Grimsley, dark-type expert and esteemed member of the Unova Elite Four, was drowning.
Not in the metaphorical sense as he usually was with mountains of debt and mere molehills of capital to pay it all off. No, he was drowning in the quite literal sense of the word–shoved off a boat in the middle of the ocean, dozens of miles from any land. He was a decent swimmer. A fine one, even. But no way was he making it to safety. And with all his Pokéballs snatched by his captors, nothing and nobody was saving him, either. He tried desperately to float and tread water to conserve his energy. But the edges of his vision were fading, and every time he propelled himself up to the surface again, it felt like the water was dragging him down quicker.
This was what he got for meddling with Team Rocket. He’d suspected there was something more sinister going on with their new merger technology. Caitlin had even predicted as such. He didn’t have terribly noble motives for prying deeper into it. A nice, regular blackmail check would have made him plenty happy. But instead he got tossed off a boat. Figured.
He had one backup. A contingency plan. Because when someone got in as many scrapes as he did, one didn’t leave all their eggs in one incubator.
Grimsley had started his prying into Giovanni’s lucrative side business by approaching as a run-of-the-mill customer. Just an average guy looking for a merger to do some cool Pokémon stuff. But, he explained carefully when he applied, he wasn’t looking to merge immediately. He simply wanted to get a dose of the serum, and he would use the mega stone of his choosing on himself at the proper time. Giovanni’s staff didn’t like this one bit and escalated his request almost to the top of the food chain. In the end, Grimsley got the approval for the merger with a caveat…the serum might work its way out of his system over time. Therefore, he would require a higher dosage. The sooner he used a mega stone, the larger a percentage of his humanity he’d lose. But he’d also be able to merge with whatever most suited him for the moment he needed it. A high risk for a high reward. Grimsley had eagerly agreed.
When the procedure had been completed, he’d snuck into Team Rocket’s underground headquarters in Viridian City, digging around for whatever condemning evidence of illegal activity he could find. Rocket grunts intercepted him almost immediately. What was worse, one of them hailed from Unova and recognized him. Things had gone pretty south from there.
Grimsley gasped as another wave of water shoved him forward. His muscles were completely drained. The serum had been administered less than forty-eight hours ago. Using the ace up his sleeve now…he probably wasn’t going to like the effects.
Grimsley took one last breath and let himself slip below the water’s surface. He liked the idea of drowning less.
With the speed of an expert dealer, he shoved his hand into his pocket and yanked out a small bag containing the Sharpedonite he’d stashed away. As his last held breath of air escaped in a cloud of bubbles, he ripped the bag open and pressed the gem inside to his chest.
He wasn’t sure what he expected from the effect, but it burned like a shot of Drapion poison. After that…was the water getting colder around him? He felt himself sink deeper, but ironically, as the pain and chill intensified, the dizziness plaguing his mind eased. He wasn’t breathing, exactly…at least, it didn’t feel like that. But his brain wasn’t oxygen-deprived anymore.
One step at a time, he told himself, before glancing down at his changed body. His legs had fused together, his skin from the waist down the same smooth, deep blue as a Sharpedo’s. His feet had morphed into a large, Carvanha-like tail fin. Two yellow pelvic fins had grown on his sides right below the hips. He felt his back and sure enough, there was Sharpedo’s signature, notched dorsal fin. Well, one step at a time…in the metaphorical sense, Grimsley amended as he suppressed a laugh.
The first stage of Giovanni’s plan was straightforward enough. He needed to convince Ash that Team Rocket could be used for good–whatever the boy’s definition of good happened to be. So some priorities had to be shifted. Giovanni always had his eyes on the criminal organizations in other regions, making sure no one moved in too close to his territory. Now he got more aggressive. Team Rocket made targeted attacks, and Giovanni had Ash by his side for all of them–invading areas where Team Flare or Team Galactic were keeping Pokémon captive and taking them down.
The second stage would be trickier–stretching this whole “good” nonsense. Young people were so convinced they knew best, and they were obsessed with proving it. Giovanni didn’t need the help of any ghost Pokémon to manipulate that.
“Sirs.” A Rocket grunt came up and bowed to them.
Ash signaled for him to straighten up. “You have a report?” he asked hopefully.
The grunt nodded. “As you suspected, it seems this was a minor base of operations with the main goal of collecting Mega energy from captured speci–” He exchanged a glance with Giovanni and coughed. “–kidnapped Pokémon.”
Giovanni gave the grunt a subtle smile of approval that Ash took no notice of.
“Can we get the Pokémon back to their owners?”
“Some, yes, and our team is working on that now. But most have been significantly drained of their energy. Our data suggests they would not recognize their owners and might even attack them. They’ve become too untrusting of humans in general.”
Ash swallowed hard at the news, and Giovanni stepped alongside him. “It would be cruel, perhaps dangerous to return the Pokémon to their owners in this state. I suggest we bring them to our headquarters and make our best attempts to rehabilitate them.”
Ash stiffened, clearly unhappy with the idea of taking Pokémon that didn’t belong to him. Giovanni placed on a hand on his shoulder. “If there is anyone who can accomplish this, it’s you, my boy. You have a way with these creatures, a connection with them few of the rest of us understand. It was clear before your merger, and it’s even stronger now.”
“Do you…actually mean that?” Ash said, lowering his gaze to the ground. “Or are you just trying to trick me?”
It was most difficult not to chuckle at the question. “Trick you into what? I still want you to run this organization some day, and I would sincerely prefer you not dismantle it. My last option is to adapt. Show you that you can use it for your purposes, which seem to be helping Pokémon be their best. I do not understand it, but then again, in two more years, it will not be my place to understand, will it?”
The edges of Ash’s mouth turned slightly upwards. “All right. We’ll take back any we can’t return as they are. Get them into the isolated units for now, and we’ll start rehabilitating them right away. We can do this.”
The grunt bowed again. “As you wish, sir. I’ll see it’s done right away.” He hurried off.
Only a year ago, Ash had insisted he wasn’t giving orders to anyone, let alone using Team Rocket to invade a rival group’s facility. But with just the right encouragement and flattery, Giovanni had him convinced he knew what was best for all Pokémon. It would only be a bit more work to convince him that any Pokémon would be better off with him than with its original owner. From there, he could easily argue that not only was stealing Pokémon justified, it was actually in the Pokémon’s best interest. Changing what Ash perceived as the truth, a tiny bit each day–that was Giovanni’s long term game plan. And it was working brilliantly.
“We’ve done good work here today,” he said, turning to leave. “Let’s get back to the helicopter.” Ash followed, his energy renewed, an unspoken agreement with Giovanni’s assessment. It was most excellent to see.
“I have a mission coming up I will need to undertake alone,” Giovanni said as they waited for the grunts to finish packing before the helicopter took off.
Ash strapped himself in, his energy waning. “Oh?” he asked cautiously.
“Not stealing anything, I assure you,” Giovanni said. “But I’ve already left my gym duties unattended too many times these past few weeks, and if I turn down any more challengers, our gym status may be at risk. I need you stepping in as Gym Leader until the end of the month.”
“Oh. Okay, then.” Ash nodded. He’d acted as Gym Leader a few times now, and he absolutely adored it, making the assignment the perfect diversion whenever Giovanni needed one. And he had been truthful that he wasn’t stealing anything. His objectives were…a bit more complicated this time.
He had never fully given up on acquiring Sabrina as one of his prized Pokémon hybrids, but until recently, her whereabouts had remained as complete mystery. The identity of the boy who had rushed in and captured her remained unknown, but several of his more skilled officers had gotten some unusually high readings of telepathic power in Alola. Unless the place had been overrun with their quirky regional Raichu, he had an idea where his prize might be hidden.
“I’d like to bring Brock along with me…” Giovanni began.
Ash frowned, his posture defensive.
“…if you would be so kind as to ask him when we return.”
This caused Ash to relax a little, but it was barely noticeable. “What’s the mission?” Ash asked cautiously.
“There is a Pokémon with powers growing out of its own control,” Giovanni said simply. “But I fear moving in with a large group would make the situation more volatile. My goal is to take a small, specialized team to calm the Pokémon in question.”
“And capture it?” Ash asked.
“If that proves necessary for everyone’s safety, yes. You have my word that I will bring it straight back here and allow you to help it however you can. But I require your friend’s defensive abilities to protect my team members. There are no Pokémon, humans, or merged humans in this organization more capable of doing so than he is. So will you ask him for me?” It was most annoying to speak of the former gym leader as if he were anything more than a pawn under Giovanni’s control. With seventy percent Steelix DNA, even Brock himself had to admit his humanity (and his free will with it) was slipping. But such tactics were necessary for the time being.
Ash nodded slowly. “I’ll ask him. But if he says no, that’s that, okay? You need to find someone else to help you.”
“Of course…” Giovanni said, mentally adding an “…I won’t” as he laughed to himself.
Back at the Viridian City Gym, Ash made his way reluctantly to the largest training room. Well, training hall was more like it. It was impressive how many spaces the Rockets’ base had hidden away. And it was almost as scary how well Ash could navigate them all after only a few months here. Brock had more or less focused all his efforts on training lately. The optimist in Ash liked to think it was because it was a good way to relieve stress or something. The pessimist said it was because Giovanni insisted that his Pokémon always remain in top fighting condition.
And as Giovanni loved to regularly point out, Brock currently fell into that category.
The training hall didn’t look all that different from the inside of the Pewter City gym–an uneven rocky floor with pillars and rock slabs all over the place. Like someone had sliced off a piece of a mountainside and stuck it inside the massive building.
Brock had setup today’s practice in the center of the room and looked to be moving through a series of punches. “Uh-oh. I know that look,” he said when Ash approached. “Your dad wants me for something.”
“Huh?” Ash asked, glancing around. If he expected to find a mirror among the surrounding pillars of stone, he failed. “What look?”
“The guilt-ridden one,” Brock said without hesitation, giving the slab in front of him one last good punch. It left a satisfying crack in the base. Brock brought his tail in, hitting the weak point and reducing the mass of rock to a pile of rubble. He stretched his arms over his head and turned to Ash, who’d removed his hat in a vain attempt to get his mop of hair out of his face.
“I don’t have a guilt-ridden look,” Ash insisted, missing the irony as he twisted his hat in his gray, clawed hands.
“Come on,” Brock told him. “We’ve done this enough times already. Giovanni plans some mission, insists on adding my Master Ball to his belt, you ask my permission as if I’ve got a choice in the matter, and you feel really bad about it.”
“You do have a choice!” Ash insisted. “If you don’t want to go, I’ll just tell him. He won’t push it this time.”
Brock shrugged, not having the energy to argue, and shifted topics instead. “What’s the mission?”
“Something about helping some Pokémon in Alola control its powers. And no stealing anything. He didn’t get more specific than that.”
“Well, between that and more of his training sessions…sure, why not? I won’t put up a fuss this time.” Brock went back to doing some practice punches, leading Ash to see himself out the door. This was totally his friend’s choice, he repeated to himself. Just like continuing to stay with Giovanni and study under him was completely Ash’s choice. Wasn’t it? The sound of breaking rocks behind him hurried his pace down the hall.