"Pi-ka!" Exhausted, the still glowing Pokèmon lay on the floor, panting heavily. His body would twitch approximately every other odd minute, sending off the sporadic lance of yellow voltage. He still clutched the two electrical wires, one in each tiny paw. Their nonconductive casings charred where they'd been applied to his charged body, they now lay by this sides, still smoking, but thankfully forgotten as he elatedly tried to catch his breath again. "Chaa!"
"You can say that again," Griffin grunted, opening an eye experimentally. He observed the prostrate Pokèmon, a definite sense of respect in his otherwise cold gaze. He nodded approvingly. "Great job, little buddy, great job. 'That all you got?"
The electric rodent gave the Elite commander a look that said something like, 'I'd like to see you try it!'
"Alright. Fine." Griffin retorted, "Don't want you blowing a fuse or something." He flipped his sensory array’s check list into view again, wondering how long it would take his own electric generators to fully recharge.
"Interpolation and malnutrition of the cardiac cycle produces--" From the far wall, See Nine continued to ramble on, his face straining with an effort to say something intelligent, but his android mouth... "Pikachu do not run off of fuses, sir--gamma alpha omega, in that precise sequence, not withstanding"...for the most part, still hopelessly out of sync with his ailing mind.
Griffin rolled his eyes at the loopy automaton. "I already figured that, you hunk of bolts!" He shot back. "That was rhetorical! Rhetorical, damn it!"
There was a small moment of silence, then a flash of recognition crossed the poor droid's purple-smitten facial features. "Rhetorical, from Webster’s, New World Dictionary of The American Language, second college edition: of, having the nature of, or according to rhetoric; using or characterized by mere rhetoric, or artificial eloquence; showy and elaborate…"
"Oh, God!" Clay groaned. He leaned his head back against the rehabilitation unit's flexible headrest. If there was a God, he though dourly, now would be a good time for him to show up.
"Pi-ka." From the floor between them, the saffron mouse only groaned, giving the android and its human commander a look of hopeless exasperation.
"You have no idea, mouse." Clay retorted, rolling his eyes. He gazed sullenly at the dark, impenetrable ceiling. "We are going to be at this all day!"
* * *
"Well, this is certainly what I call flying by the seat of your pants." Leslie Rhydmie quipped as she and the five latest Elite recruits--plus one--waited impatiently for the elevator to take them down to the docking bay. They’d caught up to her a few minutes ago, marching briskly along in their steel-toed footwear, and like her, clearly intent on getting somewhere fast. She closed her eyes, leaning her forehead against the elevator’s reflective façade. This ordeal was wearing everyone down, cyborg and human alike and Leslie was no exception.
They hardly waited for the pristine silver doors to ease silently to the sides before plowing through the opening and continuing briskly down the aluminum paneled hallway that lay beyond. Heels and boots, respectively, clicked and clacked along the narrow passages' length, accentuating everyone's sense of urgency. The blonde turned to Ash as his booted steps fell in stride with her agile heels. "You have something in mind, I hope?" She inquired dubiously.
The raven-haired hero kept his gaze on the crimson exit sign in the distance ahead. "Something like that." he answered vaguely.
Rhydmie shot a frown over her shoulder. Misty shook her head sympathetically. Brock gave the Elite pilot a tight smile, but shrugged his own lack of full knowledge.
"Can you, like, be more specific?" Leslie tried again as they exited the dull silver passage, marching into the wide lateral extent of the Elite aircraft housing facility's entrance port. Rhydmie pressed her palm to the security console's black print detector pad, and the energy field doors dissipated, ushering them officially into the enormous, high vaulted interrior of the docking bay. The droning of various mechanized warcraft and the clang of their maintenance peripherals assaulted the group's collective eardrums.
Ash readjusted his fresh combat suit's front zipper guard, pulling the metal-toothed device closed all the way up to under his chin and then buckling the guard down. "Um, yeah, " he pulled on one black glove while also trying to read a small slip of paper the leather sheathed fingers unsteadily grasped in place. He frowned, looked up and around, back at the white note and then frowned some more. "Where's that garage Carlos-"
Leslie peered over Ash's shoulder for a moment. "Er, this one?" she offered uncertainly, taking one more glance at the white slip before pointing out an open hanger.
Ash and Brock gasped in unison. Everyone else ground to a halt behind the gawking pair.
Through its spider web of attached fuel hoses and monitor computer cables and other nondescript peripheral devices, a large, sleek, beetle-shaped work of articulate Elite engineering grinned back at them, its front grill and headlights forming those unmistakable features which Walt Disney would've taken advantage of if he wanted to bring an automobile to animated life. But gone were tires, gearbox, axles and suspension. Instead, DEXTER sported four black globes under the remodeled, bulbous humps that used to be the slightly accentuated protrusions around its wheels. It hovered a foot or three above the ground, looming before them, its body considerably widened, spanning an area triple what it had originally.
Ash shook his head in horrified disbelief. Their van--if it could be called that anymore--had effectively been transformed into something reminiscent of an oversized, whitewashed ledyba. "What the hell did you all do to it!?" he yelled, throwing up his hands in exasperated consternation at the yawning garage.
In response, the gleaming drone within fired its twin propulsion units, flooding the place with an ear-splitting, ominous roar. Ash and Brock back-pedaled, stumbling over each other and crashing rear-first to the floor as cables and hoses swiftly detached from the mammoth hovercraft, sliding away like a million lithe serpents. With an audible heave, the buoyant machine rumbled forward, exiting the confines of its hanger. It came to a stop just in front of its bewildered owner. The headlights flicked on, further pronouncing the implied facial grin formed by the remade vehicle's curving front grill. "Well, that's just great!" A mechanical voice chirped disappointedly from somewhere within the floating aluminum shell, "It took me and myself a full night a half to come up with all this spiffy-jif!" It waggled back and forth, as if shaking its head. "I was kinda hoping you'd like the new look!"
Ash just stared back, jaw in his lap.
"Wassa matta?" Dexter poked sarcastically, "Cat got yer tongue?"
"I...you...Dex!?" Ash sputtered, hands running through and gathering twin fistfuls of his black hair. "How-"
"Jeez!" The animated contraption interrupted, groaning and rolling the bulbs inside its headlights at the exasperated human. "Never count on Ash Ketchum to be the bright one!"
From where she knelt beside Ash, Misty put her face in his shoulder and busted out laughing.
Ketchum groaned. "Hey, put a sock in it!" He retorted into the redhead’s red head. In response, she only laughed harder. Sullenly, Ash turned back to the talking automation. "Alright, sorry for the sour reunion, 'Dex, but we-"
"Apology accepted," Dexter’s android voice amiably cut in, "I-"
"Okay." Ash cut back, putting his open palm to the attack pod's face. He remembered the days when Dexter was still just a standard issue Pokèdex--albeit, a talking one. That was before a virus had invaded the circuits of his AI brain. To save his ailing electronic sidekick, Ash, with the help of Brock Stone and old Professor Oak himself, had undertaken a massive micro operation on the chattering red slat. They succeeded in ridding his gadgetry of its computer bug, but with the disease went the mysterious personality that had brought Dexter to life in the first place. Now, it seemed he'd regained himself. Which means I'd better shut him up, Ash thought desperately, or we'll be here all day! "It's great to see you back, but if you don’t mind-"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Dexter rattled on, steam-rolling Ash's attempts flat, "--I’ve read the script--you need me to taxi you out somewhere so you can save this poor, lost, completely un-automated planet, don’t you."
"No," Ash retorted as he walked around to where the driver’s side was supposed to be, "What I was trying to say was, the next time you plan on changing yourself, you will tell me about it first so I can freakin’ know what to expect!"
"Now, shut up for just a minute."
"Er, okay--Mr. Boss-man sir!"
Ash stared incredulously at the smoothly sculpted, and completely doorless surface of Dexter’s lateral extent. "Now, just how am I supposed to get inside?"
Lifting another several feet off the ground, a circular, manhole-sized hatch slid open on the automaton’s seamless, ebony underside. "Get yer sorry rear end in here already." It bleeped. "You're embarrassing me!"
With enough time lost, Ash just shook his head at the hopelessly facetious AI and took the slender ladder as it extended from within. He turned to the small company behind him, sweeping his amused glance across its three stoic men and one gawking brunette, wide-eyed blonde and smirking redhead. "Well, what’re we waiting for?" He grinned. "Let’s go!"
Brock patted Rhydmie lightly on the shoulder as he passed by. "Well, see’ya round."
"What’re you talking about?" she smirked, alternately falling in stride with the burly trainer. "There’s more to an Elite attack pod than meets the eye. You’ll need someone who knows how to work this thing!"
"Then get up here!"
They both turned their eyes upward as Ash’s frustrated voice echoed down to them from within Dexter’s roomy interior.
"How many freakin’ computers do we need on this console!?" Ketchum's diminishing phonation grumble as it moved toward the craft's prow. "Dex, you son of a microchip-b"
"Do NOT finish that thought, buddy-boy!" Dexter warned testily. "Or I will merrily fart you out the exhaust port!"
"Yep." Rhydmie winked, stepping aside and taking hold of the ladder for Brock. She motioned him up. "Good thing I invited myself along!"
"Absolutely!" he agreed, stepping aside himself and nodding to the open hatch. "Ladies first."
"Well, aren't you sweet." Rhydmie smiled sweetly at the burly rock trainer. She climbed halfway up the ladder before swinging lightly onto Brock's neck, and instinctively, he caught her. "Look at me." She commanded softly, her demeanor becoming suddenly grave.
Swallowing hard, Brock forced himself to meet Rhydmie's piercing stare.
Her free hand lightly touched his chin. "This is no picknick we've got ourselves into; you understand that, right?"
Brock nodded solemnly. "Yeah. I understand perfectly."
Rhydmie smiled. "I was just like you once; a fresh recruit, pulled straight from the National Guard. Unlike you, I wasn't sent on a deadman's mission into hell's gate the first day. Instead, they put me through six months of break-ass training, and even after that, the first demon I ever saw was only a cadaver they set up on an Elite operating table for us to study down in medical bay." She stroked his sideburns. "And I didn't fight anything like that until Griffin had thoroughly drilled me in a combat simulator."
Absently, Brock leaned into Leslie's embrace. "Wow. I...that's..." his brow furrowed. "... wait a minute; why didn't we get all that preparation?"
"That," Rhydmie replied soberly, "is a very good question; one I've been asking myself. Why would Carlos decide to just pick up a bunch of ordinary, un-enhanced humans, and from the get-go, pit them against a whole mansion full of gut-guzzling hellspawn?"
"You think we're special."
"Well," Rhydmie smiled, "considering what we're up against now, you had better be."
"Hmm..." Brock took a moment to mull that over before finally asking the inevitable. "So," he began, his tone low and decidedly cautious, "why me?"
"Hmm?" Leslie's eyebrows arched whimsically.
"I mean, what's got a chic like you hung on a weird baffoon like me?"
"I just like you," she replied easily, pecking him lightly on the cheek. "That's okay with you, I hope."
He grinned back. "I guess I don't have a choice, do I."
"No," she smiled winningly, "You don't. And loose the 'wierd baffoon' act, okay?"
Blushing, Brock nodded. "Man, I’ll do my best not to majorly screw something up."
"Peachy." She smiled again, straightening his fresh jumpsuit's collar. "Now, we've got a planet to save."
"Yeah, so get up here already!"
They both turned their eyes to the entrance port above.
Hand on one knee, Ash flashed the pair a broad, roguish grin. "Pep talk's over kids. Let's roll."
* * *
"To all my commanders, I want to thank you for assembling so quickly." Carlos cast his worn but authoritative glance around the half-stadium’s front row, meeting the hard gaze of the dozen or so men and women that composed The Elite’s highest-ranking officers, individuals who classified just below himself (and equal with Clay...). Pushing his unresolved anxiety over that one missing among their number, he turned his attention to the open stadium floor behind: "And thank you," he acknowledged with a curt bow to the fifty-odd other Pokèmon lords--the massive Moltres, Articuno and Zapdos among them--who stood, sat, or perched on the synthetic turf, "for joining us in this timeless endeavor, and I welcome you all aboard our flagship. This is no small task we have before us. I am sure you all know the general details of our plight."
Moving away from the circular space between the two representative parties, Carlos produced a small remote and thumbed a button. From the ceiling high above them, a small, black globe descended, stopping just a foot above the ground where it hovered in place. An ocular lens extended slightly from its smooth surface.
Carlos hit another button and the projector emitted a large, three-dimensional hologram of Gypsum Hall. "This," he continued, glancing briefly and waving at the gigantic image hovering above them, "is the location of our primary target. I’ll wager the better part of its offensive facilities were destroyed when The Shadow took it over. However, with the presence of our mutual foe," he tapped another button, "I’ll also wager those features are also no longer needed." He hit another button, and the hologram shrunk slightly and descended to about a yard from the floor.
"Surrounding Gypsum is a dense, molecular energy shield. It’s nature is such that none of our ships’ heavy artillery will be able to penetrate the barrier until it is effectively too late for us to stop our enemy." As he spoke, a sphere of light green encompassed the floating building. "You can see this shield also penetrates the earth, which means planting a mole nuke is also useless. The Shadow holds the whole of its seized prize together with these." He hit another button.
Five crimson dots blinked into existence within various partitions of Gypsum’s interior, forming a rough pentagram. "Powerful demons of the Forbidden, and their accompanying sorcerer lackeys, hold out in these locations. All their might is focused on generating the perimeter barrier. If they are removed, the shield will be removed and we then have a clear shot at Gypsum’s main facilities.
"Oddly enough, though the shield cannot be so easily penetrated with heavy, direct assault, it will allow living creatures to pass through it with no resistance whatsoever-albeit only one individual may enter at a time. So, the first thing we will do is send in a team of operatives to disable the primary energy barrier."
One of the Elite commanders raised his hand.
"Admiral Nemo." Carlos acknowledged the officer.
Nemo, a man in his mid thirties, well-built, but of average height, with swept back raven hair and sharp facial features stood, alternately adjusting his jacket, which exhibited a distinctly naval influence. "These five demons-I assume there are only five?"
Carlos nodded. "As far as we know, yes."
"Are they all there is?"
A wry, ironic smile crossed the Elite Chairman’s lips. "I am glad you asked, Commander." He twirled his remote. "There is another shield, one that guards the innermost core of The Shadow’s new earthly hold." He hit another button. All but the very heart of Gypsum’s facilities remained. The image expanded to the size of the first, revealing the details of the cylindrical structure’s architecture. "This, as you all know, is what used to be our main command center there. It includes the central control room, plus several other adjacent facilities. It is in there that The Shadow plans to hold its rituals; it is in there we must somehow get."
A flash of yellow light caught everyone’s attention.
"If I may, Chairman?" The Zapdos croaked. He glanced self-consciously about, wishing now that he’d just raised his wing.
Carlos acknowledged him nonetheless.
"I assume this shield’s just like the first?"
Ferdinand nodded. "It is, Thunder lord, in that we can’t just nuke it--which would be really nice. However, I’ve a bad feeling there will be something more to this barrier."
"And that would be?" The Articuno cooed from over the thunderbird’s shoulder.
"Only certain individuals can pass through it freely."
Another Elite commander arched her eyebrows critically. "‘Certain’ individuals?"
"Yes," Carlos cleared his throat, "only one of the so-called Chosen Ones."
A tense silence fell upon the whole gathering.
Nemo stared hard at the floating diagram. "You have such a ‘Chosen One’, I presume?"
The image abruptly dissipated. "Yes, Admiral," Carlos stated wearily as he pocketed the remote. The stadium’s central overhead illuminator came glaring back to life as the spherical projector disappeared within its domed confines. The Elite Chairman allowed himself a worn, but somewhat self-assured smile. "I do happen to have said Chosen One on hand." He replied, turning on the heels of his oxfords.
Everyone shifted, too, just as a massive portal at the far end of the spacious enclosure hissed open, admitting a large, distinct looking, white attack pod. It carried with it an air of sophisticated oblivion, paying little heed to the fleet of other, more standard Elite attack craft that filed stoically in behind it as its headlights swiveling around curiously, inspecting its new surroundings with an animated whistle.
* * *
The morning sun was rising quickly within its pristine pallet of diamond blue, casting an oddly cheerful disposition to a day that promised the world its worst trial since demon kind itself walked the mortal plane. The irony, however, did not amuse the woman who watched it. Her flowing, chestnut hair swayed gently in the morning breeze as she stood on the central tower’s enclosing balcony, overlooking the veritable, sprawling citadel that made for The Elite’s grand fortress. Slowly, the long shadows, cast by smaller towers of glistening concrete, glass and steel began to subside, pulling into themselves as the fiery disk above made its regular circuit, completely oblivious to the immanent peril culminating below. From every corner of the stronghold’s roughly hexagonal layout, Elite battle cruisers, massive, black behemoths of reinforced steel, aluminum and titanium alloys--and heaven knew what else--hovered ominously, their sub-level sonic drone something more felt than heard. And she could not forget that just overhead, anchored to the central tower’s aerial port, the flagship itself was docked, with Ferdinand Carlos and her own love and many of their Pokèmon allies aboard for whatever business was left to be discussed. She could feel the walls around her vibrate; the whole place rumbled with the power it housed.
Why did these people need anyone else when they had all this at their disposal?
…Why do they need him? …Why do they have to take him away from me?
She had told herself not to worry. She had told herself that it was his duty to go, because if he did not, there would be that much less of a chance for everyone else. She had told herself everything she could think of; even that he did it because he loved her. Now, as the dawn fled before the approaching inferno of the day, she told herself nothing. There was nothing left to say. She’d said it all. And she was sick of hearing it.
What about your kids?
What about them? So, what if their father perished in the coming war? What then? Who would look after them…
…Who would look after her?
Like a broken dam, all the fear, the pent-up stress and frustration came flooding out of her. "No!" she screamed. "Shut up!" Amethyst psychic fire immediately engulfed Ki’s gloved fists as she slammed them down on the thick, steel railing.
There was a dull ring as whole balcony seemed to quiver from the blow. Then all was as before.
Ki stared in disbelief at the smoldering dents her outburst had left, thin curls of gray still rising from the blackened pits. Embarrassed, she glanced tentatively about, wondering if someone had seen her. She spotted an Elite agent a few feet away, marching briskly around from the cylindrical tower’s other side, his dark suit contrasting yet also blending in somehow with the silver construct of the building he speedily traversed. The index and middle fingers of his left hand were pressed to his sphenoid, a small mic extending from behind his ear. He passed quickly by, giving only a brief nod to the distraught woman before disappearing around the far side, replying to whoever had apparently called him. She waited for a moment longer.
No one else came.
Ki buried her face in her forearms and cried. Multiple streams of salty moisture trekked their way over her jacket’s leather sleeves, falling into the maze of structures far below, lost, like her, and alone.
…she was so alone…
…Oh God, just bring him back to me!
Startled, Ki whirled around.
"…You don’t look too chipper."
She blinked. "What...?" Leaning, like her, with his elbows propped up against the rail was a young man, probably about twenty or so, his tanned complexion calm and unyielding as he quietly observed Ki’s reaction. His dark brown hair jutted toward the back of his head and his bangs flared into a seven-pointed crown.
Ki took a quick visual sweep of this unexpected intruder. He was wearing a windbreaker, its partitions divided between sheer ebony and placid blue by four or so bands of white that ran across the jacket’s chest. A pair of formfitting, black pants encased his legs; made of interweaving bands of some elastic, metal-like material. His shins, calves, knees and feet were sheathed in a pair of curious, silver-plated boots. The thing that most caught her attention was the black utility belt that adorned his waist. A neat row of six ebony spheres--presumably, a team of Pokèmon, were affixed to the coal-colored band, along with three other implements, their purpose unknown, which also hung alongside the poké;balls. The most prominent among the odd tools was a smoothly designed, ten-inch cylindrical object whose exterior styling made it look like the handle off some high-tech katana. She frowned. …That’s no Mag light. Averting her gaze, Ki also noticed a very large Alakazam leaning on the rail next to him.
She sharpened her gaze, nightmares of red ‘R’s flashing for a moment in her weary mind. She glared suspiciously. "Who are you?" she demanded.
"Hammers," he replied evenly. Standing, he bowed slightly and offered his ebony gloved hand. "Clark Hammers."
Ki's brow creased worriedly. She took a step back, exchanging a brief glance with the stranger's psychic partner. A Trainer, she noted mentally, with no small amount of rising distrust. Ki crossed her arms, looking this new character over one more time. "What are you doing here?" she growled testily.
Clark casually withdrew his hand, his stoic demeanor never changing. "I," he replied, turning to take a quick visual sweep of his surroundings, "am not entirely sure."
There’s an original answer for you, Ki smirked to herself.
The newcomer chuckled. "Yeah, but it’s pretty common for me. I honestly have no idea what I’m doing here."
Ki stared at the stranger in disbelief.
"Y’know," he continued, unperturbed, "We can speak in telepathy, if that’s what you’d prefer."
"You…" her eyes flared with psychic light, and a harsh vortex of latent dust swirled around her as she gathered power. "Tell me who you are!" she demanded again, twins spheres of burning plasmatic energy encasing her clenched fists. "Or I will cut you to pieces!"
A benevolent smile graced his chiseled features. "I have already told you who I am." he replied easily. "What were you hoping to hear?"
She put a hand to her mouth, shock and recognition registering on her plush features. "...Oh no…" she gasped. The defensive aura around Ki’s slim frame evaporated and a look of relief fell across her face. But following on the heels of her departing fury, Ki's weary despair now returned to her. She looked hard at the stranger. "You…You're not..."
"No." Clark replied. "I am not."
"Oh." Ki swept a strand of hair from her face. "For a minute, you sounded just like him."
Clark nodded. "The King has no form other than his very own."
Ki's brow furrowed. "So, you're someone else." The air around her seemed to grow cooler and a fresh breeze played through her chestnut hair. The knot in her stomach returned. "Who are you then; why are you here?"
Clark gazed stoically across the sprawling Elite HQ facilities, seemingly unaware of Ki’s apprehension. "Well, I thought I was being sent to talk to a certain agent from The Elite; maybe check with Carlos and his crew and see what they plan on doing about this demon mess," he mused thoughtfully. "But instead I’m here. I guess that’ll have to wait a bit. Who knows. Maybe I was really sent so you’d have someone to talk to."
"I..." Ki groped for words, "I don’t…why do you care? You don’t even know me."
"If a taillow fell from its nest, wouldn’t it be right to put it back?"
"Well…" Ki rubbed the back of her head uncertainly, "…yeah, I would think so. Why?"
"How much more should we care about a fellow human?"
Ki relaxed her balled fists. "You’re a Guardian, aren’t you."
Clark gave her a tight smile. "I am."
She leaned on the rail next to him, carefully planting her elbows around the conspicuous dents. Humans were usually trouble, but Guardians were different—they were safe. So she spoke with him, more at ease. It was casual conversation at first; small talk took her mind off her problems. He was friendly, even though Ki never let her eyes leave him. She observed Hammers closely, more out of habit than actual suspicion, subconsciously anticipating his next move. It helped not to take chances. Oddly enough, she found herself looking down; odd because, well… wasn’t a Guardian supposed to be taller? She started asking a lot of questions. He answered them readily.
Clark was vague about his personal origins, but she found out he knew Mewtwo. The human Guardian was surprised to find out who Ki was, but he seemed pleased the Lord of Perraldra had someone special in his life. She told him about her home, the children she and Mewtwo had, about how important it all was to her. That puzzled him greatly; what was she doing with The Elite? She told him she was there because Mewtwo was… and invariably the conversation headed back to where it had originally been.
"I don’t remember seeing you at the King’s palace." Ki finally ventured. "Why didn’t you come to our meeting?"
"I was not called to it."
"What? I thought everyone was."
"No," Clark turned, leaning now with his back to the grounds below, "I'm a charitable afterthought in this whole business."
"Charitable afterthought?" Ki scratched her head and frowned. "I’ve never heard of that before. I thought every Guardian was suppose to be there."
"Yes..." Clark casually inspected the silver architecture before him. "I'm not here for any impending skirmishes. This is neither my story to write nor my battle to fight."
"What!?" Ki slammed her fists on the rail again, sending a shower of violet sparks everywhere. "Not your battle!?" she exclaimed incredulously. "Now what the hell's that suppose to mean!?"
Clark's expression never changed. He looked directly back at her. "That's not what you wanted to hear, was it."
Ki shook her head. "No. I can't believe you! How can you say something like that!? Every one of us is putting our lives on the line for this!" she seethed indignantly, unaware of her own rising anger. "What kind of a Guardian are you!? This is everyone’s story! This is everyone’s fight! What do you know!? And what the hell are you doing here if you aren’t here to help!?"
"Not here to help?" Clark looked inquisitively at the distraught mistress of Perraldra. "Now who said that?"
"But you said-"
"I said this was not my story. I said this was not my battle." Clark folded his arms.
"Not your story...what?" Ki clutched her sleep-deprived head. "I'm going to scream; this makes no sense!"
"This is your story. And this is also your battle to fight--your moment, Ki, to make the difference; you and everyone else involved. Mine will come in another tale, later--and if I come back, I'll explain. But not here to help?" he shook his head. "I was sent for no other reason."
Ki looked at him doubtfully. "Why?"
"I heard you cry. What’s wrong?"
"Oh," She put her face in her hands, wiping away the latent moisture. "I…" she choked back against the emotions that came surging back to her now, "…I just don’t want to be here! I mean, I have a family and home to take care of; I don’t…I can’t…"
"You’re afraid you’ll loose them."
"…What if I don’t come back from this?" She asked bitterly, fresh tears making their way down her smooth face. "I can’t do that to them! Oh, God!" She sobbed, falling to the concrete walk. She put her back to the rail, her head in her arms. "Oh God, I can’t do this! It’s not fair!"
"Are you alone, then?" Clark lowered himself, his knees still above the ground as he came to rest on his heels. "Is there no one to stand with you?"
"Well, no…" Ki sniffed. "There is someone…" She could almost feel Mewtwo’s strong embrace now, like a fleeting memory that threatened to fade away forever, and his voice, a soothing presence in her mind that calmed and beckoned. She wanted it. Oh, she wanted it--now! "…I don’t know. What if…I mean…?" Where was he? What would become of him? Again, haunting thoughts of a dark tomorrow came flooding back to torment her.
"What if he doesn’t come back either." Clark finished.
"Nobody gets it, do they!" she cried angrily, "This is my life, damn it! Mine!" Furiously, Ki swatted her tears. "I didn’t choose this! What am I doing here? I don’t want any of this!"
"So the world asks too much of you."
"Yes!" she fairly screamed, rising to her knees and turning to face him. "Look at me! All I wanted was to live a quiet life; just me and my family; no wars, no causes to fight. But no; all this had to happen, didn’t it! My perfect little life just had to be turned upside down! And for what? What am I fighting for? This world?" she waved dismissively at their surroundings. "Why should I care? The world’s done nothing but reject me."
"Didn't you know? I was found on the steps of the Saffron City Gym. Whoever had me obviously didn’t want me. I was just left there, alone. I was born rejected." Standing again, she looked out over the sprawling complex, fists clenched. "And as if to add insult to injury, I was born part Mew, endowed with all these weird innate powers. I didn’t know how to control it at first and everyone avoided me like the plague…and poked fun at me behind my back. Even Sabrina couldn’t understand me. I love my surrogate sister, sure…but, she was like every other human I’ve every known; she just didn’t understand me and she tried to make me into something I wasn’t. Only Mew understood me." She shook her head. "I identify with Pokèmon far easier than I do with humans. It’s like I was set up to loose with people."
Her mouth played a wry, bitter smile, "I’m more than anyone’s willing to deal with. There’s no way they can handle me, classify me, put me into a box, so they just write me off. I’ve never been accepted by mankind; I’ve always been an outcast."
"Yes…" Clark rubbed his chin absently, lost in thought, "…so I was told."
"I hate to sound antagonistic, but really; why the hell should I stick up for a world that wouldn’t give me second a thought? My sacrifice will mean next to nothing."
"That must be a very bitter prospect."
"I didn’t have a place until Mewtwo and I found each other." She turned beseechingly to the stoic Guardian. "Doesn’t anyone understand at all? He’s all I have! And now look what happens: He’s called away to risk his life for a world that doesn’t give a damn about him or me, and probably not you or anything or anyone else either!"
"In a word, you’re set up to loose again."
Ki nodded. "Because, even if we do win this battle with The Shadow, even if we do save the world, the world still won’t give a damn about any of us! It’s so sick! Everyone will just go on about their ordinary, miserable lives, just like they always have, completely indifferent to everything that’s just been done on their behalf!"
"This world…" Clark mused. "A planet fraught with death and despair, full of miserable people who want nothing more than to simply make it from one day to the next. Even the rich and powerful are not immune to the inevitable end that awaits them, and they waste away, worrying themselves to death over what will become of the wealth they have hoarded for themselves. They indulge, rich and poor alike, scraping the ground for scraps of heaven and always coming up empty."
Ki frowned. "Sometimes, I feel like I’m still scraping…"
Clark nodded. "So, what’s important to you, Ki? What really matters in the grand scheme of things?"
"For me?" the woman with the flowing chestnut hair tossed the long strands of shimmering brown over her shoulder, catching a light breeze as it blew through. "My family; they’re everything to me."
"Yes, so it is for many." He gestured to the horizon. "You must fight The Shadow then, not merely to preserve yourself, but to give others--and their families--the hope of a new tomorrow."
"I told you; they don’t care."
"Would you write off the good people of this world simply because you’ve been hurt by those who are evil? Does your bitterness consume you that much; are you that cold?"
"Well, I…" Ki’s brow furrowed with uncertainty. "no…maybe…I don’t know!" she wailed. "But why does it have to be me who makes the sacrifices!?"
"Woman," he replied evenly, "you are not the only one who has suffered, and many have suffered far worse than you. You have known at least a little love; there are still countless masses who have known nothing of the kind." Unbidden, he took her hands in his. "And maybe," he continued, as he lifted off the ground, white light pouring from his levitating frame, "that is why you are here now; to show everyone the greatest power mankind has ever known. This whole world--this universe--was wrought in love, created for the sole pleasure of its Creator. And I tell you, since the day it fell, everyone has practically been dying for that love to return."
Ki shut her eyes, turning her head away as the light intensified.
"You are not alone." Clark finished, beams of blinding phosphorescence exploding from him. "You are not."
The wind and luminescence subsided, and soon, all was as it had been. Ki stood alone, starring blankly into empty space. Gosh… that was weird…
You are not alone.
A strong hand rested on her shoulder. Love? What’s wrong?
Without a word, Ki turned into Mewtwo’s embrace. She buried her face in his chest and bawled.
* * *
"Well, I’ll be honky-darned!" Dexter breeped, uttering an appreciative tweet at the stadium’s interior. "I’m telling you, this place is Ai-depot! No-Ai heaven! No…Which sounds wittier, depot or heaven?"
"Honestly, Dex," Ash chuckled from the pilot’s seat, "I don’t care." He glanced over at Rhydmie, who currently occupied the co-pilot’s seat, and after staring at his own array of other controls, found himself wishing he knew how to do something other than turn the steering wheel (‘at least Dex left that alone!’ he griped mentally).
"Fine! No need to be so spoil-sport all of a sudden," the drone chirped back irritably, "And what the dickens’ going on anyway?"
"You tell me something, Dex," Brock called up from where he and Gary were inspecting the newly furnished arsenal of Elite weaponry, "Where’d you get the notion to redesign yourself?"
The automaton sighed dramatically. "Brock ‘ol boy, if you, a four-wheeled, road-bound golf cart suddenly found yourself sitting in a hanger full of battle mechs and sophisticated attack pods…"
"Hmm…" the rock trainer scratched his chin thoughtfully.
"Yes. Exactly." The drone’s android phonation chirped from the control console. "In a word, I was just keeping up with the joneses."
"Yeah..." Brock's brow furrowed as he counted fingers, "...wait a minute; that was eight words!"
"Now You're just being nit-picky." Dexter whined.
"Sure," Brock rolled his eyes (no easy feat). "Like some people I know."
"Shove it, Stone-boy. You're on my turf now."
"A notable change."
"Well," Brock sighed, plucking a familiar tube of steel off its rack, "at least you left me this."
"Oh, yeah," Dexter chuckled, "I considered it, but…well…I just couldn’t!"
Stone grinned, shouldering the nefarious ballistic cylinder. "‘Guess the ‘ol rocket launcher just had too much sentimental value for ya, eh?"
"Oh, yes," the automaton sniffed nostalgically, "way too much!"
Brock frowned. "Hey…where’d all these new buttons come from?"
"Oh," Dexter gulped guiltily, "Heh, heh! I did make a few minor adjustments to the original."
Brock groaned. "Just give me the manual!"
A small suspension screen popped up from the floor in front of the rock trainer. "There." Dexter beeped triumphantly. "That tutorial covers the whole arsenal!"
Gary immediately trotted over. "Oo! Lemme see!" Double chains, full of palm-sized projectiles, criss-crossed his chest and dragged across the floor. He hefted up a massive rifle that was nearly as long as he was tall. "Hey, Dex," he grunted, "how do I used these?"
"Gary Oak?" Brock exclaimed, "What the hell do you think you’re doing?"
"Getting geared up!" Gary shot back. "What else?"
"You look like an idiot! Take that off!"
"Here," Dexter’s android voice offered, "Try the pieces on rack 24."
The oversized rifle and ammo belts clattered mercifully to the floor as Gary pulled a pair of small guns the size of a classic western derringer off their little hooks. He frowned. "Is this some kind of a joke?"
"Those, my good man," Dexter rattled with authority, "would easily put a hole through a fifty-foot block of solid concrete."
"Okay…" Gary scratched his head doubtfully, turning the minute firearms over, "…how?"
"Put ‘em to your ass cheeks and find out!" Dexter shot back caustically, "Take an old soldier at his word, for grease’s sake!"
"Must we always be so facetious before saving the world?" Misty grumbled from the navigator’s seat (situated on Ash’s other side). She cast an annoyed glance in the direction of Dexter’s arsenal. Thankfully, she noted Giselle and Samurai were quietly seated in the passenger row directly behind her, though the heiress looked no less perturbed by the racket coming from the back. Shinji gazed detachedly out the opposite side window, his attention lost to his own inner thoughts.
"Well," Leslie piped, still adjusting various instruments on her third of the command console, "It kinda relieves the tension."
"Huh," Misty huffed indignantly, "not mine."
"Hey," the blonde offered sympathetically. She met the other woman’s gaze. "I’m sorry about your kid."
There was a poignant silence between the two.
Misty turned sullenly away. "You’d better be."
Rhydmie was about to say something else when Ash held up his hand. He shook his head at her worried look. "You’re okay." He assured, his own eyes set resolutely on the space ahead. "Just let her be."
* * *
Carlos watched as the fifty or so attack pods circled the arena, covering its entire perimeter, side buffer to side buffer. He noted, with a hint of amusement, the single white machine among them, like a diamond set in a ring of black steel.
Standing under the vertical spotlight, he beckoned to the ivory pod.
* * *
Ash exchanged puzzled glances with Leslie and Misty. "Well…" he noted that all the other attack pods in the arena were plugging into the wall, downloading their instructions-and if he’d read the displays right, so was theirs. Yet Ferdinand motioned for them to approach. "…Dex'?"
"Huh?" The drone’s mechanical voice clicked back online. "Oh, I’m busy--what now?"
Ash crossed his arms. "We need to get from here to down there." He examined the array of displays again, hoping to recognize something useful, but to no avail. "You got anything to take care of that?"
"Hmm…" Dexter’s internal computer whirred and chirped. "…Try this on for size!"
Around the circular entrance/exit port, another, much larger disk began to turn on the attack vessel’s floor. The sound of sliding metal releases resonated for a moment longer, then the whole assemblage detached itself from its anchorage, hovering inside its respective hovercraft host.
Ash and company stared in astonished silence at the floating discus. From its center, a small pole materialized, weaving its metallic self lithely into existence. A small, parabolic object descended from the ceiling above and affixed itself to the vertical shaft’s level apex. It whirled around, facing the control console.
"Well, what’re you waiting for?" Dexter chirped from its new perch. "Get on!"
Ash nodded to Gary, who was closest to the floating disk. Carefully, Oak boarded the circular craft, walking its circumference experimentally. The oblong device swiveled on its mast, following the League Champion.
"C’mon, it’s perfectly safe." Dexter assured. "I promise!"
Ash arched a critical brow, but Gary nodded. "Looks alright." He affirmed, settling into an at-ease stance on the flying saucer.
"Well then," Giselle returned in her brusque, characteristically impatient tone, "les’go." And with Samurai marching ahead of her, she boarded.
"Right." Easing out of his seat, Ash headed after them, beckoning the rest to follow suit.
"Odd little automation, aren’t we." Rhydmie quipped, patting the drone’s main console before rising to go.
"Yep!" Dexter warbled jauntily.
"They don’t come odder than us," Brock grinned, passing a new pair of jaguar pistols to Ash as the two simultaneously stepped on deck.
"No," Ash agreed, "They certainly don’t." Buckling the fresh armaments into place, he placed a hand on the central control. "Dex, take us down." He silently prayed the mischievous automaton didn’t do anything overly facetious.
A dense energy shield encompassed the whole levitating discus. "Aye-aye, Cap’!" the drone rattled cheerily before they all felt themselves rushing swiftly downward.
"What’ve we here?" Nemo, and the other members of Elite command stoically observed the glowing saucer as it descended to the floor, its collection of passengers disembarking onto the synthetic green.
"That," Carlos replied, nodding to the new group’s leader, "would be our Chosen One."
"Ferdinand," Ash greeted, bowing lightly in return to the Elite Chairman. "Ladies and gents," he nodded to the others Elite officers, "hope I’m not barging into something too important here, but I think you called?"
"I did, my boy." Carlos turned to the rest of those assembled. "Men and women of the Elite; lords of the elements; This," he put a hand firmly on Ash’s shoulder, "Is the man."
* * *
"…So, that’s how it happened." Duplica sighed. "It’s my fault you’re here; I’m sorry." She gazed hopefully into the little girl’s dark eyes, looking for something--anything--that indicated she’d understood or even heard a word of that long confession.
April Waterflower just stared vacantly ahead, seemingly unaware of the guise mistress’ presence.
Duplica shook her head. She’d just told the girl everything--all of it; from when she was brought into Lawrence’s employment till now. The whole truth and nothing but. Gently she held April’s hands. "If you don’t want to talk to me anymore, I understand." She’d hoped the tale of her deliberate betrayal would instigate some sort of response…
Duplica sighed, her emerald head falling to her chest. She thought hard. There had to be some way to break whatever Lawrence had done to Misty’s daughter. She had to find it…she had to redeem herself somehow…
A cold hand brushed her cheek.
Duplica flinched, her russet eyes quickly darting back up.
"It’s okay," April smiled down at the surprised woman, "I already know all that."
Duplica exhaled a short burst of relief. Thank God; something’s still alive in there! "Oh, do you now?" she asked, a roguish smile gracing her playful features.
"Uh-huh!" April nodded. "Daddy told me everything."
Duplica’s brow furrowed. "…Daddy?"
"Yep!" The little girl beamed, alternately readjusting her new flowing attire.
"Oh…" she remembered then, "…April, dear-"
"I'm so happy!" April was beside herself with giggling, childish ecstasy. "My daddy finally found me!"
"An’ guess what?"
Duplica sighed, giving up her attempt to talk sense into the girl. "What’s that, April dear?"
"Daddy said you would be my new mommy!"
"What!?" It was all Duplica could do to keep herself from screaming her emerald head off. "Why, that sleezy son of a-er-hem!-I mean; are you sure?" she asked, something reminiscent of panic beginning to buzz ominously inside her beautiful head.
April nodded enthusiastically. "I love you all so much!" She hugged the dumbfounded con artist. "I can’t wait to go home!"
"…No…" Duplica held the child close, unable to do anything else. "…oh God," she breathed the habitual prayer, "Oh God, this isn’t happening…Tell me this isn’t happening!"
"What’s the matter momma?" April asked, her child face fretting with concern.
Duplica shook her head. Oh Clay… she glanced anxiously over her shoulder. The Shadow ritual reached its apogee at noon-just a little less than four hours away! … Please hurry!
She mentally cursed herself for not putting that walking bag of bolts into the regenerator sooner. At this rate, he wasn’t going to be ready in time…
* * *
Pikachu paced impatiently back and forth, glancing every so often at the small crystal display affixed to Clay Griffin’s regenerator.
"How much longer, rat?" The Elite agent asked stoically.
"Pika." The saffron rodent shook his head and returned to his bored pacing.
Clay leaned his own head back again, resigning himself as well to the insufferable wait. He flipped his system’s display back into view, examining the details of his central control array’s repair progress. He didn’t actually need the Pokèmon to inform him, but it gave the two something to do while they waited…and waited and waited and waited...
Waited? Clay shook his head in despair. For what?
"Alright, you smart-asses, I want you to listen real good..."
A group of camo-clad commandos circled around their leader, a tall, imposing man of about forty, his matte black hair shaved into a harsh crewcut. They listened attentively as he imparted the sacred knowledge of a senior Green Beret to those who were possibly still too raw and inexperienced to understand the genius behind the semi-kamikaze tactics that they were being taught to employ. But he was going to teach them anyway, and by Sam Hill they'd learn or they'd die trying! Such was the fire that ran through their veins and, unconsciously, he nodded with silent approval at these boys' grim determination.
They were all kneeling down within the cover of the chest-high grass that surrounded their position, an inconspicuous spot smack in the middle of the misted wetlands. Taking a pair of maps, the towering officer passed them to his two subordinates, one of them an equally statuesque individual with very blond, almost white hair.
"Griffin," the old officer addressed his subordinate gruffly, "I want you to take your team around the bend. Then, I want you to wait."
The younger man's brow furrowed. "Wait?" He asked incredulously. "They'll be in perfect range. I can tag half of them myself!" He frowned. "Wait for what?"
Clay's commander didn't hesitate. "Yeah; good question, Griffin." he nodded. "I'd say you deserve a good answer. So here it is: shut-up and move out, or I'll have your ass pealing potatoes for the next two weeks."
Clay chuckled to himself. Now there was a blast from the past indeed! He remembered that training mission like it was yesterday: without another word, he'd taken his map and led his team to their new position. They’d hunkered down in a mosquito infested ditch, where they waited, swatting the annoying insects and muttering every foul adjective in the book, but not daring for their lives to move from that spot. When the cool and cover of night finally descended upon them, they moved out, bug-bitten and pissed, but alert enough to finish the mission without a hitch.
It had been the best time in his life.
And you had to screw it up.
The smile faded from Clay's lips. Yes. He blew it all.
"I admit, son; you really had me fooled." The older man shook his head, an ironic smile on his leathery features. Slowly, he stood, pulling his leaf-colored beret back over his sharp, crewcut hair. "From the day I met you, I knew you had what it took to be one of us. You were solid. Oh, you were a pain in the ass to train, but you proved yourself, over and over and over. Yes sir, you fooled us all. You had everything it took to be the best damn Green Beret I've ever seen..." he shook his head again, "...and you blew it. You blew it all. Look at you now, boy," the harsh, bitter fury and betrayal in his voice could not be mistaken, "you're nothin'. Not a damn thing."
Sitting dejectedly in his prison cell, Clay watched as his old commander turned his back and walked away.
The image still hung there, a haunting specter from a distant but yet all to present past... and the guilt absolutely refused to leave.
Clay shook his head, squeezing his eyes against the moisture that gathered there. Nothing he ever did took that memory away. He'd flunked the Green Beret by willfully and needlessly putting the whole honor of their collective body on the line. He wasn't the first felon from among them, but that wasn't the point. He'd been a leader. He made himself out to be a man among men, the guy everyone looked up to and believed in. He was known for being one hundred million percent dedicated to duty, discipline and honor. What on God’s green earth happened to him?
Fury burned through the Elite Commander's face. A woman had shown up. That's what had happened! Again, Clay found his mind wondering back to Duplica Mimique’s last words to him: "Don’t be late, hero… " He snorted indignantly. Who was she kidding? He was walking straight into another deathtrap for all he knew. You can’t trust her, he told himself, over and over until the notion was practically drilled into his cranial gray matter’s subconscious. And yet, something else was now competing with that mental iteration; something that suggested things might be otherwise.
Clay shook his head. He didn’t want to think about this! There was still business to take care of, things more important than some trifling female’s "passing fancy." For that’s all this was! Give Duplica a few more days--a few more months, years, whatever--eventually, she’d wise up and Clay Griffin would mean nothing to her. It was inevitable; it was just the way things worked.
…And he found himself regretting that.
Clay shook his head again, vigorously this time. You’re loosing it, buddy.
But was he?
She is not even remotely serious! And if she is, she has no idea what the hell she’s getting herself into!
Clay sighed. Maybe she did. Maybe she knew everything. …It doesn’t matter. She’s already proved herself to be untrustworthy. I’m giving nothing to that beguiling wench!
…Aren’t you now?
No! I’ll see Hell freeze over before I…before I…
…Before you get hurt again.
Clay’s face flashed an angry crimson. That's got nothing to do with it!
...Doesn’t' it now.
Griffin clenched his teeth. What the hell is going on… Are my own thoughts against me now?
…Certainly not. Your thoughts are under your own control.
Then shut the fuck up!
Goddess, this is so stupid! I don’t deserve this shit! I’ve done nothing wrong!
…And what about you?
What about me then?
…Are you so deserving?
I’m a man of the law; of course I am.
…And what kind of a man is that? Haughty; disdainful; looking down his nose at every other lowly creature he happens to come across; shoving his superiority down their throat?
Hey! I protect this hellhole of a planet! I’ve earned the right to-
You’ve earned no such thing.
What the hell do you-
Have you forgotten already?
Yes. What do you stand for, Clay?
There was no hesitation. Justice.
And what is justice to you?
Every damn thing you deserve.
Then why are you still here?
…I… Clay’s brow furrowed. …Why am I still here?
Sharp, pale-blue Guardian fire exploded through the small room, causing Clay to gasp and shut his eyes against the intense glare as it caught him full in its piercing trajectory. Clark Hammers’ light frame emerged from the surrounding burst.
"Shall I give you everything you deserve then, Clay Griffin?" the Guardian asked, his voice devoid of affect.
"…I…" painfully, the fair-headed agent tried to open an optical receptor, "…who are you?"
Hammers crossed his arms, stoically regarding the bound Elite. "An emissary of Light."
There was a long pause.
"…So," Clay whispered at last, "You’ve come to make an end of me then." He leaned his head back against the regenerator’s rest. "Fine… Do it."
Pikachu and See Nine just looked on, the Pokèmon crouched on the floor, puzzling over how to respond to the intrusion.
Clark ran a gloved hand through his crown of flared bangs. "That is not why I have come."
"Then what are you doing here?" Clay growled through clenched teeth. "Finish me! I’m sick of this world! I’m sick of waking up every morning, knowing I have to spend one more day in this hole, living with all these stupid, stupid people and saving their stupid, insignificant lives!" His voice faltered. "I’m sick of living my stupid, insignificant life! Please! Just let me die and be done with it already!"
"What are you afraid of, Clay?"
Clark nodded slowly. "How about that past of yours? Are you afraid of that?"
Clay sneered. "What do you know about my past?"
Clark shifted his light, focussing the intense glare on his subject. "Your past?" He paraphrased the Elite Commander's last words, his haunting tone a low rumble that seemed to permeate the whole room.
Griffin swallowed the cold knot that was wadding itself up in his throat. Sweat beaded and streamed from his forehead, dripping off his nose and chin. His whole body shook. Who is this man. A cool, leather-clad hand rested itself upon his shivering brow.
"…Open your eyes."
Of their own accord, Clay's lids obeyed.
He blinked. "What in the name of everything sane..."
He was standing in a different room...no; it wasn't a room at all. The sound of waves crashing on a shore of fine-grained sand met his biotech ears, and the silhouette of half a dozen palm tress could be made out, standing several paces in front of him. A quick adjustment to his visual receptors and the excess light was checked, bringing the whole scene into resolute focus.
"...No..." Clay stared incredulously at the broad stretch of perfect, white-sanded bliss that spread out before him. Its undulating surface glimmered invitingly in the late morning sun, punctuated only by the sporadic stand of balmy palms and coconut trees that shot up from the grains of crushed quartz, offshoots of the lush Malaysian vegetation he knew grew and deepened into forest only a dozen or so yards behind him. His eyes followed the line of the coast, mapping out the smooth, horseshoe-shaped curve of the sparkling bay as it eventually led back out to sea.
…It was just as he remembered it.
Griffin shook his head in disbelief. "...It can't be."
"It can and it is."
The air blurred as Clay instantly spun around, sending a showing of sand and petite beach turf in a haphazard radius. Eyes narrowed, he scanned the empty space in front of him. "Who's there?" He growled.
"Huh?" Clay's gaze quickly shifted earthward.
Striding nonchalantly across bright sand, Clark nodded up at the towering Elite, alternately dusting stray quartz granules and shredded grass from his clothing and spiked hair. "Howdy." he drawled, adjusting the pair of sleek, black shades that adorned his young, tanned face. Arms laced casually across his chest, he gazed out upon the sparkling sea. "So, this is it, Griffin," he spoke, his ethereal voice seeming to rumble from some unseen, overhead PA. He pushed his shades up, letting them sit just in front of his crowned bangs. He shook his head wistfully. "I'm afraid there is no more beauty left here for you."
Clay just stared incredulously down at the minute Guardian. "Who the hell are you?"
"Hammers," The other turned and extended a gloved hand, "Clark Hammers."
Clay returned the shorter man's strong grip. "You already know me, I see." Without another minute's hesitation, he grabbed Clark by his windbreaker's front and hoisted him into the air, glaring into the insolent boy's dark, insufferably calm eyes. "Now, why the hell am I here?" He demanded loudly. "And how the hell am I here? And who-"
Clark's body, in blatant disregard for the law of gravity, floated easily on eye level with the scowling Elite, much to the bigger man's annoyance. Clay brought his left hand around in a blinding hook shot, but Clark caught it, bringing the Elite's fist to a paralyzed halt. A touch to the wrist and Clay's other hand fell to his side, numb and useless.
"Enough of that." Hammers admonished.
"What am I doing here?" Clay growled. "Why did you bring me to this place-"
"Very good. You remember then."
"Remember..." Clay’s eyes burned. "How do you…no, never mind! Of course I do! And you've no right to bring me here!"
Turning his gaze from the fuming Elite, Clark pointed to the beach. "Look to the shore."
Clay followed Clark's hand. "Oh, no..."
A man, tall, powerfully built and heavily muscled, somewhere in his early twenties, with light blonde hair and a fresh tan stood at the water's edge, his bare feet planted in the wet sand, taking the gentle surf as it washed in and then back out again. His camo pants were cut off just above the knees and stretched tightly around his brawny thighs. Only a small chain and dogtag adorned his upper body.
He turned, a brazen, self-assured smile on his chiseled features and fiery ambition in his clear, quartz-colored eyes.
"No..." Clay, One hand limp at his side and the other frozen in mid-swing, just stared helplessly over his shoulder across the sandy expanse. "...Oh, God, get me out of here!"
From the stand of palms immediately on Griffin's right, a tall, raven-locked woman stepped fluidly into the glistening, sanded turf, gliding purposefully toward the young Beret standing on the shore. A short, broad sash hung dangerously about the sensuous curves of her supple waist, creating a makeshift skirt, and its smaller twin held her generous bustline in precarious check.
Just as Clay knew she would be.
Just like he knew how everything would be.
The young man on the shore was him, nearly a full decade ago. He watched that image of himself which was now forever lost to him, barely able to contain the raw tide of anger and betrayal that swept over his emotional dam, and unable to resist the poignant stab of bitter nostalgia.
Clay's facsimile beamed at the comely blossom standing before him. "Fantasia..." he breathed, the awe and delight in his eyes unmistakable, unhidden, and devoid of embarrassment or shame.
"Clay..." She smiled warmly back, placing her hands on his chest.
He picked her up, twirling her laughing frame around in his powerful arms.
Hand in hand, they headed down the shore, and soon, they were out of sight.
The real Clay was left alone. He gazed detachedly after the vanishing couple. "What am I doing here," he repeated, the fury gone now from his hulking frame. "God help me, what..." He rubbed his left forearm, now free again, working the circulation back into it.
"Alright," Clark was again at the big agent's side, still hovering on his level. He scratched his head. "You're going to have to help me here. What was all that?"
Clay continued to just gaze out across the now empty beach. "Why do you care, Guardian." he replied quietly. "Go back to your heavenly realm and leave mankind to perish in pieces."
"You were quite taken with this woman." Clark observed.
"I just told you to get lost, kid; take a hint. And don't feel sorry," he added acridly, "you can't help me."
Clark continued to mull the mystery over, ignoring Griffin's repudiation. "Tell me something." He calmly pressed.
"If it'll make you shut up." Griffin snorted.
"What is she to you?"
There was no answer.
Clark turned toward the big man, an eyebrow cocked inquisitively.
Griffin sighed wearily. "Aren't messengers of God suppose to do their homework before they confront the poor, pitiful human wreck their assigned to?"
"Absolutely." Clark nodded. "But you must cooperate if we're to get anywhere with this."
"I can tell you what I know about Fantasia Enriquez." Clark nodded down the beach. "Her father ran one of the largest mafia rings in the southern hemisphere. His network encompassed a rough global territory that spanned the western half of South America, the coast of California and Hawaii in the States, Most of Malaysia, southeast Asia, and before the Elite eliminated him completely, he'd been trying to form a pact with the other gangster operations in Japan and Russia. Fantasia was her father's right-hand instrument, orchestrating everything from simple conartistry to bloody assassination and tactical sabotage." he glanced over at Griffin. "She met you while you were both on a temporary furlough down in these tropical regions. She told you she was a tourist from Argentina, which was technically true; she neglected to mention her primary affiliation."
"Well, damn." Clay whistled, "Aren't you good."
"Now, your side of the story."
"Alright." Griffin agreed. "You're obviously not the average dumb-ass." He cleared his throat and seated himself under a sturdy palm, habitually looking up into its broad-leafed canopy. "Its pretty simple, really. We met, had a mutual attraction and started spending a lot of time together. I thought she was great. I had no idea about anything you just mentioned, and honestly, I didn’t care to know. When I finally caught the scent of something suspicious from Fantasia, I rationalized it away. Then my training kicked in and it just got too damn hard to ignore. So, after some real patient investigation, I uncovered her. ‘Caught that cheap backstabber with her hand halfway in the cookie jar."
"And you let her go."
"Like a blind idiot." Clay nodded ruefully. He smirked. "My god, she was a hard narcotics dealer, too! And I didn’t do a thing! I rationalized everything! More to the point, I got myself tangled up in her little occupation. Once excuse led to another, and before I knew it I was in too deep to just come out clean myself. And I spent a lot of time covering for her, and her potheaded lackeys. And I got myself hooked on her shit." Clay looked away. "…Imagine that. A trained soldier going pothead. I did everything she wanted. All she needed was for me to do time for her, and she got that from me, too!"
"That and death row." Clark mused. "For murder."
"Yeah!" Clay growled "Of all the shit she put me through, that was totally unexpected. She had her father's henchmen slaughter some rival dealers she'd been trying to buy out." He snorted, waving disgustedly at the natural, languidly swaying parasol overhead. "But before that, she made sure I was there, and in the line of fire. They were hoping I’d kill somebody! Damn, it was so brilliant!"
"But this is what really put me over bad with Fantasia." he smirked. "She should have thought it through. As things turned out, I waltzed into her dead rival’s joint on some bogus errand she cooked up to get me over there, just to find them all bloody dead, with five masked riflemen standing around. And I was late, which didn't help, because now they figured I knew what was up. So they just thought they’d kill me and be done with it. And so they tried; tried hard, I'll give'em that..." he shook his head. "That was a bad fight. I finished pumping the last of them full of lead, then I ripped the dead man's mask off."
Clark nodded. "One of Fantasia's men."
Clay looked the younger man in the eye. "The guy's name was Alexander Gomez," he seethed bitterly, "I knew the guy, kid. Alex was Fantasia’s bodyguard. He’d been part of the special forces at one time, I could tell by the way he fought. We’d always gotten along really well. He was the only friend I really had in that whole God-forsaken place…" The Elite commander turned dejectedly away, his voice barely a whisper. "…And he actually tried to kill me; and I ended up killing him."
There was a moment of silence before Clark answered. "...I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Griffin snorted. "What would you know of this, boy?"
Clark met the bitter man's acrid gaze with one of genuine compassion. "That you've been living with the guilt of this ever since, man."
"So what." Clay rejoined. "It's too late. And," he added, getting up and dusting the sand from his posterior, "It wasn't entirely my fault. I mean, c'mon; how the hell was I suppose to know?"
"And you still blame yourself."
Clay rolled his eyes. "Okay; because some of it was my fault, and if you think about it, if I had just done the right thing from the beginning, had just said my sweet 'good-byes' to that conniving wench and ditched her from the get-go, I," he roared, "wouldn't be here, having to talk to you, having to relive all this shit from my life and own up to who I really am!"
Calm as the sea behind him, Clark looked Griffin in the eye. "Who are you?"
Griffin lowered his head, the grief and shame finally overwhelming him. Tears streamed down his face as he met the youthful Guardian's reaching gaze, choking on his own words. "…I’m the criminal."
Slowly, sand and seashore faded away, vanishing back into a seamless backdrop of brilliant white and twirling shafts of colored phosphorescence. Glittering particles of atomic matter floated lazily by, turning in a slow pinwheel around the two humans within their languid vortex.
Clay gazed upon the surreal light show with misted eyes, caught up in the strange spectacle, transfixed with its dazzling beauty, yet haunted by its rhythmic foreboding. He felt himself floating, suspended in the midst of these bright yet wistful photons. Everything was perfectly still…
"…Open your eyes, Clay."
The flesh lids over Clay's biotech optical receptors instantly snapped open. His head shifted groggily, eyes adjusting to the dimness of the broken-down regenerator storage room. He blinked the sleep from himself and took a more careful look around the darkened enclosure. On the far wall, See Nine still hung comically from his imprisoning binds of demon goop, and now that Clay was paying attention again, he could hear the droid still babbling on in much the same fashion as before, albeit not so loudly and much more sporadically.
He made a quick visual sweep of the debris-strewn floor. Sure enough, Ketchum's Pikachu, and their impromptu telegram, were both were he'd left them. The small Pokèmon glanced curiously up at him, its long ears switching attentively from side to side, up and down. It tilted its head slightly to the right.
Griffin took a deep, steadying breath. Eye's narrowed, he snapped his head in that direction.
Only a silent, dark wall and its stand of silent, dark storage lockers met his expectant glare.
With a despairing sigh, Griffin let his head fall back against its rest. "So, that's it then," he rumbled softly, "it was all nothing but a dream." He inwardly smirked at himself, thinking how stupid and cliché; that had just sounded.
"Pika?" Carefully, the saffron mouse made his way around the mess of steel and concrete spread randomly across the floor, coming to a halt just below the towering Elite's regeneration pod. "Pikachu!"
"It's just a matter of time, mouse," Clay sighed wearily, his head falling to his chest. "I'm still a dead man."
Clay's head instantly shot back up, eyes wide. "You!" he breathed.
Clark floated above the ground, a little over a yard in front of the astonished titan. "Greetings," he nodded in reply, his expression stoic and unreadable.
"So..." Clay whispered solemnly, "...all of it...was real?"
"Yes," Clark calmly folded his hands behind his back, "It was real, Clay. All was exactly as you recalled it."
"As I recalled it..." Griffin leaned back on his headrest. "...You have no idea," he stated ruefully.
"Hmm." Clark plucked a piece of sea grass from his hair, giving the wayward blade but a passing glance before tossing it over his shoulder. "Your past has plagued you, unresolved for the better part of nine years."
"So resolve it for me, Guardian!" Clay spat. "You and I both know what I deserve! This whole trip was useless, kid. I'm sorry; you wasted your time."
Clark shook his head. "Only if you choose to come away from this the same man."
"Look!" Griffin seethed, "If I could, I'd go back and do it all over again, make it all right! But I can't, okay; it's just too damn late for that!"
"Who said anything about going back?"
"What do you mean? There's no other way-"
"That," Clark stated flatly, "is not true."
Clay shook his head. "There is no place in your God's heart for me."
"Or is there no place in yours for Him."
"Yeah, preach it, boy. Give the alter call. I’ll come running down so you can baptize my ass in hellfire!"
Hammers shook his head. "That is not my place."
"Damn it, boy!" Clay roared in the other's face. "You don't get it, do you! There is nothing else you can possibly do here! Nothing! Forget Clay Griffin, okay! Forget he existed, forget he ever had a life on this sorry plant, forget you ever saw him, heard him, knew him in any way! Just forget about the sorry son of a bitch, 'cause when all is said and done, he's still going to burn!" Griffin strained against the regenerator's bind, his face crimson with self-hating fury and streaked with hot, bitter tears. "I have to die, boy! I'm sorry! I can't be this world's hero any more! I can't pretend," he choked, "I can't pretend to be one of the good guys."
"You're killing yourself, Clay. You and you alone."
"Do you think I like being this way? The hell I do!"
"Then allow me to teach you something new."
Griffin scowled at the younger man. "What." he spat
"Forgiveness." Clark answered simply.
"Forgiveness!?" Clay roared incredulously. "Oh, what the damn hell are you saying!?"
"You claimed to be a man of justice." Hammers rejoined. "Is that not true?"
"Sure! I am!"
"Alright. Then how can you judge if you yourself are not pardoned?"
Clay smirked. "Oh, I’ve received my pardoned all right."
"Did you? Then how do you still condemn yourself?"
"Because I still know the law! I try to forget what I did, okay! I do! But every time I look in the mirror, I still see the same guy!"
"Are you still the same?"
"I don’t know!" Clay cried. "I just can’t shake it, Clark! I just can’t!"
"Then forgive yourself."
"No! God, no!"
"I don’t deserve it!"
Clark was quiet for a moment, head bowed, lost in thought. Finally, he looked back at the Eliteman. "So, what is justice?"
"…Every damn thing you deserve."
Clark nodded. "That’s right. What is grace, then, Clay?"
"It doesn’t exist!" Griffin slowly let his eyes fall to the ground. "…It’s something I’ll never deserve… I can’t live up to it."
"I know." Clark’s light intensifying. "I know that, 1) you suffer from your own self-inflicted condemnation, and 2) you project that same condemnation on everyone else around you."
Clay smirked. "Brilliant assessment. You’ve just outlined my job description."
"You are an Elite. Your job, Clay, is to protect humanity from a level of evil most of its denizens are not equipped to deal with. That is all your legal obligations authorize you to do." Clark shook his head. "…But you’ve gone far above and beyond that, haven’t you."
The room was silent for a long time before Clay finally answered. "I just want to make sure no stupid asshole gets away with anything… Please…It’s all I have left that’s any good."
Clark moved to the regenerator’s side. "And is that what you want to take to your grave?
Clay sighed wearily. "…I don’t know what else I can do."
Taking hold of the regenerator’s frame, Clark pointed straight at Giffin’s heart. "When are you going to forgive yourself, Clay? When are you going to move on? Until you do, you will forever be a prisoner of your own guilt, and it will consume you completely."
"…And what if I just don’t care?"
"…Well, fortunately," Clark replied, "You may have some time yet to think it over." And with that, he planted both hands on the regenerator’s metal shell and pressed hard.
The whole room instantly exploded in a shower of blinding white light. Clay gasped, his eyes flaring wide as searing waves of crystalline energy flooded into him. His optical receptors were instantly knocked offline, the raw power tearing through his whole body as he threw his head back and he screamed.
Then there was silence.
When his vision returned, Clay Griffin found himself on his knees, breathing hard. He groaned, slowly coming back to his feet…
He was standing?
Clay stared at himself in disbelief, flexing his stiff muscles experimentally before promptly calling his list of components back online. He stared hard at it for a moment, still wondering if this was all for real. According to system analysis, everything--yes; every single gizmo--was back in order, fully repaired and functioning like new. Turning, he found the shell of the regeneration pod. Veins of charred metal streaked from a single spot on its backside.
Clay’s eyes narrowed. Lifting his arms, blue voltage danced again across their muscled surface, gathering at his fingertips. Charging both fists, he sent waves of volatile electricity tearing into the remains of the regenerator, reducing it to a pile of smoldering, melted ruins.
The Elite Commander knelt beside the mess of metal and ash, staring off into the space beyond. He shook his head and frowned. "When is anything going to make sense around here?"
"Pikachu?" Tentatively, the electric mouse made his way over and sniffed at the burnt wreckage, then looked up at the towering Elite agent. "Pika?"
Absently, Clay rubbed the Pokèmon behind the ears. "C’mon, mouse. We’ve got a party to go ruin."
Rising, he made his way to the stand of lockers on his far right.
* * *
The light bent and shifted, ushering a new singularity through its shafts of heavenly radiance. Concentric rings of white fire exploded from the air about him as he swiftly ascended the roiling mists, rising higher and higher into their pure tiers of suspended photons until he shot into the open sky beyond, the atmosphere shuddering in his wake.
"So, you are done then?" The poké;goddess quietly seated herself as Clark landed smoothly before her whispy, cloud-like throne.
The Guardian hovered just above the clouded surface. "Yes," he replied evenly, "The mission has been accomplished."
"Very good…" The pokègoddess regarded him solemnly. "You did well."
"Thank you. I was a little confused, though. I did not know you wanted me to talk to Ki."
She sighed. "Yes, I did not know she would need it so much until after I sent you away. But thank you for being so flexible. She, too, will be a little more free now. She has a very important role yet to play. And you will return to your own realm, soon; your own story."
Clark smiled. "Yes. I’m afraid I must."
The Poké;goddess nodded. "Wait for my final call, Eáylonin." Spreading her arms, the sky above her abruptly rippled and parted, instigating a wide, yawning rift in the fragile weave of reality.
Clark catapulted through the void and the whole sky rippled with the sonic shock of his passing.