“Surge, is that you on my six?”
Lieutenant David Matis checked his coordinates, then leaned to the side to look around his cockpit console. Most of the flight was through a dark and cloudless night, but the sun was just starting to rise, and he could vaguely make out the shape of the landscape they’re flying over, and the vague shape of the other helicopter below and ahead of him. “Yep, right behind you Smat.”
“About time. Thought we were going to have to start this party without you.”
“Had to loop around a patrol that Dropper spotted for us. All quiet so far for you?”
“Not a peep. Saw our own patrol early on, but they didn’t spot us.”
“Mm. Or they sent word ahead and are laying a trap.”
The radio was quiet for a moment, and then Helo spoke up. “Well shit, Surge, now you’re going to have him as paranoid as you.”
David smiled. “Old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots. Just keep your calm close.”
“I’m calm, man, I’m calm. I’m so calm I’m sleepy. I’m so calm I-“
“Shut up, Smat,” Major Key said from the seat beside David. “We’re practically breathing your fumes. Just keep them busy for a few seconds when you get there.”
“Yeah, will do. What’s the key, Major?”
The major sighs, but says, “The key is to stay high and trust your maneuverability and speed.”
Major Key, actual name Keaty, put his com down and looks at David with a long suffering expression. “Do I actually say it that often?”
David smiled as he kept his attention on the instruments and terrain. “No comment, sir.”
“What if I order you to comment?”
“Then I’d comment that callsigns are often given out unfairly, sir.”
“Of course you’d say that, Lieutenant Simple Unrefined Genius.”
The helicopters continue to travel over the untamed wilds around Unova, making their way into the enemy’s territory through as circuitous a route as possible. The border between the warring regions is a no-fly zone, as in anything flying across it is liable to get shot down with at least ten kinds of ordnance. These new helicopters have been designed and built specifically for war. Resistant to heat, cold, blunt trauma, able to fly through storm-force winds, and silent as modern engineering can make them. Best of all, they’re powered by just a pair of voltorb that can be easily swapped out for fresh ones, and designed to absorb any electricity that hits them for more power. They’re likely the most expensive pieces of military hardware on the planet.
Which doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to make it through, of course. If something sufficiently heavy hits their blades they’re in trouble, and of course a well aimed hyper beam or similarly powerful attack would blow them out of the sky. Still, they’re the coolest thing Surge has flown so far, and by far the smoothest, more responsive than even his braviary. It was an honor to be picked as one of the pilots for this mission.
Signing up for the military was the easiest choice David has made in his sixteen years of life. He still remembers exactly where he was when it happened: the news coverage was absolute, showing the smoking buildings, the fleeing people. He assumed it was just another Tier 3 event, maybe one that was particularly bad, to be getting so much attention. Then he saw what the cameras were showing.
Trainers, giving orders to the pokemon that were rampaging through the town. Demolishing buildings, killing the pokemon that came to stop them. They didn’t order them to attack humans directly, but humans died anyway, from area of effect attacks or just being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The recruitment videos practically made themselves. With a “renegade region” nearby, no Unova town or city was safe as long as they were willing to stoop so low.
The politics of the situation all went over his head. He was too busy working his way through the gyms to pay attention to arguments about Unova’s expansion efforts into the wild and its effects on the ecology bordering the Inuvik region. It didn’t ultimately matter. Whatever their grievances, some lines just weren’t crossed. Not without expecting retaliation.
And retaliation was swift. Within a day Unovans with registered teleportation locations in both regions made quick strikes that did little overall damage, but sent the Inuvik population into high alert and practically froze their economy and civic business. Their League denounced the strikes as acts of “terrorism.” Unova’s champion and Elite Four responded by teleporting over all at once, attacking five different locations.
One quick acting defender managed to kill Valera, the Unova League’s Water Type master. Hostilities paused after that, the loss of such a skilled trainer a heavy blow for any region’s stability and safety. But tentative peace talks broke down when Inuvik refused to release Elite Valera’s pokemon back to the League, and Unova insisted it wouldn’t stop efforts to expand into the wild. Soon the war was back on.
Now retaliation was coming on metal, spinning wings. One of the major actors justifying the war was the Inuvik League’s most charismatic figure, Elite Sioux. All the known teleportation points were being closely monitored, but Unova got intel putting the Elite at a small town that functions as a defensive coordination point along their borders, near a major Ranger outpost.
Each copter had six soldiers in addition to their pilots, two of which had a gothitelle on their belts, the psychic pokemon specially selected for their unusually strong ability to block teleportation.
Two of the other six in each were Hunters, with confiscated renegade pokemon on their belts.
There was a lot of disquiet in David’s company when the Hunters were introduced to it. All of them were quiet and reserved, seeming unused to the company of others. Most were on the older side, and no one recognized them from basic, though the Major assured them that they enlisted and went through their own training.
It wasn’t really the Hunters that made the others uncomfortable, though. It was what they implied for the mission. Not a destruction of supply factories or power plants, nor a disruption of their economy or coordination ability. The only reason to bring Hunters was if this was an assassination. Their “actual” mission didn’t say that, of course, it said to secure the Elite’s pokemon for Unova, which is why they weren’t just going in to bring the building down on the Elite’s head, but no one doubted what securing his pokemon would entail, with the Hunters in their unit.
David wasn’t particularly bothered by that. Pokemon kill trainers when going all out all the time, and the idea of beating all your opponent’s pokemon so that they surrender is unrealistic in the heat of a large scale battle. What worried him was the potential for escalation. How would Inuvik respond if Hunters are being conscripted as soldiers?
David pushed down his speculation and doubts and focused on the mission. He didn’t have to like working with Hunters, but they were brothers in arms, fighting for a common cause: protecting Unova from the Inuviks. His job was just to get them in close enough to drop in, do the deed, and teleport out.
“Lights up ahead,” Smat says. “We’re almost there folks. Blockers out.”
The major unstrapped himself and went back to the troops to relay the message and give them some final instructions. At the sound of the two pokeballs opening, Surge glanced behind him and saw the two creepy humanoid pokemon adjusting to their environment.
“Confirmed, blockers are out,” he said into the radio.
“Confirmed,” Helo echoed.
“Staying dark unt-CONTACT!”
David’s adrenaline surged as he saw the line of energy lance out into the night. He can’t tell if the lead copter was hit, it looked like an Ice Beam—
Electricity arced up a moment later, and then another beam shot out. “Smat, you alright?”
“Going in low! Sunsabitches have a whole—”
David was close enough to see the next attack coming, now, and shouted, “Brace for evasion!” over his shoulder as he prepared himself. Most attacks won’t reach them this high, but the defenders are aware of that: an assortment of flying pokemon are rising up in the distance. Most are turned toward Smat’s copter, but not all. “Incoming interceptors! Going down.”
“Belay that,” Major Key said as he returned to the cockpit and strapped himself in. “Keep us high until we’re at the drop off zone.”
David’s lip thinned, but he nodded and fought his urge to start evasive maneuvers. The target was still some distance away, but they were passing near the Ranger Outpost now. Neither side would want to risk damaging it, as that might lead to backlash from CoRRNet, which has remained stubbornly neutral so far, even after a few rangers in Unova stepped down in protest and joined the army.
Sure enough, the defenders spotted them and started forming an aerial net. David flew in similar formations a hundred times, designed to “wall” enemies that might try to fly past by ensuring multiple pokemon would be in range to attack if they try. As the distance between his copter and the enemies shrank, he quickly scanned their forms and judged their lethality. They should be okay from most of them, but if those Steel or Dragon types get in striking distance… “Don’t think we’ll make it through this net, Major. I gotta bring us down.”
“Shit, Surge, they’re waiting for us down there!” But he braced himself against the seat as David tipped the copter into a dive, eyes scanning for incoming projectiles.
Sure enough, arcs of lightning and beams of various energy lanced up at them. David swerved to throw their aim off, blinded briefly as they were struck by two bolts of electricity. He watched the copter’s energy levels spike, and grinned as he poured some of that juice into higher throttle. The longer they went without realizing how useless that was, the better.
Then another flash of light blinded him, and when it faded half the cockpit was iced over, making it hard to see and causing the copter to drag slightly as he maneuvered.
Thankfully he could still make out the pokemon forming the aerial net as they dove to stay in front of him. He could even vaguely see the shapes of their riders. “Hang on,” he yelled, and yanked the collective lever up, sending the copter into a steep climb. Far steeper than most pokemon could rise, causing only the top layer of the web to get close enough to attack as he buzzed past. The whole copter rocked as a powerful gust hit it, and rapid clunks sounded as something sharp and numerous peppered the vehicle’s side and rear.
Then they were past the net, racing toward the building Smat and Helo were heading toward. “Everyone okay back there?” he shouted, hoping nothing pierced the copter’s armor to strike the trainers.
They gave the affirmative, and he asked the same of the other pilots.
“Helo and I are dropping payload now,” Smat said and David saw them in the distance, a pair of specks hovering over a wide compound. As he got closer he spotted the ropes, then the trainers at the ends of them as they bungee’d down.
“Bring us down on the far side, Surge,” the Major said. “We’ll go in through the wall while they’re distracted by the roof.” David reached the clearing around the building and brought his copter down while Major Key checked the rear camera. “LZ’s hot, prepare for deployment!” The Major unbuckled himself and put a hand on David’s shoulder. “Take off as soon as we’re out, Lieutenant.”
“Sir!” A battle erupted above him as the trainers made it to the roof and brought their pokemon out just ahead of their pursuers’ arrival. David hit the button to open the rear hatch, then touched his vehicle down and turned to watch everyone run down the ramp, pokeballs opening ahead of them as the two gothitelle followed their trainers.
As soon as the last boot hit dirt he lifted off, engines loud through the closing hatch as he made some vertical space, then jerked to the side to avoid some pokemon streaking right toward him. The rest went after his squadmates, but he had no time to worry about them, too busy trying to avoid the burst of fire that suddenly engulfed his copter.
The air inside the cockpit became searing, ice melting off the glass as sweat broke out all over his body. The hatch was still open, and he spared a quick glance back to make sure nothing critical was on fire. Just the seatbelts and cargo netting, as it turned out.
“This is fine,” David muttered as he shoved the lever down to momentarily stall and avoid a metallic pokemon that flashed by above him, narrowly dodging its sharp wings before he shot away from the compound, a flash of electricity hitting him and making the console short out briefly. “This is all fine. Everything’s fine.” He switched on his com. “Dropper, we’re done here. What’s your position?”
“Passing over the Outpost now. You guys drew them all off, I’ll be good. How much longer can you give me?”
“I’ve got three on me like remoraid on a mantine!” Smat yells. “You make it out Helo?”
“Yep, three more on me,” the other pilot drawled.
David glanced at the rear camera screens. “Got four on the hook that I can see.” One was almost directly above him, and he stomped on right pedal and twisted the throttle, accelerating toward the rising sun and hoping it would blind them as he began his run for the border… but not at max speed. Their second objective wasn’t to escape, but to draw attention and keep it on them so the assault team wouldn’t be overwhelmed. David could pop the hatch, bring his elgyem out and teleport if he wanted to abandon the aircraft, but then the Major and the others would have to deal with the trainers pursuing him.
“They’re not using anything flashy in case they hit the buildings below,” Smat grunts, voice strained as he likely pulls off some maneuver. “Gonna stay here.”
“They’ll box you in man, you need to race them.” David turned the copter hard to the left as a flash of light alerted him to an electric attack. It connected anyway, but as long as it looked like he was trying to dodge… they fired another one at him, and David smiled as he blinked the spots away. “Alright guys, let’s see who tires first…” He lowers the throttle, letting the pursuers get within attack range, then ramps it up again, jetting ahead.
The trainer riding the hydreigon was saving its own burst of speed, however, and kept growing in his rear view. “Shit, this thing’s fast.”
“Dropping payload now,” Dropper reports. “Still got no one on me, anything I can do to lighten your load?”
“No, we’re too far now. Just get out of there.”
“Negative Lieutenant, not until our boys are safe.”
David scowled as he started climbing again, but knew she was making the same decision he was. “I might be leaving some behind, make tracks south-southeast and maybe you’ll catch them heading back.”
“Surge, your tail is getting closer!”
David looked back to see Smat was right, then looks around quickly. “Where you coming from Smat?”
“Your two o’clock, they’re trying to cut me off.”
“I told y-“
“Yeah I heard you the first time!” David saw him now, coming in at an angle and moving at full throttle. He must have been burning through his battery at that speed, but maybe he got hit with more bolts than David did. “Gonna pass in front of you and let them all eat our exhaust together.”
Alarm rang through David, but he failed to put his misgivings into words before Smat crossed into his line of sight, and a moment later he had to up his throttle to stay ahead of the pokemon cutting across to pursue him. His battery started to drain notably faster, bringing him down to 50% as the copter spent four times the output the voltorbs were supplying to stay ahead of the pursuers.
“We can’t keep this speed up, Smat.”
“Just a bit longer, we need them to peel off a bit.”
He was right, and slowly but surely David watched the pursuers fade as they tried and failed to keep up, a few wheeling away entirely as their pokemon tired. By the time his battery dipped below 30%, even the trainer on the hydreigon was starting to shrink.
And then they passed the edge of the the town, nothing below but dense forest, and their pursuer sent a ball of orange, glowing death above his copter. “Draco Meteor!” David shouted, and cut his throttle. The ball exploded into dozens of small orbs that descended in streaks of bright light, all of which sailed through the space he was just about to fly through…
…and where Smat’s copter still flew, trying to evade the streaks as they fell all around him until one hit his tail, bursting the metal apart in a flash of light. David watched in horror as the copter started to spin out of control from the torque of its rotor.
“Jack, port out!” he yelled, but couldn’t spare attention as his pursuer used the slowdown to reach him. David went into a steep climb to avoid the wash of plasma that spread out under his copter. The hydreigon would down him soon, but if he bailed now without knowing if Smat made it out…
David cursed, then engaged autopilot and opened the rear hatch as he unstrapped from his seat. Thankfully the fires had blown out by the sudden rush of wind, and he could move into the holding area as he clasped his pokebelt on and unclips a ball.
His pokemon materialized on the ramp, just barely able to fit. He brought its whistle up to his lips and blew the command to attack any nearby pokemon indiscriminately, then watched as his friend launched herself out of the copter at the enemy hydreigon just as it prepares for another attack. Two of its three heads swerved to follow his pokemon, and the Dragonbreath that blasted out from the remaining side head only managed to melt the tip of the ramp rather than the whole underside of the copter.
David was already summoning his eelektross without waiting to see if his braviary was okay. His pokemon floats and curls around itself mid-air until it orients toward the dragon outside. “Thunderwave,” he yelled over the roar of the wind and propellers, not even sure if Zeus would hear him. Then the air crackled and popped with electric discharge as a bolt lanced out between his pokemon and other trainer’s.
The dragon barely reacted to the electric surge, but its movements slowed, and the trainer on its back visibly struggled to shake off the paralysis. She was directing her pokemon with her hands, and when her arm spasmed, the hydreigon took the taps as some command and started trying to bite at his braviary, who raked at it with one talon, the other leg missing.
David stood paralyzed for a moment as he watched his opponent fall farther and farther behind. Her head looked up at him, but he was too far to make out her expression. He had to fight down the urge to blow on his whistle and call his pokemon back, to leave her alone. I can’t let her go, I have to turn around, Jack may be dying down there… “Thunderbolt,” David yelled, and this time he heard the other trainer scream as the electricity hit her and her pokemon.
She fell limp against its back as it continued fighting his braviary. David considered hitting it again, making sure it wasn’t a trick or just a temporary stun… then withdrew his eelektross and pulled himself back to the driver’s seat, feeling numb, feeling a pit of something sick in his stomach as he strapped himself in and started his descent and turn, looping back around toward where Smat’s helicopter went down. He checked constantly to see if he was being pursued, but didn’t spot anyone, let alone the hydreigon trainer. He knew he should probably have gone back toward the objective, seen if he could distract any of his previous pursuers…
“Smat, can you hear me?” He asked once he thought he was in range, torn between leaving and continuing his search. “Jack, answer me if you’re there.”
“Surge!” Dropper’s voice. “What happened to Smat?”
“He went down. Gonna check if he’s okay. What’s up with you?”
“The Major said mission’s a success. They’re on their way out. You need help?”
He saw an irregularity in the forest below, and his heart leapt as moments later he spotted the copter wreckage wedged between some splintered trees. “No, I found him. Get out before you’re shot down too.” He searched for a clearing big enough to set down in.
“Fuck that, I’m heading toward you.”
“You might bring them, Dropper. Get out, now.”
“Shit. Alright. Be careful, Dave.”
David found a clearing just a few minutes’ jog away, and set down. He quickly powered down so the voltorbs could rest, then grabbed the mediball and ran down the half-melted ramp and through the woods toward the downed copter, spraying repel on himself as he went and hoping the crash and his rotors would have scared any nearby pokemon away.
His heart was pounding with more than just exertion by the time he reached the wreckage. The blades had shorn off as they cut into the trees and cracked the smaller ones in two as it tipped onto its side. His feet sped up to bring him around to the cockpit, fear making it hard to breathe.
“Shit,” he groaned as he saw Smat’s body hanging in his seat by his safety harness, blood pooling beneath him. “Smat! You alive?” David approached the glass, then hesitated and went to check if the ramp was down.
It was. He crawled in and clambered over the seats, one hand extending to release the mediball’s container box. “Smat, wake up,” he said as he stood “under” his squadmate and checked his pulse. A weight fell off his chest as he felt a weak pulse, and he grabbed a potion and started spraying the visible wounds as he assessed them. Panic threatened to distract him from figuring out what to do next, and he looked Smat over more carefully and tried to diagnose him for any critical wounds. Broken ribs by the sound of his breathing, broken arm and shoulder, or maybe just dislocated…
David looked around and saw the pokeball in the corner. Probably his elgyem’s. It wouldn’t respond to David’s commands…
“Nngh…” David’s head snapped around as Smat stirred, then his eyes opened and he gazed blearily around. “Wha…”
“Jack!” David sagged against the side of the passenger seat. “Swords of Justice, am I glad you woke up. Carrying you would not be pleasant for either of us.”
“Surge?” Bloodshot eyes travel from David’s face to the smashed glass and sideways tilt of the cockpit around him. “The fuck did you do to my helicopter… This is why you had to fly with Major…”
David grinned as he went to retrieve the pokeball, feeling slightly dizzy with relief. “Yeah, yeah. Small man, always talking. Say something useful for once and get your elgyem out so you can get back in one piece.”
Smat grabbed his arm as he lifted it to aim the pokeball at the cabin, fingers tightening around as he met his gaze. “You’re… okay? Copter?”
“Landed nearby. I’m fine.” For some reason he thought of the trainer on the hydreigon, of his braviary… “For now at least. Get out of here before you get me caught, huh?”
Smat nodded, and Surge held the ball out while he raised his voice and hoarsely summoned the elgyem in it. The small blue pokemon appeared, its large head and strange eyes tilted this way and that as it took in its surroundings. “Here,” Smat muttered, and the pokemon floated over and settled on his outstretched hand.
“Get back quick, Dave.”
“Yeah.” David straightened and unbuckled Smat’s harness. “See you soon.”
“See ya. And thanks.” Smat smiled up at him, the expression half a grimace, then said “Teleport,” and vanished.
David wasted no time packing as many things of value as he could find, then headed back to his copter. He’s halfway there when he hears the twin explosions from behind him. Giving the voltorb the self-destruct command had felt wasteful, but he knew it was necessary to minimize how much of the copter tech fell into Inuvik’s hands.
He took off and flew over the forest back toward Unova, allowing himself to relax after a few minutes passed and no pursuit started up. He flew on until afternoon, where a hero’s welcome was waiting for him. Smat was on the mend, and told everyone that Surge had saved him. Spirits were overall mixed; the mission had been a success, though a costly one. A third of the strike force hadn’t made it out, and Helo’s copter also went down, the pilot presumed dead. Major Key commended David publicly for helping keep the casualty count lower than it could have been… and then told him in private that many on the strike team had died on the way out, from flying trainers who were returning from their chases.
He didn’t ask if David did all he could to keep them occupied once Smat went down. David didn’t ask if a hydreigon was among the pokemon that returned to kill his squad mates.
David went to bed feeling a mix of guilt and stubborn pride, and woke twice in the middle of the night from dreams of the hydreigon trainer plummeting down with her pokemon. The second time he rushed to the bathroom and threw up until nothing but bile came out.
A week later, a Unovan town was reduced to rubble, the earth shaking for hours of sustained and concentrated pokemon assault until its streets cracked and its building toppled.
When Surge took leadership of Vermilion Gym, his very first order while his pokemon were still being healed was to start renovations. The previous gym was a standard building full of training rooms and arenas. What he wanted was a true training facility that would allow him to centralize facilities for all the various skills he felt a trainer should have, and eventually, that’s what he got.
While that was still going on, he expelled every single gym member, causing a region-wide scandal that brought him League attention and a visit from a very concerned Champion. Surge explained his reasoning, and then started testing each one for continued membership. Not one at a time in official matches, but first by observing them in groups, seeing how well they demonstrated not just their trainer competence but also their teamwork, ability to teach each other, and ability to follow and relay orders. The scandal quickly died down when many of the old members still managed to pass, and spoke in favor of the system, but murmurs of a foreign Leader without respect for tradition still sounded around the city, especially when so many trainers came with him from Unova and quickly rose among the ranks of the gym.
Surge only waited a year before he started pushing his ideas for city planning at his meetings with the city’s mayor and legislators. They responded with bafflement at first, then anger. A gym leader, presuming to believe they should have a say in issues of construction and zoning laws, let alone asking for certain buildings to be put in certain places? Who did he think he was?
But once Surge grew more popular from a few defenses of the city and made his case to the public, outlined the defensive benefits of his choices, they eventually put pressure on the politicians and businesses themselves, and over the past five years he’s been slowly but surely altering the city’s layout to be more defensible.
Everyone thinks the changes are to help against pokemon attacks. They’re not wrong in every case. The rest, however, are to prepare the city for war.
It’s coming, of that he has no doubt. The destructive power of pokemon was a threat to human survival for centuries. Now, thanks to their ingenuity and technology, they’ve come close to being the most powerful creatures on the planet. Not entirely, of course, but the days when towns or cities would be wholly lost, let alone entire regions, is fading from living memory. Only the legendary pokemon are real societal threats anymore.
Or they would be the only ones, if not for pokeballs.
Ironic, that the same technology that protects them from one threat creates another. No wild pokemon is as dangerous to humanity as one in human hands, wielded by human intelligence. The war that forged him was the first in history to use pokeballs, but it won’t be the last… and the technology has only gotten better.
Sooner or later, another would start. And if anyone ever manages to catch a legendary pokemon… they could easily conquer entire regions, like the warlords of old.
Surge would be ready. And so would his city.
“Challenger, Blue Oak, from Pallet Town. Third Badge.”
Surge hears his gym raise their voice for the Professor’s grandson. His Second told him about the kid: sharp in combat and out, highly capable, charismatic enough to draw other trainers to him. He’s mildly interested in this fight, and watches as the young trainer walks into the arena like he owns it… wearing…
Surge frowns as the camera zooms in on the kid’s shirt, which is decorated with Objections like military commendations, each one with something written on them. A dull pulse of anger goes through him at the arrogance of it. This is someone who clearly missed the point of the system, if he’s wearing his peers’ tokens of submission like trophies.
There had been a lot of one on one requests relayed to Surge from the boy, he remembers, but he doesn’t respond to those unless something exceptional happens, and having “Oak” for a last name or selling abra to his gym for cheap didn’t qualify. He feels justified in that decision, now, but part of him does wish he made the time to talk with Oak before now. It’s always better to dress someone down in private first, if possible, rather than in public. He’s surprised that none of the others have already curbed this sort of attitude from his classes or preliminary matches.
“Leader Surge, of Castelia City, Lieutenant First Class in Unovan Military.”
Surge takes some Third Badge balls from the wall and attaches them to his belt. He’s tempted to swap one out for a Fourth Badge, as punishment for the kid’s attitude, but restrains himself. If Oak can beat him, he should, regardless of his other failures. He wouldn’t necessarily grant him a badge just because he wins, if his behavior in the stadium doesn’t demonstrate worthiness.
The noise of the crowd washes over him as he enters the arena and walks to his platform as he hastily rewords his usually planned opening speech. His main challenge arena is outdoors, by necessity: it’s not unusual for his pokemon to call lightning in his 7 and 8 badge challenges, and he knows that those facing him will be using ground types quite often. He doesn’t know how Brock and Giovanni justify the expense of artificial earth floors in their arenas, but he’s satisfied with using the real ground.
By the time he ascends the stairs he has his anger mostly under control, and the face that he presents to his opponent is the stern but calm one he expects all his subordinates to mirror when they need to take someone down a peg.
Surge toggles the private channel on while he waits for the arena to move into position. “You made a mistake wearing those like prizes, son,” he says. “I’m going to be harsh with you, but if you show humility and win the battle in good form, you’ll still get your badge.” He switches to the public channel and starts speaking before his opponent has the chance to respond, though he can distantly see Blue’s expression shift. “Welcome, trainer. Before we start, I must address the breach in decorum you’ve brought to my arena.”
The crowd goes instantly quiet, and Surge lets it hold for a moment before he speaks again. “The tokens on your shirt were given to you as signs of respect from your peers. You will not wear them as trophies during our battle. Remove them before stating your Challenge.”
The cameras have shifted to a close-up of the trainer’s shirt, their blown up images on the monitors above the stands showing each wooden token, and the names written on them. Anger pulses in him again at that, but he manages to control it, expecting the kid to start sheepishly pulling them off…
…except Oak does nothing of the sort. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Leader,” the trainer says, speaking calmly and confidently to the arena. Surge’s anger flares, and he feels his teeth grit against each other. He gave the kid a chance, and he— “These tokens represent all the trainers who helped me get where I am. They’re not worn as trophies, but to show that I’m not here by just my own merits.” Oak touches one of the Objections. “Each of these represent not just someone who gave me their respect, as you said, but also taught me something, trained with me, and in some cases fought beside me against wilds. I wish I could bring them with me in truth, to Challenge for our badges together, as a unit, which is what your gym taught us… but since challenges are only allowed as single battles, I honor them with these. They are not signs of their respect for me, but of mine for them.”
Surge stares at the challenger as the audience murmurs around the stadium, feeling like he’s been punched in the gut. This kid didn’t just turn around his intended browbeating, that’s just the sign of an adept showman. On its own it would be worth a grudging respect.
What Surge struggles to respond to is his offhand criticism of the gym. It was barely there, almost only in tone rather than content, but…
Blue Oak spoke loud and clear to the Gym Leader. Your gym teaches us how to work together. Why are we still challenging for badges as individuals?
It’s not that he’s never thought of it before. His tenure as a Gym Leader has been one of throwing out convention when it got in the way of what had to be done. But changing the nature of the Challenge battles, even if it’s just for Mastery, would be a logistical nightmare. Difficulty would be almost impossible to scale properly, even if he restricts all the challenges to be with those of equal Badge count, as team synergy matters far more for multi-battles. It would also encourage people to only seek out and train with those who they immediately identify as good battle trainers, losing a lot of the cross-transfer of skills and the more natural formation of bonds that would persist beyond their time at the gym.
The crowd’s murmurs have grown. He’s been silent for too long, fighting his urge to address the youth’s criticism, to respond with excuses. And they would be excuses. He agrees that it would be a more meaningful test of Mastery, at the very least. Perhaps Membership, and yes, even Leadership. It would just…
…be a lot of work. And it might fail horribly.
Surge smiles. Not much of a reason not to try.
“Very well,” Surge says at last. “Your challenge?”
“I challenge for Mastery.”
Surge knows that people often wonder how much of the pre-Challenge dialogue is scripted. It always seems too dramatic, too well paced. Even he’s thought it on occasion, when watching a Challenge at another gym.
But most Challenges are pretty straightforward, and Surge tries to keep his own parts free of flowery language. It’s only when a natural showman like the young Oak arrives that Surge notices himself naturally leaning into dramatic beats, the knowledge of what feels right seeming to align with what will be the most meaningful and correct statements.
“Vermilion Gym declines.”
Surge gives his words a moment to sink in and watches on the monitor as the young Oak’s expression shifts to shock, a surprised hum of conversation breaking out in the stands a few seconds later. Anger follows, briefly, before the youth smooths his expression out, and that’s when Surge continues. “I’ve always thought that single battles don’t fully mark one’s Mastery of my gym, but the duties of a Leader have kept me from designing a better way to fairly judge groups of trainers. One thing I do pride myself on is running a gym that’s open to new procedures and ideas. If you want your Vermilion Badge to matter, then I charge you with designing a better process for attaining one. You will Challenge for Membership.”
The crowd is loud, now, shocked conversations coming from every direction of the bleachers. Declining a Challenge is rare, and always embarrassing for a trainer (or, even more rarely, a gym leader, if it’s a Challenge for Leadership). But as far as Surge is aware, it’s unprecedented for a Gym Leader to dictate what the Challenger will fight for. He’s not even sure it’s allowed: if his opponent decides to get the League involved, Surge could end up pretty embarrassed. He has no actual reason to decline Oak’s Challenge, except for maybe the decorum argument for wearing the Objections.
But it feels right. And whatever the kid’s other plans were, he’s caught in the drama that he himself began. The chatter among the audience is finally fading as people wait with bated breath for the trainer’s response. Blue Oak looks like a man fighting with himself, and it’s not hard to guess why. He’s been on a warpath to get his badges quickly, and staying at a Gym is often an investment made in months, at the very least. He also probably has journeymates that have their own plans.
David Matis feels a little bad for forcing the youth to make such a decision on the spot and in public, but Gym Leader Surge wants the young Oak for his gym, now. He wants to see what that creative intelligence comes up with, to see if it’s something he can make workable.
That is the challenge that Gym Leader Surge set for Blue Oak. And what young trainer with visions of glory in their head could turn down such a thing?
Eventually Oak smiles, the expression captured on every monitor. “I accept.”
“Excellent. Then I will use only one of the pokemon I brought out. You may use two against it in a simple elimination. Prepare for battle!” He unclips the strongest pokemon he has on him. “Ready… set… go, Eelektross!”
The pokemon appears in the middle of the arena, one of the many children Zeus has had since arriving with Surge to Kanto. The floating eel undulates through the air, one of the few electric pokemon that can stay safe from ground attacks. He fully expects the young Oak to win this match if he came ready to challenge for Mastery, but there’s no reason not to try his best to win anyway.
Surge’s brow rises as he sees the pidgeotto appear, the surprise and confusion of the crowd mimicking his own sense of curiosity. He trusts a 3rd badge challenger not to bring a Flying pokemon into his arena without good reason, but… “Strike!”
Oak blows into his whistle, and his pokemon flies far to the side, out of range… then begins to beat its wings, sending clouds of dirt up into the arena as Surge’s pokemon starts to pursue to attack, its body glowing with the built-up charge. Surge holds a hand up as some of the dust blows over him, and grins. It’s not quite a sandstorm, but it’s enough to blind his pokemon.
“Your pokemon could be considered out of bounds, Trainer,” Surge says into the public channel. “It is too far to protect you if this were a real battle.”
“Normally you’d be correct, Leader. But your pokemon is just as blind to my location, and if it gets lucky, Zephyr knows Brave Bird.”
Surge shakes his head. “I won’t ask you to demonstrate that yet, but unless you have another strategy to show soon…”
The whistle blows again in response, and the pidgeotto returns to Oak, only to be withdrawn. A moment later Oak yells out, “Go, Rive!” Surge sees the flash from the other side of the settling dust cloud, and he uses the monitors to see what Blue just summoned: a rhyhorn.
That’s more like it.
“Atah!” Oak yells.
As the pokemon lumbers toward his blinded pokemon, Surge keeps his face calm… and only calls out “Sap!” when the rhyhorn is within striking range.
It throws its head up to jab his pokemon with its horn, but Eelektross knows where it is now and just takes the hit and latches onto its opponent’s grey hide with its wide mouth, green light shining as it begins its Giga Drain. The rhyhorn tries to shake it off, and only manages to by rolling its body along the ground. Surge yells “Sap!” again, but the pokemon is withdrawn a moment later.
“Nice,” Oak says in Surge’s earpiece as he swaps balls. “I figured you wouldn’t use an Electric pokemon without some Grass or Water moves. But I’ve won the match.” He summons his pidgeotto again, and whistles for it to start another huge sand attack from a distance.
“A bold claim, Trainer. But whatever damage that wound did to my pokemon will have been healed by its drain. Just blinding it won’t be enough to win, and your pidgeotto will tire eventually.”
“Eventually, yeah, but not before your pokemon drops. My friends yelled at me last time I kept this secret, so I’ll just let you know that my pokemon’s horn is poisonous. You’re going to notice your eelektross tiring very soon.”
Surge’s eyes widen, and then he laughs briefly, stopping himself before too much floating dirt can get into his mouth. “Full points for your honesty. Ceding a tactical advantage to ensure safety is appreciated at any gym. But you could be bluffing, and so I’ll have to try my best to win before my pokemon starts to show its effects.”
Surge leans against the railing and takes a deep breath, then yells “Wild Charge!” His pokemon shoots out in a more-or-less random direction, escaping most of the cloud but not approaching the pidgeotto. Once it looks around and recorrects, Oak is already re-positioning his pokemon with a few quick blows on his whistle. Surge prepares another command to try and cut it off—
“David, stop the fight,” his Second says in his earpiece, and Surge immediately transitions to calling out “Stop!” instead. His pokemon freezes in place, and a moment later Oak blows his whistle, causing his pokemon to loop back around toward him.
Surge switches to his Second’s channel. “What is it?” Surge murmurs as the arena and his opponent watch in confusion.
“Zapdos is coming up the coast. Multiple confirmations. ETA is no more than an hour.”
The words are like a bucket of ice water on Surge’s head, cold spreading down his whole body as his mind stutters in shock, then tries to regain its bearings.
“Eelektross, return!” he shouts. “The match is over. The Challenger’s pokemon poisoned mine with its strike. Blue Oak has demonstrated sufficient skill to join Vermilion Gym.” Surge’s mouth is on autopilot as his mind races to all the things he has to do, the preparations that need to be made, even as fear and predicted grief continue to spread through him.
There’s scattered applause throughout the arena, everyone taken a bit by surprise from the abrupt end to the match. “I’ve also just received word that Vermilion is entering a Tier 3 state of emergency,” Surge says before the reaction can swell in the wrong direction. “Zapdos is coming. I repeat, Zapdos is arriving at Vermilion City within the hour. Everyone, please find your shelter or evacuate as soon as possible. If you plan to fight, assemble in the courtyard for briefing.”
Surge looks to Oak, switching to the private channel to ask what he would do. Though he’s a new member of the gym, Surge wouldn’t hold it against him if he doesn’t stay and fight; it would be too much to expect of someone who was pseudo-forced into it. But he stops as soon as he sees the expressions flow over the young man’s face.
Shock that shifts toward rage, and a determination so absolute that Surge doesn’t even need to ask.
Young and foolish, as many were in adolescence. Surge hopes he survives it.
The crowd fills the gym grounds, hundreds of trainers from the city and outlying areas who rushed here as soon as the call went out. Above them, the sky is still mostly clear… for now. The light is fading, however, and when Surge mounts the podium and looks to the southeast, he sees the storm coming, a blot of darkness that breaks up the horizon.
By the time he switches frequencies on his earpiece to the speakers his people are still deploying around the field and attaches the extended microphone, the crowd has fallen deathly quiet. Thousands of eyes watch their Leader. Tense eyes. Trusting eyes. Even a few excited eyes, from those who don’t understand what’s coming yet, or the adrenaline junkies who live for the dance with death.
But most of the eyes are fearful. Those who live here, particularly, and have family in the city, some in the crowd with them, some heading to shelters. He sees a number of younger men or women standing beside their parents or aunts or uncles, ready to face the storm together.
“Thank you all for coming,” Surge says, hearing his voice reverberate through the crowd. “Time is short, so I’m going to keep the motivational part of this brief. Not all of you are here because you want to be. Most aren’t even here out of a sense of duty. You’re here because some scary shit is coming, and when scary shit is coming, our instinct is to either run and hide, everyone for themselves, or gather together and draw comfort from our fellows. Draw comfort from a sense that someone is in charge and knows what they’re doing.” He wants to pace, to start using up the frenetic energy that’s filling him. Instead he stands still, hand clasping his wrist behind his back, feet parted and back straight. “I am not that person. Those of you here listening to me because you think one person, or even a group of people, can plan for what’s coming, you’re in for a rude awakening. It’s alright. We’ve all been there.”
The crowd is still and silent. Surge releases his arm and points over their heads, to the southeast. “The moment that storm hits this city, any plan is going to get shot to hell. We know it’s Zapdos coming, obviously, so we know to expect constant and powerful lightning strikes, and every building in this city has rods to draw them away, so that’s the one thing we have on our side. But everything past that is a variable.” He lowers his arm and clasps it behind his back again. “We don’t know if it will be a dry storm or a heavy deluge. It’s coming up the edge of the coast, so any last minute changes in trajectory will alter that. We don’t know how long we’ll have cell reception or other electronic coordination. We don’t know what pokemon are rampaging at the stormfront. We don’t know if Zapdos will descend and wreak havoc personally, or stay above the clouds. We don’t know how many trainers in total will be available to help in the city. We don’t know how many of those trainers will still be alive after the first hour. Or the second, if there is one. Or the third.”
The eyes are wider, now. More of them filled with fear, doubt, uncertainty. He nods, though only those at the very front will see it. “Whatever you’re feeling now, it’s what you should be feeling. Even if it’s terror. If you would run, start running now. If you would hide, find a place to hide now. Because this is the truth, and the truth is terrifying. When the Pressure hits, and you feel more than just what’s true, when your doubts and fears are amplified beyond anything you’ve felt before, there’s a chance you’ll crack like an egg, and become another liability.” He’s careful to keep his voice calm and level. “So go, if you must go. There’s no shame in it. If you think you’ll break, then the best thing you can do for the city and those around you is to do your best to keep yourself safe. And to convince you I mean every word, I’m going to waste a precious minute right now to have everyone mill around aimlessly, to give cover to those who need to leave.” He sees the surprise on those closest. “You heard me. Sixty seconds, starting now; move, and if you’re going, go. Good luck to you.”
He starts walking in circles, having no one to mill with, just to show that he’s not paying attention to anyone and to get everyone moving as he counts under his breath. He hears the crowd around him start to move, quietly and without too much bumping into each other. A minute isn’t enough time for those close to the front to make it all the way out through the shifting press of bodies, but those that arrived first are the least likely to change their minds, and it’s better than nothing.
“Just got word from the League,” his Second suddenly says in his earpiece. “Leaders Sabrina, Erika, Koga, and Giovanni are confirmed to be on their way. CoRRNet says they’ve got two hundred rangers in the city or arriving in the next thirty minutes, with another hundred moving into the outlying areas.”
Some tension in Surge loosens. Having half of the Kanto League here would help immensely, and two hundred rangers are more than he expected. “Good. And from the Plateau? Lorelei’s up, right?”
“Yes, her and Karen.”
Elite Karen. Supposed to be some Dark pokemon prodigy, and currently the youngest of the whole Indigo League. Wouldn’t have been Surge’s first preference, or even his fourth, not least because she wouldn’t be able to teleport straight in. Lorelei will be a welcome addition, at least. “Got it,” Surge says. “What’s the ETA for Karen and Giovanni?”
“She was in Celadon apparently, so she’ll be here soon. Giovanni will take an hour.”
Better than he thought. “Thanks, Smat. With Lorelei we’ll have a chance at hitting Zapdos hard if he comes down, at least.” Fifty-four… fifty-five… He reaches sixty, then stops moving and switches back to the public channel. “Company halt,” he says, and the crowd quickly comes to a stop. They look around themselves, some smiling from the silliness of walking around aimlessly, checking out who they ended up beside, or looking for missing faces. There are notable gaps, now, but not many. A few people are still moving away at the edges of the field, and Surge waits until they step through the doors before he smiles. “Good, not everyone left. That’s always a relief.”
A chuckle moves through the crowd, nervous but still breaking the tension a bit. He lets it run its course, then waits another few seconds as he collects his thoughts. “I know that wasn’t the sort of encouraging talk people expect. I do want you all to know that I’m profoundly grateful and proud that so many of you are here and ready to do what the survival of our species have always needed us to do: risk everything we have, to save everyone we can. Earlier I said that any plan we try to form is going to be shot to hell. It’s the truth, but there are still basic objectives that will hold in the form of priorities. Priority 0 is always in effect. Communication will break down at some point, and when it happens you will know best what to do in any given situation you find yourselves in, to keep yourself and those around you safe. But Priority 1 will be to keep the shelters secure. Gym members are waiting outside to direct you to each and make sure we’re spread out enough. If there are friends or family or journeymates you want to stick with, find them there before heading out.”
Surge watches as people start to move again. “Not yet,” he says, and everyone stops. “Priority 2 takes precedence. The hospitals and pokemon centers are going to be staffed throughout the storm. Over the years the mayor and I have tried to ensure that they all are nearly as durable as the shelters, but many are still vulnerable. Those with five badges and up or experience in a previous Stormbringer attack, get assigned to one of those first. These places will need lots of volunteers afterward to cut down on the number of tragedies coming.”
Someone is raising a hand, like this is a class. If Surge calls on him more would raise their hands, and the momentum would shift, but the first person to raise their hand in such a situation is either brave or stupid, and it’s worth checking in case it’s the first. “Yes?”
“How do we know who to listen to if communications break down?”
Surge shakes his head. “I don’t know what your situation will be when that happens. If you’re at a priority site, listen to the rangers or gym members there. New priorities will likely come up, and the chain of command will be scattered across the city. If you’re not sure, always default to Priority 0.”
A few other hands pop up, but they’re out of time. Surge looks at the oncoming storm that now fills a quarter of the horizon. “One final note. Not everyone is going to make it to the shelters. Some people are going to try to ride things out in their homes, others just won’t get to one on time. It happens every Tier 3, no matter how much warning we get.”
Surge looks around the crowd. Everyone is absolutely silent, watching him. Many know what’s coming next. “They’re on their own. We cannot afford to spread trainers out too thin. They will have to reach a priority site before we can help keep them safe.” He lets out a breath as he asks the trainers to do something he would have had trouble doing, earlier in his life. That he did have trouble doing. “If you know of friends or family or even strangers that are in danger, and want to go help them… well, I won’t tell you to ignore your conscience. But just remember that you’re making a choice, and good intentions can often cost more lives than they save.
“Good luck to you all,” Surge says as he looks out at the crowd, feeling pride, and pity, and hope, and dread. “A god is coming to raze this city, if it can. May yours be with you, as you stand in its path.”