A tall, thin woman with light brown hair and dark eyes leans back in the chair across from me, sipping her glass of water like it's fine wine. Ragged scars cover her face, slicing through her nose and eyebrows. She's propped her feet up on the table and crossed her black combat boots over each other, putting her head to the side so she can make uncomfortably severe eye contact with me.
I shift my weight and the chair squeaks loudly, causing her to raise her eyebrows and crack a slight smile. My hands are sitting awkwardly in my lap because I don't know what else to do with them; she's staring at me so hard I'm having trouble thinking straight.
I jump when Roark slams his glass down on the table. The brunette looks up at him with that same strange grin. "What's got your panties in a knot?"
Roark slides into the chair beside her and scoots close to the table so he can put his elbows down on the wood. He gives the woman an exasperated look and sighs. "Did you see what happened?"
"Barney overreacted again and made you nervous? Yeah, it was kind of hard to miss a giant rampaging dinosaur outside our window."
Roark narrows his eyes and then shakes his head, trying to hide his smile. The woman chuckles softly and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. Roark sits back hard in his chair and pushes his hand through his dark red hair. "I wouldn't have described it like that, but I guess you're the expert." She nods a bit and hits him on the shoulder, her eyes glued to her drink. Roark shakes his head again and looks up at me, mischievousness sparkling in his dark eyes. "I'm sorry, I guess I didn't properly introduce myself. You said you knew who I was, so I don't think it's a big deal, but for formality's sake," he sticks his right arm out across the table, palm facing up. I grasp his wrist, a gesture I'm barely familiar with. I've seen it exchanged enough on TV that I know what to do, but it's very rare that people my age are extended such an honor. "My name is Roark Henrikson, leader of the Oreburgh City Gym."
"Jay Mallory," I say, and we move our linked hands up and down once before letting go of each other.
The brown-haired woman extends her left hand to me, which I think might be a sign of disrespect. She smiles coyly and holds up her opposite arm, revealing a stump wrapped in black fabric. I nod in understanding and cross hands with her. "Is it alright?"
She squeezes my wrist. "Is your eye alright?" I can't help but smile, feeling the tension among the three of us gradually vanishing. Something like a spark passes between us and I realize I quite like her. "Name's Kitty Shiosal, former Almia Top Ranger."
"Wow, really? I've never met a Pokémon Ranger," I'm immediately interested; what is someone from Almia doing up here?
She leans forward, planting her right elbow on the table and putting her chin on the stump. "We were a dying breed, I can assure you. Can't say I know what's become of us now; guess I haven't had much contact with other Rangers in a couple years." Her voice is deep and somewhat gravelly, but still soft like velvet being dragged over a bed of rocks. "And would you mind letting go of my wrist? It's getting sweaty in there."
"Oh, sure." I put my hand into my lap and sit back in my chair. "What are you doing up here?" Roark looks a bit impatient and sucks in a sharp breath to speak, but Kitty waves her hand to keep him quiet.
She leans across the table toward me, her scars casting dark shadows over her face. "I actually came up here before the outbreak to investigate some strange happenings in Celestic Town. I don't think your government really wanted me here, but I guess it was too big of a deal to keep me out. They said the Pokémon near the shrine were acting strange. Like, crazy strange. Attacking people randomly and not having any recollection of it moments later. But while I was there I got reports of even more bizarre behavior at the three lakes. Waves, huge tidal shifts that, obviously, should never happen at a lake. The Pokémon there were understandable disturbed, so I headed to Lake Verity while a few of my colleagues were sent to Valor and Acuity, and one stayed in Celestic to cover for me. Unfortunately," she pauses, and I'm not sure if she's having trouble talking about it or just wants some dramatic effect; her face is too obscured by the poor lighting to tell. "The Outbreak happened very suddenly. Everything was quiet, then boom. Complete insanity everywhere. Now, I knew there was a pandemic going around, and that it was definitely killing a lot of people, but life-threatening situations are nothing new for a Top Ranger. I just wasn't prepared for what happened next-"
"Alright, this is great, and I hate to interrupt your awesomely rehearsed monologue, but I have some legitimate questions to ask this kid, and I'd like if maybe we could, uh, focus?" She shoots him a sharp glare and he holds up his arms in defense. "Sorry, if you really want you can go on."
"Ah, no, it's fine." She sits back and lays one arm over Roark's shoulders. He smiles slightly at her and rolls his eyes lightheartedly. "Do what you have to do."
"Right, okay," He gently wraps his fingers around her wrist and holds it on his shoulder. His eyes flick up to mine behind his shining glasses, suddenly serious. "We'll start with what you did to Barney."
"Oh, come on. Didn't you settle this?" Kitty asks, leaning forward to get right in his face.
"Yeah, but…I don't know, I just don't want to let it go."
"You have to, Barney's fine. There's no way Jay could have known Rampardos were so territorial. The only thing hurt is his pride."
Roark chews on his lip, breaking his serious air once again. "Okay…well, what were you doing over here, then?" He looks back at Kitty, who's smiling amusedly.
"Uh, well, I came to Oreburgh because I'm trying to collect the Gym Badges." Kitty snorts but Roark shushes her. "I already had the Mine Badge from before, but I figured this was the only way through to the other side of Mt. Coronet." Sighing, I lower my gaze to my hands, resting open on my legs. "Guess that's not true, is it?"
Roark's chair creaks and I flick my eye back up to him. He sighs and entangles his fingers together on the table. "No, it's not. Why do you want the badges? They're completely useless now; they won't even work as bartering pieces.
"It's-I'm…I'm doing it for a friend." My hands clench into fists and I swallow bile rising to my throat. "Sorry, I guess it's kinda personal."
He bobs his head up and down quickly in understanding. "Of course. You don't have to answer that, really. I was just curious because it seems like kind of an odd thing to do." I shrug and he waits a moment before continuing. "So…you said you saw Volkner. What was he doing in Jubilife?" His chair creaks and I notice Kitty's smile has disappeared. The atmosphere in the room changes very abruptly, and I feel my heart race.
"I-I have no idea. He actually didn't tell me. I was really hurt at the time, and he stitched my face back together. I guess it just didn't occur to me that he wasn't where he should be. But I remember he got angry pretty easily; he freaked out because I said the Gym Leaders probably had it easy, or something. I don't remember very well, it was a while ago."
Roark's chewing on the inside of cheek, examining the table closely. "I just don't understand why he was there…we haven't had contact with anyone besides Gardenia for years. And even she's gone quiet now. If Volkner was in Jubilife, why didn't he make contact with us? I mean, we were never the best of friends, but as a Leader it was his duty to…" He shakes his head, visibly frustrated. "It just doesn't make any sense!" Kitty's eyes narrow at him and she starts to lean away. "We're supposed to work together to protect the people. Not contacting us was in direct violation with his promise as a Gym Leader." He sits back and crosses his arms, letting out a burst of angry air. "He's always been irresponsible; I shouldn't be surprised. Abandoning his city…why should I expect any more from him?"
"Don't assume things. Jay only said Volkner didn't give a reason for being in Jubilife. We don't know the circumstances; maybe there isn't a Sunyshore anymore." He shakes his head and she sighs exasperatedly. "I don't know either, Roark." Kitty looks over at me and nods. "Go on, there must be more."
"There isn't, not really. Well, I did meet a member of Interpol but-"
Kitty and Roark's faces both light up. "Interpol?" Kitty asks, eyes wide but doubtful.
"That means…" Roark starts. Kitty holds out her stump to quiet him and Roark holds it lightly, biting the nail of his pinky finger in concentration.
"Yeah, he said his name was Looker and he was hard to understand. He…he said the government wasn't letting Interpol officers or investigators in, and I think he mentioned being the first one to get access to the inside."
Roark breathes deeply and rubs both hands over his face. He presses his elbows into the table and pushes his fingertips into his eyes beneath his glasses. "I…I don't know how to get around this."
Kitty shoots him a startled glance, pushing away from him and making her chair squeal over the dark wood floor. "What are you talking about?"
He clasps his hands together and leans on them, now focused entirely on her. "I just…he knows so much already. I figure we might as well tell him what we think we know."
"Roark, I-" She starts to protest, then stops and looks down, glaring at the table in concentration. "Hm…yeah, I-I guess we might as well."
There's probably a lot about all this that I don't know. I've never tried to look deeper than the surface, never cared to figure out anything beyond how to keep myself alive. Until now, I've never wanted to. But I know this could very well be my one chance, that Roark and Kitty could be far better-informed than I am about any of this. The zombies, the government, the chaos in the city…it's only now that I realize I really have no idea why any of this is going on.
Roark and Kitty begin to speak at once, but he stops and gestures for her to go ahead. "Well…you see, we've been here for a long time –Roark, especially- and, well, there are a few things we've noticed that just aren't right about all of this. Obviously the very inconveniently placed landslides here and at Eterna, but…plenty of other things don't seem to fit either. Like, why can't we carry more than six Pokémon with us if this entire society has broken down? Why do PokeBalls work at all? And why do the undead keep coming? Eventually Sinnoh, as a nation, should have been able to eradicate most of them. They had one of the most well-funded armies in the world, how is it possible that they can't take out a bunch of mindless zombies? And after four years things are hardly any better! You've been on the road; you know how often they attack. They just keep coming and coming, much faster than regular Pokémon can reproduce. They should have run out of food to eat long ago, especially if there are so many of them."
Roark starts now, picking up as soon as she pauses long enough for him to step in. "We've lost all contact with the west side of Sinnoh. Our radios don't work, any Pokémon we send out with messages vanish completely. If there were some massive calamity on the other side of the country, we should have heard about it. This…this just doesn't make any sense." He stops and looks hard at me, eyes narrowed. "Do you know what I'm getting at?"
I shake my head slowly, and Roark takes a deep breath.
"We believe we're being held here, on the east side of Mt. Coronet, by our own government. They've got us locked in a quarantine we were never told about. We think they're trying to shut us off from the rest of the country, depriving us of vital supplies and waiting for us all to starve." I try to interrupt, but he keeps going. "Just look at it! Look at this from an outsider's point of view! How could we naturally end up like this after four years? This…this just doesn't make sense the way it is. And don't try and say the League wouldn't do this, because you know as well as I do that they very well would." Kitty gives him a reassuring look and he calms down, exhaling loudly. "Sorry, I just…that's just what we think is going on. Things are…probably much worse than you can imagine."
My palms are sweating, and a wave of exhaustion sweeps through me. My head aches and I'm feeling nauseas again, so I hang my head in my hands and scoot back from the table. "I…I need some time to think about all this."
"Of course," Roark says, slowly rising from his chair. "I can get you anything you need; I didn't mean to just unload on you like that." Kitty starts to follow him, subtly entwining her fingers with his. "Seriously, anything you need, just say the word, okay?"
I open my mouth to ask for some water, but every thought is interrupted when the door slams against the wall and a familiar, thin form steps through the entryway. Bright orange light shines behind her, outlining her well-covered body and making her short black hair gleam. A long sword, dirty but still flickering brilliantly in the setting sun, hangs limply from her right hand.
"I caught another one sneaking around out back," she says as she walks in, wiping her heavy brown boots on the carpet and sliding her sword into its sheath. "Little bastards are going to get themselves killed one…of these…days." She stops when she sees me, her eyes widening. "No way..."
I get up and take a careful step toward her, blinking several times to make sure I know what I'm seeing. "Dawn?"