On the fourth morning of the cruise, the ship stops by the northernmost of the Sevii Isles so people can shake off whatever cabin fever they might have before the return trip to Vermilion. Knot Island is long and thin, with a massive, dormant volcano called Mt. Ember hogging most of its landmass at the northern end. The port at its southern end is highly focused on tourism, with lots of restaurants, hotels, and offers of guided trips to the mountain or the other Sevii islands.
Red and Leaf spend most of their time ashore by exploring Treasure Beach, so called because the tides often bring in pearls, shells, scales, or other valuables from the unusually high number of aquatic pokemon around the island. There are people who scour the beaches as a second job or profitable hobby, but most tourists are required to stay relatively near to the town to avoid wild pokemon, which means the area has been mostly picked clean. Since Red and Leaf have their pokemon to protect them, they move farther along the coast. Crimson flies above them looking for danger while their other pokemon help them dig, with varying degrees of success.
Luckily no wild pokemon attack them, and Red’s just happy to spend time with his newly evolved pokemon. Pikachu is incredibly fast compared to when he was a pichu, able to dash from the shoreline to the tall grass beyond the sand and back before Red can call out a command to return. They break up the digging with occasional training exercises, and even Leaf seems happy to do things like target practice again. It takes Red almost an hour to get used to Pikachu’s stronger and more accurate electric bolts, but isn’t sure how much of that may have to do with the difference of the beach’s air humidity.
After a few hours they manage to find a tiny pearl that some shellder spat out, as well as a small pocket of ruby “star sand,” the deteriorated remains of staryu and starmie gems that often find their way to shore. It’s not much given the time investment, but upon seeing Leaf’s sad expression when she carefully scoops the ruby grains into a pouch, Red manages to cheer her up a bit by suggesting they give the money from selling it to Aiko’s ranch. Eventually they return to town to try one of the restaurants there for lunch before they head back to the ship. Since it’s technically off the ship, Red orders food without any pokemon in it, which also seems to cheer Leaf up. They spend most of the meal talking about what other options there are for tasty, pokemon-free salads and pastries.
Afterward they head back to the ship, and Red tries calling Bill to see if he has anything to say about the psychics on the cruise. The inventor doesn’t answer, as usual, so he calls Ayane next.
“It’s not unusual for us to keep details about jobs to ourselves,” she says, and Red can hear the frown in her voice. “But that does seem like a context where it wouldn’t be as big a deal as you’re reporting. Do you have any reason to believe something criminal or wrong is happening?”
“No,” he admits. “It’s just a feeling. Have you ever been asked to come on one of these?”
His teacher laughs. “No, Red, I’m afraid I’m not quite as renowned as to be hired by the sorts of people on the Cruise Convention. But plenty of businesses employ psychics to help in their negotiations and to tell if they’re being influenced when they know other psychics will be around. Your plan to talk to the ship’s captain seems reasonable, but I wouldn’t start throwing accusations around without something more concrete to report.”
Red thanks her and says goodbye, then turns to Leaf, who’s on the phone with his mom.
“Uh huh. Yeah.” She notices he’s free, and says, “Hang on, here’s Red.”
He takes the phone from her. “Hi Mom!”
“Red, can you repeat what Mr. Silph said to you?”
Red blinks, her tone forestalling any questions he wants to ask. Instead he just recalls the conversation as best he can.
When he finishes, she lets out a breath. “Okay. And just to be sure, he came to you, right? Was there any reason to believe that he might have known you were on the boat before he arrived?”
“I don’t… think so,” Red says, trying to remember what might have hypothetically tipped Mr. Silph off. He turns to Leaf. “You didn’t post about us coming online, did you Leaf?”
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I thought about it, but decided not to drive up expectations in case I wasn’t able to write something. I… did tell someone at Aiko’s ranch, a guy named Adom, but I don’t think he would have told anyone, since he told me something about the cruise in confidence.”
“I heard her. So there’s one potential source, aside from Bill himself. I’ve never met him, do you think it’s something he might have done?”
Red closes his eyes and tries to model Bill as best he can. What does he want? Why did he send us here? What purpose do we serve in being here? He doesn’t know enough, it’s all speculative. “I can’t think of anything, but… I mean, the two probably do business together. Mr. Silph might have asked if Bill was coming, and he told him we were instead?”
“Yes, that’s what I was afraid of.” The tension in his mom’s voice adds worry to Red’s confusion. He can’t imagine what his mom is so concerned about, but she’s not the type to worry needlessly, and clearly she has some information he doesn’t. “And he hasn’t talked to you again since that first time?”
“No. What’s going on, Mom?”
“It’s a long story, but the less you know the better, from what Leaf told me about all the psychics on the ship.”
Red’s hand tightens on the phone as protective anger creeps up his temples. “You think he’s trying to get to you somehow, through me?” He acted so friendly, too…
“Maybe not explicitly. Just stay calm and avoid him as best you can for the next few days. Can you do that for me?”
“Of course. Sorry if I said the wrong thing to him—”
“No, hon, I’m sure you didn’t, and you couldn’t have known either way. I could have told you earlier… though maybe it’s best that I didn’t after all. I’m sorry you’re getting caught up in this.”
Red feels curiosity warring with his sense. She just said that the less he knows the better, and he’s still itching to know more. “It’s okay,” he says after a moment.
“Does that mean you won’t try to pry into it yourself?”
Red is acutely aware that the last time they met in person she was berating him for breaking a promise to her. She’s not using the word, but she doesn’t have to. “You can tell me when the cruise is over though?”
“Yes, and I will. I was planning to soon anyway.”
“Okay, then.” Silph probably has a psychic constantly in his mind to let him know if another tries to invade it anyway.
“Thank you, Red. Just enjoy the rest of your cruise as best you can. I love you. ”
“Love you too, Mom.” He hands the phone back to Leaf, who says goodbye shortly after, looking as troubled as him. “Well? What else do you know about all this?”
“I promised I wouldn’t say, Red, plus the psychics…”
Plus the psychics. Meaning she promised in a context separate from knowing about them. But he’s sure she has her reasons, and slowly lets the anger go as he breathes out. “Alright, fair enough.”
Leaf looks a bit surprised. “Really?”
Red smiles and starts looking through his phone directory again. “I’ve found that trusting you is pretty easy, in general. Come on, let’s see how Blue and Aiko have been doing.”
Turns out, not so well.
“Oh, no!” Red hears Leaf exclaim, hand over her mouth as she listens to whatever part of the story Aiko is on. “Are you… is everyone alright?”
Red himself is still in a mild state of shock as Blue finishes summing up what happened in the tunnels. “That… really sucks,” Red says, thinking of how much time and effort he and Blue put into training Kemuri back in Pewter. “I’m sorry, Blue. What about the girl who got hurt?”
“She’s set to undergo some more specialized treatment. We’re still waiting on updates to see how much she’ll recover.”
“Damn.” Red wants to say he’s sorry again, but it feels inadequate. I should have been there…
“I know what you’re thinking.”
“Do you?” Red glances at Leaf, who’s pacing restlessly with a concerned look on her face.
“You warned me to be careful. I should have been more prepared.”
“I wasn’t thinking that, actually. Just… wishing I could have helped.”
“Oh. Yeah, it would have been good to have you down there.”
Red isn’t sure how to respond to that. He wants to say sorry again, this time for not being there, but it would feel hollow, knowing that he’ll be going to train with Sabrina soon. Again he feels like he should say so, and again he balks at making the words real, not sure how to actually approach the topic given yet another example of what he’s risking if he leaves.
“How’s the cruise, anyway?” Blue eventually asks after the awkward silence spins on a while.
“Oh, uh, good,” Red says, relieved. “Some of the tech is really cool… oh shit, Blue I totally forgot, you guys haven’t heard anything yet, right? It hasn’t leaked?”
“What hasn’t leaked?”
So Red sums up the pokemon cloning tech demonstration, along with all the shortcomings, both admitted and imagined by Leaf.
“Blue? You there?”
“Yeah,” he says, sounding a bit dazed. “I’m here.”
Red grins. “How blown is your mind?”
“How long?” Blue demands. “How long before it’s ready? I… damn it, I already wiped Kemuri’s ball… why haven’t they already announced this?”
“I don’t think they know, yet.” Red notes his own surprise; he hadn’t expected Blue of all people to want to bring back his pokemon instead of get a new, top shelf mon. But after further thought, it makes sense: Blue has never wanted to be seen as taking an easy route. That he proves he has what it takes himself to train and raise the best pokemon. “Honestly, I’d be surprised if they even know what’s wrong. If it turns out to be trivial, maybe they’ll be ready in a year or two. If it turns out not to be, well… a decade, maybe a bit more?”
Blue lets a breath out. “Yeah. Alright, then. Still, this is going to throw the markets into chaos.”
“Not just pokemon markets, all of them.”
“Shit, yeah. Is there any way we can use that?”
“People are talking about which stocks to short sell, so maybe that. I’m not really sure how it works though: something about borrowing stocks, selling them, then buying them back when the price is down.”
“I’ll check with the others, and Gramps and Daisy, maybe someone will know how we can get in on it. Damn, I don’t have time for this now!”
“What’s going on?” Red asks.
“I’m getting ready to fight Leader Surge. Trained up my dugtrio, just seeing if I can get a last minute evolution out of Gon to cover for Kemuri’s spot on the team.”
Red hears the clipped, tense note in his voice. “Have you gotten the chance to talk to Surge yet?” he asks, trying to get the conversation somewhere more positive.
“No.” Dammit. “He’s either really busy or too above talks with random trainers at the gym. Either way, he’ll have to give me some face time after I beat him.”
Red grins. That’s more like it. “Well, good luck. I’d say I’ll be cheering you on, but I don’t think the ship’s net will handle streaming.”
“No sweat, just watch it later. I’ve got some ideas I want to test with you when you get back.”
Red opens his mouth, then closes it again. Just say it.
“You haven’t asked the others to try them out?”
“Different sets of skills. It’ll be too late to help with Surge, but I want to see if I can get my team to respond to stressed syllables on commands. What do you think?”
Huh. That would be hard for some pokemon with less acute sense of sound, but would really allow for more variation in each command’s specificity… “It sounds like a good challenge. But… Leaf can probably help with that more than I can, since it’s not necessarily combat related.”
“I’ve got another idea for her. Plus, you can use your powers to figure out when my pokemon are hearing different pitches, right?”
“I could, yeah.”
There’s another pause before Blue says, “Well, it was just an idea.” There’s a frown in his voice, and Red knows his own hesitation was clear. “It’s fine if you’ll be busy with something else.”
“I might be, yeah,” Red says slowly. He struggles one last time to explicitly say it, and fails. It seems this is the closest he can come for now. “I’ll let you know when I get back?”
“Alright, sure. Anyway, I gotta go. Enjoy the rest of the trip.”
“Sure. Good luck with the match, and say hey to Aiko for me.”
Red ends the call, and stares at the phone for a bit, wondering why it’s so hard for him to tell Leaf or Blue that he’s going. Should he take it as a sign that he’s not actually ready to leave, that he would regret the choice later? That there’s some part of him that doesn’t want to go? Except that’s not a new insight, he knows there’s a large part of him that doesn’t want to go.
Red feels his thoughts going in useless circles and contemplates getting his notebook out, but decides to check his messages and email instead while he still has some internet connection. Soon the boat announces that it’s preparing to sail again, and Red sees Leaf finally end the call as they make their way back over the docks together.
“Hey. Crazy stuff, right?” he asks.
“Yeah.” Leaf looks troubled, and Red assumes it’s about their friends almost dying underground until she says, “Red, Aiko reminded me of something I wanted to talk about, before we came on the cruise. She told me about you using your powers to remove your pokemon’s conditioning, and let them follow their battle instincts at just the right moments.”
“Yeah, Blue calls it sakki. It translates basically to ‘killing intent,’ which isn’t quite accurate for what I feel when I use it. That depends a lot on the pokemon…” He trails off as he sees her expression. “What about it?”
“I don’t understand how you could do something so reckless. Aiko was saying you’ve been careful, but all it takes is one slip up, and you could have your license stripped, or worse.”
“Oh, no, it’s not like that!” he says, smiling. He sees a flash of irritation on her face, and stops. “Come on, Leaf, you know how risk-averse I am. I wouldn’t do it if it was that dangerous! Like I said, it depends on the pokemon. I refused to use it with Charmeleon after he evolved because I wasn’t sure it was safe.”
“I know you’re sane, Red, I’m just concerned that you can’t actually know how dangerous it is, and the consequence if you’re wrong is too high. Don’t you think if that sort of thing was safe, other psychics would have thought of it by now?”
“We don’t know that they haven’t,” Red points out. “Battle Trainers are so secretive already, and a lot of psychics like to act all aloof and mysterious on top of that. A psychic battle trainer who figures it out would be twice as unlikely to tell anyone, they’d just want to keep the advantages it gives to themselves.”
“Did you at least reach out to Professor Oak or Psychic Ayane to see? Or Sabrina? She’d know if anyone would, right?”
Red hesitates a moment. “Not… yet, no—”
“Swords of Justice, not you too, Red!” Her hands cover her face. “Why are you keeping secrets now?”
Red feels a flare of indignation as he remembers how he specifically chose not to keep the ability to himself. “I’m not, there just wasn’t time! I told the others, didn’t I? That’s how you found out about it in the first place!”
“But none of them are psychic! And they’re battle trainers, none of them are going to tell you not to do it anymore!”
Invisible bands squeeze around Red’s chest even as his indignation grows. Why are they arguing again, he doesn’t want to argue with Leaf, even more than arguing with Blue or his mom it makes him feel wretched… “The way you are?”
“Yes, the way I am! I’m worried about you, Red, and Aiko, and whoever else you guys might test this thing on!”
“Leaf… I appreciate the worry more than you might believe, but really, you don’t know what it’s like, using it. I’m in their head the whole time, remember? Feeling what they feel. I started using it with Pikachu before he evolved, and he didn’t feel any kind of desire to kill, even in battle, it’s just a useful way of knowing when a good time to use an electric attack is. I did it again on the beach today, and there was no sense of… leashed violence or desire to kill anything, he was just thinking about how his electricity would act. What’s wrong with that?”
Leaf rubs her temples. “Nothing, but that’s one pokemon in some situations. I don’t want you to let your guard down and then get taken by surprise when some other instinct surfaces.”
“I know what to look out for. If my pokemon starts to want to attack a human or go for a kill, I’d just end the mental state to stop them.”
“And what if Aiko figures out a way to imitate it, but without whatever safety you might get from the mental link? It’s just a ridiculous risk to take, all for some advantage in trainer battles.”
Red frowns as he considers that. Does he actually trust others to use this kind of ability without a psychic connection? “I mean yeah, that could be a problem. I’ll talk to her about that too, if you want.”
“That’s not enough, not if you continue to use it. Even if she says okay, others might figure it out and try.”
“So… what, you do want me to keep it secret, now?” Red asks, bewildered.
Leaf makes a sound of frustration as they board the ramp leading back to the ship, causing one of the older cruise members to look over at them. She lowers her voice, though still sounds like she’s holding back a yell. “I don’t know! At the very least, you should ask Sabrina or your teacher from Cerulean.”
“Yeah, of course.” He could have brought it up with Ayane, but she’s not a trainer, and he’s going to be with Sabrina soon… “I was planning to, you know. Really.”
“Alright. But in the meantime, you’re way too confident about a risk that might get you labeled a renegade, just for the edge it gives you in a fight. Don’t you think it’s possible that getting into trainer battles may have warped your perspective a bit?”
She’d said the magic words: too confident. “Hang on, I need to process that.” Red pulls out his notebook and starts to write out the benefits of practicing the mental merge… no, specifically the sakki that arises in battle, as they reach the deck of the ship and find a table to sit at so they can watch the cast off. Waiters are circulating with beverages, and Red distractedly takes a glass of chilled juice as he works, nearly spitting it back out for being bitter instead of sweet. He sets it aside to concentrate, and after a minute shifts to outright goal factoring the decision as he starts to break it down into each piece of value he gets from it.
But it’s hard to focus, hard to tease apart each motivation on the spot. All he can really think of is that it makes him stronger as a trainer, and helps him learn about his pokemon. And… well, he enjoys the company too, the camaraderie. The challenge, coming up with new strategies, thinking about ways to beat theirs…
“You might be partially right,” he eventually says, leaning back in his seat and reaching for his juice again before remembering the taste. “But it’s not winning itself that I care about. It’s… There are a couple things, and I won’t deny that it’s exciting to use it in battle and pull off a win, but it’s not that I need the win, I just… it’s the craft of it.”
Leaf stares at him over her own fruity beverage. “The craft of turning your pokemon into a killing machine?”
“No! To… gah, I don’t know how to describe it.” Red taps his pencil against the page where he wrote some question marks. “It’s a creative thing, I think, and also a competence one. There’s just this rush when a plan comes together, you know? Being connected with my pokemon enough to know what they’re thinking, to be able to stop them when I need to, to judge the right time for changes in their mood, integrating all that into a strategy… I feel like I’m good at it, I mess up a lot but rarely the same way twice, and each new battle is like a new puzzle—”
“So play the sims!” Leaf exclaims, then glances around self-consciously and lowers her voice again. “Or figure out other skills they can do, like a Coordinator! Or just… keep battling but without this thing with your power. Why do you have to risk their lives, or others’ lives?”
“But that’s the other part of it,” Red says, voice lowered too. “We’re all risking our lives! If this is something that might help keep us alive at some point, I need to practice using it in fights.”
“But that sort of thinking could justify anything!” Leaf shakes her head and puts her drink down as she leans back in her chair. The expression on her face rends something in Red’s chest. “It’s no use. I thought… I don’t know, Red, I thought you understood, but you’re just like everyone else, even Aiko…” She sighs and covers her eyes with her palms. “Is it me? I know I’m not the only person in the world who feels like how we use our pokemon should matter too, but maybe I’m just fooling myself by trying to be a trainer too.”
Red feels like there’s an iron ball in his gut. He wants to insist that he is different, though clearly he’s not, or that there’s nothing wrong with her, but he can’t think of a way to show that rather than just say it. “Maybe if… if you try to explain again, from the bottom… like your base values, what you’re building from and why they matter?”
“It’s no use, Red. I think you just have to feel it yourself, or it won’t matter.”
Red’s not sure how to respond to that, and they sit in silence as the boat finally starts to move below them. Leaf lets her hands fall from her face, and Red relaxes slightly when he sees her eyes are dry. They watch the shore start to recede away from the ship, until the island and its mountain are just a part of the horizon. Her words keep running in Red’s head until he realizes the answer is right there in them.
Red turns to her. “So show me.”
Leaf glances at him, wary. “Show you?”
“The way you feel. Show me, while I’m reading your mood. We never tried me learning that trick you did with the abra, maybe that will help me understand your perspective better.”
“Well first of all, it’s not a trick,” Leaf says.
He makes a brushing off gesture. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. When I shift my mental state to match someone else’s, I actually feel what they do. Mental powers work by symmetry.”
Leaf looks suddenly speculative, which is much preferable to her despair or frustration. “I remember hearing you say something like that before. But it’s only temporary, right?”
He shrugs. “Sure, as temporary as any other emotion.”
“I mean, it doesn’t affect your worldview, your day to day life. You can feel sad if you merge with someone who’s watching a movie that makes them sad, but you won’t start feeling sad every time you watch that movie afterward… will you?”
Red opens his mouth, then closes it. “I… don’t know, actually. I doubt I’d feel what they feel every time, but I’ll still have the memory of their sadness, and might be able to experience it at least somewhat the way they do.” He grins. “This is something I really want to test, now.”
Leaf seems to grow excited too. “Okay, yeah, why not? Let’s see, the exhibits are starting in like ten minutes. Maybe tonight, after dinner?”
“Sure!” He returns her wave, then makes his way to the next presentation with some relief. He was worried they’d end the argument on a down note, but instead he’s going to get a unique opportunity to change his views on something. That’s normally enough to excite him on its own, but he can’t help also having a spring in his step at the thought that it might bring him and Leaf closer together. All he has to do is understand where she’s coming from, and maybe even help her better understand him too.
Leaf has a nagging sensation that she’s missing something.
It follows her all through the presentations that afternoon, causing her thoughts to keep circling back to the experiment she and Red are going to try. At times she’s elated: if there’s a way for Red to really, truly feel the way she does about pokemon, how could he go back to feeling the way he does now? He’d have to see how important it is to minimize their suffering.
But something about that train of thought bothers her, and she finally realizes what it is on her way to dinner, once she’s not trying to split her attention so much. Mental powers work by symmetry. Red already explained how powers are split by reception and projection; if he can mimic what she’s feeling in order to feel it himself, then what would stop him from projecting what he feels about pokemon so she has to feel it too?
Not that she thinks Red would do something like that… But it does mean that any sort of thought or mood altering that the powers facilitate must be temporary. The alternative would mean…
She looks up and sees Red waving at her from the corner of the dining hall. She goes to join him, and his smile fades as she sits down. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Red, have you heard anything about psychics being able to change how others feel about something permanently?” A chill works its way up her spine as she thinks of the way Giovanni (probably) set a psychic to read her thoughts (and possibly project moods onto her!) without her even knowing. “Sorry, better question; how do we know they don’t? Is there anything you can think of that would stop it?”
Red blinks. “Well, first off, I think others would figure that out. Even if there was some worldwide conspiracy among psychics, which, I mean, no one’s told me yet, there are also some people just psychic enough to notice when others are merging with their minds, and they’d have no reason to keep quiet.”
“Couldn’t they just make someone feel ambivalent about it?”
“They would have to feel ambivalent about it too, which they clearly don’t if they’re going out of their way to force it onto others. At best maybe, they could just spread the feeling that it’s a good thing to do? But changing how you feel about something isn’t the same as changing how you think, and psychics can’t give others amnesia, so people would notice their views suddenly changing…” He trails off, and she sees her worry start to reflect on his face. “Though… I guess if someone was able to do that, like if it was a unique power of theirs, we wouldn’t necessarily know about it. In both cases, it would depend how subtle the effect is, given the context it happens in.”
Leaf looks around. “Like if the psychic just hung out at the buffet and projected an enjoyment of a certain fruit, people could just naturally think they’re in the mood for that fruit.”
“Temporarily, that would work, sure. To make it permanent…”
Leaf watches Red’s expression as it shifts into his now-familiar ‘thinking face,’ and she smiles when he brings his fork to his mouth without realizing that most of the spaghetti on it fell off. Whatever Red’s other flaws might be, she appreciates how readable he is. He’s not just a bad liar, as the recent incident with the ship steward showed, but he expresses all his emotions so guilelessly that it’s clear he’s not even aware of how he wears his heart on his sleeve. There’s something uniquely pleasurable about interacting with someone whose honesty is paired with such openness. Even if there really is some massive psychic conspiracy out there, she knows Red wouldn’t be able to keep it from his friends if he ever finds out about it. “Operant conditioning?” she suggests.
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. If the psychic is craving that fruit themself, they can project that craving. The target eats the fruit, and assuming they like it… or maybe if the psychic is eating the fruit too they can project their enjoyment… I mean, it would be hard to do for multiple people all at once, but…”
“But the idea makes sense, right?” She feels icy fingers around her heart. “Forcing people to feel positive things until they associate them with whatever they’re doing, the same way we train pokemon…”
“It… doesn’t seem impossible.”
The two of them stare at each other for a moment. “How many psychics are here, again?” Leaf whispers.
“A lot. But it would require massive effort to do something like this. We’re probably being a bit paranoid,” Red says, though his voice is also lowered.
“Are we? Because even if it’s really hard to do, I don’t know if it’s possible to be paranoid enough about people who can literally change how you think and feel.” She sees his expression shift. “No offense, I know you would never do something like that, but you can’t expect everyone to have the same moral compunctions—”
“Wait.” Red starts eating faster. “If you’re that worried, we should talk more in our rooms.”
Leaf can hardly argue with that, after she’s the one that brought up the concern. She feels warmth inside at how willing he is to take the concern seriously, even if he’s skeptical, and tries to focus on the flavors of her food as she finishes eating, all too aware of how many other psychics may be around them. When they’re both done, she leads the way out of the dining hall, trying not to visibly hurry.
She feels a little better once they’re in the empty halls, but Red doesn’t start talking again, so she decides to wait until he deems it safe. He seems to relax once they near their rooms, and opens his mouth to say something when he stops suddenly. A second later she notices the note taped to their door, and watches him tug it off and flip it open.
“It’s from Paul,” Red says. “The captain isn’t available to talk to us, apparently, but the head steward can for a few minutes tomorrow morning.”
“Oh. Good enough?” Leaf still isn’t even sure what they should say to the captain anyway. “They probably just want to make sure we’re not wasting the captain’s time, first.”
“Yeah.” Red opens the door and leads the way into their mostly-reconstructed living room. “Which we might be.”
“Even considering what we were just talking about?”
Red sits on one of the couches, two hands rising to his head. One goes for his non-existent hat briefly, as the other runs its fingers through his hair. “To be clear, it’s not that I think people aren’t immoral enough to do something like that. I’ve been trying to imagine how it might actually be done, and the scale and effort required would just be immense.”
Leaf lowers herself into the seat across from him, tucking her legs under her and wishing she could summon Raff. “You’re still new to all this, Red. You can’t know what a really experienced or powerful psychic, or group of them, is capable of. I’m more curious to know why I haven’t heard people talking about this before. Like, not even psychic villains in movies or books do this.”
Red’s gaze drops to his folded legs. “Probably because the only way to stop it would be to kill all psychics.”
Leaf frowns. “That’s not…”
“Isn’t it? Really think about the consequences of what you’re saying being true. How do you think society would react? What possible solution could non-dark or non-psychics come up with that actually wards off that kind of fear?”
Leaf thinks for a few minutes, and Red lets her, eventually taking his notebook out to write in. How would she try to be safe from a threat like this? Write down all her major opinions and preferences, check over them every month? Write out events that might realistically change people’s preferences so she can track those that make sense? But people sometimes change their preferences for no apparent reason at all.
Leaf remembers hating hummus sometime between when she first tried it and after she stopped eating pokemon, until one day she tried some again and it tasted great. At the time she thought that one just had a really good recipe, but after that she enjoyed most brands to some varying degree. She also thinks about a show she watched before coming to Kanto. It was about a bunch of angsty teenagers who went to a special school for kids with magic powers, but kept whining about how empty their lives were when they could have whatever they wanted. At first she watched it to laugh at how terrible it was, but eventually she started to actually get invested in the story and enjoyed it, for the most part.
All of which is normal behavior that everyone probably experiences from time to time… except maybe it’s not, some of the time. Leaf doesn’t actually believe that some psychic employed by Big Hummus is going around singling kids out to make them change their tastes, but if she ever changes her mind about something that’s more important, she’d probably feel pretty paranoid if she knows that psychics could cause that change.
Leaf’s recently filled stomach churns as she thinks of the ways society would probably react to that knowledge. No psychic would be able to do business with someone without them being suspicious… or marry a non-psychic… and, yes, it’s even possible that they might get killed, depending on the culture. From what she understands, Kanto has a history of treating its psychics with something close to reverence; today they’re respected and valued beyond most other professions. Unova’s past treatment of psychics wasn’t nearly so rosy, and they’re much less high-status today.
“I don’t think a mass killing would happen,” Leaf says at last, and Red tucks his notebook away. “But I agree that it would definitely get dangerous for many, and there would be… social consequences.”
“Mmhm. So maybe some psychics can do this, but they all have a huge incentive to hide it if so. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First we should know if I can even change my own views permanently before we speculate about psychics changing someone else’s. And even if I can, that doesn’t mean others can. It might be unique to my way of thinking. Or my powers, which may be the same thing. And that still won’t mean I can change others’ beliefs or values.”
“I get it. But even just changing your own seems… creepy, to me, now that I’ve thought about it more. You’re not worried about suddenly changing who you are?”
Red shrugs. “Not really.”
“Not sure. I guess because I change all the time, and it’s only sometimes deliberate? And it’s not like I don’t know who I’m changing into, in this case: someone more like you.”
She stares at him, heat prickling her cheeks. “That’s… pretty flattering, Red. But if it’s that easy to just decide my values or perspective is better than yours, why not just… change them?”
“Well, what if I can’t? That’s the point of this, isn’t it? To see if there’s some extra feelings or something that would help me actually change my values in a way I normally can’t?”
“Sure, but this seems like more of a trick now. Is it really okay to force yourself to change?”
“Why wouldn’t it be, if I’m choosing it? If I’m stuck on some value that causes suffering, then hopefully at some point I realize it and that value loses its strength relative to one that helps me be more moral, but why not shortcut that process if I can? If some sociopath realized their lack of empathy was harmful, wouldn’t we be glad that they might want to take a pill and change, if they could?”
Leaf grins. “Are you trying to get me to argue against my own views?”
Red smiles. “No, promise.”
“Because, I mean, I certainly think that it would help you be more moral, don’t get me wrong… I just don’t get how you can make that decision about your own values. The idea of my values being changed like that is kind of scary, to me. Like I’m killing off a part of myself.”
“It is an interesting question about how one ‘decides’ on their ethics,” Red admits. “I guess it’s more about meta-ethics? Like if I think the change in views would make me have more moral beliefs, I might tweak one of my values in a way that my other values tell me would make me a better person. But why am I prioritizing some over others, so that they can gang up on it? Maybe that value is more important than I think, and once it’s tweaked, I might change a different one that I normally would not have been okay with changing. Even if it only happens two or three times, I might end up changing myself to someone that my original self would find abhorrent.”
“See, exactly! You definitely shouldn’t try something like this if that’s even a possibility. If you can change your values through reason, rather than brute-forcing it, you should. Otherwise, how would you actually know it’s a better moral position?”
“Values don’t always run on logic, though,” Red says, shrugging a shoulder. “Some are just… formed out of whatever basic experiences people have. Take the sociopath example again. Someone who doesn’t empathize with suffering is going to have a harder time understanding why suffering is bad. At best they can just recognize consequences to it that may interfere with other values they have. What if I just have faulty wiring?”
Leaf shakes her head. “There’s something wrong with those people, though, you can’t compare something like this to that. I mean, by wrong I mean ‘by my values,’ obviously, but I also mean on a somewhat objective scale?” She frowns. “It sounds like I should feel guilty about saying it, and I do, a little, but… if there’s something different in their mental wiring or the chemical mix that influences how they think or experience the world compared to 99.99% of other people, we can recognize that as the fault of biology. Any difference isn’t bad, again by my values—”
“I get it,” Red says with a grin. “You don’t have to keep repeating ‘by my values.'”
“Okay. But I just mean that it’s not the difference itself that I think is bad, but the kind of difference this in particular is. It’s just such a huge breakdown of a core experience in society, which leads to some pretty important values. As long as we have that common ground of basic values to draw on, particularly things like… Anti-Suffering, and Happiness, and Truth, and Logic…” Leaf trails off, thinking about the people who argued against her Pewter Museum article. They would say that they valued those things… “Well, we’ll still probably disagree about a lot of stuff, but on a long enough timeline, with enough resources and discussion, we should be able to reach agreement eventually. If there aren’t other values that take precedence, I mean. And I don’t think there are, for us. I don’t think there’s something missing in you.”
Even as she says it, she feels a bit of doubt inside. Maybe there is something missing in Red… but if there is, it’s missing in the vast majority of people, and the only reason it seems more clearly missing in him is because he’s so reasonable otherwise. Leaf remembers the discordant feeling she had after realizing that Aiko doesn’t eat pokemon despite being a trainer, and wonders again if there’s just something wrong with her own self. Maybe from their perspective, there’s something missing or warped in her. She doesn’t think she values humans any less just because she also cares about minimizing pokemon suffering, but objectively, she’s less willing to trade-off one for the other, so it seems pretty obvious that she does. Which… may be bad, actually.
“Well, that’s nice to hear,” Red says with a smile. “But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t try this experiment. We don’t even know if it would permanently change anything, and I’m okay with risking it, for something like this. Worst case scenario is that I think more like you, a little, and that doesn’t seem so bad.”
Leaf frowns as she tries to put into words the twisted feelings of worry and danger she senses about all this. If she’s wrong to feel the way she does, she’d hope that reason and evidence would be enough to shift her views. If Red actually changes his values like this… what would stop her from just as easily changing her own if subjected to the same thing? “Why not try something less core, then? Like the fruit thing, just to see if it works?”
“I mean, we can, but… I really think it’s alright, Leaf. If it was this easy to mess up, Ayane would have told me about it. I’m just going to be sampling how you feel, for now, the same as I’ve done with her. Not trying anything new or fancy.”
That… does sound reasonable. Leaf lets her breath out. “If you’re sure…”
“I am. Trust me.”
Leaf nods. She does trust Red. Even if he sometimes thinks in ways that she finds frustrating or lacking in empathy, she mostly believes that he’ll find the right answer eventually, and recognize it when he sees it. “Alright. Here goes, then.” She repositions herself to be more comfortable, then closes her eyes and tries to focus on how her brain feels, then how her emotions feel, trying to detect when he starts.
She still hasn’t noticed anything by the time Red quietly says, “Okay, ready.”
“You’re merged with me?” she asks, voice also quiet. She suddenly feels a tension in the air, nothing supernatural, just an intimacy that makes her feel oddly vulnerable. “You can feel what I feel?”
“Yeah. I don’t feel anything different, though.”
“Well, what do you feel?”
Red is quiet, and she peeks under one eyelid to see his expression. It seems normal, but also slightly flushed. “Nervous?” he says at last.
“Oh. That might be me, then, yeah. Did you want me to start?”
“Yeah. Just show me how you feel about your pokemon.”
“Alright.” It’s easiest to imagine Joy first, with her big blue eyes, her white and pink fur, the happiness she always shows at cuddling. Leaf smiles as love for her pokemon fills her, and soon she’s thinking of Raff too, with his toothy grin, and Crimson, flying so fearless and free, and Alice’s floppy ears.
She almost forgets that Red is even there until she hears him sigh. “Wow. That’s… nice.”
Leaf grins, eyes still closed. “Isn’t it?” She thinks of her companions’ pokemon, from Pikachu with his timid explorations to Maturin’s bold bids for snacks or affection, to Eevee’s energetic drive to keep up with the other, more experienced pokemon. Leaf’s thoughts briefly touch on Kemuri and the others who she never met that got killed or hurt in the tunnels, but she shies away from that pain, instead focusing on all the other pokemon out there, with all their quirks and mysteries, all their quiet, private lives, all the fascinating wonders of unique biology that they are. Even the dangerous ones, and they’re almost all dangerous by default, are living beings whose suffering is sad, and could be made to live happier lives with human assistance. Soon she feels an endless ocean of warmth inside her, a swirling cauldron of wonder and joy and gladness that she can tap at any time by just thinking of the shining future that may some day come, when every living thing is free to live without suffering.
Red doesn’t say anything this time, merely letting out a long, slow breath as they bask in the feeling together. For a moment she imagines what it’s like for him, not feeling this way. She always thought it must be lonely to only love a few things, a practical rounding error in terms of absolute numbers of living things. Like whole swathes of the world are just lacking in color or beauty…
Leaf’s eyes fly open as Red makes a strange choked sound, and something in his expression clears as he relaxes. “Sorry! Are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine.” His eyes open, and after a moment he smiles, looking a bit dazed. “That was… really nice.”
She examines him for a moment, but he really seems genuinely happy about what he felt, and eventually she smiles too. “Right? So how do you feel about pokemon now, if you think back to that feeling?”
“One sec.” He closes his eyes, and she watches as he breathes deep, then lets it out. “I can feel… some of it. But it’s a memory of a feeling, not the feeling itself. Like remembering that I used to enjoy roller coasters.”
“Oh.” Leaf can’t help but feel disappointed, even though part of her is glad that he didn’t permanently alter himself that easily.
“Hang on, though, I’m going to see if I can recreate it.”
“And that’s safe?”
“Yeah, like I said I did this with Ayane all the time, mimicking states of mind… this is just an unusual one in some ways…” He trails off as he continues to breathe, eyes closed.
Leaf watches him a moment, curious and mildly worried as his face starts to twitch in minor frowns. After surreptitiously checking the time and letting a few minutes pass, her curiosity wins out. “Well?”
“It’s not… really working…”
“I’m trying to mimic the state of mind, but other feelings get in the way. I’ve never had that happen before. It’s hard to focus without letting them mix.”
Leaf frowns. “Other feelings?”
“They’re a bit hard to explain. There’s some grief, like usual when I use my powers a lot, but it’s just a small part of it.”
“Well, can you project it, so I can feel what it’s like?”
Red opens his eyes in surprise. “Uh. I don’t think I should. It’s not… pleasant.”
If he’d said it was dangerous, that would be one thing… but unpleasant she can handle, if it means better understanding what he’s going through, and what obstacles are in the way of seeing eye to eye. “Hey, you risked having your values altered by me. I think it’s fair to see what you’re going through when trying to recreate how I felt.”
“Uh. Okay, then. Starting…”
The psychic connection is felt immediately, this time, like some giant drain got unplugged deep inside that endless ocean of joy in her, its waters rapidly receding from the shore of her thoughts as it gets sucked down.
She barely has time to panic before more sensations are there, the drain revealing jagged rocks that don’t translate into words, but in flashes of insight and concepts that only roughly bring up errant thoughts about how pokemon hurt each other all the time, they hurt humans, they killed Red’s dad, killed Blue’s parents, they’re not people, they’re just biological machines, they’re monsters—
She starts feeling a sort of creepy-crawly disgust, a fear of something alien, and suddenly imagines bug pokemon, all the most vicious and creepy ones, until she physically flinches.
—they’re wondrous but dangerous, they feel sensations but they don’t care about anything, they can’t, any joy they feel around us they were conditioned to feel, they’re Other—
The ocean is almost gone, and rain falls in her head, down her cheeks, dark clouds of fear and anger and under it all there’s that grief—
“Stop!” Leaf says, voice strained, and she gets one last snapshot of feelings not her own, a horror at hurting someone incredibly precious, the sensation rapidly fading even as it leaves her with a glimpse of herself that shocks her, a tenderness and desire to be near her that utterly distracts her for the space of a breath.
Then the feelings seem completely gone, and Leaf opens her eyes to stare at Red, emotions mixing violently inside her. Anger, fear, disgust… is that really what he thinks of pokemon? Pity, grief, affection… there’s so much pain, there, she sensed it tingeing every thought. And that last thing… she feels butterflies in her stomach as she suddenly realizes what she sensed.
Surely she misread that? Red gets flustered from time to time, and she always thought it was cute how clearly unused to being around a girl his age he is… but that glimpse of how he saw her, far more idealized than how she sees herself, makes her suddenly second guess her usual perceptions. Leaf’s cheeks start to burn at the level of affection and esteem he holds her in. Had she really thought him an open book, if she missed something that big?
And despite the sharp disagreement in their philosophical differences, he admires her perspective. That came clear, even through the dark feelings.
She wishes she could say the same about his.
Red is looking down at his legs, chagrin clear on his face as he breathes steadily. “Sorry about that,” he says, not looking at her, and she wonders if it’s the grief he’s apologizing for, or if he understands what else she glimpsed. “It’s gotten a lot better lately, believe it or not…”
“Red,” she interrupts, putting her confusing feelings aside and taking a deep breath, trying to consider her next words carefully. “I… I think you need help… Your thoughts, they’re…” She almost says twisted, but she understands the root of that twist now, doesn’t she? Pity fills her as she imagines living with that grief every day, it’s a wonder he can find any joy and affection in pokemon at all… “They’re all colored by that loss, and I understand it, I think, a little anyway, but you can see that it’s not reasonable, can’t you?”
Red frowns, crimson gaze coming up to search hers. “I’m not sure what you mean…”
“I mean, have you considered that the… the loss of your dad, the trauma of that, may be what makes it so hard for you to care about pokemon? What makes you think of them as… ‘Other?'”
Red’s face clears. “Oh. No, it’s not what you think, that’s just how it always goes with my powers. The grief isn’t related to what we were thinking about.”
She stares at him. “You really believe that. That those feelings you had… the thoughts they translated to, things like pokemon just being biological machines, you think that’s normal?”
“I mean…” He’s frowning now, still not meeting her gaze for more than a heartbeat at a time. “I don’t know what ‘normal’ is in this context, but I don’t think it’s related to my dad, if that’s what you mean. I don’t hold all pokemon accountable for what happened to him.”
“Don’t you?” she asks, voice softening.
“No! The way I think about them is… I mean, it feels completely separate, like obviously it’s informed by tragedies like that, but it’s still built on… you know, rational basis, on observations, on what I value.”
But that would make it so much worse, she thinks, biting her lip to keep from saying it. “I don’t… think you’d necessarily be able to feel that, if that’s true or not, I don’t think you’d know that, that’s how trauma works, it… it exaggerates negative things…”
Red’s brow is drawn, his lack of understanding making her heart sink. “I’m telling you, that’s not how it is,” he says. “You’re just linking the two feelings because they seemed so entwined in the projection. Look, I’ll send you something unrelated—”
Red’s frown slips, and he looks ashamed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to… make you feel that…”
Leaf makes a conscious effort to relax. She hadn’t meant to yell… “No, that’s alright. I just don’t… want to feel it again right now, or anything remotely like it. And I believe you, that it’ll come across regardless of what the topic is. But… that doesn’t rule out the idea that they’re connected.”
Red looks frustrated, and also a little guilty, still, as he nods and suddenly gets to his feet. “Okay.”
“Okay?” She watches him go to where his shoes are, confused and nervous.
“Yeah. I get it. I’ll think it over.” He slips his sneakers on, and with a start she realizes that he’s leaving.
Leaf’s hands find each other, twisting as she wrestles with her worry about having hurt him. She didn’t mean to push him away… “Where are you going?”
“Nowhere. Just want to clear my head.” He still won’t look at her, even as he steps out the door and closes it behind him.
Leaf watches him go, unable to think of anything else to say. In truth, she could use some distance too. She knows it’s irrational to blame psychic powers for what Red’s going through, how his views were formed, just because it’s how she was made aware of them, or how he has to keep revisiting them. And she knows Red would never force that feeling on her. But she can’t help but wish in that moment that all psychics lost their abilities, if it was the only sure way to ensure he never feels the way that projection did again… and to ensure that she never has to either.
Red wanders through the halls, a violent stew of emotions causing a trembling somewhere in his stomach. His thoughts constantly dash around and collide, with a single refrain going around and around in different iterations.
I hurt her.
He passes by rooms where people talk and laugh, feeling like a ghost drifting by, untouchable by whatever is around him.
I made her feel bad.
Eventually his feet bring him up enough stairs that he emerges onto the deck of the ship.
I made her scared of me.
On the first few evenings of the cruise, the decks were often populated by attendees looking to enjoy the sun set over an uninterrupted horizon. Red goes to the eastern side so he can have the ship’s rails to himself. He barely notices the changes in the sky as the sun dips toward the water behind him, instead focusing on his breathing, on calming himself.
He screwed it all up. This week was supposed to be fun and educational, and a chance to get closer to Leaf. Instead they just keep having arguments, and now his final chance to bridge the difference in their views completely backfired. Instead all he accomplished was disgusting her and driving a wedge between them, all because he didn’t think to stop and recognize how his grief might feel to her, how unused to it she would be.
Irrational as it is, for a moment he wishes he didn’t have his psychic powers. If it meant undoing what had just happened, if offered at this second, he would give his abilities up to turn the clock back and take away whatever hurt he inflicted on her.
But that’s just childish. It’s not the fault of his powers, it’s his. He should have gone slower. Should have taken the time to examine what was so hard about mimicking her state of mind, recognized that his partition had weakened too much, insisted on waiting.
Instead Leaf asked him to show her how it felt, and he didn’t want to deny her.
And now she’ll probably never let me try anything like it again. Maybe just not anytime soon, but if the cruise ends and they still haven’t resolved this, if he leaves to train with Sabrina… he and Leaf will just keep drifting further apart. He knows they will, it feels like a branching timeline in his head, where one path leads to futures he’ll be forever barred from if he doesn’t get the chance to understand her better.
Why is he choosing to leave her? Leave all of them, that is? Blue and Aiko could have been killed in those tunnels. How can he help keep Leaf safe, keep them all safe, if he’s not with them? His goal factoring was done before he knew how close they’d come to dying without him even being aware. How could he risk going off with Sabrina and finding out second-hand that they… that she…
Tears prickle at his eyes as he feels the ache of losing his dad, mixed with the feeling of wanting to be with Leaf, of preemptively missing her, like a gouge in his chest, so sharp it makes him actually put his hand over his heart, trying to hold the painful emptiness closed.
I can’t do it.
He can’t leave her. Not like this. If he does, she’ll just… go on thinking that he’s a monster. He has to stay, to show her… show her how he can stop eating pokemon, how he can stop using the sakki.
He’ll have to tell Sabrina no. Maybe she’ll have an opening later, a few years from now… he’ll be a better psychic then, anyway, he’ll keep practicing. He’ll even stop training so he can practice more, that way he can show Leaf that he’s taken her seriously, and he’ll get more control so he can copy her mental state the next time they try. Surely there would be a next time, if he stays…
There’s a voice inside wondering if he’s really okay with that, with not spending any more time with Blue and Aiko’s friends at the gym, with not exploring the use of his powers in battle. But it’s a small voice, easily shouted down by his other desires and fears. Red rubs his face, then moves away from the railing to head back to the room and tell Leaf. His heart feels a bit lighter just having made the decision.
As he walks through the halls, he notices how oddly quiet everything is. There’s no sound of chatter or cheer coming from the various common rooms, though the lights are on. Dinner should already be over, people were already gathering in various lounges when he was headed to the railing… where is everyone now?
He sends his mind sense out briefly, a bit longer than a locating ping, just enough to get a sense of the general “mood” of the thoughts…
Worry. Panic. Resignation. Sorrow.
Red stops in his tracks, eyes wide, then bursts through the door to his side where he sensed a crowd of people, about to ask what’s happened—
His eyes absorb the information in bursts, jumping from place to place:
A monitor, hanging on the wall.
The timestamp on the news footage, a few minutes old.
Dark roiling clouds, blotting out half the horizon like a cloak.
Stabs of light illuminating the coast below them.
“…dropped from cloud cover less than ten minutes ago, according to eyewitness reports,” the news anchor is saying, voice distant to Red’s ears. “It was only for a few moments, but combined with satellite images, we can now confirm that Zapdos is making its way in a north-northwestern direction.” The image shifts to a storm projection map that shows the cone of probability engulfing Amber Town, Vermilion City, and possibly the Pokemon Tech campus farther to the west. “The League has confirmed deployment, and Rangers are enacting Tier 3 emergency protocols for the tri-city area…”
Red can’t breathe. A sliver of air enters and leaves his parted lips, but attempts to suck in a deeper breath, to ground himself, aren’t working. His fists clench until his nails dig into his palms, but he doesn’t wake up from the nightmarish haze that’s surrounded him.
Not fair, it’s not fair, summer is practically over, why would it come now, why would it come again…
He forces himself to cut off that line of thinking, to close his eyes and try to predict what would happen next.
There’s no question of trying to convince Blue to keep to an edge of the crisis zone, to help how they can without risking himself. Blue and Aiko are there, right in the path of the storm. Zapdos is coming to them, faster than a mounted pidgeot could fly, even if they had one to carry them, even if there would be any around not already in use to evacuate.
And Red is all the way over here, out to sea with rich and intelligent and influential people who are just standing around and murmuring in worried tones, just watching…
Just like me.
Red’s feet pound the carpet of the halls as he runs for his room, gasping in a sharp breath now that his body is forced into motion, unaware of when exactly he started moving. He passes by the corridors and cabins unseeing until he bursts into his bedroom and starts grabbing everything he has out and tosses them into a container box as thoughts keep bubbling to the surface of his panicked brain, uncertainty about what he’s doing finally slowing his hands as he gets to the notebook he’s been using for the exhibits.
What if Zapdos turns? There were parts of that projection cone that carried it away from Vermilion. He can’t teleport back to the ship once he leaves, he’ll miss the rest of the presentations… would Bill understand? Or what if Blue and Aiko and the others are out of town already, gone on some trip after his battle with Surge was over? No, Blue would go back as soon as he hears…
Red needs data. He needs to know how often these projections have been wrong in the past, needs the base rate so he can…
So he can what? Find a reason not to go? Convince himself that a 10% or 20% or even 50% chance of being wrong is worth staying safe on the cruise? The excuses are already there, within easy reach.
I’m here on Bill’s assignment, I don’t know for sure if Blue is still in the city, I’m mentally exhausted from using my powers earlier—
He slaps the excuses down, one at a time, forcing himself to stuff the next thing into his bag, then the next, then the next, until he suddenly hears running footsteps, and the bang of the living room door slamming open.
Leaf. He hadn’t even checked if she was still here, she must have gone out after he did. Red stays frozen in place, tempted suddenly to stay quiet, to teleport away without telling her so that she stays here, stays safe…
His connecting door opens a moment later, and there she is, face flushed and breathing hard. “Red, Zapdos is…” She trails off, wide eyes taking in his mostly packed bag.
Red straightens, meeting her gaze. “I’m going,” he says, hoping she decides to stay, stay, Leaf, please…
Leaf nods, fear and anxiety fading as resolution takes their place. “I am too.”