When Red teleports to the Sakai Ranch, the sun is approaching its zenith, and he takes a moment to enjoy its warmth on his skin. He’s not sure he’ll ever consider himself an “outdoorsy person,” but since moving to Saffron he’s come to appreciate being outdoors more than he can ever remember being before. He knows getting more sun sometimes helps with depression, but by the time he’s back to being Past Red it’s usually evening. In the week since he saw Dr. Seward, he has yet to make any meaningful progress with his other self… mostly because he hasn’t really tried.
Red finally feels like his skin has absorbed enough of the sun’s warmth and makes his way toward the ranch house, spotting Mr. Sakai as he emerges. “Hello, sir.”
“Hello, Red. So good of you to visit. It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” The rancher starts walking along the hexagonal perimeter of the nearby caterpie pen without waiting for an answer, throwing food into it from one of the sacks hanging at his waist. Red watches him go, conflicted emotions churning through him, then heads inside to get his own bags.
With Leaf living on the ranch and the RAWP therapy group coming by every few days, it rarely needs extra help. But Red still comes once in a while. Partly to help Leaf and Mr. Sakai, partly as an ongoing tribute to Aiko, a more practical equivalent to putting flowers on her grave. Even with his partition up, he still gets a little teary as he straps the feed bags around his waist, thinking of that first day they arrived here together. How nervous she was. How hopeful.
The sound of footsteps descending the stairs makes him quickly wipe his eyes before he turns.
Leaf is as pretty as ever in a plain shirt and jeans, her waist conspicuously absent of a pokebelt. He wonders if she feels strange without it. She smiles upon seeing Red, and he smiles back. Maybe there’s a part of him with selfish motive for coming too.
“Hey Red! I thought you couldn’t get a free afternoon this week?” she asks as Raff and Joy gambol down the stairs after her. Raff has gotten big, practically filling the stairway, and Red is happy to see Joy bouncing happily around the room without issue, apparently having finally gotten used to having just one eye.
“Saw my therapist last week, decided to shift some stuff around. How’s it going with you?”
She lifts a hand and rocks it side to side as she sits beside the door and starts pulling her shoes on. “The bad days are pretty bad, but they’re getting outnumbered little by little.” She finishes tying one set of laces, and he watches her brush her hair off her shoulder before she starts the second. “How’s The List? Cross anything off yet?”
On his first week in Saffron City, Red wrote up a list of the things he wanted to accomplish from his time with Sabrina, after which he would re-evaluate whether it was time to move on and do something else:
Resolve partition until it no longer limits psychic ability use.
Develop ability to meld with pokemon enough to freely teleport with abra.
Learn telekinesis (or at least try everything advised before giving up)
Find an aspect of psychic phenomena confusing enough for major experiment.
It was tempting to keep adding more, and he had to remind himself multiple times that it wasn’t a list of all the things he wants to master about his powers, just what could reasonably be expected to be done in a few years and would make the most out of having such exclusive tutelage.
“Making progress. Particularly thanks to Aiko’s drowzee.”
It was a shock when Leaf called a couple weeks ago to explain that Aiko registered a will just a few days before Zapdos hit Vermilion, a coincidence that had his thoughts turn briefly superstitious before sanity reasserted itself. It was a short document, the gist of which was that Leaf got first pick of her pokemon, with the exception of any that would help with Red’s research, and Blue would have whatever was left.
It was simple, but made sense. Aiko didn’t know when she would need her will to be executed, what pokemon she might still have, and which of the other three might even still be alive. In essence she just placed her trust in the trio to get along and work out something fair, with just a few suggestions to make it clear that she was thinking of them.
The one exception was her eevee, who specifically went to Blue, then Leaf, then Red. The reason why was obvious, but it still hurt a little, considering he was the one who diagnosed Eevee so she could be healthy. Still, since his first thought was what a waste it would be to train the shiny eevee rather than trade it for far more powerful pokemon, Red can’t even say she chose wrong. He wondered if Leaf felt the same, but didn’t ask.
The only pokemon he’d taken for his research was her venonat, one of the magnemite she caught the night of the storm, and a drowzee from the same.
“Drowzee? Why?” Leaf asks as she straps on her own feed bags and heads outside. “Does it have a particularly large nose?”
Red smiles and follows her, summoning Pikachu and Nidoran from their balls. He’d bring Charmeleon out too, but with all these wooden pens around he doesn’t want to constantly be watching in case his pokemon’s tail bobs too close to one. “You know, I haven’t checked. But no, it’s… well, since two of my goals, maybe three, can be developed by getting better at melding with psychic pokemon, I’ve been spending most of my free time at the gym.”
“Well, that’s just ironic.” Leaf and Red split up to walk along the opposite side of a path with pens on either side for them to feed. She carefully measures food out for each pokemon while he uses his powers to sense how hungry each one is. “I don’t know if Blue would be happy or pissed,” Leaf says as she throws food in different directions for a group of rattata, making the whole pen run after each piece until all but two are busy nibbling. She has to tell them “Eat!” before they accept the food.
“Not for battling,” Red explains, ignoring the usual attempt to get him to talk about or to Blue.
Yeah, because that’s healthy.
Shut up, your idea of healthy is moping around all day.
“For what, then?”
“Being linked with pokemon as they use their abilities and practice maneuvers teaches me a lot more than sitting in my room with them.”
“But isn’t that what you did with your abra?”
“Yeah.” Red grimaces. “And as it turns out, abra are pretty boring.”
Leaf giggles. “I guess they do just sort of sit there. Or float, sometimes. They’re not social creatures, so I guess their inner world is just, what, looking for threats?”
Red nods. “And their next meal. Pikachu and Charmeleon are both constantly aware of their surroundings too, but they don’t automatically categorize everything as either a threat or food. There’s enough… confidence, in their ability to defend themselves, and enough expectation of safety, that there’s room for other things, like play.”
“But abra don’t really have a concept of ‘safe.'”
“Not naturally, no. I read that the pokeball simulations took a lot of work in the early days to repress their urge to teleport away all the time, and without that hypervigilance, there’s very little left of their minute to minute experience that’s particularly interesting.” Red shrugs. “So once I got used to their ridiculous hearing and having a tail, there wasn’t much to do other than spend the time strengthening the bond, which went slowly.” He frowns at her. “What?”
She’s giggling again. “Sorry, I just pictured you with a tail. What about telekinesis?”
He sighs and throws a handful of nuts and berries at a pair of maimed nidoran, one that’s missing a back leg, the other a front one. “Eat! Tried it. I could feel them doing something as they moved stuff around, but I can’t seem to activate the same part of my brain. Maybe because their brain structure is too different, or maybe because my telekinesis is just too weak.”
“Sorry. So the drowzee…?”
“Right. It’s only been a couple days, but I already feel more in tune with her than either of my abra. She pays a lot more attention to the nuance of others’ mental states, rather than just scanning for friend or foe.”
Leaf is quiet a moment as she moves on to the next pen. “Makes sense. I read up on them, and despite looking so goofy, they’re predators. They hunt in packs to overwhelm enemies that are wide awake, but for a single one it’s unreliable. So they probably need to be able to check how sleepy their opponents are.”
“Exactly. Since I noticed that, I’ve practiced paying attention to the same things in my own reading of others.” He casually tosses another handful of food out and orders the pokemon to eat it too. “So. Long night?”
“Red!” He feels a berry bounce off the back of his head, and turns with a grin to see Leaf glaring at him. “You said you wouldn’t!”
“Just a guess, promise!”
Her glare fades to suspicion. “Okay. Sorry I threw the berry at you even though you sort of deserved it.” She smiles as she sees Pikachu sniffing at it.
“You’re forgiven. Pikachu, eat.” His pokemon electrifies the berry with a crackling sound until it’s steaming, then eats it in a quick gulp. “So what kept you up? The usual secretive project?”
“Yes,” she says as she moves to the next pen and scoops seeds over it for the three flightless pidgey hopping around in it. “Oh, also a Tier 1 went off nearby just after midnight.”
Red stops and turns to her, eyes wide. “What? I didn’t hear about that! Were you involved in any of the fighting?”
“No, by the time I was dressed and halfway there, it was already over. Guess it didn’t make major news.”
“Ah.” Red turns back to his work, wondering if she considered calling him to come help. Wondering if she didn’t because of Aiko.
Of course she doesn’t trust us. It’s only natural for her to-
“Speaking of my secret project,” Leaf says. “I want to talk to you about it.”
“Really? That’s great! What’s changed?”
“I may need your help. I’ll tell you more after lunch. How are you and Laura getting along?”
He sighs. “Still encouraging me to talk to Blue. Don’t you start, too.”
“I wasn’t going to.” She’s quiet for a moment. “So, not well?”
“It’s not… terrible.” They did a lot of talking after the storm, once she got over her shock that he purposefully went into it, summarized what happened, and eventually described his ultimate decision.
She cried, which would have made him feel pretty wretched if she didn’t start hugging him too, which made him start crying too. She was the first person he met to wholeheartedly make him feel like she was glad he didn’t go into the building; she didn’t even bring his father up, perhaps remembering their talk after the Viridian Fire.
If they’d left it there, they might be on good terms. But then she insisted that she would talk to Blue, and he insisted that she shouldn’t, and then they had a new thing to argue about and carefully dance around. In the meantime, she’s gotten better about updating him on what she’s been working on, including catching him up on things that she was being quiet about, such as what happened to her in Celadon thanks to the kindly old President Silph, which led into her current investigations, which she still hasn’t revealed to him or Leaf, but keeps promising she will soon.
They finish feeding the pokemon while talking about why the Silph Company might have wanted to kill a Renegade on Mt. Moon, then return to the house to have lunch. The meatless spread doesn’t bother Red nearly as much as it did last time he was here, since he’s been keeping to his promise on the SS Anne with Leaf and not buying meat since he got back. It’s Mr. Sakai who has most of his attention through the meal. The older man seems more than ever like he’s just going through the motions of life, and it makes Red’s heart ache just being around him. He’s not sure how Leaf handles it day after day, but her courage gives him the strength to participate in small talk with him and act like everything is okay.
Once they’re done eating, they help him with the dishes, then Red follows Leaf into Aiko’s room, withdrawing all their pokemon except Raff and Pikachu. It’s largely the same it was a couple months ago, with just a couple changes to reflect the new inhabitants, one of which is Raff’s indoor soil to sleep on, which he goes to curl up in while Pikachu sniffs at the electronics until Red picks him up and pulls him onto his lap as he sits on the bed.
“So, what’s the big secret? What have you been working on?”
Leaf sits beside him and takes a breath as if to brace herself, then says, “The sakki program.”
Whatever Red was expecting, it wasn’t that. “You’re… did I hear you right? Sakki, as in killing intent? Not some program for Mr. Sakai?”
“I notice that I’m confused.”
Leaf smiles. “Well, I’m not a hallucination.”
“The Zapdos attack made me realize some things,” Leaf says gaze distant as she leans back in her chair and looks up the ceiling. “About the real scope of the problem I’ve been trying to face.”
Red slowly nods. “I’ve been reading your articles. They’re good, lots of receptive responses, particularly for the ones on that coordinator college site…”
“And lots of pushback.” She sighs. “Most of which seemed pretty intractable.”
“Stupid, too,” Red mutters, and her smile warms him. He doesn’t agree with a lot of Leaf’s positions, obviously, but he still spent more time than he probably should have trading insults with the most offensive of the poorly thought out comments on her articles. He wonders if she saw those. “But you knew you weren’t going to change the world in just a few months.”
“When Aiko and I talked about this, we spoke in years. But Red, I don’t think I can do it in a few decades. There are too many voices out there, and too many other causes, and… Every major incident is a recurring reason to keep to the status quo. Maybe I’ll eventually have enough influence to make some measurable difference, but it would be a fight of generations to really see the societal changes, and meanwhile, millions of more pokemon and humans suffer.”
Red shrugs, wanting to cheer her up but not sure how. “What else can you do? In a way I think you picked the hardest goal of all three of us. And what does any of this have to do with sakki?“
She reaches into her pocket and holds a piece of pokepuff out to Pikachu’s nose. Red’s pokemon sniffs it, ears twitching, but doesn’t eat it. “He doesn’t cook pokepuffs, right?”
“So how long will he stay like this?”
“Haven’t checked in a while.” He counts to two minutes while Pikachu sniffs at the puff, looks away, looks back, sniffs it again… but keeps his mouth closed.
Leaf is smiling. “You trained him well. Would you mind using sakki on him, just for a moment?”
Red blinks at her, wondering what changed how scared of it she was before… then puts the pieces together.
“Killing intent” is what they called it, but only because its most obvious and immediate purpose was combat. But all it really does is give pokemon a mental state that removes restrictions of what’s “allowed.” Earlier when they were feeding the pokemon, many of them needed an explicit command to eat. Programming tech can expand the context of commands that are needed, but it can’t remove the need for them, once conditioned.
Red merges with Pikachu, acclimating to his pokemon’s mood in less than a second as his perception of the world doubles. The pokepuff smells delicious, and Red feels his own mouth watering. He starts to project the feeling of sakki, paying close attention to Pikachu’s impulses.
Once the feeling of release is complete, his pokemon darts forward to snatch the pokepuff from Leaf’s fingers. Red is already stopping the projection, and they watch as Pikachu happily chews his treat. Even without an initial command, his self-control isn’t that good that he’d stop after retroactively regaining the conditioning.
“So Aiko wanted to use a sakki program to remove the blocks from the ranch pokemon’s natural behaviors,” Red says. “Or at least the ones that haven’t been maimed, so they can be released back into the wild. But how does that help reduce wild pokemon suffering?”
Leaf just watches him, waiting with the calm patience of someone waiting for the inevitable. Whatever it is, she’s sure he’ll get it. Which reminds him to start at the basic assumptions.
There are generally just two parts to any belief someone holds: information and values. If she thinks he can figure it out on his own, she must believe that he has the information he needs to understand what her idea is based on. If that’s true, but he’s still not getting it, it’s because he’s not seeing the world enough from her perspective, through the lens of her values, to figure out what she’s thinking.
So he thinks back to those moments on the cruise, when their minds merged, and he saw the world from her perspective. Once he remembers how she feels about pokemon, and how much she values their wellbeing compared to other things he would normally rank much higher, it becomes obvious.
“You want to do it with all caught pokemon…” he says, slowly smiling as excitement grows in him. “But let them keep their non-aggression conditioning.” He has to remind himself not to get carried away before hearing more details, but… “Leaf, that’s genius.”
Leaf is grinning back, and blushing slightly. “Not genius enough. I checked online, people have occasionally brought it up as an idea, but always like a park, or your Safari Zone. I talked to Bill about it-“
Red feels a flare of envy. The inventor was upset with them for leaving the cruise, but after seeing their notes seemed mollified. Still, he hasn’t reached out to Red since, or responded to basic queries. Maybe he needs to just keep pestering the absent-minded inventor…
“-and he said that the technological barrier has two major elements. First to remove any type of conditioning we don’t want, second to maintain specific conditioning.”
“One interferes with the other,” Red guesses, stroking Pikachu’s back.
“Right. So from a programming angle, the hardest, but most direct way to do this would be to have individual programs for each pokemon to retrain them on how to live in the wild. The easiest way would be to just write a whole new and much simpler training program that only puts in restrictions on their aggressive behaviors, while keeping everything else the same… but that has additional complications.”
“Like how would it be distributed? With anti-tampering as strong as it is…”
“Right, it would mean entirely new balls specifically for this, which is economically a difficult sell.”
Red frowns, nodding. Even if existing pokeball software could be replaced, it would be a lot of work to safely wipe and download each one in a supervised environment. “Okay. So that’s a hurdle. But if people understand what it would mean…”
“I reached out to the Ranger General too. Well, to Ranger Matthew, who asked his captain, who passed it along before it came back to me. The concept itself isn’t totally strange, but using balls with a unique program for it is also a big disadvantage in the field. The ability to catch a pokemon, heal it, and use it right after without visiting a pokemon center first is often life saving.”
Red thinks of the spearow he caught on the way to Mt. Moon, then used against the paras swarm. The others probably had similar situations. “So we really do need a program to remove most conditioning, if this is going to catch on.”
Red runs a hand through his hair, displacing his hat as he considers the world she’s imagining and thinks of failure modes. “Babies?”
She shrugs. “Maintaining this would still be a fraction of current resources used for wild threats, but there are ideas to make even that easier, like adding in training that would designate breeding areas or seasons so that it’s easy to go through an area at certain times and catch babies as soon as they hatch.”
“Man, that would be… would the Rangers really be okay with something that affects wild pokemon behavior so much?”
Leaf sighs. “They would be one of the main groups needing convincing, yeah. The Ranger General said if a program like that existed, he might try picking a small and secluded area as a test zone and send a dozen ranger teams combing through it to catch every pokemon they find, recondition them to be able to live in the wild again, then keep moving on until the entire area has pokemon in it that can survive in the wild, but won’t attack humans. But they would want to wait for years afterward to make sure there’s no hidden effects on the pokemon’s life cycles or ecosystem, and he absolutely refused the idea of normal trainers getting involved.”
“I bet. There would be tons of people who’d want to help just to keep any rare pokemon they catch. But if you can develop the tech and convince governments to keep it to Rangers and maybe gyms…” He trails off, a subtle worry blooming as he finishes fully understanding what she’s trying to accomplish. The natural world of pokemon would be forever changed into something that better serves human interests. Pokemon interests too, but it’s not like there would be a way to stop human on pokemon aggression, other than laws.
Leaf is eyeing him warily. “What?”
“Nothing. Just… would you really be okay with it? You asked me not to use sakki anymore during the cruise, and even if that changed when we fought the magneton, this still feels like a… bigger change. If your idea works, we’d be forever altering the behavior of a significant portion of wild pokemon.” He watches her. “None of that bothers you?”
“Of course it does, Red.” She sighs. “You didn’t say it, but we also talked about mind control, and yes, to a part of me, that’s what this feels like. But what happened in Vermilion…”
Her gaze drops, and Red watches her cautiously. They’ve never talked in detail about what they went through, either alone or together. It’s easy to guess at what might have changed her mind, assuming he was there for it. The conflicted fear and sorrow that filled her voice when she told him to use sakki. The people they left behind at the burning building. The nidoqueen almost killing her…
“I can see why you became the way you are,” Leaf says. “Why everyone did. I was pretty privileged, growing up. Not just because of who mom and grandpa were, but because I was always on the move. Because I never lost anyone, the way most people did, that night.”
“Oh.” He feels like he should be objecting to “the way you are,” and he hears Past Red quietly murmuring about their decision about Aiko, but he doesn’t think that’s what she meant, and he ignores him. “I wish you still hadn’t.”
“Yeah.” Leaf looks around the room, smile watery, and takes a deep breath as she rubs her eyes, just once each. “That would have been nice.”
Red’s gaze drops, examining his hands. “I did wonder, at some point, whether you might change your mind on pokemon battling,” he says, voice quiet. “If you went through something bad enough. But it sounds like you’ve skipped ahead of the rest of us. Guess I just wanted to make sure you’re not feeling conflicted about it, or… that it’s not coming from a bad place, if that makes sense.”
“It does.” Leaf shrugs. “Humans do what we have to. I get it. But even if I grow the stomach to accept trainer battles, the real problem we all face… it’s not something that’s going to ever be solved by it. A thousand years from now, no matter how good technology gets, no matter how much society evolves, no matter how many Elite level trainers there are, even if every single legendary pokemon is caught, the wilderness will still be a hostile place, and people will still need to train pokemon to fight to defend ourselves. And that’s just…”
She lets out a breath, and shakes her head, face hard and gaze distant. “It’s unacceptable.”
Red is smiling, the iron resolve in her voice making something flutter in his chest. “Well. You don’t dream small, do you?”
Leaf’s gaze jumps to his, and she slowly grins before echoing back, “Where’s the fun in that?”
“None at all.”
“So, you’ll help?”
Leaf beams at him in a way that warms him all the way to his heart, and Future Red suddenly pipes up. Hey, don’t we maybe want to talk about a commitment this big? What about all those other goals we’ve got?
We’ll figure something out. It’s the right thing to do.
And also the way she’s smiling at us feels really good.
And that, yes.
“I can already see some problems, though,” he cautions.
Leaf snorts, still smiling as she starts ticking points off with her fingers. “Poachers will be a much bigger problem if people can just stroll through any area and capture whatever they want, flying pokemon are probably never going to be fully domesticated, nor pokemon that live underground, nor water pokemon…”
“Ghosts,” Red adds, and she sticks up her pinky before raising her other hand. “And pokemon that appear by abiogenesis…”
“And this won’t help with the frontiers… yeah.” She drops her hands. “It’s not as amazing a plan as it first sounds.”
“It’s not,” Red agrees. “But it’s still amazing.” She grins at him again, and he feels his neck flush, hoping he doesn’t end up disappointing her. “What can I do, though? I’m not a programmer, or particularly influential.”
She gives him a look he can’t interpret before saying, “Well, the sakki is probably the most important thing we have to help develop the un-conditioning program. I was confused at first about how Aiko made so much progress mimicking it virtually, until I realized what must have happened.”
She’s still watching Red, as if expecting him to guess… no, as if expecting him to admit to something. “Uh. What?”
“You used sakki on one of her pokemon before she withdrew it, right? So she could analyze the changes it would have in a virtual environment?”
Red blinks. “What? No! I wouldn’t do that!”
Something shifts in her gaze, moving through doubt and into hope. “Really?”
“Yes, really! She never even asked.”
“Huh.” Leaf bites her lower lip. “Was there… any time when you used it on one of her pokemon?”
Red opens his mouth. Closes it. Shifts in his seat.
She sighs. “Red…”
“I mean, she was there when I did tests to make sure the state doesn’t persist after a pokemon comes back out, and tried maintaining it on more than one pokemon at a time… oh.”
She leans an arm on the desk and rests her chin in one hand, brow raised. He fleetingly wishes he could take a picture. “Oh?”
Red shifts again, heat creeping up his neck in embarrassment this time. “Okay, so what had happened was, the failsafe in that case was that she’d just withdraw her pokemon if she seemed worried about it. We already knew that once released the pokemon would have undergone their conditioning again and be safe, so I didn’t think of it, but… if she didn’t release and return it again after that, her ball had a record of its capture state.”
Leaf rubs her face. “And did this happen with anyone else?”
“…yes. But Aiko’s the only one that was trying to understand and replicate sakki, so I doubt any of them saved that mental state.”
“Mmhm. That sneaky, brilliant bitch.” She sighs, ignoring Red’s shocked face. “Well, I guess it could be worse. Who knows, maybe someone else will figure it out and save me the trouble.”
Red’s phone chimes, and he checks the message to see one from Sabrina. It’s requesting a meeting of all her students as soon as possible. “Damn it. I have to go sooner than I thought.”
“That’s alright. We can talk more later.” Leaf stands. “I’ll walk you out.”
They head outside, and Red goes down the porch steps while Leaf stays on it. He summons Saffron (once Cerulean, then Vermilion), wishing she would hug him goodbye. It’s something he feels she would have initiated, before. But now there’s a cautious distance in their friendship that feels fragile, and he supposes a hug might feel risky, to her. Or maybe he’s just coming off as less friendly now, without realizing it…
Red pauses to look back at Leaf. “Oh, I almost forgot. Did I seem okay to you, today?”
Leaf’s brow rises, then draws down in concern. “Uh. Yeah, I think so. Is something wrong?”
“Nah, I’ve just been spending a lot of time with psychics lately, and thought I should just check to make sure I’m still… myself.”
She smiles. “That’s a very Red thing to be concerned about. Who else would you be?”
He thinks of telling her about Past Red, but that would be a much longer conversation. “Someone who doesn’t care about his friends,” is what comes out instead, and it isn’t until after he says it that he realizes how much it hurts to think that it might be true.
And now Leaf is walking toward him, arms going around his shoulders as she pulls him into a hug.
“You care, Red,” she murmurs as heat flushes through him… and tears prick at his eyes as he hugs her back. “No matter what may have happened, or will happen, I know that.”
Red teleports back to the roof of the small apartment building where Sabrina and her students live, the feel of Leaf’s concern still lingering on his body and heart. He barely sees his surroundings as he makes his way down, feet taking him through his now-familiar new home without conscious thought.
Most of the building has been refitted for use as class and training rooms, as well as a floor dedicated to experimentation. Red was amazed and humbled by it his first couple of weeks, and it still has some effect on him, shaking him out of his thoughts as he goes to his room to change, then hurries out of the building and toward the nearby Gym, where Sabrina called the meeting for some reason. He wonders if whatever they’re being assembled to speak about will involve gym business, and worries briefly about an incident that might have occured nearby.
“Hey Verres, catch!”
Red’s arm darts up before he even spots the object, pivoting in the direction of the voice and stopping the crumpled up fast food bag an inch from his face.
In the brief moment after his hand grips it, he feels its momentum continue, pushing his hand back enough that his knuckle grazes his nose. Then it becomes inert, and he lowers his hand to see Daniel walking toward him.
Red is both the youngest of Sabrina’s students and the newest, but before last month, that second attribute would have gone to Daniel. The lanky blond has been in Saffron for just a year, but at 16 he’s one of the best psychics in a city known for its psychics, with an intricate understanding of how his abilities work that keep allowing him to push the envelope. He’s dressed in a simple white shirt with a purple hakama that flows around his legs, attire that’s different enough to mark him as a psychic without quite fitting into any particular school or tradition.
Red eyes Daniel warily as he tosses the bag in a nearby trash can, not pausing in his walk. “Hello, Daniel.” The continued force behind the relatively weightless object made it clear that it was telekinetically propelled and guided.
The older boy shakes his head as he falls into step with Red, the two making their way toward the gym together. “You didn’t even try, Verres. How do you expect to awaken your kinesis like this?”
“I’ve been practicing it on and off for months,” Red says, voice flat. “I don’t think it’s going to randomly start working now.”
“You’re the one that said pokemon abilities are the key to understanding psychic powers, right? That kids do stuff by accident all the time, just by willpower or sudden need? Maybe once you’ve unlearned those trainer instincts, it’ll come to you.”
Red sighs. The argument had been about whether psychic pokemon could really even be considered “psychics,” since none are sapient enough to actually understand what they’re doing, and so many of their abilities have been observed in non-psychic pokemon. This seems to be Daniel’s way of proving his point that real psychic abilities are tied to a deeper understanding of what you’re doing, rather than just relying on instincts like pokemon. “And in the meantime, I should just let myself be hit in the face.”
Daniel shrugs. “It’s your theory. But it would be a small sacrifice if it ends up working, right?”
Red eyes the blond, but says nothing. He can never get a read on him, psychically or otherwise. The first time he’d thrown something at Red it had been a pencil, aimed at his chest, shortly after finding out that he had seemingly no ability to use telekinesis at all. Since then he’s done it half a dozen times, never in a way that presented any real danger to Red, so Red might just look immature if he complains to Sabrina.
He doesn’t know that she’d think that, but even if she acknowledges it as bullying, she’s the kind of Leader and teacher who tends to expect people to at least try to work out their problems alone before coming to her.
Besides, Red’s pretty sure that even if his mind were read, Daniel would be able to honestly say that he was just trying to see if Red’s telekinesis would awaken. For all Red knows that is his only motivation; like most of Sabrina’s students, he’s even more obsessed with psychic phenomenon and advancement than Red.
Daniel was raised in a small superstitious town with no other psychics in it. He somehow managed to teach himself enough about his powers in secret that, after pretending he wanted to become a trainer, he used the money his parents gave him to apply for the license and buy equipment to travel to Saffron and get close enough to Sabrina to impress her with his mental powers.
It’s a story that would impress Red enough to want to befriend the older boy, if his perspective wasn’t so… bizarre.
“Any idea why we’re meeting at the gym?” Red asks.
“Got the same message you did. Maybe she wants us to work with some of the trainers there again.” He doesn’t bother disguising the distaste in his voice, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Like I’ve got time to teach normals.”
It’s a common word, among the psychics who dislike the term “gifted” and “ungifted,” and find “non-psychic” too burdensome. But coming from Daniel, the word has an unpleasant edge to it.
“There are psychic trainers there too,” Red reminds him. “And like I said, I’ve been learning a lot from merging with psychic pokemon.”
“Still no telekinesis though. Seems like it should be a pretty straightforward test.”
Before Red can reply they enter the gym, and see another of Sabrina’s students waiting at the elevator. The three exchange simple nods for greeting as they wait for the elevator. Tatsumaki is almost as short as Red despite being in her mid-twenties, with curly green hair and a simple black collared dress. She’s widely considered the best telekinetic in Kanto, though she’ll quickly insist that she’s only the “strongest,” and that Sabrina is close behind while also being more “versatile.”
Red once asked her what the difference is, and she went on for twenty minutes about the distinction between raw telekinetic strength and the actual ability to manipulate and affect objects with it. He sort of got part of it, something like the difference between not just how much muscle you have but how good you are at using your whole body to lift a heavy box, compared to how well you intrinsically understand the weight distribution and shifting of the objects in the box and can balance it as you maneuver on the fly. But a lot of the phrases and concepts apparently had to be experienced to be fully understood, and most of it went over his head.
Once she finally stopped to ask about his telekinetic ability and he admitted his lack of any, she lost interest in the conversation, and seemed annoyed with him ever since, as if he wasted her time.
The elevator ride up is quiet too, and they move together to Sabrina’s office once they arrive at the top floor. The rest of the students are inside already, and Leader Sabrina is at her desk, with her Second and Third, Tetsuo and Keiji, standing at her sides.
Who died? Red thinks with sudden foreboding. Whatever this is, it’s something serious. He drops his mental shield for a moment to do a quick probe around, and feels a few others probing around as a general mood of anticipation and worry permeates.
Tatsumaki and he are the only two of Sabrina’s students in what Red would consider “normal” clothes. Satori Komeiji, the second youngest student at 15, is dressed in a flowing blue blouse and a flared skirt that goes from white to pink toward the edges, matching her hair and making her look like a big flower. Despite her youth, she’s one of the best mind readers in Kanto, and bonds incredibly well with pokemon… which is possibly why she barely ever talks to people.
Rowan Donkerk, a pale young man in his early twenties, wears the same white overcoat over black shirt and pants that Psychic Narud did, with the same words warning against the idea of a set fate written on the sleeves. He specializes in partitions and memory manipulation, and is apparently from an absurdly wealthy family in another region who came specifically to train with Sabrina, while also being initiated into the same sect as Narud.
Jason Grey is a lanky older teen wearing religious vestments, the oversized clothes hanging in huge folds around his body as his fingers spin the prayer beads around his neck. Red doesn’t know much about him except that he’s a trainer too; his starter was apparently a gastly that he tamed without even using a pokeball, earning him both Elite Agatha and Leader Sabrina’s attention. He was only a year into his journey before he accepted apprenticeship with Sabrina, and has been here for a couple years now. He always seems nervous, and barely talks to anyone more than he has to.
And finally there’s Rei, Sabrina’s most senior student in both senses of the word. Her long blonde hair is tied up in a severe bun, and her kimono looks like it’s worth a fortune, back ramrod straight as she watches their teacher and waits for the meeting to begin. If she has a specialty, Red hasn’t learned it; she just seems to be good at everything, and a general genius besides.
Sabrina herself cuts an imposing figure in a simple red turtleneck and black jeans. Like most Leaders, even while sitting quietly her presence seems to fill the room, likely due to some combination of his own expectations and subtle charisma on her part. Tetsuo and Keiji wear their personalized Gym uniforms, hands clasped behind their backs.
“Thank you all for coming on such short notice,” Sabrina says, hands folded on her desk. “I’ll keep this brief. An emergency has come up, and I’m going to be unreachable for an unknown period of time of at least a few days, possibly more than a week.”
Red’s eyes widen, and he senses the shock bounce around the room full of psychics. It’s not unusual for Sabrina to go radio silent for hours at a time, and with her ability to teleport to so many places on a whim she still manages to have nearly as busy a schedule as most Gym Leaders. But disappearing for days at a time is a first.
“Tetsuo and Keiji will run the gym in my absence, but I’ll be relying on the rest of you to not only continue your classes, but assist them however you’re needed. None of you are in the gym’s chain of command, but they are both your seniors in psychic knowledge and experience, and can teach you things even I can’t. See this as an opportunity to branch out. No, Jason,” Sabrina says, looking at her student, who had barely twitched. “Not with that, it will have to wait until I return. But you will all have another assignment while I’m gone, and it has primary importance after the smooth operation of the gym, and your own classes.”
They all sit up straight as her gaze sweeps over them once before she finally takes a breath and says it: “I’ve come to suspect that someone has managed to fully partition their mind, to the point where their exposed surface thoughts and emotions are independent from their true inner ones, though still within their control. A perfect mental shield.”
The room is deathly silent. Even Tetsuo and Keiji are staring at the Leader with wide eyes, apparently not having been filled in on the reason for her sudden absence separately. This must really be fresh news.
What Red feels isn’t shock so much as dread. What Sabrina’s describing is someone who can act as the perfect liar. Not just able to hide their thoughts and emotions, but able to do so while they make people, that is to say, psychics, believe they aren’t. The difference between how they would be treated compared to someone who’s Dark or a Psychic using a mental shield would be night and day.
And just the rumor of such an ability would drastically lower trust in psychics everywhere, both those who might be using it and the ability of psychics to act as lie detectors.
“How sure are you of this, Leader?” Satori asks.
“Let’s say at least 70%. Enough to act on it decisively, and ask you all to as well. This is your assignment; try to do the same thing yourselves. Prove that it’s possible, if you can. If not, document all the things you try. Yes, Rowan?”
“Are both minds independent?” her student asks, brow drawn. “Does their behavior ever seem erratic, or at odds with themself?”
“A good question, but not noticeably. He almost always appears to be in total control of his emotional state, and the few exceptions don’t point to such a dichotomy of self.”
Red has taken his notebook out and started scribbling the questions and answers. A few of the others glance at him, but Sabrina ignores it. She knows him well enough by now. As he scribbles out the answers she’s giving to people’s questions, he also starts listing the things that he’s known have developed new abilities in him.
Mimicking other mental states
Forced to work around limits
Experiencing others using abilities
“The psychic,” he says, and everyone turns to him. “Do people know if he spent a lot of time with other psychics, or pokemon?”
Sabrina’s gaze holds his, and he reinforces his shield automatically, though he feels no attempt to breach it. “Yes,” she says after a moment’s thought. “He spent a lot of time merged with all sorts of people, not just psychics, and has explicitly merged with lots of psychic pokemon as they used abilities.”
Red’s face falls as he notes that down, and it’s Rei that beats him to the punch: “Then it’s possible more than one person, or even pokemon, is capable of this.”
The room is quiet again as people glance at her, until Sabrina finally says, “Operate as though that’s not true, for now. It’s possible he learned how to do this by mimicking someone or something else, but that still leaves the question of how they did it. I believe that he pieced it together from disparate insights and abilities, or just worked it out himself. That’s why I need you all to work together on this. You’re some of the most gifted and brilliant psychics in the world. I’m counting on you.”
They all stand at attention and bow, and Sabrina bows back. Red feels dread as he considers the upcoming days. He’s the newest among the group, and the youngest, and the weakest, and the least experienced. More than any of that, none of his peers seem to particularly like him. But then, how much effort has he really put into that, so distracted by the newness of all this, and his own issues and goals? Optimistically this could be an opportunity to show them his worth, but if they don’t take him seriously or work with him…
“Good luck, everyone.” Sabrina strides for the door.
“Leader,” Red calls out before he can stop himself, still used to referring to her by that title despite not being a trainer anymore.
She turns and gives him a passive expression that still somehow communicates impatience. “Yes?”
“Can we work with others, if we don’t tell them what it’s for?”
Sabrina considers this a moment, fingers tapping against her leg in an oddly uncontrolled gesture, for her. “There’s a saying, that three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” The room chuckles (a little nervously, in Red’s case), and Sabrina smiles. “I’ve already told all of you, and am planning no murders, which means I can only blame myself if this gets out sooner than I’d like. I took you all on not just because of your abilities and drive, but because I trust you not to do anything that will reflect poorly on me or my Gym. Use your judgement… but for now, only psychics, and preferably gym members. Understood?”
Red bows and murmurs, “Yes, Leader,” along with everyone else’s mixed honorifics. It makes sense; a psychic will have as much of an incentive to let an expert manage the release of a secret like this, and of course none of Sabrina’s gym members will want to go against her wishes.
“Then good luck to you all.” The door slides open, then closes behind her.
Tetsuo steps forward. “Okay, so that was a shock to everyone. Feel free to use gym facilities to work on this, and call on us if you need assistance.”
“Or if you plan on pulling in any other gym members,” Keiji says, gaze on Red. He nods to show he understands.
“As long as it doesn’t interfere with our gym duties, we’ll be happy to help,” Tetsuo says, and the two leave the room. As soon as the door closes, Daniel speaks.
“We should pair up,” he says, glancing at Tatsumaki. Red suspects that he likes her, and it’s clear he has his partner picked out. “We might be more productive, with someone to discuss our ideas with.”
“Or we can all discuss together,” Satori says, voice dry. “Since that would lead to more discussions. I would prefer to consider this alone, for now at least.”
“Shouldn’t we at least discuss it?” Jason asks. “We all have different focuses and perspectives. Perhaps one of us has some insight to share?”
Rowan shrugs, bemused. “I highly doubt that, unless one of you has been secretly working on this yourselves. I for one have other commitments tonight, and agree that it would be a waste of time to try and talk about it yet.”
Rei steps to where Sabrina was standing and turns, drawing all their attention to her.
“We’ve been charged by our teacher to do something no one else has,” she says, calm and confident. “It is a great honor, and likely of vital importance. I propose we all take the day to prepare and consider the problem on our own, and meet tomorrow to discuss potential solutions and plans.”
“Seconded,” Red quickly says. “It’s good practice to avoid cross-contamination of ideas, and keeps us from discussing solutions before we’ve fully considered the problem.”
“Agreed,” Satori adds, voice distant. “Like Rowan, I have other projects I must put to rest first, so I may put my whole attention on this.”
“Fine with me,” Tatsumaki adds, and the others nod or shrug.
“Good,” Rei says. “We’ll meet for lunch tomorrow in our cafeteria.”
“Should we ask them to join us?” Jason asks, pointing a thumb at the door where Tetsuo and Keiji exited.
“No. Let’s not bother them until we have something specific to test or need advice on.” She heads for the door herself. “Remember, don’t speak with each other about this for the rest of the day. I’ll see you all tomorrow.”
Red walks back home, notebook in one hand and gaze distant. He could have just teleported back, as some of the others did, and saved himself a five minute walk, but he’s so physically inactive these days that even short walks have some value, and he doesn’t want to get too lazy. Besides, once he gets to his room he’d just be sitting and thinking anyway.
His mind keeps wanting to shift away from useful pursuits to social worries about his relationship with Sabrina’s other students. On the one hand he knows it’s important to be able to work together, as situations like this show. And as Blue and Leaf convinced him, being respected is important if he wants his ideas to be taken seriously and spread.
But on the other, all of that feels like excuses to the simpler truth: he wants to be liked. Even Daniel, who rubs Red the wrong way, is powerful and clever, and as immature as it is to care what he thinks of Red on a personal level, he can’t help it.
Maybe it’s just because he spent months with people who he had a good relationship with, and he’s forgotten how to make friends. He tries to think of the last person who he actually had trouble getting along with for any significant amount of time besides Blue, and can’t think of any since leaving Pallet.
Is this helpful? Future Red wonders. You’re supposed to be thinking of the perfect mental shield.
Maybe it is. Maybe I’m stuck on it for good reason, and should deal with it before trying to just move on.
Red reaches the apartment building and presses his notebook against the wall of the elevator as he rides it up to his floor, flipping to the page after the possible causes of the perfect shield.
Identify relative advantages. What do I bring to the table?
Formulate at least one hypothesis worth testing. Test it if possible.
Determine which students may be befriended. Try to do so before meeting.
Determine which gym members can be worked with. Meet them.
He reaches his floor and goes to his apartment, then sits at his desk and tries to think of something else. When a couple minutes pass without anything new, he tackles the first one.
What does he bring to the table? What’s special about him, his power, or the way he thinks?
Rei is probably at least as smart as him. Rowan is better at manipulating and creating partitions. Satori is a more experienced trainer and merger. Jason has a more unique outlook, or abilities, or whatever it is that lets certain psychics specialize with ghost pokemon. And aside from anything else, Daniel and Tatsumaki are just more experienced, which applies to the others.
What are his remaining strengths? No, first list the things that are unique, figure out what’s a strength or useful after.
His background in science. Being raised by a reporter and a ranger. His social connections with Professor Oak and Bill. His mind-state mimicking. His screwed up trauma reaction…
Red blinks. Rowan asked whether the psychic ever seemed to be at odds with themself, and Sabrina said no, so Red dismissed the idea that his alternate-mental-state-that-feels-like-a-different-person, which he calls Past Red, might be related.
But if he and Past Red were to come to an agreement, they wouldn’t be at odds anymore. Maybe the psychic that developed the perfect shield does have their own alternate-mental-state-that-feels-like-a-different-person, which acts as the buffer mind for the hidden one.
(He definitely needs to come up with another name for it, and he refuses to call it an alternate personality.)
He hasn’t spent the whole week putting off talking with Past Red. That would be lazy and childish. He’s just spent it preparing himself for the ways he might actually do it, to ensure he has a good plan. A foolproof method that wouldn’t risk him spending the rest of his day and night lying in bed depressed.
He flips to a fresh sheet of paper and starts writing.
Hey Past Red. I’m about to let the partition down. If you don’t respond to this and put it back up, I’m never purposefully doing this again. We both have something the other wants. Let’s talk.
He looks at the paper, then he lets his breath out. As he tries to think of anything else he can do to prepare, maybe a gesture of goodwill, he realizes he should summon Pikachu, and returns to his chair with the yellow mouse curled up in his lap. Finally, with a reluctance that takes a minute to overcome, he closes his eyes and starts to bring his partition down.
When Red opens his eyes again, he sighs at the silly paper in front of him. Of all the changes the partition causes in his personality when it’s up, the fact that he treats himself like a separate person is the most worrying. He doesn’t need a piece of paper to “communicate,” he can remember writing the words himself perfectly fine.
But he clearly does get pretty irrational with the partition up, and he supposes it’s a useful framing device that Dr. Seward would approve of that might help interface with that irrationality. Red scratches behind Pikachu’s ear with one hand as the other picks up the pencil.
Dear Future Red (I’m not calling you Present Red, because I’m Present Red, obviously),
You’re an idiot.
Love, Present Red
He puts the pencil down and stares at the paper for a moment, fighting the urge to just tear it up and forget this nonsense before passing on the idea as too much effort. His thoughts are already drifting to Aiko, today’s trip to the ranch having unearthed memories that drag at him. He needs to figure out the underlying reasoning behind what he did, understand if he made the right decision for the right reasons, before something like it happens again. It could happen any day, and he’s done nothing to prepare.
But if he doesn’t bring the partition back up, he’d lose future moments of clarity like this. Red grimaces at the idea of being a hostage to his own self, and lets the partition go back up.
It immediately feels like he just sucked in a breath of fresh air. He sighs it out, looking down at the paper. Past Red’s thought process is fresh on his mind; they can’t both exist at the same time, so this is a dead end path to go down. Red shakes his head, scowling at how defeatist he is with the partition down, and starts writing again.
Dear Mopey Red,
Your attitude sucks. If you
Red stops, then slowly erases what he wrote. It’s a symbolic gesture, since he’ll remember having written it anyway, but this isn’t going to work as long as they’re insulting each other.
Look. I know you feel like I’m just you on happy-pills or something, but if having most of my grief locked away is interfering with my thinking, then being flooded by it is probably interfering with yours too. I’m doing this because I can’t model you as clearly as you can model me, and because I think we can actually learn something from what’s going on with us. Even if I’m wrong, we should be working on resolving whatever this is anyway, right?
He reads it over, checking to make sure he wasn’t too rude, adds Thanks for putting the partition back up at the beginning, then brings it back down.
The transition is so abrupt this time that Red practically feels his thoughts changing, mood plummeting as his eyes scan over what he’d just written. It’s not impossible that learning more about this partition would be helpful in a number of ways, and he does need to resolve it. But how is the important part. While it’s up, he feels like he would happily just delete all these feelings if he could, or lock them away permanently, which feels like self-mutilation.
We can’t “resolve” it if you push off working on it and leave the partition up, he writes to his future self. The only reason it was brought down was because of Sabrina’s task. Don’t pretend that you’ll be motivated to bring it down voluntarily again after this is all over.
He brings the partition back up, and sighs. His past self is right. So what do you want in assurances? We should be able to find an arrangement that works.
Well first off I want you to stop treating this like a negotiation. You’re trying to barter with your own mental health.
I’m trying to make sure my mental health doesn’t put my life on hold.
That’s not how it works, and you know it. Plenty of people have already told you that this would take work. If you’re not willing to do it, then admit that to yourself.
What do you call this?
I call it bad priorities. How about you just do the right thing.
Red puts the pencil down and stares at the sheet, anger pushing through the haze of numbness and grief. Treating his changed personality like a different self feels like giving into pathology, but… Dr. Seward did suggest it. Maybe it will help him take what happened more seriously even with the partition up, if he can just convince himself that he might be ignoring a real problem he needs to fix.
Meanwhile, he should just leave the partition down as long as he can. It’s rare that it’s down this early, usually by the time he’s used enough psychic ability for it to come down he doesn’t usually have the energy to do more than just lay in bed. He could spend a few hours working out his decisions, maybe go back to Aiko’s ranch…
Red sighs, eyes closed, and rubs his face. He can’t blame his partitioned self that much, if he can barely muster the energy to confront such depressing thoughts himself. Pikachu stretches on his lap and walks over to his hand, nudging it for more scratches. He complies automatically, still thinking over what to do.
If he keeps the partition down, he’d be burning goodwill with his “other self.” And part of him is interested in figuring out what Sabrina discovered, though it’s distant.
“Whatever,” he mutters, and lets go, bringing the partition back up.
Red lets out a breath. That had been close. His gaze lingers on the words, Do the right thing, and something twists in his stomach. He remembers what it felt like, writing it. There was an undertone of bitterness and challenge, there.
“Whatever,” Red echoes, and turns the page. Time to form some hypotheses, then make some friends.