As more Kecleon latched onto him, he systematically dispatched them as effectively as any Fighting-type pokemon in the Academy. After all, Mr. Mime was not the strongest on his team, nor Arcanine, nor even Tyrantrum. He himself was. He had to be, to maintain their respect and their submission. Matt McCallister, just one more human in a world turned hostile against humanity, battled pokemon with his own two hands to survive.
     
  17. From the moment he stepped into the gym, Leon had the very uncomfortable feeling of being a mouse inside a trap. He could see, quite clearly, to the two dozen or so children huddled in the very center of the gym. They ranged in age from toddlers to pre-teens, and anywhere in between. But he could feel the presence of hundreds of pairs of eyes trained on him, just waiting for a single misstep.

    Through his training at Academy 119, Leon's martial art of choice had been Capoiera. He had preferred it above the others offered due to its emphasis on continual, fluid movement and its ability to hide attacks within what looked like dance moves. Because of these traits, it could be highly effective against groups of attackers, which he was likely to face out in the real world. Like right now. And while he had been training within the safety of of the Academy, his Combusken had been studying and mastering the same techniques. His starter Pokemon, once it had learned everything it could in its second form, would evolve into a mercilessly deadly Blaziken.

    "Help!" one of the older children had spotted them as the entered the gym, and was desperately calling out. "Please, I don't know how much longer we can make it! They keep attacking!" the girl was clinging to two of the toddlers, using her already bloodied arms to protect them from the antsy Kecleon.

    "Stay on me," Leon told the Combusken, making his way against the wall of the gym rather than trying to forge a path straight through to the center. By keeping his Pokemon at his back, and one side against the wall, he effectively limited the number of directions he could be attacked from. Eventually, once they had dispatched the majority of the Kecleon, they would be able to work their way to the hostages in the center.

    The moment Leon felt the first scrape of claws against his shoulder, it was game on. He pulled the spandex neck of his TAP uniform up over his mouth and nose to keep from inhaling sand as his Pokemon began to shower their enemy with dirt and rubble. Shifting forms began to appear in the haze, and Leon went to work. He would dispatch a Kecleon, stun them with a swift kick or grapple them into a hold and his Combusken would finish the task with a rapid-fire double-kick and then the slash of an aerial ace.

    On the far side of the gym, at the top of the tower where the gym leader should have stood, the Castform watched on. It viewed the humans that were interrupting its revenge with the ultimate disgust. A product of human experimentation, it knew every single TM and HM move that was possible for it to learn and inadvertently, it began to get itself Worked Up.

    In a brief pause when he had cleared a corner of the gym of the attacking Kecleon, Leon heard a vicious yell and looked up to see Matt had followed him in and was using his Mr. Mime as a defensive agent against the onslaught. The other boy was covered in blood, and it was almost impossible to tell what was his and what belonged to the pile of green and yellow bodies at his feet. And then, that it wasn't just him... a handful of other members from both the 119th and Melbourne had filed in behind, some doing better than others but all working to fight the invisible mass before them.

    "Hey!" He shouted across the room to Matt, who had advanced further than the group of soldiers behind him. "Clear a path to the Castform," he pointed up at the creature that was now moving erratically around on the top of the platform as it saw its plan begin to fall apart. "I'll meet you there from my side. We have to stop it before it tries to hurt the kids again!"
     
  18. Matt had heard Leon's call to him, but in the moment, his attention was necessarily fixed upon an invisible menace trying to pry his fingers open and chew them off. When he finally had the chance to look up again, he saw what Leon was talking about. Castform had somehow moved itself between him and the 119 Cadet, and it was chatting something in its own language that sounded desperate. Ever since Leon's Taillow and Matt's camera had unveiled the secret of its stronghold, the tide had turned more and more forcibly. The pokemon could see its end approaching rapidly, and as any cornered rat would do, it bore its teeth. No doubt, the children would suffer its wrath.

    "Come on!" Matt panted, as much to himself as to Mr. Mime. In the heat of battle, he'd found his second wind, but it had left him. He was almost spent, now when the need was most pressing. How unfair, that it so often worked out that way. Forcing his complaints aside, Matt thrust forward, meeting his newest enemies with initiative and controlled aggression. At least they were now somewhat visible, if only in the places that Combusken's sand stuck. It took all his concentration to dodge and strike effectively, and still his movements slowed as he narrowed the distance to Castform. Mr. Mime's barrier shuddered under the barrage of hits he was too slow to avoid.

    And then, suddenly, they were there. Castform was so close that a well-angled lunge from Matt would surely allow a grapple. By the same token, two kids on the verge of adolescence lay on the ground beside the pokemon, utterly helpless and vulnerable to an attack. Castform seemed to propound the matter, turning away from Matt and towards them, opening its mouth to a reddish glow. It had worked itself up, and a Flamethrower was imminent.

    Mime! Matt snapped, his thoughts reacting faster than his voice or his body. Light Screen on those kids!

    It was an effective form of speed-communication, a feat enjoyed almost exclusively by Psychic-type pokemon. It was what made Mr. Mime the fastest of Matt's pokemon in terms of reaction speed.

    You sure? came the reply, not in words, but in a subtler form of telepathy that a bonded pokemon shared with its trainer. The barrier can be here or there, but not in both places.

    Do it, Matt confirmed with a tone of finality. Honor before life.

    The mental conversation had taken only a split second of real time, but that was all the pair needed. Matt instantly felt the pressure of his psychic armor fade, while the two children took on a new protective glow. For just a moment, something like relief flashed in his chest, a positive emotion that he'd made it in time. Then . . . then. He saw the side of Castform's mouth rise just a hint- in triumph. It had anticipated this.

    Castform whirled around, and unleashed its Flamethrower upon Matt. If there had been any time to dodge, it would have been granted to a version of him that wasn't exhausted from unrelenting stress and combat. He didn't even feel the fire right away when it engulfed him, and strangely, the heat registered first in his face, despite him covering it instinctively with his arms. Then the pain erupted all around him, drowning him in a suffering beyond words. It wasn't just the agony of unbearable temperature; it was the agony of loss, not unlike the death of a loved one. He could not think from the pain, yet from the elusive depths of his subconscious was the knowledge that he was losing his functionality- permanently. His flesh and muscles were melting, and they would never work the same way again, if they would work at all. He could hear screaming in his ears, and suddenly, he was looking at the open sky where the ceiling should have been. People were running past him. Strange- when had he fallen over? When had the Flamethrower ceased?

    Mr. Mime's face came into view, and it was much darker than he remembered it. The features were difficult to make out, but he thought he could hear a whine of concern. He couldn't speak. He couldn't breathe. The only things that came from him were two repeating lines of dialogue, rapid and contradictory.

    End this suffering, end this suffering, end this suffering, end this suffering-
    I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die-


    He wouldn't regain consciousness until days later.

    (*OOC: I'd like to request a Time Skip after your next post, to a location which Leon and Matt can share with others.)
     
  19. It was hard not to notice the shift in attitude in the room. Suddenly the Kecleon army, which was on the verge of being defeated, just went... mad. As if some unseen signal from the Castform had released any inhibitions the creatures had in place and returned them to the base animals that they were. Right after he had called out to Matt with his plan, Leon was tackled by three of the invisible creatures, forcing the breath out of him as he hit the ground hard. He quickly curled into a ball and covered his face with his hands as the Kecleon ripped into him.

    Combusken saved him, using its incredible jumping ability to keep clear of the advancing horde and striking at the reptiles when it could. Finally the bird managed to clear off Leon's attackers and the boy jumped back to his feet, pushing into the raging mass of wild Pokemon bodies in an effort to make it to the center. He was wheezing as he tried to gain his breath back, feeling like he was making no progress forward whatsoever. For every step toward the Castform, it seemed he was pushed two steps back.

    When they finally managed to break through the surging crowd of feral Pokemon, it was too late. Leon arrived just in time to see the Castform turn and - was that a smirk on its features? - let loose a wild Flamethrower at Matt and his Pokemon. "No!" Was all he could manage to shout, his heart sinking low into his gut, hand reaching out into empty air as if he could grab onto the very fabric of space and change what was about to happen. But he couldn't. And he had to watch as the inferno enveloped the boy and his Mr. Mime.

    What occurred next was so wild that it stunned the young soldier from the 119th. A single Kecleon materialized next to the Castform, shot out its long, sticky tongue, and swallowed the creature. Whole. But he couldn't stare too long. Leon recalled his Combusken, nervous about having too many Pokemon out at one time, and reached for the Pokeball on his belt that housed his Crawdaunt to try and put out the flames that embroiled his new teammate. He never quite reached the Pokeball, however, and instead was slammed to the ground for the second time by a sudden surge of the invisible Kecleon. They were vying for escape now, and he was being trampled alive. Leon tried to fight the unconsciousness that threatened to consume him when he hit his head on the floor, but the struggle was short-lived. Soon, darkness overtook him completely.

    Later, he was vaguely aware of being carried by something very large, and very soft. And then everything went black once again.

    (Sure, go for it! The 119th TAP hideout is behind one of the waterfalls on the river of Route 119. That works, or the school, or wherever else.)
     
  20. Matt had always been a lucid dreamer. He even remembered his dreams upon awakening, and could retain the memory at will. It was something that he'd heard not many could do, and he was proud of this ability, even if it wasn't something earned. However, as he felt himself nearing consciousness, he became aware that no dreams had taken place in all the time he'd been out. There had only been pain, pain akin to his skin being peeled away, and a million ants scrambling up and down the raw flesh beneath. For as long as it had been unbearable, his brain had shut down all nonessential systems, including his awareness. Now, though he still felt agony beyond anything he had suffered in his life, he was above his threshold, and it was coming back in force. It had been with him all along, but he could no longer retreat back into the deeper recesses of his mind to numb it. Resigning himself, he opened his eyes.

    He was in a remarkably white room. Whether it was the sheets over him, the curtains surrounding his bed, the overhead lighting, the ceiling he found himself staring at, or the mummy bandages wrapped tightly around his hands, it didn't matter- all were different shades of general white. Even the Chansey staring at him from beside his bed was whiter than the typical pink of its species. She chirruped brightly, then scurried through the curtain, leaving him alone again. A few minutes lapsed, then two shadowed figures appeared on the other side of the curtain. One of them spoke, and Matt recognized the voice instantly as Captain O'bannon himself.

    "Matthew? Can you hear me? Can you speak, son?"

    Matt gave a gurgled reply. He swallowed dryly, then with a concentrated effort: "Yes."

    "It's good to have you back. May we enter?" asked the Captain earnestly.

    "Yes."

    The curtain was drawn aside, and there stood O'bannon, with the talking Gallade at his shoulder. Father Freeman, as Matt recollected. The latter smiled warmly. "I sensed that you were coming around. Would you like some water?"

    Water. That sounded like a godsend. "Yes," Matt croaked a third time. As soon as the words had left his mouth, Chansey reappeared out of nowhere, holding a glass of ice water and a straw. Matt opened his mouth, wincing at the soreness of his lips, but gulped greedily until Chansey pulled the drink away. He panted, partially out of breath, partially from the burning pain of moving his body, and O'bannon waited patiently until he was settled once more.

    "Thanks," Matt gasped, his voice much improved. "How long was I out for?"

    "Three days. Yes, it's been three days since we took back Fortree." O'bannon's eyes betrayed sorrow, though he held himself stoutly. "Mission accomplished . . . more or less. One can never anticipate the precise amount of casualties, but our losses were unacceptable." He raised his arm, and Matt saw him place a pipe in his mouth. It wasn't lit, but the Captain chewed absently upon the stem. "Well, all things considered, our losses were thankfully minimal. But the settlement's inhabitants are at less than a third of their original population. The fire was bad, but it was the virus itself that did most of the killing. The quarantine breach was too far gone by the time we arrived, but we did what we could regardless."

    O'bannon closed his eyes and sighed. "You chose a good time to wake up, McCallister. Between the perimeter, the diplomacy with 119, the funeral arrangements, and the paperwork, I've been up to my eyeballs. Now's my time off, and believe it or not, it does me good to visit my soldiers who were injured in the line of duty. You boys are an inspiration to the rest of humanity, and I'm no exception."

    Matt waited for him to say more, but the Captain paused and was silent. He had an impression that O'bannon was waiting for him to speak, but he could think of nothing to say. Knowing that the mission was complete was about all he could handle, but the unceasing pain of the burns forced his attention inward.

    "Kuchinawa and a couple others briefed me on what happened to you," O'bannon continued. "A few other TAP members are recovering in the ward, but you were the most heavily-injured. Well, you and the young man who paved the path into the gym and rescued those children. Uh . . ." He broke off, and glanced down at a clipboard he was holding in his other hand. "L . . . Li- . . . oh, hell, they didn't give me the names of the 119s. L-something. He's in the next bed over, but I think he's sleeping. I'll ask him later."

    O'bannon breathed in through his nose and seemed to recover. "My point is, it was a noble sacrifice from both of you. Giving up your Mr. Mime's Light Screen probably saved those children. Dousing yourselves in water probably saved yours and others."

    A bitter weight rested upon Matt's chest. He didn't feel very selfless right now.

    "I didn't think, sir. I acted." Matt furrowed his brow, ignoring the burning pain that came from it. "And now I'm like this. My body still feels like it's on fire, and I can't-" He tried shifting his weight, to no avail. "I can't move anything. How long am I going to be like this?"

    O'bannon paused and glanced at Father Freeman for help. The Gallade shook his head in a don't-look-at-me gesture. "I'm- well, I'm not the doctor," the Captain said, finally. "But until you find out, I'd encourage you not to dwell on it. Think about what you've done instead. More people are alive thanks to your combined actions, and nothing can take that away from you."
     
  21. Leon listened in to the conversation happening in the next bed from the relative privacy of his curtained-off section of the room. He wasn't intending to eavesdrop - there just wasn't much he could do about not hearing. He had seen Matt's body, swathed in bandages and salve, two days ago when he had first raised from his own unconsciousness. It wasn't at all like he would have imagined. The dead, toasted TAP members at the front of the gym had been just that - blackened shells of their former selves. But what little he had been able to see of Matt's wounds around the bandages was red. The most visceral, fleshly red he had ever seen. Like his whole body was an open wound.

    Leon closed his eyes and swallowed. If he had reached the Castform first, would he have suffered the same fate? But if he had been able to get to the center of gym just a few seconds sooner... Maybe things would be different. Maybe his fellow TAP ranger wouldn't be lying in the bed next to his, possibly dying. His fists clenched at his side, straining sore muscles.

    The 119th's newest recruit had escaped with a minor skull fracture, several broken ribs, and a broken arm. His arm was set in a cast and he wore it in a high sling in order to keep it from bouncing off his sore ribcage, the few times the Chansey let him get up out of bed. The Pokemon was very stern about its healing processes, but even it had to sleep at some point. Last night Leon had snuck out of the room to stretch his legs a little. He was getting pretty bored staying in that room, but he wasn't allowed to leave. His boss' orders, he'd heard, but unlike Captain O'bannon, Leon's commander had yet to pay him a visit.

    He kept his eyes closed, trying not to imagine what it must be like to realize you couldn't move. Leon never thought he'd be so grateful for pain.

    "It was a brave move, but it was stupid," he finally said, loud enough to hear. "You were supposed to wait until we were there together. In enemy territory... of course that devil Castform had a plan." I was supposed to watch your back. Those were the words he couldn't say. Couldn't bring himself to face his failure.
     
  22. Matt had expected to feel angry when he heard Leon's comment from the other side. Long after O'Bannon and Freeman had left, he pondered his actions- and he had plenty of pondering time. He was angry, yes, but not at Leon for his rebuke, nor even himself for his inability to protect his body. He was upset with the situation in general. So many dead, so few able to defend themselves, and after drawing the lucky straw from a series of pots, after all these years . . . now he had come up short. What a damn waste. He hated uselessness in all its various forms, and now he was the embodiment of it.

    Well, maybe not. His still-living body might always be donated to the Viridian Research Corps for vaccination testing.

    The days dragged by slowly, and in the stormcloud of pain that deluged his ruined body, there was one silver lining. Little by little, he regained feeling and movement in his fingers and toes. Sometimes he could even bend his elbows and knees a little bit, though doing so caused him to black out from the agony. As his regeneration process went on, he obsessed over the Castform incident, and what he could have done differently to be out of these bandages and this glowing-white room. At one point, Melvin had visited him, and informed him about the children he and Leon had saved. There had been six of them held captive, total. Four of these had expired since then, from exposure to pokerus. One of the survivors had been part of the pair Castform was threatening in its last moments. The TAP had traded a dozen or so lives for two children. Somehow, the pain of Matt's burns became even more bitter.

    "Something isn't right about this, though," Melvin pondered. "I've been asking around for confirmation, and everyone seems to agree that you were hit with a Flamethrower attack."

    "No $#%&, Sherlock," muttered Matt faintly, too tired to be properly annoyed.

    "Well, that is-" Melvin stammered, trying to recover, "I mean, it definitely wasn't a Fire Blast, right? Those are much worse, but they're also less accurate."

    For a moment, Matt was tempted to set Arcanine upon Melvin and offer to let him test the differences between fire attacks. He thought better of it, and sighed. "It definitely wasn't Fire Blast, no. What's your point?"

    "My point is that Castforms can't learn Flamethrower." Melvin tapped his nose, deep in thought. "At least, not naturally. Upon reaching level 35, they learn Fire Blast, and Hydro Pump, and Blizzard. So what the heck is up with that?"

    "I don't know," Matt murmured, wincing as a wave of burning pain swept through him. "I've been getting updates from Father Freeman during his visits, and he says that Castform got eaten by a Kecleon moments later. Doesn't that seem like the weirder fact to you?"

    Melvin shrugged. For a moment, there was quiet between them, and it stretched on with the ticking of the clock. Melvin cleared his throat awkwardly, then gave Matt a sheepish grin. "Did . . . did, uh . . . did the Captain happen to mention whether we passed our field exam?"

    So. This was what he'd really come to ask. Matt couldn't blame him for wondering. He probably would have done the same thing to a teammate who'd had direct conversation with O'bannon at one point. "No, Melvin. I didn't ask. I don't even know if they'll ever find Haku." He looked Melvin over. "You seem in good health. What've they had you doing for the last week or so?"

    "Just patrolling. We've got the area on lockdown, more-or-less, and we're now incrementally shifting the duty to the 119's. Melbourne's planning to pull out once both Academies have completed their graduation and assignment postings." Melvin shifted nervously from one foot to the other. "Man, I hope I passed."

    Matt managed a snort of amused derision. That was too selfish, considering whose presence he was in. Melvin gave him a bemused smile.

    "I don't wanna hear it, new guy. You and Mr. Morals nextdoor are like, living representations of what Academies do. You're the meal tickets they parade out to the public; guaranteed funding for months to come. I'm pretty dang sure you passed."

    "Eh . . . maybe you're right." Matt felt his first twinge of happiness in a long time. "It's too bad I won't get to be there at graduation."

    "I'm sure there's a wheelchair lying around somewhere, that someone can take you in."
     
  23. Leon had tried to acclimate to normal TAP life in the days that followed his release from the medical wing. He'd hated being stuck in that stupid bed when his whole life had been about movement. Movement meant life meant survival. Even though now it still hurt just to breathe, his lungs pressing against his tender broken ribs, it was better than just staring at the ceiling.

    He was still on medical leave and couldn't participate in the full TAP routine of the 119th, which included exercise routines in the morning and patrols throughout the day, with specific combat training on the side. But he still attended many of these events, just standing to the side watching or helping where he could. He tried to get along with the other newer recruits, and they were all pretty welcoming. He supposed it might have been different if he hadn't already proved himself by risking his life and his Pokemon at the gym to save those children.

    But that was just it. Many of the other TAP members had seen combat time and time again, however few had seen it on the scale at Fortree. It had people spooked. And Leon found he was having trouble relating to them. They talked about the event. What they saw and what they didn't see. But he had lived it. And there was no comparison.

    And there was something else. Something had been bothering him. What was with that Kecleon right at the end...? The one that just opened its maw and swallowed the Castform whole? No one outside of the gym really seemed to know that had even happened. No one was talking about it. But the Kecleon had all been on the Castform's side until right at that moment. None of them had any interest in attacking before. So why then? Why that Kecleon? And then there was his vague memory of being carried after the incident by something large and fuzzy and... pink?

    Leon was forming an idea of what had happened in his mind, but he didn't know what it meant. And he didn't know who to talk to about it. Except...

    He found himself back in the medical wing. While he hated being forced to stay there, it actually wasn't so bad to visit. It was clean and quiet, almost peaceful. The Chansey didn't seem to mind when he showed up every once in a while. This time he entered the room he'd been assigned to with Matt, dragged a chair to his bedside with his good arm, and sat down.

    "What would you do, if you knew that Castform was still alive?" he asked without any other introduction, his dark brown eyes steady on the bandaged soldier before him. "That thing that made you like this, put you in this hospital bed," Leon nodded to their surroundings. "The thing that murdered those children."
     
  24. The noise of something scraping over the tile floor roused Matt in his bed. He'd been asleep: something he did a lot lately while his body toiled to renew and replace dead tissue. The waking and the nodding off both came easily, and clarity returned immediately as he saw Leon take a seat beside him.

    "What would I do-?" Matt asked, tilting his head quizzically. He had progressed to the point that his neck stung to bend, as opposed to feeling like the first pain of decapitation. "I wouldn't hunt it down out of revenge, if that's what you're getting at." He turned his eyes fully upon Leon, passively observing the other boy's own stubborn injuries. "A rabid dog isn't a villain, it's just a sick animal. The way you put it, it's like you're saying the Castform got some sort of sadistic glee out of all this. I'd finish the thing off if I saw it again, but it wouldn't mean anything."

    He blinked, a thought suddenly occurring. " . . . Why, what are you proposing? It's dead, isn't it? And we're hospital-bound."
     
  25. Anger rose within Leon and he felt himself bristling. "A rabid dog?" he practically growled, conjuring up in his mind the bodies of the ambushed TAP soldiers, the trap of the invisible Kecleon army, and the terrified children huddled in the center of the gym. "You think a rabid dog could have-" the boy cut himself off, the muscles in his jaw bulging as he forced himself to turn away. Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly.

    "Look, all I'm saying is, I don't think its dead. I think they captured it," he said as he leaned forward in the chair again, looking over at Matt. "Captain Maxxon, one of our officers, he has two Kecleon. Big ones. What happened there at the end... I don't know if you saw it, but I'm sure you heard," Leon said with a faint frown. "That weather Pokemon got ate up by a Kecleon. But it doesn't make any sense for the wild ones to do that, Pokerus-infested or not. Maxxon's got Bewear, too, a few of 'em, and I could swear that's what carried me out of that gym when I blacked out."

    Leon frowned again, sitting back in the seat and setting his good arm on that of the chair. Suddenly he felt very tired. It would be a few weeks yet before he was fully recovered, and he'd been pushing it lately. "Captain Maxxon wasn't there with the other officers outside the gym, right before we went in. I specifically remember realizing he had disappeared," the young ranger eyed Matt now, watching for his reaction. Wondering if he should have even bothered. Had the Melbourne teen given up? Handed himself over to his injuries? Or did he just not care? "I think he was there the whole time, maybe watching us to see what we'd do, maybe just trying to be backup, I dunno," Leon shrugged. "Either way, I'm pretty sure they captured that Castform and they've got it hidden away somewhere."
     
  26. As Matt listened to Leon speak, he chewed absently on his tongue, trying to read the other boy's intentions. At first, it sounded almost to him like Leon was suspicious of his own captain. Why speak ill of the aggressive Castform, then suggest Maxxon's Kecleon intervened to rescue the little savage? It didn't make sense to him. Matt's mind was wired to respect the chain of command absolutely, and if the higher-ups had secretly preserved the Castform's life and left him out of the need-to-know . . . well, so be it. He had to trust them, for if nothing else, they fed him and changed his bandages. And of course, they gave his life purpose.

    He decided to try a different tactic. If Leon was so determined to find the truth behind the secret preservation of Castform, he would humor it a little. He owed at least that much to his comrade.

    "Graduation's in two days," he said. "Melbourne leaves the morning after, but there's going to be a party tomorrow night. You want to learn about the Castform? Here's how you do it." With some effort, Matt raised his arm and pointed across the room at the wheelchair that Father Freeman had brought for him recently. "Step one: be my wheelchair guy. We're probably the only people without a pre-assigned position at the ceremony, so nobody will bat an eye if you wheel me up beside the 119 Scientific Division. We've got one- it's where Melvin's probably going- so I'm guessing you have one too. Step two: sit with the eggheads during the party when they've downed a few celebratory beers, and be like, 'hey, we were next to you at graduation!' They'll doubtlessly be all impressed and give you hero treatment, and before you know it, you'll be cozied up with them. Step three: mention the Castform, and make 'em promise to tell you anything if they find out. Castform was always a test pokemon anyway, right? One of them'll probably get access to learn about the whole Flamethrower thing. They'll have some requirement of secrecy, but elicit a little sympathy, and they'll feel bad enough to give in. Probably."

    Matt shrugged. "I dunno. It's a half-baked plan, I admit, but my everything hurts, so I'm a little distracted."

    ***

    *(Requesting a Time Skip to TAP Graduation. We're also nearly to the point where you'll need to ultimately decide if you want Leon and Matt to stick together at 119, on the mobile Melbourne, or through some third method of rivalry. I have no major preference, but I'm leaning a little towards Melbourne since it can go anywhere.)
     
  27. Leon could see Matt wasn't as interested in this seemingly odd series of events as he was, and it left him a little ticked. Not at the Melbourne boy, per se, more at himself for thinking he had found someone he could confide in. As Matt spoke up Leon slumped back in the chair again and looked away. Maybe the new 119th recruit was just being delusional. He'd was on a lot of pain medication after all. But no... he knew what he had seen.

    "Yeah, sure. The guy with one arm pushing around the boiled Corphish. If nothing else, we'll at least hold the record on number of pitying stares," Leon said, and then felt the heat rise in his cheeks as he realized the complete insensitivity of his comment. "Sorry," he mumbled apologetically, looking down at his feet awkwardly.

    "Forget about the Castform thing. I'm sure it's nothing," Leon said after a long moment. He knew he wouldn't be forgetting it, but there was no need to drag Matt down that rabbit hole with him. Especially not while he was still healing. "Did they give you a prognosis? Think you'll be able to work in the field again?"
     
  28. A boiled Corphish, Matt thought, holding in a sudden urge to laugh. He couldn't tell if, sarcasm aside, Leon really would be his wheelchair guy or not. With the state of the world being what it was, every capable human had his hands full almost all the time. If push came to shove, Leon legitimately might be the only person who could spare him the effort. Well, he'd said he would, so Matt would have to take his word on it.

    As for the prognosis, well . . . the jury was still out on that one. The unending delay was eating him up.

    ***

    TAP Graduation took an eternity of pain and breathless anticipation to arrive. And then, suddenly, it was time- as if the space-time continuum had conspired to stretch all the suffering it could in a single moment. It took place on the deck of the Melbourne, as the ship's location was in closer proximity to Fortree Settlement than Academy 119. There was the usual fanfare of pokemon-made fireworks, speeches about Honor and self-sacrifice, and reminders to all of the life that awaited those who would move on to become official TAP soldiers. Then came the long-anticipated roll call of those who had passed the field exam, in order of squad assignment. All three members of Squad A- two older boys and a girl- were named and given badges and a handshake each. Then came Squad B: Matt's group. Haku had never been found, not even his body, so that left himself and Melvin. Sure enough, Melvin's name was called, and he stepped forward on quaking limbs to receive his honorary badge of Field Tactician. And then . . .

    Squad C was called forth.

    Matt sat up straight in his wheelchair, staring in dumb bewilderment as the ceremony continued without him. He had not been called. This was not abnormal for such a selective force as Melbourne, but the other candidates could always try again. Matt knew, in his heart of hearts, that he had given his all during the Fortree battle, upheld protocol, kept his pokemon alive, and still he hadn't made it. There was no other explanation he could think of, except that O'Bannon was convinced beyond reason that he could never be an effective operative in his crippled condition. His temporary status as an Melbourne hero would soon be lost to memory, and then he would truly be of no further use.

    No, he thought, over the pounding of his heart in his ears. No! I've come too far! I survived! This can't be how it ends!

    But time did not reverse itself, and the ceremony continued over his silent screams of protest. Squad members were called forth for Melbourne, given new ranks, and returned to the mass of students with fierce pride stamped upon their faces. Eventually, Melbourne's graduation concluded, and Captain O'Bannon returned to center stage.

    "Before Academy 119 announces their own graduates," O'Bannon said, "We would like to transition with the awarding of Purple Hearts for both Academies who coordinated together in the Fortree mission. These brave men and women risked life and limb in the line of duty, and did not come away unscathed. Yet for their undying grit, we now recognize and honor them. By order of names . . ."

    He proceeded to call candidates up, one at a time. In spite of himself, Matt was jerked suddenly back to the present as the name "McCallister" boomed from the front. There had been plenty of injured soldiers besides himself, and every one of them received their due applause. His, however, was almost deafening, and there were several rounds of cheers and whistling as he was wheeled up before the Captain. So few of these people actually knew him, yet he could not help but feel some gratitude for their genuine support.

    My witnesses, he thought, as Matrix produced the Purple Heart, and started forward to pin it to his uniform while O'Bannon watched. Yes, you all have your eyes on me now. Watch closely!

    Before the helmsman was to him, Matt's fingers clasped the handles of his wheelchair as tightly as he had ever gripped anything. He leaned forward, gritting his teeth as a wave of fantastic pain swept over his entire body and threatened to engulf him. His vision danced, and dark shades of red appeared on the edges, but he endured it and put strength into his legs.

    I'm not done yet. Not yet!

    In front of all of his peers, Melbournes and 119s alike, he erected his body straight, took three stiff steps forward, and stood at attention before Captain O'Bannon's astonished face.
     
  29. Two days before graduation, Leon decided he couldn't keep pretending he hadn't seen what he knew he saw. The questions kept rising up in his conscience and pestering him, so it was the only thing he thought about all day long. Oh, he'd tried to forget. Tried to let it go. Tried to release himself from the burden of doubt. But he couldn't. He needed to know. Only then could his mind rest.

    In the far early hours of the morning before the sun had even begun to think about coming over the horizon, Leon made his way down the depths of the TAP 119 headquarters. The whole base was a series of enormous caves with the entrance hidden behind a waterfall on one of Route 119's many rivers. Down in the deepest of the caves, cool to the point of being cold, lay the Scientific Division. If indeed Castform had been captured, this is where he would be hidden.

    Leon had taken Matt's advice, in a way. Using his fame he'd cozied up to a couple of the R&D guys, but not to ask them questions. Not to see if they'd drop hints about what they were hiding. He'd never been good at working in groups, and wasn't great at lying. But - he lifted an ID badge from his pocket - borrowing was something he could do without qualm. He bumped the badge against the reader in the narrow tunnel, watched the light turn green, and entered the door as it slid open.

    There was so much going on in the huge cavern that opened before him that Leon had trouble really understanding any of it at first glance. Thick bundles of cables ran across the floor and the ceiling and terminated in glass cases filled with some liquid that held certain Pokemon specimens - some whole and some in pieces. Stacks of cages in a dimly lit back corner where there was no noise but the occasional soft rustling of movement and the flash of red eyes. A wall of monitors that cycled through different video camera footage. One showed the still-smoking, decimated remains of Fortree. A heap of assorted technology, presumably broken, half as tall as a man. And then... on a table against the wall adjacent to the monitors, basking in the glow of the screens, a Castform in a cage.

    Its teardrop-shaped head mimicked the soft rain falling outside, even though it was secreted well away from the weather. It wore a heavy electronic collar that Leon could only guess kept it from getting any ideas about attacking or escaping. As he stepped into the room, the wild Pokemon's beady black eyes raised to him, but there was no spark there like had been in the gym in Fortree. It seemed to be uninjured, but looked as if its spirit had been broken regardless. The Castform floated only inches from the bottom of its cage, barely moving at all, detached. Could this even be the same creature...?

    "I was wondering when you'd make it down here."

    Leon nearly jumped out of his skin, taking a huge leap to the side and wincing as he instinctively clutched his hands into fists, sending pain shooting through his broken arm.

    Captain Jupiter Maxxon smiled, walking from where he had materialized out of thin air at Leon's side to the table where the Castform was held captive, folding his arms across his chest and propping himself up next to the cage. "If you want to keep secrets, Samuelson, you have a lot to learn in that arena."

    Leon felt his face flush with rage. It hadn't been a particularly sick burn, but he was taken off-guard at being found out so quickly. "I'll bet I could teach you a few things about showing up in the face of danger, instead of hiding," he retorted before he could stop himself.

    Maxxon gave another smile, this one a little sadder, and looked down at the caged Castform. "Well, I'm sure you're right in that respect," he said, followed by a long pause. Then, finally, he looked back at Leon who was still on the defensive, good fist half-raised as if ready for a fight. "Regardless, you're not authorized to be down here and I think you've seen what you came to see," he said, letting a breath out through his nose and standing straight again.

    "Wait, I'm not done - I have questions," Leon said defiantly, but Captain Maxxon shook his head and took the boy by his injured arm. His grip was commanding but not painful - yet.

    "
    You're technically still a Cadet, Samuelson. Not even a full member of the 119th yet. Come on, General Credit has been waiting to talk to you, anyway."

    Leon felt his heart sink in his chest and suddenly he was fearful for his future. Like the Castform in the cage behind him as the Captain led him out of the Scientific Division, the boy deflated. How stupid had he been...? Breaking rules, stealing, two days before his chance at graduation?? And now he was being taken to see the General... Leon's shoulders slumped as he was escorted back up through the caverns to their leader's quarters. He'd probably be sent back to the Academy as a teacher or a janitor.

    The boy seemed far more surprised than Maxxon did at finding General Benjamin Credit awake and quick to respond to the knock on his door at -- what time was it now? 3am? Did anyone sleep around here?

    "Cadet Samuelson," the General said without introduction. He was huge - at least six and a half feet tall and built like a Maori with the tattoos to pull it off, too. Deep, pitiless black eyes that made the hair on the back of Leon's neck stand on edge and he had to look away.

    "Yes, sir," Leon swallowed nervously.

    Credit stood there for a moment watching the boy, and then stepped to the side to let them enter his quarters. The first room seemed to serve as an office and was sparsely decorated, and then the cavern took a sharp turn around which it was impossible to see from their vantage point. Captain Maxxon let go of Leon's arm and slumped into a chair in front of the General's desk, making himself quite at home. After a brief moment of hesitation, Leon followed inside and sat down in the other seat, his jaw clenched.

    Benjamin Credit came around the desk at sat in his own office chair, where it looked like they had interrupted him doing some paperwork, which he didn't seem too disappointed to have to put on the back burner for the time being. "Cadet, first I want to thank you for your valiant efforts in the battle at Fortree. You showed valuable TAP skills - teamwork, adaptability, and bravery," he began, and Leon found himself getting more nervous at the praise. "However, we've run into a problem."

    And this is where Leon was sure the hammer was coming down. The problem... the problem of him finding out about the captured Castform? Perhaps they'd make him disappear, just like that Pokemon.

    "Our infrastructure has been destroyed. Fortree is no longer inhabitable, enough of our defenses were taken out that it will require years of rebuilding, and military strength stronger than we have here to defend that base in the meantime. We lost at least half of the civilian population to the Pokerus outbreak with more on the decline. We no longer have the luxury of training new cadets. We are seeing already, since the destruction of the settlement, increased, coordinated attacks by wild 'Rus Pokemon. It's only thanks to the added defense of the Melbourne that we've been able to hold up this long. But we can't continue this way," Credit leaned forward, rested his elbows on the desk and folded his fingers together, closing his eyes. "The orders from Regional are for Major Glascoe to relocate the members of Academy 119 to one of the other schools in the area. It's likely they will all have to be split up amongst various polytechnics in order to prevent a strain on already stressed resources. Captain Maxxon and I will remain behind as the last bastion, preventing Route 119 from being turned over completely to the wild. The rest of our TAP Rangers will help Major Glascoe escort Academy 119 and remain behind at those schools to shore up defenses around the country."

    In the brief silence that followed, Leon shifted uncomfortably. Where did that leave him...? He wasn't exactly part of the Academy anymore, but he wasn't a Ranger yet, either. "I'm sorry, sir," he finally spoke up, clearing his throat. "But I don't really understand what your point is. I don't want to be left with the other TAP Rangers. I don't want to be an escort. I've been on the front lines now. I'm ready. I want to fight."

    General Credit's dark, unreadable eyes remained on Leon for a long moment. Then he nodded, seemed to be satisfied, and he leaned back in his chair. "Unfortunately, one battle is not enough to determine if you are Ranger-worthy. Your grades were good in school, but that's not enough either. I'll talk to Captain O'Bannon. Perhaps we can work out a transfer and see if you can continue your training on the Melbourne."

    ---

    Leon thought of all this as he stood behind Matt McCallister's wheelchair at the ceremony. He watched as squad after squad of the Melbourne hopefuls were brought to the front, some awarded and some sent back without accolades. He'd heard nothing from General Credit or Captain Maxxon since their early-morning meeting several days ago. He had no idea what lay in his future, but he was certain his name would not be called amongst the 119th being awarded their official status. He had been plucked early from his Academy graduation, and he had only been in one live-action scenario. A harrowing one, for sure. But just the one.

    The boy looked down at Matt as his Melbourne crew was called and - Matt's name was passed over. Well... that made two of them. That was it, he supposed. The answer to his question. As to their future... well, it seemed they were both doomed. At such a young age, their dreams ripped from them. If he had known this was going to be the result of his heroic choice, would Matt have chosen differently...?

    Leon watched absently as Captain O'Bannon began calling up those who would receive the Purple Heart. Several of the names he recognized - the 119th Rangers who were the first to charge into the gym, their medals being given posthumously. He was shaken from his reverie, however, as he heard Matt's name called. Someone came up beside him and took Matt's wheelchair from his grasp, rolling him onto the stage so Leon had a fantastic view of what happened next.

    In his mind he could still see in slow-motion the series of events that led to the Melbourne boy's current state. The realization that dawned on his face as he saw the trick the Castform had played. The hint of devilish glee in the Pokemon's features as he turned his attack on the boy and his Mr. Mime. The flames that engulfed them both, destroying their hopes and dreams.

    But now... now. He watched the determination mingled with sharp pain on Matt's features as he gripped the arms of his wheelchair. As he gathered all his energy, all his courage, all his fight, and against all odds... as he stood to receive his medal. After a brief moment of stunned silence, the crowd erupted in the loudest cheer Leon had heard yet. Maybe the Battle at Fortree hadn't been a complete loss, after all.
     
  30. In spite of many factors- the rationing of limited resources, the regression of technology since the pokerus outbreak, the necessary absentees on patrol duty- a party was still a party. The mood on the Melbourne was one of celebration and festivity, as night fell over the cruise ship. Those who had gone on to TAP officially drank to each others' success, and those who had failed drank anyway. To the victors, to the fallen, to a hopeful future, or to just eating, drinking, and merrymaking, for tomorrow we die- there were toasts enough for them all.

    Partway through the graduation party, Matt was taken aside by Father Freeman, the resident talking pokemon.

    "The Captain would like a word with you," said the Gallade quietly, signaling a need for discretion. The ever-present knot in Matt's stomach tightened; he had been hoping for and expecting a follow-up, but he had no way of guessing how it might turn out. Some booze probably would have been useful for taking the edge off his nerves, but with the burns still so fresh, he wouldn't risk anything. Turning away from a table of uproarious graduates invested in a card game, he wheeled after Freeman down the deck. When they reached the stairs near the Captain's Quarters, Freeman had to help Matt to the top, and Matt was heaving with pain by the end. Father Freeman graciously waited for Matt to compose himself, before the two approached the cabin door and knocked.

    "Come in," came O'Bannon's voice. The two entered a room more luxurious than anything the cadets had- naturally. There was more space, more furniture, better lighting, and ergonomically-desirable chairs in relation to the multiple computer screens in various corners. There were also maps on every wall, paired with charts detailing known pokemon in any given area. O'Bannon kept a personal journal, but it seemed his Captain's Log consisted of the entire room.

    Matt saluted and stood at attention, until O'Bannon waved a dismissive hand, giving unspoken permission for him to shift to "at ease." The movements were automatic, but the pain of the burns still nagged him mercilessly. Even so, his attention was on his captain, and how remarkably tired the old man looked. He slumped into the nearest chair, and motioned for Matt and Freeman to seat themselves on the couch by the door. They did.

    "McCallister, I, ah . . ." O'Bannon began, then stopped. He seemed to be struggling for words, something Matt noticed he was doing a lot more of when they spoke alone. "I'd ask if you're enjoying the celebration, but why would you be? I wouldn't, if I were in your position. Everyone knows their place now, everyone except you. It's not that I'm intentionally keeping you in the dark, it's just that I've been busy as all hell, and with all the ceremony necessities finally out of the way, I can return to the question that, up to and including now, I haven't got a straight answer for."

    He gave Matt a calculated look, running his hand slowly over his white mustache and trim beard. "What am I going to do with you?"

    There was a pregnant pause. The Captain glanced at the silent Freeman, then back to Matt. "You have permission to speak freely. Make your case."

    Matt forced himself to remain calm, as his heartbeat picked up. This man across from him held his life in his hands. He had to be convincing. His show of resolve at the ceremony had doubtlessly bought him this opportunity, and he couldn't count on another chance like this. "Captain . . . did I pass my field exam?"

    O'Bannon's face was neutral. "Yes. You had a deduction in the end for the loss of Haku, but you made it."

    Matt nodded and pressed on, using the momentum of this new knowledge. "Sir, I understand the position you're in. Melbourne's reputation is only as good as its protective services, and I would be the least capable of the TAP personnel aboard. But in all the areas that matter, I am still more valuable as a soldier than anything else." He touched his chest, ignoring the flare of pain that resulted. "I can now feed myself and go to the bathroom without assistance. I admit I'm not very mobile, and I can't shoot or fight anymore, but I'm a pokemon trainer at the core. In the old days, the traditional trainers never fought, but used pokemon as extensions of their will. As long as I'm the brain, my T-rex and the others can handle brawn."

    Captain O'Bannon gave him another long look as he finished speaking. Once more, Matt could see the wheels turning in his head, and the old man finally stood and straightened his cap, as if finalizing his decision.

    "You are what my generation would call a 'glass cannon,' Cadet McCallister. That's not good enough for me. High damage output is what we strive for to fend off the 'Rus, but my cannons will be nothing short of iron. If I'm to maintain your service to this Academy, you'll need someone looking out for your glass body on the battlefield, and you will not be with the main force. Under normal circumstances, that would be impossible, given that we can spare no soldiers of our own for such a commitment . . .

    "As fortune saw fit, however, we do find ourselves with extra hands. It means we'll soon need extra funding to feed the extra mouths, but at least we've already got the room. The 119s are joining our ranks, and among them may be your keeper. I've already got someone in mind, and whoever I choose, you will accept without quarrel. That is my condition for keeping you aboard, Cadet. If he dies or departs, odds are excellent that he will not be replaced, and your career at Melbourne will be forfeit. What is your answer?"

    As it had always been, the question was rhetorical. There was no answer but that which Matt barked automatically as he stood straighter. "Sir! Yes, sir!"
     
  31. Leon had never been on a ship before. Knowing how to swim was a must, with all the rivers and falls and flooding that happened all over Route 119. He was a fairly strong swimmer, too. And they had been taught in school how to string rafts together from vines and fallen branches in order to make a transport over the water, but this was something completely different. The lingo of the Melbourne was foreign to him, and he was struggling to understand directions and directives. The other 119th Rangers who had been sent off with him to the large ship were finding this new trial equally challenging. It would come in time, he knew. In just a few weeks they would know their new positions well and be an active part of the team. But until then... well, it was hard to feel much worth when you seemed to just keep getting in someone's way.

    Before he had parted ways with the only home he'd known for the past 16 years (his birthday had come just after the ceremony, which had made his graduation from the Academy official), Leon had spent a brief time saying his goodbyes to teachers he had been fond of, and a few friends. Mostly he took the time to wander the now empty halls of the Weather Institute, which had been cleared out for the mass exodus. That building had been his home ever since he had been rescued from the forest as a toddler. He hadn't really known anything different. And now he was leaving the Fortree area altogether. All his location-specific training was basically moot.

    Leon looked down at his hand, still wrapped in a cast but freed now from its sling, and flexed it. He made a noise that was both thoughtful and annoyed, and then rested his arms on the rail on the deck of the ship and looked out at the water. It would be a few days before they made it back out to open water, and he wasn't quite sure what he would think of that. Not a single blade of grass to be seen, anywhere...?

    Shaking himself from his thoughts, the boy went belowdecks to find the Ranger that was to assign him his new duties.
     
  32. Matt never ceased to marvel at the astonishing depth of human potential. He had wheeled himself out of his barracks just shortly after the playing of Taps, to see Matrix standing alone on deck with his arms raised. The man's back was turned to him, but Matt didn't have to see his face to tell he was concentrating. An azure glow outlined Matrix's body, and a coordinated rumble of Gyarados cries issued from further below. The ship began to rise, causing its inhabitants to feel the same shift in weight as one experiences in an elevator lift. Then it began to turn slowly, slowly, until after almost a full minute, it had completed a 180 degree rotation. After that, Matrix's psychic command had the Gyarados fleet haul the Melbourne back towards open ocean.

    Unreal, Matt thought, as he made his way toward the mess hall. Who knows what humanity might have become capable of, if not for this Pokerus outbreak?

    After breakfast, senior-ranked officials began rallying various teams to discuss duties and future missions. The mess hall cleared until only a few Academy students remained, most of whom were off-duty for one reason or another. An enormous, muscle-bound black man approached him and called his name. Matt straightened in his wheelchair.

    "I am Petty Officer First Class Darius Taurus," he said in a formal, no-nonsense tone. "You are one of the only graduates not to receive rank at this juncture in time, McCallister. Is that correct?"

    "Yes- yes, sir," Matt replied, twisting his wheelchair to face the officer.

    "As of 00:00 hours this morning, your rank is now Nominal Petty Officer Third Class McCallister," Taurus said with a shadow of amusement on his face. "Congratulations on your promotion. Now, if you'll come with me, I'll take you to your seminar."

    What a mouthful, thought Matt, reflecting upon his new title. "Wait a second . . . 'nominal'? I've got a name-only title?"

    "Yes, McCallister. Much as Crunch is a Captain, if you'll pardon the obscure reference." Taurus was already to the door, and Matt frantically worked his wheelchair to keep up. "On the topic of assigned roles, you're being partnered with one of the 119's. Leon Samuelson. Until we reach out next destination, it'll be your job to show him around the ship, teach him minor repair work, and any other bare essentials for a seaman."

    So, Leon was his partner now. Matt couldn't say he was surprised, although he felt a slight twinge of annoyance at the prospect. For a TAP soldier, the guy was almost too emotional, and prone to take things personally when the big picture obscured such trivialities. The guy was certainly brave enough to be dependable in heated combat, and far more approachable than Haku had ever been. But . . . there was just something about his demeanor that rubbed Matt the wrong way.

    Oh, great, now I'm starting to get personal . . .

    They entered a room that was very much like a classroom, with desks, chairs, and a blackboard at the front. It might have once been a bingo hall, but now other young officers faced the front while a senior in a "TAP" hat busily chalked a rough sketch of the Hoenn region. Matt rolled his way behind one of the desks in the back, scraping the chair away with as little noise as he could manage. Officer Taurus muttered something to the effect of "he'll be here shortly," doubtlessly referring to Leon, and took up position at the rear of the room by the door. Matt waited, while listening passively to the briefing on where the Melbourne was headed next. Their destination appeared to be northwest Hoenn, where they would attempt to access and repair a building in a dangerous area.
     
  33. Leon, completely unused to the ground shifting beneath him, lost his footing when the ship suddenly lifted out of the water to take its turn back toward the ocean. He wasn't immune to the snickers from the more seasoned Melbourne crew, either, quickly jumping back to his feet and brushing himself off like nothing had happened.

    Stupid ship. Stupid ocean. Whose idea was this, anyway?

    After breakfast belowdeck, Leon was rounded up by a TAP soldier he didn't recognize and who had a face about as memorable as a Stunfisk. The soldier mumbled quite a bit, but the young recruit got the idea that he was supposed to follow him to his new post for orders. Maybe he could finally start being useful. Ever since he had left the relative comfort and safety of the Academy, Leon had felt like a newborn Girafarig that hadn't yet found its feet.

    He was quite stunned, then, when the soldier led him down to the briefing room, and straight to Matt. Really...? This guy again? He got the gist. Leon wasn't part of the crew, and they had labeled the wheelchair-bound recruit as damaged goods - unworthy of a full position within the ranks. The idea was that perhaps together, these two half-soldiers might be as useful as a full one. Maybe. Leon sank into his seat next to Matt and folded his arms across his chest, glaring forward at the briefer as he tried to make peace with his new life. This was far beyond the glorious life of a TAP Ranger he had dreamed of. In many ways, it felt like a huge step down from his high position in the Academy. Well, they'd see. He could follow orders. Whatever they made him do, he'd do it to the best of his ability. He'd show the control and passion he had for his Pokemon, and he'd show them.

    "So what's the deal?" he asked as the briefing finally ended, turning in his seat toward Matt. "Do you know what we're supposed to be doing until we reach that building?"
     
  34. Matt glanced at Leon with slightly raised eyebrows. So . . . he was ready for work. There was a good start; let the training begin. He twisted his wheelchair, and jerked his head for Leon to follow him. "Let's get started."

    Their path took them deeper into the ship, which required traversing several flights of stairs. Matt required Leon to carry his empty wheelchair, while he leaned heavily upon the hand railing and made his way down. A journey that should have taken three minutes ended up taking ten, but they at last reached a door with the sign "BOILER ROOM" above.

    "As I'm sure you know," Matt was saying, "people had cars back before the Virus, which only moved when you put fuel in them. Before that, they used pokemon that were large enough to ride, usually by putting grass in 'em. The lesson? You don't get far without fuel. Ninety percent of our job is making sure that we've got enough resources to literally feed an army."

    He pushed open the door.

    "Or in this case, water 'em."

    The boiler room, as the name suggested, was a massive area filled with metal tanks, which at one point had powered the Melbourne. Dozens of various Fire-type pokemon milled about, while a few crewman in mechanic outfits crouched around the tanks. The sheer heat of the room rolled over them, and Matt flinched as his sensitive skin flared up. Nevertheless, he went on.

    "Food and water. Without them, we die. The pokemon need sustenance as well, but most of them are kept in stasis, so their upkeep is lesser. We keep mostly carnivores out for essential functions, because it's much harder to fish vegetables out of the sea than animals. Hey, Arcanine!"

    They had arrived at one of the tanks, where Matt's canine pokemon was exhaling a steady flame beneath the steel. Matt reached out and patted his head, speaking the gibberish that all loving pet owners are so familiar with. Naturally, he applied the higher-pitched "who's-a-good-boy" voice, but Arcanine returned to his fire-breathing soon thereafter. Matt turned back to Leon.

    "That guy who wrote the Rime of the Ancient Mariner had it right. 'Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.' We make it work by using these boilers to distill the salt. Now that Matrix's Gyarados tug the ship, we don't need boilers to power the engines. Your job, if you're called to work down here, will be to carry fresh water, clean up the occasional poops, replace rusty parts, and maintain inventory, to name a few. Not that many soldiers like the intense heat, so, y'know, climb the ranks quickly if this doesn't float your boat. Somebody's gotta float it, though."

    Ten minutes of climbing stairs later, they were in another room with SCUBA gear. Once again, pokemon and humans milled together, as the latter dressed or removed aquatic parts as needed. The diving suits were worn down, with some sporting poorly-patched rips and cuts. Matt rapped the wheel of his chair with his knuckles.

    "God's seen fit to disqualify me from this job until further notice, but I can tell you that it's a lot more exciting than making drinkable water. When the fish see something as big as us plowing through the water, escorted by a squadron of Gyarados, they're usually too scared to stick around and get caught in the nets. When the haul comes up short, these guys go out and hunt for food. Pokerus made it even down to the deeper fathoms of the sea, so rest assured that your prey will be stalking you right back. There are preventative measures like the cages, of course, but there are always surprises as well."

    Matt looked back at Leon. "There's the minor janitorial stuff besides this, like swabbing the deck and cleaning barracks and bathrooms, but I've shown you the priorities now. I think that, as extra staff, you'll be most useful in whatever you can do that involves your pokemon team playing its strengths. So? What do you think?"
     
  35. Someone had at least the sense to provide Matt with a wheelchair that was relatively collapsible, making it actually feasible to carry the thing through the narrow stairways and corridors of the ship. Leon was impatient, too, having to wait the long, painstaking minutes for the Melbourne boy to pull himself up a set of stairs, while all around them other TAP members pushed them aside in their hurry to get wherever they were going. Leon wasn't a huge fan of being the Matt's pack mule, but he supposed that was his life now. He'd better get used to it.

    The air inside the boiler room was stale and heavy with moisture, making every breath feel like a chore rather than second nature. Leon pulled at the neck of his shirt as he looked around at the various Pokemon, some working and some resting. It was warm enough that his Combusken would feel quite at home here. His attention shifted to the Arcanine as Matt approached the huge canid, talking to the beast like a tiny Lilipup.

    Then it was time to move again, and they plowed their way through another thousand yards of hollow metal hallways, stopping again once Matt paused in the SCUBA room. "So do you guys just float around on the water until you hear a distress call or find a mission to work?" Leon asked as he fingered one of the badly patched tears in a suit. It looked like it had been ripped by the teeth of some ferocious Pokemon. He wondered if the human inside had survived. "In the forest, we're constantly doing patrols to keep our borders secure and look for any humans that might have survived and wandered our way. Sometimes we can find a nest of Pokemon eggs we'll pick up. But it's not like you're going to find a group of humans wading around in the middle of the ocean waiting to be picked up," he said with a look back at Matt, curious. How many ships were out there? A fleet? Or just a few? Much contact had been lost between regions around the world when the Pokerus infection had hit its zenith. That must be one of the reasons they were booking it to this radio tower. Communication, especially for humans, was paramount to survival as a species.

    And then there was the question of which of these tasks Leon would be interested in pursuing. Again, he wasn't a bad swimmer. He had a fair amount of strength and skill in the water. But... the whole open ocean.... the thought sent shivers down his spine. There were Pokemon lurking in the depths there that he had only ever seen in books. Besides which, if he was honest with himself Crawdaunt was his strongest Pokemon at the moment. His Combusken had the highest potential, but he hadn't yet been able to convince the bird to evolve yet. Once it was a Blaziken, its base stats would practically double. He needed that extra firepower. This kind of training would be just the trick needed.

    "I think I'll work in the boiler room for now," he said finally as he dropped the sleeve of the SCUBA suit, turning back to Matt. "And what about you? What're you going to do?"
     
  36. "After a lot of pondering, I think I'm going to sign up for post-graduate classes." Matt raised his bandaged fingers. "Look at me. What can I do right now that others can't do better? Cook? Take inventory? If I'm going to be useful between battles, I need to become so." He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, clasping a pokeball in his hand. "Speifically, I need to get into Matrix's Psychic Awareness class."

    The pokeball opened, and Mr. Mime materialized by Matt's wheelchair. Matt looked from his pokemon, to Leon. "The Captain may have assigned you as my handler, Leon, but we don't need to be together all the time. Heck, Mime here can push my wheelchair and hover it up the stairs if I'm out of it. Even so, to please the Captain, I'd like to keep in regular contact. We're going to . . . 'evolve' together, I suppose, and that may mean that you'll someday hear my voice in your head. I warn you about it now, because it will probably be weird if you've never owned any Psychic-types yourself."

    Matt glanced up to the wall, which was mostly barren, but had a shelf. On that shelf was a rare piece of surviving vanity art: a miniature model of the Melbourne, or at least a ship very much like it.

    "This place is never idle," he said, shifting the subject in response to Leon's earlier inquiry. "There were endless distress calls until recently- which is what our upcoming mission to the Mossdeep tower is about. But it is a school second, and comprised of a crew of learners. Perhaps you will decide to take a post-grad class or two yourself later, but it will mean that you owe Melbourne more than ever. Not money, of course, but toil and obedience for as long as you are aboard."
     
  37. Leon had indeed wondered what Matt would do aboard this ship in his new condition. Whatever healing he had left would occur over years, not days or weeks. His body would slowly, painstakingly do everything it could to return him to his original condition, but there was no doubting he would never be the same.
    Leon didn't have much experience with handicapped people. Most of the time in this violent world, if you weren't in top condition then you ended up as someone's dinner. He had been impressed so far, however, with Matt's resolve. His refusal to give up or give in was, at least, something.
    "More school?" he sighed and stuffed his hands into his pockets, leaning back against the wall of the ship. He had just escaped all that. He was supposed to be a Ranger now, taking missions in the forest, beating back lines of 'Rus and rescuing children and living off the land. It was all he had ever dreamed of, everything he had worked for, and now... well. He glanced around the cold, metal room.

    "Wait," he started suddenly as Matt's comments began to register in his ears. "You want to be inside my head?" he asked incredulously. "Hell no, I haven't owned any psychic types, and hell no I don't want your voice bouncing around inside my skull whenever you please," Leon said defensively. "Come on, man, that's just weird," he said, giving Matt a look.
     
  38. Matt tilted his head, returning Leon's look with one of piercing assessment. "We live on a luxury cruiser," he started slowly, "but as I'm sure you've guessed, luxury is not the theme anymore."

    He tapped his temple, his voice growing cold. "We will be back on a one-sided battlefield soon enough, and when that happens, we will need every advantage- including communication. Keyword: need. If the 'Rus can make our radios fail like they did the radio towers, this is the necessary fallback. It is not about what you want, or what I please. It is why I warned you as a courtesy, but did not actually ask your permission. Survival outweighs the luxury of comfort."

    Matt felt the surface of his skin burning, and realized with a start that he had gone tense. He exhaled, attempting to relax his posture once more. "Besides," he murmured in a softer tone. "Do I strike you as the whimsical type? Are you afraid that I would send a mental shout at you while you stoked fires, or were in the bathroom, or lining up a shot at something? I wouldn't. But if such things unnerve you, I emphasize more than ever that you take a class to guard against mental attacks. Mossdeep City was home to Hoenn's Psychic-type gym: the seventh gym, no less. You'd better believe that when those critters went rogue, they broke the fragile minds of everyone they didn't infect."
     
  39. Leon turned his honey-brown eyes back on Matt, frowning faintly as he recognized all too well the cold attitude in the boy's voice. Of course he didn't expect luxury. He had spent the last twelve years of his life living in a boarding school made out of a research facility, learning how to survive in a world that was designed to tear you limb-from-limb. "Look man, let's get one thing straight. I can boil water all day long, or go deep-sea fishing or whatever they want me to do. But you? You're the one who needs me. Otherwise your dream at being a trainer is gone the way of the human race, right?" Leon folded his arms across his chest, frowning. "You think you need this telepathy thing to stay relevant then fine, whatever. But if you think you're gonna pop into my head whenever you feel like it, you can go find yourself a different jenny," he pulled his Combusken's Pokeball off his belt and headed for the door, but he paused last minute.

    "I don't think you're going to try and make a joke out of it. I know you believe this is your best chance at getting back out there," he looked over his shoulder, one hand on the door frame. His voice was softer, less frustrated and more of a mix of incredulity and imploring. "But dude, my head is private space. I just met you. You think I'm gonna be all giddy at the thought of you poking around up there like it's some kind of blessing, then you more messed up than I thought. You gotta stop thinking about people as machines, yourself included," Leon said, his expression taking on a faint look of concern. Matt had been so determined to show everyone he wasn't out of the race, so set on proving himself at the awards ceremony, that it was possible he would push himself too far too fast and ruin his chance of ever recovering fully. "Surviving is living to fight another day. Thriving is remembering our humanity is what sets us apart from the virus." He paused again as if chewing on another thought, contemplating speaking again, but eventually he just shook his head and turned to take his post in the boiler room.
     
  40. Not just surviving . . . but thriving?

    Matt chewed on Leon's last words as Mr. Mime drew along on the long, slow journey back to upper deck. Did they have worth? Before the wheelchair, he had hardly expected himself to reach the ripe old age of 30. Now, it seemed making the big two-oh would be enough of a miracle in itself. Perhaps he did think himself a machine, as Leon suggested, and perhaps he did project this mindset onto others. Machines were useful tools, and being alive hinged on being useful.

    Is this a life, though? he thought, as he knocked at the door of Matrix's cabin. I've come through thus far because of my survival mindset, but what happens when all the dust eventually settles? What if I live to see the day that Pokerus is no more? What will I have then? Is that what "thriving" is? Living beyond the moment?

    In the days that followed, the existential question would return at random times to haunt Matt's conscious thoughts. Coincidentally, these times would often be when he thought he saw Leon out of the corner of his eye, as he rolled along the deck to whatever new destination he was bound for. However, the question of "thriving" came again when he would see what was on the menu that day, or when he would roll to get comfortable in his cot at night, or when he would pause in his actions to momentarily gaze over the railing at the sun on the ocean. The question would pass quickly, for there was much to keep him busy. Nevertheless, it always returned in time.
     

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