I was awoken at 4am by the shrill call of my alarm clock. It was a gift I received several years ago but had sat unused on my desk until yesterday when my mother had advised I set the time. I was glad I did because today was the day I had arranged to shadow the Vermilion Gym Leader, Lieutenant Surge. Not used to such early mornings, I pulled myself out of bed and opened the curtains to a night sky. Blinking myself awake, I grabbed my keys and headed out the door, it was a long drive from my flat in South London to Vermilion and I had to be there for the start of Lt. Surge’s day.
As a gym leader, I had expected Lt. Surge to be busy and unapproachable by the media, but the publication I worked for had insisted I try. I had made a pithy attempt to reach out via email, seeming just interested enough that I could show it to my boss as proof that I had given it my all. Much to my surprise, Lt. Surge himself had replied that very same day welcoming the idea and suggesting several dates when he was free for my visit. I picked the one that seemed far away at the time, but like it always does, time raced up behind me and the day in the life of Lt. Surge that I was documenting was upon me.
It was a few hours on the motorway from London, which gave me plenty of time to run through the questions I would ask him. Dawn was just breaking when I finally arrived and the city of Vermilion was bathed in a beautiful sunrise. Lt. Surge had assured me in one of his numerous emails that parking was ample in the city and I shouldn’t have a problem finding a spot near his house. I followed his instructions through the main square, passing the other five houses in the city, two of which didn’t appear to have doors. There was no missing Surge’s house, the letterbox outside was littered with bullet holes and painted with the chevrons denoting a certain military rank.
I sidled up to the door with notepad in hand, determined to make the best of this opportunity, and I rapped on the door.
“Enter!” called a voice from inside. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the inside of the house but I have to admit to being taken aback, it was less of a domicile and more of an army barracks for one, a few pictures or souvenirs of electric pokemon adorned the shelves, but they were surrounded on all sides by various helmets, camouflage netting, and automatic weapons. Despite this, I persevered towards the source of the grunting emanating from deep inside the house, past the kitchen and the lounge, I reached some kind of workout station and found Lt. Surge putting in the hard morning graft. He was doing some sit-ups on a yoga mat, when I came in, with his famous Raichu holding his feet down.
“Hello, Mr Surge.” I started. The Raichu looked at me disapprovingly.
“That’ll be Lieutenant Surge, please.” Surge replied. “I didn’t serve three terms to be called ‘Mister’.”
“Of course, I apologise Lieutenant. I’m Callum Gordon, from Unchained Mag. I’m here for the interview?” He hadn’t ceased his sit-ups so I thought better than to go for a handshake.
“Nice to meet you, Callum. You’ve caught me right in the middle of one of my three daily workouts, you’ll have to forgive me.” He then shot me a look that seemed to say ‘No big deal’.
“No, don’t let me interrupt you. I’m here to shadow you on a normal day, just go on about your routine as if I wasn’t here.”
I was no slouch, but for all I had heard about this man, he put my morning routine to shame. I would normally shovel down some Weetabix and maybe go for a run if I had time, but Surge followed his sit-ups with a half hour of weights, before a bowl of overnight oats and fruit for breakfast. When I thought he was done there, he proceeded to break into a half hour of boxing practice, and 10 miles on the treadmill. An ample amount of time to start asking my questions.
“You’re certainly staying in good shape, Lieutenant Surge. This is an average morning for you?”
“You bet! Different exercises every day though, gotta switch it up, keep the body on its toes, literally, ha!” He laughed. I laughed too. Not out of genuine mirth, but it seemed like the safest thing to do.
“And how long have you been doing this? A few years?” I followed up with.
“A few years?! Ha!” He laughed again, I pretended to make a note to seem busy, I felt like I should laugh again but was wary of setting a precedent. “I haven’t had a lie-in in thirty years, kid. This is nothing compared to what we went through every day in the war.”
I bit my tongue, I had been warned about this. I wasn’t new to the World of Pokemon, while this was my first time in Vermilion, I had been to Kanto on holiday several times, a few of my old friends from journalism school even lived in Cerulean, one town over. In all that time, I’d never heard anything about a war in this region, I had asked my old friends to ask around when I learned that I would be interviewing Lt. Surge, just to set all doubt to rest, and they had come back, asked all manner of people, and no one corroborated Surge’s version of events. There had been a few gangs, one or two acts of domestic terrorism, but the World of Pokemon was in an era referred to as the Pax Kanta, there hadn’t even been an organised military force in living memory.
Lt. Surge had noticed my silence and glared down at my notepad. I quickly wrote down ‘Interesting war’ to placate him and moved the conversation on to what exercise his pokemon did.
After the ten miles, he alighted from the treadmill and informed me he was going for a shower, whipping his towel at my buttocks as he passed. I took this opportunity to nose around his house and my first port of call was the trophy room. In the most prominent positions were his accomplishments as a pokemon trainer, a large, impressive trophy was the centrepiece. I immediately recognised it as the Pokemon League trophy, the pinnacle of any trainer’s career. A few smaller trophies framed it on either side, regional competitions that must have been a formality for Lt. Surge in his prime. On the wall above the Pokemon League trophy was a plaque, with the same Pokemon League emblem on it, granting him the status of officially recognised gym leader. I had heard from a private source, that it was one of the institution’s greatest regrets. I poked through the trophies at the front to what looked military medals laid out behind them. The first one I picked up shocked me, it was genuine gold, with a silk ribbon attached that seemed very prestigious, I looked closer at the inscription. Kanto Bowling League, Best Effort. Ouch. An impressive quality for a token bowling medal, I noted. The next medal I picked up worse was much more immediately fraudulent, I thought I had broken it when the medal came up without its ribbon, until I realised the ribbon was just painted on the surface and the ‘medal’ I had picked up was actually just a chocolate coin.
I quickly replaced the coin and made my way upstairs. Lt. Surge’s shower was still in full flow, and I took the chance to investigate the clothes he had laid out on his bed. A green tank top, camo cargo trousers, black boots. A common outfit to be seen on the lieutenant, I was told. I picked up the dog tags next to the boots that I had heard about. NOVELTY TAGS /// NOVELTY TAGS. The veneer of his attempt to steal valour appeared to be paper thin. I heard the water of the shower terminate and darted back downstairs to the breakfast table.
After Lt. Surge was down and dressed, we made the short walk downtown to open his gym. I checked my watch, the time was just past 9 o’clock, and the townspeople were just starting to paint the landscape with the colours of their day.
“Morning, Joy.” Lt. Surge chimed to the nurse as she walked past to the Pokemon Centre with a cup of coffee and a pastry.
“Oh hello, Lieutenant. Lovely day, today.” Joy replied uninterestedly.
“A lot of people respect me in this town, you’ll see that with most gym leaders.” He said to me. “I think my military service grants me a bit more of an aura of prestige compared to the likes of Brock. But everyone around here feels they can still approach me and ask for help, and that kind of community is not something to be taken for granted in this modern world.”
“Do a lot of people come to you for help then?”
“Not often, but they know they can, that’s the point.”
I nodded my agreement and the rest of the walk passed without any more chat. There was an interesting-looking man pottering around a small plot of land with his Machop near the gym. What strange customs they have here when a man can take what is essentially a little boy out to a construction site and make him break rocks. We entered Surge’s gym, switched the lights on, and made our way to the far end, Surge pressed another switch and a constant stream of electricity came to life, blocking the path from the rest of the gym to us.
“How gauche!” I remarked. “What’s the energy bill like for this place?”
“It’s a nightmare, runs me about ₽5000 a day. I’ve written to the council so many times asking for solar panels on the roof. But they’re worried it might look gawdy to the neighbours and people ‘like seeing the classic roof a gym’! Don’t get me started.”
“Have you considered not having those on when there’s no challengers in the gym?” I queried. Lt. Surge looked straight ahead, perhaps he had not heard me over the sound of the electricity, but I doubt it.
Throughout the next hour, official gym trainers started to filter in and take their places, like Surge, they would stand perfectly still, not talking amongst themselves. When there were three of them in there, I turned to Surge, still statuesque himself.
“So, what do you do here at the gym?”
“We wait for trainers from around the country to challenge us to a pokemon battle. And if they make it to me and beat me, they are awarded the Thunder Badge.”
“Okay, that’s quite cool.” I pretended to make a note in my pad. I knew how gyms worked, I’m not simple. I raised my pen to my mouth, as if pondering a problem. “And what do you do if no trainers come to challenge you?” Once again, Lt. Surge didn’t reply, remaining still, as the hum and crackle of electricity covered the silence.
Several hours went by with no further interruption to the stasis. I had sat down on the floor by Surge at this point and flitted between doodling and staring out the window.
“Do you ever take your pokemon out of the pokeballs and let them hang around or play?” I asked.
“No, they need to stay in there in case I have to fight.”
Another hour went by. I had given up on any pretence of professionalism and was listlessly scrolling on my phone.
“Lt. Surge?” I looked up at him, he looked down. “Can I ask you about your shoulder patches?” I gestured to the army jacket hanging up behind him.
“Ask away, kid.”
“Okay, well, I was just on Wikipedia, looking at ranks and what they mean. And I saw that you have two chevrons on your shoulder…” He was looking very carefully at me, I proceeded even more carefully. “Like, I would have guessed that that was the symbol for a lieutenant but it says here that that’s a corporal, apparently it’s something completely different for a lieutenant.”
“Let me see that!” A micro-expression of panic appeared on his face, before he threw my phone back at me. “This is classic gotcha journalism! I would have expected better from you, Graham.” I decided against correcting him on my name. “You think when we were in the trenches, holding onto our helmets, knee-deep in our own piss, getting bombed to shit by the enemy… you think we were concerned about getting the right kind of patches on our arm?! I can tell you’ve never served.” One of the gym trainers looked over. I felt I had touched a nerve somewhat. I hadn’t heard him swear before and it startled me. It was only then that I realised I hadn’t heard anyone swear in the World of Pokemon before and it was very jarring. I changed the subject.
“Must be getting towards lunchtime now. Where do you normally go?”
“We don’t stop to eat lunch here. We’re open all through the day, we have to be accessible trainers.”
“For real?” I asked, my stomach practically growling at him.
“Yes!” He bit back, I decided not to press the issue as all the gym trainers were now staring at us. One gave me a sympathetic smile.
“I might interview some of your trainers while we wait then.” The silence that followed seemed to grant me permission so I scarpered across the floor and ducked beneath the electricity gate, wondering how many challengers thought to try that method of accessing the gym rather than solving some obnoxious puzzle.
I sidled up to the trainer that smiled at me and started asking him some questions. A sailor by the name of Dwayne, it transpired.
“A sailor? Do you know Surge from the navy or something then?” I asked. He glanced back at Surge, behind the electricity gate.
“Look, don’t push the lieutenant thing too hard. He’s harmless enough, but when you question his credentials, it’s the only time he gets really angry. We’ve all learned to just knuckle under and ignore it.”
“Do you think that’s ethical? To let him go about pretending he fought in some war that never happened?”
“I don’t know. But this is the easiest way, trust me.” He shrugged.
“Do you like this job?”
“Well, it pays quite well, it’s not too- Oh my God!” With his eyes on the door, Dwayne had been interrupted by the unexpected sight of trainer entering through the door. He marched straight ahead and was stopped by the first trainer, I dashed back behind the electricity gate to Lt. Surge. A battle was about to happen, and I wanted to stay well clear.
Lt. Surge hadn’t adjusted his pose at all, but he cocked an eyebrow as the trainers before him launched into battle. Surge’s gym trainer had opted for a Magnemite, and it was a close battle but this challenger and his Nidoking triumphed as Surge watched on. His fingers were twitching now, next to the pokeballs on his belt, he seemed antsy and keen for a fight. The challenger and his Nidoking progressed onto the next gym trainer, Sailor Dwayne, and geared up for another bout. Unfortunately, Dwayne made quick work of him and sent the man back out the door, dragging his Nidoking behind him. Surge’s head dropped, he stayed still.
The silence returned and another few hours passed by without incident. As the sunset spewed through the window, I considered that this hadn’t been the riveting day in the life of a gym leader that I had expected. Just when I was starting to do the maths of what time I would be getting home if I left now, the doors of the gym burst open again. This a time, a young boy, no older than ten, was silhouetted against the coastal sun behind him. Lt. Surge barely suppressed a snort, which I took as an indication that I shouldn’t be getting my hopes up. The first trainer’s Magnemite fell to this boy and his Primeape, but I had learned not to get any hope from this. I watched on as he followed the same path as the man earlier and encountered Dwayne. But this boy pulled out an Ivysaur and defeated not one, but two of Dwayne’s Pikachus, Surge’s eyes widened at this. The last gym trainer, a gentleman with a cane, was all that stood between this little runt and the gym leader.
“You might have defeated Dwayne’s Pikachu easily, but can you defeat… my slightly stronger Pikachu!” The gentleman shouted in a surprisingly stern voice. Unsurprisingly, this third Pikachu didn’t prove any more of a test to this kid and the electricity gate between him and Lt. Surge shut off. That’s good for the energy bill, I privately thought, hopefully this fight lasts a while.
I stepped out of the way of the battlefield as the trainer walked past, giving me a very ‘who are you?’ kind of look. He wordlessly approached Lt. Surge, who finally clicked into gear and started talking. The words came so automatically to him, it was as if he had all day to think about what he was going to say, weird that.
“I tell you, kid, electric pokemon saved me during the war!”
This seemed to confuse the kid, who looked back at us with a perplexed expression. Dwayne shrugged apologetically as Surge continued his diatribe.
“They zapped my enemies into paralysis! The same as I’ll do to you!”
I gasped, did he just threaten to paralyse a child? I didn’t have time to call him out though because in front of my eyes, the battle had begun! Lt. Surge threw out a Pikachu that immediately looked as if it had been waiting all day for this moment! The kid sighed at the fourth Pikachu and threw out his trusty Ivysaur. Unfortunately, this restless Pikachu didn’t get much time to stretch his legs before the Ivysaur knocked it out in its first hit. Surge summoned Pikachu back to its living tomb, to await the next challenger. Next up was a Voltorb that the Ivysaur made similarly quick work of. Surge looked panicked, after waiting all this time, he was going to lose so soon. He kissed the last pokeball for luck and sent out Raichu. The kid was unfazed, he commanded his Ivysaur like a seasoned pro and soon the Raichu was lying in a heap on the floor.
Surge looked despondent, he must have been very upset to lose. The kid waited for Surge to say something.
“You… shocked me!” Surge said robotically, a single tear rolled down his cheek. He granted the challenger a Thunder Badge wordlessly, who took it and ran out of the gym, clearly eager to get out of this situation. The gym trainers returned to their positions, careful not to make eye contact with their dethroned leader. I had to do something, this was too uncomfortable.
I approached Dwayne.
“Hey, can I borrow a pokemon, please?” I had never fought before, but we couldn’t end the day like this. Dwayne handed me his worse Pikachu and I strolled over to Lt. Surge.
“Excuse me, lieutenant.” He looked at me. “I’d like to challenge you. I think my readers would love to hear about the first person experience of a battle with a war hero.”
“I’m not a hero. Donny, Alf, Schmitty, they were the real heroes, may they rest in peace.” He looked to the sky and then gestured to the photos on the wall behind him, which were clearly just three photos of Ollie North from different angles. “Nevertheless, I’m not one to refuse a challenge.” And he drew his pokeballs.
Unsure of the proper etiquette, I wound back and threw Dwayne’s ball at the ground, to my relief, the Pikachu popped out of it. Surge did the same with his Raichu.
“Ummm, errrr…” I stammered. I had seen battles in the anime, but in the game the players take turns, was it my turn or not? “Pikachu… use thu- hmmm, or maybe-…” As Pikachu awaited my instructions obediently, Lt. Surge took his opportunity.
“Raichu, use shock wave!” The Raichu mercilessly fried my Pikachu to its core, I think it was unconscious immediately, but the move carried on for a good four or five seconds anyway.
“Tango down!” Lt. Surge called to his Raichu, with a hint of pride in his voice. “Mission accomplished.” I agreed, I had to be back in time to write up a first draft for my editor.
“Great battle, lieutenant.” I shook his hand, stepped back and saluted. He saluted back. “That should be enough for my editor. I’ll be off now, it was a fantastic experience to meet you.”
“10–4, soldier, it’s been a pleasure.” He replied, as I turned away. “Watch your six out there.”
I didn’t know what that really meant, if anything, but I appreciated the sentiment nonetheless as I walked out into the Vermilion sunset. I may not have met a bona fide war veteran, but I had met one hell of a gym leader, and that’s what really mattered.
I guess he’ll always be a hero to me.
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