Back to Introduction
Brock trotted out the open portal, after Carlos and Griffin and the remainder of their original group. He paused and took a quick glance over his shoulder, just in time to see Misty and Ash stride together from the room. They waved him on; he saluted back. Turning, he smiled. It didn’t matter what those two did to avoid each other, they were divinely predestined, it seemed, to be perpetually stuck together. Continuing, he passed through another silent door, directly adjacent to the one he’d just left, and caught up as the two Elite agents, in the lead, reached a glass panel on the far right of the room’s entrance port, in the diminishing end of the oval enclosure. Brock inhaled. Save the lack of table, chairs and beverage, this room was identical to the one before it. Scooting in behind Duplica, Shoto and Giselle, He watched intently as Carlos placed a black-gloved hand on the lateral parallelogram’s center, red laser scanning the appendage from within the mirror’s surface. An instant later, the panel silently swung inward and scrolled down into the floor below, disappearing from sight. The dark interior beyond was immediately lit by a row of circular florescent ceiling lights, leading several yards away into the distance down a long, narrow passageway, its aluminum walls replicating the synthetic luminescence like dull, fog-laden mirrors.
Carlos turned to face them.
“We are about to disembark on one of The Elite’s airborne stealth units, whereby we will rendezvous with the rest of our respective associates. From there, we shall continue on to one of our mobile command centers, and after a brief respite, you will all be thoroughly updated on the precise nature of your first assignment. I can’t guarantee flawless perfection, but I assure you, every last minute detail our field intelligence can garner will be at your disposal-”
“Yeah, sure,” Giselle had her arms crossed, impatiently drumming her polished fingernails on the side of her arm, “can we just get on with it?”
Carlos held his hand up, commanding silence, and continued. “You will see no pilots. This craft’s flight control is completely automated.” He glanced down the length of the metallic portal. “Basically,” he arched an eyebrow, “the whole ship’s just a very large droid.”
Brock, Samurai and Giselle exchanged glances and shook their heads, but said nothing.
Carlos smoothed his glossy black hair over with an equally glossy, black-leathered hand, re-donning his own pair of dark shades with the other as he did. “Now, I appreciate your collective willingness to participate in our grand adventures, and I am sure—indeed, I already know—you will find our array of ‘toys’ quite fascinating.” He chuckled a bit. “However, spoil your fun as it may, I must ask that when we board, you go straight to your seats. And for the love of God, do not venture to tinker with any of this craft’s flight controls!” Carlos tightened his leather gloves. “Griffin and I will be in another room; as it is, we still have other things to do before we all arrive.” Then he clapped his hands together, startling the initiates. “Let’s go. Griffin, please secure the rear; the rest of you, please, follow me.”
Carlos, with Duplica, Samurai and Giselle in tow filed through the open portal. Brock hung back, waiting for them to enter before turning to Clay. The towering Elite stood where he was, massive assault rifle slung over his hulk shoulder.
Brock grinned mischievously. It was time to settle some things. He gestured toward the open door. “Hey, I’m just a new guy ‘round here.” He bowed slightly. “Seniority first.”
Clay didn’t budge. “I appreciate that, Mr. Stone.” But his perpetual scowl hadn’t diminished a bit. He lowered his firearm, pointing its muzzle toward the port. “Now move it.”
Brock decided to push his luck. He glanced innocently about. “Well Jeez, seems to me like, oh I dunno, one of us rookies ought to be doing such a menial task.” He drummed his fingers thoughtfully on his chin.
“Your point.” Clay retorted.
“Huh…maybe I’m just not rookie enough. Wonder what that makes you…” Brock was disappointed to see the Elite’s countenance hadn’t changed. Jeez! This guy has no sense of humor! “On second thought,” he dusted the front of his vest, feigning conceited self-importance, “I think I will just mosey on ahead of yourself—what was your name again? Griffard, Grinny, Garfield.” He continued archly. “Something real intricate and complex like that-”
“You have a choice, Mr. Stone.” Clay cut him off abruptly. “You either leave with us, and possibly fulfill a more noble destiny…”
Like a bolt of lightning, the assault rifle’s muzzle was hammered against Brock’s deep chest, pinning him suddenly to what had, a millisecond ago, been the far wall.
“…Or you stay where you are, of no consequence, going nowhere.”
Brock winced, but already his hands were moving, one raising itself in mock surrender, the other headed for his semi-auto. For some reason, the fact that the obstruction his back was currently pressed against had been several feet away an instant before didn’t seem to register—more pointedly, nor did any serious pain.
Clay’s eyebrow arched from beneath his ebony lenses. “Is that the best you can do?”
“Yep. ‘Fraid so!” Brock grinned/wheezed. With well developed subtleness, he let his body sag slightly, falling just a little from under the gun. With a quick, practiced movement, he twisted his upper torso around, alternately shifting into a horse-stance, rolling himself around his assailant’s massive firearm, along its casing and whipping his own weapon from within its improvised holster, bringing the pistol’s steel barrel on a level with Clay Griffin’s nose. He grinned, victorious. “How’s that!” He cocked the hammer. “Don’t underestimate us, man; this group’s got a long history of that already. You high-and-mighty of the world can shun us all you want, but we’ll always win. Don’t ask me how, and don’t bother trying to figure out why—it only makes your brain hurt.” He was breathing hard, a fresh sheen of sweat beginning to formulate on his tanned brow. But Brock Stone had a smile on his face. He’d been wanting to say something like that to someone like Clay for a long time. “Now, I suggest we just drop this holier-than-thou bull and get on with things. We’re all human, and no matter what you think, there’s nothing any of us can do to make ourselves anything more.”
That’s one for the underdog, all you conceited jerks!
Griffin casually regarded Brock’s firearm. “Hmm, .9 mm Berretta?”
For the first time, Clay Griffin actually smiled. “A new model. You use it well.” To Brock’s surprise, the Elite agent let his assault rifle fall lightly to his side. “So, you really think you have me.” He made it a statement, not a question.
You can’t seriously be this delusional! Brock’s brow furrowed slightly, but he stood his ground. “Don’t try it Griffin, you’re not that fast.”
“Then allow me to return your defiance.” Griffin’s free hand was suddenly at his side.
Heh! Nice try! Fast as thought, Brock pulled the trigger.
Griffin lurched backward as one, two, three times Stone’s gun recoiled, emitting their lethal emissaries. The shells seemed to hang in the air, almost suspended in mid-animation as they were expelled from the chamber of combustion, floating away in slow-motion.
Brock blinked, in astonishment.
Clay’s weapon left his grasp, hanging in midair, inching downward in an impossibly slow fall to the floor. Brock’s bullets raced toward the Elite, trying to close with their intended target as he somehow managed to back away, shifting fluidly, almost lazily in a blurred reverse. Turning to one side, Clay took a satisfactory back-glance at the metal tracers as they streaked slowly by, leaving a trail of concentric ripples in the atmosphere as they missed their mark, unnaturally cheated. Clay watched as Brock pulled the trigger again, too slow it seemed. Four, five, six. Again, Griffin’s figure blurred as he swiftly dodged. Brock’s first three shells and Clay’s rifle met the floor, and the glass paneling behind him shattered, their otherwise brief—though probably loud—clatter, to Clay, sounding more like a prolonged ring. He eased his way around the fresh hail of lead, and then darted away again as shots seven through fourteen also came spiraling by in a wide, lateral barrage.
Brock gritted his teeth. No way! Fourteen shots, the first three at pointblank range, and Griffin had sidestepped them like so many crawling Slugma. One shot left! How?! He stopped firing. Clay’s blurred image refocused. The ground he’d traversed was rent with displaced tile, but the Elite agent stood unruffled; he didn’t even seem to be breathing hard. Now! Brock pulled the trigger.
Clay cut through the air as he propelled himself forward, face to the floor, flying like a javelin under Stone’s final shot as it sped harmlessly overhead. Before reaching Brock, the Elite agent twisted himself about, transferring his momentum as he whipped his legs around, bringing them over his head in a backward aerial. Ducking under Brock’s outstretched gun hand, Clay dug his heel into the floor as he slowed himself and alternately executed a foot-sweep.
Brock felt numb as he flew through the air. Frantically, he twisted himself around, flinging his empty gun away, stretching his hands out to break the inevitable collision with the floor. He closed his eyes as a million bits and pieces of jade tile flew everywhere around him. Brock gritted his teeth as he hit the floor, shoulder first, and half-rolled half-skidded across the length of the room.
Clay stood and dusted himself off. Picking up his oversized rifle, he marched stoically over to where Brock’s own armament lay. Kneeling, he plucked the discarded pistol from the dust and grains of porcelain. The matt black exterior barely glinted, only fading to deep cobalt where the light climaxed on its metal surface. He hefted the weapon, tossed it in the air and caught it again. It’s balance was excellent—a good gun. Rising, Clay glanced sideways, across the room to where Brock lay, on his back and breathing hard, but still conscious.
Beyond him, the boarding terminal stretched away.
Clay scowled. He disliked being delayed.
He returned his attention to Stone. Despite the rock trainer’s bravado, Griffin was beginning to feel something vaguely reminiscent of deference, even respect for the man. Stone had rolled onto his stomach and was now rising to his knees. Griffin watched him for a moment. The initiate was obviously not the kind to give in to mere physical punishment. A notable trait. Five minutes ago, Griffin wouldn’t have hesitated to blow any of the new recruits apart. He couldn’t stand them. They had no history in any extensive military school, no prior experience whatsoever in what they were about to become irreversibly involved in. Global security was not a light job. Obedience to proper authority was paramount. These blockheads were foolhardy and arrogant. But they displayed a great deal of raw determination, raw talent—Carlos had been right about that. Maybe it would be enough. In many ways, it had been so for him, when he first began. Look at where he was now.
But despite all their obvious assets, Clay’s doubts persisted. The Elite Chairman was going too easy on this group. For all their raw potential, they still had no idea what being an Elite was about. It required, would demand their total and unquestioning loyalty and dedication, with little in the way of extravagant royalties to reward them for their exhaustive efforts. To be dead honest, the benefits of being an Elite did little to offset the personal costs that inevitably came with the job. When you joined, you effectively signed the rest of your life away, along with all notions of individuality. From the day of initiation to the day your physical and metal facilities ceased to function, you did what you were told, when you were told to do it, and you carried out your orders precisely as they were dictated, no coping out, no whining, and no questions asked! Maybe it wasn’t that Clay didn’t or couldn’t actually like the people Carlos had chose this go around; he simply couldn’t see how the heck they were going to survive.
The Elite agent’s face registered his internal resignation. He shook his head. As a group, the only operation they truly excelled in was starting a good brawl. How was he suppose to work with these idiots? They’d be at each other’s throats the whole way…and then his (in which case, he’d be forced to terminate them anyway)! They were better off just working for themselves, having a normal life, with no one to tell them what to do, where to go—just be off his miserable conscience!
He checked himself. No, not all of them. Not this one.
Lodging something in the clip butt, he shoved Stone’s Super Eagle in the posterior recesses of his belt, and swiftly continued to advance.
Brock stood wearily, shaking loose tile particles and dust from himself. He looked about. Clay was striding briskly in his direction, rifle slung once again over his shoulder.
The rock trainer immediately assumed a boxer’s fighting stance, loosening his shoulders, bouncing lightly up and down on the balls of his feet. In spite of his condition, he forced a defiant grin. “Yeah, c’mon, punk! ‘That all you got?”
Clay stopped ten feet away, bringing his gun to bear.
Lowering his head, Brock menacingly jabbed the air. “Oh, I see how it is—‘just gonna blow my head off now! And what the hell was all that back there?” He spat a piece of debris. “What is this, The Matrix?”
Slinging his weapon across his shoulder again, Griffin shot like liquid silver around Brock, screeching to a halt behind him, a quarter of the way down the aluminum tunnel, leaving a diminishing cloud of dust and floor particles in his wake. Reaching behind himself, he produced Brock’s gun.
Brock started. “Hey, that’s-“
“Here!” Clay’s deep voice reverberated through the passage as he tossed Brock his weapon . “When you enter the terminal, push the red button on your left. That closes the door.” He turned his back to the wary rock trainer and continued down the length of the narrow tunnel. “We’ve fifteen minutes. Move along,” removing his shades, he glanced over his shoulder, “Agent Stone.”
Clay Griffin receded into the distance, his heavy footsteps echoing down the light metal corridor.
Brock stood for a moment on the threshold of uncertain destiny. Reflexively, he inspected his reinstated firearm. The empty clip extended slightly, a few inches beyond the butt of the handle. Fifteen rounds short; completely emptied.
Who the heck were these people?
Something dark and red glinted on the end of the clip. Curious, Brock inverted the weapon. A large, black ring, with what appeared to be a crimson gemstone embedded in it, was wedged in a gap there. Brock removed the dark, metal object. He turned it over. Slight, gold veins traced their way around it. He looked harder, turning the ring on its side. The gold slivers were….words? Brock squinted. ~The Elite~. Very nice; long live the presumptuous morons! Engraved in the gem, was the image of a sword, point downward, with a pair of eagle wings spreading from the center of its blade.
Brock started for the tunnel’s entrance. The ring was probably Clay’s. Despite what he thought about the arrogant stud, he’d return it—Brock wasn’t a thief.
Something engraved on the object’s inner band glinted at him.
C’mon, Brocky-boy! You don’t have time for this! But curiosity got the better of him.
Holding it to the light, He distinguished what appeared to be more words, written in thin-line cursive. He frowned. This was going to be hard to read. He moved the object around, letting the florescent luminescence run along the finely wrought letters.
He nearly swallowed his tongue.
Carlos was standing in the dark-framed entryway, waiting for the last passenger to complete his trek down the terminal. He finally arrived, battered and bruised, but standing upright, his broad frame radiating its characteristic energy. The Elite recruiter nodded. “Well, amigo, you decided to join us after all.”
Brock smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, sorry about that. I guess the official initiation took a while.” He glanced past Carlos, but Clay was nowhere in sight.
Ferdinand looked the rock trainer over. “You seem well enough,” he raised an eyebrow, “I think.”
Brock chuckled ironically. “Yeah, right!” He brandished his Elite insignia ring. “I think I made a friend.”
* * * * *
“You have got to be kidding me!” Ash snickered. “No way are these pompous buffoons actually-”
“Late?” Misty interjected archly.
They both stared out from Dexter’s tinted windows at the empty square lot beyond. It was a fairly good sized plot, 30-35’ according to Dexter’s scanners, and composed of a mostly asphalt floor, with a concrete perimeter. Small bits of shrubbery, a few minute trees, and helter-skelter patches of crab grass and weeds dotted its otherwise perfectly black surface. Of course, at night (like it was now) and with only a couple of outfacing street lights, the organic matter simply aided in camouflaging the Elite’s secret landing.
Ketchum folded the small paper he was holding and cynically tossed it over his shoulder. “Ha! What a joke!” He slapped his knee. “This is just rich! Somebody shoot me! OW!!”
Ash grabbed the back of his head.
“Who thu he-!” He spun around.
Form the back of the van, April, Pikachu and Zapper stared back innocently, hands and paws behind their backs, sitting square on their bottoms like nothing in the world was amiss. “What?” April’s lustrous eyes twinkled with mischief. Pikachu started snickering. “It was him!”
“Pika-chu!” The mouse Pokèmon retorted. “Pika, pika!” He jabbed an accusing paw in April’s direction.
“Nu-uh! Didn’t he do it, Zapper?” April turned to her Pokè-partner, looking for backup.
“Pi?” the Pichu looked from its trainer then back again at its Pokèmon friend. “Pi-chu!” It concluded decisively, pointing its minute paw at April.
“Humph!” She grumbled, crossing her small arms defiantly. “Stupid peer-pressure!”
Ash groaned, exasperated. He was wearing a full body vest, an assault helmet (with the face guard down), and he had a riot shield covering his back—and they’d still managed to get him! This was ridiculous! He threw his head back, and with beseeching hands uplifted to the heavens, he cried out in pure agony, “Oh God, why ME!!”
A bolt of lightning instantly struck him in the posterior.
“GGg-yAHH!!!” Ash catapulted into the van’s roof, hair and limbs sticking out in every direction.
April and Pikachu exchanged hi-fives.
“Good shot there, buddy!”
Prostrate on the floor of his own aluminum-framed mobile refuge, Ash’s smoking form turned its blubbering eyes to a new source of divine intervention. “M-Misty!!”
The redhead glanced down with mock disdain. “Don’t whine at me, buddy-boy.” She retorted curtly, patting him diminishingly on his smoldering head. A small volt of stray electricity zapped her wrist. “OW! Hey! What the-!”
“Heh, heh! Take that!” Ash poked Misty in the side, sending another small jolt up her spine.
“Ash! AH!” She recoiled as he impishly prodded her again. “Ash, stop it!” But she was giggling hysterically now, as Ash kept poking at her, his mere touch sending ticklish waves of minute voltage through her system’s registries. Soon they were entangled in each others arms, Ash zapping Misty left and right, Misty trying, but failing, to block his playful assault. “Ah, ha—Oh my-Ash, you idiot! Stop, please!”
“What?” A roguish grin spread the length of Ketchum’s smudged face. “I’m sorry, the buzzing in my ears must’ve shut my audio canals.” He kept poking Misty. “Can’t hear a word you said!”
“I said-Ahhahh!” She squealed, Ash assailing her with another barrage of tickles. “Okay! You win!”
“I said YOU WIN! AH-HA, HA! Darn it, Ketchum! QUIT!”
They both rolled over on the van floor, sides heaving as they laughed uncontrollably.
“Hee, hee! That was fun!” Misty sputtered jovially.
“Yeah right!” Ash leaned against a wall, trying to catch his breath. “I think I pulled something!”
“Just your butt-bone!”
“You wanna get tickled again?” Ash grinned, raising two fingers menacingly.
“NO!” Misty wailed girlishly.
April’s voice suddenly assaulted Ash’s right eardrum. “Hey! Don’t pick on my mommy!” She stomped over toward him.
“Ah! Hold it right there, shortcake!” Ash held up an index finger. “Or you’re next!”
April looked somewhat taken aback, unsure of how to respond. “Mommy?”
“April, it’s okay, honey.” She assured her daughter. “Now, apologize to Mr. Ketchum.”
“You heard me.”
April stuck her lower lip out, alternately crossing her arms, stubborn to the last. “Well then, Pikachu has to apologize, too!” She looked behind her at the two impish yellow Pokèmon sitting neatly on their haunches. “And Zapper…”
The small Pichu looked up, eyes wide with feigned innocence as it pointed its small claw at itself. “Pi?”
“…you have to apologize as well!”
“Pi.” Both mouse Pokèmon grumbled in unison.
Ash chuckled good-naturedly. “Hey, that’s okay guys, apology accepted! Jeez! Guess I’ll just have to use this spare electricity of mine to run the North American power grid or something!”
“Pikachu!” Ash’s partner retorted.
“Are you kidding? I’m a freakin’ generator, thanks to you!” He poked the side of the van. Nothing happened. “Aw, rats! Guess I just ran outta steam!”
April giggled. “Mr. Ketchum, you’re silly!”
“Who, me? You’re delusional.” he touched himself on the nose. A small bolt jumped from his finger. “Yah!” He bounced himself high, hitting the van’s roof again.
April fell over, laughing her heart out. Zapper and Pikachu rolled their eyes.
Misty shook hear fiery head. Ridiculous as these antics were, she was grateful for the comic relief—for any relief! This had to be the longest, most trying night of her adult life. She was thoroughly exhausted.
Outside, a light breeze rippled across the empty lot, causing its littering of invasive foliage to sway hypnotically. If it was at all possible, an ominous hush engulfed the already noise-deprived plot of dark asphalt and old, broken concrete. A lone Sentret, the enclosure’s only permanent inhabitant, poked its head out from between the longer grasses surrounding a couple of low trees, risking a peek at its surroundings. The white van was still there, but its lights were out, and its movement ceased. The Pokèmon was about to slink forth when something else pricked the keen senses of its basal instincts. It’s liquid eyes immediately turned skyward.
Clay studied the displays riddling their Elite, fighter-class Swellow Escort’s control array. He adjusted a few scanners and alternately turned his crystalline eyes toward their high-resolution monitors. The ground below was completely revealed, every blade of grass and every sub-terrain structure within a fifty-foot radius. Instinctively, he checked the integrity of their craft’s cloak, habitually making a slight adjustment to the resolution grade. Satisfied, he returned his attention to the other screens that surrounded the flying machine’s cockpit, making a routine sweep of the various displays. All seemed in order.
He did notice a slight fluctuation at the far right corner of the screen that currently displayed their intended landing. A small, white object darted away, heading swiftly for a size-fitting hole a few yards in front of it.
Clay instantly put an index finger on the screen. “Swellow-1, catch that Sentret.”
An even, feminine robotic voice answered him. “Affirmative, Agent Griffin.”
The chubby mammal was scurrying away as swiftly as its little legs would carry it—which was actually quite fast. Ahead, the safety of its cozy hole beckoned. The Sentret’s heart beat faster with anticipation. It was going to make it. However, not half a foot from its intended refuge, a small, spherical silver object fell from above, halting its decent just shy of the ground, and blocking the Sentret’s escape route. It hovered in place as the startled Pokèmon screeched to a halt. In desperation, the Sentret emitted an intimidating growl at the object, bearing its razor-edged incisors. Instantly, the silver Pokè-ball’s circular maw exploded wide open, shooting rays of blinding light and engulfing the bewildered creature. In a fraction of a second, it was over. The storage device rolled once, twice, and then went still.
“Target captured.” The droid voice returned.
Clay nodded. “Have a tractor beam pull it up. Scan the animal for anything unusual and give me a report.”
“Retrieval system activated, sir. Scans currently in progress…no intrusive systems were detected.”
Griffin relaxed a little. “Alright. Hold it till we get to base, then deposit it in the lab bay.”
The robotic voice answered him with its programmed riposte, though the actual response was not quite what he’d expected. “The object has been removed from storage.”
Clay’s eyebrow arched. “By who?”
“Agent Prime.” It replied flatly. “Current instructions are to continue with original protocol. Shall I initiate landing sequence?”
Clay stood from the pilot’s seat, turning to face the cockpit’s entrance as it’s door slid silently open.
Ferdinand Carlos stepped lightly into the small enclosure. He approached the control array and tossed a small silver ball to Clay. “Yes, Swellow-1,” He spoke cordially, answering the craft’s query, “take us down, please.”
The lighted displays extinguished themselves, leaving the cockpit in near total dark. “Affirmative, Agent Prime.”
Ash darted to the van’s window. “Dexter! Perimeter sweep! NOW!”
The machine’s monotone voice responded immediately. “Scan initiated.”
Misty, April, Zapper and Pikachu all joined Ash at the window, faces pressing curiously against its tinted pane. All they could see was a dark graveled pavement lot with indigenous patches of shrubbery poking out of its weather-worn surface. Nothing seemed out of place.
Dexter’s internal computer beeped and whirred.
“Ash, what’s going on?” Misty’s voice followed Ketchum as he pulled his face away from the window.
Her eyes darted after him as he shooed everyone out of his way, crossing the floor, hopping lightly over into the van’s driver seat. Yanking its imbedded keyboard out, he began to madly punch a series of commands into the black plastic slat. She watched intently as a small display monitor folded down from the ceiling, between the driver and passenger seats. As the screen turned mechanically to face him, Ash’s eyes began to feverishly scan its contents.
“Hey, if you’re going to be paranoid, at least tell us what’s up.” Misty quipped.
“Shhh!” Ash hissed. “Something’s out there!”
“Here.” Ash hit a switch on the van’s console. The primary passenger seat’s back slid downward into a flat recline. He gestured toward the open extension, alternately swiveling the overhead monitor in that direction. “Look at this.”
Curious, Misty crawled onto the flat, cushioned bed. She looked quizzically at the luminous screen above her head. “What is it?”
Leaving his own seat, Ash knelt down beside Misty’s. He pointed at the monitor’s display, which, Misty quickly determined, was an overhead map of their deserted plot. A small white rectangle represented their van, parked in the far left corner, below some medium-sized trees. A light perimeter represented the concrete enclosing the area, with black (the asphalt) covering most everything within. The larger foliage were marked with dark, angular jade outlines, and the minute clumps of crab and weed were represented by gray dots, only a pixel or two wide.
“So what’s wrong?”
“This.” Ash reached over and hit a key. The image on Dexter’s monitor shifted from overhead to a horizontal, three-dimensional scheme of the area, with the view projected from the van’s position.
“What?” Misty hissed, squinting. “I don’t-”
“Dexter, highlight.” Ash tapped another key.
A series of red lines etched their way across the screen, forming a large, dense mass hovering directly over the entire lot. It lowered itself progressively, even as it was being drawn.
“Oh my…” Misty hastily abandoned her seat, making a dash for the van window.
Ash slowly made his way to her side. “A Cloaking device.”
Misty looked at him skeptically. “Invisible?”
“Not to this baby!” Ash reached over and patted Dexter’s console. “Actually, it’s so close right now, any cheep sensor array could detect it.”
Misty faced him. “Close?” She gulped. “How close?”
“Like, step right outside and you might just run into the fuselage.”
Ash snorted. “Yeah. Looks like our friends from The Elite finally showed up. Man!” He took another glance at Dexter’s monitor. “Will you look at the size of that thing…”
For a moment Misty just stared at him. In all their horseplay, she’d forgotten about The Elite, their gala ball (What a waste!), the ensuring battle with their stupid droids; she’d forgotten about meeting up with Duplica, forgotten about confronting the Elite agents who’d orchestrated their so-called test, forgotten their subsequent proposal, their supposed mission and the role they needed Misty and her friends to fill. She’d forgotten how angry she’d been. Such cheep, thickheaded, senseless stupidity! She’d forgotten the mixture of rage and subsequent disgust she’d felt when they brought in “a disposable form of life,” and deliberately, willfully, commanded it to destroy itself, right in front of them, just to prove….what?! That it didn’t matter, that they had everything under control?! That they could just do whatever?! You heartless bastards!! She’d forgotten….she’d forgotten feeling….what?
He’d made her forget. Even after a full decade of premeditated annexation, she’d fallen right back into his arms, just like-
With no small mental expenditure, Misty pulled herself from a progressively downward emotional spiral. She blinked. She was breathing hard, her body a few degrees too hot.
Ash was looking at her, the expression on his face falling somewhere between amusement and genuine concern.
“Hey, you okay there?”
Misty huffed. “Yeah, sure—just fine.” Setting her jaw, she looked around for something to divert her attention. Until she found a way to effectively counter her own natural inclinations, she’d have to be careful around Ash.
It suddenly occurred to her that April hadn’t been broadcasting her presence for the last ten minutes—very much out of character. That definitely wasn’t right. Misty’s eye’s swept the van, front to back. “April, honey? Where-?” She stopped dead.
Her back facing them, April was lying on her side in the rear of the Ash’s capacious vehicle, her raven hair spread in disarray. A few metallic objects were also lying around.
It wasn’t anything conclusive, but it was enough to set Misty off. “April?! Oh my g-!” She was about to scream hear lungs out when Ash clapped a hand on her mouth, alternately moving in front of her, a finger on his.
“Shhh. Look,” he pointed as he moved silently in the child’s direction “the kid’s just asleep.”
A few steps closer confirmed Ash’s statement. Both adults were soon kneeling by the girl. April’s sides moved up and down, in sync with her rhythmic breathing. Her slender arms were wrapped maternally around Zapper, her Pichu. It, too, was sound asleep. Ash’s Pikachu was curled up next to both of them. He lifted his yellow head, ears twitching attentively as the two other humans quietly approached. He “chued” softly as Ash scratched him under the chin.
“You rascal.” Ash chided with playful affection.
“Pikachu!” His Pokèmon winked back.
“Aw,” Misty leaned her head on Ash’s shoulder, “that’s why she wasn’t pestering us to death.”
Ash returned her gesture. “Yeah,” he yawned, “that’s where I should be right now.”
Misty chuckled lightly. “I’m with you.” She closed her vaporous blue eyes, taking in a certain measure of security as she leaned wearily on Ash’s supporting frame.
“Man…” Ash glanced up. He took a look at everything around him. It suddenly occurred to him that The Elite might not want—might not “need”—his stash of personal hardware. He considered it for a moment, then smirked. They chose him. Dexter would come, too. No compromise. If they didn’t like that, then they could just kiss his precious butt good-bye.
There was a series of light knocks on the van’s side door.
Ash knew it instantly. He nudged Misty—how long had he actually let her lay there? He frowned. Until he found a way to deal effectively with his natural inclinations, he’d have to be careful around her. As much as he was enjoying the moment, they had resolved nothing, and consequently, she was still a liability issue for him.
“Hmm?” Misty pulled herself away—how long had she actually allowed herself to lay there?! She could’ve slapped herself full across the face. What was all that about being careful?! Shit! Fully awake, she turned a bright shade of red. Why is this so hard?! Had he noticed?
But Ash didn’t see her. He was already opening the van door. “Brock?”
“Hey!” Mr. Stone’s tanned face popped inside. “You guys ready?” He spied April. “Oh my g-!” He was about to shout bloody murder when Ash clapped a hand over his mouth.
“Argh! Shut-it, buddy, she’s just asleep!” He removed his hand, wiping it on his pants. “Jeez!”
“Sorry!” Brock blushed. “Hey, they’re ready to load you up. Just pull the van under the light.” He gestured outside.
Ten feet above the ground, a rectangular block of pale, yellow luminescence hung in the air, casting a column of surreal light onto the asphalt below.
“So,” Ash quipped, “they’re gonna let us keep’im.” He patted Dexter’s door.
“Yeah, as long as we feed it twice a day and clean up after it.” Brock returned facetiously.
Misty rolled her eyes. “Let’s just get out of here. Should I take April in through the main entrance?”
For a moment, Ash and Brock were silent. They hadn’t thought about April. Did the Elite know about her?
Brock ended the brief pause. “Will they take her?”
Ash grinned. “So long as we feed her twice a day and clean up after her.” He risked a look at Misty. He got a raspberry in reply. “And if they don’t want her,” he continued seriously, “they can just shove it up their anus and deal with it.”
“Well, thank-you, Mr. Ketchum.” Misty quipped.
He looked her in the eye. “No, I mean it.”
Clay groaned inwardly. He understood Ketchum and Stone wanting to take their baggage with them. It entailed a system and hardware they were familiar with. He would’ve done the same thing. It would take a while to warm up to Elite equipment, advanced as it was.
Turning to Carlos, as they both stood on a narrow observatory ledge, supervising the load, Clay pointed a black-clad index finger over the ebony metallic guardrail. “We are not taking her with us.” He stated flatly as the redheaded woman they’d initiated earlier ascended the stealth craft’s boarding incline. She was half-leading half-carrying a little dark-haired girl. The child, Clay guessed, was somewhere between eight and ten years of age—far too young to be involved in their business.
Carlos scratched his gotee. “Griffin, I understand your reservations on this matter.” He turned to face his colleague. “But didn’t we discuss this before? Misty Waterflower has a daughter, and she is coming with us. The two are inseparable.” He looked away again, giving Stone and Ketchum an affirmative nod as they guided their van into position.
A harsh scowl reinserted itself on Griffin’s countenance. “Carlos, this is stupid. If she gets in the way, she’s dead. You know that. It’s not worth the risk.” He turned to leave. “When we arrive at the base, I’ll have the Waterflowers’ memory cleared. Then we’re sending them home.”
“So, you would override my direct orders?” Carlos’s rich voice followed him.
Griffin paused and turned. “No. I’m bringing this issue to The Elite’s Head.”
Carlos raised an eyebrow. “A bold move, Griffin. Do you not trust me?”
Griffin didn’t hesitate. “Not on this, Carlos. You trained me. I’m who I am because of you, and I specifically recall you teaching me to avoid these liabilities, at all costs. And that’s just what I’m going to do. In fact,” he looked around for a moment before continuing, “I don’t understand why you’re doing this.”
“You think this is my idea?”
Carlos shook his regal head. “No. I’m vehemently against such a thing.” He removed his shades. “The Elite Head wishes her to come along.”
“What?!” He hissed, leaning closer. “Why?”
Carlos shrugged. “I don’t know. Apparently, he thinks she’ll play a valuable role in this operation.”
“That’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve heard!”
“I’ll second that.”
“Didn’t you say anything?”
“Of course. He still insisted.”
Clay’s scowl deepened. Leaning on the rail, he watched detachedly as their Swellow’s tractor beam lifted Ketchum and Stone’s van into its cargo bay. Fifteen feet below, the asphalt seemed to beckon him—end it now....end it all. He looked away. There was no such thing as honorable suicide. If you died, you died in the line of duty.
Carlos caught the despairing look on Griffin’s face. He cleared his throat. “I understand our plight more than you know, Clay.” The other only gave him a sideways glance. “This could very well be the end of us both…” He straightened. “…the end of The Elite as we know it.”
Griffin shook his head. “This has nothing to do with tonight’s haul, does it.”
“The Shadow is gaining on us, Clay. It may have finally gotten the upper hand.”
“We should not have lied to them; if those kids are going to join us, they should know exactly what they’re really up against.” He straightened and faced his colleague. “If the Cult of Shadows acquires the Dreadfire Crescents, we’re good as finished. Gypsum Hall is our last defense.”
Ferdinand chuckled ironically. “If you’re so sure they won’t last anyway, why will it matter?”
Clay gritted his teeth. “Regardless their level of incompetence, no one under my command will die because they lacked sufficient information. When these walking mockeries to the fifth profession meet their sorry fates, I swear to you, it will NOT be my fault!”
“So, this concerns your soldier’s ego, does it.”
“I’ve been through the system; so have you. We don’t deserve dishonor.”
Carlos smiled. “Good! I thought I could count on you to say something to that effect.” He turned to reenter Swellow-1. “Come then. Let’s face our cross with honor.”
Clay sneered. “Pleasantly satirical to the last.” He shook his head. “’Should’ve known I could count on you to say something to that effect.”
“Fine then. The kid can stay, but don’t expect me to spend my time babysitting her.”
“I’ve read her profile. I don’t think that will be necessary.”
* * * * *
Rainer shined his light down the length of the dark tunnel. All three brothers were up to their knees in drain water, a tepid, brownish sludge that was, currently, moving at a fairly brisk pace through the narrow enclosure. A slim rail ran the along the left wall, secured to the concrete with a series of sporadically placed bolts. It creaked ominously, threatening to fall away at their next touch. Extreme caution was obviously called for—even Sparky knew that and conducted himself accordingly.
Presently, the trio came to a split in their path. One tunnel led away for a short distance to their left, the sound of falling water resonating through its concave circumference. The other had a ladder, anchored to the wall, leading to a broad circular entrance approximately twenty feet overhead. They chose this latter route.
Upon reaching the summit, they found themselves in a large, surprisingly arid room. They noticed the cement walls and floor had come to an end, replaced instead by granite slab. Rainer and Pyro looked about cautiously. Sparky whistled. His brothers gave him a warning glance.
He shut his trap.
“So,” a low, regal yet sinister masculine voice reverberated through the room, “you’re impressed?”
Rainer and Pyro slapped their foreheads. Too late!
The trio instantly whipped their lights around the room, alternately plucking a Pokè-ball from their belts.
“Show yourself!” Rainer yelled into the dark.
A luminous, green vapor began to creep slowly across the floor, pulsating as it rippled forth from each corner of the large, rectangular enclosure. Instinctively, the three brothers began to back away from the glowing fog, shining their flood lamps about its throbbing mass as it moved slowly toward the room’s center. As their ground progressively disappeared, they unleashed their Pokèmon. Rainer’s Vaporeon swept the floor with a wide surf; Pryo’s Flareon sent a sweltering fire-blast into the advancing smog. Neither attacks seemed to diminish the rolling mass.
Sparky, with overly dramatic bravado, tossed his Pokè-ball high in the air.
“Jolteon!” He commanded with sumptuous regality. “Thor’s Warhammer! NOW!”
“NO!” Pyro and Rainer screamed in unison.
Sparky’s bright yellow Pokèmon exploded forth with a brilliant flash of light. High in the air, it emitted an ear-piercing screech as its body crackled to life.
The room was temporarily engulfed in blinding yellow light as several thousand strands of scorching thunderbolts coursed their way in a circular movement around the parallelogram’s perimeter. The thunder threads knitted themselves together, forming three distinct bands of destructive voltage which continued their merry-go-round pattern, digging into the walls as Sparky’s Jolteon continued to spin overhead, its animal wail rending the air like a maniacal banshee. A sphere of static energy engulfed everyone, making their skin and fur tingle.
Sparky, absorbed in the power his delusional mind thought he was wielding, stood in the room’s center, hands uplifted, a look of utter euphoria on his face (if you could’ve seen it, behind his black mask). Rainer and Pyro were crouched on the ground, with their Pokèmon, paws and fingers in their ears.
Suddenly, the surrounding clouds of verdant vapor overwhelmed the electric barrier and exploded, illuminating the room with their own dark emerald brilliance. The brothers and their Pokèmon were flung outward, Sparky being cast maliciously into his Jolteon as it continued to emit its deadly streams of voltage. Both collapsed in a far corner, crackling with dying static.
In the middle of the room, the billowing gasses began to swirl in the aftershock, continuing a circular movement as they pulsed wildly. Intense flashes of green light flooded the room, their overpowering strobe quickening its pace as the vapors began to condense. A harsh breeze emanated from the green hurricane, growing stronger, until it became an unbearable, malevolent moan, burning through the room like an invisible inferno. Recalling their Pokèmon, the three brothers hunkered down in their corners of the room, trying to shield their eyes from the devastating elements. A deafening crack rippled through the air as the wind and fog suddenly coalesced, and everything plunged into quiet, eerie darkness. All was still. The trio risked a peek over their sheltering arms. The three began to rise, dusting themselves off, looking around in bewilderment. A faint green glow remained in the air, the only evidence that anything extraordinary had occurred.
Something darker than the shadows now occupied the room’s center. A tall figure, dressed in black robe and cowl stood where the amassed green vapors had been. His face was turned away from them as he exhaled slowly, sending a ripple through the remnants of emerald fog before him. The room felt suddenly cold, the light diminishing where the room’s new occupant was positioned.
“Good evening, gentlemen.” The dark phantom spoke. It was the same sinister voice that had addressed them earlier. But this time, it carried an oppressive weight to it, leaching the very air of its life-giving compounds.
Rainer struggled to stand upright. “W-who are you?” He looked about for his flashlight. He finally made out its smashed portions, strewn across the floor along with his brothers’. A cold sweat formulated across his brow. He forced himself to swallow. Something was very wrong about this being.
Pyro was in no better condition. He looked across the room, first at Sparky, then at Rainer, then his eyes returned to the dark figure. He was facing the apparition’s backside. He clutched his ring of Pokè-balls, but try as he might, he could not make any of them dislodge.
Sparky abandoned such efforts himself after glancing at Pyro. Instead, his hands slowly went to the semi-auto, strapped in its holster on his right thigh. It slipped free easily. Gesturing for his brothers to do likewise, they all drew their firearms, equipped with silencers and extended clips. They aimed their weapons at the shadow-clad form.
Low, haunting laughter reverberated through the room, seeming to come from every direction. The central figure slowly, but smoothly turned to face them. His head was lowered, the front of his thick hood concealing his face. “Drop your weapons. They are of no use here.” he uttered dryly.
The brothers’ guns instantly became red-hot, beginning to sear their hands as the steel barrels suddenly started to wilt. They dropped the melting firearms, jumping away as the metal casings burst into flame, the rounds housed within going off in a chorus of minute explosions.
“Rise.” The figure commanded, stretching forth a dark-gloved appendage.
Unseen hands hoisted the bewildered trio to their feet.
“Who the hell are you?!” Rainer fairly screamed, clutching wildly at the air around his throat and torso.
“Oh,” the dark figure chuckled wickedly, “you already know, Rainer.” He paused, edging closer, gliding it seemed across the granite floor, his head still bent and hidden within his black hood. His omnipresent laughter rippled forth as the brothers tried desperately to wriggle free from the forces that held them upright. He sneered, sending another wisp of clouded winter fog from within his hood. “You know me,” be breathed, “because I sent you here.”
The three exchanged horrified glances.
“Against the forces within, you cannot prevail.” Their captor spoke again. “You are no match for The Elite. But I,” he lifted his dark hands, “I have come to assist you.”
Lawrence the Third lifted his head. Two thin lines of menacing red light radiated from where his eyes were suppose to be, the dark enchantments he weaved about himself engulfing the fullest depths of his otherwise mere mortal shell. He grinned with dark pleasure as the three brothers recoiled in horror. Weak and incompetent fools! It would take something extra, he felt, to make them fully measure up to the task at hand. Pity. Had they been stronger in their supernatural awareness, this might not be necessary. But of course, The Elite were exceptionally powerful, he had to admit. Few forces in the world could even begin to contend with them.
Lawrence’s evil smiled broadened. But The Shadow could. And tonight, it would ultimately prevail. The last artifacts would be taken, and the final gates to the halls of Hell itself would be ripped from their hinges and cast aside. And these fools would be used to do it! Yes! He had changed a great deal from his former life as a rich collector of rare and exotic Pokèmon. He was now The Shadow’s direct link to the physical realm, its prime emissary, the bearer of its presence and wielder of its formidable power.
With a slow, deliberate circular movement of his right hand, he recalled The Shadow back into the inner recesses of his being.
Rainer, Pyro and Sparky fell to the floor, on their knees as they gasped, filling their lungs with new air. Their gaze immediately gravitated to the center of the room. A tall, cultured looking man in a three-piece, slate gray suite regarded them, a quaint, amused smile on his smooth face. The green vapors were gone, along with the suffocating darkness. The room was completely restored to its original state, save for a ring of char makes running around the room’s perimeter and the scattered remains of their burnt and broken hardware. They blinked. What had happened?
The gray man approached them casually, looking forever like nothing in the world was out of place. “I hope you’ll forgive my ‘grand entrance’, gentlemen.” He chuckled lightly. “I confess, I am known to become a little….how should I say? ….carried away.”
The trio didn’t wait another instant. As one raging entity, they fell upon the Englishman (his accent gave his nationality away), a multidirectional, oncoming assault as Sparky launched himself into a flying kick, Pyro a sliding ground sweep, and Rainer a body slam. They’d show this arrogant prick!
Time stood still as Lawrence stepped lightly out of the way, casually redirecting each assailant’s trajectory as he did. He snapped a finger.
The brother’s all crashed into each other, Pyro getting a boot to the face from Sparky, Rainer a broken shin from Pyro, and Sparky a set of cracked ribs as Rainer barreled into him. They all collapsed to the floor, reeling and crying out in mortal pain.
Lawrence wagged an index finger at his fallen adversaries, shaking his head. “Very naughty, gentlemen, to attack a single, unarmed man. You should be ashamed of yourselves.” He stepped back in the room’s center, among their writhing, broken forms, still moaning grotesquely from the injuries they’d unwittingly inflicted on each other. “This simply will not do at all. You will have to be helped if I expect any success from this excursion.”
Rainer’s pained voice raged. “Then help us, damn it! Who are you!?”
The other brothers threw in their own two cents before Lawrence brought a weight to the atmosphere surrounding them, pinning their limp bodies to the floor, shutting them up. “I,” he began thoughtfully, “am a servant to the forces of darkness, The Shadow, and this world’s sole catalyst to the next apocalypse.” He paused, savoring the air he inhaled. “I was a mere man, much like yourselves, at one time. Lawrence the Third. Multimillionaire. Businessman, and collector of objects of great beauty and legend. But I left that behind…” He spread his arms wide turning in a half circle, looking each fallen brother in the eye. The air about him darkened, and an eerie emerald light radiated from his body. “…for this…” his eyes instantly flashed bright crimson as shadows wrapped themselves about him, re-cloaking him a robe of pure darkness.
The deep, sinister voice returned, echoing hollowly from wall to wall. “Behold, The Shadow.” Lawrence’s cowled head rotated hauntingly. “Know the taste of death, humans; cower in fear.” He lifted his hands high above him, the sleeves of his robe falling to a point just above his elbows. The arms beneath were housed in black steel. “And now, you will be empowered, made fit for your task. I will infuse your weak, broken bodies with darkness. Your lives will be destroyed, but from your ashes, you will rise anew, creatures of forbidding, hounds at the head of my pack.” The air about him began to shift, distort, like a funhouse mirror. “It begins now. I bid you farewell, noble thieves. Hades awaits your souls!”
The room filled with blood curdling screams as Rainer, Pyro and Sparky were engulfed in an explosion of sweltering green flames. Darkness pressed them into the stone floor, their bones breaking like twigs in a grinder. With a savage jerk, their bodies were heaved upward, slammed mercilessly into a barrier of emerald fire.
Lawrence stood in the center of the raging inferno, burning eyes surveying the gruesome carnage. The brothers’ garments were burned away, their flesh and bones quickly devoured by the ravaging flames. A ghoulish moan began to rise from the swirling blaze. Three creatures emerged. One was a mass of fluid, rippling water, twin pinpricks of menacing yellow light radiating from its head. The other was completely wreathed in crimson fire, its coal-black eyes voids of abysmal emptiness. The third practically shot from the emerald vortex, its crackling, pulsating body of yellow voltage searing the air about it like a whip. Its haunting, luminous red eyes burned with profane anticipation.
Lawrence directed his attention to the Evee evolutions. “I give you the dead ashes of your masters, reward for your selfless loyalty to their will.” He lifted a dark hand, passing it before the elemental beings as they knelt. “Be united with the dust of those who raised and trained you.” The ground opened beneath the three creatures, chasms that slowly engulfed them, pulling their glorious forms downward. Heads lifted to the lofty lord of shadow as they uttered their dying cry. The earth quaked as geysers of emerald fire gushed forth with violent brilliance. The room was filled with their deafening roar.
And then it was over. As abruptly as it had all began, the commotion ceased. Lawrence stood alone in a smoldering room of disheveled granite slabs, his dark robes billowing lightly in the escaping breeze. He calmly surveyed the wreckage, nodding with grim approval at the desolation he’d wrought. Such would be the end of The Elite. The thieving trio, and their matching elemental companions would play one more role yet in the realm of the living.
“Come forth.” He commanded.
The earth blasted open, raining pieces of gravel and cement everywhere about him as he stood, unperturbed. From the black craters, three massive, hulking creatures leapt with a mad snarl from their confinements. Spiked, coal-black fur covered their upright bodies, jutting in large tuffs from dense shoulders, joints and head; stout, animal legs supported heavily muscled frames; arms, broad and largest at the fore, flexed, revealing tight-knit sinew and tendon, with massive, wickedly crooked claws at the end. They each towered over six feet in height, their monstrous, elongated ebony heads set over thick, hunched shoulders. Brightly colored manes adorned their char-hued necks: billowing, crimson fire; jagged, spiked protrusions of canary yellow; and the last displaying radiant frills of liquid blue. Slanted eyes of corresponding hue glinted maliciously from behind black muzzles. Circling the dark figure among them, their jaws spread in a wide, toothy grin. Rows of bone white, razor edged incisors gleamed, thick, acidic saliva dripping from their ghoulish maw.
Lawrence regarded them with malevolent satisfaction. “So we shall bring the beginning of the end.” He swept a portion of his long robe behind him. “Follow me.” The chimera beings obeyed, moving stiffly behind Lawrence as he glided quickly to the far left corner of the blasted enclosure. He pressed his fingers into the converging portion of the wall. Green fire erupted across the length of it, burning through the stone, leaving a gaping hole where the corner had been. He turned to his newly created minions.
“I give you Gypsum Hall. Destroy every living being within. Whomever you kill, their bodies will become subservient to The Shadow, but their souls,” his eyes gleamed wickedly, “will be yours to devour!” He stepped aside, allowing the three monstrous creatures access the remote port. “One more thing.” Their dark heads swung to face him. “Fulfill the objective I gave you originally, while you still lived.” Their eyes narrowed as he leaned closer. “Seize the Crescents of Dreadfire.” He waved a gloved hand before them. “Now go. When your breath touches their bladed surface, the artifacts will come to me. When you have done this, stay in their chamber. Something will stumble in to reward you.” Lawrence’s cloaked form abruptly evaporated into the oppressive atmosphere.
His haunting laughter lingered in the ensuing emptiness.
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