I'm finally in the country that I've heard so much about. Heard far too much about. When Otacon had first clued us in to its existence, I hadn't been able to believe it was real. A world where innocent animals are enslaved for war. Where the practice is considered normal and even admirable and entire organizations exist just to exploit it. Where children grow up covered in the blood of their battle slaves. It sounded like a nightmare.
But now I'm here, ready to step out on what may be my most terrifying mission yet.
I emerge from my cardboard box in the back of the moving van where I'd successfully hidden from the border guards, tying a bandana over my hair and another around my neck.
It's a perfect disguise. No one will recognize me now.
I head inside the house to meet Mei Ling, who has been living here for a few days before my arrival, scoping out the land. As soon as I enter the house, I see more monster slaves hard at work, being rented out and forced to haul and carry heavy boxes while their owners relax outside.
"This is what they do," Mei Ling whispers before I can react, putting a hand on my arm. "Act natural, Snake. Remember, he who treads softly goes far. Do you want to save your game?"
I shake my head and watch the practically-human laborers at work until they are done. Soon enough, their owners return to recall them into their tiny red-and-white "Pokeball" cages. Mei Ling pays them with some of the currency of the land, but I can't bring myself to look into their eyes. It's one thing knowing that this sort of slavery happens, and another to see it happening right before you, unable to do anything without risking discovery.
As soon as they're gone, Mei Ling pulls me over to the TV. She doesn't say anything more, but she doesn't have to.
"Petalburg Gym?" I ask, staring at the gory scene on camera. There's a crude sort of ring drawn into the floor, littered with brightly colored... body parts and the occasional splash of blood. The cries of injuried battle beasts fill the air. And above all this, the announcer is happily reporting the results of the monthly tournament, in which over 50 Pokemon had ended up unconscious and rushed to emergency care.
She doesn't report how many died.
"It's the gym over in the next town," Mei Ling explains. "At the end of the route north from here. I was thinking it would be a good place to start investigating the source of all this -- Snake? ...Snake?"
I'm already out the door, both sickened and fascinated by the thought of visiting that... "gym," and sickened with myself for being fascinated. "I'm going now," I mutter to Mei Ling over the codec, taking one last good look around town before departing. A bloated man stands here, wheezing and leaning on a nearby sign -- he's probably never worked a day in his life, with all his monster slaves to do it for him. His son stands idly around nearby, probably destined to end up exactly like his father. They're already wearing the same clothes.
Unfortunately, my way out of town is blocked by a small boy with empty, soulless eyes, clearly already part of this cult.
"Not safe?" I ask him, but he refuses to tell me more and instead threatens to call the police. I'm forced to back down and retreat to call Mei Ling again, who advises me to visit our next door neighbors. The girl who lives in that house is the daughter of Professor Birch and may have a Pokemon that she can lend me so I can bypass the town guard.
I find her in the house, as Mei Ling said I would. As soon as I approach her and ask about Pokemon, she bursts into a plainly practiced speech:
"Friends," she says, with a dreamy expression on her face, as if she has any idea what the word means. But I don't expect any more from the daughter of Professor Birch, one of the many tree-coded "Professors" that I suspect runs this gang over several nations. His daughter is clearly thoroughly brainwashed into accepting and loving the tradition of animal fights. She can't be more than twelve.
The more I see of this place, the more horrifying it is.
Unfortunately, I don't get the Pokemon I need. But I do get a different kind of opportunity:
At last, a chance to watch this mysterious Professor Birch at work.
I trail the girl as she runs through town, and she heads north, the same direction that I had been trying to go earlier. But this time the guard doesn't block my exit. He's too busy watching a commotion happening over to one side. I assume it's another of their animal pit fights and grab the chance to continue down the road, but am stopped by a cry for help.
It's a man in a lab coat and glasses, being menaced by a small stray dog. I go to wrestle the dog to the ground, but the man only seems confused and yells at me to grab something from his bag. I look inside and see a couple of those prison devices that lock monsters away.
This could be my chance. The town guard is starting to become suspicious, and I'm going to need at least one of these later to pass as one of the natives. Reaching in, I grab the ball nearest to me
and hurl it toward the dog. There's a small puff of smoke and then a beast appears, a strange type of mutated lizard that is an impossibly bright blue and orange. It's probably been artificially genetically selected for those colors, I think. To cripple its ability to exist in nature and force it to depend on the goodwill of humans.
As soon as the lizard sees the dog, it hurls itself toward it in a violent rage. The dog quickly goes down, whining and crying as it limps away. I watch it go, holding the still-snapping lizard back from taking off its tail as it leaves, but the scientist doesn't seem to notice.
It turns out that he is Birch, the man that I had been looking for. He invites me into his lab and I don't refuse the offer to get a look at what's going on. The laboratory is filled with crude machines, all of which appear to be designed solely to facilitate the beast enslavement process.
Still, as a token of his appreciation for the dog incident, Birch does offer something useful.
He explained that the lizard's species was "MUDKIP," and that if I didn't feel like naming it, I could refer to it by its species name, and that this was common practice all over the country. I recognized that old interrogation trick immediately: dehumanizing targets and desensitizing those who have to work with them. No. I refuse to go that far. This MUDKIP will have a name.
I tucked Steve and his prison into my backpack while the Professor kept talking. After some more rote babble about battling and war, he dismissed me:
"May?" That's right. His daughter. The one he's got convinced that captivity is friendship. I decline the offer and tell him that I'll be fine with Steve at my side.
As soon as I'm outside and out of his sight, I attempt to release Steve into the wild. But as I suspected, Steve's species has been altered and domesticated so much that he only seems confused and refuses to go.
"Mudkip," Steve says forlornly, and I understand. He is telling me a tragic tale about his ancestors and himself, products of a great social machine, as I am. Displaced from it with no one to tell us what to do or where to go, we're lost, searching for a place in a society that has no room for us except exactly back where we started. I tell him I understand his fear, but that he is free now and will no longer be a tool of war.
That said, I ask him if he will aid me in my mission to uncover the conspiracy beneath all these Pokemon nations and reveal it to the world. "Mudkip," Steve says, and climbs in and hides in my backpack. It's not a yes, but the small lizard seems too tired and confused at its unexpected freedom to do much more. I understand that, too. When he is ready to talk, he will talk.
Just then, Mei Ling calls over the codec, informing me that the town guard is just about to switch. I rush for the north exit, making it there just in time to pass through before another soulless cultist blocks my path. "Petalburg Gym..." I say, staring down the route and off into the distance.
I get the feeling that this mission will be a long one.