A/N: My ambition may have exceeded my talent on this one. This is intended to be the opening of a dystopian epic that's been on my mind for years, but it needs a major rework. I'll update ASAP, but only after the kinks in the story are worked out. For now, it's on hiatus. Apologies to readers.
'6:12pm 2/16 THU' read the digital display upon the nightstand, in a neon green hue that drew her eye no matter how hard she tried to usher the digits away.
"You sure you're up for this, Blue?"
Blue pushed her hair back behind her shoulders with a scowl, giving her reflection in the full-length mirror a tentative stare. Nothing about this disguise suited her. The boots were far from standard issue – less combat, more couturier – and the short black pencil skirt she begrudgingly agreed to wear was far too tight to run in reliably. The charcoal gray wool peacoat covering her frame was stiff and uncomfortable, not to mention incredibly itchy. She figured the material had been cut from the backs of Mareep that could no longer battle, the ones too bruised and broken to be of much use.
Corpse wool, Blue thought with a shudder. She pictured a conveyor belt lined with scissor-like contraptions, each shearing the wool off dead Mareep, and tugged her scarf up to her chin to ward off the chill. Light and wispy fibers brushed against her fingertips.
This accessory's texture was different: foreign, yet oddly familiar. Soft and fluffy, regal-looking, with a creamy beige color. Something like the fur of an Arcani-
'Look at it! Look!' a voice screamed inside her head. 'This is the future they want for us! This is what we're fighting for!'
Blue clamped her eyes shut, but it was no use. The visions of the bonfires were impossible to keep at bay. Pokémon piled high enough to cast a shadow across the cobblestone of town squares, legs and arms and horns jutting out from every nook and crevice, some still moving, still twitching – oh Arceus, they were twitching – until they weren't. The stench of burnt fur and smoldering hides permeated her nostrils; she could feel the heat of the flames crackling just outside the hotel room door. Then came the sounds. She could still hear them: those poor creatures pawing at the wood in desperation, letting loose weak, strangled cries. Some were still alive, after all. The Collectors weren't thorough. If it bit or clawed or fought back in any way, just put a few holes in it and kick it when it's down. If it doesn't move, it's dead. That was enough for them.
It was worse with people, though. The popping. The screaming. The smell.
Arceus, the smell.
"6:15. No signal," said the voice behind her. "You don't think …"
She wouldn't end up like that, though. Not enough bodies to pack into a pyre, now. The insurgents and dissidents that were left – the few crazy enough to strike up on their own – weren't stupid. They knew to keep their heads down, to stick to their abandoned factories and dank cellars, plotting away in tiny cabals, pretending they could make a difference. Most of the time, that was enough to avoid detection. Sometimes it wasn't – but you rarely knew that until it was too late. It happened all at once, all across the city. Warning was a luxury you couldn't come by; a crash in the night was all you'd get. They did them in by the lonesome, now: wrestled them from their bedrooms, pulled them into the streets, burnt them to a crisp right outside their front door. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Like her. Like that day.
"Blue?" came the voice again. "Hey, you okay?"
Blue pretended to brush the bangs from her eyes, wiping away an invisible tear. Dainty azure locks tickled her eyelashes and cascaded down over her shoulders, flowing every which way. She had the irresistible urge to grab the tufts into a bundle and twist them into a style more manageable. A bun, a plait. Maybe a ponytail.
A faint smile crossed her lips. Old habits die hard.
"What do you think, Gary?" Blue chirped over her shoulder. "Convincing?"
Gary, dressed in a black shirt, brown vest, and (ironically, she thought) green slacks, glanced up from his seat at the edge of the bed with a frown. He looked to be in his early thirties, with worn features and a chin covered in stubble, though Blue knew that he was at least a decade younger. She wondered if she looked that way, too. It was hard to remember how much your face had aged except through the eyes of others.
"You could stick to protocol," Gary snapped, miffed. His attention was clearly divided; the glare he gave was cursory, drifting from her reflection to the old telephone upon the nightstand at his side. "You're not supposed to call me that."
Blue turned to him with a snort. "Since when have you cared about protocol?" She motioned to their surroundings: shoddy, stain-ridden and barely furnished. "Besides, we're alone. It's not like this room is bugged."
Gary gave her a long, hard stare, unamused. "You don't know that."
"Ugh. You're being paranoid. Liberation doesn't go around bugging every single hotel room across Kanto."
"I wouldn't put it past them at this point," said Gary, running a hand through his short auburn hair. Crew cut; the spikes were a thing of the past. He turned his attention back to the telephone, drumming his fingers against one knee as the other bounced anxiously, almost of its own accord. "She's late. That isn't like her. Stick to colors."
"Fine, Green." Blue turned back to the mirror with a roll of her eyes. "But I don't see the difference. Colors, names. If they knew that we were here, what would it matter?"
"Because they still wouldn't know who we are. Green can be any Green, and Blue-" he smirked in her direction "-can be any Blue. Misdirection is power. I thought you'd be the expert on that?"
Blue tugged at her skirt, straightening it out compulsively. The constriction of the fabric was nothing compared to the sudden tightness within her chest. "That's not exactly how it worked back then."
No reply. Silence.
"Why do you think she's late?" Blue said quickly.
"What a surprise. Dodging questions again, huh?"
"I don't feel like getting interrogated in the middle of an operation."
Gary crossed his arms, meeting her gaze in the mirror. "All of this would be a lot easier if you just told us what you know. No one else managed to get as close to him as you."
"I already told the group everything. I told him everything." Blue tugged at her scarf violently; it suddenly felt very much like a noose. "Go ask him if you want all the sick details."
"I'm not interested in your bedroom habits, thanks."
Blue whirled around, fists clenched in anger, face flushed with embarrassment. She wanted to punch this arrogant prick in the face, to break his nose in two places, to watch him weep for his dead grandfather on the floor. But the fires within her soon faded, replaced by a calm and collected exterior. He was just trying to get under her skin. It was no different than what he always used to do with him. Old habits die hard.
"You don't trust me," she said coolly.
"I never have," said Gary, steeling his gaze. "Not after what happened."
"So what is this, exactly? Your own personal trial? Want to play judge and jury before I head out there to risk my life?" Blue let her eyes wander to the entrance of the dimly-lit bathroom – its ceiling light still flickering, her old clothes still sitting in a bundle upon the bathtub's lip – before looking at Gary sidelong, with a smirk. "Or maybe there's another reason you're keeping an eye on me. Jealous, Green? Maybe I should leave the door open next time. Maybe you'll see something you like."
Gary's gaze was unwavering. "Maybe I'm the only one who wouldn't let my feelings get in the way if I needed to put you down."
"Charming. I can see why the ladies were all over you."
Gary practically growled at her in anger. "You really should stop dropping hints. If they knew it was us-"
"If they knew it was us, we'd already be dead or wishing we were inside a torture chamber, because there's no way in hell Nathan would let two Founders walk around Celadon City like tourists on holiday." Blue brushed her hair back swiftly, turning away with a grin. "Thanks for proving my point."
Gary gritted his teeth. "Damn you. You're just as reckless as-"
The shrill ring of the telephone interrupted him. Once. Twice. The two turned to stare at the device, wary of a third ring. It never came.
"Was that her?" Blue asked.
"Probably. Still …" Gary glanced at the clock – which now read '6:20' – and raised his knuckles to his chin in concern. "Ten minutes. Something doesn't seem right. She's never this late."
"I'm telling you, you're being paranoid." Blue walked over to the bedside, to a large black duffel bag that sat stuffed to the brim beside Gary. She inspected each of the bag's zippers carefully. There were five in all; each compartment was secure. "I'm sure she was busy double-checking the shipment. Making sure everything's accounted for. Something like that."
"Yeah. Maybe." Another hand through his hair. He really did miss it.
Blue rolled her eyes. "We both know her, Gary. I really doubt someone like Erika would ever turn."
"Her turning is not what I'm worried about."
Blue felt her hands hesitate. The pompous, self-centered jerk that sat upon the bed beside her was not so different from her, after all. Everyone had someone that they were afraid to lose. Blue moved the bag aside and sat down beside him, gently laying a hand upon his shoulder.
"I'm sure she's fine," she whispered softly. At the bewildered look Gary shot her, she recoiled, holding up her palms and plastering on a fake, albeit nervous, grin. "See? Convincing, right?"
Gary raised an eyebrow, then looked her up and down, lending thoughts that made her skin crawl all the more. "I couldn't tell you two apart at a distance," he said.
"W-well. Let's hope the Peacekeepers out there are as dull as you." Blue got up from her seat (a little too quickly, she hoped he hadn't noticed) and grabbed the strap of the duffel bag, slinging it over her shoulder. She plucked a cable-knit beanie from the arm of a nearby chair and headed for the door. "Wish me luck."
Blue glanced over her shoulder in annoyance, but that too soon vanished. Gary's eyes were as stern as ever, but the hostility in them was gone. A faint smile sat upon his lips.
"Don't get yourself killed out there."
"Aw. You do care." She stuck her tongue out at his flustered expression. "See you in thirty."
Celadon City past sundown was both an eerie and dangerous place, and neither of these qualities could be overstated.
Blue gazed upwards as falling snowflakes prickled her nose and cheeks with their chill. The colors of twilight – pastel shades of pinks and purples and blues – swam amid the clouds overhead, casting an ethereal glow over the hollowed-out remains of a vast and booming metropolis. Skyscrapers that once held the promise of wealth and affluence now loomed over the city like dark monoliths, towering above rusted-out cars and sallow-faced citizens as they scurried to reach their homes before the sirens of curfew. A light coating of white crunched softly under Blue's soles, ever-fed by the flurries of snow that seemed to grow heavier with each step. Shattered glass sparkled along the walkways ahead, shards fresh in the powder, littering the ground amid storefronts and homes alike. As streetlights buzzed to life all around her, Blue strode forward, making her way towards the heart of the city.
The streets were far from abandoned, but that would change within the hour. Not even the most brazen, foolish firebrands would chance being caught outside past curfew. The soldiers in charge of order within the cities (the new regime called them 'Peacekeepers'; the irony was palpable) were merciless in that regard. At best, you'd arrive on your doorstep the next morning a beaten and bloody mess; at worst, you'd never be heard from again. That was their way of handling things. Problems wouldn't resurface if the instigators ceased to exist.
Blue spotted such a group up ahead. They stood upon the corner of a major intersection: three grim silhouettes clad in heavy gray military gear, equipment designed for winter. Gas masks with long, winding hoses covered their features entirely; no skin was visible. They gazed out over the junction with twin discs of bright amber: haunting, ghostly eyes that glowed amid the snowfall. Holstered at the belt of each man was a machine pistol, though one appeared to be shouldering a rifle – the marksman of the group, Blue knew. Their helmets were adorned with silver emblems in the shape of an 'L': curved, sharp, and elaborate, with a wing-like design splayed from the left side of the letter. By the side of each stood a Pokémon: a Cubone, its eyes shut in meditation, weapon balanced upon the snout of its helmet; a Sneasel eyeing passersby menacingly, claws scraping against ice, sporting a vicious grin; a Growlithe that shook dustings of snow from its fur, shivering uncomfortably against the cold.
Blue continued along casually, taking a turn at the bend before the crosswalk, never missing a step. The duffel bag at her side bounced and jostled with her gait. She let her eyes drift to the side, taking a stealthy glance at the orange hound Pokémon from her peripheral vision. This called for an alternate route. After all, bringing a package filled with Pokéblocks and Poffins that close to a Growlithe was a recipe for disaster. Their noses were keen; the species was often used by police to sniff out contraband before the war.
She pressed on, trekking across promenades and crossing boulevards, evading two other packs of Peacekeepers that blocked her ever-changing path.
Before long, she was lost.
All the streets in this city looked the same. Dim, snow-covered, and desolate. It was the same as trying to navigate a white-walled maze. The last rays of the setting sun were her only compass.
Blue cursed internally. She struggled to merge the detours she had taken with Gary's instructions to the rendezvous. Why did he base his directions on landmarks rather than street names? He deserved more ridicule for that than she had given him at the time. Even now, she half-expected one of the directives to be 'Walk three blocks down and turn left at the signpost that says Gary was here, Nathan is a loser.'
Blue forced herself to stop, to gather her bearings. She took shelter under the awning of a burnt-out Poké Mart, giving the deserted avenue a quick, nervous glance.
Stopping in the midst of the city was a terrible idea. Stopping meant that one didn't know where one was going, and if one didn't know where one was going, one would be questioned where one intended to go. And why one intended to go there. And what business one intended to carry out there. And what was inside the package that one was bringing in tow.
And, of course, how one would prefer to die upon inspection of that package.
Blue kept walking. Being lost was much better than being dead. Eventually, it seemed as if she was traveling in circles. Each street, each intersection looked identical to the last. West became east; forward became backward; hope became despair. The sight of a Peacekeeper patrol far in the distance rattled her to the core. She veered right, around another corner, taking hurried steps down the pathway. Panic set in. Snow sloshed furiously against her boots.
A strange color swept by the edge of Blue's vision. Something odd; something out of place. She stopped again.
To her right, amid the shadows and faded graffiti of a trash-ridden alley, was a slight tinge of evergreen. Just beyond the edge of darkness, a small, solitary shrub stood resilient against the snow. A winter heath, with needle-like leaves and slender, bell-shaped flowers of reddish-pink.
Erika was here. By some stroke of luck, she had found her way.
Blue ducked into the alley without a second thought. Being noticed at this point in the mission would mean blowing the whole operation; she knew better than to draw unnecessary attention to herself. A brief moment spent standing around, gawking at any nearby patrols would only serve to arouse suspicion. Best to finish this hand-off and head for the outskirts of the city. Blue glanced over her shoulder, up to the sky, out past the towering metal behemoths that blocked the dying light of the day. Curfew was fast approaching. Time was running out.
The remnants of an old, shredded newspaper tumbled down the alleyway, catching upon Blue's boot as she moved deeper into the darkness. She shook it off, trudging past mounds of snow and a large dumpster that held the scent of week-old fast food and rot. A few feet above, a fire escape shuddered under a sharp gust of wind, its metal latticework hovering over Blue like the ceiling of a cage. She stepped forward cautiously, peering past the filth and into the gloom. Eventually, she spotted a metal door along the side of the building. It had been left slightly ajar. She slipped inside.
The interior of this place was pitch black. Blue blinked, her eyes struggling to adjust to the darkness. She took a few steps forward, holding a hand out to avoid smacking into a wall.
"Victreebell, Razor Leaf," came a female voice from the shadows.
Before Blue could react, five spinning ferns sliced through the air around her – four lingered at arm's length, and the last came to rest just against her neck, a centimeter away from drawing blood. Blue threw her hands up in surrender.
"Who are you?" the voice called.
"B-blue. I'm here for the trade."
A pause from the shadows. "You are not the one I agreed to meet." The fern next to Blue's throat seemed to inch closer, cautioning against lies. "How do I know you are who you claim to be? Any imposter could go by that name."
"Green–" Blue started from scratch, she'd be damned if this was the time for protocol "–Gary couldn't make it. We decided to rotate our runners, so the plan changed. I'm here in his place."
Another pause. Longer, this time. "I see."
Without hesitation, the ferns withdrew, flitting back to their owner as quickly as they came. Blue rubbed her throat. She had dealt with Erika in the past, but her memories of the young woman betrayed the reality in front of her. The war had taken its toll on everyone; she knew it was naive of her to believe that innocence could somehow survive. Still, it was hard to imagine that the sweet and caring gym leader she remembered had become someone so cold and – Blue swallowed at the word – cutthroat.
From the darkness, two figures came into view. One was human: Erika, dressed in a long down parka in the shade of hunter green, its fur collar framing the ends of her symmetric black bob. Her brown eyes were sharp and questioning; they drifted slowly over the scene before her, as if always searching for a crack in the facade. She carried a black duffel bag that looked identical to Blue's.
The other figure was a Victreebel, a menacing yellow-and-green flytrap Pokémon. The thing was massive: nearly seven feet tall and as wide as the horizon, with a gaping toothed maw that could easily swallow a man whole. Going by the demeanor of its trainer, Blue figured it had done so several times already.
"Shall we make the exchange?" Erika asked.
"Yeah," Blue answered quickly, with a nod. She wanted to finish this trade and dart back out into Peacekeeper territory, where it was 'safe'. Erika may have been an ally, but the thought of being digested by her man-eating bodyguard was not very high on Blue's list of priorities.
"I apologize for the harsh welcome. You cannot be too careful in these times." Erika looked from her visitor to Victreebel, sensing apprehension. "You needn't be afraid of him. Victreebel's only concern is with our safety. He's quite kind to those who offer such in return."
"I bet," said Blue, managing a grin. Victreebel glowered at her. The grin didn't last long.
Erika sighed. "Victreebel." The bell-flower snapped to attention, its sour look vanishing. Erika adjusted her headband. "This is why I have a reputation …"
"Well, whatever. Can we just get on with this?"
"Of course." Erika lifted the strap of the duffel bag from her shoulder, placing the pack upon the ground. Blue followed suit. "I'm afraid we weren't able to meet the usual quota this time. There has been increased activity on the part of the outer regions patrols as of late. My apprentices had to cut their efforts short for several days in light of that."
"Don't worry. I'm sure it's more than enough," said Blue, reaching out to take hold of Erika's bag. She stopped midway through shouldering it; it was even lighter than her expectations. She set it down and unzipped the main zipper, peering inside. There were Poké Balls within its depths – but the bag itself was less than halfway full. 'Short on the quota' was an understatement.
"You don't look particularly pleased." Erika took a humble bow. "I'm afraid I must apologize again."
"It's fine. You've done all you can to support us. We're thankful for that." Blue zipped up the bag and tossed it onto her shoulder, waving Erika off. "I'm not about to ask anyone to throw themselves into harm's way to catch a few more Pokémon. I know how dangerous it can be out here."
Erika's eyebrow quirked in interest. "You're from the cities?"
"Something like that."
"Most I know would give anything to escape a life confined to a place such as this. Choosing to come back willingly is certainly the mark of a strong individual."
Blue gave her a wry smile. "I think choosing to stay makes you stronger."
This pearl of wisdom seemed to take Erika by surprise. She nodded with mutual respect, lifting the bag filled with Pokémon supplies – food, potions and empty Pokéballs – and extending a hand. Once Blue had taken it, Erika leaned in, moving her lips close to Blue's ear.
"Is the operation still in place?" she whispered.
"Yes," replied Blue, in the same hushed tone.
Erika withdrew her hand and stepped backwards, turning to nod to someone deep within the shadows. She faced Blue with a smile. "Be safe."
And with that, Erika and her Victreebel were gone, vanishing like leaves upon the winter wind.