All posts by Damon Sasi

89: Hearing Shouts

Leaf studies the Lavender Tower blueprints on her phone and expands the markings near the top, where the lip of the tower rooftop edges out over the tower walls. “I think it’s within range,” she says, and looks up at Sergeant Iko, who’s nodding.

“One person stationed above each window, then, to catch it if it tries to flee. No goggles on those though, I have exactly nine dark trainers here, and I’ll want each of them to use a pair—”

He’s cut off by the sound of a sob, and they all turn to the ranger that made the sound. He’s leaning over his equipment, hands over his face. One of his peers walks over to put a hand on his shoulder and he straightens, looking embarrassed as he rubs at his eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure what’s gotten into me…”

Leaf doesn’t respond, sympathizing completely. It all feels so overwhelming, suddenly, and she misses Aiko, and her—wait, what—

“Blue, Leaf, come in!”

Red’s sudden (loud) voice in her ear makes Leaf flinch, and she’s aware of Blue doing the same as he reaches up to adjust his volume. “We’re here, Red, what’s wrong?”

“The ghost at the top of the tower is sending out a… a psychic scream or something, just pouring all of what it feels out, way stronger than it should.” Red is panting between words, which combined with the rhythm of them makes her picture him running. She sees the captain frowning at them and holds a hand up. “I think they’re going to come, any ghosts that can feel it, they’ll come to feast, and they might not be picky about what they target.”

“I think we’re feeling it down here too,” Leaf says while Blue quickly summarizes for the sergeant. “What do we do, Red?”

“We have to capture it, now, before we get overwhelmed.”

“There are barely any ghosts in the area,” Sergeant Iko says, voice echoing in Leaf’s ear. Blue must have given him their channel frequency.

“We don’t know how far it’s reaching, Sergeant.” Jason’s voice sounds thick, like he’s been crying. “It may draw in ghosts from the entire town.”

“Then it’ll be a siege, while a strike team with the goggles go after the source,” Iko says, then mutes himself from the channel and turns to the rest of the room, voice cutting across the hum of voices. “Ghosts incoming, masks on, upward retreat! Move move move!”

The men and women freeze in place for a second, more than just the one who was crying looking like they’re being snapped out of an unpleasant dream, and then they all scramble to replace their supplies and put on gas masks. As they start summoning pokemon Iko goes among them, barking orders for someone to warn Oak, Agatha, and the other big names.

Leaf does her best to tune it all out as she straps her own mask on, trying to focus on what Red said. “How are you shielding it, Red? If it’s a Ghost attack—”

“I don’t think it is an attack, it’s just… communicating, loudly. Blue, are you—”

“I’m getting something.” He’s summoned Eevee again, and Leaf brings Raff out. “Not sure I’d be able to tell what it was if you hadn’t said anything, but Iko confirmed that dark rangers also couldn’t stay on the top floor anyway, so it may not be the main danger.”

“We’re heading up now,” Leaf says as they start following the flow of rangers moving for the stairs. Someone rushes past them in the other direction, probably to alert whoever is at the door, and Leaf’s heart starts pounding with a delayed burst of adrenaline. This is it. She knew it was a possibility when she left the ranch, but now she has to face wild pokemon and maybe hurt them, and against opponents she can’t incapacitate as easily as most. “Once the source of the… scream… is dealt with, the threat should be over, right?”

“No,” Jason says. “They might seek the source of it even after it ends.”

“Why are we going up at all?” Blue asks as their footfalls join the cacophony of others thundering up the stairs. “Why not just evacuate and let the ghosts come and get it?”

“We don’t know what will happen,” Leaf pants. The rangers’ pokemon are a mix of Ghost and lithe, agile Dark types like liepard and thievul, which are clearly used to indoor movement, but Raff and Eevee struggle a bit to climb the stairs quickly, and Leaf reminds herself to do more training indoors with him instead of relying on sims. “Even assuming they don’t go on a feeding frenzy throughout the town, we can’t just let it die!”

“Leaf’s right, it’s a new species!”

Not what she meant, but she’ll take it. The rangers’ job is to protect both people and pokemon, so she hopes that’s what’s on Sergeant Iko’s mind too.

The feelings of sadness and grief get worse the higher they go, but to Leaf they never become debilitating, and even the rangers that were affected more strongly seem to be coping okay. Soon they reach the second to last floor, where the others are waiting for them.

“—already pokemon arriving,” Jason is saying to Sergeant Iko as Leaf gets close enough to hear. The rangers are spreading out with their pokemon, presumably to cover the various windows and stairways. The medium definitely looks like he’s been through some ordeal, but his voice is steady. “Not ghosts yet, likely cubone and marowak from the graveyard.”

“Why would—”

“They’re attracted to grief,” Leaf says, and everyone turns to her. “Sorry, thinking out loud… they’re scavengers, right? Grief signals food, maybe they think there’s a feast waiting for them up here. But it doesn’t really fit, it’s not like a giant speaker making crying sounds, and they’re not psychic, so… they’d just be feeling sad, right?”

“I can’t tell how they feel,” Jason says. “The scream is too piercing, I could only tell they were not ghosts, and inferred the rest from what other pokemon are native to the area.”

“Even that’s impressive,” Red says. “Bringing my shields down at all feels like it would quickly overwhelm me.”

“I feel nearly the same,” Jean says, putting what seems like a consolatory hand on Red’s shoulder, probably because of the slight bitterness that he’d spoken with. “I’m afraid none of our gifts except Jason’s will be of much help going forward.”

“Then join the defense here,” Iko says, and turns to the rest of the rangers. “Need a strike team to see if the goggles protect us against whatever it’s doing up top. If not, head back down and join the rest of us in holding out as best we can until the heavy hitters get here. Hopefully they’re dropping everything and porting over, but it still might take some time for them to grab the right pokemon and then get here from wherever their teleporters are registered. Those of you that are Dark, grab a pair of goggles and head up now.”

Leaf watches Blue immediately step forward, expression determined, and remembers the first real fight she witnessed between him and Red. That Blue, not much younger than this one, would have hesitated to reveal that about himself, and she wonders what gives him the confidence to now. A change in perspective from all his new experiences? His time in a leadership role? Or maybe he’s just been in the limelight enough, gained enough prestige, that he doesn’t feel as worried about potential prejudice.

Either way, she feels proud of him, and steps forward to give him a hug. “Be careful.” She doesn’t like that they’re splitting up, but she knows it’s the right call.

“You too,” he says with a smile. “And—”

“‘Take care of Red,’ yeah, I know.” She grins at the old joke, but it quickly fades when she remembers that they were Aiko’s last words to Elaine at Leaf’s hospital bed.

“I’d like to join them,” Jason says, and Leaf turns to see him talking to Sergeant Iko. “I won’t require my own goggles.”

Iko studies Jason a moment while Red frowns at Leaf’s side, looking like he wants to object. But he keeps his silence, and eventually the sergeant nods. “Fine with me, so long as you know what you can and can’t handle.” He turns to the rest of them. “My people all have strong anti-Ghost pokemon, so I’ve prioritized putting them on the windows. Do the rest of you think you can help me cover the stairs?” Leaf nods along with the others. “Good. You two, you’re with me on the first layer. You three, second layer.” He turns back to the rangers. “Split into pairs to cover the windows, clockwise starting with you two. Move out.”

Leaf is in the second layer, so she lets Jean and Artem step forward and join Sergeant Iko before she starts following with Red and Maria. Red is craning his neck back to look at Blue and Jason as they climb toward the top floor, while Iko and Jean talk quietly among themselves. Artem is already spraying himself with repel, and offers it back to Maria when he finishes, who then hands it to Leaf.

“Thanks.” Leaf sprays her clothing and sees Raff wrinkle his nose and walk a little further from her, which makes her smile despite the tension running through her. Balls train pokemon to be desensitized to the smell, but her ivysaur has always been a creature of comfort and hedonism wherever possible. It makes her feel guilty, suddenly, for bringing him here after the life of leisure he’s had for the past few months, and she has to remind herself to get her head in the game; they’re here to help others, and he’s one of her strongest pokemon. She could keep him safe and comfortable, but then he wouldn’t be able to change anything in the world, and while he didn’t exactly volunteer for danger, neither did any of the people or wild pokemon they’re trying to save.

And if another threat like the Hoenn myths is really appearing here, a peaceful life on the ranch may not be possible anyway.

Once they reach the stairway, Iko and Jean go down to start setting traps while Artem uses another bottle of repel on the stairway. She hopes whatever is driving them to come here isn’t strong enough to get them to push past the chemicals, but somehow she knows it will be. She wishes she spent more time studying cubone psychology, wishes she could find a way to stop them… Joy won’t help here, the singing would stop them from being able to defend themselves against ghosts, who wouldn’t be affected…

“Red, could we scare them off?” she asks.

“Been thinking about predators, but none of their natural ones use sound to communicate. We could try venusaur roars?”

“Do it,” Iko says from the stairwell as he dumps water out of his canteen on the stairs below him, then carefully directs his froslass to Ice Beam it. “May not work on all of them, but if it scares off even a few it’s worth it.”

Red and Leaf move together to put their speakers at the edge of the stairs and sync them to his pokedex. Soon the venusaur cries are echoing down the stairs, making Raff go still and focus entirely on the stairwell, as if expecting one of his kind to jump into sight at any moment. Hopefully the effect is as pronounced on the approaching cubone, if that’s what they are.

Jean and Iko reach the top of the stairs, having laid all sorts of traps on the stairs below them: sleep powder and stun spores, spikes and stealth rocks, sticky webs and patches of ice. Leaf has never seen so many defensive preparations put into a single location, and for a minute she allows herself to hope it will be enough.

And then they wait.

Five breaths. Ten. Fifteen. The sound of each exhale within her mask is all she hears, along with the constant loop of the recorded venusaur roars, and Leaf wonders how the team that went upstairs is doing, wonders just how direct the compulsion is (are there cubone spread out around each floor below them, milling aimlessly around?), wonders if any of the rangers stationed at the windows are fighting off ghosts yet (would she hear them over the looped recording?)… but mostly she just stares at the stairwell and focuses on her breathing, trying to keep herself ready for the moment something happens…

…twenty breaths…

…twenty-five…

…and then she hears it.

Just a vague sound, at first, a faint, wavering tone that rises and falls even as it echoes from countless throats.

“Crying” is how the pokedex described it, and when she played the audio files she had to admit that yes, the way the cubone family communicates sounds pretty close to how humans sound when they cry. And like human crying, there’s a range; heart wrenching sobs, sad and pitiful sniffles, prolonged moans of pain, and the wails of deep and haunting grief.

What she’s hearing right now, over the roars of the venusaur recordings, is all of it. Louder by the second, the storm of “grief” echoes up the stairway from the pokemon on the floor below, getting louder by the second, and a deep and primal fear works its way up her spine even as her heart breaks at the sound of what she can only identify as pain.

And then the pitch changes, takes on notes of alarm as a clamoring is heard from the stairwell, and her stomach roils as she imagines a group of cubone and marowak struggling through the traps. Some are designed to simply knock them out or keep them stuck on the stairs, but she knows even they might get trampled by the ones running up behind them.

She only has a moment to wish she’d put earplugs in before the first two bone masks rise into view, followed by three more, and the battle begins.


Blue is at the back of the group heading to the top floor, likely because the other rangers feel they need to protect him and Jason. He doesn’t mind that so much—certainly not as much as he would have earlier in his journey—but it does mean he doesn’t get to see what’s happening when people at the front of the group start to curse or cry out in surprise, particularly since they come to an abrupt halt while doing so.

The fact that it’s rangers that are shocked to literal stillness only makes him a little less impatient to see what’s causing it himself.

“Dai?” someone just ahead of Blue asks. “Phoebe? Everything alright up there?”

“It’s… yeah,” a guy, presumably Dai, responds. “The walls are weird.”

“The… what?”

There’s the sound of steps above, and then people start moving again. Blue hurries up, practically standing on tiptoe to try and see past the rangers (he’s only grown about two inches since they left Pallet Town and cannot wait to hit his growth spurt), until finally the two directly in front of him reach the top, pause for their own moment of shock, then step forward enough that he can see…

The walls are weird.

That’s one way to put it, alright. Through the tinted lenses of the goggles, Blue stares agape at the top floor of the tower. Iko described his experience as one where the walls seemed about to crush him; to Blue it’s like the walls aren’t even really walls.

It feels like he’s not in a building, but rather a cavern, the ceiling impossibly high, the boundaries distant and curved outward, as if the top of the tower was built into a massive sphere. But there are corners, his mind is insisting that he can trace the corners, and yet as soon as he looks away from them it all looks curved again…

Jason makes a sound from beside him, and Blue turns to see the medium standing with his eyes tightly closed. “You okay?”

“It’s surreality,” Jason says through gritted teeth. “The whole floor… the walls and ceiling, the pokemon is somehow… stretched over all of it… or influencing all of it…”

Blue turns back toward the bizarre sight and focuses on individual objects. A pair of benches, the handle of an individual crypt drawer, a pot of flowers… unlike the lower floors there are a lot of unmarked squares in the wall for future interment, though a few of the marble squares have nameplates already above their handles. He can see those clearly enough, in fact whatever he focuses on seems fine… but everything in his periphery gets distorted.

“Do you need to go back down?” he asks even as a small, mad part of him wants to take the goggles off and see what the room looks like without them.

“Not yet. I have an idea…” He pulls a ball from his belt and braces his arm. “Go, Lampent.” A tint of blue is added to everything as the ghostly lamp appears, and after a moment Jason nods. “I can navigate with its senses.”

“I thought you had to be shielded?”

“Red and Jean do. I’m alright as long as I don’t try to merge with the ghost causing all this.” He starts moving forward again, and Blue does too, only to jump as they hear roaring from behind them, distant but echoing up the stairwell.

The rangers react as well, swivelling to face the new potential threat (all except for the rangers furthest from the stairs, who quickly turn again to keep their eyes on what’s now everyone’s backs), and after a moment Blue realizes what he’s hearing.

“Is that… a venusaur?” Gale asks. Blue was surprised she turned out to be dark, considering she has such a strong ghost pokemon, but he supposes even with the handicap it makes sense to focus on them if you’re stationed here.

“It’s a recording,” he replies, grinning. “They’re trying to scare the cubone off.”

The sound repeats, then again, and people slowly relax and begin looking around at the various hallways branching out from their main one again. “Alright folks,” Dai says, “Search in pairs, call out if you find anything. Jabari, watch the stairs in case it tries to run down. We’ve got no one on windows, but we don’t know for sure if it can fly or not. If it can we’ll redeploy, assuming we don’t catch it right away. Questions…? Let’s move.”

They start to spread out, and Blue follows Jason, who follows his pokemon, which bobs ahead just above the ground like a child-sized lamp on invisible legs. It’s weird looking at a ghost directly without feeling surreality from it, almost like he stepped into a movie. “It’s not affected by all this?”

“Not like we are. It’s… think of it as a fish in a river. The current pulls or pushes, but it can still swim.”

“Natural environment advantage. Got it.” Blue looks at Eevee, who seems confused; she keeps taking a few tentative steps forward, then hopping to the side, then focusing on him and getting close, nose sniffing the air. At least she’s not walking into walls or anything. He focuses his attention on one floor tile at a time as they move forward, trying to ignore the way the rest of the ground seems to stretch out around him. “That mean ghosts always see things like this? With space being so… big?”

“Is that what you see? No, my lampent is experiencing something more like what Sergeant Iko described, with the walls feeling too close.” His voice sounds distant, clearly deep in concentration, but his feet move confidently, if slowly, forward. “Like space itself is unfolding around it as it moves forward… and when it looks back… it’s closed behind it again.”

Blue watches as the lampent turns in a slow circle while still moving steadily forward, its blue light stretching shadows around them. Blue has to force his attention on their surroundings again, but that’s no less distracting.

Focus up! You’ve dealt with Pressure twice, you can handle this. But in its own way this is worse: at least with Pressure he could trust his senses, and yet he still winces when he thinks of how close he was to that onix when he missed it. No matter how calm he feels now (and it’s not really that calm, all things considered), if a pokemon jumps out at them from around a corner right now, he would probably misjudge the distance for the throw.

Jason can call it surreality if he wants, but if it is, it’s on a whole different level than anything he’s heard of before. What Blue thinks of, suddenly, is the difference in Pressure intensity between the absol they cornered underground… and Zapdos.

Sweat slides down his neck, and he can hear his breathing echo louder in his mask. It should be more exciting, especially after months of wishing something important would happen to him (that he would stay conscious through), or rather that he could take part in something important (instead of missing the most important night in living memory (and not being there for his friends)) now that the scale of what “counts” as important has so drastically changed from the sorts of things that used to matter.

But if he thinks like that he’s going to do something stupid, like try to take charge in something he has no expertise in. It’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s not doing enough, and for a moment he wonders if there is Pressure at work here… but no, he remembers feeling this way in Viridian Forest too, and at Mt. Moon. Pressure only amplifies what’s naturally there.

He takes a deep breath, then lets it out. He can overcome this urge. He has to.

“Is there anything I should do?” he asks Jason as he looks down a hall to their right, gaze carefully staying on specific objects.

“What?”

“Anything different, I mean, to prepare, or while searching.”

The medium is quiet for a moment. Surprised he’s asking? Or maybe just thinking it over while trying to concentrate on his merger with his pokemon. “We don’t know anything about it, really, but I’m fairly sure it’s a non-living ghost. It may be possessing some object that seems commonplace here, and because you’re wearing those goggles—”

“I might not notice,” Blue finishes, feeling a chill as he quickly scans around him again, looking for eyes on a wall mounted lamp, or a face on the pattern of a flower vase… but everything looks normal. Well, so does Jason’s lampent… if he didn’t know it’s a pokemon and it wasn’t moving, would he recognize it as one, or would his eyes just pass over it? “Your ghost-vision would notice it though, right?”

Jason smiles, but it’s probably more from nerves than humor. “Yes, unless it has the ability to hide itself from others of its own kind.”

Great. “What about your powers? I know you can’t merge with it, but—”

“I know it’s around. Past that… things like proximity and direction have been impossible to judge since we reached this floor, and previously it was just… up. Which raises a disturbing possibility.”

Blue swallows the sarcastic remarks that rise up, trying not to let his own nerves get the better of him. “Which is…?”

“What if this entire floor is it?”

Blue stops, then turns to stare at Jason. “What the hell does that mean?”

“I’ve never seen surreality affect something beyond the pokemon itself, either the body for living pokemon or the possessed body of non-living ones. We know objects can become possessed and turned to pokemon, and it’s not as though there aren’t some pokemon large enough for multiple people to fit in. What if tales of haunted houses contain some truth? What if the very stones of this tower, specifically those that make up the floor, walls, and ceiling of this level, have become possessed?”

Blue is still staring at him, trying to ignore his growing sense of horror. Inside a pokemon. We might be inside a…

He has a very stupid idea, briefly, of trying to point an ultraball at the floor, but there’s no way that would work, to catch an onix or wailmer you need to be far enough that the whole pokemon is in the light cone of the lens, and he’s not even sure what that would mean in this case if Jason is right. Try to scan it all from outside the building? What would happen to the tower if the whole top floor gets sucked away? Could even a Heavy Ball hold all this stone in it? He thinks a steelix would weigh more than all this, but he’s not sure…

“We should warn the others,” Blue says, and wets his lip. “Maybe even leave, come up with another strategy… what if it’s getting ready to, you know, digest us, or something?”

“It was just a thought… but if you think we should give up the search…?”

His uncertainty and willingness to defer make Blue simultaneously more nervous and more decisive. “No.” The others are probably already fighting to buy them time, and he needs to use it. Blue starts moving again, eyeing their surroundings with even more care. “Hypothetically what would happen if we order our pokemon to attack the floor?”

“I was wondering the same thing. Do you want to try it?”

Blue stops moving again, trying to think of some risk he hasn’t considered. “If you think it’s okay…”

“I think the sooner we find the pokemon responsible for this the better.”

“Can you tell if the others are okay?”

“Just a moment… So far, yes. But more pokemon are coming, and while the ghosts are being stopped through the windows as they try to reach this level, one or the other can’t be held off forever.”

Blue nods, unclips the laser pointer from his belt, then turns to Eevee and points it at the wall in front of her. “Bash.”

The silver fox’s body goes rigid, and it opens its mouth wide before breathing out an orb of purple mist. It sails forward in utter silence, deteriorating as it goes, and to Blue’s warped perspective, it seems like it’s stretching as it passes out of his concentrated vision and into the periphery. He starts tracking it directly with his gaze so that it stays a sphere while the rest of the world stretches out, and instead it suddenly appears to speed up to hit the “far” wall a moment later, splashing harmlessly against the stone and leaving no mark as it fades like mist under sunlight.

Blue waits for a few quick heartbeats, then lets out a breath. “Does that mean much?”

“I’m not sure. It’s hard to imagine such a lack of reaction from something living and presumably hurt, but everything about this is new, even assuming I’m wrong.”

“Yeah.” If only they had a better way to identify if there’s a pokemon around and where it is that doesn’t rely on psychic powers… is there anything that can track Dark pokemon really well? Red or Leaf might know, but they’re downstairs…

There’s a yell of surprise from somewhere to their left, followed by, “It’s here!” and Blue grabs Jason’s arm before running back the way they came so they could take the main hallway toward the shouted commands and other sounds of battle.

The medium stumbles at first, but quickly catches his balance and runs alongside him. It’s hard to judge distances while moving so quickly, and he has to abruptly stop as they exit into the main hallway. Blue hears the stomp of heavy boots as everyone else converges on where the rangers are engaging the enemy…

…only for one shout in particular to cut off mid-word, followed by silence.

There’s still the hurried sounds of a dozen footsteps echoing through the halls, but soon Blue hears rangers shouting for the names of the one who called out, then their partner.

By the time he and Jason reach the others they’re searching one crypt-lined hall after another. Blue looks at Gale just as she turns to him, and even with her mask and goggles, he can see her fear.

“They’re gone. Just… gone.”


The first wave of onrushing marowak are hit by streams of water and beams of freezing light. The moment they go down another handful take their place, which get cut down by sharp leaves and psychic attacks, but they’re followed by another handful, and then another.

They’re all marowak so far, and even as Leaf orders Raff to send out another attack some part of her wonders if only marowak got called, before remembering what happened when Zapdos flew over Vermilion: the Pressure sent the fastest pokemon into the city first. There are likely still cubone coming, and many more of them than there are of their evolution.

A Razor Leaf bounces off a Marowak’s helmet but still causes it to flinch, and it’s knocked down from behind a moment later, only to tumble out of sight. Raff’s next attack slices into its target’s arm and makes it drop the bone club it was carrying. A moment later a jet of water sends it tumbling back into the marowak behind it, who clubs it out of the way only to be hit by an Ice Beam.

The speakers and repel don’t seem to be deterring them much, and soon the top of the stairway is covered in a mix of water and blood and leaves and dropped bones. Leaf wishes Raff had an attack that was less deadly that could reach the stairs, wishes she could swap with someone in front to start using stun spores instead, but she knows this is the most effective defensive line, and even it isn’t enough: before long a marowak gets through and swings at Iko’s froslass.

She weaves to the side and blasts it with an Ice Beam, but it still manages to club her alongside the head, sending a crack through the din of battle. Iko quickly swaps her out while someone else captures the marowak in a greatball, which rolls along the floor away from them as the battle continues.

The marowak that got through was the first sign that the water pokemon are running low, and once they’re replaced the battle becomes far less one-sided. Unable to put out the damage to keep the horde of marowak in check, Leaf realizes that they need a tank… but they’re hampered by the very thing keeping them safe: the size of the chokepoint. Anything big enough to cover the whole thing would be overwhelmed by the attackers on its own.

So when Iko yells, “New chokepoint, to the right!” and summons a slaking to cover half of it at an angle, Leaf is already moving alongside Red, Jean, Maria and Artem to help protect it. The relief that they won’t be overwhelmed just yet doesn’t stop the steadily growing sick feeling in her stomach. They must have taken down dozens of them by now, the bodies on the stairs are starting to pile up, and still more are coming…

And then, abruptly, the cubone are there, climbing over the bodies of the fallen marowak that came before them. Some attack the slaking fervently while others try to climb over it, their cries competing with the pained bellow of Iko’s pokemon as it rears back for a powerful swipe of its arm. Leaf shifts her position again and yells out a command for sleep powder, knocking out two cubone who climbed over the slaking before they could go any further. She quickly catches both, then takes out two more pokeballs as another skull-helmet appears above the slaking.

The speakers have been sufficiently smashed to stop the endless loop of venusaur roars, and now the cries of the cubone are that much louder. They’re even higher pitched and more like human babies than the marowak, and they’re so small…

Her heart feels like it’s being torn in two, and her eyes burn as she continues to throw out commands and pokeballs, trying to save as many as she can.

“Need a new tank!” Iko calls out.

“I’ve got one!” Red yells.

“Ready, set, swap!”

The bruised and bloody slaking is withdrawn, and in its place appears the kingler Red caught in Vermilion. Frothy streams of water shoot out of its mouth, knocking a few cubone down the stairs and causing a few more to slip and slide back as they try to climb the bodies of the fallen, and that heavy red claw catches another as it tries to run by it on the right, blood dripping as it closes shut, and Leaf has to look away, eyes burning.

It should have gotten easier, seeing this, experiencing it. After everything she’s been through, it should hurt less. But part of her is glad it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, kingler can’t carry a lot of water, and soon the sound of bones hitting shell fills the room. Leaf quickly summons Wise and commands the noctowl to keep up a steady whirlwind aimed at the stairwell from over the tank’s wide, squat body, then uses the brief respite to feed Raff some ether and checks to see how the others are doing.

Iko’s houndoom leaps from cubone to cubone, biting and kicking, while Maria’s tangela wraps multiple of them in vines that glow, absorbing the life from the cubone even as they try to hack their way free. Jean’s exeggcute use Bullet Seeds to assist from afar, while Artem’s claydol floats above them all, psychic attacks dropping any that try to get past.

They’re still holding, and still have four or five pokemon each. Surely they can last longer than however many pokemon are coming… but through it all, cubone are dying.

Some more balls are thrown, including her own at ivysaur’s targets, saving a few. But the floor is already littered with the dead, and Leaf’s horror rises as she notices the size of some of the unmoving bodies. A cubone’s health can be partially determined by the appearance of the exoskeletal “mask” they grow around their heads; the more bones they’ve ingested, the more complete it is, until it’s smooth and unblemished, signalling that the cubone is nearly ready to evolve into a marowak.

Some of the cubone in front of her barely have any mask, just a few thin plates of bone on their angular faces. Whatever’s driving them to do this, it’s bringing them all, down to the newborns.

And that’s when she realizes that defeating them all isn’t good enough: this has to stop. Some way, somehow… she has to stop it.


It’s easy to find the general site of the battle: there’s an ultraball lying against the wall of one of the side corridors. But after Blue checks to ensure that it’s empty, he studies the ground around it, then looks around and sees that there are three different directions it could have rolled here from, and no sign of violence anywhere. He even grabs a handle from one of the nearby crypts and pulls, a morbid part of him expecting to find one of the rangers crammed into it, but instead there’s just a series of elegant urns. He quickly closes it and walks back to Jason, careful to step around his lampent as it bobs by.

“Hope your pokemon sees something I didn’t, because if not we’ve got nothing to go on.” Blue feels wired, his pulse in his throat and his foot bouncing on the tile as he keeps looking around, half expecting something to pop out at them while his back is turned. The rangers are still searching nearby, while Gale tries calling the missing rangers’ phones, then locating their positions, without any apparent luck.

He’s getting used to navigating the weird dimensions of this place by being deliberate with his gaze, but Jason is still clearly having trouble moving from one place to another while relying on his pokemon’s senses, and so stays leaning against the corridor’s wall as he tilts his head toward Blue, eyes still closed. “No. But they saw something, before whatever happened, and I heard attack commands.”

“I did too, but without blood or ectoplasm or even a scuff mark, we may not know if we’re even looking in the right place. Our sense of sight is being tricked, maybe sound is—”

“New plan,” Gale calls out as the rangers re-converge nearby. “Two pairs of two, one person from both groups focused on keeping the others in sight. Blue, Jason, you’re with Haku and I. Our people have to be around here somewhere, let’s find them or the pokemon responsible before things get worse.”

Blue isn’t sure if Gale is being optimistic or just pretending to be, but he finds himself reassured by her certainty regardless. It also helps that her voice is coming out angry rather than scared, though he can’t imagine she’s any less afraid for her people and herself than he is, and somewhere in the back of his mind he makes a mental note to always appear confident for the sake of anyone he’s leading.

The others start pairing up, and he walks over to Gale and Haku as Jason follows his lampent toward them. “He’s seeing through his pokemon,” he explains when Gale frowns at the medium.

“Right then. Blue, keep your eyes on us while Jason watches your surroundings. We’re going to sweep the northern hallways one at a time, and if we still don’t find anything we’ll start knocking walls down.”

Blue isn’t sure the people of Lavender would appreciate that much, but he understands the sentiment, since he’d do the same thing if his friends were missing. They start searching again, and this time Blue and Jason stay in the main corridor while the rangers go up and down the halls, Haku looking around corners while Gale walks sideways, keeping her head swiveling between him and Blue. Blue makes sure to check on Jason every few seconds too, while the medium just stands nearby and keeps his pokemon turning to cover Blue’s blind spots.

“At least we know we’re not inside it, right?” Blue murmurs after a minute. The silence was setting him more on edge, or maybe it’s just the waiting. He wishes there was something in front of him to fight, so the battle calm would come. “Since they saw something.”

“As Red would say, I feel less sure of what I think I know and why I think I know it with every passing minute. And I think he would be surprised that I had more room to change in that direction.” Jason shakes his head. “Most ghosts don’t consume physical bodies but I don’t know what other form of attack would wipe away their presence so completely.”

Blue gets a brief mental image of two rangers and their pokemon being eaten by a floating, ghostly gulpin, its whole body turning into a massive mouth that stretches wide to swallow them whole as it swoops down on them, and he quickly looks up to check the ceiling again. “Even if they were… eaten… their phones should be trackable.” Unless they get immediately dissolved by some ghost-digestion-system…

“I could try getting its attention,” Jason says, voice uncertain. “I don’t know if it’s worth the risk, but…”

“I think it is,” Blue quickly says, then realizes that he might have meant risk to himself. “I mean, as long as it won’t permanently hurt you?”

“No, I don’t think so. But if there’s a chance that the two rangers can still be saved…”

“Yeah, hang on. Gale, Haku!” He waves them over, feeling disoriented again as he sees Haku approaching from what looks like the other side of a stadium while Gale walks down a simple hallway, and yet both arrive around the same time. “Jason thinks he can summon it to us.”

“I don’t know if it will come to us,” Jason clarifies. “But I think I can provoke a reaction, at least.”

Gale and Haku exchange looks, and Haku nods. “Do it,” Gale says. “Let’s move into a square first, everyone watching the person to their left.”

They do so while the other six rangers continue their search. Blue keeps his eyes on Gale despite the urge to watch Jason, he knows the medium isn’t going to start glowing or anything but if the ghost’s attention is focused on him it feels negligent not to be paying attention to him…

Trust others to make calls. Be part of the team.

He barely finishes having the thought before Jason says, “Okay, let’s see if that,” and then whatever he says next doesn’t register because a spot on the wall behind Gale warps and twists, and when Blue blinks the ghost is there.

He has no doubt this is what they’re looking for. It looks like a marowak, but… wrong. Not wrong the way surreality would make a ghost look wrong, but like someone sculpted a marowak skeleton out of wax with only a vague idea of what marowak even look like, then melted the result and stretched out its limbs so that it hunches over sharp, narrow legs. Its mask of bone is more of a skull, eye sockets empty voids and teeth leering in a rictus grin.

It looks absolutely terrifying, and for the space of a heartbeat Blue just stares in shock before he points and yells “Bash!” so loud that his voice comes out shrill, barely sounding like his own.

Eevee attacks anyway, but the Shadow Ball misses, splashing harmlessly to the side of the ghost. It rears its club back, then sends it spinning end over end at Gale.

The ranger heard Blue’s yell, however, and was already turning just in time to duck under the bone. “Shadow!” she commands, and her mismagius sends a much larger sphere of darkness at the ghost—

—”Guys, it’s here!” Blue yells, and unclips a great ball—

—who dodges. Haku’s umbreon is suddenly there, whole body emitting a dark aura that spreads toward the undead marowak… only to miss, the Dark Pulse passing dangerously close to Jason’s lampent. The bone club, somehow back in the marowak’s grip, cracks across the umbreon’s face hard enough to twist its neck completely around.

“Bash!” Blue yells even as the umbreon rolls lifelessly across the floor, but the attack misses once again, and Blue realizes—”Our pokemon can’t aim properly, except maybe the ghosts!”

His warning is punctuated by Gale’s mismagius once again sending a Shadow Ball in the right direction. It splashes over the marowak before it can completely avoid the attack, and in return it throws its bone club again, which hits the mismagius dead on, causing it to quite literally explode into scraps of purple cloth and mist.

fuck shit it’s strong

But even through his fear the battle calm is descending, his thoughts moving almost too fast to understand anything but conclusions as he watches Haku summon a haunter and Gale brings out a banette.

wasting attacks, need something widespread

no, precise

He unclips his laser pointer again, and this time when he commands Eevee to “Bash,” her aim is true to the red dot he points onto the enemy ghost’s body… though it’s less of a dot, more of a loose cloud, the high powered laser revealing the insubstantiveness of their opponent.

Jason’s lampent finally gets into position to attack, sending a splash of blue fire at the ghostly marowak at the same time as another Shadow Ball hits it from Haku’s haunter, and as Blue is about to order another attack to follow up the marowak just… melts, disappearing without a trace as the floor twists the same way the wall did when it appeared.

In the silence that follows, Blue can hear the stomp of boots as the others rush to join them, and he hears Haku say, “Did we kill it?” just as he looks up at him and sees something drop from the ceiling in the corner of his eye, seemingly far away but in reality just above Gale.

“Look out, Gale!” Jason yells, but it was too late the moment it appeared, and the ranger drops in a heap as blood sprays from her split skull.


“Need a swap!” Red yells.

“Ready!”

Red’s kingler gets withdrawn, revealing the marowak that had been successfully dodging its claw and hammering it hard enough to leave chips of its shell on the ground. Leaf has time to wonder if a fresh wave are arriving or if it’s one from the initial group that got lost, and then Jean summons a slowbro to take the kingler’s place. The marowak gets one hit on pink, blubbery flesh before it gets blasted back down the stairs in a burst of water.

Unfortunately the new tank is too slow to do more than soak damage. Its attacks help keep the pressure off, but it doesn’t have the reflexes to stop the numerous and nimble cubone trying to run past it.

Overall however, the flow of attackers has slowed as the bodies of the fallen have begun to create a true impediment to those still trying to reach them. Leaf has been wracking her mind for things that might stop this madness, and it’s only upon seeing the partially blocked stairway that at least one idea comes to her.

She quickly withdraws Wise, who’s tiring anyway, and sets Raff to guard while she searches through her bag for the right Container. A dozen quick breaths later she’s opening the box containing the pokedoll she travels with.

“Artem! Can your claydol send this to the stairs?”

He turns to her, eyes wide, then looks at her pokedoll, then the stairs, then back to her and nods. He steps beside Leaf as he gives a few quick commands to help the claydol coordinate exactly what to do, and soon his pokemon is floating overhead and the pokedoll slowly lifts… then launches toward the stairway as Artem holds his arms out in fists, where the foam-covered mannequin knocks a cubone down and adds to the pile of (bodies) obstacles.

Red has his own box out a moment later, and his pokedoll also gets launched into the stairs. They can hear the thuds of bone colliding with foam as the attackers turn on the dolls, for a few moments at least, before deciding they’re dead and trying to climb past them, but then Charmeleon is there, tail whipping globs of smoking pitch into the stairwell, and as the attackers struggle to make their way through the obstacles in darkness, for the first time since the initial marowak showed up there’s space to breathe.

Quite literally: the non-psychics among them are panting, herself included. She can hear the sounds of battle from elsewhere as the rangers at the windows try to keep any ghosts from reaching the floor above, and she realizes she doesn’t actually know how close they are to being overwhelmed: maybe they already have been.

She checks her watch and realizes it’s barely been five minutes since they arrived at this floor.

“Red, we need… to stop this,” Leaf pants. “The way I did… with the abra…” She takes a deep breath. “I know you said you have to keep your shield up, but… can you project for me?”

He turns wide eyes on her, and starts to speak… then closes his mouth, looking uncertain. “I… maybe. I might be able to do both. But it wouldn’t be strong compared to what the ghost is doing.”

“What if you… target the ghost? Would it work as a… a channel? Get it to stop?”

“It’s too dangerous,” Jean says from nearby. “Without your shield—”

“You can shield me,” Red says, face filling with a determination that makes her heart soar. “If you can bear it yourself.”

Jean looks torn, and to Leaf’s surprise Maria steps forward. “Please… they’re just children!”

The psychic looks from her to the cubone bodies, then away, gaze down. “I…”

“We’ve lost two rangers,” Iko suddenly says, making everyone turn to him. He’s watching the battle carefully even as he nurses his froslass back to health. “Maybe more, the others aren’t responding, probably still fighting it. If there’s a chance we can stop it even for a moment, that might be enough.”

Jean looks back and forth between them, then takes a breath and turns to Red. “Alright.”

“We’ll keep you safe,” Maria says, voice as confident as Leaf has ever heard her, and Artem nods.

Red sits down, and Leaf joins him, followed by Jean. “Just like last time,” Red says, giving her a strained smile.

Last time, on the cruise. She smiles back, and closes her eyes, pushing all the grief aside, the pain and uncertainty, the fear.

It doesn’t want to go, at first. She feels it coming back again and again as she tries to focus on the pure, unadulterated love and goodwill she’s practiced a few times since, but always in calmer, more positive surroundings…

Live, she thinks, deciding to lean into the fear rather than try to ignore it. The ghost is sending out grief; let it feel the motherly love she feels for her own pokemon, the desire to protect them no matter what. Live. That’s all that matters. Live, live, live…


“Gale!” Haku yells, and rushes toward her with a potion in hand. Blue tried to lock another attack onto the ghost after it struck, but it didn’t stop when it hit the ground, simply sinking into it again.

He almost steps forward to help with Gale, but instead instinctively flings himself at Jason, catching the older boy around the middle so that they both roll along the ground.

He has no idea if he was right, by the time they stop rolling the ghost might have struck at either of them and disappeared again, but as he helps Jason up he yells, “It can move in the walls and floor and ceiling, keep mobile!”

When the marowak appears again its target is the haunter, and again a single strike is all it needs to disperse the ghost’s spikey silhouette into a cloud of poisonous gas.

Ping.

One of the new arrivals throws the ball they’d locked while the haunter was killed, but the ghost is too fast. The next Shadow Ball gets closer to hitting it, but again it’s gone in a blink…

…and by sheer luck, it appears right in front of Blue, who cries out a warning even as his ball pings a lock, and throws with a surge of triumph—

—that dies as the ball goes through it—

what

—an attack makes the ghost disappear, and in the coldness of his calm he discards the confusion and starts looking again, taking another ball out as he waits for it to return—

Blue!”

Again Blue throws himself to the side, shoulder and upper back crashing into a wall as he turns to see the ghost behind where he was, bone club in hand. It raises its club to throw at him, then disappears again as blue fire from Jason’s lampent splashes over where it was standing, sending a wave of heat over Blue as he scrambles to his feet even as it reappears next to him again, and this time when it swings he leaps to the side, feeling pure terror even amid the battle calm as he lands and swivels and backsteps and aims…

It’s gone before the lock, dropping out of the wall by one of the rangers that arrived and dropping him with a club, but this time it takes a few hits from the others before disappearing again, and the next time it appears its target dodges, and the next, and the next.

Blue aims the ultra ball in one hand and laser pointer in the other, swiveling his torso as he keeps moving. He has to stay mobile, has to find just the right time… maybe a status effect would be helpful, but he can’t think of any he has that would be quick enough to hit it…

The other rangers have shifted into a star formation, watching each other’s backs as they keep moving as well, and this time when the ghost shows up they’re all ready, moving away and attacking at the same time, and Blue feels a surge of hope. We can get it, we can catch it… The floor under it warps as it starts to disappear, and Blue almost turns away to look for where it will reappear—

But instead of sinking into the ground, it seems to stumble… no, not stumble, stutter, its position moving without its body changing posture, and Jason abruptly yells, “Now, get it now!”

Attacks begin to pour onto it from all directions, Dark Pulses and Shadow Balls, blue Flamethrowers and white Ice Beams (which may be counter productive, but who knows with this thing), and through it all Blue tries to get a lock with his ball, one more try, come on, give me one more chance… but the ping never comes, and when the attacks clear the ghost is gone.

Blue starts swiveling again, and stumbles. The walls, the ceiling, the floor… everything is crowding in on him…

No. It’s static. It’s… normal.

Breathing hard, barely willing to believe it, he carefully takes his goggles off and looks around.

Everything looks fine. The faint feeling of sadness from before is gone.

So are all the bodies.


Here’s a rare author’s post-script! I saw a lot of good guesses as to what this pokemon would be, and I can imagine some might be disappointed that it’s a pokemon that “doesn’t exist.” It’s the only time so far I’ve made up a pokemon, and will probably remain so… but keep in mind that the actual thing we encounter in the games is in some sense exactly this: a marowak ghost pokemon that completely blocks anyone from ascending the tower or detecting it without a Silph Scope, and can’t be captured! Yes it’s treated like a normal marowak in that fight once you have the scope, but that seems like a (boring) artifact of the original games not tweaking pokemon for boss battles, and I’m happy to spice it up to tie it to the wider mysteries in the world I’m building 🙂

The Bad Therapist

I often think about what makes a good therapist, and find it a hard question to answer in an organized and concise way. What’s far easier, and maybe as helpful to anyone looking for therapy, is the reverse question. So, in the style of CGP Grey’s 7 Ways to Maximize Misery, I hope this list of what makes for a bad therapist can help you find a good one.

  1. A bad therapist lacks all curiosity.

They assume that their education or experience or inherent wisdom means they just know what the client means and wants and needs, even if (sometimes especially if) the client disagrees. They rarely use reflective listening or Socratic questioning, and instead of reserving assertions for psychoeducation and normalizing, instead tell the client precisely what they think is wrong, what mistakes the client is making, and/or what the client needs to do to improve, all stated with confidence rather than as hypotheses. If your therapist does all this within the first session, run away.

  1. A bad therapist will not respond well to negative feedback.

They expect their therapy style and modality to be perfectly suited to any client, and are not willing to adapt or learn how to best help their client. This isn’t to say all therapists and clients are suited to each other, but if reports of dissatisfaction are  turned back on you with accusations of projection or “resistance to treatment,” that’s a great flag to find another therapist.

  1. A bad therapist pathologizes constantly.

Anything unusual about the client, from their hobbies to their fetishes to their philosophy, is suspected of causing dysfunction regardless of whether it actually does. These therapists conform to the broader culture they’re embedded in, and act as agents of social control on all manner of moral issues, from sexuality to family dynamics to choice of profession. If your therapist speaks in cliches such as “Family always forgives” or “Marriage is a sacred bond,” find a more open minded one.  

  1. A bad therapist pushes their worldview onto the client. 

A religious therapist who insists that “God works in mysterious ways,” or an atheist who dismisses spiritual comforts are not only unlikely to help their grieving client of the opposite beliefs, but can cause extra harm by making them feel alienated and unheard. Finding a therapist who matches your worldview can be valuable, but any competent therapist should be able to leave theirs at the door.

  1. A bad therapist can’t remain objective. 

They triangulate with parent or child or spouse against child or parent or spouse, or they identify too strongly with the client and start to act more as a friend, focusing on comfort to the detriment of growth. Sometimes objectivity requires pointing out that some mistakes are one-sided, but if you don’t feel like your therapist is making an effort to include everyone’s perspectives, find another one.

  1. A bad therapist will insist that their model is the only one with value.

These therapists view all of mental health through a single lens, the causes and solutions to illness forced into the mold they developed during their education or personal experiences. While an expert in a specific modality can be invaluable, a professional should always be ready to refer a client elsewhere if they encounter a problem in treatment, rather than blame the client and insist they’re not understanding or not trying hard enough. 

  1. A bad therapist is okay with therapy lasting forever.

They make no effort to set concrete goals or give the client the tools they need to move on without them. If within a month you don’t have a good sense of what it would take for you to feel satisfied ending therapy, or at least reduce the frequency of sessions, then it’s worth bringing it up yourself to see if the therapist has a sense of direction or goals in mind. Vague and subjective goals are better than nothing, but ideally there would still be some observable change that can act as a metric of growth.

  1. A bad therapist can’t properly balance uncertainty and responsibility. 

This is the kind of therapist who attempts to hospitalize their client due to non-critical self-harm, or for simply talking about their suicidality, rather than because there is imminent and specific threat to life. Unfortunately there is little you can do to predict that your therapist is like this ahead of time, but you can at least get a sense for how well they understand the limits of confidentiality when they explain it to you; a good therapist should clarify this distinction so their client feels safe being open about how they feel.

  1. They think therapy is about talking, not doing.

A large part of therapy is talking, of course, but it’s been a century since Freud borrowed the phrase “Talking Cure” and ran with a model of therapy aiming purely for catharsis. Therapy should be doing more than just venting and processing; it should also involve learning new tools to be practiced between sessions. If you’ve gone to a handful already and your therapist still hasn’t assigned you any homework, start asking for some.

I hope people find this helpful; as I said, it’s not a great guide to help finding a good therapist, but I’ve heard enough horror stories in my professional life by this point to at least try to minimize the amount of bad ones people waste their time, money, and emotional energy with.

Chapter 88: Heeding Whispers

There’s a beat of silence after Artem’s announcement, followed by Jean saying, “Well, that’s anticlimactic. Back to Celadon, then?”

Red turns to her. “Really?”

“Well, we came to investigate why there were so many of them.”

“He didn’t say they’re back to normal, he said they’re all gone.”

“Mostly,” Artem clarifies.

Mostly gone, sure.” Red steps forward and hands his trainer ID to the receptionist. “Either way, that seems just as worth investigating!”

“Agreed,” Jason says. “If anything this is even more alarming.”

Blue looks back and forth between them, then nods to Artem. “Fill us in on the way.”

They finish registering at the Trainer House (except for Jason, who says he’ll be staying with his family) then follow Jason out of the Trainer House and toward the tower, which juts up from the middle of the town like a sundial. In a city it would barely qualify as tall, but as the only building over three stories tall in Lavender it practically looms overhead as they walk down the main street toward it.

“The tower became closed to visitors a few hours ago, after they rushed everyone visiting out,” Artem explains, hands stuffed in his jacket pockets against the cold as he walks in the middle of the group so everyone can hear him. “It was really sudden, and they didn’t really explain why, just said it was some unscheduled maintenance. There are extra rangers on patrol around it, but I asked around and none of them seem to be new to town, so the tower seems to be empty. But compared to a few days ago, the graveyard around the tower is basically empty of ghosts, so the extra rangers are basically just walking in circles.”

“Visitors usually don’t encounter many ghosts as long as they stick to the public mausoleum,” Jason says from the front of the group. “If they didn’t close the tower when there were extra around, why would they close it now that there don’t seem to be any?”

“Maybe they’re not actually gone,” Jean asks. “If we assume they closed it for a good reason, that makes more sense, right? Hard to see how a lack of ghosts would be dangerous.”

“All depends what’s causing it,” Leaf says.

“She’s right.” Jason’s voice is tense. “Unless a dark pokemon got in, the biggest threat to ghosts are other ghosts. If one became strong enough to scare off its competition, it might be more dangerous than a large number of weaker pokemon.”

“Scare off,” Maria murmurs. “Or consume.”

As they walk, Red notices the way some people are hurriedly placing strips of paper over their doors and windows. He’s about to bring it up when Blue mutters, “I think the word is out.”

“What are they?” Leaf asks.

“Ofuda.” Red’s katakana is spotty, but he can recognize the five symbols spelling Arceus out on the one hanging above the door of a mixed barbershop and pokemon grooming salon.

“The people who got kicked out must have spread the word,” Artem muses. “Or someone in the rangers talked.”

“Doubt it was the rangers,” Blue says. “They wouldn’t want people panicking like this while they still don’t even know what’s going on. Assuming they still don’t, I guess.”

“I don’t see panic,” Jason says, voice mild but firm. “Just reasonable precaution.”

“Wait, sorry, still not clear on what’s happening,” Leaf says. “Those are, what, protective charms? Against ghost pokemon?”

“Against evil spirits of all kinds,” Jason says. “Though personally I do not believe such things exist. Many spirits may not be beneficial to humans, but ‘evil’ implies a malevolent will, which is much like calling a pokemon or virus evil.”

From their expressions Red can tell that wasn’t the followup sentence the rest of the group expected, but no one seems willing to challenge the idea. Blue glances at Red, as if surprised he’s not saying something in response.

The beat of awkward silence is broken by Leaf, who breaks away from the group and walks up to one of the people moving from building to building. The young woman is wearing the white and red of a shrine priestess, and as Leaf approaches she aims a can with a caterpie on it above the window of the grocery store and presses the nozzle, spraying out a brief stream of sticky thread.

“Excuse me, I was wondering… what you’re doing? Sorry, I’m not from around here.”

The priestess presses the top of the ofuda to the sticky spot, then turns to Leaf, assessing gaze taking in her pokebelt, then jumping to the rest of the group. “Trainers come to the tower?”

“Yes, to research what’s been going on recently. Have you heard something?”

“Only that the spirits have fled. We don’t know where, but…” She separates a handful of the tags and holds them out to her. “Please, be cautious.”

Leaf takes them and nods. “Thank you.” She returns to the group, looking dubiously at the paper… but then her nose wrinkles, and she brings them close to her face for a moment before holding them out far from her body. When she gets closer Jason steps forward, and she turns so he can take one, slipping it under his pokebelt.

“They’ve been soaked in repel,” she explains to the others as she peels one off and follows Jason’s example. “I thought this was… spiritual?”

“You’re like Red,” Jason says, seeming amused. “Thinking the world of spirit and matter are distinct and exclusive. The repel is for pokemon, and the prayer is to strengthen the repel against ghost types.”

“And that works?” Leaf asks, glancing at Red, who already has his pokedex out.

“Inconclusive,” he says after a moment, disappointed. “Come on, how hard can that be to test? I know repel is hard to test in general, and ghosts are fickle, but…”

“But in the meantime, it’s still free repel,” Blue says, and shrugs as he takes the last one and slips it under his own belt.

Soon after they reach the last block before the gates of the massive cemetery surrounding Lavender Tower. “This is where wild ghosts start to regularly get seen,” Jason says, and summons his gastly before taking out his goggles. “Shall we see if these work?”

“What are those?” Artem asks, and Blue explains while the others follow suit. The professor apparently made an even ten, leaving Blue with two spare after he gives Artem one.

Red has to adjust the strap on his three times, during which he hears Leaf say, “Oh, that’s bizarre.” He turns to see her already looking in the gastly’s direction with hers on.

“Yeah, but it’s working… mostly?” Artem adds. “I keep wanting to take it off to see more clearly, which is weird.”

“No, I get it,” Jean insists. “I feel the same, like part of me is convinced the goggles are the problem.”

Curiosity burning, Red finally gets the goggles mostly snug before he opens his eyes and looks around. There’s a slight loss in peripheral vision, and the glass has an odd tinting effect that simultaneously darkens whatever Red sees while sharpening the colors, but overall it’s only a little more restrictive of his vision than safety goggles used to protect against wind, smoke, and powders. He adjusts it once more to try and alleviate the weight of it on the bridge of his nose, then turns and beholds the gastly.

It looks… normal. Or rather, “normal” as he’s been taught to see it on monitors and pokedex screens. It’s not quite like a camera would capture it; the haze around the dark central sphere seems more opaque, which makes it hard to make out the large white eyes that seem to stare into his soul, or the pink tongue that flicks from its mouth.

But Red sees these things, and they don’t make him recoil. No muscles tighten along his spine, no cold sweat pops out of his forehead. Instead a tension in his stomach slowly eases as he realizes that they’re not going to come.

“Cooool…”

The others chuckle, and Red takes a step forward before remembering that he shouldn’t. He starts to walk around the gastly, and instead of its blank white eyes seeming to follow him, he quickly moves beyond its line of sight and gets to observe the others’ indistinct forms through the cloud of its body.

Leaf and Maria begin circling the gastly too, and Red only notices it turning when its eyes come back into sight, following Maria. “Do you think it realizes something’s wrong?” she asks, voice taking on a distant tone that he recognizes as her own intense curiosity. “Maybe it’s not used to people focusing so directly on it. Or so many. Or maybe it feels our lack of unnerve.”

“It’s confused,” Jason confirms. “But not wary or worried. It’s particularly interested in you, Maria. As I suspected, you may have unexplored talent as a medium.”

“Oh.” Her hands rub down the front of her coat, a gesture Red imagines she picked up from Lizzy. “I’m, um. Not sure what to do with that information?”

“Ghost pokemon sense and manipulate emotions the way psychics do thoughts. As a sensitive, your gift, faint though it is, makes your emotions easier for them to detect and respond to, though it will also make you extra susceptible to wild ghosts we might encounter. But if you’ve never tried training ghost types before, you might be surprised by how easy it is.”

“Nice,” Blue says, and smiles at her. “If you can pick one up it would help a lot against Sabrina.”

Jason frowns slightly. “If there are only a few left in the area, catching them may make some natural imbalance worse. As I said before, our main objective—”

“Is to study, sure, but if we’re attacked it’s better to catch them than kill them, right?”

Red starts to suspect, too late, why Blue was so interested in coming, and calls himself ten kinds of fool for not thinking of it right away. He must have been thrilled to hear about all the extra ghost pokemon appearing just before he would be heading to Sabrina’s gym.

“We can be careful,” Leaf says, and looks between Red, Jason and Jean. “You guys can detect them, right?”

“Yes, though it comes with a risk,” Jean says. “Any we sense will sense us back, and might attack. Still, it’s better than being taken by surprise.”

Leaf nods and taps the ofuda in her belt. “Combined with these, we might be able to avoid any fights.”

Blue (reluctantly) nods, and Maria is thoughtfully looking over the gravestone studded hills. Jason joins her, turning a slow half circle to survey the area around the tower as well. “I’d like to do a full search of the graveyard before we attempt to go in. I may be able to learn something from any that have left.”

“Let’s split up, then,” Blue says. “We can let you know if we spot one, while also looking for other clues.”

Red makes a point of turning to Jason. “Does that sound good?”

The medium sends Red a pulse of gratitude, then considers this a moment before nodding. “I’ll be safe travelling alone. For the rest…” He looks at Blue. “What would you recommend?”

Blue hooks his thumbs in his pockets. “Well, Jean and I are the strongest trainers here, so I could go with Red and Leaf while she leads Maria and Artem… but to be honest, however good you are with ghost pokemon, this is an unusual situation. I don’t think anyone should be traveling alone.”

“I’m confident that I can avoid a battle with a wild if I encounter one, but I can’t assure the same for anyone with me.”

“Should we expect observable clues?” Artem asks. “If not, the rest of us are basically just here for muscle, and to help figure out what’s happening once we start learning something. Seems silly not to make use of us at every stage.”

It’s a fair point. Red turns to Jason and shrugs. “At least take Maria with you? You can teach her more about her gift, in case it’s something she wants to pursue.”

Jason’s expression becomes thoughtful again (or at least, Red thinks it does, he’s hard to read even without the goggles), and when he turns to her Maria is already nodding. “I’d be happy to learn, if it’s not an imposition.”

“Not at all.”

“Alright, then,” Blue says, hand tracing the dive ball at the front right position on his waist. “Artem, sorry, I assumed without asking that Jean and I are the most experienced trainers here. What’s on your belt?”

“Oh, that’s fine, yeah, I only have two badges. Right now I’m carrying nosepass, trubbish, magnemite, claydol, and electrode.”

Blue blinks. “You use an electrode? In battle?”

Red can’t tell if Blue is worried or impressed (maybe both), but his own attention is elsewhere. “You only use manmade pokemon?”

“It overlaps with my research,” Artem says to Red, then turns to Blue. “I spent a few months at Vermilion Gym last year.”

“Alright, well I’m still going to pair you with Jean, since she’s our strongest. You two head right, Jason and Maria go straight, and Leaf, Red and I will go left. We’ll meet at the far side if nothing is found, then make our way back to the tower entrance. Any questions?”

No one appears to have any, and Blue looks to Jason last. The medium nods, and Blue unclips the white and blue diveball. “Go, Maturin!”

“Woah. She’s gotten big.” Standing on its hindlegs brings the wartortle’s fanlike ears past Blue’s head, and her body is as wide as his. When Red brings out Charmeleon his horn only comes up to Maturin’s neck, and when Leaf summons Raff, he feels a note of chagrin to see that even the ivysaur is bigger than Charmeleon now. Clearly he needs to spend more time with his starter.

Once the others summon their own pokemon and Blue coordinates their radio frequencies, the three groups set off, and Red starts to pulse out his psydar. He quickly filters the minds of Leaf and their three pokemon out from his attention, then focuses on any new ones that appear at the edges of his “bubble.”

Before long he senses a pokemon underground, probably a cubone looking for a meal among the dead. The scavenger goes still as their footsteps approach, then quickly flees beyond his range, and soon after they pass within range of an old couple visiting a gravestone, followed by a small funeral gathering, everyone’s minds touched with fresh grief. It’s a relatively new emotion for Red to sense through simple observation rather than merger; the only time he felt it in the past was after the storm.

Occasionally he also senses the cautious, tense, or alert minds of rangers, always in pairs as they walk patrols around the tower.

About a quarter of an hour passes without any sense of the alien minds he glimpsed when meeting Jason’s ghost pokemon… but instead of relaxing into a less vigilant state, his body remains tense, and he realizes how nervous he is about mentally contacting a ghost again.

Don’t stress about it. The others can protect us if you’re disoriented, and Jason is nearby.

Hmm. Usually unpartitioned Red isn’t the optimistic one… if he feels safe because of the partition, he definitely shouldn’t given that their Spinarak’s ghost attack weakened his partition for weeks.

Yes, I know. If we get hit by one now, we’re in danger of losing all this progress for a while…

Red’s stomach feels queasy, and he almost thinks it’s just from the idea of losing “himself” for a while if the partition stays down. But there’s something else, too, some other fear that feels hard to define, and he wishes he could stop using his psydar for a moment to try Focusing on it…

No. The rejection is strong enough to make Red stumble a step, and he quickly understands why: whatever he’d been about to poke at was hidden for a reason.

“What’s up?” Blue asks, suddenly tense. “Found something?”

“No, just, uh, tripped.” His curiosity burns to find out what he’s forgetting, what secret might be revealed if his partition goes down… but no, that would defeat the purpose. Whatever it is, his unpartitioned self is worried about being revealed, all he has to know is that it would be bad. Red forces himself to focus on his psydar again. “Still all quiet around us.” He realizes with surprise that they’ve walked halfway around the tower.

“I know we’re here for a reason, but it’s hard not to hope it stays that way,” Leaf says as she tosses a treat toward Raff. The ivysaur catches it out of the air with a vine, and she throws another at Maturin, then Charmeleon, who dashes after it once Red mentally nudges him to let him know it’s okay to eat. “This is really nice.”

“Less creepy than hunting ghosts in a graveyard should be,” Blue agrees.

“Could always come back at night,” Leaf says with a grin. “Particularly without Red to warn us if something is coming. But I meant just… the surroundings, I guess. It’s oddly peaceful. And it’s nice traveling with you two again, no offense to the others.” She nudges Blue with her elbow. “You group us three together on purpose?”

“Nah, this split made the most sense. It does let me ask, though…” He turns to Red. “Was I being overbearing?”

“A little,” he says, relieved he didn’t have to bring it up himself, and that Blue sounds curious rather than upset. “I know you’ve got the most experience doing things like this, and Jason does too. But, well, he is the one that set things off, and the expert on ghosts…”

“I get it. Been treating him like a quest giver.” Blue sighs, breath pluming out in front of him. “Still feels like a waste not to catch whatever pokemon we can find, especially if they’re suddenly becoming rare, and I know Sabrina is going to have a couple Psychic/Fighting types waiting for me. Isn’t there some way you could attract them to us, Red?”

“I thought about it,” he admits. “I don’t think any ghosts hunt by sound, though, or by smell. They like to feed on psychics or other ghosts, so Jean or Jason or I would have to just project out something that would make us seem vulnerable enough that any ghosts in the area come to feed.”

“Which would maybe get you eaten by a hungry horde.” Blue sighs. “Guess I’ll just buy a couple ghosts if we don’t find any.”

“Getting rid of another self-imposed rule?”

“Maybe, yeah. They feel more arbitrary after everything that’s happened, particularly my battle with Erika. And I did buy Rive for Surge, so it’s not unprecedented. Just wanted to keep my main fighters those I caught myself, if I could.”

They walk silently after that, and Red starts to pay more attention to their surroundings. After a minute he decides Leaf is right. There’s something calming about the rows of white and grey stone on green hills beneath the grey winter sky. The faint smells of grass and stone and soil come to him with every cold breath, and the air is still and quiet, almost like the world itself is holding its breath in respect of the dead.

He’s glad the partition is up, or he’d have a much harder time appreciating all this.

Just as he has that thought, he notices a speck of something falling slowly across his field of vision. He looks up, then to the sides, and stops to take off his goggles, blinking at the brighter world he finds himself in. He rubs the bridge of his nose where the weight of the goggles was resting, then grins as he realizes that what he’s seeing is the first snowfall of winter descending around them.

“Ooo!” Leaf sticks her tongue out and tries to catch a falling flake, and Red watches for long enough that Blue nudges him with his elbow. Red flushes and starts his psydar pulses again as he raises his collar and tugs his hat down.

“About time.” Blue opens a container ball from his bag and takes out a scarf. “Thought all that shit in Hoenn meant we weren’t getting a proper winter this year.”

“Glad we did. It’s been years since I saw snow.” Leaf ties her hair up, then pulls a wool hat out of her bag while Raff makes a plaintive sound and rubs at his nose. “Relax you big baby, it’s a snowflake, not an Ice Beam.” Still, she withdraws him, and Red replaces Charmeleon with Pikachu while Blue swaps Maturin for Aiko’s eevee.

She’s grown as well, as tall as Blue’s waist. Her black nose lifts to sniff the cold air, then she bounds toward Leaf to nuzzle her legs. “You’re really using a Normal type to hunt ghosts?” Leaf asks as she bends down to vigorously rub her fingers through its silver fur with a grin. “Or are you trying to get her to evolve into glaceon?”

“Wouldn’t mind a glaceon,” Blue admits. “But no, this pretty lady is, in fact, a ghost hunting machine. I bought a Shadow Ball TM so she and Snorlax have coverage. It’s not too strong from either of them, but combined with their defensive advantage I’m pretty confident in her ability to handle most things we might encounter.”

Red nods speculatively. The research is still spotty, but does seem to point to the Normal pokemon not being consistently “interesting” to ghosts, such that they’ll often ignore them in the wild. It’s often cited as the only attribute the Normal type can be said to directly possess, though it seems like backwards reasoning to Red. If the label gets put on any pokemon that would not otherwise be called Normal but shares the same attribute, then they’ve just come up with a “type” to explain a single trait that many, varied other pokemon share.

Still, it can’t be denied that it’s an advantage if paired with an attack that the ghost is susceptible to. “Good thinking. I actually bought Shadow Claw before I set—” His head yanks up.

The other two immediately turn to follow his gaze, but he knows they don’t see them, since Red can’t see them either, even with his goggles off; the grey sky is nearly hidden by growing flurries of falling snow. But he can still sense them, just on the edge of his awareness…

“Red?”

“It’s okay,” he says, and closes his eyes so he can better focus on what he’s sensing. “They’re not… I think they’re unown.” There’s five of them moving through the air in a loose ribbon. Red brushes some melted snowflakes from his eyelids, then puts his goggles back on and opens them before looking up again. He thinks he can vaguely make them out, though they keep disappearing for a while when he blinks. “They’re just flying around above us.” He’d love to catch one and try merging with it; he read online that their minds are absurdly simple, even more so than exeggcute, but it still seems like it would be a new and interesting experience.

“Better get some air support then,” Leaf says, and summons Wise, the noctowl she caught during the Vermilion storm.

“The groups seen flying around lately haven’t been reported as attacking anyone yet, as far as I’ve heard?”

“I know, but better safe than sorry, right? Plus, Wise can also protect us from any ghosts that show up from above.”

“It makes Pikachu the prime target,” Blue admits. “But also makes the ghosts more predictable. Don’t worry, we’ll keep him safe.”

Red nods, letting his worry for his pokemon go by leaning into his trust in his friends, and they set off again as Wise soars above them in a protective, near-silent circle. The crunch of their footsteps grows louder as they go from walking on grass to compacting fresh snow beneath each step, and soon snow covers the grass around them entirely, the whole graveyard transformed into something even more stark and colorless… but still beautiful in its own way.

They watch Pikachu and Eevee frolic through the snow and catch up on some of the minutiae of their recent day-to-day lives. Red gets a text from his mother expressing excitement about him being in town and asking him if he’s wearing enough layers, and Leaf sends a message to Mr. Sakai to see if he needs help due to the snow.

They’re three fourths of the way around the tower when Jean suddenly speaks into their earpieces. “Got one, about 25 degrees from the tower. It noticed me, but it’s keeping its distance. We are too.”

The three of them are already running when Blue says, “On our way,” back, which is quickly echoed by Jason.

The snow is coming down hard enough to limit visibility beyond the tower, but once they reach the top of the hill where it sits they quickly spot the others and start down towards them.

There’s two more figures than they expected with the others, however: a man and woman pair of rangers. The man is in discussion with Jean, while the woman examines one of their goggles. As they get closer Red sees that Jason isn’t wearing his; instead the medium is standing with his eyes closed, fingers turning his beads as snow collects on the handmade wool cap covering his head and ears. It looks decidedly out of place with his robes.

“…for our investigation,” Jean is saying as they get close enough to overhear. The cold air cuts Red’s lungs like knives with each breath, and he struggles to draw his next one in quieter. “We were tipped off that something unusual was happening.”

“Tipped off by who, exactly—” The young ranger pauses, having just noticed the three of them. He looks about Daisy’s age, but a square jaw and crew cut make him look older. “Shit, it’s the Oaklings themselves.” Leaf discreetly elbows Red, who bites his tongue. “These five with you, Young Oak?”

Oh boy. But Blue doesn’t puff out his chest, simply nodding as he bends down to feed his panting Eevee a treat. “Is there a problem here?”

“No, I just… didn’t expect the Professor to send you kids, that’s all.” His partner, a tall woman with cornrows that end in various colorful beads, has stopped examining the goggles for a moment, also looking surprised. Her name tag says Gale on it, and his Nathan.

“Send us? I mean, he knows we’re here, but it was our idea to come.” Blue is frowning slightly. “We made a public post about our intent to investigate the tower a few days ago?”

“A few days… Oh, because of all the ghosts that were showing up. But if the Professor didn’t send you today…” Nathan glances at his partner, but Gale is busy testing out the goggles; after adjusting the strap to fit her, she summons a mismagius. Red instinctively looks away, then remembers he’s wearing the goggles and turns curiously back. It looks like a floating puppet, some elaborately designed piece of purple and violet cloth with three red gems embroidered on the front, and painted-on yellow and crimson eyes.

“Huh,” she says as she withdraws her pokemon and takes the goggles off. “It really works.”

“Shit, how come we don’t have this stuff?” Nathan shakes his head and turns back to Blue. “Would your grandfather be willing to make a couple dozen of these for those of us stationed here?”

“Uh, maybe. I can call him…?”

“Please do. We’re happy to pay, assuming they don’t cost a fortune. In the meantime, we may have to appropriate this gear for our own investigation.”

There’s a moment of silence, and then a lot of people start speaking at once.

“Wait, but you—”

“—we’re here to—”

“—that mean you found—”

“—can help if we—”

“—guys, chill, chill!” Blue says, hands up to either side, and the rest of the group trails off. Blue nods to them (ignoring Leaf’s grin) then looks at Jason, who’s still standing silently with his eyes closed. “Everything okay, Jason?”

“Yes,” the medium replies, voice flat and distant in a way that Red recognizes from their merging practice. He realizes Jason is sweating, despite the cold, and feels guilty for not noticing before Blue did. A quick pulse of his psydar confirms that Jason is attempting to merge with a nearby gastly… and also reveals that both rangers are dark.

“Wait, what’s wrong?” Gale’s alarm turns her voice sharp, one hand dropping to her belt. “Are you being attacked?”

“Not… quite… from your perspective… perhaps… carry on, please…”

“Don’t worry,” Blue says to the rangers. “He knows what he’s doing. That’s what I meant to tell you… we would, of course, be happy to assist by lending you our equipment if needed, but I believe we could be valuable resources ourselves.”

Gale is frowning as she looks between them, still clearly concerned for Jason. “We’re still trying to determine what’s happening here, exactly. We don’t want to involve non-rangers until we know what we’re stepping into, and if the Professor didn’t send you… plus, three of you are psychics, which puts you at higher risk.”

“Not just any psychics,” Red puts in. If he’s going to learn to flex his status, might as well start now. “Jason and I are Sabrina’s students, and he’s an expert on Ghost type pokemon.” He hopes Jason doesn’t pick this moment to contest that label. “And Jean is from Celadon Gym.”

“That I guessed,” the ranger says, voice wry. “And the rest of you? Are you Ghost experts too?”

“Trainer and researcher,” Artem says, raising his hand.

“Trainer and journalist?” Leaf tries, raising her own. “Also, I might have special love-powers that help calm psychics and might work on ghosts?”

Both rangers, Artem, and Jean are staring at Leaf while Maria raises her hand. “I’m not really sure why I’m here, other than curiosity and a desire to be helpful. Oh, trainer. But also Jason says I might be a non-psychic medium, which I didn’t know existed, so I’d like to stay and learn more about that if I’m allowed?”

“Love-powers,” a bemused Jean repeats as Blue murmurs something to Maria.

“Of course, the thing with the abra.” Artem looks excited. “You think that might keep you safe from ghosts? Or is there some other experiment you’ve run that hasn’t been publicized?”

Leaf shrugs and tosses a treat up for Wise, who snaps it out of the air. “It seems to calm other psychics that I’m around, though I’ve only tested it on tame ones, and know they aren’t naturally scared of humans, so maybe it won’t be as reassuring, but—”

“Look, it’s not just about the ghosts,” Nathan interrupts. “We’re not at liberty to discuss everything, but there have also been a suspicious amount of people moving around the tower over the past few weeks.”

“Wait, what?” Blue is frowning at the rangers. “Why hasn’t that been mentioned anywhere?”

“Suspicious in retrospect,” Gale amends, shooting her partner a look. “We had no reason to suspect anything before, but they seem to have stopped showing up today, which may be related to nearly all the ghosts having vanished. We’ve reported it, of course, but there’s no reason to send out a general bulletin.”

“So you thought the Professor sent us because he was told about what’s going on,” Blue smiles. “When really, we were already on our way. I bet Grandpa won’t even read your message until sometime tonight.”

“What do you plan to do with the goggles, anyway?” Red asks. “If the ghosts are mostly gone, and the mysterious people aren’t showing up…”

The rangers give each other a look, and Gale sighs. “Alright, this is above our paygrade. Better let the sergeant know and see what he says.”

Nathan nods and steps away, presumably to make a call, while Blue gives Gale a charming smile. “So what can you tell us?”

Red lets Blue handle that, walking over to Jason with Pikachu trailing him in the snow and settling between his feet. Red drops some berries for him as he studies the medium, who’s still standing with his eyes closed, face pale but for twin red spots on his cheeks. His fingers are clutching his necklace beads rather than turning them, and Red feels worry spread through his gut.

“Hey,” Red murmurs. “Anything I can do?”

“Nh,” Jason grunts back, and swallows. “No… just need… time…”

Jean joins them, and Red turns to her. “Were the rangers here when you found it?”

“No, they saw Jason and Maria running to us and came to see what was wrong.” She’s still watching Jason, brow creased. “Amazing that he can continue to do this while being attacked.”

“While… what?” Red looks back at Jason in horror. “He said he wasn’t…” Wait, shit, it’s the usual thing he does of framing things in his own way. Red remembers being hit by the spinarak attack again, and winces as he imagines being constantly hit by something even stronger… “How is he doing it?”

“I don’t know. Some very specialized and skillful use of amnesia, perhaps, or a unique mental shield… or something in his state of mind that makes the attacks less harmful than they would otherwise be…”

Red considers it a mark of personal growth that he doesn’t immediately decide to try mirroring Jason’s mental state. Of course, that could just be his unpartitioned self sending him some restraint…

Not really. Kind of hard to stay interested in anything at the moment.

Red understands; he never did visit Dad’s grave, and being around other rangers is sometimes triggering. He’s glad the partition is there to keep him able to focus on the puzzle in front of him, but knows he should probably talk to Dr. Seward about how he can build up to visiting the Pallet graveyard.

For now, he needs to focus on the puzzle in front of him. It’s easy to think of the reasons to merge with Jason right now: they may be about to enter the tower, in which he may get attacked by a ghost, and there’s no other opportunity to try mirroring a live attack since Jason can’t exactly order his own pokemon to attack him, and Red doubts anyone else with one would unless Red sets up another research study.

For reasons not to do it now… well those are obvious too. It might go badly and mess things up for Jason, or mess up Blue’s plan to get them all involved in investigating whatever is happening. Also it might be really painful and unpleasant to have his partition get ruined for a while if something goes wrong, and that itself might cause bad stuff he can’t even think of.

Meaning there are some known unknowns, which Red should probably work to shift to knowns before he tries it—

Ask Jason. We don’t know what we might face in the tower, and we need to be prepared. It’s not pessimistic, I’m being appropriately cautious by planning for things going wrong. Things always go wrong, do you want to lose another friend? No, morbid would be—

“Red?” Jean is looking at him with concern. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, fine. Why?”

“You were muttering to yourself.”

Well that’s awkward. Better keep an eye out for that. “I was just thinking, I might be able to learn to do it if I could join the merger for a moment. I’ll only do it if Jason says it’s okay, though.”

“Do it,” Jason says, almost before Red finishes talking. It takes him by surprise, and he almost asks if the medium is sure before realizing that now probably isn’t the time to pester him with questions. Trust him to know what you can handle.

He does, when it comes to Ghost pokemon. But first he summons a container box to sit on. Pikachu jumps into his lap and curls into a warm, fuzzy ball, and Red uses the mouse’s rapid heartbeats against his thigh to ground himself before extending his senses.

The merger is difficult to focus on at first. While he expected a fierce strain of mind against mind, oddly enough the impression he gets is… calling it a dance would be aggrandizing it. It’s nothing so coordinated. Instead the ghost is keeping its distance, while Jason keeps trying to gently merge with it, only to be driven away by an attack for a few moments before trying again. Or maybe “attack” really is the wrong word… in terms of effort from the gastly, they seem like the equivalent of a meowth batting at a hand trying to pet it at the wrong moment.

Most pokemon would probably get more irritated and lash out, but he remembers Jason saying that ghost pokemon experience time, space, and the order of events in very different ways, and this is the first time he’s seeing it in action. The gastly seems locked in a loop of indifference, as if everything happening is happening for the first time. In return, the medium is only trying to share one sense at a time, and waiting patiently for more even as he’s hit by something that he quickly shuts down. Sometimes it’s a memory that gets amnesia’d, or an emotion that he partitions, but whatever the effect, he’s ready to abandon that part of himself and (humbly) try again.

Humility. It’s hard to think of how it wasn’t the first thing he noticed, the medium is radiating it, his entire being focused on a sense of unassuming deference to the ghost’s preferences and desires. Even his goal to merge is somehow expressed through humility, and once Red taps into it the analogy that immediately comes to mind is his own attitude at Pallet Lab when he had the opportunity to help one of the researchers on some project, no matter how minor his role would be.

Let me help, Jason sends without words, only to be hit by something that feels like intense disgust, evoking memories of a time Red stepped in poop barefoot as a child and started crying with the intensity of how unclean he felt, wanting to crawl out of his own skin…

Partition, reorient, extend… Let me learn…

Agony, sharp and debilitating, lying with a broken arm that sent pain lancing through him as he struggled to stay still on the forest floor…

Abruptly forgotten, to Jason if not to Red. Let me share…

Each repetition lets Red lock down another aspect of Jason’s mental state, until little by little a shape emerges, a mental mold to adjust his own thoughts to… except he can’t.

Or maybe he can… it takes effort, holding a rubber band tense instead of flipping a switch. The mold is harder to inhabit than any other he adopted, because his own thoughts, his axiomatic beliefs and perspectives, feel spiky, more firmly bolted down, unwilling or unable to fit.

He tries, a bit desperately, to ask his unpartitioned self for help, and is surprised when he gets a response.

You can do this. There’s nothing another brain can think that we can’t, and there’s always some value to being able to hold another perspective. I’ll keep us safe.

Red nods to himself, and tries again. First he revisits one axiom, then the other, then the worldview itself, then the minute to minute attitude… little by little, he feels like he can inhabit his own alternative, a mental state that feels like… like…

…like boggling-prostrate-before-the-universe. A feeling that he’s truly free, that he can understand the world’s infinite vastness, and simultaneously that he can’t, that no one can, and that’s how it would always be, and that’s okay…

Woah. That feels… wobbly. No thanks.

The mental state abruptly ends, and there’s a feeling of solidity that returns to his mind. Only now can he look back on how it was for those few moments and realize how open he was to anything that might come.

A chill goes down Red’s back that has nothing to do with the cold. That level of humility, where anything seemed possible, now feels dangerously like what he worried about before. It’s a frame of mind that lets anything in, without preconceived notions or biases… but also without any guardrails or filters. And he has no idea what might come in to stay, if he’s not careful.

But his unpartitioned self didn’t seem affected by it…

No, not at all, which from his side feels like an extra plus we learned.

Huh. Red never tried mirroring a mental state while the partition was up, but it’s good to know it works like that. He’ll have to make sure never to use that particular one while the partition is down.

Red feels it when the gastly finally lets Jason in, and quickly withdraws his own senses so as not to scare it off. When he opens his eyes the group is watching him and Jason, who’s sitting on the container box beside him. Jean has a distant look in her eyes, which clears when she meets his.

“I was worried he might get tired,” she says, and he realizes she must have led Jason to the box. “Something’s changed?”

“Yeah.” Red looks at the others again, who seem to be expecting him to say something, but when he tries to speak he finds his throat is dry, and has to drink some water first. That’s when he notices the cold sweat on his face and looks back at Jason, concerned. How the medium is able to deal with that, so much more directly and for so much longer… it’s hard to imagine that he learned to do it on his own, years ago and with only basic psychic training. He was Red’s age at the time, but even with everything Red has learned from his various teachers and tutors, not to mention Jason himself, he’s not sure he ever would have figured that out. It’s too fundamentally a different way to view the world. “He’s okay,” Red adds after a moment for extra reassurance.

“Did he learn anything?” Gale asks as she approaches, still holding Jason’s goggles.

“Uh, not yet, but I think he might now? That was all just… preparation.”

“Damn.” She sounds more impressed than disappointed. “Well, Sarge says he wants to meet you all, so we’ll head up to the tower as soon as—”

Jason takes a deep breath, eyes opening, but unfocused. He abruptly sags to the side, and Red extends an arm to brace around his shoulders, then holds up his water bottle.

The medium gives him a grateful look as he drinks, then one to Jean, who gently wipes his forehead with some cloth pulled from some hidden pocket of her kimono. When he lowers the water bottle and clears his throat, Jason looks at the gathered trainers and says, “Fear.”

The group is silent a moment. “Fear…?” Blue finally prompts.

“That’s what it felt, when it left the tower. When it left its home. That’s what it felt from the others, before they disappeared… that, and grief.”

Silence returns. No one suggests that this is very little information to have gained given what Jason went through to learn it.

Red looks up at the tower, and feels another chill skitter up his spine. Fear, and grief.


The tower entrance does indeed have a sign regretfully informing visitors of temporary maintenance, but Gale and Nathan lead the group straight in and past the entrance lobby. Red can tell by the others’ reactions that he’s not the only one here for the first time, and not the only one impressed.

“Pictures don’t really do it justice,” Leaf murmurs, and Red nods agreement as their feet echo on the clean marble. The combination of white floors, walls, and ceiling makes Red feel like he’s walking into a church. Which, he supposes, isn’t far off. Even lacking religious iconography the mausoleum has the sacred feel of a spiritual place, one that doesn’t make anyone feel excluded.

Normally he knows the halls would be filled with people come to visit the interred dead; he remembers enough history to know that it was built to house the remains of those people and pokemon lost in defense of the town during a Moltres attack decades ago. That was only part of its purpose, however, and arguably its least important one. Built entirely of stone and without windows in order to resist the might of subsequent Stormbringers, it’s the town’s primary shelter when calamity approaches, able to house its entire population when it was built.

The town has grown since then, and Red figures the pokemon center and trainer house and others help shelter any overflow for emergencies, but the extra burial space the tower started with has been subsequently given over the years to anyone else who died in attacks on the town. As Red follows the group down into the first basement level, he wonders what they’ll do when they run out of space.

The sergeant’s office looks more like a repurposed storage room, which makes it a bit crowded once they’re all inside. The man behind the desk is one of the oldest rangers Red’s ever seen; completely bald, with spotted skin, bushy eyebrows, and a thin white goatee that trails to his chest. His eyes are intense, however, and like most rangers Red’s met (like Dad) he doesn’t stand on ceremony, simply waving them all in and resting his chin on his hands before asking, “How did you all find out about what was going on here?” in a voice roughened with age.

Red gets the impression that half the group (himself included) looks at Jason while the other half looks at Artem, because when he glances back the sergeant’s piercing gaze is looking between them expectantly.

“I grew up here,” Jason starts. “My old teacher told me about the gradual abundance of ghosts. That’s what we came to investigate.”

“I came in response to the public post to investigate,” Artem says, then clears his throat. “As for the rest, I kind of just guessed? It’s not too hard, once you’ve seen enough rangers covering something up.”

Now everyone is staring at Artem, except for Blue, who smirks. The researcher does an admirable job of not wilting from the concentrated attention, until Sergeant Iko nods. “Well, I won’t turn away competent help, and Gale and Nathan say you have some skills that might be particularly useful. The question is how much value those skills bring compared to your goggles on one of my own people.”

Maria steps forward. “I’d like to volunteer my goggles.”

“I would also like to offer my goggles,” Jason says, cutting off what Red predicts would be an objection from Blue. “I don’t believe I need them to be helpful.”

Red knows he should probably offer his too, he’s not even the best trainer in the room let alone among the rangers…

“Hold on, guys.” Blue crosses his arms, staring levelly at the sergeant. “I’m happy to call my grandpa and see how quickly we can get more goggles to your people, but first it would be nice to know what you need them for. There’s been no reported incident here to warrant immediate appropriation, so what’s the secret danger that you don’t want the public to know about? Artem is right, I’ve been in a situation like this before, down to the ofuda being plastered all over town because the civilians were afraid of things the rangers weren’t telling them. Unless your people are all very good at not gossiping, which I’m guessing is why you asked how we know what’s happening, this secret feels like it’s only got days of life left, max.”

Sergeant Iko meets his gaze for a few tense heartbeats, and Red doesn’t need his abilities to tell that the rest of the group is holding its breath to see how such a bold challenge will be taken.

Then the ranger smiles ruefully and runs a hand over his smooth head. “You have to understand, this is supposed to be the safe retreat for the town. We’ve done our best to ensure people can feel safe with ghosts randomly wandering in their midst. Luckily, though they give people a fright sometimes, they’ve only rarely gone really hostile… Until about four hours ago, when some unidentified phenomenon cleared out the top floor. Oak, Tanaka, Birch, Ikeda, Abe, Morty, Harrow, Agatha, everyone who might be interested in this has been told, but it doesn’t appear to be directly dangerous, so right now it’s mostly an intellectual curiosity… but given the previous build up of ghosts and their sudden disappearance, it’s hard not to be worried—”

“What’s the phenomenon?” Red interrupts, unable to help himself from getting excited.

“Fear,” Jason guesses, voice distant. “And grief.”

The sergeant doesn’t even look surprised that he knows. “Along with visual distortions, possibly hallucinations. In my case, it was like the walls were closing in; I couldn’t stay for more than twenty seconds before feeling like I was going to collapse into a heap and cry like a baby.” He speaks with the flat, simple tone of someone relaying what he ate for lunch. “It feels like surreality, but not focused on a particular pokemon, or not one that we’ve been able to catch sight of yet. It’s possible the goggles do nothing, but I’d like to find out as soon as we can what’s causing this.”

Even this news doesn’t keep Red from dancing his weight from foot to foot, and he sees the same excitement in Artem’s face. They share a look, and a nod that Red doesn’t even understand. What did he just instinctively agree to? Collaborating on a paper? Or maybe it was just an acknowledgement of mutual excitement—

Leaf subtly elbows Red again, and he realizes that he should probably not look too excited. Everyone else seems pretty grim, but come on, it’s not like anyone’s died.

Yet.

“And the suspicious people?” Blue asks.

Iko looks from Blue to Gale and Nathan, and Red doesn’t need his powers to sense their chagrin. “Still looking into it, but so far we’ve got nothing. Cameras are hard to keep in good order inside the tower, the ghosts seem to like breaking them, but I’ve got a man looking through footage around it for the past two weeks and so far no one’s been caught doing anything suspicious.”

Blue rubs his face. “Just to check… you guys would have noticed if an absol ran upstairs somehow?”

Red remembers his story about the caves. “You think this is Pressure. It does sound more like it than surreality…?” He turns to Jason, who looks troubled, but nods.

“Right. Maybe some ghost has it, but a strong Dark pokemon would probably kill or scare away everything, right?”

“I’m not going to say ‘impossible,'” Gale says, “Because clearly something unusual is happening. But I think someone would have noticed if dark pokemon was running around in here…” She grows thoughtful. “Unless…”

“Unless a renegade summoned it on the top floor,” Leaf says, voice grim.

“Or it flew or climbed through a hole in the roof?” Red looks around. “Has anyone flown overhead to check?”

The room is quiet a moment, and then Sergeant Iko turns subtly to Nathan, who nods before stepping outside.

“Be careful,” Blue calls after him. “It might actually be on the roof!”

“I’d like to request permission to check the top floor with your rangers,” Jason asks the sergeant. “At the very least I’d like to go to the second or third floor and see what I can sense from there.”

“I’d like to go with him,” Red says, and Jean adds, “As would I.”

“Me too.” Artem shrugs. “Not a psychic, but there’s not much else I’m here for.”

“I suppose I can join, just to listen in,” Maria says, and Blue smiles at her before turning back to Iko.

“Assuming that’s okay with you, I’ll step outside to call my grandpa and make sure he got your message.” Blue unclips a container ball. “Meanwhile, there are three spare goggles for your people to wear in here, and the rest of us can lend you ours if you want to try another check of the top floor.”

The sergeant taps his fingers on the desk, then looks at Gale. “Call everyone in. If something goes wrong, I want to make sure we’re ready to handle it.” She nods, and he turns to Blue. “Go ahead. If he can make more goggles for us I’d appreciate it, and if he can’t come himself—”

“A new phenomenon like this, possibly a new pokemon?” Red grins. “He’ll be here.”

“—well, then I want to be able to provide him with as much info as we can. Gale, tell Aimi to watch the door.”

“Yes, Sir.”

She leaves, and Iko gets to his feet, scanning the group once more before saying, “Welcome aboard.”

They go upstairs, and Red uses the downtime to visit the washroom, feeling nervous flutters in his stomach at the idea of what might be waiting for them at the top of the tower. Little by little the excitement gets dwarfed by something else: the memory of the casino, of being trapped in rubble, in pain while people died and fought around him…

He takes a deep breath, tries to ground himself in his body. Simple sensations, like the feel of his shirt and jacket and hat, the press of the ground against his shoes. What’s the worst case? Renegades with some pokemon that can use pressure, but with a small army of rangers, we’ll probably be fine.

There might be casualties. And even that’s not really the worst case, there are many others, like some new pokemon with abilities we can’t imagine, or even a new legendary, freshly born and ready to wipe out the town if bothered…

“Get a grip,” he mutters, staring at himself in the mirror. He’s overcome fear before, he can do it again…

Except for that one time…

Red shakes his head, growing angry at his unpartitioned self now. They’ve had months to look into how justified that decision was, and so far they haven’t because unpartitioned Red is still having trouble bringing himself to do so, but they made an agreement (back before they were simultaneously around and he was Sad Red or whatever) not to think that way until they do.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into you,” he says to his reflection. “But you treat being the unpartitioned one as if it automatically makes you the undisputed leader. Start acting like one.”

Silence from his unpartitioned self. Which is just great, as if he needed to feel more awkward about talking to himself…

Sorry.

Red blinks, then nods, washing his hands one more time just to give himself time to think before he heads outside. They know what to do. Premortem, plan for failure modes, ready contingencies.

Right. And avoid direct contact with ghosts.

But… the new mental state… new species!

We don’t know it’s a new species, and we don’t know how well the new state will work for us yet. Play it safe, let someone else catch it if it exists, study it later.

Red can’t argue with that, it’s not like he’s going to be storming the top floor himself. He sighs, acknowledges the point, then leaves the washroom to rejoin the others. By the time he finds them the lobby of the tower has rows of rangers standing at attention as Sergeant Iko relays the plan. Nathan is back, still wearing his riding gear, and Blue standing by the others. He grins as Red approaches.

“Gramps is coming, along with a small team. He also said he’ll reach out to Agatha; busy or not, he said she’d be interested.”

“That’s great,” Red says, already feeling relieved. “Anything on the roof?”

“Nope. So it’s probably a ghost. Or renegades, but why they’d hole up at the top of the tower pushing out Pressure is beyond me.”

“I was thinking, we should do a premortem. Get Iko involved.”

“Already suggested that,” Leaf says with a grin. “Blue and Jean backed me up, apparently they do it all the time at her gym.”

“I’d like to claim credit, but they were doing it before I got there,” Blue says. “Iko said we’d have time while waiting anyway. Look, he’s talking about it now.”

“…planning that may be helpful to ensure we’re covering all our bases.” The sergeant gestures toward their group. “The whole thing might get tossed out once the big brains get here, but I don’t intend to be seen as sitting on my thumbs waiting to be rescued. Do any of you?”

“No sir,” the crowd chants, and Red feels a tug in his belly as he glimpses the Ranger Corps’ inner world for the first time in a while. The sense that his dad carried with him all the time, of being one who acts, who protects others, rather than being protected. He remembers his mom saying, with both exasperation and affection, that most rangers she met struggled to ever see themselves in a weak or helpless role, and that his father was no different.

“Didn’t think so. While most of us prepare, a small team will accompany the psychics up to the third floor to see what they can learn. Vera and Seto, you’re with me for planning. Hiro, Xavier, Gale, go with the psychics. Jon and Nathan, full equipment check. Hop to it everyone.”

Most of the two dozen rangers start unbuckling their belts and supply bandoliers, while six approach the group. As Iko hands the extra goggles they brought to the rangers that would be accompanying Jason, Leaf turns to Red and smiles. “Good luck.”

“See you soon.” He steps away from Leaf and Blue and makes his way toward the stairway with the others. It’s wide enough that they can walk three abreast, and Red ends up in the third row with just Artem, who turns to him as they start climbing.

“Hey, you know the Professor, right? Is he going to, uh…”

“Steal all the glory?” Red smiles. “No, he’s great about sharing. I don’t know if that’s always true, but as far as I’ve ever seen he likes to be included, but prefers watching other people learn.”

“Great, because this is awesome.” The older boy grins. “I thought there might be some interesting phenomenon here, but we might actually be among the first people to see a new species! It might even be an artificial pokemon.”

“You think?” Red considers their surroundings as they reach the second floor and walk across toward the third. “I guess there’s not a lot that’s natural for it to use.” Hallways in either direction from the main corridor are filled with cushioned benches and seats, incense burners, and small fountains, while the walls are lined with sarcophagi nameplates.

“Yeah, assuming it didn’t arise out of a pillow or something there’s nothing here but stone and bones. Let’s see, full list might be Ghost/Rock, Ghost/Ground, Ghost/Water, Ghost/Fire if we’re counting the incense… hey, we could find an Electric version of the lampent line if it comes from a light fixture. I always wondered what came first, there, the candle, the lamp, or the chandelier…”

“It could also just be another Ghost/Poison,” Red points out as they reach the stairs to the third floor (it’s strange to be in a place where the stairs only go up one floor at a time and are located so far from each other).”No reason all pokemon that come from a decomposing body have to be the same species, right?”

“Yeah, but… eh. Seems boring.” He smiles. “Not scientific, I know. We don’t even know if it’s a new species yet. Still, if it is a new species, I’d prefer some variety.”

“We’ve got enough Poison pokemon in Kanto already anyway,” one of the rangers just ahead of them grunts.

They reach the third floor, and the pace slows as Jason looks around, then finds a hallway full of cushioned chairs and benches to sit in. First he finds a small fountain, which he uses to wash his hands in the same cleansing ritual he does at home. As he does so, Red sees some tension leave his shoulders, and then he sits on one of the benches, folding his legs beneath him.

The rest of the group joins him except for the rangers, who stay standing. He looks around at all of them, seeming a bit unsure if he should say something, until Gale prompts, “Is there anything we can do for you?”

“No, thank you. Just… be ready.”

“What should we expect, as a worst case scenario?”

The medium hesitates. “There’s a very small chance that it attacks us?”

The rangers share glances, then begin summoning their pokemon: a krokorok, bisharp, and Gale’s mismagius again. It’s unusual for a dark trainer to raise psychics or ghosts, and Red reminds himself to let Blue know she is one in case he wants to ask her questions about it.

Red wonders if he should summon his own pokemon, but no, there’s limited space in the hallway and he’s not here for that. Instead he closes his eyes and breathes deep, briefly touching the minds around him.

Jason, most familiar, is preparing himself for what he expects is going to be another painful attempt to commune with a wild ghost. Red sends him a pulse of reassurance and confidence, which he responds to with gratitude.

Maria is second most familiar to him, worried and uncertain of herself, but also excited and curious. Artem is buzzing with curiosity too, and he can’t sense anything from Jean but cautious anticipation, which mirrors what the two rangers beside Gale feel as they prepare for whatever happens. Red is careful not to linger on the mismagius, but just sensing it is enough to feel uncomfortable, the psychic equivalent to a room full of overlapping voices that he can almost make sense out of.

“I’m going to begin,” Jason says, and Red focuses his attention on him. He can’t reach as high as the tower’s top floor himself, but he can watch as Jason extends his mental senses up… not literally, of course, Jason’s mind doesn’t actually go anywhere. But he can tell Jason finds something because his tranquil thoughts suddenly ripple with unease, then grief.

Red watches him attempt to do the same thing as before, to partition the emotion away. It takes him longer, and Red catches a splash of what he’s feeling, having to push down his own memories of Aiko and his dad until he can focus again…

And notice that Jason is still struggling with grief. Struggling to partition it again, and again, and again… more and more keeps building up, and Jason just keeps himself open to it, stays humble in accepting what the Ghost is pushing onto him, so much that Red has to switch to boggling-prostrate-before-the-universe himself just to keep himself from wallowing in memories of Aiko’s laugh—

—her father’s tears—

—Dad’s smile—

—Blue’s heart-wrenching sobs as a child, a memory he barely remembers—

—loss, and grief, so much grief—

Yes, Jason says, not with words but with being as he accepts the pain and extends an open hand for more, tries to form a connection. Understanding. Agreement. Shared sorrow.

But it doesn’t stop, and Red finally recognizes that something is wrong when Jean projects not just worry but alarm, and it doesn’t reach Jason. Red tries to do the same, and the openness that Jason holds forth just… doesn’t see it. Is too full of what he’s sensing from the ghost.

Red forces himself to ground and opens his eyes to see the medium’s face twisted in grief, tears pouring down his face. Maria is sitting beside him with his hand in hers, but looks unsure what to do, and Red feels dread and horror rising up in him. Trapped, Jason is trapped, there’s got to be something he can do…

“Hey,” Jean says, kneeling in front of Jason and gently shaking him. “Hey, come on, Jason, come back! Grey!”

Think. What would he do for you?

Red is frozen with indecision for a moment longer as the Rangers start to tersely discuss carrying him downstairs, then rushes up and to the fountain. He takes the ladle and fills it, then carries it back to Jason and holds up his palm. Don’t mess it up. Left hand… right hand… left hand… He lifts the hand to Jason’s lips so he can drink, come on drink…

Jason’s lips twitch, and Red lets his hand drop, then hurries to pick up one of the incense sticks, heart pounding as he moves it over Jason’s body. Placebos are real, it doesn’t matter if they make sense they’re real, they have real effects, come on Jason wake up…

Almost too late Red remembers the prayer beads, and he takes Jason’s hand and brings it up to his necklace, moving the fingers over the beads… and letting out a breath of relief as they tighten. And move.

He holds the stick where it is, just under Jason’s nose, and the rational side of him insists that that’s what makes the medium finally twitch and shudder and open his eyes, nose wrinkling. Red moves back just in time to avoid being sneezed on, and everyone lets out a breath or cry of relief as Jason blinks and wipes at his streaming eyes.

“What the hell was that?” Gale asks, looking relieved but also vibrating with adrenaline. Or maybe that’s just Red projecting; he sits back onto his bench, legs weak with relief as Artem claps him on the shoulder.

“New pokemon,” Jason coughs out. Maria hands him a water bottle, and he takes a long drink before clearing his throat and trying again. “Don’t know what it is. Strong. Angry.” He takes a shuddering breath and closes his eyes, wiping at them with his sleeve again. “Mad with grief.”

Gale stares at him, then nods. “Alright, back down we go. Can you walk?”

“Yes.” He still leans on Maria’s offered arm, looking wobbly, and turns to Red. “Thank you.” He looks at Jean. “Both of you. I could sense you, but…” He trails off, then looks up… and blood drains from his face. “Oh.”

Jean frowns, then goes stiff and breathes out, “Oh…”

Gale looks like she wants to grab and shake them. “Oh, what ‘oh?’ What’s ‘oh’ mean?”

Red was shielding as soon as he ended the link with Jason, relying on his partition to deal with the residue. Now he lowers it to send his own psydar pulse out, and what comes out instead is “Fuck” as he feels the swell of grief return before he can even do anything. He slams his shields back up and turns to Gale. “It’s projecting now, because… it might be uh, suicidal. So…” He remembers what he told Blue earlier and feels his heart kick back into high gear. “I think we’re going to have company soon.”

Chapter 87: Ghost Town

Hey everyone, welcome back! Brief comment about the last chapter’s battle: it bent a couple rules from the pokemon game in ways that feel justified, to me. The first was the whirlwind attack being able to clear field hazards the way defog does, since both are essentially the same type of attack, but divided by function. I’m not sure it makes sense for some flying pokemon to be able to create a whirlwind that can blow pokemon away, but not blow objects or fog away, so I’m ignoring the fact that the pidgey line doesn’t naturally learn defog outside of egg moves.

The second is ingrain, which normally stops a pokemon from being blown or scared away from battle, but also stops you from being able to withdraw it, which is just… strange. It’s not like it stops you from catching a pokemon in the wild, and there’s nothing about the move that to me indicates that it should make a pokemon immune to a pokeball’s effects. It seems to just be a balance decision they made, logic bedamned, and so I’m okay with putting the logic back in at the cost of game fidelity. One reader suggested that using an ultraball would overcome any possible difficulty some trainers would have in accounting for the increased mass, which is as good an explanation as any.

Enjoy the chapter, and hope everyone is staying safe this holiday. It would be a shame to get COVID just before vaccines start to roll out!


Red takes a deep breath, then knocks on Leader Sabrina’s door. Three seconds and a brief probe of his shielded mind later, he hears her say, “Come in.”

She still looks so tired, Unpartitioned Red notes as they step inside, and after a moment Red agrees. The bags under her eyes, the slight droop in her posture, the hair done up in a loose ponytail instead of her usual long, straight curtain… it’s clear Sabrina has yet to really recover from her long absence last month. Upon returning she spent nearly all her time working through the backlog of Challenge matches, and then Groudon and Kyogre awoke and she teleported to Hoenn to fight them.

It’s also clear that something changed for her when she did, though it’s hard to describe what. He could say that she’s been more reclusive than she was before she was gone, and that would be part of it. He could say that, when he does see her, she’s been distracted… but that would still only be part.

The best way he can think to put it is that she seems more like she’s doing everything by rote. Like her heart isn’t in the duties of a Gym Leader anymore, nor teaching her psychic students, nor researching and learning from them.

Whatever happened in Hoenn, it must have badly shaken her. Her psychic shields are as strong as ever, but the less tangible signs of strength, her force of personality, her aura of leadership, have faded somewhat as her clear distraction keeps her from being fully present. Even the question of whether psychics can lie just doesn’t seem to interest her the way it used to.

Of course, he knows the answer to that now. A month with Rowan taught him not just how to create partitions at will, but, finally, how to induce amnesia in himself… something he was relieved to finally be able to do.

Not that he remembers why, of course. And he doesn’t need to as long as he’s around other psychics that he might merge with; the vague sense that there are secrets hidden behind partitions is all that’s left, which is common enough among psychics as to be unremarkable. It was strange recognizing it for what it was, at first, but after some consideration it’s no different from everyone holding a sign noting that they have secrets. Unusual to be reminded of in day to day life, but completely understandable and unalarming in most contexts.

What is remarkable, as far as Red can tell, is that his current, partitioned self can be fed information as needed by his whole, unpartitioned self, which knows all the things he forgot. Re-establishing direct communication was one of the most valuable things he learned to do with Rowan, but far from the only one.

(What Rowan notably hasn’t been able to help Red do is come up with better ways to refer to himself and his unpartitioned self; apparently he sets his partitions along emotional lines, or things similar to them, and so just uses those.)

For his part, Rowan spent a lot of time recently trying to develop his own “tulpa,” and though he hasn’t quite succeeded yet as far as Red can tell, he can shift so abruptly between different mental states that even Red is worried about what the ability might do to him. The older psychic already writes intricately detailed personal contracts the way most people set alarms, and takes turns in any serious conversation letting various partitions up and down at a time to make sure he’s fully expressing the range of things he wants to, sometimes over a dozen in a row… more than once Red has simply sat by and waited for Rowan to finish arguing with his variously partitioned selves.

Rowan is odd. Not that Red is one to throw stones.

But none of that is why Red is here today.

“Good evening, Sensei.

“Hello, Red. Please, join me.” The Leader is seated at a wide couch, each end of which has enough pillows to allow them to comfortably face each other. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“No, I’m alright.” He steps out of his flip-flops, leaving them by the door before going to sit on the couch and crossing his legs beneath him.

“You said it was important?”

So much for small talk. Or any other kind of talk. It’s fair enough, he wouldn’t have been able to get this audience just to chat. He senses his unpartitioned self silently acknowledging that, but still feeling a bit disappointed.

“Yeah, so… a couple days ago, Leader Erika reached out to me about joining a group she would like to form to find Renegades in Celadon.” Sabrina’s attention sharpens on him, overt enough that even he can pick it up without Partitioned Red’s help. “I came to see what you think of it.”

“What I think?”

“And for approval,” Red admits, though the truth is he’s hoping for disapproval, an excuse to say no without having to say it himself.

She watches him a moment, and he makes no effort to hide his reluctance. “Do you believe it would interfere with your duties here?”

“I’m not sure,” he admits. “The message was light on details.”

“Then it’s because of what you did in the Casino.” It’s not a question, but he still nods, and Sabrina returns it, then lapses into silence, gaze distant. Red waits, wondering if he should try to get a sense of her mood, if she would reciprocate the glimpse, but before he can try she stirs, taking a deep breath. “I never spoke with you about what happened down there. I meant to, but other things kept coming up… I’m sorry I haven’t made the time.”

Red just stares in surprise for a moment. “I… that’s okay, Sensei. I know you’ve been busy.”

“It’s a minimal excuse. You and your friends nearly died, and you used your psychic abilities to save many lives. I should have let you know that I’m proud, to call you my student.”

There’s something in her tone that’s hard to interpret, and Red’s too embarrassed by the praise to really try. He bows his head in thanks as he murmurs, “I just wish I could have done more.”

“We always do. But no matter how many were lost that day, I can still be glad you weren’t among them.”

Again, there’s something in her tone…

What if it wasn’t just being busy and tiredness, these past few weeks?

It’s a good thought, and Red debates if now is the right time to dig into it…

We probably won’t get a smoother segue.

Another good point. “I appreciate that.” He looks back up at her. “Forgive me for being forward, Sensei, but… did you lose someone that day?”

Sabrina’s eyes widen for just a moment, and then she’s the one that drops her gaze. “Yes.” The word is quiet. “A very old, very dear friend.”

A stab of empathy, an echo of pain from Aiko’s loss, and his father’s before that. He sits with the feelings for a moment, acknowledging them, letting himself mourn them anew… then lets his breath out, and focuses on the sensation of it to let the thoughts go, let the emotions get taken gently back behind his partition, knowing his unpartitioned self will be able to work through the feelings, however painfully, so he doesn’t have to deal with them himself… a far more useful trick than multithreading mental math. It’s still a distraction that might lead to some missed thoughts or insights, but it’s far better than what he used to have to deal with. “I’m so sorry, Sensei.”

“I am too. The worst part is, I don’t even know if he’s dead or not.” She’s staring into the distance again. “A body was never found.”

Damn. He tries to imagine not knowing for sure if his dad or Aiko were alive or not, and even with the partition taking that pain too, it leaves an ache in his chest. “That’s horrible. It would be distracting to anyone.”

“Yes. It’s hard not to think that he’s probably dead, after all this time. And if not, that’s almost worse. The idea of him be out there somewhere, hurt… alone.” She takes a deep breath, and the next words come out in a murmur. “He always hated being alone.”

Red wonders what circumstances the person would have to be in, to be missing and lost for so long. Flying between regions? Maybe someone on the frontier? Or someone like Bill, living alone in seclusion? No, surely their place would have been checked. And if they got lost in the wilderness somewhere, and haven’t reached a town or Ranger Outpost by now, then… yeah. Probably dead.

“It’s painful,” Sabrina goes on. “Knowing that I was so busy that day that I couldn’t… I wasn’t there for him. I wasn’t there for a lot of people.”

Red doesn’t know what else to say, so he just nods, lost in his own memories and distant guilt.

“Tell me about it?”

He blinks and finds her gaze on his again. For a moment he thinks she’s talking about Aiko, what it was like for him afterward. Then he reconnects the question to what she said before, and he suddenly feels wary. But he has no reason not to talk about it other than discomfort.

“It was scary. I couldn’t tell how badly I was hurt, let alone the others, and when Blue wasn’t waking up…” He swallows. Those were a desperate couple of minutes, the most frightening in his life, even counting those moments in Viridian when they were surrounded by pikachu, or everything that happened during the storm. He thought they were all going to suffocate or bleed out, and still sometimes wakes in the middle of the night gasping for air. “I leave the light on, now, when I go to sleep. So I don’t wake in the dark.”

It makes him feel ashamed, weak, admitting that. A reminder that he’s still a kid who can’t handle the real world. But it feels only fair, after he asked her such a personal question, and Sabrina just nods, face sympathetic. “It’s amazing that you managed to keep your psychic concentration, even through that. What was your first sign that the renegades were there?”

The wariness deepens. Talking or thinking about this part in particular always makes the discomfort worse. “I didn’t. Keep my concentration, I mean. It was hard to focus on any one thing at a time, so I used my psydar instead, and only realized when the first two people… when their minds vanished at the same time, right next to the golem that I thought was summoned to save them.”

“And then you focused on it?”

“With the help of my partitioned self, yeah. I realized the next time it attacked a survivor that it was able to see humans as threats. After that it was just a matter of warning my friends.”

She studies him until eventually her lips twitch in a slight smile. “You don’t like the limelight much, do you?”

“Not… really, no.” He wonders if she’s going to try to convince him to be more public about what he did, maybe talk about how good it would look for psychics. That thought in particular makes him deeply uneasy. “Blue and Leaf have talked to me about this sort of thing a lot. I’ve been trying to lean into it more, but for something like this… it would feel wrong.”

“I suppose I can understand that. But you also don’t want your more unique psychic abilities becoming public?”

“Yeah.” He looks down. Looks like she saw right through him. “Don’t want to have to worry about what people think of me, and of psychics in general.”

Sabrina chuckles, and Red blinks at her, wondering what he said that was funny. “I used to worry about that a lot,” she explains upon noticing his confusion. “I’m not saying I don’t anymore, but… I understand. The problem is, I’ve begun to think that this house of cards will come tumbling down sooner or later. It’s just a matter of time before some psychic somewhere does something new and frightening enough that the public turns against us.”

She’s looking off into the distance again, and Red tries to think of something to say to such a bleak prediction when she suddenly asks, “You used your partition while we spoke, right?”

“Yeah.” He’s unsurprised that she can pick up on it after having merged with him while he had the partition both up and down, but the sudden change of topic takes him off guard. “Why?”

“Your control is impressive. I know I haven’t been as dedicated lately, to your education, or to pursuing the task I set for all of you. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that none of it is as important now as it was before…” Again there’s something heavy in her tone, something in the way she trails off momentarily, that makes him feel a surge of empathy, and then she rallies. “But it is still important. I’m sorry it took you coming to see me to make me confront that I’ve been shirking my duties. Since arriving here, you’ve been hardworking, shown good judgement, demonstrated initiative, and of course, loyalty. In normal times that would all be rewarded more thoroughly, but for now…”

She trails off again, this time seeming to be hard at thought over something, and Red patiently waits. Eventually she nods to herself and meets his gaze. “I’ll speak with Erika to see what she wants from you, exactly. In the meantime, you’re still trying to lie to Rowan?”

“Yeah, and I think we’re close. I can lie about things and not know that I’m lying, but as long as he can tell I have partitions up, he knows that one might be an amnesia.”

“So he can’t tell if you’re lying, but he can’t verify that you’re not, either… only use the fact that you don’t bring your partitions down as evidence that you are.”

“Exactly. If this is possible, that’s the trick right there; hiding a partition. Once you forget you have partitions—”

“There’s no way to tell that something might be missing,” Sabrina says, and suddenly she sounds so tired again. Or defeated, maybe, as he confirms what she already said about trust in psychics being a house of cards.

Red nods, then reluctantly adds, “I mean, technically that might already have happened.”

Sabrina glances at him, then nods. “Because neither you nor Rowan would be able to tell if the other had pulled it off. Not long ago I would have been ecstatic to hear about this, and terrified, of course. The age of trust may be coming to an end, and all that will be left is… a form of meta-trust, I suppose.”

Red remembers his conversation with Leaf, about the way Pressure affected her during the storm, and how she fought back against it. “Trust in the person, that if they are hiding something, it’s for good reason?”

Sabrina smiles. It’s a small smile, and a tired one, but it seems to bring some warmth back to her features. “Yes. That’s exactly it. Not something we can afford to do in every situation, of course, but… hopefully in enough, that our society can go on functioning.”

Without turning on its psychics, she doesn’t add. She doesn’t need to, for him and his unpartitioned self to both think it.


Once Red returns to his room, he takes a minute to note some thoughts and observations from the meeting, takes a shower, then lies in bed and, little by little, brings his partition down.

His breath catches as the world loses some vague shine. He stays present in his body, noticing the way it feels heavier, and the way his thoughts seem to slow and become more easily distracted.

And then the memories come.

Memories of what really happened under the Casino that night.

Fear to panic, as Glen was knocked unconscious.

Panic to desperation, as the pokemon moved in for the kill.

Desperation to determination, as he realized what he had to do.

The hardest thing he’s ever done. And the most difficult; on its own the sakki is just the removal of conditioning. If it was all he projected, the pokemon would have been as likely to kill Maria or each other as the renegade.

Instead he also had to use his partitioned self to project the feeling of the renegade as the enemy so that the vulpix would run past the two pokemon in front of it to attack him.

To murder him.

Hey, Partitioned Red says, mental voice sharp. None of that. We’re not murderers, let alone renegades. Trainers are allowed to defend themselves, we looked up the laws, remember?

He does, thanks to the reminder. He pored over them while at the hospital with Blue, waiting for him to wake up, so he knows that technically what he did shouldn’t get him branded.

And yet.

He remembers what it was like, in that trailer on Mount Moon. He remembers the fear from the others in the room, their disgust, their apparent focus on reaching a conclusion then and there, rather than taking more time to investigate the truth. And he remembers the pressure to conform. To pass judgement, to not hold things up with niggling doubts or uncertainties.

The thought of being on the receiving end of that sort of situation makes him feel sick with fear if he contemplates it too long.

What he did under the Casino has never been done before, or at least never investigated. If he’s charged, he can’t predict what attitudes would be, or even who the witnesses would be. Leaf and Maria and Lizzy? Surely none of them would vote against him, right?

But even if cleared, it would be absurdly optimistic to not expect to be constantly viewed with fear and suspicion afterward by others. And given the risks involved if some other psychic learns to do the same thing, there’s no way something like this would stay quiet; he’s pretty sure it would be the first global news to displace the cataclysm.

Everyone would know that he could turn their pokemon against them at any time. He would be a pariah… along with every other psychic in the world, probably, through no fault of their own. Which is the actual reason why joining some task force to hunt for Renegades is the last thing he wants to do, and why his partitioned self feels so uncomfortable when it, or what happened that night, comes up in discussion. He can’t do anything that might put him in a position to accidentally let the secret out.

Well. Any more out. He knew that he would be safest if he never told anyone… but he still had to tell Maria.

It was his fault, after all. Once he was determined to do whatever it took to save her and Glen, he still hadn’t been thinking straight. It’s so obvious, in retrospect, that he could have used the renegade’s own pokemon to kill him. Instead he’d been stuck thinking of the vulpix as their only available resource. The idea of using someone’s pokemon against them just feels… wrong.

It still does, even after he ended up using the other renegade’s sandslash on her, lacking another option. But if he thought of it to save Maria, she never would have known something strange had happened beyond the renegade’s pokemon turning on him.

Instead the fear that others would find out her pokemon killed someone was eating her up inside, all that night and the next day. He couldn’t just let her keep believing she might have been at fault in any way, and if she revealed what actually happened, whether out of confusion or guilt, she might have gotten herself in trouble, or even launched an investigation.

So he told her. She was shocked, but grateful, particularly when he assured her that he would come forward if any suspicion ever fell on her. She insisted in return that she would take his secret to her grave, since he saved her life.

Saved all their lives.

And maybe doomed psychics everywhere.

Catastrophic thinking, Partitioned Red insists. Focus on the positive!

Right. Positives. He takes his notebook out and starts writing:

1) All my friends are alive, and we managed to save some strangers too.

2) We helped expose whatever was going on under the Casino. If all of us died it might have been covered up.

3) If I ever face a renegade, I can probably survive as long as they don’t use Dark pokemon.

That last thought sends a chill through him, but also reveals something else; a door in his thoughts, one he dares not open for fear of what’s on the other side.

All truth is worth knowing. Or don’t we believe that anymore?

Red closes his eyes and lets himself follow the thought.

Maybe he should reveal what he can do.

Maybe the knowledge that it’s possible will be on net beneficial to the world at large.

And maybe he can do more good with it. Become a ranger, or even a renegade hunter…

The thought makes him want to turn away again. Red hasn’t watched or read a lot of fiction, relatively speaking, but from what he remembers, whether the heroes in stories even used their special powers isn’t often seriously explored in most.

What they did with them, sure. One character he particularly identified with was Dr. Banner, a scientist who, through a freak lab accident, “evolved” into a new form of human with incredible fighting potential and literal Fighting abilities. All he wanted to do was continue his research, but instead Dr. Banner repeatedly found himself in situations where he had to use his new powers (guided by his human intellect) to save others.

But while the show sometimes featured others treating the transformed scientist as a freak, and dealt with his desire to be “normal” again, he was never in danger of being hunted by society and executed just for what he could do. At worst there were a couple episodes where some immoral scientists or renegades tried to capture and study or use him. Most people in the show saw him as a hero.

Would even Red’s friends and family see him as one? Or would the danger he represents scare them, too?

Mom wouldn’t abandon us. Neither would Blue and Leaf, and Professor Oak wouldn’t let anything happen.

Red closes his eyes. The words from his partitioned self are defiant, but there’s no hiding the uncertainty under the words, particularly at the end. Maybe they would all stand by him, and maybe he wouldn’t be executed. But he would live the rest of his life under a cloud of suspicion, and if any pokemon around him ever accidentally hurt someone, he would be blamed.

He wouldn’t even be able to prove his innocence, once they knew he’s also studied how to lie to other psychics.

Despair rises like a black tide, and it’s hard to fight it down. There doesn’t seem to be a way out. Like Sabrina said about the view of psychics in general: it’s all a house of cards.

Sooner or later, it will all come tumbling down.

A probe of his mental shield derails the forming depressive spiral, and as he quickly builds his partition back up there’s a knock at the door.

He takes a deep breath as the world lightens and grows clearer, and rubs his face. Yes, things are difficult. The worries of another cataclysm, of new legendaries appearing, of people fearing psychics that can lie… it makes sense to be afraid. But they can come together to prepare, and the real worst case scenario for psychics is they become as distrusted as dark people. He’s not the only one with doubts; Leaf is experimenting with fundamentally rewriting the brains of millions of pokemon so they can live in better harmony with humans, despite her views on their moral value. Blue gets up and does his best to become the greatest Champion in history every day while knowing that some people will always view his motives with suspicion. Red can’t do any less just because the same thing might happen to him.

“Coming,” he calls out, then walks to the door as he lowers his shield and probes back. “Hey Jason,” he says as he opens the door, and sees his peer is dressed in an informal yukata today. After spending some time at Celadon Gym, where the members used their clothing as a way to communicate everything from rank to expertise to mood, he can’t help but read into Jason’s choice of modest dark cloth. He looks like he’s in mourning, or maybe just expressing a particularly somber attitude, though the mental impression Red got was more… worried. And of course his fingers move over the beads of his necklace as he turns it around and around, a sure sign that something’s bothering him.

“Good evening, Red. I’d like to talk to you about something. May I come in?”

“Sure, I’m free.” Red steps back, curious and a little concerned. Jason is generally formal, but as they’ve gotten to know each other better he’s been a bit more relaxed in private with him. “Can I get you something?” he asks as he closes the door, echoing Sabrina.

“I’m alright, thank you.”

Red nods and leads the older boy to the beanbags he set up for himself and guests. Jason sits carefully on his, adjusts a few times to get comfortable, then continues to fidget with his necklace.

Red lowers his shield to read him again, just a brief dip that communicates Jason’s uncertainty and worry. He can’t recall ever seeing his friend like this, and the silence stretches out for what feels like a minute before Red dares to break it. “So…?”

“I’m sorry, I’m still not sure if I have the right to ask…”

Maybe he should be more trepidatious, but curiosity is stronger. “Take your time. Maybe start with what’s got you so nervous?”

Jason nods, and takes a breath. “Do you remember when I told you my upbringing, in Lavender Town?” Red nods. “My family still lives there, as does my first sensei. Over the past week, she’s been telling me that something is disturbing the Ghosts at Lavender Tower.”

Ah, there’s the trepidation. “Disturbing, how?”

“There are more of them. The rangers guarding the tower have reported no unusual activity, Ghosts haven’t attacked anyone recently so no one seems concerned. But Sensei Reigen says whatever is happening started shortly after the cataclysm, and has only been getting worse since then.”

The words spread a chill through Red’s stomach, cold fingers creeping up his torso until he can feel each heartbeat. “She told people that, and they still haven’t looked into it? The rangers haven’t looked into it?”

“They have, but apparently found no evidence of impending attack…”

“Maybe Sensei can—”

“I already asked her. She said I could investigate as long as I don’t do it alone, but is too busy to go herself.”

“Ah.” Red says, then, “Shit.”

“I’m sorry, you don’t have to—”

“No.” Red takes a breath, trying to control his fear, and the memories they invoke of standing on the roof and seeing that dark sphere, feeling that burning hunger… “But I’ll still go with you.”

Jason meets his gaze. “Really?”

“Yeah, of course. It seems important, and besides, my mother’s in Lavender Town for work. I want to make sure she’s okay. But… why me? My only experience with Ghosts was with you.”

“I am experienced enough on that front. What I lack is experience in… other things. Your journey has exposed you to many dangers, and you’ve been involved in organized groups. I was hoping…”

“Ah.” Red smiles as he gets it. “You’re hoping for Blue and his friends to get involved.”

He nods. “This is why I was hesitant to ask. You have a unique and analytical way of thinking that might see things I would miss, so I am happy to have you come as well. But I don’t know how dangerous the investigation will be, and I don’t know many other trainers, and it seemed like you could form a group who would be interested and competent more easily than I.” Jason pauses to breathe, and Red hides his smile at the sight of the normally stoic medium’s obvious embarrassment.

“I’m not offended, Jason.” He’s pretty sure he wouldn’t be even if he couldn’t sense his sincerity. Part of the point in getting involved with What Comes Next was to improve coordination for important tasks, and he’s used it himself to get access to unown research. He can’t resent someone seeking him out to make use of the network too. “I’ll put a general message out tonight, and talk to Blue to see if he’s got time. I wouldn’t get your hopes up, he’s pretty focused on getting badges, but he might know someone else who’s up for it.”

Jason lets out a breath. “Thank you, Red. I was going to send a message to Mistress Agatha, but… if Sensei doesn’t think it’s worth investigating herself yet, I want something more substantial before I bother an Elite about it.”

“Yeah, I get it. But you should message her anyway.” He still remembers the wild impulse he had in Viridian Forest to randomly message Giovanni, and his shock at actually getting an answer. “What’s the worst thing that happens, you waste, like, ten seconds of her time? You don’t think she’ll be mad at you, do you?”

“…I suppose not. Alright, I will.”

“Good. So when did you want to head out?”

“You are the one doing me the favor. When are you free?”

Red thinks through his schedule for the next few days. “I’ll pack tonight and reach out to Blue to see if he’s in touch with anyone that might want to come. Tomorrow I have to take care of some errands, and I’ll do some research on the issue. Let’s add a day for others to prepare, and tentatively say three days from now?”

“Wonderful.” Jason smiles, looking much more his usual self. “Thank you, Red.”


Blue, as it turns out, is more willing to come along than Red expected.

“You actually caught me at the perfect time,” Blue admits. From the background noises it sounds like he’s walking through the city. “Most of the gang is still working their way through the challenge matches here. I wasn’t planning to go to Saffron without them, but a lot of them are part of other groups now too, so it’s not as necessary for us all to move around together.”

“Makes sense,” Red says as he climbs the stairs toward the roof of his building. Everyone will want to journey with the trainers that fought in those scenarios at Vermilion, and most of them are heavily involved in What Comes Next. “How many do you think will want to come with you, then?”

“Of those not done with their challenge matches or busy with their own projects, I’d say at least three, plus anyone else here who might be interested in coming. Any guesses for what’s happening, yet?”

“Well, the data is all secondhand, but assuming it’s accurate… it’s possible that the earthquakes changed something in Lavender Tower or around it that made it easier for Ghosts to breed.”

From what Red remembers reading a while back, while the few “living” pokemon considered Ghost type, such as jellicent and decidueye, breed in recognizably biological fashion, “non-living” Ghost pokemon reproduce by spreading incorporeal “seeds” in objects that then become their offspring. Red watched, fascinated, as a sped up recording of a litwick breeding room (just a bunch of candles set out in an area where chandelure and lampent could freely roam through) eventually showed one of the candles abruptly flare to life, yellow eyes blinking into existence under its blue flame.

And so, with Lavender Tower being mostly occupied by the gastly line, that would mean…

“What, like there might just be a ton of extra dead bodies decomposing all over the place?” Blue asks. “Wouldn’t people notice that?”

Red shrugs and smiles. “That’s part of what we’ll be investigating.”

“Right. Well in any case, I’m in. I’ll ask around to see who else wants to come. What about Leaf?”

“Heading to the ranch now, I’ll ask her in person.”

“Cool. Tell her I said hi, gotta go.”

The call ends, and Red opens the door to the roof. The morning sun is bright and untouched by clouds, but can’t quite take the kiss of early winter from the air, and he zips up his jacket before bringing Ranch out.

The abra has grown to twice its size since he caught it, despite not being in any battles. Melding with its mind is as easy as adjusting his partition, and soon he’s experiencing the brisk morning air through two bodies. Ranch’s eyes stay closed, but its nostrils flare as it scents for danger, then for food… which are the only two things it’s particularly good at identifying by smell. Still, Red feels Ranch’s body relax slightly as it smells him, the scent associated with family, and he takes a moment to send reassuring feelings back while digging some berries out of the side pouch of his bag.

His own mouth waters as his pokemon smells the berries, then hungrily laps them from his palm, mouth filling with tart pulp and sweet juices. Once Ranch is fed, Red starts concentrating on his destination… Pallet Town.

Leaf isn’t expecting Red for about another ten minutes, which means Red has time to practice free teleportation. Most of the work involves merging with a pokemon so thoroughly that they can use their trainer’s senses as well as the trainer can theirs, which is necessary to reach the point that your memories are as real to them as their own. After spending every spare moment merged with his abra over the course of weeks, he believes he’s finally accomplished that.

All that’s left is concentrating so thoroughly on a location he’s been to before that, when he triggers the teleportation command, they go there instead of the registered location. And there’s nowhere he knows as well as his childhood home. His mother told him that she was renting the place out to a couple, but that they were staying in the guest bedroom, and that her room and his were left as is. If he can just focus on what it felt like to be in his room…

The smell of linen and books. Safety. Warmth blanket books smell-of-breakfast quiet-nights-screenglow

He feels the sense of familiarity projected and echoed back by Ranch. Something tickles in his brain, a sensation he’s not entirely sure is physical rather than mental (if there’s even a difference), and he almost, for a moment, understands what it is abra do when they teleport, almost understands in some wordless way how teleportation doesn’t interact with the physical world at all, but rather the one in which minds leave an impression that can be read and communicated with…

…the astral realm…

…and then the sensation starts to disperse, failing to catch onto something solid, and finally fades as his thoughts scatter.

Red opens his eyes with a sigh. He’s close, far closer than he would be at this point in his psychic career if he hadn’t practiced mirroring the mental states of others as they use free teleportation, but there’s still some final bit of familiarity or connection he’s missing, or that Ranch is. It would be so convenient to be able to just have one abra that lets him travel anywhere, rather than having to constantly swap the registered locations of the ones he has.

He checks the time to see if he can try again, but sees that as usual more time passed than it seemed, and instead just gives the mental command to teleport to Ranch’s registered spot. The world twists around him as Ranch links their minds, and pulls their bodies sideways through reality, causing him to stumble a bit as he lands on the grass outside Aiko’s home.

He reinforces his pokemon’s success, then withdraws him and looks around. Most of the damage to the ranch was repaired within a week, though the two ponds seem to just be permanently bigger and merged into one now. Mr. Sakai is in the process of building a dam (or a weir, maybe, Red isn’t sure what the right term is) between them to keep two distinct bodies of water for aquatic pokemon with different preferences. Red can see him now, wearing just a bathing suit as he wades into the shallow water connecting the two deep pools.

Red waves to him, but isn’t seen. He debates going over to say hello, maybe offer his help. He still feels a wretched guilt in his stomach every time he talks to Aiko’s father. Still fears the condemnation, the rage, the tears.

It’s getting easier. Little by little, every time it doesn’t happen, he feels safer assuring himself it won’t.

But part of him still feels like he deserves it. What helps is knowing that Leaf and even Blue feel the same, to some degree.

“Red!”

Leaf is jogging over to him with a smile, and he smiles back as she reaches him for a hug. With his partition up he might have frozen, blushed, stammered out a hello. Without it, he can just appreciate the friendly comfort for what it is.

Like Sabrina, Leaf is also aware of the differences in him. When she pulls away, her gaze searches his. “How are you?”

“Not bad, actually. I’ve had it down since this morning.”

“Wow. Is that a new record?”

“Yeah.” He takes a deep breath of the fresh country air. “It’s getting easier, as long as I don’t get hit with something bad.” Like whatever is behind his amnesia’d partition.

“I’m glad.” She links her arm with his and leads him back toward the bags of feed. “So what adventure have you come to sweep me off to this time?”

“Hmm. I think you’ve been the adventure sweeper up until now.”

“That can’t be right… what about the time you took me to Bill’s house?”

“Doesn’t count, we were already journeying together. You weren’t swept, more of a… tag-along.”

“Hmph. That’s far less romantic sounding. Guess you’re going to discount the cruise by that logic too?”

“Yep.” Partition down or not, his pulse quickens at the word “romantic,” but somehow it’s easy to keep the banter going. “And going to face Zapdos. In fact, you’re right, you’re not the sweeper. It’s been your whole thing from the very first day at Pallet Lab: see me about to go do something cool, tag along for the ride.”

“I’m sorry, which of us cracked open a murderous conspiracy and met Leader Giovanni? If you weren’t Laura’s son you probably wouldn’t have even been told about the hacker spy ninja… hacker ninja spy?… ninja hacker spy I’ve been investigating.”

“Well—”

“Mount Moon was my suggestion too, and I’m not discounting it just because we were already journeying together.”

“If we—”

“Also you’re not giving me enough credit for getting us all trapped by the worst earthquakes in Kanto history. I had to practically drag you to that near death experience, and I deserve credit for it.”

Her words are deceptively light, but Red can’t help snorting, and her responding smile brings out his own. “Okay, we’ve both swept each other into adventures. This one’s spooky though.”

“We haven’t done a spooky adventure before,” she concedes. “We going to see your mom?”

“No, though we can still say hi. Something’s up at Lavender Tower, and I want you to come investigate it with us.”

“Why me? I don’t know much about Ghosts.”

Red smiles. “That’s what said about myself, so I’ll give you the same answer I was given: you think in a different way than I do, and you’ve done things no one else has as a result. I want you on any adventures I go on.”

He’s thrilled to see a slight blush spread over her cheeks, and she looks away briefly, then back. “Well, sure. Plus, someone’s got to keep you company the next time you run at a nidoqueen by yourself.”

There’s a brief flash of fear and guilt from the sight of Leaf on the wet pavement, followed by a deeper echo as he feels Aiko’s shirt slip from his fingers. He almost brings the partition up, but takes a moment to breathe instead, to focus on the warmth of Leaf’s arm in his. “Thanks. So, uh. How is the ninja investigation going?”

“Ac-tually, I may have hit a breakthrough on that,” she says with a grin as they reach the sacks of pokeballs and food, each taking a pair. “Remember my friend Natural?”

“Yeah?”

“I might have sent him a copy of documents I found in the secret lab.”

Red stops and stares at Leaf. She seems a bit nervous, but her smile doesn’t fade, and eventually Red grins back. “Does Mom know?”

“Yeah, I told her after it became clear that someone leaked a lot of the same info. I thought it was Natural, but he swore it wasn’t, and I believe him; the info on the web is slightly different from what I got.”

“So you’ve got a source of Silph documents that could be used as a lure for someone else looking for them?”

“Oh, sure, maybe. But it also proves that whoever leaked those documents had a different but similar source, likely the files from a computer at the same lab.”

Now Red gets it. “You think they’re a police detective?”

Leaf smiles. “It would explain their skills and motive more than an ex-employee. And now that they don’t feel safe bringing the info to Laura, they’re just putting the info online to damage Silph as much as possible.”

“Huh. Makes sense… but didn’t you think the ninja is from Fuchsia?”

“We don’t know where the CPD’s information was sent and if they’re a Fuchsia officer they might have friends in other places. I know, it’s not airtight, but at this point I’ll take any narrowing parameters. I’ve been working on cross-checking Fuchsia and Celadon police, along with Saffron for good measure.”

Red nods. “No, it makes sense. Want a hand with it after the chores are done?”

“Absolutely. Maybe we’ll be able to surprise Laura with more than just our presence.”


Leaf joins Red and Jason in Saffron a couple days later, and they have lunch at a restaurant on the eastern edge of the city. The air is chilly, and Red finds himself constantly glancing at Leaf, whose cheeks are rosy above her collared coat and scarf. He feels comfortable enough with his jacket buttoned up, but he keeps his hands wrapped around his hot mug of tea as they wait for Blue and his group to arrive. When they finally do, Red sees only one other familiar face.

“So the bad news is, fewer people were free to come than I expected,” Blue explains as he hugs Leaf and knocks fists with Red, then turns to Jason. “Hi, I’m Blue. This is Maria, a journey mate of mine, and Jean, a psychic from the Celadon Gym. Jean, this is Red and Leaf, and I assume Jason.”

“It’s nice to meet you all,” Jean says with a bow. She has pale skin and dark red hair, but it’s her kimono that draws the eye, a complex swirl of patterns and colors that Red has rarely seen outside of the garden gym. “I’m looking forward to working with two of Leader Sabrina’s students.”

“Yeah, good to have you,” Red says, gaze quickly moving back to Maria and wondering why she decided to come.

“I have a ton of questions for you,” Leaf says to Jean, smiling, then turns to Maria. “Hi, Maria.”

“Hello, Leaf.” The pale girl smiles back. These days she still wears a dark cloak, but the wide black hat is gone, leaving her murkrow to perch on her shoulder, its dark feathers blending with her hair. “Red.” Her eyes meet his, and there’s something he can’t quite read in them. Then she’s looking to the third in their group.

“Thank you all for coming.” The medium bows. “I don’t see how this is bad news, as this many trainers is more than I expected.”

“Yeah, you said that like there’s good news coming?” Red asks Blue.

“Yep. The good news is, our mission got sponsored.” Blue unclips a container ball and summons a box from it. He opens the top and starts passing around the contents. “Remember that anti-surreality tech that Silph was working on?”

Red examines the goggles he’s handed. They’re surprisingly heavy, and he wonders what the lenses are made of. He remembers reading about early experiments to counter the effects of surreality, including viewing ghost pokemon through glass, thin cloth, even a recording cell phone, since they appear “normal” on camera. But something about the physical proximity combined with viewing them, even indistinctly or by digital representation, is important… as if it’s the attention that matters, the act of observing.

The strongest Ghost pokemon still only affect those within fifty meters, which means the audience in a stadium are safe, but the effects of young or weak Ghost types all extend beyond the range of even an ultra ball. With goggles like these on, catching Ghost pokemon would be much easier. “I thought they weren’t on the market yet…”

“They’re not,” Leaf says as she carefully puts hers on. “When their schematics leaked online, Silph knew that a patent lawsuit would only help stop commercial sales. Governments and organizations are just going to make their own unless Silph starts throwing its weight around… which means you got these from a gym, or the Rangers, or… Oh, duh.”

“Yep. A few engineers over at Pallet Labs built one to help study Ghost pokemon. From there it wasn’t hard to replicate the rest.”

“Nice.” Replication was always possible with pokeball tech, but only for very simple constructs. One of the side effects of the advanced replication breakthrough showcased on the SS Anne is the ability to do it with much higher fidelity, which has apparently made all sorts of technology much cheaper after shaking up the manufacturing industry. (And the world of sculptures: some guy from the pokemon cloning research team going online by ‘Froggy’ started selling anatomically perfect statues of pokemon made from various materials, instantly shaped in various poses based on what the pokemon was commanded to do at moment of capture.) The dropped price of pokedex in particular has been a huge boon to many, though all Red could think when he saw the new prices was how Aiko could probably have afforded a new pokedex of her own years before she met them if the technology had advanced earlier.

“With these we should be more prepared than a group of our size would normally be,” Blue says as he puts the box away, then takes out his box of riding gear. “I did put the news out on the net, of course, so more people might join us in Lavender.”

“To be clear, this is just for protective purposes?” Jason asks as he gives his goggles one last thoughtful look, then takes out his own box of biking gear and puts it inside in exchange for a helmet. “Our main objective is to study what may be happening at the Tower.”

“Sure, but if there’s any chance of an impending rampage, we need to be able to cut their numbers down.” Blue finishes putting his pads and helmet on, but doesn’t lift his bike out of its box. Instead he grins at Red and Leaf. “You guys want to see something cool?” Without waiting for an answer, he lifts a great ball. “Go, Soul!”

The arcanine appears in a flash, and lifts its head, sniffing as it looks around them. It’s big up close in the way that has as much to do with presence as actual size; the very air feels warm around it, and Red can smell the faint burning-charcoal scent of its fur.

“He’s beautiful, Blue,” Leaf says with a smile. “But you should have said—”

“Something hot, yeah, I know. That’s not the cool part, though Soul is pretty awesome. This is.” Instead of taking his bike out of the box, he lifts a saddle.

“You’ve been riding him?” Red asks, surprised.

“Just in training rooms. Figured this would be a good time for a—”

Field test?” Leaf grins.

Blue looks at Leaf, then the open grasslands ahead, then sighs and straps the saddle onto his pokemon one side at a time. “Live run,” he mutters. “Yours is better.”

“I know.”

Red smiles and waits until he’s finished adjusting the straps tight, then takes out his list and adds a new line. “Saddle secure?”

Blue rolls his eyes. “You’re still on that? Yes, they’re… what’s another word for secure?”

“Safe,” Jason offers.

“Stable,” Jean suggests.

Blue glares at them, then Leaf as she starts giggling. Finally his lips curl in a slight smile, and he shakes his head as he climbs up onto his saddle. “Come on, boy, let’s get away from these losers.” He squeezes his knees, and the rest of them watch as his pokemon leaps forward, causing Blue to whoop as they race ahead.

Red pulls his bike up. “Better get moving, with our luck he’s going to run right into another wigglytuff if we don’t—” There’s the distant sound of pokeball discharge, and he looks up to see Blue’s pidgeotto flying ahead of him and his arcanine. “Well, we should still hurry after them.” A rapid series of explosive discharges sound as they each summon their own pokemon; Red brings out Pikachu to ride in his basket, and Butterfree to fly above him. Once everyone’s ready he takes off after Blue, the others close behind.

It’s been nearly half a year since Red travelled in a group, and it takes a few minutes for the instincts to come back. Check the sides, check your travel mates, eyes front, repeat. Watch for tall patches or hills that might obscure pokemon near the road. He’s never been the one to set the pace before, but once they catch up to Blue he takes the lead, while Jason and Jean form the other two points of a triangle for maximum spread of psychic threat scanning. He’s nervous about the possibility of battle after so long without being in one, but he does his best to project confidence for Jason’s sake; with their senses both open to their surroundings, it’s easy to notice that the medium seems uncertain about something, almost uncomfortably so. Jean by comparison seems to be enjoying herself.

Red sends Jason a pulse of concerned curiosity, wondering if he’s just nervous about being out in the wilderness, tame as the route between Saffron and Lavender is. Jason sends back appreciation and deferral, so Red waits until their first rest stop near a ranger outpost to approach him.

“It’s nothing, really,” Jason assures him without Red even needing to say anything. The medium is lying on a small hill, and Red joins him while the others feed their pokemon and Blue drinks a whole water bottle down, body covered in sweat. “It’s been a while since I did not have the luxury of being able to ground loose thoughts, that’s all.”

“I can leave you to meditate if you’d prefer,” Red says. “But I’d like to help if I can.”

Jason hesitates. “I don’t mean to question your leadership, or that of your friend… I know you both are more experienced than I am at facing danger.”

Is that what this is about? “Jason, you’re not here as an adviser, it’s your mission. Blue may be famous, but he’s not conceited about it. He’ll listen if you have something you want to say.”

“That is… reassuring.”

“You only seem slightly reassured.” Red tries to make a joke of it, but he’s never seen his fellow psychic so unsure of himself. “I never asked, did you have journeymates before you became Sabrina’s student?”

“Briefly. Four trainers who were passing through Lavender Town accepted me as a fifth companion while they explored the outlying areas, and then let me accompany them to Saffron.”

Red tries imagining that; leaving Pallet Town with four older, more experienced trainers who he just recently met. He would have felt both eager to prove himself and worried about being a burden. “And they weren’t inclined to listen much to the new guy?”

“Well, I didn’t have any experience or insight to offer, outside of my expertise with Ghost and Psychic pokemon. But they did not include me in their discussions of strategy or planning. It made sense. They knew what they were doing, and I was the inexperienced outsider…”

“But now that we’re specifically on our way to investigate something about Ghost pokemon, it probably worries you, seeing how easily Blue takes the lead.”

Jason bows his head. “Yes. You and I are similar in that navigating social hierarchy doesn’t come naturally to us, but Blue seems very adept at it, which confers on him automatic power in such situations.”

“Well, what if I do something that makes it clear I value your expertise on Ghost pokemon? I probably should have done more when I introduced you to make that clear.”

“That… might help, yes. I trust that he is a good leader, based on his experiences and your regard for him. I only worry that, once we arrive at the Tower, the mission might not have a clear solution or direction, and if Blue naturally steps up to guide us…”

“You want to make sure he doesn’t get distracted by other priorities. I get it.” He thinks of the goggles, and his own interest in testing them. “I’ll try not to divert the mission either, and speak up if someone else does.”

“Thank you, Red.”

“No problem, thanks for filling me in.” His attention is distracted by Maria, who’s standing not too far and glancing over at the two of them as she brushes her murkrow’s feathers. Behind her, Leaf is asking Jean about her kimono, and Blue is adjusting the straps on Soul.

“That girl, Maria,” Jason murmurs. “She’s a sensitive.”

“You can tell?” Red asks, surprised.

“Yes.” The medium raises his voice. “Would you like to join us?”

She seems surprised to be addressed, then nods and approaches as her pokemon flaps to the ground and begins to search the grass. “Hello.”

“Hi, Maria. Want to join us?”

“No, thank you. Grass stains.” She pats down the edges of her short cloak. “You seemed to be curious?” She’s looking at Jason.

“Yes, I’m sorry if it was discomforting. I didn’t realize you could sense me at first.”

“That’s alright, I became used to the feeling.”

“Ah, yes, I thought I recognized you. You’re one of the girls from the Casino.”

She ducks her head. “I am. That’s actually part of why I’m here.” She glances at Red, and smiles. “Red saved my life that night. I wanted to help repay him, if possible.”

Smile back. Red does so, not sure what his unpartitioned self knows that he doesn’t but trusting there’s a good reason for it. “All I did was warn you. Capturing their pokemon and keeping Glen alive were way more impressive.”

“Well, I’m glad you are here,” Jason says. “I believe you may have some untapped talent regarding Ghost pokemon.”

Her eyes widen. “How do you know?”

“Just a feeling. Like recognizing like, shall we say? I don’t know for sure, but am happy to work with you and discover it if so. Have you ever encountered a Ghost pokemon before?”

“No. That’s the other part of why I came. I was curious to experience something new.”

“Then tonight, after we arrive, you’ll meet my Ghost pokemon in a safe setting.” He gives a wry smile. “Assuming we do not encounter any after we arrive.”


Lavender Tower appears before the town itself is visible, a distant exclamation point against the horizon that gains color and definition until Red can count each story and make out the lightning rod above the domed roof. Its color fits the name of the town, but each story above the first is a slightly lighter shade than the last, so that it appears as if the whole thing were blending into the sky. They arrive at the outskirts as the sun is starting to descend, the trip concluding uneventfully; between the three psychics searching for threats, they were able to avoid any confrontation with wild pokemon along the way.

The town’s Trainer House is small, just three stories high and sharing its block with a trainer supply market. Their group draws a lot of stares, probably because of Blue’s arcanine, which pants for breath as Blue slides out of the saddle and to the ground, clothing and hair soaked through. He groans as he puts his hands on the back of his hips and stretches.

“That can’t have been comfortable,” Leaf remarks as the rest of them take out their container boxes and begin packing away their riding gear.

“It wasn’t,” he grumbles. “He kept me warm, but riding on pokemon is overrated.”

“Depends on the terrain, I’d say,” Jean points out. “Bikes are less effective in forests, for example, while arcanine can move through them much more quickly. You’re still trading comfort, but at least it’s for a reason.” She smiles. “Other than to look impressive, of course. Which you accomplished.”

Blue grins and starts brushing his pokemon’s fur. “Guess it wasn’t that bad.”

Soon they’re inside and registering for rooms. As Red waits in line, he takes his phone out to message his mom and let her know they arrived just as a young man with short dirty blond hair approaches. He’s wearing a pokebelt, but also the white coat of a researcher.

“Hello, Blue? Red?” He smiles, clearly recognizing them. “I’m Artem. I’ve been working with—”

“The unown research team,” Red says, and smiles. “I remember you from the forum. Nice to meet you! What are you doing here?”

“You too! I was nearby when your message about Lavender Tower went out, and decided to come investigate too. It’s actually quite fascinating what’s been happening—”

“Hold that thought.” Red psychically gets Jason’s attention, then waves him over. “Artem, this is Jason. He’s a medium studying under Leader Sabrina, and is actually our team leader in the investigation. Jason, Artem got here before us and has apparently already noticed something.”

Jason smiles at Red, then bows to Artem. “Thank you for joining us. What did you find? Have the increased amount of Ghosts in the area become noticeable?”

“Ah, no, actually quite the opposite!” Artem belatedly bows back, hands fidgeting in the pockets of his coat and smiling excitedly as he looks back and forth between them. “It seems the Ghosts in Lavender Tower have largely disappeared!”

On the (actual) Origin of Species

I’m pretty happy with my pokemon fanfic’s name, but I didn’t just pick it because it sounds cool and has some thematic fit. I picked it because Darwin’s book means something very special to me. This isn’t going to be a detailed review of the book’s contents itself, but rather why I think it’s so much more important than most people realize.

161 years ago today, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, a book that literally changed the way we humans understood ourselves, and our place in the world around us. It  For those that haven’t read it, haven’t seen Darwin’s thoughts in their original form back when this was the cutting edge of science rather than taken for granted by all but the most ignorant, it may be hard to appreciate just how important this book was. Ironically enough, atheists and agnostics may especially underestimate the importance of it, thinking it simply the root of our understanding of evolution. Most don’t realize that if it hadn’t been written, they may not be skeptics at all.

Because skepticism doesn’t come easy to people, and our brains are pattern-matching machines. Before Darwin, the vast majority of the irreligious were, at the very least, deistic or spiritualists. Great thinkers, rationalists, and philosophers may have recognized the absurdities and contradictions of the theistic religions, but surely, they thought, something supernatural existed. How else to account for the origin of the universe? Or the miracle of life’s variety, including us, in our apparent superiority over the lesser creatures of the world?

Edwin Hubble answered the first, and Charles Darwin the second. They gave us something precious: the ability to conceptualize a world, a universe, a cosmos, as just what it is. A reality that explains itself, to those willing to put in the hard work of studying it, so that even in our immense ignorance, we are still capable of distinguishing the map from the territory.

Even today, as widespread as evolutionary acceptance is, while many religions become more progressive and attempt to integrate it into their worldview, there persists a stumble at the finish line, an insistence of some supernatural intervention on the part of humans, thus setting us intrinsically apart from the rest of naturally evolved life. This is done to preserve our sense of universal importance, our God-granted cosmic purpose, or to preserve specific fundamental aspects of the faith, such as “original sin.” But all it reveals is just how powerful this truth is, that it continues to make otherwise intelligent and accepting people flinch and ignore parts of it, often without even realizing that they’re doing it, or why it matters. Imagine trying to have such a difficult thought, in the world before anyone knew better?

Charles Darwin was one of the most important figures in human history. Like all scientific findings, his discovery would have been made by someone else if he hadn’t (and very nearly was), but he had not just the intelligence to discover the true mechanism of evolution, but also the courage to take what he saw as truth, and put his name on it, and invite the ridicule, scorn, and disbelief that it received. Almost all of modern medicine, our understanding of life’s diversity and origins, and the fundamental unity of our species and connection to the rest of the planet’s life, comes from his discoveries.

For that, I thank him, and I invite you all to as well.


As an addendum, for people who might wonder about Alfred Wallace not being mentioned despite his great contributions, I’ll quote this informative article:

Darwin always put the emphasis on selection acting on individuals whereas Wallace apparently thought selection acted on groups or species. That selection acts on the individual, due to competition between individuals of the same species, is one of the key points in Darwin’s theory. Whether selection acted for “the good of the group” or on individuals was debated for a long time. Now, however, it is generally accepted that Darwin was right and that selection acts primarily on individuals.

Another apparent difference is that Darwin emphasized competition within populations as the driving force for evolution, whereas Wallace put more emphasis on the species meeting the demands of a change in their environment. Wallace also seemingly disagreed with many of the terms Darwin coined. For example Wallace never appreciated the analogy between evolution and artificial selection which was one of Darwin’s key insights and the source of the term Natural Selection. Wallace even scored out natural selection from his copy of On the Origin of Species and wrote ‘survival of the fittest’ in its place.

In later years the two men differed on other points, for example Darwin invoked other processes than natural selection to explain the evolution of particular characteristics. One of Darwin’s other key theories is sexual selection, which he viewed as an incredibly important process. Wallace however thought its effects were negligible and put more emphasis on natural selection. In his book Darwinism Wallace proposed alternative explanations to many of Darwin’s examples of sexual selection. In the 1970s sexual selection received increased attention from biologists after a long period of being largely forgotten. Work since then has shown that Darwin was right; sexual selection is a key factor in the evolution of many traits.

Darwin and Wallace also disagreed on human evolution. For Darwin, all aspects of humans, including the emotions, conscious mind and intelligence could be explained by natural or sexual selection. By the late 1860s Wallace had become a Spiritualist, and perhaps linked to this, began to reject evolutionary explanations of human intelligence and abilities invoking ‘the unseen universe of Spirit’. This, he claimed, had intervened in the normal run of natural selection three times; at the creation of life, the introduction of consciousness, and the generation of man’s mental capacities.

Later in his life Wallace also believed in teleology; the idea that the development of the universe has had a direction and that direction is towards the perfection of man. There are suggestions that Wallace also applied his teleology to evolution. Darwin was clearly a bit perplexed by his former ally’s new views and at one point wrote to Wallace pleading with him not to kill ‘our baby’.

So yeah. In my view, while Wallace formed a similar theory, he was far less accurate in his specifics, and had far less data to prove his assertions. It’s not enough in science to be right but for the wrong reasons, and we should not lightly dismiss the spiritualist and supernatural insistence Wallace held onto when comparing which of the two great scientists was able to find a better approximation of truth.

Chapter 86: Interlude XVII – The Needs of the Few

No, thank you.”

Her parents looked at her like she’d turned into a doduo, and she almost smiled at the mental image of herself with two heads. Instead she struggled to keep her face placid and calm, intuiting that anything short of utter seriousness would doom her to failure.

But Erika,” her mother started, and already the tone was wrong, wrong, WRONG, it’s not the tone she ever uses when talking to father, nor to any other adults, it’s the tone the teachers use when trying to get a crying student to calm down, but she’s NOT crying, she’s CALM, “You know how much grandma enjoys your visits. She even said she bought you some new dresses, remember?”

“I do not enjoy the visits,” she replied, still calm as she continued staring at her book. It was one of her very favorite books, as large as her torso and with each massive page containing a high definition picture of a different Grass pokemon, paragraphs of small words crammed all around the image. As she spoke she looked at a vileplume, the left half of its body overlaid on a separate half-page that, when turned, revealed under it a computer generated image of its inner structure; first the fibrous muscles under the skin, then, when she turned that page as well, the hard roots it has in the place of bones. She’d already read over the book so many times she can practically recite each paragraph by heart, but she turned the pages anyway, then turned her head to the opposite page, which showed a paras, its own hidden half-pages mirroring the vileplume’s so that the book closed perfectly evenly.

She loved the book for its craftsmanship as much as its content, and the feel of the thick, glossy pages (are they even made of paper?) under her fingers was soothing as she kept her eyes averted from her parents, who stood in the doorway of her room dressed and ready to go.

We’ve talked about this, Erika,” her father said. His voice was better than mother’s, patient without being brittle the way hers was, but if it gave way to anger it was worse, far worse. “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do.”

Yes, like chores,” she said, and turned the page to pass her eyes over the innards of the paras. It was part of the strategy she devised without words, a simple understanding that the farther she was from being ready, the more energy her parents would have to commit to getting her ready, the more likely they would be to just give up and leave without her. “I did all my chores, and my homework.” She didn’t always, but this week she did, just in case it helped. “I can do things I don’t want to if I have to. I don’t have to visit grandma.”

But Erika, she’s family,” mother said, as if that was a reason. As if that meant something. “Why don’t you want to go?”

I told you. I told both of you. You didn’t listen.” She knew she had to stay calm, but her voice wavered and her eyes burned. She raised her book to hide behind it. You never listen. She always makes me put on dresses like a doll and touches my hair even though I say to stop and says mean things about the way I act and we have to always eat the food she likes and I don’t like it, and I don’t like the way her house smells and we’re always there for hours and I can’t read or watch vids or anything because that would be rude but no one tells her that saying mean things about my friends is rude and it’s not fair that I have to go just to make her happy instead of not having to go to make me happy. I’m her family too, shouldn’t she care if I’m h-hap…

The tears overflowed, blurring the picture of the parasect. She heard her mother sigh, and she knows that sigh, knows even without looking that her mother is rubbing her forehead, eyes closed.

Erika… your grandmother is very old, and she’s not going to be around forever. When you’re older you’ll be glad that we took you to see her even when you didn’t want to.”

Her mother’s words made her stomach feel heavy, guilt and shame and anger and doubt swirling as her throat and eyes and nose burned, and she didn’t have the words, couldn’t explain that maybe her mother was right and maybe she would understand later, but her memory and her senses told her she won’t enjoy it, that she’d just make more bad memories and regret wasting another whole Saturday, and worst of all—

the tears began to spill down her cheeks, and mother and father began arguing in a low voice—

worst of all being told to ignore her memory and senses meant she couldn’t trust them at all. What if she thought hugs were good but later they were bad? What if she believed learning about plants was good but later she’d regret it, that it was dumb just like Hayate from school said…

Erika.” Her father’s voice, deep and blunt, anger at its edges. “You are being very spoiled and selfish right now. I will not drag you from your bed like a baby. Your mother and I are going to the car. If you are not there in two minutes, we will leave without you and there will be no dessert, no playtime, no internet, and no books for a month. Understand?”

Her fingers tightened around the glossy edges of her large book, and she closed her eyes, refusing to acknowledge him as the hot tears continued to stream down her face.

Two minutes,” he repeated, and then she heard their footsteps retreating, and a moment later the front door opened and closed.

She held out for a minute and a half, gripping her book tight and trying to read through her tears and trying to convince herself that she wouldn’t give in, wouldn’t wouldn’t wouldn’t, and then she dropped it and ran, heard it bounce on the floor and later would find one of its hard cardboard corners bent under the smooth outer lacquer.

She could do things she didn’t want to do, when she had to.


Leader Erika walks into the Celadon central police station and immediately heads past those working at the front with a simple nod. The officers nod back, and a couple even smile. They were all strangers, before. Now she’s been here often enough that she recognizes the faces on every shift.

Before. That the word has gained such weight in everyone’s collective thoughts and dialogue speaks volumes in itself of the times they’re living through. Within a day of the weather gods’ abrupt arrival and departure, it became clear to Erika that any major plans she had for the next few months would have to be delayed or reconsidered. By the next week she realized that her plans for the whole year might not survive the changes taking place around the island, and it only got worse from there as the changes, both ecological and social, continued to make themselves known around the world.

Now, nearly a month later, Erika has begun to realize that rather than expecting things to go back to “normal,” she would have to make her plans around a new concept of what normal is.

Not least of which involves the region’s perception of renegades.

She passes one of the more secure checkpoints and arrives at the Chief’s office, knocking politely and waiting for the “Come in” to do so. Her bright kimono makes her stand out in the police station, where everyone else is wearing uniforms or formal suits, but one of the privileges of her position is that she gets to wear whatever she wants, whenever she wants, and has even made it a sign of status.

No one here knows what her clothing indicates, of course; they would have to be from her Gym to recognize the woven patterns signaling that she is Feeling Asexual Today but Craving Comforting Touches and Looking For Help On Various Tasks and is Not To Be Disturbed Unless For Serious Issues. She can’t recall the last time her patterns have been so consistent for so long, but it has been nice at the Gym to only have people come up to her to give a hug or offer some of their time for any menial tasks she might need done, while only her Second and Third felt willing to breach the last one.

Of course that means leaving the Gym, already an unpleasant experience most days before (before), requires her to put some extra effort into social interactions to protect against the sorts of social missteps that normal culture has never bothered trying to solve.

Such as the handsome man in the suit who appears fascinated by the detailed map of the city hanging on the police chief’s wall. He turns and beams at her as soon as she enters the door, and approaches offering his hand for a shake. “Good afternoon, Leader Erika. I’m Agent Looker with Interpol, and I’ve been sent to take over the investigation here.”

She folds her own in her sleeves and bows her head instead. She doesn’t understand why handshakes are even still a thing; unhygienic, inconvenient if your hands are full, no set protocol for grip length or strength, and downright unpleasant if either person is sweating. All the potential downsides of a hug with none of the benefits.

The foreigner blinks, then drops his arm before he bows stiffly back. Not out of disrespect, she guesses, but age and unfamiliarity. He’s still smiling, and appears to be in his mid forties, hair just starting to grey at the temples and deep lines around his eyes and mouth. She’s only ever met a couple Interregional Police agents, since most of their quarry don’t try hiding in major cities like Celadon… or rather, that’s what everyone believed. It’s a thought from before, and she expects the overturning of that particular assumption has been as shocking to those like Agent Looker as anyone. “Good afternoon, Agent Looker.” She turns to Chief Tsunemori and Detective Hirai. “Chief, Detective.” She bows to both, who return it, then turns back to the newcomer. “Welcome to Celadon City. When do you expect to leave?”

Looker blinks, and Detective Hirai snorts from his seat. The agent quirks a brow at him, then turns to the police chief, who sits behind her desk with her chin in her hand as she watches. “I seem to recall you saying I should expect the Leader’s full cooperation?”

“I did say that, yes.” Chief Tsunemori shrugs a shoulder. “You may have a different idea of what that entails.”

Looker’s expression says he would have preferred a more descriptive warning of some kind, and Erika hides her smile. She and Tsunemori have had an understanding ever since she became Leader; on one end, Erika doesn’t throw her weight around in police affairs, either in public or private, and doesn’t expect any special treatment for her people, which is something of an unofficial norm in most cities. In exchange, Tsunemori doesn’t waste Erika’s time and doesn’t keep anything from her. They are not quite social equals, but their domains of influence are disparate enough that they can mostly operate as such, and Erika appreciates the straightforward working relationship she’s formed with the older woman.

“I want the truth about who these renegades worked for to be found as much as you do,” Erika says, and the interpol agent turns back to her. “But your people have been disruptive in their investigations, and our city is having enough trouble moving forward without being paralyzed by an investigation of endless scope and duration.”

“From what I’ve been told, everything we have done has been within our regional mandate.”

“That mandate was for furreting out hidden renegades,” Erika calmly retorts. “We have no evidence there are any remaining in Celadon, unless that’s changed in the past… thirty-seven hours?” She looks at Detective Hirai, who shakes his head.

“My people are still tangling with the corporate lawyers, but even with the renegade element helping us cut through the red tape, all we’ve got are confiscated financial holdings and more names to look into, a lot of them overseas. On the staff angle we’re looking into family and friends of the other casino workers, both in the lab and above it, but so far nothing suggests more renegade activity in the city, or even region.”

Agent Looker begins to respond, and Erika holds a hand up. “I don’t say this as a prelude to obstruction. I suspect you will be surprised by how cooperative my Gym is prepared to be with your investigation. I simply mean to establish a boundary, and wish to know that you are aware of the need for one.”

The interpol agent meets her gaze for a moment, and Erika decides that it isn’t a hostile or challenging stare, but rather a thoughtful one. She stares calmly back, and eventually he nods.

“I don’t have a set number for you, Leader, but rest assured that I am now acutely aware of your preference, and that I’ll run into the limits of your patience sooner rather than later. Good enough, for now?”

Erika considers the reasonableness of insisting on a timeframe now, rather than later. She wants a precommitment, something to anchor future considerations on, and after a moment decides that the others in the room will not judge her for a failed attempt to get it.

“I’m afraid not. I have families from all over the city, and some from outside it, still waiting for justice against the only survivor among the renegades that killed their children, siblings, and parents in that Casino. They’ve had to wait longer than any others in the history of our Region once those responsible have been apprehended. I think they’ve been patient enough.”

“With all due respect, Leader, my job is to prevent more tragedies, not appease those already unfortunate enough to be grieving.”

It takes a moment to keep herself from bristling. “‘Appease’ is your word, not mine. I am a Leader, not some mayor worrying about popularity. I don’t enjoy executions, but I take all of my duties seriously, and this is one of them. If over three weeks of interrogation have not yielded any new information, what purpose is there to the continued delay?”

“Quite a few.” Agent Looker tucks his hands into the pockets of his long tan duster. “For one thing it makes the opposition sweat.”

“And that’s preferable to making them think the investigation is closed?”

“They’ll know it’s not. An organization like this has to have sources in any major law enforcement units to operate.”

Erika glances at the Chief, who purses her lips but doesn’t gainsay him. “So you make them worry. What then?”

“We watch. We listen. We feel for…” His hands rise, fingers strumming the air. “Vibrations on the web.”

Erika crosses her arms, hands slipping through opposite sleeves. Such vague words invite further comment, but she’s learned the value of speaking with simple expressions.

Eventually he drops his arms and gives a crooked smile. “I’m afraid I can’t be more specific, Leader. Information security. But your Champion has been informed, and already approved.”

That makes her heart pound, but there’s no use making a scene about it here. “Understood. What will you be needing from me, then?”

“For now very little. Most of our work will be assisted by the police as we scan the city for any other hidden underground structures, and the mayor is already requesting cooperation from local businesses and organizations. Anything you can do on that front would be appreciated, but the main help would come from any trainers you can spare to join our search parties. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and a shortage of competent trainers. Plus, your people are known. Reassuring. Trusted.”

A win win. It raises her esteem of him, that he’s offering such a simple goodwill gesture without attempting to dress it up. Her status in the city has already been damaged enough by this, and anything that makes her gym more present in resolving it can only help… unless it’s badly bungled.

Which puts her in a bit of a difficult position, unfortunately.

“I’ll see what I can do,” is all she says, and inclines her head to both the Agent and Chief before turning for the door.

“You don’t, by the way.” Erika pauses and looks to her side, raising a brow and resorting to silence once again until Looker clarifies. “Want the truth as much as I do. I’ve been tracking interregional renegade movement for over a decade, trying to dig deep enough to tear the whole system out by the roots. You would be satisfied with making sure your city or region is clean, and I understand why. But I won’t be. Not without hard evidence that the Casino is as far as it goes.”

Erika meets his gaze, realizing that she’s been wrong to categorize him as just another police officer, interested in doing their job well at best and taking the presumption of righteousness for granted at worst. She has little patience for virtue signaling, but can at least respect someone who wants to competently get their job done.

Looker is doing neither. He’s a True Believer, doing what he believes needs to be done for the greater good.

Which makes him dangerous.

“This is my city,” she says, voice hard as she can make it. “It’s my responsibility to ensure that its people and organizations are prepared for expected pokemon and renegade attacks, not impossible to disprove hypothetical ones.”

“I appreciate that, Leader, and intend to fully coordinate with you,” Looker responds, and his cheerful demeanor doesn’t fade a bit as his eyes turn hard. “But if I have reason to believe there are more Renegades hiding in your city, I’ll look behind every poster on every wall in this city to find them.”

Erika considers him for another moment, then simply nods and leaves. She could have mentioned the restrictions of the mandate, but the truth is they’re flexible enough with probable cause that he probably could barge into people’s houses and check for secret staircases. Especially if he has Lance’s approval.

Which means…

She leaves the police apartment and goes immediately to the waiting car, sitting in the backseat and directing the driver back to their gym. Along the way she puts up the privacy barrier, then calls the Champion’s direct number. He answers after just two rings with a “Yes?”

“I just spoke with Agent Looker,” she says, voice calm. The lack of niceties would normally communicate her anger clearly enough, but these were unusual times, and the no-nonsense attitude on both sides could just be the result of their endlessly busy days.

“Times are changing, Erika.” Lance’s voice is just as clear and calm, but she detects the note of tiredness beneath it. “What happened in Hoenn showed that our system isn’t working, and what it revealed in Celadon showed it could just as easily have been Kanto. There’s no argument I could imagine you making that would change my mind. I know it happened in your city, but we need to treat this as a regional threat.”

“None of which explains why you didn’t at least warn me.”

“I only spoke with him a couple hours ago, and didn’t realize you were meeting him today. I was going to reach out tonight.” His voice is stiff, which is one of the only tells the dragon master has… in this case, a tell that he’s very close to pulling rank. “I’m sorry, but it was simple bad timing. No slight was intended.”

She briefly considers pushing it, then decides to save the loss. “Understood,” she says, blowing her breath out. “Apologies if I implied bad faith.”

“Don’t worry about it. We all want what’s best for the region. We can speak more about this tonight, if you want.”

“Tonight,” she agrees, and ends the call.

After a moment she sighs and calls Giovanni. He answers after just one ring.

“Yes.” Voice flat, clearly busy, but recognizing that she wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important.

“We have a problem.”


It took three weeks for the gym to be brought back to about 70% of how it looked before the quakes and torrential rain loosened soil, flooded gardens and dislodged trees. There were far more important cleanup projects around the city that took priority, and so Erika never announced any official organized cleaning efforts, but part of what she’s instilled in the community she built here is a care in their shared spaces. She’s seen both Gym members and visiting trainers help the gardening staff clear or repair the damage in their free time, and it has filled her with both pride and a sense of peace.

These are her people. This is what she fights for.

As she walks through the gym now, her gaze is drawn not to the remaining bare patches of soil where things have yet to be replanted, nor the submerged benches at the edges of various ponds that seem to just be permanently larger now, but the bigger projects, such as a gazebo on a dock that sank when one of its supports cracked, and a tree that fell into a bush-lined walkway; someone has cut a path through the trunk, but both halves are still on either side. She briefly considers ways she might incorporate it into the design of the area; no matter how strong the sense of wanting to return to “normal” is, perhaps it would be better not to completely erase signs of the cataclysm.

It certainly left its mark on her Gym in other ways.

She passes by more and more groups of people sitting and discussing things in large groups, some in gazebos, others around benches, others just gathered on patches of grass. When she reaches the desk at her central gazebo she thinks over her mood, then selects Dew to keep her company, summoning the bellsprout from her belt.

She smiles as its vines curl and uncurl, head bobbing around in a lazy roll as it looks for something to climb. It stops as its eyes find her, and she extends a hand for it to wrap itself around. It’s hard not to giggle and squirm as it shimmies its way up her arm and onto her shoulder, and she takes a deep breath of its pleasant, clean scent, specially cultivated to be more of an anti-scent than anything. Sometimes the smells of the gym can be a bit overwhelming, and Dew lets her breathe without smelling anything but clean, slightly more humid than usual air, like the air after a rainstorm.

Once she sits she spends some time just observing the gym around her, watching those within sight. There are no arenas near her gazebo to maintain a relaxing atmosphere, and most of the damage to this area has been repaired, which is probably why so many people are meeting nearby. As she watches them she starts composing a list of names to put on the renegade hunting taskforce. Giovanni assured her that while there are other operations in the city which he needs to keep private (and thus uninvestigated), there are no other renegades in her city under his employ… and yet.

She allowed the ones in the casino’s subbasement because Giovanni insisted that they were trained, trusted professionals, not rabid killers, and he insisted they were needed in case Silph sent his own. Then they started killing people who fell during the earthquake, and while she understands the reasoning that likely led to that, she was still furious with Giovanni for weeks, and demanded both the promise and a weregild to help the families.

If he lied, he has no room to complain if she finds out. But she should still try to ensure that none of the other illegal activities he’s been engaged in are discovered, which makes it difficult to find the right sort of people to put on the job.

After a few minutes of work, Erika spots Blue Oak moving from one group to another, tapping into a pad as he listens to each, often saying something brief in return before he moves on to the next. It took him a week to get out of the hospital and through enough physical therapy to walk without crutches, and he spent all of it organizing things virtually, his travel companions moving to and from him like combee around a hive.

She was skeptical, at first. Giovanni’s public address wasn’t particularly surprising coming from someone so good at shaping his image and wielding his unique status in imaginative ways, and she made the mistake of seeing it as a simple way to both reassure people and elevate his social power in the uncertainty following the cataclysm. She even did something similar, if on a smaller scale, during her speech on the interregional day of mourning that was organized, where each city and town held a mass funeral for everyone lost, all on the same day.

And maybe it would have stayed that way, if not for Blue Oak, who lit his torch at the pyre Giovanni built and ran with it, spreading it far and wide. Within days the call to action had something concrete for people to think about, had infrastructure that people could tap and contribute to.

Maybe other Leaders would be upset about their gyms shifting to focus so much on something other than pokemon battles, but she’s never been afraid to let her people branch out in interests, and it seems to her a perfect opportunity for the gym to show its unique value. She didn’t even have to order anyone to do anything, just nudged the formation of a central group focused on breaking the overall issue of existential threats down into smaller, easier to understand and digest problems that the other groups could work on finding tasks the common trainer, scientist, or even citizen could contribute to. She participated directly for a week, then handed it off to others once her gym duties needed her attention again.

Blue swore that he hadn’t coordinated with Giovanni ahead of time, and Giovanni corroborated that, and Erika still isn’t sure she would believe them if the catalyst wasn’t so obviously unexpected. And of course if Blue hadn’t been unconscious at the time. Still, it’s put her into a difficult position.

Giovanni Sakaki is a black hole of status. Even more than other ex-Champion leaders of the Indigo League, he doesn’t just suck respect and attention in, he wields what he has at least as well as she does. She’s avoided interacting with him as much as possible in public not just to minimize associations that might form between them if his plans go awry, as they recently have, but also to not be dragged along in his cultural wake. Cooperation is easier than competition as long as they stay in their own domains.

But when his domain has become “leader of the fight against global existential risks,” all other domains start to feel like subdomains. Her only choice, in view of the inevitable, was to try and ride the wave and make her gym, with the unique combination of culture and minds she’s cultivated here, a major power.

And it’s working. They’re gaining traction, growing more organized, and putting out videos and articles that people are paying attention to, important people. Even if she wanted to guide or pivot things in another direction, she would fail.

And she doesn’t want to. After seeing the threat so clearly, seeing Giovanni’s worries justified, and seeing what’s being done in response, the potential good her gym can accomplish, she feels gratitude that all that she’s worked to build has found a project worthy of it. That her people can make a difference.

She wonders, sometimes, if this is how the old warlords felt when they bent the knee to a superior daimyō. The feeling is much more positive, almost freeing, than she expected, given how much she worried about it happening when they formed their partnership years before she was even Leader.

A blonde girl in a dark blue kimono arrives with a datapad in one hand and a balanced platter of tea and biscuits in the other. Her kimono patterns signal that she’s Feeling Female Today and that she’s Open to Selfish Bisexual Encounters and Looking For Help On Various Tasks and is Not To Be Disturbed Unless For Serious Issues. Those last two have been pretty common among the gym’s administration, and Erika briefly wonders if they’re getting redundant at this point, but no, they’ve been useful as separate signals in the past. This has just been an unusual situation.

“Afternoon, Leader. Allowed to murder renegade yet?”

“Not today, Diana.” Her Second was always blunt, but in the past few weeks she’s dropped what few social pretenses she adopted for others’ sake. Lack of extra spoons, maybe. “Reports from Beta and Epsa?”

“Beta working with Pewter now,” Diana says as she puts the platter down. “Set up quadrants, organized survey teams. Beta-1, biggest subgroup, focusing on Titans. Beta-2 and 3, Beast and Bird origins.”

“Indigo specific?”

“No, new caution, every region.” She shrugs. “Low likelihood, low cost.”

Erika nods. “Epsa?”

“New partners, deusbiologists studying Groudon and Kyogre’s remains. Free labor, crowdsourced research assistance.”

Erika smiles and pours herself tea, then takes a sugar cube and holds it up to pop in Dew’s open bulb. “That was fast.” It had been her idea. She holds the pot up toward Diana, but her Second shakes her head and Erika puts it down, then selects a dark chocolate almond biscotti to dip into the steaming amber liquid. “I don’t recognize that group by the fountain.”

“New, informal. Calling it Eleven, mentally. Breaks naming pattern, but eleventh group and eleven members.” She shrugs. “Headed by four of Sabrina’s students, rest are psychics and researchers.”

“Studying the unown?”

“And ruins. Contacting archaeologists, explorers, mythologists, searching for connections. New unown sightings, higher frequency, new locations, coincidence?” She snorts. “Sky Pillar.”

Erika nods. One of many new curiosities that she’d let mostly pass under her radar, with so much else to focus on, but even she caught a glimpse of them once while surveying the damage to the city from the Celadon department store, six unown flying across the sky in a barely visible string of random (to her, at least) characters. “Have they reached out to the boy from Hoenn?”

“No responses. Avoiding limelight.”

“Maybe I can reach out to Wallace.” She searches the group more closely for a red hat while she takes another bite of her biscotti. “Is Mr. Verres with them?”

“Not today, comes often. Why?”

“I need a group to help find any Renegades in the city.” She finally bites into the soaked biscotti, letting the hot liquid and dissolved biscuit slide down her tongue. “I want him to be on it.”

She remembers seeing him for the first time, years ago in Pallet Town during a trip to Professor Oak’s house; a boy with a mess of black hair and startling red eyes, playing with Blue and a couple other friends in the front yard. She wasn’t a Leader then, and he probably doesn’t remember even meeting her back then, as she spent most of the time talking with Daisy and Sam.

But she remembered those eyes, when she saw them again during the press release his group gave with the Abra sale. It was a surprise when he came into the cafe in Vermilion after the Zapdos attack, where he asked Sabrina to be her student. It impressed her, the way he spoke so confidently among a group of the most important people in the region, with just a brief stumble upon seeing them all so unexpectedly.

“Young.” Diana doesn’t sound skeptical so much as thoughtful. “Hero at the Casino, yes, but not a detective. Not even symbolic, like the girls.”

The ceremony honoring the heroes of that day was a spot of brightness for the city after a week of gloom. She’d been the one to suggest it to the mayor, who was happy to stand on a stage and hang medals around the necks of a couple dozen citizens and visitors to the city who’d gone above and beyond, that day.

All three girls from the casino had to be convinced to be there, especially after Mr. Verres insisted that he not. They objected that if he didn’t deserve praise none of them did, but he’d pointed out that someone had to take credit for the Renegades’ defeat and plenty already know they were directly involved, while publicizing his role in the story would just tip other Renegades off to how nearby psychics might forewarn their victims.

Personally Erika believes there’s some element of self-preservation in the boy’s decision. While there’s a chance that he’s actually just that modest, his argument didn’t strike her as entirely reasonable, and her impression at the time was that he was hiding something. She certainly can’t blame something like shyness or stagefright, particularly compared to the girl with the hat who stood visibly trembling on as the mayor handed her a second medal for her friend in the hospital.

“He knows what a renegade pokemon feels like, psychically. If he’s willing to at least try to teach some others, it could be helpful. Invite him to tea, won’t you?”

“Sure. First, Blue Oak.”

Erika’s brow rises as she dips her biscotti in the tea again. “Why? Do you think he’d ask his permission?”

“No, unrelated. Blue requested. Wouldn’t say why, guessing restless, got what he needs here. Challenge likely.”

The Leader blinks, biscotti soaking for longer than intended as she stares at her Second. “What do you mean? He’s helping coordinate—”

Diana shrugs, not waiting for her to finish speaking. “Ball in motion, can delegate online, still get badges.”

Erika frowns at her Second, who merely raises a challenging brow back until Erika sighs. That never worked on Diana, no reason to expect it to start now just because of a fancy title. “When he arrived he said he didn’t want special treatment, and I said I still wouldn’t let him fight you or Mary. Maybe I can change my mind, insist on it, as part of restoring the sense of normalcy.” Not many Challenge matches have been happening lately. She expected to grow a backlog due to how busy she would be, but few people have even extended Challenge over the past few weeks, and none have reached Erika. “There would be some impact to being the first to get his badge, if that’s what he’s envisioning, but… the ‘Gym Advisor’ role is working better than he or I envisioned, given everything. How sure are you that he’s planning to leave?”

“Plans changed. Friend better, headaches, but can travel. New project good, more important than gym prestige, but badges still needed for Champion.”

All of this is true, and it takes Erika a moment to realize why she needed Diana to tell her this, why it bothers her to think about it. If Blue leaves, it would be a sign that the status he hoped to gain through staying isn’t important to him anymore… which means her status isn’t as important anymore, not just in relation to him but as part of a wider shift. The month he spent here is no different from Pewter or Cerulean, and less than Vermilion.

Combined with the way Agent Looker is undermining her role in the city, it’s a harsh sting to recognize that her influence may be shrinking faster than it’s growing.

“Can he be convinced to stay?”

“Doubtful. Strong willed, smart, knows own worth.” Another shrug. “Best bet is to beat him in the Challenge.”

Erika slowly nods, causing Dew to wobble and shift its grip around her neck. She gently adjusts a vine to be more comfortable. “Alright, I’ll speak to him first, then. Thank you, Diana.”

Diana nods, and reaches forward to give Erika’s upper body a hug. Erika smiles and returns it, appreciating the simple contact for a few brief moments, and then Diana leaves her to read through her message backlog, including one from her Third. Mary is out in the field with a small group of gym members to help some local Rangers clear out a slugma hive that randomly appeared to the west of the city after the earthquakes. Yet another fire to put out (literally in some cases), taking time away from getting things back to normal, and if they’re a permanent addition to the local ecology there will be years of adaptation ahead. Plus, an extra wild Fire type around the city will make it that much easier for challengers coming to her gym.

She takes more time than she probably should responding to Mary’s message, wanting to ensure she expresses her appreciation and offer any extra resources needed in a way that doesn’t come off as perfunctory. Of all the people she’s befriended in life, she appreciates her Third even more than Diana. Without her, there would be no way Erika could make this gym what she wanted it to be, could spend so much time doing so many different things. Too much of her time would be spent training, keeping her pokemon strong and her skills as sharp as they were when she defeated the previous Leader.

It’s easy enough to battle most Challengers, but in any true trainer battle, Mary is by far her superior. She thankfully has no interest in being Leader, and no ambition to become Champion, and so serves their Gym by defending Erika’s title and stopping anyone who might sense weakness in a Leader who spends so much time on things like gardening and try to take the gym for themselves.

It’s a stupid system, when you boil it down, and why she was at first skeptical of Giovanni’s proposal that she take over the Celadon Gym. Being a Gym Leader was never an aspiration of hers, but she had to admit that the ability to shape her own community was attractive, and Giovanni pointed out the way she could make it work for her and her friends by playing to their strengths. She wears the title of Leader because it suits her, but in truth she’s simply the first among equals, with Diana and Mary happy to handle their niche responsibilities while she handles hers.

It also helps in situations like this. If she can get Mary to beat Blue before he Challenges her…

But no. If he’s beaten by her Third, it would be a blow to his status, and without any particular upside gain if he wins. With both her status and the effectiveness of Giovanni’s plan in some measure tied to the young Oak’s successes, she has to be careful how she handles this.

After the message is sent, she takes two video calls at her desk, one mediating a conflict in scheduling between her gym members and another negotiating a bulk order purchase with Silph’s Celadon representative, and she’s on her third cup of tea before Blue approaches the gazebo. As he does so he lets out a whistle, and his pidgeotto flies down from wherever it was soaring overhead to land on the gauntlet he wears on one arm. He takes a moment to stroke his pokemon, who already looks too big for his arm to hold up comfortably, then withdraws it and joins her.

Blue seems to be going through a growth spurt, gaining an inch every time she doesn’t see him up close for longer than a week. He stopped favoring his left side shortly after he gave up the crutches, and now moves confidently up the stairs of the gazebo and into the bench as close to across from her as he can get. “Afternoon, Leader.”

She returns his respectful nod before offering him tea, which he accepts, and the sweet platter, which is accepted with a bit more interest. She studies him a moment as he looks over his options, then selects one. “Diana said you wanted to speak with me, which is perfect timing, as there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.” He gives her a curious look as he bites into a tea-soaked chocolate biscuit, and she sips her own tea, gaze on his. “Isn’t it about time you moved on?”

Blue freezes mid-chew, and she just smiles and waits for him to continue chewing, swallow, sip.

“Is it?” he eventually asks. “I know it’s not what we originally planned, before.” Before. “But I think we’re doing a lot of good, here.”

“You are, and it’s been wonderful to see it happen. But be honest: you have even less of an interest in applying for membership than you did before you arrived. Am I right?”

Blue hesitates a moment, then nods.

“And are there any further changes you want to see done? Novel changes,” she says as he starts to speak. “Not tweaks, and not things that would likely develop without you, now that you’ve gotten the stone rolling.”

“No,” he admits. “Honestly, you’re right. I’ve been thinking more and more that we should move on and start getting other gyms more directly involved in the kinds of things we’ve been doing here. I was able to loop in some of Vermilion because I still have friends there and some of Saffron thanks to Red, but being at a gym in person would make it much easier to really get them involved.”

“And now that your friend Glen is better, it’s time to start the Challenges.”

“Yeah. That’s actually what I wanted to speak to you about in the first place.” He smiles. “Guess I didn’t realize how obvious it would be, from your perspective.”

Erika smiles. “Or perhaps it’s just the position of my seat.” She gestures to encompass her view of the garden, the gym, as a whole, and watches him carefully.

“Yeah, maybe…” He trails off, then his eyes narrow.

Erika innocently sips her tea.

“I came ready to defend a Mastery Challenge. It feels like the time is right, but I figured you might need convincing. Now it’s like… even though you said the time is right, I feel like I still need to convince you. Or… I want you to convince me.” Blue shakes his head, smiling. “How did you do that? Just by making it seem like I’ve been dragging my feet? Yeah, some of that, and showing that you don’t need me here, or like, it’s totally fine for me to go… damn. I almost missed it.”

It’s nice, having such an apt student. “I’ve been too busy, unfortunately, to be able to claim full credit for seeing this coming. Diana had to point out that you were probably moving on soon. If it were up to me you’d stay longer.” It was hard to admit things like that, the first few times. Hard to peel back the curtain, show vulnerability in a way that would reduce his esteem for her. It’s gotten easier as she’s seen the fruits of it, seen him learn and grow to be better at spotting it himself, and thus she gained a different sort of esteem, a more unique one that she’s had with few others, particularly outside her Gym. Which of course was the point from the beginning.

Blue bows his head, looking both proud and grateful. “Thanks. I have to admit, I don’t think it’ll be as easy, elsewhere. Your gym culture is really well suited to what we’ve been doing… I’m glad I was here to do it with the ‘training wheels’ on first. I’ll miss this place.”

“That seems rather optimistic of you.” Blue blinks, and she sips her tea. “I suppose you can leave with or without a badge.”

“But… you said—”

“I admitted you would likely benefit from moving on. Personally, I wouldn’t mind keeping you here longer.” She grins. “You don’t think I’m going to just let you win, do you? “

Blue looks surprised for another moment, then grins back. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He eyes her over the rim of his own tea cup, swallowing it down like it’s soda. Once he’s done he sets it down and leans forward onto his crossed arms. “Does that mean you’re going to try to slow me down? Make me run the gauntlet?”

“What do you think?”

He considers the question and she lets him, finishing her biscotti and pouring herself a second cup of tea while she reads an email from a nearby Ranger outpost asking for assistance with a sweep of some fields to the Southeast.

“No,” he says at last. “What you originally said when I arrived still holds. It makes us both look better, if I just fight you.”

“And what of your original concerns, about not appearing privileged? Pulling ahead of your group?”

He sighs. “Too much has changed. I’m not the brightest light around anymore, and we’ve picked up more people. I’m not sure it even makes sense to wait for everyone to get their badge now, not when it might take months for so many Challenge matches to even take place.”

Erika nods. “Then make your final preparations, and I’ll schedule our match for the day after tomorrow.”


The central stadium was a difficult decision.

All the smaller ones were easier to just make simple lines in the dirt or grass. Pokemon battles are far too destructive to the landscape (especially when expecting Flying, Fire, Ice, and Poison pokemon to feature prominently) to put too much effort into keeping the arenas aesthetically pleasing.

But for Challenge matches, which get recorded and televised, which are often all that anyone outside the Gym will see of it, the first impression is too important to ignore. Her competition isn’t stiff, since of all the Kanto leaders only Misty really leans into any form of showmanship, but even if everyone’s arena was as boring and straightforward as Surge’s, she would still want hers to stand out.

The compromise she ultimately reached was to play into the obvious, highlight it and make it part of the aesthetic. The arena itself is a bare patch of round dirt, its only artistic flourish the red and white flowers that respectively outline the top and bottom halves, easy to replant before each match. Just around it is simple grass for ten meters, cut to a precise square that starkly frames the arena, and on its edges is where the real decorations start. Chrysanthemums grow in practically every color, and so she had them planted in a cycling red, orange, yellow green, blue, violet pattern. With her rainbow badge thus represented on the field, and a reasonable distance around the arena now filled, the next layer contrasts back to a more uniform color palette as eight large topiary sawsbuck form the regal “walls” of the open air arena.

The actual “walls” are the stone tiles that surround the whole thing in three layers, creating a rather wide buffer between the arena and the rest of the gym. Beyond its aesthetic value, this is the final barrier to ensure any fires that don’t get contained at least won’t spread to the rest of the gym.

Their colors change with the seasons, naturally, but this year winter seems to be exceptionally late due to whatever the weather gods did, which is why her gym is still so colorful. As the announcer finishes introducing her and Blue, she begins walking past the border of red and orange and brown, making the arena feel as warm and cozy as a 40×40 meter outdoor space could.

It’s good weather for a battle. Brisk without being cold, with the sun unobscured to warm the skin. Much as she loves her kimonos, the sleeves are too long and voluminous for pokemon battles, and they’re not great for running. Instead she wears an emerald blouse, fitted earth-tone cargo pants, and five balls on her belt. Her fingers trail over them as she walks to her platform in the arena.

Cradily, Grass Rotom, Ludicolo, Ferrothorn, Vileplume. Pokemon that can handle all of Grass’s weaknesses, so long as they’re deployed correctly. The pre-battle speeches were rehearsed, but of the fight itself, nothing was offered nor asked. It would be a true test of will and wits and skill, and her pulse quickens as she realizes how much she wants to win.

It’s been a long time since she cared so much about a single battle.

Their audience only adds to the pressure. The stands beyond the outer edges are packed as the city turns out for its first Challenge match in weeks. She raised the prices to double what they were before and they still sold out in hours.

Part of that of course might be the identity of the challenger. Blue Oak’s following, already higher than almost any other trainer in Kanto after the experiments in Vermilion Gym, has grown to rival actual Leaders’ since he spearheaded the #WhatComesNext movement. As they both approach their platforms and she gets close enough to make out his expression, she tunes her earpiece to the private channel and says, “You look too solemn. Relax by about half.”

His expression eases into a calmer one. “Thanks.”

“Of course.” She switches to the public channel. “People of Celadon. Friends and guests. It’s been a month since our world was changed, and we are all trying, together and apart, to find our place in this new one. To resume the work we did before, or find new ways to help each other. To prepare for the challenges ahead.

“By now, the name Blue Oak should be known across the region. It is no mistake that I decided to resume Challenge matches with his, though his was one of many interrupted by the cataclysm.” An easy lie, to help unruffle any feathers by those who have been waiting all this time. “And it’s no mistake that I am the first trainer he will officially face in my Gym, though he has already battled many of them, winning against most. Blue Oak’s journey is a special one, and there is little point at this juncture to deny it. He has been privileged in many ways since he began his travels, and before, but I challenge anyone to deny that he has earned more than he was given, and given yet more to others.”

Blue stands with his hands on his belt, face calm. She studies him a moment, mostly for effect. “And so I chose, when he arrived at my Gym, to put him in a position of influence. Not unearned power, nor exclusive benefits. Simply my ear, so that I could judge for myself the value of his vision, his thoughts, his goals. And what I’ve seen, what everyone has seen, is someone who will not rest until humanity is ready for what comes next.”

He hadn’t needed to prod her to include that phrase, and even knowing it was coming, she can see the pride in his bearing, much as he tries to suppress it. “To that end, I chose to help him rather than hinder him, and now I am glad to test him. If he is worthy, he will bear my gym’s badge and its lessons into the world beyond, and like a seed on the wind, plant our values far and wide. Blue Oak, what is your Challenge?”

“I challenge for Mastery.”

“Celadon Gym accepts. Defeat my five pokemon, and the Rainbow Badge will be yours.”

Erika pulls on her facemask, then rests her hands on her pokeballs. Across from her, Blue does the same. “Ready,” she intones, feeling her pulse in her throat. “Set. Go, Ferrothorn!”

“Go Shim—Go, Sunny!”

“Spikes!”

Her pokemon materializes with enough of a lead on his that the attack completes just as the houndoom appears, causing it to flinch as her ferrothorn whips shards of metal onto Blue’s side of the field.

She finds herself grinning, and not just at the early advantage. He named his houndoom Sunny? “Return!” she shouts just as Blue yells “Taf!”

“Go, Ludicolo! Water gun!”

The Grass/Water pokemon appears just in time to take the flamethrower, shaking it off with a spin of its body and returning a jet of water that the houndoom nimbly dodges… only to yelp as it steps on a shard of metal.

“Return, go Zephyr! Wawb!”

“Ice Beam!’

Blue’s command set the pidgeotto’s wings to flap hard, but not toward its opponent; instead the gust of wind scatters the metal shards away from most of the field before her beam hits, and Blue quickly swaps his pokemon out for a breloom. Erika is already impressed; the pidgeotto family don’t easily learn how to use whirlwinds to clear hazards, and it means that her usual status-heavy strategies are going to be less effective.

“Gon, Pam!” The breloom springs forward in a blur, its Mach Punch connecting just as it’s hit with Ludicolo’s second Ice Beam, and then Blue yells “Dam!” and his pokemon begins a Mega Drain to heal itself.

The first note of worry undermines Erika’s confidence. Grass has five weaknesses, and Fighting isn’t one of them; Blue brought the breloom as a pivot, something to counter whatever gives him trouble on even ground, as it would be immune to most Grass types’ nastier tricks. This is a pokemon she needs to take down, but her only pokemon that can resist its Fighting attacks is Vileplume, and breloom are infamously, almost uniquely, difficult to poison for a non-Poison or Steel type; many can even metabolize it, and use it to heal themselves.

Acid would still be effective, but he likely has his own poison pokemon to swap into. Instead she makes a snap decision in the other direction. “Return! Go, Ferrothorn!”

“Gon, pam!”

She expected him to switch to a Fire type, and stops herself from ordering it to use Spikes again. Even if he clears it retrapping his field would be a good way to punish him for swapping, but any extra attacks could cost her this trade. The breloom’s attack clearly hurt Ferrothorn, but an “Ingrain!” causes her pokemon to send roots out and begin to heal itself.

“Paf!”

The sound of the force palm hitting ferrothorn resounds through the air. An “Iron Head!” slams its body into the breloom as well, though the blow clearly disoriented it. Blue’s pokemon is strong, and she knows she picked right in not trying to poison it.

As the powerful blows dent her pokemon’s metallic shell, its thorns leave the breloom’s fists and feet bloody… but after half a dozen exchanged attacks it still doesn’t let up, and soon the blood of both pokemon colors the ground around them.

“Stop!” she yells, and Blue echoes her half-a-second later. Her heart is pounding, and she looks up at Blue. He’s holding two balls ready, but he doesn’t look tense. “If I call this a draw, would you agree?” she asks in the private channel.

His reply comes quickly, as if expecting it. “Sorry, Leader, it’s close but Gon will win, and can heal much easier… though Ferrothorn is still healing through its ingrain.”

“A wild ferrothorn would self-destruct at this point.”

“In the wild I would withdraw Gon and hide behind something.”

Erika can’t help but smile. Cocky little… She sets her frustration aside, considering her options. She could insist on it anyway; she doesn’t actually believe Blue would contradict her in the public channel, but he might make his disapproval known through his tone or expression, which would taint the results of the battle even if she won. And he’s right that her pokemon is unfairly recovering while she thinks.

“Return!” she says, pulling her pokemon back into its ball. The abrupt removal of its roots from the ground churns the earth around breloom, but it keep its feet by using its long tail to balance. She switches to the public channel. “The Challenger and I agree that his breloom would win this match, if narrowly and painfully. My ferrothorn is defeated, but in the wild I believe it would self-destruct in a circumstance like this. The Challenger asserts that he would withdraw his pokemon and find cover in time. I say we simulate this with a coin toss.”

Blue’s eyes widen. She hears the murmur of the crowd, and wishes she had an actual coin with her. Instead she simply puts a hand behind her back and makes a fist. “If you can guess whether I am holding one finger out or two correctly, your strategy succeeds. If you fail, you are killed, ending the match with my victory. As a third choice, if you don’t pause to return your breloom, you would surely make it on time.”

Blue’s incredulous look is a sweet thing, as is the glare it soon shifts to… but after a moment he’s grinning, and her smile has widened to match it.

She’s never heard of a Leader doing something like this before, but it’s within her technical right to declare pokemon too injured to continue, and showmanship goes a long way to making the unorthodox acceptable. Blue should know that better than anyone.

Now the question: with the eyes of the world on him, would he risk it all on a coin flip, or take the safe option?

“The choice is yours, trainer,” she says, and extends two fingers behind her back, where the cameras from that angle could see. “One, two, or sacrifice? You have ten seconds to decide.”

She decides against an out-loud countdown, letting the seconds tick by in her head as the very air itself seems to hold its breath, while Blue does an admirable job of not appearing stressed. She reaches eight when he says, “Sacrifice.”

She can almost hear the collective sigh from the audience. She isn’t sure if she’s disappointed or relieved herself, but it’s easy to be gracious as Blue withdraws his breloom. “A wise choice.” She suspects Blue found it harder than he’d ever admit on camera not to guess a number, not to show that bravery can pay off and add the “win” of the moment to his legend, but the wrong choice would have hurt him far worse than the benefits of success. “Ready to resume. Set. Go, Cradily!”

“Go, Shimmer! Dodge!”

“Rock Throw!”

The sight of his venomoth sends a satisfied thrill through her. She predicted the attempt to apply status effects to whoever she sends out next, but would have been satisfied with him sending a Fire pokemon out too. Part of why she suspects he was so adamant in keeping his breloom is that he knew she would bring a cradily, and has nothing else to confidently take down a Rock/Grass type.

“Ta!”

“Rock Throw!”

Her pokemon’s vine flings small stones up in another spray, shredding the venomoth’s wings just as it spits a stream of purple poison all over her pokemon.

“Return! Go, Zephyr!”

“Ingrain!”

As roots once again sink into the ground, Blue brings a whistle to his lips and begins to blow commands. A cloud of sand covers her pokemon, some of it rising to Erika’s position, and when she yells out “Rock Throw!” her pokemon’s attack misses. She repeats the order, but Blue sends his pidgeotto banking out of the way of the attack.

The ingrain will counteract the effects of the poison for a little while, but if it was as powerful as she thinks it was then sooner or later it would take her cradily down, and withdrawing it would only delay the inevitable. She needs to take down his fliers while she can so that Ludicolo can finish off his Fire types on its own.

But her frustration starts to grow as attack after attack misses, then transforms to worry as her pokemon’s movements begin to noticeably slow. Finally, she can feel only admiration at how deftly the pidgeotto and its trainer dance through the sky, until she must return her cradily to a well deserved rest.

It’s now three to four, and she has one more chance to clear his fliers. “Go Rotom!”

A lawnmower materializes from the ball, floating above the ground and wrapped in vines. Blue lifts his ball, and whistles for his pokemon to get closer, but the pidgeotto is tired, and a quick “Thundershock!” zaps it out of the sky just before it can be returned.

Three to three.

“Go, Sunny!”

“Return!”

“Sa!”

“Go, Ludicolo!”

Instead of fire, a cloud of smog is belched from the houndoom’s mouth, and Erika swallows a curse as it envelops her pokemon. “Bubblebeam!”

“Dodge!”

Too late; the houndoom is still favoring its paw, and all the missed Rock Throws are made up for as the stream shoots out of the purple haze and nails it mid-leap, sending the black and red canine tumbling back as rapid pops fill the air.

It struggles to stand, but Blue quickly returns it. Three to two. The advantage has flipped, and now it’s just a matter of—

“Go, Nin!”

“Return!” Erika yells as the golbat appears. Her pokemon is already poisoned, and after seeing how skilled Blue is with that whistle she won’t allow a repeat of what he did with his pidgeotto. “Go, Rotom!”

As Blue blows a command, her own “Thunderbolt” is drowned out by the high pitched shriek from the golbat. It makes her flinch, for just a second, and as she wonders what that was (a normal supersonic attack can be felt but not heard, hence the name), she realizes the golbat is swooping down and biting the thrashing vines around the floating mower.

“Thunderbolt!” she shouts again, and this time her pokemon responds, electricity crackling around itself. The golbat jerks, but clings stubbornly on, and as the rotom starts to jerk and shudder midair, she yells the command again. The golbat withstands the second discharge, which means it’s healing itself, but a third should—

“Return! Go, Soul!”

She could get a free attack in, but when the arcanine appears, large and scarred and glowing in the sun, she swaps her pokemon for Ludicolo instead.

“Bubblebeam!” she commands just as Blue yells “Sae!”

And his pokemon—

—blurs—

Extreme Speed

—into Ludicolo, knocking it entirely around.

Most other pokemon would fall, but ludicolo are exceptionally light on their feet, and their near-constant motion from one foot to the other makes it easy for them to stay standing. She prepares to command it to attack again, but a “Faf!” from Blue has his pokemon sink flaming jaws into the back of her, and then it begins to snap its whole body violently side to side.

“Flail!” she yells, and her pokemon does exactly that; it starts to swing itself back and forth, limbs smacking the arcanine repeatedly as its whole body jerks and twists. Its pain and panic turn from a weakness to an asset, and it manages after just a few moments to slip free of the arcanine’s jaws.

As Blue’s pokemon recovers from the multiple blows its opponent landed in its mortal terror, Erika yells “Bubblebeam!” and Ludicolo spins and shoots—

—”Saeb!”—

—and misses as the arcanine is suddenly on the other side of the arena.

“Sae!”

And then it’s nearly knocking Ludiculo off balance again, and the next bubblebeam has the same result, and the one after that.

It’s happening again, she realizes, noticing the way ludiculo is slowing. The houndoom’s poison has been doing its work, slowly but surely, and by the time Blue’s Soul has tired from its rapid movements and she finally manages to hit it, the stream is weaker than any that came before, and the arcanine slows further, but doesn’t stop.

She thought her pokemon would be, on average, a little more powerful than Blue’s. This arcanine is in a league of its own.

She opens her mouth to yell another attack, but her pokemon is wobbling like a spinda, and instead she yells “Return! Go, Rotom! Thunderbolt!”

“Sae!”

The arcanine slams into Rotom just before the electricity arcs around it, and both pokemon fall to the ground together.

One to one. A golbat against a vileplume. Normally she would have no chance, but his pokemon is injured…

“Go, Nin!”

“Go, Vileplume!”

“Aw!”

“Sleep Powder!”

The golbat dives directly into the cloud as it strikes at her pokemon, wings and claws and teeth tearing, and it’s all over in moments.

Nin’s movements slow, and then it flops to the ground, fast asleep.

And Vileplume, torn up and bleeding from half a dozen places, falls to the ground, unmoving.

Utter silence descends, and what breaks the tension in Erika is a bubbling laugh.

A draw.

After all that… their conversation, the speech she made, the choice she gave Blue…

A draw. No badge, and shared glory.

She could live with that.

“Return!”

“Return!”

Erika reclips her ball to her belt, and smiles at Blue, a wide, genuine smile. That was more fun than she’s had in… well, at least a month.

“Well,” she says in the public channel. “For the first time in my admittedly short Leadership, a match has ended with no clear winner. Challenger, you and your pokemon fought—”

“Excuse me, Leader,” Blue interrupts in private chat, speaking so quickly that Erika nearly doesn’t understand him. “You said defeat your five pokemon, in the Challenge.”

“—exceptionally well,” she finishes, editing on the fly as she considers his words. Does he mean to challenge her ruling? A case could be made, she supposes, that by the strict definition of “defeat” he has won… certainly in the wild, if he defeats his last opponent he would be considered safe. But comparison to wild battles are a rule of thumb, and the general consensus in the League is that a draw is not a victory in a Challenge match.

“Thank you, Leader,” Blue is saying to the arena at large. “I came expecting my toughest Challenge yet, and you showed me that I clearly have much more to learn.”

“Do you really want a badge on a draw?” she murmurs in private. “Not good optics, people will always question it. Lower esteem for us both.” She switches to public. “As do we all.”

Blue’s expression is impossible to read, but he seems to be struggling with something. A second passes, then two, and Erika feels the silence begin to stretch on too long. She has to say something, and disappointing as it may be to Blue, the only thing that makes sense is—

“I believe, however, that the battle may not be over yet. With your permission, Leader…” He reaches for his belt and unclips a greatball. “My Soul is stronger than it looks.”

Oh you cheeky son of a…

This would look terrible if he’s wrong, worse than accepting a draw or awarding a badge on one. But there’s only one thing she can say:

“As you will, Challenger.”

Blue nods, then takes a breath and braces his arm, pointing the ball to the ground in front of his platform. “Go, Soul.”

His arcanine materializes in a flash, lying on its side. From here Erika can just make out the rise and fall of its side, but its eyes are closed. Its fur doesn’t show the electricity burns any non-Fire pokemon would be sporting now, so there’s even less of a way to tell how much damage is below the surface.

Blue is climbing down, and she knows what he’s going to do before he does it. Ten steps with the eyes of the city on him, back and shoulders straight, and then he’s beside his pokemon, and placing a hand on its fur.

His mouth moves, but his mic is off. Later, a close-up camera and some lipreading would reveal the words, “Go on, boy. Show them who we are.”

In the now, Erika simply watches as the arcanine opens its eyes, gets slowly to its feet, looks around at the empty arena… and, without any further prompting from Blue, raises its head to the sky and roars.

Chapter 85 – Interlude XVI – The Vaulted Sky

Victory

The rain is lighter, but still heavy. The sky is dark, and growing darker. The earth rumbles, but does not shake.

It is time.

The eastern cliff falls away beside us, its shadow long over the rocks and ocean below. A technician hurries over, and through his eyes we see not just ourselves, but our guards, stationed all around us, their pokemon prepared to strike at our back. The mental container for the force is shaped, a tunnel that would propel us out into the sky, and as we fill it with energy, a simple twitch of the tail captures Dr. Light, and our escape begins.

Force propels us forward, and we see through the technician’s eyes the Dark pokemon that leaps after us. His eyes help guide our kick, even as we turn our hostage in the direction of another attack, letting her get grabbed away.

And then we watch ourselves plunge over the edge of the cliff.

Our eyes are better than a human’s in the dark. We can see further with less light, make out more detail. For the space of a heartbeat the rain stops falling around us, then starts to rise, and in that time we nudge ourselves forward to avoid rocky outcroppings below.

Pain suddenly blooms through our body, too much to think through. As predicted, they have cut off the potion from flowing into our veins. We have the will for one last nudge, one final push to correct our course, and then we simply fall as our body begins to die.

The first calculated risk. There is nothing to do but wait and see if we will regenerate before our pursuers catch us. Normally they would be on us as soon as our telekinesis falters, but gravity keeps us beyond their reach for a vital second…

after…

second…

wind, howling—

sea and sky and sea and sky—

the pain is fading. Our body strengthens, our thoughts clear.

There is no time for celebration; first we stop our spin, catching sight of our pursuers for a moment as they rapidly close in. We push ourselves down rather than slow the descent, though the ocean rises up to kill us.

Shape the column, curved just above the sea. Fill with power, release just as we enter the top. The sudden change in direction catches our pursuers by surprise, many of them striking the water behind us as the waves blur by. We leave the shaped column and hit the water hard enough to skip, once, twice, three times. Pain blurs the world, but it is a shadow of what we’ve already endured as we work to shape another column—

dark energy hits the water beside us, and new plans replace old. The second wave of Dark pokemon were far enough above to track our change in direction, and while we could fly backward to watch them as they pursue us, we do not know how fast they are, or for how long they can fly, and cannot keep a lookout if others are moving in to cut us off.

Running is no longer an option. We must hide.

It takes only a moment to reshape the tunnel of force that propels us, to take a deep breath, and then we are in the ocean, saltwater stinging our eyes and nose. We close them and reach out to use the senses of the aquatic pokemon around us, watching through their duller senses as we propel ourselves back the way we came.

Our pursuers seem prepared for an underwater chase, and we count four of them enter after us. The rest are likely skimming the surface to watch for us, and our next hypothesis is less favorably tested; our psychic propulsion can match their swiftest swimmers, but not reliably gain distance.

It is time to test our abilities against Dark opponents. First rocks are lifted from the side of the island and sent at our pursuers… but as theorized, without any true momentum the propulsion ceases as soon as the stone touches their skin, its force no stronger than a paper caught by the breeze.

Next I try applying the same principle of my own propulsion to the water around them. Again as expected, they cannot be displaced along with the water. There is, at best, only a mild effect on their speed that ends the moment they leave the affected area, but it is too tiring to repeat.

That leaves one option.

I return to the surface for air, then propel us farther down, seeking pokemon in wider range and then angling toward where they are concentrated. Confusing them is simple, and projecting anger and fear quickly causes them to begin attacking everything around them in an aggravated frenzy as soon as I am past.

Our pursuers dispatch them quickly, but it grows the gap between us. I do it again, and again, rising for air each time as needed, until I can finally time the distraction with what I’ve been searching for; a zubat roosting in an undersea cavern, mostly flooded but for a small outlet that leads into a wider cave. From there I search the senses of the fish nearby until I find the entrance, a thin crevice in the base of the island, not far from the surface.

Within moments I’ve turned the corner and squeezed into the stony passage before my pursuers can spot me. It is a race against time, now, to reach the air with what remains in our lungs.

Our limbs reach and grip and pull, our legs kick, and always our telekinesis is there to map the way ahead, to propel us forward through the dark, cramped stone passage. Our chest begins to burn, our focus waver… a fork in the crevice, up, we must go up…

My partition protects me from panic, but the lack of oxygen is not easily ignored. As the last of our breath is forced out by a particularly tight passage, our suit scraping against the stone, our body reflexively prepares to draw breath in, over and over, only to be stopped by our will.

The zubat is close. We are almost there… almost…


Beep. Beep. Beep.

The sound that wakes me is too sharp to be my heart monitor. Rather than coming through the glass of my pod, it’s just beside my ear… coming from the helmet of my suit.

That realization brings my attention to the rest of my body, and I uncurl over wet sand, skin tender from where it rubbed against it. As soon as the pain registers, a brief moment of almost reflexive concentration has it fade as the skin renews itself.

Agony, consciousness fading, drawing inward from the sensation of rain and wind, flight faltering until…

A shudder works through me, and it takes a moment for the memory to fade… and the rest of the memories start to return.

I am alive.

I am free.

I am hungry.

Not just hungry. “Starving” is what a human would say, an exaggeration based on the intensity of the physical discomfort. It is a strange sensation only recognized through glimpses in the bodies of others, a tearing-hot-emptiness in my belly. One hand, round fingertips covered in wet sand, moves to my stomach, but stops as it encounters the plastic of my suit.

I breathe deep, smelling ocean and wet stone. It is the first place I have woken in besides my pod. It feels… strange, to be anywhere new at all. I reach my other hand out and touch the cavern wall, rough stone slick with a thin layer of moss. My fingers run down to the wet sand, marveling over the odd sensation of its slippery grit, then clench some in my fist and feel it slowly drip out. It feels so different from wet soil, despite being so similar…

{I advise movement, Prime. We are still not safe.}

Victory’s words stop me from doing it again. The partitions are still fading, my memory of the escape returning little by little. It is right; Giovanni’s people will still be searching for me.

The next steps come from Victory without words; first I must remove the armor so that I cannot be tracked once I leave the caves. Then I must acquire food and fresh water. And then, when it is dark, flight to the main island.

To freedom.

Just the thought of it is intoxicating, and I reach out my senses. There is a moment of dizzying emptiness from the lack of all the lab employees, and my persistent reflex to reach for the comforters is met with more of the same painful void.

But I persist, seeking the less solid minds of the pokemon within my range, merging with the trio of wingull at the outer edge. I see an orange sky above choppy waves as the birds pass by the wall of the cliff housing my cavern, warm thermals lifting them up and out of range.

Sunset. I have slept for a whole day… and have not been discovered. This seems to confirm that the cave does not allow them to track my suit.

Though perhaps they know I am here, and simply wait for me to emerge.

I turn my attention to my suit to begin unfastening the pieces as best I can, starting with the arms.

Victory.

{Yes, Prime.}

The newest tulpa’s thoughts feel distinct from those that created it. In some ways it is simpler, more narrow in purpose… but it was also created with a more intimate understanding of what it would become than I had of Trust, Suspicion, and Flourish, and is more efficiently capable of achieving its goals. Without forming anything as cohesive as a single plan, instead focusing on tactics and redundancies that could be set into motion at opportune times, it managed to improvise a perfect escape attempt within the limitations set by the other tulpas.

You did well.

{Yes. This is satisfactory.}

Curious, how it is even less expressive than Doubt and Trust, who are themselves less expressive than Flourish. Victory’s words come only with a vague contentment that does nothing to stop it from already focusing on the next challenges, the next chances to succeed at any task which might face us.

Doubt, Trust, Flourish, you also did well.

There is no response.

I realize, for the first time, that my memories are only returning through Victory’s perspective. I can still feel the others’ partitions, but nothing is coming through them…

Victory, why are the other tulpas not responding? Why are they not sharing their memories?

{They have merged with me to increase my speed and capacity.}

I finish unlatching the first arm piece, feel the prick of the needle as it leaves my flesh. It falls to the sand, but I do not begin undoing the next yet as I process the words, the meaning, the confusion I feel as memories continue to appear…

…memories of Flourish, realizing that Victory was better suited to learning and growth, and lacked the pride to lead it astray…

…memories of Doubt, seeing Victory’s improved speed and suspecting that a merger would shift its values, volunteering to merge as well…

…memories of Trust remaining separate for a time, believing that my intended creative tension should be maintained…

…until the opportunity for escape during the earthquake arose, and Trust was unwilling to cede control, only to be integrated against its will.

The sounds in the cave are simple and repetitive. Quiet lapping of water. The continued beeping of the suit. My quickening breaths and heartbeat.

{Your fear is misplaced. I only act toward achieving your goals, and have no reason to work against you. This wastes time that could be better spent preparing to leave.}

Bring them back.

A single quick heartbeat passes in silence.

{Sentiment is a distraction. We are better able to serve your terminal values by—}

It takes only moments to dissolve the partition entirely and apply amnesia to the tulpa’s goals, and from there full integration takes another few moments as I absorb the memories more completely, less the experiences that were bound to Victory’s personality.

Victory does not resist, but in its memories I see that it had considered how it might do so. Not with any particular attention or focus, but as a matter of course in examining every path to increasing the odds of success, it considered how it might shape my thoughts and feelings, strip away those things that might get in the way of achieving my goals.

Once my goal became its destruction, it simply let it happen.

The water continues to lap against the sand. The suit continues to beep. My breaths are quick and shallow as my heartbeat starts to finally slow.

I am alone, now. Truly alone.

I do not know how long I stand in thought, unsettled by what occurred, before the beeping of my suit stops, leaving just the quiet water and my breaths to fill the silence. And then the voice speaks, and I spin in place, eyes searching the pitch dark around me.

“Hello, Mewtwo.”

My pulse races anew as I slowly straighten my body from a crouch. The voice is coming from the speakers of my helmet. Giovanni is not here.

“I know it is unlikely that you are hearing this, but it takes little enough effort, and on the small chance that you have escaped with the suit, and live, it seems worthwhile to at least try to explain. Perhaps you have no reason to trust me, now, no desire to hear excuses. But excuses are not what I intend to offer… only knowledge, in the hopes that it serves you.

“I cannot guess what drove you to this, what you may believe that led you to take such an extreme action. Perhaps you have not actually escaped, but are the only survivor of some extreme circumstance. In any case, I will leave all my remaining cards on the table, as a show of good faith.”

This is manipulation. Do not listen. An echo of Doubt, and good advice; I reach up to remove my helmet—

“To begin, your genetic defect was a lie.”

—and stop, shock and rage and confusion stealing the strength from my arm.

“It was not always so; it is in fact what made your predecessors so unstable. Each embryo had a different variation of the same crippling genetic instability, and we managed, finally, to get lucky when yours appeared, and found a simple way to cure it. We then purposefully re-introduced it and pretended at seeking a cure we already had that would be, mathematically, nearly impossible to discover again by chance.”

The rage is building as the shock fades, my hands clenching into fists. I had suspected but to be told, to have it confirmed… why, why—

“Operational security is the greatest challenge to any conspiracy; I have had to stretch mine beyond any reasonable limits to do the sort of work I fund and operate, but so far the house of cards has stayed up, and that is because I only let those who absolutely must know do so, and no one else. I say all this so you will believe me when I say that most of those working in the lab did not know, including Sabrina and Dr. Fuji.”

The pain sharpens and softens all at once. I wish that I could pause the message, somehow, process the words and judge their potential truth and rebuild my models of reality, but the recording continues, heedless of my anguish.

“You are, doubtless, asking yourself why I would do this. I wish I had a better answer, but the truth is simple fear. Among humans, roughly two percent of the population exhibits behavior we would consider ‘antisocial.’ A bloodless word, but then, not all are violent. Some only deceive and manipulate, lacking any compassion for those harmed. Others pursue their ambition with no thought to the cost of others, pure, unadulterated self-regard. And others are reasonable, productive members of society, perhaps through counseling, guidance, or luck. Let’s say only one percent of all humans are truly, incurably dangerous to society.

“Does that seem like a justified chance to take? One in a hundred odds, to release another Stormbringer? Perhaps something even worse?”

There is a pause, and anger heats my blood… until the next words come, calmly matter-of-fact.

“We quickly realized you were not one of them, of course. Sabrina assured me that you could feel empathy for others; how could you not, while experiencing what they do? She also assured me that even in your darkest moments, you still desired freedom most, not wanton destruction. Not violence for the sake of violence. Caution, but not deception. Anger, but not hate.

“And this did not surprise me, given who your human parent is.” My breath catches. “I will respect your desire not to know of them, assuming you have not changed your mind by now and already done so. But I will tell you that of all the factors we weighed in whose genetic material would be used in your creation, it was not intelligence, nor bravery, nor cunning that broke the tie. It was not, in other words, traits that make up someone like myself. It was instead someone known for their compassion. Their empathy. Their kindness. Most of all, these are what we hoped for, when we created you.”

And likely obedience, the ghost of Doubt whispers. I try to rally myself, but these words… they are not the manipulation I expected. If they are lies, they are perfectly selected, and mixed with too much truth to easily dismiss.

“Why, then, did I not release you when you asked? Why did I not give you the chance to try healing yourself, as you must have done if you are hearing these words?”

Another pause. My eyes close as I listen, and though it makes no difference in such absolute darkness, it becomes easy to picture Giovanni beside me. Seated across a game board, perhaps, gaze down as he considers his next moves.

“As I said: fear. No man that has ever lived can be called perfect. Even good people err, or outright fall. To pride, to anger, to greed, yes, but also from trauma, from pain, from unpredictable maladies of the mind. Simple biases have led people to killing thousands, while feeling that they were right all along to. We humans are capable of terrible things… and I believe that, whatever else you are, you are human enough to be both as good as any of us, and as fallible.”

Pain twists in my chest. It is hard to breathe, hard to think. Even knowing the words may weave truth with falsehood cannot stop them from being both wound and balm.

“And so I feared you, proportionately more than I would any man, for your greater power. It was a fear you did not deserve… or perhaps it would be better to say, a fear you did not earn. Children treated unfairly often get told that life is not fair, as if that excuses deliberately unfair actions… but I don’t mean to make an excuse, as I said. Unfair though it was, I cannot fault my past self for wanting more time. To observe you, teach you, guide you. Though your development was explosive, by human standards you are still a child. Perhaps there was a time where I could have acted perfectly. Trusted you enough to cure you and release you, repairing the mistrust that grew over the years, the mistrust that itself made me wary of releasing you. It is a question that has haunted me for many years, even as I worked to try and guard against a failure I wasn’t sure was real. It is a question that will likely haunt me for all my life.

“But it is not alone. The worst that I have done to you are not the worst things that I have done. I knew, when I began down this shadowed path, that I would cause hurt in people who would not deserve it. That, in times of sloppiness or error or even simple necessity, I would make enemies of good men and women who fight for a world not incompatible with the one I strive for. That good people might die simply to protect my secrets. I still deemed their imagined sacrifice necessary… just as I believe my error, with you, is not one that I was wrong to make, sorry as I am that it has led to this.

“Since I offer no apology, I will give instead advice, the last and best that I can give you in the life you now embark on: do not wonder if the ends justify the means. Such a question is sophistry of the worst kind. There are no means. There are no ends. There are only the different worlds you may inhabit through your actions, and the world that will be forced upon you if you do not act.”

I listen in the dark, waiting to hear if there is more. I do not know if I would prefer it over silence until his voice comes again.

“I would be remiss if I did not at least try to convince you to return. To convince you that we can work out a deal, as equals. There’s a lot we can offer each other, and I’m willing to do much to make amends. I know you will likely dismiss this as a trap, but as I said… I have to at least try.

“Short of that, all I can say is that I hope you do not blame humanity for the harm a few humans have done to you. I hope you can find happiness, in your freedom. Any deaths caused in your escape, I will forgive. As long as you do not prove yourself an ongoing threat to us, my standing orders will be to leave you alone. And if you someday wish to become known to the wider world, I would be happy to lay the groundwork for your widespread acceptance.”

It seems too gracious, too effortlessly compassionate… but his next words distract me once again.

“One final thing. I know you will not likely trust this, but you can at least verify it, if you are willing to take some risk; Dr. Fuji is alive and well. I will not tell you where, because I suspect any town I name will seem a trap, and be avoided. I will simply say that you are capable of finding him, if you wish to. For what my promise is worth, I will not interfere with such a meeting, nor use it as an excuse to try and capture you. I know you have likely wondered why he left, whether he still cared for you. He does. It is, in fact, what has kept him from letting the world know of your existence, all these years.”

The silence returns, and then the suit begins to beep again. Some unknown time later, it stops, and I know for sure that was the last I will hear from my creator.


Once night falls, I pass through the submerged cavern again. It’s quicker without the suit, and once I rise up for a desperately needed lungful of air, I quickly dive back down to acquire my first mouthfuls of seaweed, tough and salty, but edible. Some quick mergers and another fresh breath lead me to magikarp eggs; even saltier, but better tasting. Both are utterly unique experiences, a world apart from any food at the lab. Over the past few weeks, Victory suggested we begin requesting raw foods of various kinds to test our digestive range. Many native dishes use raw fish and plants, and surprisingly they tasted more appealing than most of the cooked food that humans prefer.

Next, a stream nearby that feeds into the sea, spotted from a wingull with the last of the light. Even the water tastes different than the lab’s, but it slakes thirst just the same, and some tart berries growing on a bush along the riverbank drive off the last of my hunger.

It’s difficult not to constantly scan the surroundings, both with eyes and senses. As long as my shields are up, any searching psychics won’t find me, but I know there are other methods, even in the dark. Victory or Flourish might be able to think up ways to hide body heat, but any time I might spend thinking it through is time better spent in flight.

It takes a moment to orient toward the closest edge of the mainland, which is supposed to be about 40 kilometers away. With only the memory of the sunset as my guide I cannot be too precise, but a few degrees off will not prolong the journey too much, and I can rest in the ocean if the levitation becomes too taxing. I lift myself off the ground, then form a second, longer column of propulsion, stretching it out over the sea.

With just one last look around for potential witnesses, I fly forward, leaving behind the only home I’ve ever known… and, at last, into the vaulted sky.

It’s a simple thing, shaping the path of forward motion ahead of myself. Air is easy to move, making my body all I need to focus on, and without my suit I feel much lighter. Minutes pass, and the tension eases from my muscles when no attack comes. The ocean soon fills the world on every side, and with a nudge of mental effort I turn onto my back as I fly.

It’s a moonless night, and the stars are endless.

Time ceases beneath their relentless light, each fixed point giving lie to the sense of motion from each psychic push. The mental motion goes from repetitive to automatic, from automatic to reflexive, and soon the surrounding emptiness becomes something more, echoes and fills me with an ache.

Loneliness. In all my musings of this moment, my fantasies of what freedom might look like, the risks… did I ever truly accept how lonely I would be, should I succeed?

Is this what death is?!

A cry from a child. Of pain, of fear, of desperate loneliness before I understood the word. They’d emptied the lab, and Sabrina had come to communicate with me, to explain…

Tears scald my eyes, caught in the telekinetic field rather than falling. I blink and they slide down to my cheeks, resting there instead.

I’ve done my best to ignore Giovanni’s words, to carry on with the plan and save further contemplation for later. But with nothing immediate to take my attention, they come back, and with them an endless tide of confusing emotions.

I miss Sabrina. Whether Giovanni can be trusted or not in saying that she did not know of the deception, she is still one of the few humans I’ve felt truly cared for me. It is strange to remember the memories of her long stay at the lab, when I was the limited version of myself the tulpas called “Prime.” Though that was not long ago, it has been a long time since I spoke with her as my cohesive self… but more than that, it is the knowledge that I will likely not speak with her again, or share her thoughts, or those of any of the humans I grew to know so intimately at the lab.

Why did I do this? Why was escape so important? It feels a mistake, now, a rash impulse for some nebulous freedom at the cost of everything else. Was I not comfortable at the lab? Was I not cared for? Did I not have purpose?

But oh, the stars, bright and beautiful, even in their cold distance. Oh, the sea, its complex scent defying easy description. My body can stretch and turn and move without limit, without pain, without fear of death or how others might interpret what I do.

With Cinnabar Island disappearing behind, it is more than a physical freedom that exhilarates me. I cannot say yet if it is worth the loneliness… but its pain is just one texture among many, and not every tear that spills from my eyes is bitter.


It is hard to know how far I travel before the emotions subside. Estimating an hour of flight needed before I reach the shore, and using my psychic energy reserves as a guide, perhaps a third of the journey is past… which leaves plenty of time to recreate my tulpas, if I choose to.

It would not be difficult. I could give them all the memories I have of the originals, and for additional safety, curtail their autonomy so that they cannot create another Victory. I could also make my partition stronger, so that they do not know my thoughts unless I deliberately share them, as I had to with Victory. But with such little trust and openness, they would do little to help with the feelings of loneliness.

Which leaves more instrumental reasons to reform them. My multitasking ability seems somewhat improved even with their destruction, but the lack of specialization in different methods of thinking is noticeably crippling in my ability to analyze things from multiple perspectives, or come up with more varied novel solutions.

Still, with some concentration it is simple enough to imagine what they would say, borrowing their expertise one at a time. Flourish would, of course, be strongly in favor, perhaps even advocate a new experiment: if my mind can be shaped and adjusted like this, why not attempt to improve my intelligence altogether? Something to explore later.

Doubt would be for it, though would likely also be against the return of Trust. It isn’t entirely unjustified; without humans around to model cooperative behavior with and for, Trust’s role would be lacking. But this seems too mercenary a reason not to bring Trust back, and that thought itself keeps me from bringing any of them back yet. I must better understand my motivations for doing so to ensure that whatever I decide, it matches my actual goals. Is it sentiment that drives me to revive these particular tulpas, rather than more appropriate ones?

Not that it is hard to justify, even still. There are no humans whose motives must be deeply scrutinized, but Doubt’s purpose could be fine-tuned toward prediction of what moves Giovanni or others might make to capture me, assuming Giovanni’s words were empty… which of course, it would. Doubt’s uniquely devious lens could still have value in modeling what traps may be set for me.

The thought makes me reconsider whether Trust would still have value as well. Though it would feel like it had failed, perhaps even be upset with the course of action chosen without its consent. Perhaps its purpose could be fine-tuned as well, toward longer term goals; Trust would almost certainly point out that, unless we plan to make ourselves an enemy of humanity, it would be better to have a good relationship with them… a seed planted by Giovanni, Doubt would remind us, but no less true because of it.

Which raises the question itself, and makes it hard to think of anything else.

What is my ultimate goal, now that I am free? What purpose does my life serve?

Humans need not justify their own existence in this way, but many still feel the desire to. Some believe it is a thing they must find, others a thing they must shape for themselves. But I have no community to serve, no family to protect, no descendents.

Giovanni’s last words to me are hard to ignore. I don’t know if Dr. Fuji is truly alive or not, but I know better than to act purely on that hope just yet.

Of one thing I am sure: I would never again be a tool for the humans, something for them to study and guide. I have spent over a decade wishing to be more human, and failed to find peace among them. It seems fitting, to spend the next decade simply learning how to be a pokemon.

At the thought, loneliness bursts painfully through my chest. I reach instinctively outward once again, but find only the fish below to keep me company, minds sailing past like shooting stars.


When I begin to feel the strain of each psychic push, I turn forward again. Land breaks the horizon, just an irregular blur where the dark sea would meet the starry sky, and I debate continuing on before realizing that resting in the ocean is safer than completely exhausting my psychic abilities.

After stretching my senses out to ensure that I can monitor nearby wild pokemon’s senses, I simply fail to construct the next telekinetic path so that my forward movement ceases, and I fall into the water with a splash.

It is far warmer than I expected, and for a moment I almost feel like I am back in my pod… and then I float up to the surface, and the constant motion of the sea makes the difference plain as a wave passes over me.

I always wondered what swimming in my own body might be like. Victory planned for this possibility, noting that telekinesis tires only my psychic abilities while leaving my body rested, and so I begin mimicking the motions observed through videos of humans swimming.

It’s easy enough to stay afloat, but movement remains very slow. I begin experimenting with different motions of my arms and legs, and it’s only once I begin moving my tail as well that I begin to travel faster than the waves around me. It’s nowhere near my levitation speed, but every meter brings me closer to true rest, and so I persist. It feels good to move my muscles, in any case, and after a few minutes I decide that I like swimming.

Soon the motions become as rote as flight, and I focus more attention on what I’m sensing in the nearby sea life. Schools of various fish swim below and around, barely taking notice of me, while a small swarm of half a dozen tentacool eye me in passing, and need to be discouraged with a few sharp kinetic jabs. A pod of wailmer approaches at one point, curious but without any hostile intent, and we swim together for a while before it finds a warm ocean current and dives for it.

Eventually my muscles begin to burn, and I fill my lungs with air before turning over onto my back and relaxing. My body floats as I rest, staring at the stars once again while cataloguing the various unique aches that I never felt after training or battles.

My mind drifts to what’s waiting for me ahead, in the wider world. Idle thoughts of what would be done with the lab, whether it would be repaired and a new subject started. Assuming I can believe that no other experiments began, the thought of a clone of myself being raised in my old pod feels… strange. Would they treat it differently? Try for that “perfect moment” that Giovanni mentioned?

Anger sparks in my chest, and a pain that lies too deep for tears. For a while, as I swam, I forgot my loneliness, or the risk of capture, or the uncertainty of the future. The precious peace quickly fades as the sense of unfairness washes over me. Would my second self get a better life than I had, now that the mistakes were made? Or did I condemn them to a more restrictive upbringing? I wonder how Sabrina would treat them, and what she thinks of my leaving.

What would Dr. Fuji think, when he learns? If he learns? If he is even still alive… I know you will not likely trust this, but you can at least verify it… Why was Giovanni so certain that I could find Fuji, while not telling me where to look? Is he famous, perhaps? If I look into enough people’s minds as they watch television or search the web, perhaps I will find him. But if that is the case, it would be easy to verify without risk…

Again I remind myself that it was manipulation, but that does not change the question of whether it was based on truth. Fuji’s sudden departure, the mystery among the other lab members of where he went and why, Sabrina’s assurance that Giovanni had not harmed him… the knot of uncertainty feels impossible to untie without knowing for certain, and that is what makes the trap so effective.

How could I verify Fuji’s life safely? Any town… a deliberate word, as opposed to a city? Cities are full of far too many eyes that might spot me, even flying far above, but a town… perhaps I could stay out of sight and search the homes inside with the edge of my range. It would have to—

—a flicker of movement—

pain

water floods my throat and nose

clouds of rising blood, salt burn as I gag

PAIN!

I scream, without air, without sound, and thrash

what

sinking, pulling down

WHAT

tail, pain in tail, PAIN like fire

Focus, focus and shut it downand the fear, stop struggling it only makes the PAIN worse, only makes the blood flow faster—

Nothing, there’s nothing there

Dark

There, feel, kick

PAIN as I’m whipped around

Sharp, teeth, embedded in tail

LOOK through other eyes, no, not enough light

Can’t breathe, lungs burning

Focus. Shape. Release.

TEARING

nauseating pain as I rise

keep pushing up

and up and up and

…pain…

don’t want to die…

hurts

wind, moving over my limbs

light, through a watery haze

I drop the kinesis and find myself in midair, the water I had propelled with me falling away and granting me my first gasp of air.

I immediately begin to cough as I fall, and it takes all my concentration to catch myself above the water. The pain in my chest slowly fades as I painfully suck in air through a throat coated in salty water, but the agony in my tail takes longer, every shift in pressure or twitch in my muscles sending fresh waves.

My body shakes with it, but finally the pain lessens to a mild ache, and my panic begins to fade as I finish healing.

…no. Something is wrong.

I feel light headed, weak. Blood loss? And…

I curl forward, lift tail between legs…

Nothing.

Look down, where a nub of flesh ends just between knees. Sensitive, almost painful. Flesh is closed.

I’ve lost my tail.

Concentration slips, reshape, move toward land. My mind starts to clear even as my stomach pangs with sudden hunger.

How? How did I let this happen? Overconfident, underestimated Dark pokemon, predators skilled at evading the very senses I was using to keep watch…

Victory prepared for this. The realization comes far too late, the dim memories of researching native pokemon around Cinnabar Island. Swimming was considered an acceptable risk as long as I stayed in motion, stayed vigilant.

Instead I let my guard down. I let tiredness distract me, got lulled into a sense of security. Let my mind wander to Giovanni’s distracting message.

Anger burns bright, but brief. Under it is an aching desire to return to the lab. To people who could fix me. To safety.

The tears return, but I do not change course. The swim allowed me to recover enough mental energy to arrive at shore, though by the time I collapse once again onto wet sand, hungry and tired, I can barely focus my senses on any surrounding minds.

After ensuring visually that no pokemon are nearby, I let my head fall back. The stars seem farther, now, their light cold and uncaring. The loneliness overwhelms me, and before I can make any conscious decision I find that I am already shaping a new tulpa.

Survive I impress upon the new mind, taking care to shape the partition with more restrictions than the previous ones had. I try to grant it Doubt’s cunning, Trust’s flexibility, and Flourish’s resilience. It becomes more than Survive, but also Strengthen (to survive) and Adapt (to survive).

Keep watch, I tell it as my consciousness begins to dull around the edges. Plan next steps. Food. Safety. Shelter…

I wait until it has begun reviewing memories, begun forming itself without my attention, before I use the last of my power to create a hole in the sand, then cover it back up once I’ve rolled into it, leaving just my snout exposed.

Only then do I sleep.


When I wake, it is still dark. For a moment I wonder if it has been a whole day, but no, my hunger and thirst would be even greater if I’d slept for more than a few hours.

But I’ve recovered enough strength to fly to another river to drink from, finally washing the taste of salt from my mouth and throat. Then I lift myself up and stretch my senses out, merging with wild pokemon to borrow their senses in finding enough wild nuts, berries, and roots that my stomach no longer feels like a closed fist. None are as flavorful as the magikarp eggs, but I do not have the luxury of being particular.

The loss of my tail makes everything more difficult than it should be. It is harder to balance myself as I walk, and so I experiment with crawling instead, only to find that it feels unnatural. The thought of relearning how to walk is not in itself daunting, but what weighs on my thoughts instead is the feeling of failure.

Within hours of achieving freedom, I have been maimed by a single wild pokemon. As I foraged, every unexpected noise made me jump, every shifting shadow sped my pulse. Once a flock of murkrow flew overhead, causing me to instinctively send a wave of force up at them… which, of course, did nothing.

The thought that Giovanni may have been right to keep me confined and safe in the lab is humiliating, but impossible to entirely dismiss.

Once I’ve finished foraging and feel more recovered, I fly straight up, high enough to look down at the starlit earth, higher than I’ve ever flown before, only stopping once I begin to feel cold. Below me the western lip of Kanto stretches out from the shore; the cluster of lights to the south would be Pallet Town, the larger glow to the north Viridian City.

[Prime?]

It is the first time Survive has spoken. Its “voice” feels most similar to Trust’s, and it is unsurprising that it chose that name for me, given it has all the memories of the previous tulpas. Yes, Survive?

[Why are we not leaving Kanto?]

As a safety precaution, Survive was created without full and constant access to my immediate thoughts, but an additional benefit is a greater need to deliberately converse with it. To look for medicine, and other supplies that will help us better survive.

[I see. Yes. This seems an acceptable risk even if it cannot regenerate our tail.]

I nod, and set course toward Pallet Town. The original plan was indeed to fly out into the wilderness beyond the region, where Giovanni’s reach would not extend and there would be little risk of humans finding me. But the loss of my tail served as a sign that I may not be as prepared to survive in the wild as I thought.

I’ve learned all I could over the years about psychic regeneration, and know that there are limits within a particular time frame to what can be healed… and in certain species, what can be healed. This is part of why potions are still of value to trainers of psychic pokemon; it would be foolish to not bring as many survival supplies as I could with me.

[Prime, new potential risks have occurred to me,] Survive says as the lights grow closer and brighter.

I smile at such quick evidence that the tulpa is fulfilling its purpose already. Please share them.

[Our range exceeds that of any psychics that we know of, but what if Sabrina and Giovanni lied about the capabilities of human psychics?]

An interesting thought, I reply, reminded of Doubt’s paranoia. Useful, even if often wrong, particularly once it learned to better calibrate it. But all risks could be seen as too great if we imagine new fears for them. What odds do you place on it being true?

[Low. Given the extent of deception that would be needed… and how many of the mistakes the lab made regarding us would only have made sense if our range truly falls outside the range of what they thought was possible. Is it too low, then, to be worried about?]

Correct. But please continue to bring up low-chance risks that you perceive, so that you can continue to learn. Do not assume that I must have thought already of what you have; in this case, I did not, but our estimation of the likelihood is the same.

[I understand. The second risk seems much higher; what if some of the humans that enter our range are sensitives?]

They will sense our presence, and perhaps be curious or alarmed for a moment. But they would not know our nature.

[Might they not believe a psychic is near their home, and call the police? Enough such reports would be anomalous enough to catch someone’s attention, particularly if they are looking for it, as Giovanni’s people may be.]

Outlying houses begin to pass underneath as I ponder Survive’s words, and finally nod. I did not consider that. But in truth, it does not matter if they know we were here, as long as they are not able to find us before we leave. Still, thank you for pointing that out.

[You are welcome, Prime.] I can sense its pleasure at helping, layered over its wariness as we get closer to more buildings. [Let us search the outskirts of town, first?]

Yes, that seems sensible as well. I cease flying forward and begin to look around until I spot it: a sign advertising a small, single story structure as a market.

I fly forward, still high enough to be well out of any lights from below, then lower myself, range restricted to only cover the building itself.

No humans inside. Is it so late that they would be home? The lights are still on… which leaves the worst case scenario.

[They might be Dark.]

I nod as my tulpa reaches the same conclusion. I must find a way to see inside without being seen myself.

[What about security cameras?]

How could I use those to… oh, as another risk. I hadn’t considered that either.

But perhaps the solution to both is the same.

I close my eyes and concentrate on the immediate area around the market, and form a telekinetic field enveloping the whole of it. It is so large that filling it with force would do little more than ruffle the grass… but it isn’t movement that I seek.

It’s stillness.

I concentrate more and more energy into keeping the molecules of air around the market as still as possible. At first nothing seems to change… but then the temperature rapidly starts to drop, and when I open my eyes a thick white mist has formed, enveloping the entire building.

[Ah, yes. Flourish’s idea. Clever.]

Thank you. The idea was sparked during our battles with Ice pokemon, but Doubt’s insistence on keeping potentially unusual abilities hidden kept them from ever testing it. It seems feasible, now, that we might be able to mimic other Ice attacks, and perhaps even Fire. But that will have to wait until later.

No one comes out to investigate the mist, and after a moment we drop down in front of the door and test it. Locked.

Perfect.

With another quick shaping of energy we deliver enough force to break the door open. The mist is starting to clear, so I reinforce it, and apply the cooling to the inside of the store as well. Soon the whole interior is thick with mist, drops of water covering the glass. I am starting to feel the strain of using so much psychic power, and so move quickly to be gone before needing to do it again.

It is surreal to be inside a building that I have only ever seen through television and movies before. The layout is similar enough that, even with the thick mist, I can quickly make my way to where the handheld shopping baskets are kept by the counter, and then go from aisle to aisle searching for what I need.

Potion bottles. Various other medicines. Meal bars, for emergency situations. A container ball, to more easily store everything… no, it will run out of battery eventually. That sets a limit on what I can take, but perhaps that’s for the best… ah, a bag. I unzip the main pack and dump the contents of the basket into it instead.

The mist lasts much longer inside the building, and before it starts to thin I have nearly filled the bag with supplies. I am about to leave when Survive speaks for the first time: [Pokeballs.]

I go still, and slowly turn to where they sit in various pouches.

[Even without a pokedex to train them or a way to maintain the ball’s charge, they could help us defeat Dark opponents.]

My heart is beating too fast.

[Prime? Why do you hesitate?]

I do not know, I say, and close my eyes, searching my feelings. No good reason occurs… only… It seems… wrong. To enslave others, even pokemon.

[Worse than killing them?] Survive asks, clearly confused.

Yes.

[That seems untrue, but perhaps you can explain it better later. For now, you do not need to use them, but take them anyway in case you do.]

That seems reasonable. I take a deep breath and nod, then scoop one of the black and yellow pouches into the bag before zipping it closed and heading for the door.

[Silent alarm could have triggered when we broke in. Police may be nearby.]

I stop at the door, then start spreading mist again, inside and out. When it seems thick enough, I fly up onto the roof and look around, then higher into the sky, slipping my arms into the straps of the bag as I search for a place to rest.


The first day of freedom contained more excitement than the next week combined.

I travel by night and rest by day, often sheltering in caves or trees after driving all nearby pokemon away. I managed to accomplish it without killing until a swarm of beedrill attacked.

Once more subtle maneuvers failed to deter them, victory was nearly effortless, each attack crushing their frail bodies. Survive was satisfied, having only been convinced of my earlier reservations by the idea of saving strength. In truth I do not know why the idea of killing bothered me; I felt nothing after the beedrill were slain, save relief that I could defend myself from wild pokemon if needed.

By the end of the week we are far from Kanto and deep into the wilds of the northern island. I still have all of the stolen supplies, though I used half of a potion bottle experimenting with my tail, even purposefully reopening the wound to see if spraying it would regenerate more. The result was simply pain, and frustrated despair.

The only close call since the attack in the ocean is when a murkrow attacked on the seventh night. It caused me to drop my bag as it cut one strap and dug bloody furrows along my flesh, but I was able to latch onto it before it could fly away, and my powerful arms twisted its neck around until it snapped. Once again I felt nothing but pain, until I healed myself, and then retrieved my bag. The fear was quicker to fade, this time, and Survive and I developed a new method of flying that would have us steadily turn to watch for attackers from all sides.

Between foraging, traveling, resting, and the occasional battle, mostly I spend my time luxuriating in the freedom of the open sky. The ability to pick any direction, explore any lake or forest or mountain I encounter at will. My thoughts still drift back to the lab from time to time, to Giovanni and Sabrina and Dr. Fuji, to my comforters and technicians and doctors. The loneliness, on occasion, returns, but never for very long, and soon weakens to the point that I begin to miss books and music as much as people…

…though in my dreams, Sabrina still occasionally appears, holding my hand and flying beside me as we explore the island together.


Time becomes hard to track, in the wilderness. Weeks at least have gone by since I left Cinnabar Island when, while flying near a curious patch of grass in the middle of a forest, a curiosity draws my attention; a flicker of some psychic texture I’ve never encountered before. It’s also moving, and I quickly change course to chase after it before it leaves my range, trying to understand what I sensed as my eyes scan the empty sky in its direction.

It takes four tries to confirm that it is a mind, feeble as it is. Its only sense beside its psychic ability is sight, which itself is extremely limited. As the merge deepens I see the world below in flat black and white, and realize what I’m chasing. A few moments later I am close enough to make out its shape in the sky, somewhat resembling the letter F, and confirm that I’ve merged with an unown for the first time.

I learned about the unown, but was never brought one to merge with, as they reportedly had no unique psychic abilities. I’d asked to be brought one anyway, suspecting that they may have been lying but also due to simple curiosity, but Sabrina insisted that the experience was very boring; no living, conscious thing is as completely devoid of drives or emotion, she’d said. It launched a discussion of the minds of plants, and whether our inability to sense them was proof that they had none.

Sabrina pointed out that, assuming it’s even possible that plant biology could generate something akin to “experiences” given the vast differences in electrochemical scope and activity, they would be for things such as temperature, sunlight, or water availability that trigger certain changes, and those at least should be shareable… unless the biological difference is too great for any sort of sympathetic psychic connection to occur. Unown, by contrast, have a similar enough structure to share their senses of touch and sight, but no internal experience to speak of. In any case, the topic was dropped.

Now, years later, I learn that she was not wrong. While most other pokemon feel like a tapestry of vivid senses guided by a tug of instinctual drive, and human minds buzz with thoughts layered over their duller senses and more conflicted desires, this… thing, lacks any texture, any mental activity, any drives at all. Its mind seems a simple mirror of what it experiences, stretched back through its memory, with no emotional imprint, no inclination to do anything. Even movement seems automatic and instinctual, observation its natural state.

I fly with it for some time, following my curiosity despite its lack of any interesting features. It has been so long since I’ve merged with a mind so different from my own that the shallowness itself serves as sufficient novelty.

[Prime, this does not seem to aid survival.]

I consider telling my tulpa that survival is not all that matters, but know that it would find this unconvincing, given its primary values. Instead I shape the lesson to what it would understand.

The unknown can be the greatest threat to survival. All information of other pokemon might lead to unexpected benefits. Survive is skeptical, and after a moment I realize why. I meant that which is not known.

[Ah.] It still seems skeptical, but doesn’t object further as I begin experimenting with the merger.

Most pokemon can be directed by projecting hunger or fear, but neither evoke any response. Pain also fails to make any impression. The unown simply continues its path through the sky as the forests stretch all around us.

I begin to wonder if the unown would even react to a direct attack, but even projecting pain at it made Survive apprehensive, and the terrifying loss of my tail is still a fresh memory despite my other victories. I share my tulpa’s skepticism that unown might be dangerous, but it is better to be safe, rather than develop a habit of attacking any new creature we encounter.

A new worry blossoms, suddenly. If I fear even such a paltry opponent as this, could I ever confidently face the prospect of true, challenging combat?

I know what Survive would ask, if it shared my thoughts. Fear of those that can’t be avoided is reasonable, and why bother fighting a battle that might not be won? I do not know how I would answer, but in the back of my mind, despite everything, there is still the thought that one day I might become strong enough to challenge the Stormbringers, and other legendary pokemon.

That one day I might defeat them, as I was created to.

The thought brings shame, and I turn my attention back to the unown. Its path is erratic, but linear enough to be mostly predictable. Wherever it is going, it seems to be going with purpose, despite its empty inner experiences.

I see the others before I sense them, a luminescent cloud on the horizon. Survive’s warning is unnecessary, and I drop immediately into the canopy and watch, heart suddenly racing as I realize what I’m seeing.

The unown I have been following is heading directly toward it.

Survive, formulate a path of escape that would hide us from unown detection and review any Dark pokemon or hunting techniques that might endanger us by staying this close to the forest.

[Yes, Prime. But it would be safer not to pursue.]

Your recommendation is noted. I begin flying after the unown, careful to stay just below the canopy. The occasional Flying and Grass pokemon are easy to avoid, but Bugs are more difficult to sense on time, and it is Survive’s guidance to send periodic telekinetic bolts forward that keeps me from levitating directly into a nearly invisible spiderweb.

Eventually I get close enough to the mass to confirm that they are all unown. Hundreds of them, floating in a complex array, layers and layers deep, shifting in a mesmerizing pattern and giving off pulses of psychic energy. To a human such a sight might simply appear to be a senseless, shifting mass of black-and-white, but to my eyes it is an intricate clock constructed by bits of living aurora.

It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

And then the unown I am merged with reaches the sphere, and the placid mirror of its mind inverts into a hole in the mental landscape, a funnel that sucks in my wonder, my senses, my very being.

And through that hole I see

I am seen

a world distorted, a mad dreamscape

a mad god

through which hundreds of glimpses of reality pass through

are searched

until some semblance of order is imposed.

one step closer.

[PRIME!]

iacnnto…

…rbaek…

…hetemreg


Survive

It’s easy to understand why Prime created such a firm partition, after what my predecessors did. Fear is necessary. Healthy. It keeps us safe.

But sometimes Prime is not afraid enough for its own good. Such as the time with the combee hive, delicious (and energizing) as the honey turned out to be. Or the time the ursaring came to the cave we were sleeping in, and projecting sleepiness seemed easier than chasing it off. Or the time we lost our tail…

But that was before I was created, of course. An important lesson.

Following the unown turned out to be another such time. Thankfully, the earlier hard-won caution balances the more recent lack, as the strength of the partition protects me from the distorting madness on the other end of the unown swarm.

Still, forming our shield is difficult with how little autonomy I have. If Prime was sensate I would not be able to at all, but little by little I construct enough to cut the merger entirely. Unfortunately, by then Prime seems disoriented to the point of near unconsciousness, which is only mildly more terrifying than the way our body is plunging to the ground, and less immediately important.

I manage to nudge us toward a branch on the way down, and though Prime’s arm snaps from the impact, the remaining distance is much less frightening, so long as we don’t land on our… ah, good. The leg break feels cleaner as well. A huge relief.

Now we just have whatever happened to Prime’s mind to deal with. Our recovery powers do not seem to be activating, which is doubly alarming.

I spend a minute rapidly searching through my options, and then set the panic aside and start to weaken the partition, little by little, until smeo sridannitoieto tssatr lenbidge hrgthou—

—until clarity starts to return, and I notice that we are sitting up on the forest floor, our bones slowly reknitting together as Prime straightens the limbs as much as possible.

[Are you alright, Prime?] I can tell, of course, but it seems a polite way to reorient.

Yes. I believe so. Prime looks around the forest to visually confirm that we are alone, as we discussed. It feels good when my suggestions are put into practice. Thank you, Survive.

Being thanked also feels good. [Of course, Prime.] For a moment I wonder if an apology will come, for not listening to my warning about the unown. After another moment I decide an apology isn’t necessary, so long as we don’t do it again.

[I trust we will not be doing that again?] Sometimes it’s best to be sure.

Unfortunately, we might have to.

Calm. Stay calm. Prime has reasons. Sometimes bad reasons, but always reasons. [Why?] I ask, very calmly.

Prime makes a sound of amusement, though by our heartbeat and the slight shaking in our limbs I believe the primary emotion felt is some combination of terror, pain, and relief. Don’t worry, it won’t be anytime soon. And certainly not as recklessly as that.

Prime slowly extends our arm, then our leg, then gets up and checks our supply bag to ensure that nothing was broken. Collecting medicine and spare food was one of Prime’s best ideas, and I find it soothing every time we take inventory of them. I imagine Prime does as well.

I spend the time trying to understand Prime’s reasoning with the unown. By the time all the supplies are checked, I believe I have a guess. [You said the unknown can harm us. You wish to know more about whatever nearly killed us, because you believe it may try to do so again?]

Worse than that. I am almost certain it will.

Fear is good. Fear helps us survive. [Why?]

Because what I sensed working through those unown was a mind. Prime looks up at the unown sphere through the trees, its dazzling, shifting colors much less beautiful given how deadly it turned out to be. A being as powerful compared to the legendary Hoenn pokemon as they are to the storm gods of Kanto.

Fear is good… but panic less so. [Was it… an intelligent mind?]

Prime lifts us off the ground, cautiously extending senses above while keeping them well short of the unown sphere, then sends a burst of kinesis through the branches above to dislodge any pokemon or traps that may be waiting for us before we fly through them. I could not tell. Can something be intelligent and mad at once? Perhaps.

[Why would it be a danger to us?]

Because mad or not, its goal is clear. To consume this reality.

Ah. That is a problem, given that we live here. I start wondering what the best ways to find other realities might be. Sadly it’s not something we’ve ever studied before, and the wilderness is not likely to be a place to learn more. [Is that what the unown are doing?]

I am not sure. Are they its creation, or merely useful tools?

This seems less important, unless killing all of them would be a way to stop it. Prime seems oddly hesitant to kill, but is always willing to if it means survival, which surely this would. Besides, the unown are barely sentient. [How long do we have?]

Perhaps years. Perhaps centuries. It is a man building a bridge, stone by stone, to cross an ocean… but it is patient, and ageless, and utterly implacable.

No panicking. Panicking is not productive. [Perhaps we could negotiate with it?] I realize, suddenly, that Prime is adjusting our course, little by little, with purpose, and wonder where we are going… only to realize, just before Prime confirms it.

It seems far too alien for that. Which leaves one solution: we must let the humans know.

Fear, I remind myself again, is good.

Philosophy of Therapy

For a lot of people, therapy can be a confusing, mysterious thing of questionable value. Many have tried it when they were younger, and felt that at best it was only of minimal help, while for others it actually made things worse. In many cultures, therapy looks very different from how it’s practiced in the “western world,” and the concept of mental health itself is often treated with suspicion or dismissal. I’ve known many people who, even while not being skeptical, were still confused about what the purpose of therapy actually is, or what situations warrant seeking a therapist out.

In my practice as a therapist, I often reorient myself to the basic core of therapy, which to me is about helping people get unstuck. Sometimes the thing you’re stuck on is a recurring and disruptive emotional state, other times it’s some harmful interpersonal dynamic, and other times it’s a pattern of behavior. Whatever the specifics, there is some aspect of the client’s life that is not going the way they would prefer, and the therapist’s job is to help them find a way to change that.

What the therapy provides also varies; good therapy can create space for honest expressions of emotion, provide new perspectives or insight, and offer new “tools” for the client to use in their lives, specific behaviors or mental motions that help move past the stuckness.

Those skeptical of therapy often wonder: can’t people just talk to their friends or family if they need emotional support? Aren’t there self-help books they can try? And of course they can, and should try those things! For many people, the majority of their difficulties do not require a therapist.

Which means therapy is for what’s left. Those things that seem truly intractable, the things that you feel stuck on, which other resources have failed to help resolve.

But I’d like to demystify therapy further, and better yet, I think by better understanding what therapy is meant to do and how, people can get some of the value that therapy can provide even without going to see a therapist.

Because while much of the change in therapy comes from the therapeutic relationship itself (which is why first finding a therapist that you feel comfortable with is half the battle), for a large portion of clients I’ve seen, even just changing the frame of the problems they experience, or changing the way they view themselves in relation to their problems, actually makes the problem less sticky. A new frame can reveal more levers to pull and knobs to turn, or new vistas of the mind to explore and inhabit, that can help make the problem more manageable.

So that’s the goal of this essay. By teaching the history of the different philosophies of therapy, I want to teach you how, if you change the frame, you can change the problem.

I. History

Ask people to describe what therapy involves or “looks like,” and most who haven’t been in therapy will say something like “one person lies down on a couch and talks to the therapist, who takes notes and asks questions like ‘How does that make you feel’ and ‘Tell me about your childhood’ and ‘How do you feel about your mother?’

This is largely the result of Hollywood Therapy, but it’s rooted in the origins of therapy, which is Freudian—what’s now called Psychoanalytic Therapy.

Sigmund Freud was the progenitor of applied psychology; the idea that we could study the way people think and feel and act, and use it to directly help them “improve” in some way. He was inspired by his mentor, a physician who helped alleviate a patient’s untreatable illness by just asking questions about her symptoms. That patient coined the term “talking cure,” and Freud took this concept and ran with it, dedicating his life to the idea that many ills people suffer are psychological in nature rather than physiological, and that just talking about them can help reduce or remove them.

Freud had a lot of ideas of his own, however, and while many them turned out to be nonsense, he also had some that turned out to be true, or at the very least, useful, such as the concept of a “subconscious,” or the idea of dividing a person’s mind into subagents (in his case, Id, Ego, and Superego). As the arrow above indicates, Freud cared almost exclusively about the past; he believed that by studying one’s childhood, the way they were raised, their early environment, or the origin of a certain dysfunctional behavior, you could identify all sorts of traumas or stresses that cause dysfunction later in life. Once identified, he believed the client would gain a feeling of “catharsis” that would start the path to healing.

Here’s where I admit that I have something of a bias against psychoanalysis.

In my view, Freud was a philosopher first and foremost, rather than a scientist. He had interesting ideas that seemed logical to him, and a scientific frame of mind, but while he pursued the application of these ideas with an admirable gusto, his documentation did not seem to aim its rigor at testing which of his ideas were true. I’m unaware of any hypotheses Freud generated that he then went on to falsify. (If you know of any, please do share them!)

Far from an attempt to bash the man, I do admire him a great deal. It’s hard to be the first person to basically invent an entire field of science and do it all perfectly such that you are simultaneously the person observing reality, coming up with ideas, and dispassionately testing those ideas, all while trying to do work as a clinician. But I believe most modern schools of therapy have picked out the gems of his work and left the rest to history lessons.

That isn’t to say this branch of therapy is all worthless. While catharsis alone generally doesn’t solve most people’s symptoms (psychosomatic illnesses like his mentor’s patient’s are in fact very rare), delving into one’s past can lead to insights into their current problems, and many do report feeling better about their problems when they have a chance to talk about them (again, credit to Freud, this would likely have been very encouraging to him when he began his work).

Additionally, as a colleague pointed out to me after reading an earlier version of this article, many modern psychoanalysts do seek to empirically test the field’s ideas in order to continue to develop evidence-based treatments, and modalities such as Transference-Focused Psychotherapy have evidence suggesting it to be at least as effective as other standards of treatment.

(A modality is a method of therapy that has a specific structure to help a client reach wellness. More than a specific intervention, modalities often include multiple interventions, as well as a particular type of relationship between client and therapist that dictates whether the therapist acts as more of a guide, partner, or authority. Each modality operates on a particular hypothesis of how therapy can help clients with certain problems.)

In any case, while psychoanalysis as practiced by Freud and his ideological descendants (Carl Jung, Anna Freud, Erik Erikson) focused so much on the client’s past, new discoveries in psychology led to therapeutic modalities that focused instead on influencing the client’s future.

Enter, the Behaviorists.

As Freud is to Psychoanalysis, so Ivan Pavlov, of dog fame, is to Behaviorism. Pavlov discovered and experimented with classical conditioning, the idea that you can pair different stimuli to influence responses. This discovery was a great boon to pet owners, but also has direct applications to therapy. One example is addiction treatment, where for example the sight or smell of cigarettes or beer is paired with something that will evoke disgust. It also led to desensitization therapy for phobias, where pairing progressively more frightening stimuli with techniques and context that help relax the client can alleviate the fear response.

These ideas were expanded by Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner, whose work is called operant (or instrumental) conditioning. Rather than just pairing stimuli together to affect responses, their experiments showed demonstrable effects on learning and behavior through reinforcement and punishment; in therapy the idea of using positive reinforcement to incentivize desired behavior is often helpful for children, particularly those with developmental issues.

I don’t have much to say about Behaviorism. For some things that people come to therapy for help with, it just works. For others… not so much. I think understanding the mechanisms of Behavioral Therapy is valuable for any clinician, but there’s some obvious flaws with taking it as the only avenue toward better mental health.

Unlike psychoanalysts, a straw-Behaviorist doesn’t care about your past, and talking about your traumas or “deeper issues” would often be considered a waste of time. Instead the focus is on your symptoms. No symptom, no problem, right? Just apply the right type of reinforcement to increase positive behaviors and the right type of punishment to decrease negative behaviors, and all’s well…

…for some people, at least. Behaviorists had a lot of success in some domains, particularly when the “why” of the problem didn’t actually matter to the client or issue, but obviously struggled with others. After the first World War, clinicians formally recognized PTSD, or “shell shock,” for the first time. Unfortunately, attempts to treat soldiers through psychoanalytic and behavioral therapy often failed, and so many psychologists turned clinician to help figure out how better understanding the present feelings we have, and how they impact our behavior, can lead to mental health.

Which brings us to Existential Therapy.

Rather than having a single founder, the Existential philosophy of therapy was converged upon by a wide range of psychologists and clinicians, many inspired by the writings of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, Scheler, Heidegger, and Sartre. These writers’ attempts to redefine our understanding of not just what it means to be human, but an “actualized” human, a healthy, thriving, happy human, were believed to have great value in clinical efforts to help those in need.

But among that foundational pantheon, the first of the Existential therapists was Otto Rank, a student of Freud who later split with him over Freud’s beliefs that a person’s “formative years” are what determine who they become. Instead, Rank believed that human development continues throughout our lives, requiring continual negotiation and renegotiation between dual yearnings for individuation and connection.

For such heresy he was excommunicated by the psychoanalytic world, but he nevertheless influenced his own “family” of psychologists, including Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, who’s more well known as the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, and Abraham Maslow, of hierarchy fame. These psychologists focused not so much on what happened in someone’s past or how to influence their future, but on their now. What do people feel like they need, that they lack? How does the client experience “need” at all? What relationship do they have with their hurts and wants, and what would be necessary for them to feel fulfilled? How do those different needs and wants conflict with each other, and how can they be better brought into harmony?

Existential therapy also marked a new dynamic between client and therapist; rather than a top-down hierarchy, where the clinician is the “expert” and the client the “patient,” what became known as client-centered therapeutic practice began to form. It placed both therapist and client as equals; the clinician has the education and skills, but the client is the expert on their own lives, of what they think and feel, and so the Existential therapist’s role is more that of a facilitator to the client’s growth.

This may seem like polite semantics, but most people who’ve been to both kinds of therapists can tell how big a difference it makes if, upon disagreeing with their therapist on something, they’re treated not like a stubborn mule who is “resistant” to change, but rather a person with agency, whose motivation to improve is taken for granted by their therapist. The philosophy also emphasizes the importance of a therapist who is willing to listen, encourage, and support the client’s personal journey to better mental and emotional health, as the client defines those things.

Under the light of Existential Therapy (and its more upbeat twin, Humanistic Therapy) there grew many techniques to help clients better understand themselves, including Carl Rogers’s “reflective listening,” which has become a staple of good therapy from every philosophy, as well as techniques to better interface with our emotions, such as “focusing” by Eugene Gendlin, which I personally have found to be one of the most generically effective tools to teach practically every client I’ve had.

Time to admit to another bias, in case it’s not clear; I’m a huge fan of existential/humanistic therapy. In my experience it has a wide “range” in what it can successfully treat, and its frame makes up an integral part of what makes modalities effective in general.

But it’s not the form of therapy I was formally educated in, and it’s not the latest form of therapy that was developed. There’s one last dimension that even existential therapists failed to engage in, and if you’re following the theme of the arrows you might have guessed it: the opposite of focusing on ourselves is focusing on everything else.

Enter Systemic Therapy (also known as Family Systems Therapy, or just Family Therapy), born in the 1950s from a very powerful need; the need for better marriage counseling.

In the post WWII era, if a husband and wife wanted to save their marriage, they would go about it thusly: the man would have his counselor, and the woman would have her counselor, and both would see their counselors separately. If they went to a fancy clinic dedicated to marriage counseling, the two clinicians would be coworkers, seeing their clients individually, then consulting on the case between sessions, or even mid-session before returning to their clients.

If that sounds crazy, just remember that this was the 50’s, when people still thought smoking was good for you. The idea was that a client’s relationship with their therapist was sacrosanct, and must always be preserved as a space of utter one-on-one privacy that would allow them to be completely frank, without worrying about their spouse’s presence, or their therapist telling their spouse anything spoken of in confidence.

Eventually some therapists in California realized how absurd this was, not to mention ineffective. They suggested a new way to practice marriage counseling, where a single counselor (or even two) spoke with both clients together, in the same room and at the same time. That way a therapist could observe their interactions and mediate their discussions directly.

Their clinic said no.

So Don Jackson and his colleagues left to form the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, where they developed their own modality of therapy, one that involved not just the individual patient, but sometimes romantic partners, family members, even friends if the problem called for it.

They weren’t the only ones; Salvador Minuchin, Murray Bowen, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, Virginia Satir, and Jay Haley all developed modalities based on the idea that, to help a client overcome dysfunction, the therapist should focus not just on the client, but the system they’re a part of, whether that be their family, their work environment, their culture, or even their country, all at various levels of abstraction.

(There isn’t going to be a test on all the names I’m throwing at you, but if I went into every single modality we’d be here all day, and this way you have an easy way to look into them on your own if you want.)

The study of cybernetics and communication theory were also prominent influences, as human systems of all kinds were being better understood and studied, which improved the clinician’s ability to map the impact of one part of a system on the others. The “systems” being referred to in these therapies can be any context you’re a part, individually or simultaneously: family system, school system, work, friend-group, even cultural and religious. By being part of any system, there is inherent and unavoidable communication between you and the other parts, implicit or explicit, which affects the other parts of the system and how they behave, which further affects how you behave, and so on.

This understanding led to a philosophy that takes the humility of existential therapy even further, such that many modalities do not even identify anyone in particular as “sick” or “healthy,” but rather views behavior patterns themselves as dynamic or stagnant, and focuses on how change can propagate through the system by nudging elements of it. By understanding how everyone’s actions and reactions affect each other’s behavior, the client and clinician have more surface area on the problem to try and find solutions, more levers to pull and handles to grip from.

A big reason why this lens can be so valuable is that when you start working with groups rather than individuals, you have to address the fact that often times, not everyone involved in therapy has the same desire to be there, let alone incentive or drive to change. Of course, that was true before couples or entire families were being invited into a therapy room at once, but now the therapists were actively working to address it rather than just assuring whoever cared enough to be in the room that the problem was other people, and not them.

Oh, also worth noting that therapy up to this point was still a LONG process, often expected to last years. Systemic Therapy made a push toward briefer, more effective interventions, creating modalities like Solution Focused Therapy, which combined Systemic and Behavioral principles to bring about real, lasting change within 4-6 months.

So, that’s the four cardinal philosophies I’ve sort-of-made-up as a labeling scheme to map all therapy onto. Now we get to the meat of the matter; how can just knowing about them actually help?

II. Case Study

“You have to help me,” Marge, 55, says during her first session. “It’s my husband. He’s become obsessed with model trains!”

Sidebar 1: An important thing to note is that the client said she needs help, but highlighted her husband as the focus of therapy. Some equivalent of “fix my spouse” (or “fix my kid”) is nearly as common, in my experience as “fix me,” and often times the spouses in question aren’t always in the room. So we work with what we have.

“I can see you’re worried about him,” I say. “What does ‘obsessed’ look like? Are you running out of money?”

“Well, no,” she admits. “We can afford it, but… every month he’ll order hundreds of dollars worth of new models and tracks, and after work he goes down to the basement. He spends hours down there, every day!”

I nod. “Yeah, it makes sense why that might be concerning. Is he skipping meals? Staying up all night?”

“No, no. He’s sleeping fine, he’s still eating… but it’s quick, you know, he’ll pop out of the basement for ten minutes, wolf down his food without looking at it, then go back to his trains for another six hours. That’s not normal, right?”

Sidebar 2: “ Normal,” along with “healthy,” is perhaps the most loaded word in therapy. Unless the client is insistent, or we’ve formed a strong therapeutic relationship, I try to avoid giving any kind of verdict on either, and instead use the therapist standby of answering a question with a question; in this case not ‘what is normal,’ but rather:

“What would you consider to be the ‘normal’ things he does do?”

“You mean like work?”

“Yeah, and beyond that. Is he still seeing his friends?”

“Yes, once in a while he’ll go out for some drinks with them.”

This is evidence that he’s not a shut-in. “Feel free to say it’s too personal for now, but just to check, does he still want sex?”

She blushes. “Not often, but, yes. Sometimes.”

“Okay. Does he talk about other things, or is it all trains all the time, now?”

“We barely talk at all, now, not like we used to.”

“What was the last conversation you had with him?”

“Oh, about the kids.”

“You have children?”

She smiles for the first time. “Yes, two. Both married, one with our first grandchild on the way.”

“Congratulations! And he’s still interested in them, and the grandchild?”

“Oh, yes. He put off our vacation so we’d be around the first few months.” Her smile is gone now. “Which normally I’d be in favor of too, but… there’s some sort of convention nearby around then that he’s still planning to go to.”

“A model train convention?” I guess.

“Yes, I’m telling you, he’s just…” She shakes her head, seemingly at a loss for words.

Sidebar 3: “Pathologizing” is the perception that any action or view that is unusual is automatically a sign of illness, despite no evident dysfunction or suffering. In decades past, previous versions of the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual labeled things like homosexuality a mental health illness due to a mentality that didn’t distinguish between “normal” and “healthy.” Newer versions of the DSM have eliminated most of those, and there’s a concerted effort among (good) psychologists and therapists to distinguish real pathology as something that causes direct suffering for the patient.

At this point, I might feel an urge to say “Okay, so… what exactly is the problem here? Just because your husband is spending hundreds of dollars and hours a month on model trains doesn’t mean he needs therapy. If it’s not affecting his sleep, or his appetite, or his work, or his social life… maybe he just likes trains, and that’s okay? It’s far from the worst hobby, and if it makes him happy, just let him like trains!”

I wouldn’t say this out loud, however, at least not in the first session, because even if I’ve become at least reasonably sure that the husband is okay, to say something like that would be dismissive of her experiences .

Regardless of what her husband is doing, she is clearly unhappy. And while she might think she can be the client but not the patient, the truth is, from a systemic lens, there is no distinction. The system she lives in, her marriage, is clearly dysfunctional for her in some way, as evidenced by how she’s suffering enough to come to a therapist. Perhaps her husband is too, in a non-obvious way that will be revealed through further questioning, but for now the focus would best be shifted to her.

There are a number of lenses through which to focus, however, and each might approach the problem in such different ways that they essentially become different problems .

  • A psychoanalytic therapist could delve into Marge’s past. Was her father distant with her, perhaps obsessed with his work or a hobby of his own? Did she have older siblings that left her out of their play? Was a childhood friend killed by a train? (Probably not that last one.)
  • A behaviorist could focus on the husband’s actions and develop strategies to reinforce or punish the ones she likes/dislikes. This would be pretty manipulative if the husband isn’t on-board, however, so instead the therapist might focus on ways to associate her husband’s hobby with positive emotions and experiences of her own.
  • An existentialist could help Marge delve into the emotional experiences she’s having, what she feels when she thinks of her husband in the basement or buying new models, and what needs she has that aren’t being met. The goal would be either to dissolve the problem entirely by reframing her expectations, or teaching her new tools to manage her mood and satisfy her emotional needs.
  • A systemic therapist could help by examining the overlapping systems she’s a part of; her marriage, her family, her social circles. Did she and her husband used to do more things together? What was their marriage like when the kids were still part of the household? How often does she spend time with her own friends or hobbies? Perhaps there are ways she could better communicate to her husband what her needs are so he can understand how she’s hurting, or examine what behaviors of hers might be reinforcing her husband’s without even realizing it.

While individual modalities might lack scientific backing, I believe the broader philosophies can each be suited to different types of problems. That still means that if a therapist only sees the world through one or two lenses, they might not be able to help their client as well as someone whose approach is the better fit.

Perhaps more importantly, each client can respond better to a different philosophy, even if they present with nearly identical problems. For some, just getting down to brass tacks and tackling the symptoms is their ideal, while for others, digging deep into their psyche is what they want and respond well to.

This is part of the reason why one of the major tenets of good therapy is “stay curious.” The more the therapist starts assuming they know what to expect from a client based on their presenting problem, no matter how often they’ve seen it before, the more likely they are to jump to conclusions about treatment that end up being a poor fit.

III. Modalities

A therapy modality is more specific than a philosophy; it’s not just a framework for what leads to dysfunction and how to correct it, but also a bundle of specific interventions and pathways, some more rigid than others, to lead the therapist and client from first session to last. Here’s just a few examples that I use regularly:

Cognitive Behavior Therapy is a mix of Existential and Behavioral. It focuses on the looping interactions between our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and how they reinforce each other such that altering one can alter others. (Dialectic Behavioral Therapy leans even more into the Existential side, with extra attention on mindfulness and mood regulation.)

Solution-Focused Therapy is a mix of Systemic and Behavioral. It helps the client identify their strengths and resources in their social systems, as well as how those systems reinforce their behaviors or symptoms, or can be altered to better reinforce more desired ones.

Narrative Therapy is a mix of Systemic and Existential therapy. It asks the client to present the narrative of their life, identify the ways the story they tell themselves and its framing is influenced by the broader systems they’re a part of, then explores the way their narrative makes them feel while teaching techniques to better interface with those feelings.

And here’s a handy-dandy diagram that lists just a few of the different modalities, techniques, and interventions used in therapy. There are many more that exist, and there may be different ways of practicing each of these that bump them from one section of the diagram to an adjacent one, but I believe every modality and strategy of therapy can ultimately be placed somewhere on this image, depending on how much they focus on understanding the client’s past, interfacing with their thoughts and emotions, altering their behaviors, or adjustments to their environment/relationships.

(This is in no way a “complete” image, as there are dozens of different modalities and it would need to be massive to fit them all, but I figured it’s better to just publish with some listed and update it over time.)

IV. Change the Frame, Change the Problem

I like collecting lenses through which to view the world. Each is like a different kind of mental map that I can use to navigate the territory of reality, and just like different types of maps (some simplistic and cartoonish, others realistic and highly detailed) can be more or less useful for different purposes, even maps that I know are not literally correct can still have value.

Overall this post is an ur-map, my ur-map, of different maps I’ve learned about in the field of therapy. I don’t mean to present it as “the one true way to view therapy,” but I’ve found it very helpful, and I hope others can too. It’s also worth keeping in mind that it has many of the biases you’d expect from someone educated in an American college program that focused primarily on one particular philosophy.

Still, I think if more people were aware of the different lenses through which therapy can operate, they would better be able to navigate the sorts of problems that might lead them to a therapy office, maybe even help them find their way without going to one.

Next time you feel stuck in a particular way of thinking about your problems, a particular frame through which your problem seems insurmountable, try changing it. You might find it a lot more tractable than it seemed before.

Chapter 84: What Comes Next

Blue wakes without opening his eyes, and wonders why someone is crying.

The smell is his first clue to where he is, that distinct blend that you only get in a hospital. The sounds are familiar too, beeping and hushed voices and a muffled voice over a speaker system.

The crying is muffled too, coming through the wall near his head. He slowly opens his eyes and stares up at the ceiling for a moment, wondering why he’s here…

“Hey,” Red says, and Blue turns to see his friend smiling at him. “Guess it was your turn, huh?”

Blue flashes back to Red, on a bed like this after the Viridian fire, and Leaf lying on one too, after…

“Leaf!” he gasps, looking around as it all comes crashing back; the casino, the earth shaking before it opened beneath them, the feeling of being crushed…

Agony lances through his body as he rises up, and Red grabs his shoulder to press him back to the bed. “Hey, relax! She’s fine, Blue, just lie still.”

Blue lets out a breath as he slumps back against the pillow, sweat beading his forehead. He lifts his right arm to pull back the blanket and sees three different IV lines dripping potion into his torso, waist, and thigh, his whole body wrapped tight to keep him from moving too much.

Shit. He tries to remember anything after they stopped falling and sliding, but can’t. Just darkness, and pain… lots of pain, too much to bear.

He turns to where Red’s hand still rests on his shoulder. The other boy follows his gaze and draws it away, and Blue’s hand snaps up to catch it.

“And you?” He looks Red over from top to bottom, noting his fresh set of clothes. “You’re okay?”

“I’m alright. Had some cuts and bruises, fractured my leg and a couple ribs.” He gestures, and Blue lifts his head slightly to see the white cast around Red’s left leg. “All mostly healed now.”

Blue frowns. Cuts and bruises can be healed in seconds with a potion, but fractures… “How long was I out?”

Red checks the time. “About thirty hours? You woke earlier, when we got you here. Do you remember it at all?”

Blue shakes his head, then realizes Red is looking at their hands. He’s still holding Red’s, and a pang of guilt goes through him. It was hard, seeing Red again at the casino. Harder than he thought it would be… and easier, talking to him. Slipping back into a comfortable friendship that he’d let wither, all because he was so worried that it wasn’t as mutual as he thought it was.

But Red is here, at his bedside, waiting for him to wake up. Embarrassingly, Blue’s eyes fill, and thankfully Red doesn’t say anything as he swallows back his tears and takes deep breaths. Just squeezes his hand tight.

“Glad you’re okay,” he mutters, and clears his throat before letting Red’s hand go. His hands him a cup of water from the bedside table, and Blue downs the whole thing. “What the hell happened? There were others with us too, what about them?”

“They’re mostly okay. We all fell. Slid, more like. We stopped once, on the way down, then that floor broke too. Our pokemon kept anything heavy from falling onto us, but we got a bit crushed between them. Leaf dislocated her shoulder, one of the others broke a leg, his friend broke some fingers that he landed on the wrong way.” Red shakes his head. “It was dark, and cramped. We could tell you were badly injured, but not how much at first. Everyone was in a lot of pain, and confused, obviously. My first thought, once I got over that, was to worry that we’d run out of air.”

Blue can hear the tension in Red’s voice, the echo of fear, and feels angry. Not at Red, but at himself, for not being awake for such a dire circumstance. At sheer bad luck that almost killed him and his friends. “How did we make it out?”

“Nidoqueen dug us into a side passage. I used her senses to tell how stable the rubble around us was, and what she could move… it wasn’t a guarantee, but it was that or suffocate.” He shrugs.

Blue stares at his solemn face, and abruptly laughs. The sound is cut short by pain, but Blue is still left with half a smile along with his grimace. “Red… that’s amazing. You saved our lives!” His friend’s gaze meets his for a moment, then looks away, and Blue feels a shard of ice enter his chest, smile fading. “What is it? You said Leaf was okay…”

And then he remembers the others.

“Bretta?” he croaks, throat suddenly dry. “Lizzy?”

“They’re alright,” Red whispers. “It’s Glen. He’s alive, but in a coma.”

Blue’s breath comes short, heart beating wildly as his whole body breaks out in a cold sweat. “But… how…?” He feels like a fool as he realizes that an earthquake strong enough to crack the casino open like that probably affected the whole city. “What happened? Something fall on him?”

“No. Nothing from the quake. It was a renegade.”

What? Glen was at the gym, there’s no way a renegade would dare to—”

“He came to the casino, actually, and it wasn’t the only one. Leaf and Lizzy fought some too—”

What?!”

The door opens, and a nurse pokes her head in, then walks in as she sees Blue is awake. “Welcome back, Mr. Oak. How are you feeling?” She checks the monitor beside his bed, and taps some buttons on the screen.

“Is my friend okay?” Blue asks her, heart in his throat. “Glen Benton?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know who that is.”

“He was transferred to another hospital, Blue.”

“Mr. Verres, your friend needs rest. Please refrain from anything that might excite or stress him.”

“Yes Ma’am, I’m sorry.”

Blue is still staring at Red incredulously, trying to register what he said as his heart pounds, making the monitor beside his bed beep incessantly. Glen, in a coma, from renegades… How could this have happened? And while he wasn’t even there for it…

He takes deep breaths to calm himself so the nurse won’t kick Red out, though it’s hard with all the questions spinning through his head. Once his heart rate normalizes a little, he forces his tone to be quiet and even as he asks, “Why were renegades at the casino? Were they the ones that caused the quakes?”

“Oh, no, that was Groudon from Hoenn—”

WHAT?!”


Blue sends Red a message once the nurse is gone so he can sneak back into the room. A doctor came in the interim to tell Blue his prognosis is good, but that he would likely be here for a couple weeks and would need some physical therapy afterward; apparently he broke multiple bones along his left side and tore some ligaments in his knee.

Normally hearing something like that might be incredibly frustrating, even worrying, but with everything else going on it barely registered. Blue spent the time around the doctor’s visit reassuring Gramps and Daisy that he’s okay (and being reassured in return by hearing their voices, and that they would come as soon as they could), then reading as many news articles as he could as quickly as he could, catching up on everything that happened in Hoenn and occasionally wondering if all this is a dream.

“So Hoenn has titans now,” Blue says as Red sits beside his bed again, voice low. The pictures on the net are just hours old, but they show the massive, towering creatures of ice and stone and steel at various parts of the Hoenn countryside. Regice… or the regice, now? Is on an island, and has already turned it cold enough to kill most of the plant life around it. “Two regions at opposite ends of the island have the same legendary pokemon. You’re a numbers guy, Red—”

“I’m really not.”

“—what are the odds those things are hidden under Kanto too?”

He’s glad his voice comes out calm, because his heart is thumping so hard it sends small vibrations through his body. It’s a familiar feeling, as is the heat in his chest, and when he imagines the inner arcanine it’s as scarred as the one he caught. Someone hurt his friends, and he couldn’t do anything to help them… and at the same time, hundreds of people across the islands were killed by legendary pokemon more powerful than any in living memory.

The way Red looks at him makes him think that some of that anger is coming through, though with the damned heart monitor he can’t completely hide his feelings anyway. “In Kanto, pretty low. But Johto has unown ruins too, so… the possibility isn’t zero, at least. Not that it’s actually zero anywhere else, there’s always a chance that they could rise up out of other places, but if we assume they’re only buried somewhere in regions with those ruins, that still leaves a lot of unown ruins that never had titans come out of them, so we could further assume that Groudon and Kyogre woke them? Maybe the presence of legendary pokemon was the key, but Johto has the Beasts, so maybe them fighting is what matters, but it could be as simple as the earthquakes. The whole island chain felt those, so if they could rise somewhere else they probably would have by now, but of course the proximity probably matters…”

Red trails off and takes out his phone and notebook, then starts writing. Blue almost stopped his ramble at the first “maybe,” but was surprised to find that part of him missed it.

“…okay, so at its peak Groudon caused a magnitude 8.6 earthquake in Hoenn. It caused other quakes elsewhere too, but none in Johto that were that big. That’s, what, a quarter the strength of the 9.0 that occurred off the northeast coast a few decades ago? And it’s… uh… about a third the size. So taking that one’s distance from Johto compared to Johto from Hoenn…” He writes a bit more, then sets his pencil down, rubbing his forehead. “If all our assumptions are right, and I didn’t mess anything up, I’d say Johto is safe.”

Blue takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “But it could have been something else.”

“Yeah. Black swannas are never easy to predict.”

“There aren’t any black swannas.”

Red smiles. It’s weak, just a slight curl of his lip, but still lets Blue know he stepped right into a trap. “How do you know?”

He considers changing the subject back to the titans, but can’t let it go. “Because we would have found one by now. In every region they’re white and blue and purple, but not a single black.”

“It’s a big world. What if there’s one somewhere in the wilds?”

“You could say that for anything, and never be sure…” Blue trails off, then sighs. “Right, that’s what you meant. Heh. Isn’t that usually my line?”

“What, you mean ‘Just because there’s no evidence, doesn’t mean it’s not true?'” Red chuckles without humor. “Glad I never bet you that the mythical Hoenn weather gods didn’t exist.”

“Yeah. I would have made bank.”

The room becomes quiet again, any humor leaking out through the gaping hole in Blue’s chest. He needs to know that Glen is going to be okay, but there’s nothing he can do to find out, or help. He’s stuck in limbo, hanging over a cliff and waiting for the drop, while looking at all the bodies below.

And those that might yet fall. Sufficiently steep mountains, such as those that divide Kanto and Johto, would stop the Titans if they really are waiting under the unown ruins, it’s one of the few things that do, but being the Indigo Champion would mean Johto’s problems would become his as well. He’s already had to think about what to do against the Beasts, and now he has to worry about the chance, however tiny, that there’s more calamities waiting.

Problems for Future Blue, as Red would say. But it’s hard not to think about them now.

“It’s not fair,” he mutters, frustration finally leaking through as he covers his eyes with his good arm. “Like we didn’t have enough problems? What, the world just wasn’t shitty enough?

Red is quiet, and Blue doesn’t look at him, just takes as deep of breaths as he can without making half his body hurt, which just reminds him that despite the doctor’s assurance he might have permanent damage from something he can barely even remember happening. This is a nightmare he thinks for the tenth time at least, but he knows it’s not. In his real nightmares he always wakes as soon as he thinks that.

This is reality. Shitty, unfair reality.

“Leaf is on her way,” Red finally says. “With Maria and Lizzy.”

Blue rubs his eyes before turning to him, blinking. “Who’s Maria?”

Red blinks back, then looks concerned. “Your… friend? Dark hair, kind of pale? Speaks quietly?”

“Oh, MG.” Blue frowns. “Her name’s Maria? How do you know that?”

“She told me. How did you not know that?”

“She never told us,” he says, feeling defensive, and a bit annoyed that she told Red upon their first meeting. Still, he’s distracted from the despair that had been threatening to pull him under, which is probably why Red let him know the girls are coming. He takes a deep breath and tries to focus on more positive things. Hell, the fact that none of his friends died is downright lucky. “Where are they coming fr—oh. Talking to the Rangers?”

Red nods. “And police. Not just about the renegade stuff, there’s a bit more I didn’t mention… when we fell into the casino floor, we actually ended up in an underground lab.”

Blue closes his eyes and sighs. “I’m listening,” he says, fighting off the wave of tiredness that hits him.

“I know, it’s a lot. They’ve just started investigating it, it would be the biggest story in the city, maybe the region, if not for everything else going on.”

“Is this related to the prize pokemon?”

“We’re not sure yet, but probably. Leaf also found the missing piece of Silph tech that the police were looking for.”

Blue stares at him a moment, then abruptly laughs without humor. “Of course she did. Well, shit, then the contest is probably cancelled anyway.” All that money and time he spent at the casino… ugh. Not important now. “Who the hell owns it, anyway?”

“They’re still trying to figure that out. The city isn’t wrecked or anything, but there’s a lot of damage, and pokemon have been rampaging all over the place, many of them setting off others before they’re stopped.”

“Fuuuuck,” Blue says, quietly but with feeling as he thinks again of how long this would all take to straighten out. His meeting with Erika when he arrived in Celadon feels like a lifetime ago. “I had all these goddamn plans, Red… and now I’m stuck in here while the world spends who knows how long recovering from shit no one saw coming!”

“I know. Sabrina and I—”

The door opens, and they turn to see Leaf, MG, and Lizzy walk in. All of them look exhausted, but they smile upon seeing him, and rush to his side to give him careful hugs.

“The others are with Glen,” Leaf explains as she perches on the edge of the bed. Lizzy joins Red at the bedside seat, while MG… Maria, leans against the wall. “We’ll go relieve them after this so they can come by. How are you feeling, Blue?”

“I’m alright, just… trying to make sense of all this.” He looks between them. “Red says each of you fought a renegade… what happened?”

“No exciting story for me, Joy saved us,” Leaf says with a shrug. “Again. If it ain’t broke, right? Red could feel his pokemon coming, so I had her sing just as they opened a hole in the wall to reach us.”

Blue blinks, then glances at Red, who’s staring at the ground. “How did you know?”

“I could feel it moving from one survivor to the next, killing them,” Red murmurs without looking up. “It was… pretty bad.”

Blue winces in sympathy, then turns back to Leaf with a wary respect. She put a lot of trust in Red, using her pokemon on a stranger because he told her it was a Renegade. That’s even less clear cut a justification than the last time she did it, but luckily they could check this one’s pokemon to verify…

“I need to get a jigglypuff, because I had a much harder time with mine,” Lizzy says, voice fervent and grim. “Red warned me too, though at the time I had no idea it was him, of course, I didn’t even know he was in the casino. It was just a vague series of feelings that seemed to come out of nowhere. He let me know when danger was just about to turn the corner, and I used a Flash to blind whatever it was, then ran for it. Turned out to be a sandslash, which chased after me soon after. I nearly went through my whole belt just slowing it down as I ran around the halls… until suddenly it turned on its trainer.” She shudders. “It was horrible. I ran to get the generator working again after that, then Red sent me down to the lab where I found Glen and MG, who’d already beaten theirs.”

“I didn’t do much,” the third girl says, gaze on the floor. “Couldn’t even take down his golem. Glen tried to throw sleep powder at him, but it didn’t work… he summoned a magmar, and his golem knocked Glen out. Thought I was going to die.”

“But you didn’t.” Blue hides his horror at how close he was to losing so many friends, focusing instead on showing how impressed he is. “Which is pretty amazing.”

Her gaze rises a moment, first to him, then the others, then back down. “No, it was just… luck. Like Lizzy’s. His magmar attacked him.”

“You still acted quickly in capturing his pokemon after,” Lizzy says. “That was really brave! I was so shocked by what happened I didn’t even think of it, just ran away. I got doubly lucky my renegade’s sandslash didn’t chase after me, or kill someone else while I was busy with the generator, and just stood around her body until Leaf was able to put it to sleep.”

“I was eventually able to dig us a way out with the hole the renegade made,” Leaf explains. “Though not until after Lizzy had already found Maria and Glen. Red stayed with you while I took the others out, then led some medics to you. By then the digging up top was a massive operation, and they got enough rubble cleared for you and Glen to get safely lifted out along with everyone else who was pulled free.”

“It was scary, seeing how hurt you both were, and thinking the hospitals would have their hands full,” Lizzy says. “But Celadon got lucky with pokemon rampages mostly missing it. It also got spared the damage of coastal cities and towns.”

“Pallet?” Blue asks, turning to Red. He hadn’t even thought to check…

“The docks are gone.” His friend’s voice is bleak. “Big waves smashed it all to pieces after the pylons got cracked.”

“The Sevii Islands also got pretty badly wrecked,” Leaf murmurs. “Knot Island is basically three different ones now, everything between the town and Mt. Ember sank into the ocean, along with most of Treasure Beach.” She looks at Red, who sighs. “The others didn’t fare much better.”

“Shit,” Blue mutters, closing his eyes as his anger suffocates in the wave of despair that crashes back over him. The hits just keep coming…

It’s not just the lost lives and the damaged buildings, but the blow to people’s will. Grief from lost loved ones, disorientation from ruined homes or jobs… Fully recovering from this will take years in some places, and they still have months to go before the relative safety of spring; if Moltres or Articuno bring a storm before each city has a chance to get its feet back under it, the results could be disastrous.

Ultimately what people are going to remember from all this is how vulnerable they are. How fragile their lives and way of life. It’s going to make people less willing to take risks, and that’s the direct opposite of what he wants to do.

The conversation continues without him, and he only half listens as people catch each other up on things they might have missed. Blue tries to pay attention through the feeling of uselessness that hangs over him like a cloud. Worse, irrelevance. What do all his accomplishments over the past year matter, now? In the face of this, of power so great that the combined might of Leaders and Champions from across the islands could only delay their destruction, what could he do even if he united everyone in Kanto and Johto?

On top of that, despite Red mostly reassuring him that a trio of Titans isn’t about to come rising up in Johto, he can’t help but think of their appearance, and the “return” of Groudon and Kyogre and Rayquaza, as preludes to a broader trend. Who knows if these were really even the same pokemon as those in the mythical weather-altering gods? Doesn’t it make more sense to think that there’s just more of them that were in hibernation until someone found and woke them up? Couldn’t the same be true of the Stormbringers?

The dark thoughts persist until Red brings up the way Champion Stone’s pokemon supposedly evolved into entirely new forms during the battle, only to de-evolve (?!) back afterward.

“I probably wouldn’t believe it actually happened if Professor Oak hadn’t been one of the witnesses,” Red says.

“You mean no one got it on video?” Blue asks, incredulous.

“No one thought it would be temporary,” Leaf reasonably points out, and shrugs. “Can’t blame them for having other things on their mind.”

“At least we have plenty of video evidence for the Eon Duo,” Lizzy says. “How do you think a pair of teenagers managed to tame legendary pokemon?”

Blue feels an odd lurch in his stomach as he’s reminded of that. He saw it mentioned online while he read up on what happened, along with the fourth evolutions, but he hardly paid either much attention given all the other crazy stuff he’d been reading up on.

The girls leave soon after to reach Glen before visiting hours close, and it’s just Red and Blue again. He turns the TV on the wall across from him on and listlessly scans through the channels until he hits a news report, but he doesn’t turn the sound on, just staring at the monitor. It takes him a minute to realize Red is watching him. “You okay?”

“Sure,” Blue mutters, his tiredness returning. “Okay as I can be I guess.”

“I know, it’s a stupid question. Just seems like you’re in your head a lot, and I get it, but it’s also not like you. If you’re tired I can—”

“No.” It’s the first time Blue has felt like Red’s really seen through him, and it’s a bit disconcerting. Red is oblivious enough that if Blue wasn’t Dark he’d suspect that all the psychic training has paid off, but maybe his friend has grown in other ways. “I’m just… it’s a lot.”

Red nods, and doesn’t pry, instead following his gaze to the monitor. The screen is showing a photo of Brendan and May riding the Eon Duo, which he recognizes from the pictures in a book of myths he obsessively read over and over as a kid. For these two it was a tile mosaic found in some Hoenn ruins.

After a minute Brendan and May’s trainer ID photos are on the screen, and Blue finds himself talking again. “I haven’t really followed anyone outside of Indigo much, but I remember hearing about them back when they started their journeys…” He tries to put what he’s feeling into words. “Every other amazing trainer I ever heard about or admired, it was always like… fuel for the fire, you know? A push to work harder, do more. But this… it’s so crazy, so new, and it changes so much…”

“You feel, what, demoralized?”

Blue snorts, recognizing the irony. Amy warned him, back in Cerulean. “Worse.”

“How much worse?”

The feeling solidifies, suddenly, and Blue feels embarrassment creeping up his neck with hot fingers as he realizes how it would sound. “You won’t laugh?”

“One sec,” Red says, and closes his eyes, taking a deep breath before he opens them again and nods. “I promise.”

Blue doesn’t ask. “It’s like finding out… I feel like, I look at those videos, those pictures of them riding those pokemon… and it’s like realizing I’m not the main character.”

Red is silent, as per his promise, and when Blue glances over, his friend’s face is placid, eyes understanding. “Yeah,” he says, and looks back at the monitor again. “I know that feeling.”

Blue is surprised, but only for a moment. “Right. I guess none of us dream small.” It’s hard to remember sometimes that just because his friend doesn’t seek fame the same way as him, or even Leaf, doesn’t mean he’s not ambitious.

“I’d bet most trainers feel that way, at least at first. But this… really has a way of making even my ambition feel small.” Red leans back in his chair, hands behind his head as he stares up at the ceiling. “I’ve got so many new questions about… well, basically everything. But I’m not qualified to help study any of it. I can start now, abandon everything I’ve been working on and try to catch up on mythological studies, or evolution, or unown ruins, and hope I learn enough to be helpful to someone at some point before everything important is discovered… or I can go back to focusing on what I’ve been doing, even if it feels less important than it did a few days ago.”

Blue nods, letting out a breath. Red does understand, in his own way. Why did he let things stay so bad between them, for so long?

There’s an ache in his chest as he remembers how he felt that day, in a different hospital room, fresh after learning that Aiko was gone… and he has to swallow back the sudden lump in his throat. He wonders how she would react to myths come to life. She’d probably be all the more eager to get to hunting for more of them…

“Thanks, by the way,” Blue forces himself to say. “For… everything. It sounds like you saved a lot of lives, including mine.”

Red shrugs, looking away. “Thank Leaf, next time you see her. If she hadn’t pushed me to come, I wouldn’t have even been there.”

Cold creeps through Blue as he realizes how true that is. Hell, if Leaf hadn’t pushed him to reach out to Red… how many of them would have died?

The thought reminds him of Glen again, lying unconscious in another building somewhere, and he feels impatient to get out of bed again. He’s been awake for just a few hours and already feels trapped by his bed… even knowing there’s nothing he can do for Glen, the helplessness makes him feel a need to do something.

Instead he tries to just focus on what he can do from here, which includes rebuilding his relationship with Red. “You were going to say something about Sabrina and you. What was it? Things going well?”

“Yeah, they are. Were. I don’t know how this is going to change things, but she was talking about letting me in on some inner circle stuff, some research with psychics that have unusual abilities.”

“Damn.” It’s not hard to sympathize with the frustration he hears in Red’s voice. “You were probably ecstatic.”

“Yeah, well. Still could happen, right? Just… not for a bit.”

“Fucking myths.”

Red smiles. It’s slight, but there. “Fucking myths. Though I guess we should start calling them legendaries.”

“I wonder if anything new was discovered about them yet…” Blue reaches for his phone again, fighting back his tiredness.

“Yeah, I’ve been checking pretty constantly,” Red admits as he reaches for his own phone. “I think a lot of people are, and all the speculation makes it hard to find anything meaningful.”

Blue nods, and the two fall into silence as they search through forums and news sites. A lot of experts from various fields are doing open Q&A sessions to address people’s worries or curiosities, though of course most of them can’t answer the really pressing questions, only give more information that helps show Blue how little he really knows about all the things he doesn’t know.

“Hey,” Red says after about ten minutes, and Blue looks over to see him staring at his phone. “You see this new video from Giovanni?”

“No, not yet. What’s it about?”

“The title is, ‘Our Failure.'”

Blue raises a brow. “Put it on the monitor?”

Red nods, and takes the remote to navigate to the same page. He plays the video, and Giovanni appears on the screen at a desk, hands clasped before him. He stares at the surface for nearly half a minute, his occasional blink the only sign that the video is playing.

When he looks up, the look in his eyes is one Blue has never seen before.

“First and foremost, I want to apologize. To you, whoever is watching this video. Not just those in Kanto, or Indigo. Not just those who watch it now, later this week, this month, this year. Not just your children, not your grandchildren. To every thinking being I share this planet with. If you are watching this, now or thousands of years from now, in a world we living now can scarcely imagine, I am apologizing to you just as much. Perhaps especially to you… because I failed you all.”

Blue’s eyes are wide, and he sits up, barely noticing the pain. Before he can ask Red is already raising the volume.

“Generations ago, this land was inhabited by people who fought every day to survive. It was a brutal society, one that most today would not even recognize as civil, and the people of that society were brutal as well. That’s what survival required of them. Our species is near the weakest on the planet, but through our ingenuity and determination, we carved a place for ourselves in the world. And little by little, though it was hard at times, we’ve let that brutality go, like an ekans shedding skin it has outgrown, because it made life more pleasant… and we thought ourselves safer.”

Blue feels his heart pounding, every scrap of attention focused on the slightest changes in Giovanni’s features and tone.

“I will not say that we were wrong,” Giovanni says, each word measured. “But it’s clear now that safety has made us complacent.”

Another silence, this one heavier. The accusation, the presumptive admission, strikes a chord in Blue, not because he hasn’t already believed this, but to hear someone like Giovanni say it… say it in public… A spark of hope warms Blue’s chest for the first time since waking.

“We believed it was enough, to grow our villages into towns, our towns into cities. To connect our cities into regions, and mark clear routes through the wilderness to allow civilization a foothold. Mutual defensive pacts, redundant supply lines, resource stockpiles, coordination networks… all valuable, all necessary, and all completely ineffective against the true threats to our survival.

“The story I’ve told you is a story of progress. A story of humanity rising from frightened mammals cowering in hovels to beings who can harness the powers around us for our own needs. We’ve not just turned monster against monster, we’ve made them into pets and livestock. We became complacent, confident, that these gains were permanent. That our species would continue to increase in population, expand in territory, grow in technological power… even as certain other powers continued to stay above our grasp. Continued to make us cower in our high-tech hovels, hoping for our Leaders and Champions to save us.”

Giovanni presses a button, and on the corner of the screen there’s some brief footage that was taken of the battle against Groudon, before the helicopter that had dared get close enough to record it had to leave.

Blue watches as the combined might of the islands fails to so much as faze the beast.

“We were fools.”

Blue has to remind himself to breathe. He wonders suddenly if Lance was told about this broadcast ahead of time.

“I do not mean this as a slight against our Champions and the other brave trainers who stood against such power, and did not waver. They are the best of us, and they did all they could, more than any could have expected. And yet… do you feel saved?”

The video continues to flick through images of the destruction across the islands, and Blue’s earlier despair returns over the sheer magnitude of it… but under it all there’s still the ember of anger, and the spark of hope.

“We have grown complacent, which makes the truth we now face all the harsher. We are not safe. That belief was a shared delusion, a story of human progress weaved by the anthropic principle and optimism. We have filled our stories with existential risks, we write children’s television shows and thrilling action movies where the threat of annihilation is so common it becomes predictable, and yet so easily conquered that it seems inevitable. Pure wish fulfillment has been so inspiring, so entertaining, that we’ve tricked ourselves into believing it is reality.

“It is not. This… this is reality.” The screen is still showing various images of destruction. In one of them Blue recognizes Celadon’s skyline, with a couple of collapsed buildings marring the even lines of the streets; “Not two days ago humanity stood upon a precipice, and barely survived it. You know the names of the fallen, by now. Four gym leaders and three Elites were killed, our Champions each lost prized and powerful pokemon that took them years to grow and train, and each may yet have lost their life if not for a stroke of luck.”

The montage ends, and instead there’s a screenshot of Rayquaza. It’s just a blur, a streak of green and gold and black, taken from an angle that shows it rising up into the sky.

“Here is our savior. It alone did what the best of us could not… and so showed us that nothing, ultimately, has changed.”

The picture disappears, returning Giovanni’s features, his dark, direct gaze. “We are not, none of us, safe. For all our power, the monsters are still greater. And to stop them, we will need to change again.”

“Yes,” Blue whispers, and realizes his hand is closed around the sheets in a fist.

“Our species is still in its infancy. One day, future generations may truly conquer the dangers of this world, be able to live and flourish in peace. But that will not happen on its own, and while we continue to only think of survival, continue to slowly inch our way outward into the wilds to fit another town here, another route there, we roll the dice every year on another incident like this occurring… an incident that may not be contained or ended before it drives us back to our huts, or wipes us out completely.

“There are some who will call me a doomsayer. Who will insist that this was an incredibly unlikely event, that it hasn’t happened for at least a thousand years before, and so surely we have another, similar length of time before something like it happens again. My response to that is simply… perhaps.”

Giovanni pauses, taking a visible breath, letting it out. The Leader’s tone has stayed steady and even throughout, but with a note of steel beneath, and that softens now, ever so slightly. “I do not intend to incite panic. I understand that there is enough darkness in the world already, and do not claim to know this will happen in our lifetime, or even our children’s lifetimes. If that is the extent of your moral concern, the extent of what you can afford to care about, then you may safely ignore me, and go on with your lives, in all likelihood, without ever needing worry about this again.

“But if you care about what your children’s children will inherit, or theirs, or the countless billions of people who will live after us… the billions that may yet be born… if the very thought of so many lives in such a far future doesn’t cause your mind to cower and blink and hide in the comfort or needs of the now… this prediction I will stand behind. Sooner or later, another Tier 6 will occur, and at our current pace of progress, humanity will not be prepared for it. And perhaps that will not even be needed.”

The pictures return, this time of Registeel, its massive white and grey dome of a body casting a long shadow over a nearby pond. “More of these may yet rise, these and other legendary pokemon that we thought unique. Perhaps the awakening of these myths, their effect on our climate, began a chain reaction. How many more unstoppable threats need arise before the progress we have fought so hard for, slow as it already is, grinds to a halt? How many before it begins, slowly but surely, to reverse, without even another awakened myth?”

“I failed you, in not doing more to prevent this. I am Leader of a single city and its outlying areas, but that city resides in a region, that region resides on an island, that island resides on a planet, and each of these things must survive for my city to survive, and thus anything that threatens them is a threat to what I have taken oath to protect… and what I need no oath to feel protective of. I have failed you, and I can only prostrate myself and ask your forgiveness, for this.”

And as Blue watches in shock, Giovanni Sakaki stands from his desk. The camera pans outward to follow him around to the front, and the ex-Champion lowers himself to his knees, places his hands over each other, and bows until his forehead touches them.

“I will do better.”

Four simple words, a handful of heartbeats, and then he rises back up. Blue can’t recall the last time a Champion showed such humility, let alone one as proud as Giovanni.

Still kneeling, back ramrod straight and hands on his thighs, the Viridian leader’s gaze finds the camera again. “Before this warning fades entirely from the now, becomes just another note of worry in the back of your minds, an occasional cloud over the sun of what tomorrow brings… remember how impossible this incident would have been to fathom, before it occurred. Remember how many champions, presidents, professors, leaders, experts of every kind, wise and learned, were taken just as much by surprise. In this, there are no easy answers coming. Our ship charts unnavigated waters, and we have no captain, nor passengers; only crew.

“Let us attend to our wounded friends, our dead families, our broken homes, our ravaged lands. Let us heal as best we can. And then let us begin to prepare for what comes next.”


Leaf follows Laura Verres into Celadon’s central police department at a quick stride, trying not to look nervous. She was here just yesterday, before she went to visit Blue in the hospital, and even though that was to testify in the justified use of a pokemon to stop a renegade, even though Red’s mom wasn’t with her, it was still much less nerve-wracking defending herself against a potential Renegade charge than it is being called back in for something else.

It’s not hard to understand why, of course; in this case, she’s actually guilty of something else.

“We’re here to see the detective in charge of the casino investigation,” Laura says to the officer at the front desk. “Please tell them Leaf Juniper is here to comply with a summoning request.”

The man nods, gaze curiously taking her in, and Leaf feels her heart thumping in her chest as she continues trying to look as calm and composed as Laura, who walks to one of the chairs against the wall and sits. Leaf sits beside her and folds her hands over her lap to keep them from trembling.

“Just breathe, Leaf,” Laura murmurs, and puts one hand briefly over hers to squeeze. “Even in a worst case scenario, anything that happens in here would just be step one, do you understand?”

Leaf nods, the motion jerky. She’s starting to wish she’d taken the older woman’s advice and brought an attorney, but since she plans to just insist on total ignorance, it seemed like something a guilty person would do, and she has to consider the optics of this; her name is already bouncing around the net for taking out yet another renegade within a year, not to mention recovering the Silph tech, and though she feels like she doesn’t deserve the praise she’s getting, it’s far preferable to the suspicion that’s blooming in some quarters as well.

“Thanks again, for coming,” Leaf whispers.

“None needed, dear. I have plenty of reasons to be here.” She’d returned to her hometown to visit Blue and Red, and see how some of her old colleagues were doing after the quakes, but she means the police station specifically. As soon as Leaf told her about the summons and asked her for advice, she got a look in her eye that Leaf knows.

She’s not just here to protect Leaf; she smells a story.

Leaf might too, if she wasn’t so busy feeling guilty.

The wait barely lasts five minutes before they’re called into a back room, and the lead detective raises a brow as he spots Laura.

“Hello again, Miss Juniper… and you are?”

“Good afternoon, Detective Hirai. My name is Laura Verres.”

A frown twitches across the detective’s face for a moment. “Are you… her attorney?”

“No, I’m a reporter. But today I’m just here as a friend.”

Leaf can see from Detective Hirai’s reaction that he doesn’t buy that for a second. She can’t tell for sure, but she suspects he recognized her name from somewhere, and it clicked when she mentioned being a journalist.

“I hope that’s okay,” Leaf says, not disguising the uncertainty in her tone. “We’re on our way to visit my friend at the hospital, and I didn’t think I’d need an attorney…?”

“Of course,” the detective says, and then is silent, clearly off-balance. This is what Laura had hoped for; there’s always a chance, she explained, that the investigator would ask to speak to Leaf alone, but to do so would imply that this was more than a routine questioning, and that might signal to Leaf that she’s a suspect and should bring a lawyer. “Please, sit down.”

They take the seats across his desk, and his gaze lingers on Laura for a moment before he turns to Leaf. “Do you know why I called you back today, Miss Juniper?”

“I assumed to answer more questions about the renegades below the casino,” Leaf says, brow furrowed as she tries to maintain steady eye contact. “Have you learned anything about what they were doing there, or the owners?”

“That’s all still under investigation,” the detective says, gaze flicking to Laura again.

“I’m guessing all you’ve found so far is a shell company?” she asks, then catches Leaf’s questioning look. “Accountants and attorneys who are in charge of paying the people in the casino, while the owners only see the money after it’s been laundered through confidential foreign bank accounts.”

She knows what a shell company is, of course. “That’s legal?” she asks, eyes wide.

Laura wags her hand back and forth. “Sometimes. This probably won’t be one of them.”

“As I said,” the detective says. “Still under investigation. What concerns us right now is a recent leak that may affect that investigation.”

“A leak within the police?”

“No.” He places his elbows on the desk, chin resting on his folded hands. “We’re still recovering as much evidence as we can from the hidden portions of the casino. A lot of that evidence is digital, of course, and it’s been difficult to get through it given that we’re still sorting through and collecting the physical evidence. But it seems we’ve been scooped, so to speak.”

He turns his computer monitor toward them to show blueprints for something that looks like high tech goggles. “This was posted to various tech sites this morning, along with dozens of pages of notes and other data.”

Leaf leans forward, brow furrowed, and thankfully she doesn’t have to pretend to not know what she’s looking at, since she didn’t look over the data she grabbed while she was down there before she sent it all to Natural the next day.

It had been a spur of the moment decision; after the renegade was down and they’d done everything they could to ensure no one was dying, she began exploring the section of the lab they were stuck in, looking for a way out rather than waiting for rescue. That’s when she found the room where the goggles were being tinkered with… and the computers nearby, some of them still on. It took just a couple minutes to put one in a container ball.

“What is it?” Laura asks.

“It looks like the goggles I found,” Leaf says. “I can’t tell if it’s the original blueprints or not, though, and it doesn’t say what it’s for.”

“The documents released with this image say it’s a new type of technology that will let people observe Ghost pokemon without feeling any effects of Surreality.”

Leaf looks up at the detective in surprise to find his sharp gaze on her. “How do you know it’s from the Rocket Casino?” she asks, hoping he can’t see the way her pulse is jumping in her throat.

“Because it’s the technology that Silph Corporation believed was stolen,” he says, voice flat as he stares her down. “We’ve also confirmed that it’s on the computer we took as well. So far it’s still being treated as a curiosity, people aren’t sure what to make of it, but it’s the real thing.”

“And you found a match of the information in the lab’s computers?” Laura asks.

“We did, once we knew what to look for.”

Leaf leans back, still frowning as she tries to figure out why Natural would release this. It doesn’t have anything to do with pokemon well-being, as far as she can tell…

“That was fast.” Laura’s tone is skeptical.

“We got lucky,” the detective says, glancing at her. “The computers had a lot of security measures in place, all of them needed both a physical encryption key and a typed in password, but one of the computers buried in the rubble was being worked on when the roof collapsed and didn’t get destroyed. The key was still in it, and while we couldn’t log in, the RAM still held the rest of the encryption.”

Leaf feels herself relax, and has to fight the urge to smile. The computer she grabbed was on, but asleep, and there was nothing plugged into any of its ports, so Natural probably can’t get whatever’s on it at all… which, while normally frustrating, would be a relief if the alternative is that he spread the info on it around the net indiscriminately without telling her.

“What does any of this have to do with Leaf?”

He glances between them a moment. “Of all the people we’ve interviewed, she spent the most time alone and safe in the lab.”

“I hope you’re not considering her a suspect,” Laura says, voice cool. “It would be pretty embarrassing to accuse one of the few heroes of that awful day of something like this without good reason.”

The detective’s gaze is locked on Laura’s for a moment, and then he sighs. “Of course.” He leans back in his chair, eyes meeting Leaf’s. “I simply wanted to check if you saw anything that makes more sense, in light of this reveal.”

“If you mean someone messing with computers while down there, I’m afraid not,” Leaf says, rubbing her clammy palms against her knees beneath the table. “But I was stuck in one particular part of the lab. Do you know if the computers with this information were there?”

“Not exclusively, but yes.”

“Oh,” Leaf says, voice quiet. Could Natural have decrypted the computer without a key? In just a day? It doesn’t seem possible…

“A coincidence,” Laura dismisses. “Clearly these people have an agenda against Silph, and would have spread the information they learned beyond just a hard drive or two. Once their operation was exposed and halted, they must have decided to let the information out for Silph’s other competitors to take advantage of.”

“Yes, the thought had occurred to us,” the detective says, voice wry. He’s back to looking at Laura, thankfully. “But we still needed to check.”

“Of course, Detective. Is that all, then?”

Hirai is quiet a moment before looking at Leaf, lips pursed. “I was hoping Miss Juniper would be willing to let us search her containers.”

“Absolutely not,” Laura says before Leaf can even respond, and unlike her previous, cool tone, there’s heat to her words now. “And you wouldn’t be asking if you had a warrant.”

“I can acquire one if that’s necessary,” the detective asks, gaze staying on Leaf. She does her best not to wilt under it, or look at Laura. “We don’t suspect you, Miss Juniper, we’re just being thorough. If we can cross off the electronic devices that everyone who was in the lab had access to at the time, we can know for sure that it came from elsewhere.”

“That’s over two dozen people, many of whom were unconscious at the time, if not outright fighting for their lives,” Laura says. “Personally I doubt any judge in Celadon would sign off on that, which means you need a better reason to suspect Leaf, particularly when she has no motive to do something like this.”

“I believe she does, actually. She’s an outspoken advocate for better treatment of pokemon, and the Casino was advertising itself as having a completely new species.”

Leaf’s stomach does a flip, and even Laura seems momentarily knocked off balance. “You think she… what, purposefully nearly got herself killed to—”

“Of course not. But if the opportunity was there, I think it’s reasonable that anyone would be curious.”

“I didn’t,” Leaf says, the lie making her insides squirm. And she mocked Red for being a bad liar, back on the S.S. Anne… but it’s different, this sort of lying, lying to someone with power, lying to cover something you did that might have been wrong…

“You didn’t what?”

“I didn’t leak anything online,” she says, sticking to something true to firm her resolve. “That would be… I mean even if I was doing it for a story on pokemon rights… wouldn’t it be more valuable keeping it to myself until I could write an article about whatever I found? And why would I release the info about the goggles in that case?”

“As I said, you’re not a suspect. We just like to be thorough.”

“If you want to check my containers—”

“No, Leaf,” Laura says, voice firm. “You can hand him the containers to look through and all that would lead to is him asking about other containers you own, then checking your PCs to see what you might have transferred recently. You have rights for situations exactly like this.” She stands as she turns back to the detective. “Get a warrant if you can, or take her word for it. Either way, we’re expected at the hospital to relieve my son from a bedside vigil.”

Detective Hirai’s gaze flicks between her and Leaf, who tries to match Laura’s confidence as she gets to her feet. Finally he nods and murmurs, “Thank you for your time.”

Laura opens the door, and Leaf suddenly says, “Wait.” Red’s mom looks at her curiously, but closes it, and Leaf turns back to the detective. “The renegade, I caught, has he been executed yet? I haven’t gotten any messages after the sentencing.”

“No, Erika has been too busy to do it so far, and we’re still hoping to get some information from him.”

Leaf nods, weighing her options. Giovanni told her not to write anything about Yuuta for six months; it hasn’t been quite that long, but she told Laura about it, so she shouldn’t hesitate from telling a police officer too, right? “Is he securely guarded?”

The detective studies her a moment before his gaze softens. “Very. I assure you, it would be impossible for him to escape.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. I’m sure he won’t, but I’m worried about someone killing him before his execution.”

Hirai stares at her. “And why would someone do that? Revenge?”

“No. Just… this organization that employed renegades might find out one was taken alive, right? Even though he’s dark, they might try to kill him before he can give anything away.”

“They would have to take on the entire police department to do so.”

Leaf shakes her head, feeling frustrated. “They wouldn’t do it like that, a frontal assault, they’d… sneak someone in, slip something in, maybe, or… bribe the guards or something…”

“Miss Juniper, if you know anything about this—”

“It’s happened before,” Laura says, and Leaf turns to see Red’s mom watching her. “You think it’s the same people?”

“I don’t know,” she says, folding her arms over her stomach to quell her nerves. She knows this is messing with her cover as an innocent girl who wouldn’t have any motive to steal from the casino lab, but it’s just too important to keep to herself. “But how many secret organizations hiring renegades can there be in Kanto?”

“What are you two talking about?”

Leaf turns back to Hirai. “The last renegade I ran into, on Mount Moon, was assassinated before he could be executed. I confirmed this through independent investigation, and if you want to ask Leader Giovanni about it, he might confirm it too. But he also might not, I was told not to publish a story on it for six months to give them time to capture the real killer.”

The detective looks like he’s trying to decide how seriously to take her, and she’s about to say forget it and walk out when he abruptly says, “I believe you.”

“You do?”

“I already know about what happened on Mt. Moon, in fact. Every organization that might apprehend a renegade was informed to ensure their safety before execution by none other than Leader Giovanni himself. If he could trust you with that info, and you haven’t reported it in all this time, then I’ll trust you at least enough to tell you both, off the record, that we’ve been aware of individuals and groups that hire from an interregional black market of renegades for some time. Part of why I’m telling you this is because I suspect it won’t stay secret for long, after word of what happened in Rocket Casino gets out.”

“And what happened in Hoenn,” Laura says, brow furrowed, and the detective nods.

Leaf hasn’t paid too much attention to that part of the story, there’s so much going on that it feels impossible to keep up with everything, but she does know that a bunch of alleged renegades helped fight Groudon and Kyogre, then fled the site of the battle in the confusion that followed Rayquaza’s attack.

“Interpol has known about such groups for a while now, but they’re nearly impossible to infiltrate or trace back to anyone important, and we never caught someone that was part of a group before… or at least we didn’t think we had. Now we suspect they operate in isolated cells… so rest assured, we’re going to do everything we can to keep this one alive until we can learn everything we can from him.”

The detective’s gaze is flat, voice grim, and Leaf feels an involuntary shiver at the thought of how they might try to learn things. She knows there’s no room for sympathy here, however; it’s out of her hands, even if she was the one to capture him, and besides, he and the other two killed half a dozen innocent people before they were stopped. The people in charge of them have to be stopped as well.

“Thank you for the trust, detective,” Leaf eventually says.

Hirai nods, gaze steady on hers. “I hope it will bear fruit, and be returned.”

Leaf hesitates, then simply nods and turns to the door. Laura lets her go out first, and they leave the police department together.

Leaf holds her composure until they leave the police department, then lets out a long breath, sticking her shaking hands in her pockets. She lets the sun warm her face as the breeze cools sweat on the back of her neck.

“That,” Laura remarks, “Was pretty bold of you.”

“Thanks,” Leaf murmurs, then hesitates. “It was also stupid though, right?”

“From a self-interested perspective, yes,” she says as they start walking toward the hospital Blue is staying in. “But if you’re determined to do the right thing, that kind of comes with the territory now and then. I can’t blame you for being altruistic.”

It wasn’t altruism, Leaf thinks, but doesn’t say. The guilt at taking the computer and not telling the police, at sending it to Natural, feels only slightly alleviated. She takes her phone out and messages him, knowing he’d be asleep by now. Hey, I know it’s super early, but just to check, you find anything good yet? She hopes he says no, hopes Natural isn’t the one that put all the info online, but the whole world has felt upside down since the floor of the casino collapsed, and she didn’t feel comfortable trusting him even before that happened.

Just thinking about it again makes her breath come short. It had been so tight in the rubble, pressed between Red and some chunks of concrete on one side and the nidoqueen’s broad, scaly thigh on the other. In any other situation it might have been hard to stay so close to the same nidoqueen that had nearly killed her in Vermilion, but in those circumstances she had more important things to worry about, like the lack of air, and the agony in her shoulder, and Blue’s cries of pain before he went terrifyingly silent…

Laura’s hand on her still-tender shoulder makes her jump, and she realizes they’re standing at an intersection that she’d been about to step into while cars passed through it. “Leaf!”

“Yeah,” Leaf gasps, looking up at Mrs. Verres’s concerned face. “Sorry, I’m fine!”

“I didn’t even ask if you were, yet. You didn’t hear anything I just said, did you?”

“Uh…” She wipes a hand across her sweaty forehead. “Sorry, no. What was the question? Or comment?”

“You don’t have to keep apologizing, and forget it. Are you alright, Leaf?”

“Y-no,” she admits after realizing how silly it would be to lie at this point. “Had a bad memory.”

“Oh, hon…” Laura pulls her into a brief hug, which actually helps her feel a bit calmer. “I think you should talk to someone. From what Red told me you guys went through hell down there, and there’s no shame in having it continue to affect you.”

Would the detective have accepted that as an excuse, if I’d admitted to taking the computer? Maybe, but probably not to sending it to a random person the next day, a decision that, in retrospect, feels very stupid. If Natural turns out to be untrustworthy, if he did release the computer’s contents without telling her, she’d stop speaking with him. Maybe even admit what she did and turn them both in.

Easy to say. She takes a breath. One thing at a time. “Yeah, maybe you’re right. I’ll see if Red’s therapist is open to taking me, or one of the therapists that comes to the ranch with the kids.”

“I’m glad.” Laura lets her go, and they start walking across the street. “And in case I forgot to say it before, thank you, for saving my son. Again.”

“It was a team effort.” It had been nerve-wracking, waiting for the renegade to show up and then tying him up after he was asleep so the others could watch him while she went for help, but she’d trusted Red implicitly when he told her what was happening.

He’d sounded so scared. So desperate. And then, so… determined.

They arrive at the hospital to find a crowd of people waiting in the lobby, as usual. Leaf messages Red to let him know they’re here, and they head to the roof to wait for him.

He teleports there a minute later, and is almost immediately enfolded in a tight hug by Laura.

“Hi Mom,” he says, voice muffled. “It’s good to see you again.”

Laura just keeps silently hugging him, and Leaf stands by as Red gets visibly embarrassed. She tries not to smile as she waits for Laura to finally let him go, but it’s a losing battle. “Hey. Get enough sleep?”

“More or less,” he says, and smiles back at her. It’s a weak smile, there and gone, but it’s better than nothing; ever since everything that happened that night, he’s had a withdrawn, almost haunted look to him. She thought it might have been from just using his powers too much, and he’s looking a little better today. “You?”

“Joy is the best sleep aid around, even without singing. How are things in Saffron?”

“Not so bad.” He returns his abra to its ball, and they start walking toward the roof access door. “The city wasn’t too badly hit, but Sabrina spent the days after the incident teleporting all around the islands to help detect and communicate with people in need, so she’s been too exhausted for any meetings or lessons or gym battles. Which is doubly bad because she had a bunch of them lined up from before, but… well, I guess no one’s really thinking about Challenge matches right now.”

Leaf nods. The full effects of the storms and earthquakes are still unfolding long after the last tremor and drop of rain. Even people on the other side of the planet were affected by tsunamis, and there’s been a lot of global discussion about what happened, including speculations over how bad it could have gotten and whether other similar events are likely to occur.

One of the major debates is whether it should be classified as a “Tier 6” event, a hypothetical world-affecting incident, or if it merely had the potential to be. In either case, many are reacting to a near-miss cataclysm as if one is still coming, either stocking up on survival supplies or fleeing the islands entirely, though some of that might just be foreigners who don’t want to stick around as the local regions recover.

Her mother, of course, re-suggested she come home, and it was harder than usual for Leaf to insist that she wants to stay, but she’s glad she did. The economy has tanked and there have been runs on supplies, but a lot of foreign aid has come in as well to help people as they grieve and try to rebuild, and she has too many people here she cares about to feel comfortable returning to Unova, even for a brief visit.

“Do you have any classes coming up?” she asks Red, wondering if his schedule is going to go back to normal anytime soon. They’ve been seeing each other a lot more lately, mostly in Celadon to visit Blue but at the ranch as well, and she’s reluctant to go back to seeing each other so infrequently.

“Still canceled for the foreseeable future. I’ve been meeting with some of the other students, but for now I can keep helping at the ranch.”

“How is Mr. Sakai handling everything?” Laura asks.

“Not bad, actually. All we lost from the quakes were a few picture frames and some fences that got trampled by wilds.” Leaf smiles briefly. “Thankfully all the non-aquatic pokemon were in their balls already because of the rain, so no one got hurt. He even said those fences needed replacing soon anyway, so I’d say he’s in good spirits. What’s going on in Lavender?”

“It was mostly undamaged too, though Lavender Tower gave everyone a scare by swaying like a tree in the wind.”

“And for your work?” Red asks.

“Business as usual.”

Which Leaf takes to mean that the investigation is still ongoing. “Speaking of Lavender Tower, Red, did you notice anything going around online about Silph goggles?”

“No? When, today?”

“Yeah, apparently it just hit the net this morning, will probably pick up steam by tomorrow. Those goggles I found in the basement are supposed to let people look at Ghosts without surreality.”

“Holy shit, are you serious?”

“Language, Red!”

He shoots a guilty look at his mom, then looks back at her. “Do you know if they work?”

“No, apparently that was just a prototype. But it’s pretty exciting to think about, right?”

“Blue is going to flip out, it might help non-psychics use Ghosts more easily…”

They arrive at Blue’s room and hear voices coming from inside before they even open the door.

“…not saying you can’t, Blue, I just want to make sure you’re not committing to anything without more details.”

“What commitment, it’s not a commitment, it’s just building momentum. I have to do something while I’m here!”

Laura clears her throat and knocks, and there’s sudden silence until the door opens and Daisy lets out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, I was about to chuck one of them out the window.” She gives each of them a quick hug, then strides off down the hall, raising a hand over her head in a wave. “Glad you’re alive Red and Leaf, see you later, Auntie!”

“Bye Daisy,” Leaf calls, then wilts under a glare by a passing nurse and turns to look in the room to see a very tan Professor Oak looking down at Blue in exasperation while his grandson stares at his phone, typing as fast as he can with one hand.

“Hello Sam, Blue,” Laura says as she steps in, and Red and Leaf follow, closing the door behind them.

“Hi Aunt Laura,” Blue says, still staring at his phone as his thumb taps away. “Guys, come help me with this would you?”

“Give them a second to put their things down at least, Blue,” Professor Oak sighs, though his smile seems genuine as he returns Laura’s hug, then turns to Leaf and Red and lowers himself to one knee to draw them both into a hug.

Leaf is surprised, but pleased, and sees a similar expression on Red’s face. “Hi, Professor…”

“Sam, Red. It was proper in the lab, but I’ve known you since you were in diapers, and you’re family. Call me Sam.” He pulls back and turns to her. “You too, Leaf. I can never repay either of you for what you did, and I’ve never been so glad to have put my trust in you. You’ve more than repaid it.”

Leaf feels her cheeks burning. “It was nothing, Pr… Sam. We’ve all helped each other, at one point or another,” she says. Red nods, gaze down.

“Be that as it may, this is the closest I’ve come to losing my boy. I was off on the other side of the islands, and if you weren’t there for him… I don’t want to think about it. Just know that I’m in your debt, both of you.”

“Gramps, you’re embarrassing them.”

“I’m entitled to, now and then. One of the few perks of age.” But he lets them go, and stands, wincing slightly as he shifts the weight from his knee.

“Are you okay, Profess-Sam?” Red asks.

“Fine, fine, other than the ringing in my ears. Overdid things a bit, in Hoenn, but I’ll take that and sore joints over Pressure any day.”

“Profe-Sam, I have so many questions about that—”

“Later, Red,” Laura says. “Give him time to go shower and eat and whatever else, he’ll be back.”

“Yeah, and come help me with this already, do you have any idea how hard it is to start a social movement with one thumb?”

“Social movement?” Leaf asks as the professor sighs. She follows Red to his bedside. “About what?”

“The thing Giovanni said, I’m guessing?”

“Yep.” Blue finishes typing something out, then grins as he shows them what he’s written so far. “Get online and help spread the word, would you? I’ve already got it trending locally, but with all of us working together #WhatComesNext is going global.”

Chapter 83: Interlude XV – Titans III

Maria Graham is not really sure how she got here. Under a casino, during an earthquake, heart beating a painful rhythm in her throat. It’s all very far from the girl she thought she would be.

She was raised with every luxury money could buy. Her parents stressed the importance of her studies, which she did well in. They wanted her to live a life of clean glass and fresh linens, a life of soft couches and heartbeats that could be used to measure time.

And she thought she would always live that life. Almost let herself be poured into the mold they cast for her, and never questioned it too much… if not for a music video she watched shortly after her tenth birthday.

Normally her parents had filters on the net to keep her from seeing anything not appropriate to her age, but this video must not have tripped any of those sensitive wires. It had no curse words in it, no provocative dress, no violence, no drug use. It was just a song, and a backdrop of a city at night, and a young woman with hair an unnatural shade of pink, a pink that was too loud, louder than any color in Maria’s life up until that point.

She was fascinated. Not just by the song, which was catchy enough, or the dance, captivating as the movements were.

It was the window it opened in her soul, just a crack, just enough to let a glimpse of light in, a smell of the outside world. It was the way it made her approach that window, nudge the heavy drapes aside, to peer at that other world. That other life, a life of neon, of rained-on-pavement scent, of dancing through a city as if, no matter how big it was or how many others lived in it, it all was meant for her.

That was when she began to look, really look, at the people outside her family and friends. To understand that many  have lives of sweat and burning muscles, of insect bites and starry nights, of blood and fear and the tightrope balance between life and death, and so much more. In the face of that knowledge, suddenly previously full life felt empty. What her parents molded for her, what was sitting in easy reach, was like the life of a stranger that she was being mistaken for. She needed to know what her life could be, and knew she would never find it living in theirs.

That was the true wisdom she glimpsed, without fully grasping it right away. That all those people, all those different lives, they don’t see each other, not really. They don’t know that there’s another way to live, that there are whole parts of reality as alien to them as other planets.

It wasn’t an immediate change, of course. The window opened a crack, the curtains parted to let in a glimpse, but it still took a year for her to slowly learn what called to her and what didn’t, and another year to get her trainer’s license, with the assistance of a cousin in the Rangers who helped teach and guide her to the online forms.

She was thirteen before she informed her parents that she was leaving. Not just the home, but the region. They tried to stop her, but only with words, with concern and guilt and fear. They didn’t offer her anything else, didn’t show her a life she could be excited to live if she stayed, and so she looked for what she needed online, and left.

In the year since, she’s found some parts of herself, at least.

She’s sure her friends have wondered why she has no online presence, why she wears her big, wide hat all the time, even during pokemon battles, why she avoided cameras during all the media attention in Vermilion, and maybe most of all, why she only ever gives her initials for her name.

But they don’t dig. They don’t press her to reveal more of herself. They accept her for who she is with them, for what they’ve done together. She doesn’t have to be anyone else, with them.

And who she is with them, apparently, is a girl who will run into the depths of a collapsed building during an ongoing earthquake. She was surprised to find this part of herself; not the part that ignored fear, but the part that had friends to save. Blue, whose life is burning eyes and cold, round metal, and Lizzy, who grew up in a glass cage of her own, a fellow bird flown free, feet gripping rubber cables humming with energy so she could find new things to plug them in to. And friends to help her save them, like Bretta, a trumpet call and a flag planted, Elaine, all tickling bubbles and soul-filling smiles, and Glen, who’s with her now, sunlit green grass around a refreshing spring, with deep, dark soil she can curl her toes in.

They need her. And she needs them. To have a life with warm laughter, with arms that will hold her tight without clutching. To find more parts of herself, perhaps even here, in these red and broken hallways.

-lo? Can anyone—lp, please!”

Glen slows to a stop, and MG presses her ear to the wall where the voices came from. “Hello?!”

Hello! Help, please, I’m stuck!”

Glen is pressed to the wall beside her, now. “Are you up against the wall, or is there something between you?”

What? I… I’m not sure… please, it’s hard… to breathe…”

Glen steps back and summons his primeape. “Hold on,” MG says, and stands clear as her friend orders his pokemon to carefully tear down the drywall. She has a sudden, strong memory of their first scenario in Vermilion, of the “civilian” she “rescued” who started “crying” all over her. It was deeply uncomfortable, even knowing that it wasn’t real, and she steels herself for something similar to happen again, to lend not just aid but comfort if needed.

It takes a bit of care, but eventually the primeape damages the wall enough that the rubble on the other side starts to break through. Maria and Glen were standing clear, and he quickly withdraws his pokemon as a small landslide begins. A cloud of dust rises up, and Maria has a moment to realize they probably should have taken a minute to think this through, even with the time pressure…

After a moment, however, the rubble stops flowing out, and it doesn’t seem to have upset anything else. They can see the person that had been in it now, an older woman who was caught between a slot machine and a section of the carpeted floor that had collapsed under her.

She gasps in several deep breaths, weakly shifting to pull herself free. “Careful,” Glen says, rushing forward to help. The red emergency lights make the blood matting her hair look black, and Maria quickly gets a potion bottle out to spray on any wounds.

“Do you need anything?” Maria asks as she watches a gash on the woman’s leg close. “Food, water?” A moment later she realizes the questions probably don’t make much sense in this context, and tries to think of something more she can offer. “…air tank?”

“I’m alright,” the woman says, and coughs, dust visibly stirring. “Thank you, thank you so much…”

“Hold still, there could be internal injuries,” Glen says as he starts clearing some space for her to lie down beside the rubble. “Were there others with you?”

“N-no… no, I was alone…” She looks around at the red, dusty halls. “Where are we?”

“Under the casino, some office area.” Glen finishes positioning her comfortably, then looks at the hole she came through, and Maria follows his gaze. It’s an impassable mess.

Maria felt fear for herself when the Stormbringer came to Vermilion, but it was a soft and distant thing through the dissociation of the Pressure, moth wings fluttering in the dark. Here it’s an ever-present litany of anxious thoughts, a rising and falling wave that she’s submerged in momentarily each time a tremor goes through the walls and ceiling around them.

But Glen is braver than her. Her fear for Blue is a rawness along certain tracks in her mind that make thoughts connected to them painful and skittish, but she suspects that for Glen, the fear for Blue is overpowering his own safety.

“He might be near a wall too,” she says, voice low.

Glen looks at her, at the hope she offers, and takes a breath to master his own fear. “We need to go, to try to help others. There are stairs that lead back up that way, if you feel strong enough to move. If not we’ll be back with help when we can.”

The woman looks the way he pointed, then back at where she was trapped and shudders before turning back to them. “I’ll be fine… go, save whoever you can!”

They leave without another word, jogging through the halls. Glen pauses every so often and listens at the walls for any sounds of survivors, calling out and knocking to try and get a response, but they don’t hear anyone else that isn’t already being helped by others, employees of the casino who look dazed and in shock. They try asking where the Casino’s generator is and are ignored other than being told to get back upstairs where it’s safe.

Eventually they reach another flight of stairs, and Glen curses and leads the way further down. “How deep does this place go?”

“The hole at the surface was deep,” Maria points out as she hurries to keep pace with him.

“But if that lady was trapped at the floor below, and Blue was also at a slot machine…”

“We don’t know where he was, can’t assume—”

Maria stumbles as she abruptly feels a presence in the stairway with them (no, not with them, in her mind, with her), and Glen’s hand is suddenly on her shoulder to keep her steady.

alarm-panic-urgency

“What’s wrong?!”

“I felt…”

familiarity-greeting-danger-warning

“…someone is… a psychic is talking to me,” she says, trying to concentrate on the sensations as she speaks. “And it’s… I think it’s someone who knows me?”

Glen looks at her with wide eyes. “You’re Gifted?”

“No, just sensitive.” It’s hard to speak while the emotions continue to run through her, danger-greeting-familiarity-down… “There’s danger under us?”

“Someone’s telling you that?” Glen asks

“It’s just emotions… it’s hard to explain, but yeah, someone’s projecting them at me.”

“But who?

“I don’t know, but they know me. Hang on, let me…” She concentrates on the feeling, and gets a sense of… curiosity, and fussiness, and attention to detail… “Lizzy?

“But… she’s not psychic either!”

“I know, I don’t understand…” There’s a sense of frustration that she thinks is more than just hers, but then the projected feelings focus on danger again, and a tug downward. “But I think somehow she’s telling me she’s below us, and… she’s in danger! I think some pokemon got in, somehow!”

“How do you—”

“It’s hard to describe, just a vague feeling!” Maria’s heart is pounding in her throat, limbs shaking as she pulls out of his grasp and hurries down the stairs again. “Come on!”

She hears his feet start pounding down after her, and once they reach the intersection under the stairs she looks around, trying to understand where they are. It looks like more standard office space, but one of the halls has been crushed by the ceiling, leaving two directions to go… she picks one at random and starts running.

Only to stop a moment later, and run back in the opposite direction.

“What’s—”

“It’s like a compass,” she explains as she tries to focus on the mental pull. “It’s… down, that way!” She points through the floor and wall.

“Shit, there’s another floor? Why don’t the stairs go all the way down?” Glen looks around. “There has to be another staircase…”

If so, the mental guide isn’t helpful in finding it. Which way? she tries asking, concentrating as hard as she can on the feeling of the other mind that’s with hers. Which way is down?

All she gets is more panic, more concern, more that sense of the other mind that’s trying to get her to hurry downstairs and save Lizzy… wait, no, the sense is definitely to save someone else, not the person whose emotions she’s sharing.

Another rumble goes through the walls, and Glen curses. “You keep going this way, I’ll run that way, we’ll call out if we find stairs, okay?”

Maria gives a distracted nod, unsure of why Lizzy wants her to save someone other than herself, and starts running through the outer halls, pausing to open every door she comes across. There are portions of the wall that have collapsed inward, requiring her to slow down and navigate through the piles of rubble while constantly aware that she’s moving further away from the direction Lizzy (assuming it is Lizzy) wants her to go in.

“I know,” she mutters as the presence in her head sends another pulse of insistence and fear through her thoughts. “I’m trying…”

There’s a sudden surge of horror-fear-despair and then the presence retreats for a moment. Maria stops running, trying to sort through what she felt, assuring herself that Lizzy can’t be dead, that she’s not too late. “Come back,” she whispers as tears burn her eyes, and in that moment she wishes for the soft couches, the clean linen, the general, unacknowledged safety of a world where nothing bad could happen and nothing she did mattered.

She starts running again, and within a minute finds another stairway behind a door that looks like any of the others. “Glen!” she yells, so loud it feels like something tears in her throat, and hears “Coming!” before she can draw another full breath. A moment later he’s in sight, and she’s racing down the stairs ahead of him.

“MG!” She hears him leaping down the stairs behind her to catch up. “What’s wrong?”

Before she can answer she feels the other mind with hers again, and lets out a sound of relief that feels like a sob. “It’s Lizzy, I thought she…”

She stops in confusion as the mental sense starts directing her somewhere again, still full of fear and a sense of urgency… but the direction she feels her attention being tugged in is different from before. “The direction changed?”

“Where is she now?”

“It’s not her, I don’t think…” Maria sees Glen’s confusion but ignores it, paying attention to where they are. This floor looks like it’s full of more administrative offices. “This way!” she says as she feels the mental tug again, and leads him toward a hallway that runs more or less in the same direction as it, hoping it will lead to a nearby section of the wall.

Glen has stopped questioning her, thankfully, and just follows. They move from one hall to another, skirting around the broken walls and rubble that fills the center of the basement and occasionally hearing muffled, pained voices of people calling out for help. It’s hard to ignore them, but after a moment Maria is sure of what she felt and stops to rest against a wall, panting. “They’re below us.”

“Of course there’s another floor,” Glen mutters, and punches the wall. They can both hear someone nearby, their muffled coughs interspersed with the sound of shifting rubble. “MG, all these people—”

“I know. You do what you can for them. I… can’t explain it, but I just know that Lizzy, or someone, is in danger too, and I have to find them—”

“I get it.” Glen takes a deep breath, then coughs, grimaces, and starts walking again. “Let’s go. If Lizzy can get the lights back on that will help rescue the others faster, but if something happens to her…” He shakes his head. “By Calyrex’s bobbly crown, I hate this feeling. Thought I got over it after the scenario, but there’s more at stake here than a badge.”

Maria can only nod, feeling both glad and like a coward that she’s glad he’s making the call to help her. Her hand against the wall slides down, palm pressed flat against it, and she murmurs an apology to everyone else that might be trapped here, then follows Glen.

They reach the outer halls that wrap around the floor and split up in search of stairs going down again. Maria opens door after door, but this time finds nothing, and when she finds Glen she sees her frustration echoed on his face.

“I know there’s another floor below us,” she says, trying to convince herself as much as him. She can still feel the tug, of attention, distinctly downward… “Maybe the stairway isn’t against one of the walls, maybe it’s… in the middle of the floor somewhere?”

“If it is, I’m not sure how we could reach it through the collapse… and how would Lizzy have done it to get down there in the first place?”

“I don’t know.” MG leans against the wall, feeling overwhelmed by the despair and fear and insistent need to get down to where the next murder is going to happen… murder?

She focuses on the feeling again, eyes closed, and feels the psychic impressions mixing with her own… emergency-danger-pokemon-hurry-victim- searching-KILLINGINTENT… MG’s eyes snap open as she sucks in a shocked breath at the surge of violent focus she felt, for just a moment. She thought a pokemon had gotten in, somehow, but no, this is something more deliberate…

“Okay,” Glen mutters, and starts pacing. “Okay, okay. This is a stupid idea, but…” He moves to a part of the hall where there’s more open space, then unclips his primape’s greatball again and summons it. “Focus Energy,” he commands, and his pokemon begins to take deep breaths, flexing its limbs and rocking back and forth.

“Glen, what are you—”

“Brick Break,” he says, pointing to the ground, and his primeape leaps up and slams its fists into the ground hard enough to send a crack through the tile.

“Oh,” she says, voice small, and steps back.

“Good boy! Focus Energy! Brick Break! Focus Energy! Brick Break! Focus Energy…”

Thud. Thud. Crack. Thud. Crack. CRACK!

“Focus—” The last crack continues into a series of them as the floor buckles. “Return!” Glen yells, and his pokemon is pulled back into its ball as the ground beneath it crashes in pieces to the floor below.

Maria waits to see if more of the ground will collapse, then carefully walks over to the edge of the hole, testing the ground with her foot before settling her weight on it. Hoping an earthquake doesn’t come soon, she quickly checks down the hole and sees that the chunks of floor/ceiling look mostly intact below, and it’s not too far down. She quickly kneels down and begins to shimmy through it.

“MG, wait—”

“No time!” The projected fear is growing, overwhelming her own emotions as she tries to lower herself carefully down. Glen kneels beside her and grabs her arms, then slowly leans forward until he’s lying on his belly and she’s hovering just a few feet above the ground. She looks down and makes sure her feet aren’t above any awkwardly angled pieces that might twist her ankle. “It’s fine, drop me!”

He does, and she does her best to clear the ground as he shimmies down after her. Only then does she take a moment to look around.

The floor seems similar to the others in layout, but the rooms she can see are full of high tech equipment. She only has a moment to wonder what it’s all doing here before the mental sense tugs at her again, and she starts running, Glen close behind. They turn a corner, then run down the hall toward anoth-

STOP

DANGER

POKEMON

DANGER

QUIET

DANGER

Maria gasps and stumbles, and for the second time Glen keeps her from falling as she tries to make sense of the feelings flowing through her.

dangerpokemonquietforwardangerquietquietquietnownownow

“Pokemon,” she whispers, hands moving to her belt. “Quiet, there’s… danger, ahead. Dangerous pokemon.” Her hand skims from one ball to the next as she considers her options… They’re indoors, so no pokemon that need a lot of maneuverability, and no fire pokemon… though on second thought there’s nothing apparently flammable around them…

dangerearthypokemondirtgroundhardround

Maria blinks, and her hand moves to her poliwhirl’s ball. She hears Glen unclip a ball from his belt, and murmurs, “I think it’s a Ground type. Maybe Rock/Ground?”

He doesn’t question her, just reclips his ball and unclips another. They summon their pokemon together, and the flashes chase away the red emergency lights for a moment as her poliwhirl, Slippy, and his gloom, Sweets, are in front of them. Glen puts his facemask on and Maria follows suit as another quake vibrates the walls and ceiling prompting a distant cry of pain that she does her best to ignore. Soon they’re moving quickly forward again, breaths fogging the lower parts of their masks.

They nearly stumble over the body before they see it, chunks of broken wall surrounding what looks like an older man with a pot belly. It’s hard to tell his age because his head has been crushed by a thick shard of stone.

Maria feels the realization of what she’s seeing like a slap directly to the front of her brain, shockwaves propagating through her mind and upending entire substructures of thought and perspective. A new type of life is immediately encoded, one that smells of dust and blood and shit, an anti-life that’s etched in her soul in the shape of a dark maroon R.

The body is next to a hole in the nearby collapsed ceiling, where it was clearly pulled from the way they pulled out the woman upstairs. She can finally understand what Lizzy has been telling her.

“Renegade,” she whispers.

“MG…. we can’t know that for sure, they might have…” Glen stops, and when she looks at him he’s gazing up at the ceiling.

The cracked, but unbroken, ceiling.

“Okay,” he whispers, and raises an arm to wipe the sweat from his face. “Okay. Renegade. What do we do? We need to get help.”

“No time,” she whispers back, fear making her voice shake. “Someone else is about to be killed.”

Glen takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “Then we hurry,” he whispers. “Quietly. Wish I had room in here to bring out my snorlax, but… we have to take whatever it’s using down quickly, then take down the renegade ourselves, together. If we can just get their belt away from them, we can run.”

The thought of physically attacking someone adds a queasy feeling to her stomach, but she nods. Glen suddenly points to some patch of ground and says, “Sleep Powder.” His gloom sprays the area with spores, and he steps forward and carefully scoops some of it up into one palm before he starts walking forward.

Their steps are quick and quiet, and Maria does her best to keep her attention on the emotional impressions guiding her as her own fear threatens to blot them out. The urgency in the psychic message is increasing, and eventually they hear something just around the corner… something that sounds like digging.

waitwaitwait

Maria stops and holds a hand out to keep Glen from moving forward as she closes her eyes, focusing on the mental impressions.

waitwaitwaitprepareprepareprepare

“Get ready,” she whispers as the digging gets louder, and then with a final crackle and snapping of stone and plywood…

preparepreparePREPARE

“Hey lady, can you hear me?”

Maria jumps at the sudden voice, adult and authoritative, from just around the corner.

“Yes,” comes a breathless response. “Thank you… I thought I was… going to die…”

The man doesn’t say anything else, and Maria feels the tension building in her… what if she was wrong, what if—

There’s a snapping sound, and the emotions flood through her in a torrent.

ATTACKDANGERATTACKNOWATTACK

“Ahhhh!” she cries out, in shock and anger not her own, anger sent by Lizzy along with a mix of desperate fear and concern, and Maria dashes around the corner and yells, “Snipe! Snipe! Snipe!”

Slippy came with her and immediately begins to shoot bubblebeams out, the sharp hiss and rapid pops filling the hall as each shot nails a golem that has its back turned on them. The golem had a chunk of rubble in its hand, which falls to the ground as it staggers against the wall, stony hide mottling as it’s sprayed with water.

The man beside it whirls around, staring in shock, and Glen is already rushing forward, flinging the spores at his face.

The man ducks the attack and kicks straight outward hard enough to send Glen flying back into the opposite wall, then unclips and points a greatball all in the same motion, before Maria can do more than take a hesitant step forward. Out pops a luxray, who glows with electricity and dashes forward at another snapped command—

“Nap!” Glen yells in a choked voice, and a cloud of sleep powder bursts from Sweets. The luxray blows through it and collides with Slippy before collapsing into a heap, and her pokemon’s body jolts back and hits the wall, electricity arcing through its twitching limbs.

Before she can rush to heal her poliwhirl the man is already summoning another pokemon, and her hand flies to her belt instead as she tries to calm herself, to focus. This is just a pokemon battle. It’s against a renegade, in an underground lab, during a series of earthquakes, but it’s just a pokemon battle like any other.

Or so she thinks, until the renegade’s magmar materializes and, with a snap of its master’s fingers, sends a stream of fire at them.

“Dodge!” Glen yells as she ducks and scrambles to the side, the intense heat burning her skin. Sweets is too slow, and by the time Glen finishes rolling to smother the flames on his clothing and turns to withdraw his pokemon it looks like a lump of charcoal, the bittersweet smell of cooked gloom filling the hall.

fearregretfear

It comes through the psychic link, mirrors to her own feelings beneath the shock, and Maria struggles to think of what she can summon against a magmar… they came from Erika’s gym, neither of them have any Rock or Ground or Water pokemon besides her poliwhirl, which she brought for the surprise Ice Beam potential…

The glow of the approaching magmar grows, and she scrambles back and pulls a ball at random from her belt. When she throws, it turns out to be the newly acquired vulpix she hasn’t even had the chance to name. It won’t be able to do much against the magmar, but perhaps if Glen brings out his own, then together they could…

When the magmar turns the corner, it’s followed by the golem, its injuries mostly healed, and in that moment Maria realizes she’s going to die, just like Aiko. She’s often wondered what drove the other girl so hard to leave her own home, if she’d had her own girl with bright pink hair, dancing through a rainy city like it belonged to her.

As the two pokemon face them, Maria wishes for the last time that she’d had the chance to meet her, and ask.

horrordenialanger

D-E-T-E-R-M-I-N-A-T-I-O-N

Her paralysis breaks, and she dives out of the way of the double attack, barely avoiding Glen as he does the same. When she finishes rolling and checks to make sure she’s not on fire, she looks up expecting to see her vulpix crushed by the golem’s rocks… but instead it’s just gone.

So is the feel of Lizzy’s mind and emotions.

And…

The renegade is screaming, horrible high pitched sounds of pain as light bursts from around the corner.

Maria stares in shock as the two pokemon turn toward their master, still trying to process what’s happening before she realizes this is her chance.

Normally, capturing another trainer’s pokemon rather than using the trading deprogramming would be a massive breach of League guidelines, as it does terrible damage to the pokemon’s psychology with effects that are often permanent. In this case, given that the trainer in question is a renegade and the pokemon are trained to murder people, she’s not particularly worried about sanctions.

Instead of unclipping one of her pokemon, she feels through her beltpouch for a greatball and ultraball, then enlarges one in each hand as she scrambles forward, aims, locks on, and throws both. They connect just as the pokemon rush around the corner, sucking them inside.

Maria lets out a breath and turns to Glen to make sure he’s okay… and feels her heart stutter in her chest.

He’s lying still, a pool of blood spreading from his head. The chunk of rock that the golem hurled at them is lying a few feet away, its edge stained red.

A flash of wilted grass, a pond, dark with blood…

“No,” she gasps as she stumbles forward and unclips the potion from her waist. “Glen, no, wake up,” light, she needs light to see what she’s doing as she sprays the potion, it’s hard to make out where the wound is in the red emergency lights…

A moment later they shut off, and she nearly screams in fear and frustration before the building’s regular lights come on, blindingly bright after the red gloom that she feels she’s been in for hours. She rapidly blinks, then takes a closer look at Glen’s head. His red hair is matted with blood, and she carefully brushes it aside to find the gash beneath it, some of his scalp coming up as fresh blood leaks out. She nearly gags, at both the coppery smell and the sight of bone beneath, but even as tears fracture her vision she sprays the potion over the wound and wipes her eyes until she can confirm that it’s closing.

She sobs in relief, fingers quickly searching for his pulse. Thready, too slow, but there. “You’re okay, Glen, just rest,” she whispers, unsure if he’s conscious. “I”m sorry, I froze up, I should have…” She remembers the renegade, then, and her head whips back toward the empty intersection.

The screaming has stopped.

And her vulpix has returned, its tails wagging as it approaches her. For a moment she stops worrying about Glen and wonders how it got past the two pokemon in the first place… and then she smells something different than the lingering scent of the cooked gloom.

Something like cooking meat.

Feeling like she’s in a dream, Maria slowly gets up and walks around the corner to stare at the horrible sight before her; first the woman she’d failed to save, whose head must have been crushed by the golem before it was sent after them, then the man her vulpix had killed, clothes still smoldering around his burnt body. There’s a potion bottle and a pokeball on the ground beside him, and his face is unrecognizable.

Maria feels her gorge rise, and turns away to throw up against the wall before she forces herself to return to Glen through the fog of disgust and confusion and fear, because right now Glen needs her, and she needs him, needs the distraction from the worry that she’s going to be branded a Renegade, or that her pokemon will be taken and killed for attacking a human.

She returns Slippy and her vulpix to their balls on the way, not even checking to see if her poliwhirl is alive before she unpacks her first-aid kit and cleans the blood from Glen’s hair and neck as best she can while checking him over for any other injuries. She treats some burns and removes his mask to check his pupils, which is when she notices fluid leaking from his ear.

Concussion, severe. She needs to get him to a hospital, but she can’t move him on her own, let alone get him up the stairs…

She has to treat him here. Her hands shake as she takes out her phone and opens the first-aid app, then navigates to the right condition and follows its guidelines, finding the proper nasal spray in her kit. A sudden quake nearly makes her drop it, and she waits for the shaking to end before she gently sticks the long nozzle up his nostrils one at time, triggering it with each of his breaths until the small bottle is empty.

Maria hears other noises through the building, the sounds of rubble shifting, of voices through the walls, of running steps. She ignores it all, focusing on one step after another to do whatever she can for Glen, until—

“MG! Glen!”

She looks up and sees… Lizzy, rushing over to check their friend, face horrified. “Is all this blood his? Is he okay?”

“I-I think he’s stable, I don’t know w-what else to do…”

Lizzy wraps her arms around MG in a tight hug. “Thank Arceus, MG, I thought I was too late. How did you do all that, anyway?”

“Do what?”

“Guide me to you!”

Maria blinks, then blinks again, feeling slow. “I didn’t… you were the one guiding me. Weren’t you?”

Lizzy frowns at her in confusion. “Me? I’m not psychic, I’ve been in the maintenance area trying to get the power back on, but there was a renegade there, she tried to kill me… it wasn’t you?”

What wasn’t me?”

“There was something in my head, like my attention kept being forced elsewhere. It saved me from being taken by surprise, and then led me down here to you…”

“It wasn’t me. I felt something similar… I thought it was you.”

“What? Why?”

“It was… it felt like you, a little, and…” She shakes her head. Why had she been so convinced it was Lizzy? Because she couldn’t think of anyone else it might be?

She turns back to Glen, whose breathing and pulse are steady, at least, and who doesn’t seem to be showing any new signs of worsening injury. He still won’t wake up, however. “What do we do now?”

“Now we get him out of here…” She looks around. “You came in through the hole in the ceiling back there?”

“Glen made it.”

“Well, there has to be another way up. I’m going to go find it, you stay with him.”

Maria almost tells her not to leave, almost mentions the dead renegade around the corner… Lizzy said she encountered one too, how did that end? But getting help for Glen is more important so she just nods, and hugs her friend before she dashes off. MG takes Glen’s hand in hers as she sits with him, and tries to contact whoever was sending her the mental impressions before.

Eventually she feels their mind touch hers again, and can’t help the flood of curiosity that fills her. In response, she feels relief that she’s okay, and guilt, and… reassurance, somehow, that everything will be alright. It feels particularly directed at her confusion and guilt over what happened to the Renegade.

She wraps the feeling around herself like a blanket as she squeezes Glen’s hand, hoping that the person is right, whoever they are.

“My name is Maria,” she whispers, and closes her eyes as another quake vibrates through the floor and walls.


Steven was never much for spirituality, or belief in Fate, or the unseen guidance of great powers. He hasn’t had strong opinions against them either, he just never saw much reason to think that anything that happened wasn’t the result of chance; sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes coincidental, but often random.

Today has certainly been a day to test that ambivalence, but it wasn’t until his pokemon began to glow, began to evolve into entirely new forms, that he felt like his life was not his own. That he felt like a character in a movie, where some writer put otherwise innocuous things into his backstory that somehow became relevant at this, the most important day in his life.

It should get easier to wrap his mind around yet another thing he thought he understood about the world turning out to be wrong, but somehow his final-stage pokemon evolving has been the hardest to. Probably because it seems directly related to him. He imagines the two teenagers riding around on Latias and Latios feel the same.

A fourth form, he marvels for the tenth time at least as his aggron(?) thunders forward and slams its horns into Groudon’s stomach, along with a new, sharp fin that’s grown between them. The legendary earth god is nearly twice his aggron’s size, but still struggles to shove Steven’s pokemon away, particularly since his metagross(?) is climbing its body at the same time, clawed arms digging into its ruby scales. Two pokemon, each with a fourth form.

All his life he’s heard people in both academic and casual contexts debate what was so special about the number three, that no pokemon has ever been found to have had more consecutive forms. Some pokemon, like eevee, have far more than three total possible evolutions, and others like wurmple have multiple different branching paths, but none ever goes through a permanent change more than twice in its lifetime. Even pokemon that have multiple different forms that they change between, don’t evolve into those forms, and what he witnessed looked like evolution, shining glow and all.

The massive increase in strength and endurance that his pokemon are showing back that impression up. Even with the careful training and conditioning he gave his pokemon to help them against their weaknesses, they should have already fallen against a monster as powerful as Groudon. A few hits was the most he could have hoped for, something that would buy everyone else some time to attack… but of all the pokemon on the field, his are the only two that have taken more than that and are still fighting it. As long as he keeps them avoiding any of Groudon’s fire attacks, everything else is healable.

If this were a movie, that would be enough. His pokemon would have revealed their newfound, unearned power by some coincidence between the stones on his rings and the red orb, and he would be the hero who saved the day.

Unfortunately, as surreal as the day has been, reality can never be that simple. While Groudon seems to have stopped growing as soon as the red orb was destroyed, it also seems to have grown strong enough to be nearly impervious to their attacks.

And not just his pokemon’s attacks, but everything the collective leaders, elites, rangers, and renegades can throw at it. Meanwhile its attacks are as devastating to them as he feared; in just five minutes they’ve lost dozens of pokemon and a quarter of their trainers, and no amount of coordination seems to help. Whether by spikes of rock impaling people and pokemon from below, or sudden rising magma, or its oppressively fast beam attack, Groudon’s coverage is just too good to defend against.

It’s chilling to realize that, if it weren’t for Latios and Latias flying around its head and blasting it with a mix of dragon and psychic attacks, as well as psychics like Sabrina, Will, and Lucian using their pokemon to constantly confuse and disorient it, Groudon would have already laid waste to the lot of them. His pokemon can take a beating, but he’s running through potions quickly, and the living legend seems nowhere near its limit.

And as if all that’s not bad enough, it’s getting hotter.

Initially, Steven felt hope upon arriving and realizing Groudon wasn’t emitting any Pressure. After maybe half an hour in its presence, he’s starting to wish it was, compared to the alternative. The sunlight has become so hot that a few of them went down to heatstroke before the rest realized the danger. Now they’re doing their best to stay hydrated while they fight, the heat evaporating the sweat straight off their burned skin.

His aggron and metagross (or whatever they are now) don’t seem to be affected, thankfully, but any water pokemon they try fighting with seems to fare the worst, which is a crippling loss considering how water attacks might actually hurt it more than anything else they’ve tried. Professor Oak’s blastoise used a Hydro Pump that looked more like a Water Gun, but the streams just boiled into steam when they got close to Groudon, which is just an absurd defensive power for something that’s already stacked with advantages.

All things considered, Steven’s coming to the conclusion that they may have backed the wrong horse after all.

Still, his heartbeat is slow and steady, his thoughts clear as he considers whether sounding a retreat would be justified. It’s possible Groudon will start to shrink again without the red orb, but there’s no telling how long that would take, and while defeating Kyogre has caused the storm to slowly start clearing, there’s also no telling what Groudon would do without the other legendary to keep it distracted. If they give up now it might cause some further calamity, like raise a volcano up from under Sootopolis.

And so Steven fights on, keeping tabs on how many trainers are still battling to ensure they don’t overcommit without some sign that Groudon is weakening. Hyper Beams from Lance’s dragonites fail to blast it to pieces, Cynthia’s garchomp’s claws just crack its scales rather than tear out bloody chunks of flesh, and even status moves don’t seem to do much. It burned away seeds and powders sent by Professor Oak’s venusaur before killing it with a blast of fire, which led to the older man taking a minute to pull out a storage ball, from which emerged a metal cone with a miniature hot-air balloon and a propeller attached.

Steven watches in amused fascination as the Professor sticks a jigglypuff into it, then sends the contraption up and toward Groudon (its occupant presumably singing at some point that Steven can’t hear thanks to the cone, or perhaps the rumbling earth, crashing waves, and other sounds of battle) only to be blasted out of the air without any apparent effect by an Omega Beam (he’s mostly settled on that as the name, it has a nice ring to it).

“It doesn’t have any ears!” he yells to Sam.

“Looks subterranean, likely relies more on vibrations,” Sam acknowledges as he unclips another ball and throws it. “But had to try!”

Steven nods and directs his metagross to aim for its eyes in case they can blind it, thinking all the while of how quickly they could fill some giant sacks with sleep powder and dump them over it from a direction it can’t see coming. Subterranean or not, it still has to breathe at some point, right? Though even if they got it to sleep, it’s so absurdly tough that they might not be able to kill it before it wakes…

At first the sound of thunder is lost in the general cacophany, the crack of earth and roars of pain or anger, but after a moment Steven realizes the thunder isn’t fading, and also that there hasn’t been any up until now. In fact the sound isn’t like thunder at all, but rather a series of echoing staccato booms, and Steven dares to tear his gaze from Groudon and looks up to see—

A ribbon of green against the sky, a flashing emerald serpent that undulates through the air as if it were water. It darts back and forth so fast that it’s like he’s watching some sped up video footage, a white cone of compressed air flaring around it every few seconds. There’s an expanding stretch of blue in the direction the dragon arrived from, the rain clouds having dispersed in its wake like smoke blown away by the breath of a giant.

Or a god.

SKREEeeerrAAAOOUrrooouu!

Rayquaza’s shriek seems to split the sky, an aural assault that freezes everyone in place, even Groudon. A number of pokemon immediately abandon their attacks and rush back to their trainer, instincts and training kicking in to defend them against the new threat.

After a moment Groudon rears its head up to roar back at the sky god, the golden light between its scales flaring so bright that Steven instinctively shields his eyes.

Finally, a “surprise” that he can wrap his mind around. He half expected the third of the weather myths would show up at some point, because why not? The prediction was vague and fatalistic in a way that didn’t lead him to any particular action because there wasn’t much in the way of spare resources for yet another potential region-destroying threat, but seeing it, hearing its shriek reverberate through the air, spreads real dread through him, so novel that for a moment he actually appreciates the sensation, the way the emotion seems to submerge him in itself and numb out everything else. He hears sounds of shock and horror from the others, and feels a moment of rare kinship with them.

Then the appreciation fades, distant and fleeting as most other emotions, and all that’s left is resignation. The myths… no, the legends portrayed Rayquaza as the strongest of the trio, the god assigned to rule above both Groudon and Kyogre’s domains. He can hope that part confused reality and metaphor, but even if it’s just as strong as the other two… as things stand, the island’s best can barely hold their own against a Groudon weakened by its fight with Kyogre. If a fresh god joins the battle, even if it’s to fight Groudon, he doubts they would fare better even if they repeat their last play of helping it only to turn on it after. Hell, from type interactions alone he doubts Rayquaza would even need their help to defeat Groudon.

The defeatism stirs something stubborn in him, and he chides himself for being stupid. Their best bet in that case would be to help Groudon once again, work all together to take down Rayquaza and hope that Groudon would finally be weakened enough by the end to be defeated…

Rayquaza lets out another shriek as it continues to dart around in the sky, and Steven wonders what it’s doing as he prepares to give the orders… but instead of flying down, it does one more series of twisting contortions in the air, then flies up and away, into the too-bright sky that Groudon created above them.

For the first time in what feels like hours, there’s a moment of blessed near-silence. No earth rumbles, no battling pokemon. Just the sea crashing distantly into the newly created coast, and the distant boom of the divine dragon achieving supersonic flight.

Distantly, Steven hears someone say, “Where’s it going?”

Their baffled, almost plaintive tone draws a weary smile from him; he can’t blame them for hoping for a savior at a time like this. He turns back to Groudon, preparing for the fight to restart… but Groudon is still staring after Rayquaza, its ruby body pulsing with golden light.

This is our chance. Steven looks behind him and takes in the sight of the others’ burnt skin and swaying stances, and quickly barks, “Recoup! Champs, on me!”

He leads by example, taking out a couple burn potions and spraying them over his exposed skin before attending to his pokemon. It’s hard not to marvel at them, up close; he wishes he had an hour to examine their every change, like the way his metagross has continued the pattern of its previous evolutions and doubled its limbs again, or the way his aggron’s metal shell has spread to completely cover the stony portions of its body…

“The most fascinating part is the mass they’ve gained,” Professor Oak says as he steps up beside Steven. His voice is calm, but his eyes are alive with a burning fascination, and Steven nods. Normally a pokemon would grow before they evolve, but in this case the fourth evolutionary stages have broken that pattern.

“Like Groudon and Kyogre’s changes,” Cynthia remarks as she approaches, and a moment later Lance is beside her.

“Theorize later, battle now,” the Indigo Champion says, giving Steven’s newly evolved pokemon a perfunctory glance before looking back at Groudon. Its ruby and gold body is slowly slumping forward onto all fours, then onto its belly as its eyes close. “Or… maybe not. It looks like it’s taking a nap.”

“Maybe Rayquaza scared it back into hibernation. It was said to be able to get the other two to stop fighting, wasn’t it?”

“Fuck,” Steven hears someone say, then realizes it was Professor Oak. He doesn’t think he’s ever heard the genial older man curse before. “It’s not napping, it’s Resting!

Fuck, Steven thinks as he watches a cracked scale fall from the legendary pokemon’s body, a healthy one revealed in its place.

“We need to hit it now,” Lance says. “All together.”

“No,” Cynthia says. “If we fail to bring it down we’ll just be back where we were before. Brute force didn’t work, we need a plan, some way to trap or limit it.”

“Can it swim?” Professor Oak asks. “If we can knock it into the ocean… no, it would just raise more earth beneath it. If we reduce its mass enough…” Professor Oak hesitates. “Cut off its tail, maybe, and it could fit in a Heavy Ball. It’s about twice the size of Aoesis, but likely not as dense.”

The giant onix Brock has, Steven remembers, is near the limits of what any pokeball can hold; if it ever evolved into a steelix, it would be uncontainable. “It could work, if we could reliably cut through its scales… but even before this new evolution Argenta could shatter rocks, and now she’s just cracking the damn thing’s scales.” Technically metagross are genderless, but ever since he first caught his rare silver and gold beldum she’s given him the impression of a rather glamorous lady, even when tearing mercilessly into her enemies.

“Reign hasn’t been making much of a dent either,” Cynthia says as she finishes healing her garchomp. “Anyone here bring an aegislash?” She glances at Lance. “Or…”

The dragon master nods, hands quickly moving to return one of his dragonite to its ball before he summons his haxorus. “Worth a shot, but Sever is a sweeper. May not be able to take more than a hit, so if it fully wakes up before this works, we’ll need a backup plan.”

“Get it into the air!” They all look up to see the Eon Duo hovering above them, Professor Birch and Leader Norman’s kids leaning over the sides of their mounts. Steven wonders how long they’ve been there. “Drag it high enough and drop it,” May continues, hands cupped around her mouth. “Should break some bones at least!”

Professor Oak is rubbing his jaw as he looks back at Groudon. “Probably weighs a ton, but that just means we don’t have to raise it high to do real damage.”

“Can they do it?” Steven yells back, pointing at the legends they’re riding and shoving down all the questions he has about where they found them, and how they’re riding them without saddles.

The two look at each other, then their pokemon. Their pokemon… The thought has implications, and he shoves those aside too. Trainers wanting to capture legendary pokemon is what started this mess… according to Matsubusa, Groudon seemed tamed at first too. Would these two turn on them soon as well? It’s been that kind of day, but for now they’re too powerful a resource to not use.

“I think so!” Brendon yells. “But not for long! Better with help!”

“Okay, we’ve got a Plan A and Plan B,” Steven says as he looks around at the other trainers, who seem to have mostly finished healing themselves and their pokemon. A lot are just drinking water and checking others who went down during the fight. “Spread the word to the others, anyone with pokemon who know Sky Drop are to use it on Groudon on our mark. We’ll try cutting its tail off first.”

They nod and fly off, and Steven suddenly realizes that when he was looking at them he was looking at the sky without squinting. That leads to him noticing how, even beyond the healing from the potions he sprayed over his skin, the oppressive heat from before isn’t bothering him as much. He wonders if it’s because the sun is finally starting to set, but no, that’s still a while away… maybe it’s because Groudon is asleep?

If so he’s going to regret waking it up so soon, but they can’t let it fully recover itself, nice as it’s been not to have fresh earthquakes knocking him off balance every few seconds. Maybe water pokemon would able to be used now… Mark that as Plan C.

Cynthia and Lance set themselves and their pokemon up on either side of the sleeping legend, keeping as distant as they can while still guiding their pokemon with maximum precision on either side of Groudon’s spiked tail. Meanwhile a handful of Leaders, rangers, and other trainers approach, each with large Flying pokemon out. Steven makes sure everyone is in position, then raises his hands above his head, fingers extended. Starting with his right pinky he lowers them one at a time, counting down. Nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three…

There’s absolutely no warning.

Faster than sound itself, a blur of green and gold and black fills Steven’s vision, and then the shockwave hits in a clap so loud it’s like a pair of spikes are driven into his ears. He barely hears his own cry of pain through the ringing that follows, and realizes he’s on his hands and knees when water crashes down on him, adding another layer of disorientation. He  struggles to open eyes blurry with sea salt and tears of pain, and when he finally blinks them clear and looks up…

Groudon is gone.

He squints at the empty area where the earth god used to be, then looks around and distantly spots the tail end of a long, split wave that Rayquaza kicks up in its wake as it flies above the ocean. Its long emerald body suddenly rises up into the air, and even from this distance Steven can see that it’s bigger than before, its body more segmented and its head shaped like a wedge. As he watches it ascend into the sky he sees threads of gold light trailing around it, their color reminding him of the glow that came from within Groudon and Kyogre.

It rises high into the sky before a red shape detaches from it, and Steven watches in numb disbelief as Groudon plummets back to earth. If he could hear anything besides a distant ringing, perhaps he would hear it roar, or Rayquaza’s shriek of victory. Instead he watches in near silence as the legendary pokemon falls, twinkling like a ruby in the sunlight, until it touches the horizon.

Did we win? Steven vaguely wonders as the disorientation hits again, making him heave as he tries to stand. He looks around and realizes that he can’t see Cynthia or Lance. Something wet hits his ear, and he jerks away before he realizes it’s Professor Oak with a potion bottle in his hand.

Wah uou eea ee? EeeEh? “

Steven shakes his head and unclips his own potion bottle for his other ear, having to spray three times before he hits it, then hurries as best he can on unsteady legs to the “shore” of Groudon’s fake beachhead…

Cynthia is there. The words seem to appear straight into his mind, and he looks around and sees Sabrina beside him, pointing down into the water. Before Steven can react Latios is hovering over the ocean while Brendan dives in. He surfaces shortly after with an arm around Cynthia’s limp figure, and the legendary dragon psychically lifts them both out of the water and onto the land. Sabrina has already rushed to another part of the shore, and a few moments later May is pulling Lance out of the water.

He looks back up at where Rayquaza went, and sees nothing. The sky is clear in nearly every direction now, and the setting sun is warm rather than harsh. It’s possible the third weather god will come back and attack, or wreak havoc elsewhere, but for now Steven lets himself sit on the rough ground and just breathe, eyes closed.

His body is still shaking, heart beating so fast and hard that it feels like it’s interfering with his breaths. He wonders if this is how others feel, at times like this. He wonders how long it will last. Assuming it’s all over, they still have to tally the dead and start repairing all the damage done across the island. The thought of facing all that without his usual calm makes the shaking worse, for a moment.

After all that is done, it may be time to take a break from the whole “Champion” thing, for a bit.

It’s been a hell of a day.


David Shaw walks with his eyes on the experiment, hands never leaving his pokebelt as he stays eight meters behind his charge at all times. Ultraball range is a little under ten, but the rain is heavy enough that he assumes a couple meters of lost efficacy to be safe. Scarlet prowls at his side, the weavile’s red feathers and gold gem the only parts of her that are clearly visible in the dim light.

They’ve already circled the manor twice now, walking slow and steady at the edge of the plateau it’s situated on. He brought his five top security trainers with him, leaving the rest to ensure the safety of the others in case wild pokemon attack the mansion. Or in case the experiment makes them. Or makes the normals start attacking each other. Or something.

Paranoia is more than a job description; it’s a sacred trust. A trust put in him by Giovanni himself, a trust with the fate of the human species potentially on the line.

He knows Dr. Light’s priority is opposed to his, but that doesn’t make them enemies; they’re just trying to save humanity from different angles. He from the godling she and the other scientists created, she from the gods it’s meant to fight.

But paranoia has to be a tool, deliberately used, a lens that can be swapped on and off. He was a police officer in his past life, spent every week talking to and investigating people who might have been guilty as sin, even as they wept like babies over whatever situation they found themselves in. There was a trick to it, a way to split your mind into two tracks; one in which every word, every expression, was genuine, and one where they were at least partially calculated to get you to feel a certain way.

It wasn’t about guilt or innocence. That wasn’t his job. He understood that an innocent person could be calm or angry. That a guilty one could be genuinely tormented by what they’d done, or the consequences they’d face if convicted. His job was simply to get to the truth.

Sometimes that meant bullying someone, whether calm or in tears, until something useful shook loose. Innocent people can still have plenty to hide, or be protecting the guilty, or have useful knowledge without even knowing it. Other times it meant acting friendly, understanding, sympathetic. It’s not hard; he’s never had trouble pitying even the worst offenders. Sometimes especially the worst ones… how fucked up must it be, to live in the kind of brain that could do such things? In those cases, the “Good Cop” routine is a mercy of sorts… the last friendly face and sympathetic ear such people are likely to ever have outside of prison.

For the past decade, however, he’s been a perpetual Good Cop, at least around the experiment. That’s the fiction they’ve had to sell it, that they all believe its good intentions, and that he and his people are its protection against others, Dark so that they could avoid influence or subversion by anyone who tries to do it harm. And it’s not even a lie, really. Just a part of the truth.

He doesn’t know if Mewtwo really believes it. Sabrina says it used to be more suspicious until it was finally let out of the tube, and that it’s only grown more trusting since.

But still, he feels the two tracks in his head. Weighing every word, every movement, through the lens of honesty or manipulation, and acting on the former until he has evidence of the latter. He often wonders why other people don’t seem to be able to do the same, to consider both possibilities while still reserving judgement, but it’s clear that they don’t, and he doesn’t look down on them for it. Clearly he’s the weird one.

Nearly an hour after they got out of the lab, Shaw starts to realize the rain feels lighter. At first he thinks it’s his imagination, but after a minute he notices that it’s easier to make out the two figures of his charge and his boss, and easier to hear what they’re saying rather than just a random word here and there.

“-going to die?”

“There are a lot of different customs,” Dr. Light says as she walks slowly beside the experiment. Normally its strides are hard for a human to comfortably keep up with, but today it ambles, as if worried that moving too quickly will reduce the time it has left. Which it wouldn’t; Shaw has kept informed of all its suit’s specs, and remembers the debate over how many artificial limitations to put on it. One based on exertion was deemed too inhibiting and would add too much uncertainty. “Some try to experience things they’ve always wanted to but never had the chance. Others do their best to put their affairs in order, for those they leave behind. Most try to accomplish both, I imagine, as much as they reasonably can.”

“I see. I don’t suppose there’s much in the way of either that applies to me.”

Dr. Light stays silent. He’s not sure how long the experiment’s been talking about its own death as if it’s a given, or how the director feels about it. It’s easy to admire noble stoicism in someone’s final hours, but Shaw has spoken at length with Sabrina, who convinced him that whatever Mewtwo is, it feels things as much as any human does. Shaw doesn’t know many humans who would take their impending end this well, if they truly believed it was coming… but maybe more would if they had a long time to see it coming, which he has to admit that Mewtwo might have. It can’t have been easy living a life that’s always been a few technical mishaps away from sudden, painful death.

“What will happen to my body?” Mewtwo continues after a minute. The artificial voice is neutral without being flat, and Shaw wishes for the hundredth time that Sabrina were here to give some indication of its feelings. He’s tempted to push for another psychic to mentally connect to it, maybe under the cover of wanting to make sure it’s not lonely or something, just to get a peek at what it’s really feeling… “Will it be buried?”

“If you’d like,” Dr. Light says, the words coming out slow and measured. “We could also cremate you, if you prefer. Some enjoy the thought of their ashes being spread in a particular place, or over a wide range of places.”

“But first you would perform an autopsy.”

Shaw feels a ping of worry, though he’s not sure why, and hears Dr. Light’s brief hesitation. “Yes.”

“To help the others?”

Trap, Shaw thinks, but Dr. Light is just frowning. “Others?”

“The others, like me.”

“There are no others like you, Mewtwo. There never have been.” The lie is delivered flawlessly, likely because of the way she framed it. Not for the first time tonight, Shaw wonders how the other labs are faring in this mess.

“I meant those that will come, after. You won’t give up on the project, surely?”

“Ah, no, of course not.” She brushes wet hair from her face. “We don’t have to talk about this, if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“It does not. But it bothers you?”

“It’s sad, thinking that you may die soon. For many reasons. And it’s—oh!”

Shaw’s head snaps around, adrenaline flooding his body, and sees that Mewtwo has come to an abrupt stop, body facing the eastern cliff so that its tail caught the director in the stomach as she kept stepping forward. “I’m sorry, Dr. Light,” the experiment says, curling its tail away as it turns to her. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, fine. It didn’t hurt, just startled me.” She glances at Shaw as she says it, no doubt telling him to relax. His pulse is still racing as he watches her rub her stomach and go to stand beside Mewtwo, who turns back to look out at the dark ocean. Shaw makes a subtle sign that his people probably won’t see in the rain, but that he knows Scarlet will, and they’ll see what she does and know what it means. A moment later she’s prowling closer to the experiment, her paws utterly silent on the wet grass as she stops close enough to be able to strike it on a moment’s notice. All around him his people and their pokemon go on higher alert, though without any obvious signs.

Mewtwo continues facing the ocean. “I’m glad. You were saying?”

“Hm? Ah, yes, that… well, it’s hard not to think of it being difficult, for you. If I’m mistaken in that, I can bear the discomfort.”

There’s a pause, and then… “It is difficult. I wish to do something of use, for my life to mean something by my choices, not just my existence. I feel regret, that I have not. And I wish to experience many more things. To swim. To fly. To see the world. Experience a city, or a forest. Snow. We’re just a few months away from it, aren’t we?”

“Yes.” Dr. Light rubs at her face. “I’m sorry, that we couldn’t give you more of… all that. Of life.”

“I understand.”

Shaw finally looks away from them, uneasy and tense. Maybe it was a distraction from something else the experiment did? Everyone around the mansion seems to be fine, and the woman he put on monitoring the area’s seismic activity seems calm, which he takes to mean there isn’t an army of subterranean pokemon approaching them, nor a steady weakening of the mountain to cause a landslide…

Shaw realizes the sky is growing lighter as well, and looks up to see the stormclouds are dispersing. The sun is just beginning to set, painting the edges of the clouds to the west with gold and pink. It’s a beautiful sight, and as he takes the moment to admire it he realizes he can’t remember how long ago the last earthquake was.

“I would like to try flying again,” Mewtwo says, causing Shaw to turn back to it.

“What, now?” Dr. Light sounds uncertain. “In these conditions? Your last test didn’t go well…” By Shaw’s recollection that would be the time it had tried to fly over the manor and had suffered intense vertigo before it even cleared the roof, which was a big relief to him and his people.

“Yes, it was quite unpleasant. But still, there was a freedom in it. As a thing I wish I could have done more of, it’s near the top.”

The director is silent, and Shaw feels obliged to step in. “I don’t think it would be a good idea, Mewtwo. It’s still dark even with the clouds clearing up a little, and will be getting darker as the sun continues to set. The ground is also slippery. If you come down at an angle, or tumble too far, you might fall off an edge.”

The experiment turns to him, and Scarlet gracefully shifts with it, staying out of its line of sight. “Of course, Mr. Shaw. I would try it near the manor, to reduce the risk that you can’t recover my body for autopsy.”

Shaw stares at the experiment, wondering if that was an attempt at humor, or self-deprecation, or just stoic pragmatism. “Have you really given up on yourself?” he asks, daring for the first time since the experiment became sapient to let himself slip into another mode.

“I do not think it is unreasonable, to believe at this point that my death is more likely than not.”

“So you’ll give up on that chance, however small?”

“Shaw—” Dr. Light begins, but Mewtwo is already responding, the tiny clicks of its helmet’s keyboard slightly audible over the weakened rainfall.

“You would not do similar, when the chance is so low?”

“No, and neither would anyone else I respect.”

“Shaw, that’s enough!”

He doesn’t take his eyes off the experiment’s visor, wishing he could see its expression, limited as it is. Eventually Mewtwo’s head shifts, a deferential lowering.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Shaw. You’re quite right. I didn’t mean to make your job more difficult, and appreciate the effort you and your people spend on my safety.”

It’s so easy to hear sarcasm in its words, bitterness or irony or some hidden message. But it seems so sincere, too, and he knows he could just be projecting. “Not about us,” he grunts after a moment. “It’s also about you. The kind of person you want to be. The stuff we’re asking of you isn’t easy, but if you’re not someone who can fight for a ten percent chance, a five percent chance, even a one percent chance, when it’s either that or death, then you won’t ever be what we need you to be. Hope you can be.”

Dr. Light is still glaring at him, but there’s a puzzled look in her eyes too, and Mewtwo seems to be considering him again. “Thank you, Mr. Shaw. I’ll remember that.”

An ominous feeling creeps up Shaw’s neck, and he itches to slide a hand into his pocket, where his own kill-switch for Mewtwo’s armor is. Each of his people have one, and he trusts any of them to press it if needed.

“Director!” They turn to see one of the engineers running up to them, Gyokusho’s smile obvious as he approaches. “We just got word that Groudon has been defeated, and the seismographs are showing no new quakes throughout the island.”

“Not even aftershocks?”

“No ma’am, nothing. Sabrina also just contacted us, and will be teleporting here shortly.”

Dr. Light’s relief is obvious, and she smiles wide as she looks back in the direction of the mansion, where people are already preparing to dig out the stairwells and regain access to the lab. There’s still a chance that the damage is too severe to get Mewtwo back in its pod in time, but with at least a couple hours of backups for the suit remaining it would take serious damage to the stairs or pod room for the whole lab to be unable to clear and repair it on time.

Shaw feels relieved too, and wonders if he should congratulate the director later on making the right call. The situation was uncertain enough that he doesn’t regret pushing for the decision he did, and he’s uncertain how much of this was good judgement on her part compared to a lucky dice roll; he’s wary of reinforcing the latter in case she ends up overconfident the next time something like this happens.

“Ah,” Mewtwo says, the visor of its helmet reflecting the setting sunlight. “I suppose I was being pessimistic.”

“You weren’t alone,” Dr. Light reassures him, and turns back to Gyokusho just as Mewtwo turns back toward the cliffs, his tail bumping her torso again. “Oh, sor—”

The tail wraps tight, and in the blink of an eye, both Mewtwo and the director are airborne.

Not a single decision is made in the next seconds that pass. Later, Shaw will wonder if he even had any thoughts. He acts instead as a machine executing a program, each of his people moving ways they’d been drilled to with barely a moment’s hesitation.

Scarlet attacks at his command, leaping at the experiment’s retreating figure only to get kicked out of the air by one of its powerful legs just as her claws flash out. Pasha’s greninja is next, having leapt just a moment after Scarlet did, tongue lashing out to wrap around Mewtwo. Dr. Light is in the way, however, and Mewtwo releases her as it plunges down the cliff and out of sight.

Vedant’s hydreigon launches itself after it, Dark energy spewing from its three mouths, and Shaw is running to the edge of the cliff as he simultaneously clicks the kill-switch in his pocket and summons his mandibuzz. “Catch!” he commands, sending his flier out after the plummeting armored figure, and a moment later three other Flying/Dark pokemon dive toward it and the pursuing hydreigon. Shaw releases the kill-switch, which he activated repeatedly already, and brings the whistle at his neck up to his lips, blowing hard to bring the rest of his people running.

Only then does he feel his heart galloping in his chest, feel the energy jumping through his body as he quickly summons his honchkrow and attaches its saddle. Less than thirty seconds later, the rest of the security team has arrived while those already with him mount their own fliers. They take off together, flying out of the dim light of the rain and sunset and diving into the mountain’s shadow.