All posts by Damon Sasi

Chapter 61: Storm

Disorientation hits Red as he appears on the roof of the Trainer House, legs adjusting to the sudden stillness of the building below him, nose flaring as the heavy scent of the ocean is replaced with the scents of the city. He takes a moment to brace himself against the wind, which is gusting hard enough to flap his jacket and tug at his cap.

He and Leaf had changed into their traveling clothes and left a note in their room so the crew would know they’d left before going out onto the deck of the ship and teleporting back together. Red’s fear for Blue and Aiko, for himself, and most of all for Leaf were overwhelming as he summoned his abra and prepared for the unknown…

…but now that he’s here, his fear takes the backseat to a sense of awe as he gazes over the city.

Half the sky is twilight, the last gleam of light not enough to hide the stars on the deep, cloudless blue. The other half of the horizon is the dark of a starless night, storm clouds gathered in a sweeping curtain, rising up like the rough wall of a sheer mountain cliff. It’s like the storm has sucked all the clouds out of the sky into one half of it, and was now marching across to blanket it all.

“Swords of Justice,” Leaf whispers from beside him. “One pokemon did that?”

As if to punctuate her point, lightning flashes across the cloudwall, illuminating its many peaks and valleys. The thunder hits them a few seconds later, and it breaks the spell, Red’s fear resurfacing as he quickly withdraws his abra, then puts his headphones in and calls Blue. As he watches, lightning lights up a different part of the cloudwall, then another flash arcs down to the ground below it, then another far to the left. The thunder from each one hits with a few seconds between them, and Red realizes that he’s hearing what will be a constant refrain throughout the storm.

Blue answers after the fourth ring. “Red, how-”

“I’m here.” Red looks at Leaf, who’s at the railing and, looking down at the city below. “We’re here. We teleported back as soon as we saw on the news.”

“You’re… You actually…” Blue laughs. “Red, you brave, beautiful idiot! I shouldn’t have doubted you for a second!”

A particularly loud crack of thunder echoes across the city, and Red hears it both in the air around him, then a half-second later through his headset. He turns to the west. “Where are you guys?”

“Pokemon center by the harbor. We’re all here, Glen and I plan on helping out inside if we need to.” His voice loses its excitement, turning serious. “Come quick, Red, most of the trainers are already stationed somewhere.”

Red fights down his feeling of dread as he feels the wind gust around him again. The idea of getting caught out in that storm is viscerally terrifying, even though he knows objectively that it’s not the storm itself he should be worried about. He checks his map and puts in the destination. Seventeen minutes by bike. It might be faster than that estimate without traffic, but the storm is moving so quickly… “I don’t think we can make it to you, Blue.”

“Shit! Are you sure?”

“Even if everything goes right—”

“—I know, I know, it probably won’t. The other defense points are pokemon centers, city shelters, and hospitals, but I want you guys here. Together we’ll be unstoppable.”

Red grins. “Right. We’ll try.”

“Hurry, and watch yourselves!”

“You too.”

Red closes the call and turns to Leaf, who’s still staring down at the street below. He swallows, still worried about how they left things despite all that’s happening. “Leaf! We gotta go!”

She rushes over, and they head inside, taking the elevator down as he relays what Blue said.

“People are still moving through the streets,” she says, voice tense. “Most don’t seem to have pokemon with them, and… Red, a lot of them are moving on foot.”

Red stares at her, reading the same quiet horror in her expression that he feels. Most of those people wouldn’t make it to a shelter in time, why did they even leave their homes? Could they do something to help them move faster or… No, he could maybe take one person on his bike with him if they’re about his size, but there’s nothing they can do for all these people. He feels his confidence spiral again. They’re not ready for this… things are happening too quickly, he’s forgetting stuff he should be doing…

They reach the lobby and hurry over to the PCs against the wall.

“Which pokemon are you bringing?” Red asks as he deposits his metapod, then brings out his spinarak, then swaps Vermilion the abra with his pineco. Bill is in his bag rather than his belt: he has no intention of facing this situation without a way to escape.

“All of them,” Leaf says, and he sees her fill ball after ball with her pokemon, putting them on the ground after. He’s about to ask if her bag really has room for them, then sees her take a container ball out and summon its box. She pulls her spare pokebelt off it, then straps it loosely over her main one before tightening it and adding the balls. “I haven’t practiced with it much, but every pokemon might matter, here.”

Red nods, considering those he was leaving out. Metapod is the only truly “useless” pokemon he has, good for little more than a sacrificial distraction unless it evolves in the field. He chose bellsprout over oddish because they were the same types and he’d trained it more, but there’s nothing wrong with having both. And he has barely trained with his whismur, but it still has useful area of effect attacks…

Despite not having practiced at all with a second belt, Red realizes that limiting himself to six pokemon isn’t worth the risk. He doesn’t need to get used to battling with a team of six for the League, and the added physical awkwardness is less likely to kill him than the lack of options, at this stage in his journey. Even Metapod might save a life; if they need bait or a distraction, there’s no other pokemon he has that can survive hits as well, after it hardens its shell a couple times.

Red quickly takes his spare belt out too, and follows Leaf’s example by belting it over his first and taking out all his pokemon to attach them. It feels cumbersome, but not incredibly so.

His feeling of being unprepared suddenly returns with a vengeance. He’s had no time to really think or prepare for this, what else is he missing that’s as obvious as “bring all pokemon?” He grabs his notebook and starts writing as Leaf finishes attaching her biking gear, remembering his lesson from Vermilion Gym on the modes that Rangers try to ensure they’re prepared for:

1) Scout

2) Fight

3) Contain

4) Escape

What can he do to prepare for achieving these goals? He limits himself to one thing on each:

1) Scout – psychic radar

2) Fight – coordinate

3) Contain –

4) Escape – teleport

His mind races to find ways to help meaningfully “contain” a Tier 3 incident from getting worse, but can’t think of anything. Leaf is watching what he writes, clearly curious despite the nervous energy shifting her from foot to foot, and he starts summoning and putting on his own pads.

“Any quick notes on coordination that we should pre-agree to?” Red asks.

“My pokemon are better for defense and subduing,” she immediately says. “And I have better aim than you. You focus on taking them down and I’ll focus on keeping others busy or going for the capture.”

She’s right, Charmeleon, Pikachu, and Nidoran are his strongest fighters, and each is more lethal than any of hers besides maybe Beedrill. “Okay.”

“What’s psychic radar?”

“Using my ability to sense minds in quick glimpses to just get a rough idea of where they are around me.”

“You should call it psydar.” Seeing Red’s raised brow, she shrugs and smiles, nervous energy shifting her from foot to foot. “Radar stands for Radio Detection And Ranging. Lidar is Light Detection and—”

“I get it,” he says, grinning as he finishes clasping his helmet on, then writes (psydar) on the page and tucks his notebook away. “For escaping danger, our best bet is to teleport… I’ve got a sling to carry my metapod in, you could tie a shirt into one. If we carry our abra against our side, it can save us precious seconds needed to teleport out of danger.”

“Red, that’s going to make it really hard to maneuver.”

She’s right, they won’t be able to move nearly as nimbly, and any kind of roll would hurt their abra and probably interrupt the movement. He wants to argue that having an instant escape from danger makes up for it, but he’s already thought of the counter; they’d only be able to use it once, as it would effectively take them out of action and abandon anyone else who’s with them.

“Ok, just remember them as an option, then.” He puts his notebook away and stands, and they make their way to the heavy glass doors, which slide open as they approach.

“They didn’t even turn off the automatic doors?” Leaf murmurs.

“Must have been in a rush.” Red can imagine the panic because he feels it still stirring inside him, the irrational urge to just go to his room and cower in it until the storm passes… a rather outdated instinct for his hindbrain to push on him, since teleportation is a much safer option.

They step out into the dark street together and look up at the same time. The stormfront is moving visibly toward them, and they rush to summon their bikes and ride for the harbor, pushing themselves to get there before the storm envelops them.

There are people in the street making their way either home or to a shelter, and Red suddenly realizes that it was purely wishful thinking to say they would make it to Blue. He wants to be with Blue and Aiko, some part of him is sure that if he’s not there with them, something terrible will happen.

That’s nonsense and you know it, you’re not the best trainer around, they’re both better than you, just get safe…

Red shakes his head at the inner voice, distrusting it for its cowardice.

Not safe as in hiding, safe as in being with other trainers when the storm hits!

Some others are riding pokemon or bikes, or speeding down the roads in cars, last minute escapees heading northwest. But they also pass a lot of people on foot, and while he hopes they’re close to their homes, the glimpses of desperation he sees on some faces tears at his heart.

“Red!” Leaf calls out. “They…”

“I know!” he yells, but pedals harder. Blue said they had to make it to a defense point, and he understands why, there would be no way to save all these people in the street.

A minute of pedaling later, Red’s phone starts blaring at him. He checks it as he bikes, slowing down slightly, and sees an emergency broadcast message from the Ranger outpost at the eastern edge of Vermilion:

MASSIVE FLOCK FLYING OVER CITY SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY

Ice water floods his veins, and he finally listens to his inner nervous voice, recognizing its premortem wisdom. “Leaf! Change of plans!” He struggles to renavigate them to the nearest defense point, and finds a hospital just nine minutes away. “We’re not going to make it to the others, but there’s a hospital not far!”

“Okay!” She slows slightly so he can take the lead, and they make a hard turn at the next intersection, biking more west than south now. We’re going away from the storm now, we have more time, we can make it…

The wind grows more intense, along with the frequency and volume of the thunder. A stroke of lightning splits the darkening sky ahead of the stormfront, striking a tall building far in front of the stormfront. Another emergency message appears, and Red checks the map again before he reads it. Five minutes away…

FIRST WAVE PAST CITY LIMITS SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY

Four minutes between the flock and the first wave, they’ll be fine, they’re almost there…

Two minutes later some noise is growing over the near-constant boom of thunder, a windy rush that sounds almost like static, and Red turns toward the storm, unable to help himself. He feels his jaw drop.

The twilight sky ahead of the clouds is dark with birds, racing just ahead of the cloudbank in a loose and frenzied swarm of bodies that flap desperately to keep ahead of it. Some collide and fall, tearing into each other, while others pull further and further ahead, the strongest and fastest managing to stay safe, the gusts of air from their wings displacing those behind them.

As they get closer the roar of noise resolves into that of thousands of flapping wings. Leaf shouts a warning, and he looks around for a building they can duck into—

—and then the wind is pressing down on them as the flock passes overhead. Red’s bike is immediately blown over, sending him skidding over the pavement as the wind forces his eyes closed. His bag keeps him from rolling more than once, and Red hears not just cries and flaps of bird pokemon, but also the buzz of bugs and the crashing of glass. He opens his eyes a slit and watches the pokemon pass overhead, many of them flying too low in places and colliding with windows or billboards. Most don’t stop for anything short of an attack by another pokemon, which is itself rare despite the natural prey and predators that fly together.

All of them fleeing an indisputable master of the skies.

The wind pressure lessens as the bulk of them pass overhead, and Red sits up and looks around. Garbage cans and street signs are knocked over, and glass litters the street as windows designed to withstand hurricane-force winds were shattered by the beaks and bodies of heedless pokemon. Many of them are on the ground as well, dead or badly injured.

Red looks around for Leaf and spots her staring around in horror. Her eyes lock on something, and she struggles to her feet. He follows her gaze to see a spearow at the end of the street with a bleeding gash across its body sprinkling blood on the ground. It tries to take off, only to tumble back to the ground, one of its wings broken.

“Leaf!” he shouts, forcing himself to his feet as well. His arms and legs ache with what promise to be bruises, but his gear protected him from any serious injury. “We gotta go!”

She hesitates, turning back to him, then looks up. Her eyes widen, and she looks back at the spearow, struggling to take flight again… then rushes for her bike.

Red turns to see what scared her, then scrambles for his own. The stormcloud looks like it’s right on top of them, lightning illuminating the whole mass as it shifts in a slow, lazy circle. The thunder is near constant now, one rumble barely fading before the next one starts, and as they start to bike away again, Leaf in the lead now, Red feels his panic growing. Three minutes away… we can make it… but we never should have come here, what can we even do against this, it’s a stupid risk, I should teleport away, we can’t make it, we’re going to die…

The thoughts grow stronger, his panic rising as the winds pick up and the sky continues to darken with the onset of true night and the onrushing storm.

His legs are aching as he pedals harder, faster, trying to avoid an overturned trash bin and nearly spilling onto the street again. He can’t think, he just needs to get away, get away, GET AWAY!

Red skids to a stop and starts scrambling for Bill’s pokeball, mouth opening to shout to Leaf as he manually summons his abra…

…then remembers that Leaf doesn’t have a teleport spot outside of Vermilion.

She’s trapped here.

He has to leave her behind.

The thought comes as he watches her race away ahead of him, unaware that he’s stopped, and Red’s mind locks up as that thought hits a brick wall. He has to leave, has to, he’ll die if he stays, but she can’t leave…

She’s going to die.

“Le-!”

Thunder claps just as he yells, drowning him out. Leaf reaches the turn in the street ahead and disappears.

She’s going to die!

Red withdraws Bill and starts cycling again as the fear fills him, bending his thoughts toward nothing but running, hiding, escaping, surviving. He ignores the impulse and forces himself to cling to the thought of Leaf being left here, alone, dying without him, and races after her, bent over the handlebars. “Leaf!”

Shit, his phone! He can call her…

“Dial Leaf!” he yells, then turns the corner and sees her. She’s turned off the main road, bike leaning against her legs as she aims a pokeball at a bleeding pidgeotto, a huge shard of glass through its torso.

As Red pedals toward her and cancels the call, she throws the ball and captures it, then bikes over and picks it up.

“Leaf!” he yells as he gets closer. “What are you doing?”

She turns to him, and he feels an emotional punch hit his gut. She’s crying, face streaked with tears. “They’re hurting!” she sobs, arm wiping at her face. “There’s so many of them… you have to help me, Red! How can you just ride past them!?” She turns away and starts heading toward another downed pokemon.

Red stares at her, at a loss for words. The storm is almost on top of them, and she’s… He curses and follows after her as the panic rises up again. “Leaf, we have to go! We have to get out of the city!”

Leaf looks at him in shock. “I can’t leave them, Red, they’re going to die without me!”

Red feels like pulling his hair out. How can she be so blind, doesn’t she realize they’re all going to die anyway…

Wait…

Confusion. Something was wrong with that thought, and with how she’s acting…

A flash of light illuminates the street as lightning hits the building beside them. The thunder is oppressively loud and immediate, and behind it Red can suddenly hear something odd: the neigh of a rapidash.

It appears at the end of the street and runs through it in a blur of light. Red vibrates with a sudden preparation to bike away, but the rapidash doesn’t even glance at him or Leaf, who has paused to stare after it in awe. It just gallops past them, embers of light trailing its ignited mane and legs.

There’s another neigh behind him, and they turn to see another rapidash running toward them, followed by a dodrio. This time Red has the presence of mind to think of catching them, but they’re moving so fast he barely has time to think it before they’re upon them, then past, one after the other… and now he can dimly hear even more pokemon coming.

The first wave is here. He forgot to check the time after the flock went past. He forgot because…

Leaf smacks her cheeks with both hands, then rubs them hard. “Red, the Pressure is already here!”

Red blinks, staring at her. The Pressure can’t be here, they would feel it…

Oh.

Even recognizing that he’s under the effects of it doesn’t change the fact that he needs to RUN or HIDE or LEAVE, but the confusion from before is satisfied, just in time for him to realize that the correct choice is in fact to follow the instinct that the Pressure is promoting.

Hide!” he yells as another pair of dodrio run by, his mind registering the growing rumbling that’s not thunder, and starts biking again until he spots a two story clothing store with lights on. He turns to head straight toward it, making sure Leaf is following, and they skid to a stop in front of the door just as a crowd of pokemon turn onto their street, running wild and trampling anything in their way.

The doors slide open automatically, and as Red and Leaf rush in, biking between the clothing aisles, Red can make out the small crowd of people in the back, cowering against the walls or behind countertops.

Then the stampede arrives outside, a cacophany of different steps and cries filling the street as first a handful of pokemon run by, then a steady stream. Red turns to see nidorino, tauros, raticate, arcanine, ninetales, and others all rush by.

Red and Leaf move together off their bikes to summon Charmeleon and Raff, standing between the doors and the people in the store. Their pokemon appear, then both twitch and shiver, adjusting to the new environment… and the Pressure that’s bearing down on them.

Red feels like he’s holding his breath, and forces himself to exhale as the pokemon run by outside, muscles tense and jumping with fear and preparation… they’re all running by… they might be okay…

And then a nidorino runs into the side of a tauros and is headbutted away, sending it careening directly toward the storefront and through the automatic doors before it has a chance to fully open. Glass shatters and plastic crunches, and a quick set of commands from Red and Leaf send vines and fire whipping out to drive it back.

Instead it barrels through the pain, still spilling glass around it as it bellows and tears through racks of clothes to smash into a small pillar, cracking it.

We have to hide! “Smokescreen,” Red yells, and Charmeleon starts pouring smoke out of his tail No, wait, it’s acting randomly anyway, we need to be able to see it! “Stop!” He grits his teeth, trying to drown out the fear with anger. He has to kill this nidorino quickly before it hurts anyone, before it hurts Leaf…

“Sleep Powder!” Red turns in shock as Raff sends blue spores at the rampaging pokemon. The blue powder saturates the air, but the nidorino avoids it, not nearly injured enough to walk into the growing cloud. What’s she doing?

But he knows: just as his Pressure is driving him to fear, it’s drowning her in sadness, or maybe guilt. She’s going for the least painful attacks she can, even if they’re ineffective.

Then the Nidorino turns to him and charges, and panic makes Red yell “Ember!” as he dives aside.

The nidorino cries out in pain as it tries to get away from the fire that’s sticking to its side. It stomps through the store, throwing its horned snout around and tearing through racks of clothing… and spreading the fire to each. It gets close to one of the people hiding in the room, who screams and runs away, the movement catching the nidorino’s attention and causing it to rush toward him.

“Tackle!” Leaf yells, and Raff intercepts. The nidorino, flank still burning, is sent crashing into a row of clothing racks, and the shirts on them quickly catch fire. It shies away from it and tries to find another way out, but stops as it finds fire on every side of it, now.

Leaf lets out a dismayed cry, and runs toward it.

“Stop, Leaf!” Red says, and his pokemon stops attacking, taking the command as if directed at him. He rushes forward to grab her shirt, then freezes as the heat is felt, suddenly scared of being burned, watching in horror as she rushes straight for the flames…

…then drops to grab the bottom of one of the shirt racks, lifting the fire atop it toward the ceiling.

Water starts pouring from the sprinkler, though no fire alarm goes off. Leaf drops the rack and pulls out a pokeball, then runs through the dying flames to ping a lock and capture the nidorino. She quickly leaps back and away from the fires, even as they start dying too.

Red steps back from the powerful downpour of water, then turns back toward the front door. The stampede outside seems to be finally thinning, and soon Leaf has rejoined him with Raff, her clothes and hair soaked as they watch together for any more pokemon coming in.

They continue to run by outside, but fewer and fewer every passing second. Eventually a bibarel turns toward the broken doors for no discernible reason, only to slam into the edge of them and stumble away rather than coming inside. A young voice screams in fear anyway, which draws Red’s attention to the back of the store even as it sets his flight response into high gear again.

“It’s okay, hon, we’re safe,” the woman beside the small boy who’d screamed says, rocking his head against her stomach. She looks at Red and Leaf, eyes wide. “Th-thank you, both of you.”

It’s a little hard to hear her with the water rushing down, the constant thunder, and the cries of pokemon outside. Red shakes his head, still not relaxing. They had barely won that, they’d made so many mistakes… And he still feels an urge to just hide and stay safe, distracting him from thinking about what to do next.

It’s just fear, I can handle fear. He almost left when the Pressure first hit, but his desire to keep Leaf safe stopped him. He can do it again, he just has to focus on something to protect.

The sprinkler finally stops pouring water down, and Red takes a deep breath, then lets it out, trying to let go of all else but that thought. He shifts his mind to many-mirrors-and-a-dim-room before inverting it to shining-mirror-in-a-dim-house…

Red opens his eyes and looks around, able to think clearly at last… but finding it hard to decide what to think about. It’s strange, trying to decide what to think about, it requires thinking about other things first, trying to decide on a priority list… but what priority did he have? He enters this state to clear his head. His head is clear. Done. No more priorities.

No, wait, he had a priority before that one, which led to it… the priority was to stay alive. He’s alive now, so that’s done. Why does it matter that he even completes priorities, again? It does give him something to direct his thoughts at, which is more pleasant than when they wander aimlessly.

No, that wasn’t it either. Protecting others. That’s what he needs to focus on. What can they do next to stay safe?

Red looks around. Leaf is using a burn heal on her arm. The man that was chased by the nidorino is leaning against the wall and shaking. There’s a crashing sound outside that makes him twitch and turn, fear naked on his face, and after a moment Red turns in the same direction toward the door. It was something outside.

They’re not safe here, that much is clear. Which means they need to go elsewhere, and if they can’t go outside… “Stairs,” he says, then withdraws Charmeleon and starts walking around looking for them. He finds them in the corner, and climbs until he reaches the top to see another room full of clothes, though less wet and burned and smashed up. The five strangers follow him, with Leaf bringing up the rear. Her face and arm are slightly burned.

Red feels a strain inside, a note of something that he would normally call grief if he… wait no, it is grief, and it’s…

He lets the mental state go, and immediately shivers as the Pressure brings the fear back. He’s used his powers a lot already today on the cruise, he can’t rely on them that much. I can deal with it. They are. He looks to the others. A young mother is holding her son, who looks about 4, tight against her leg. The man who tried to run from the nidorino is leaning against a counter with his hands in his hair, and the other two are an elderly couple, their clasped hands held tight between them.

None of them have pokebelts. What the hell were they even doing out there when the storm hit?

“Red.” Leaf approaches him, cheeks still wet with tears. Wait, no, that’s the water from the sprinklers. “I’m sorry for, before…”

“It’s alright, I went a little nuts too.” Red shakes his head. “I was a hair’s breadth from just… leaving. If you weren’t here, I would have.” He still wants to, but he seems to be getting used to the feeling, at least a little, though his nerves still feel jittery, his heart pounding too fast in his ears.

He needs to calm himself. He summons Pikachu, and sits on the floor as he pulls his pokemon into his lap and strokes him. Not just for his own comfort, but also because the electric mouse seems particularly agitated. Red merges minds with his pokemon briefly, and—

—then breaks the connection with a small cry of shock.

“You okay, Red?” Leaf asks from where she’s kneeling beside Raff.

“Yeah,” he says, staring at his pokemon with wide eyes as he rubs his forehead and focuses on his body to remind himself he just has one. How are their pokemon still following orders, while feeling the terror and desperate aggression that the Pressure is forcing on them?

He should have realized he’d end up feeling the stormgod’s aura twice over, would have if the damn thing didn’t keep pushing at him to run and hide… But there was something more interesting underneath that. Some overwhelming sensory input he couldn’t process at all, but was still aware of through Pikachu. Did he just begin adapting to a new sense his pokemon has? Or maybe it’s something he sensed through Pikachu before, but in such small amounts that he never noticed…

Something crashes downstairs, and everyone turns toward the stairway as the young boy screams and cowers against his mother. “Oh, what now?” Leaf moans, mirroring Red’s thoughts as they all listen to the pokemon downstairs knock over and smash things, probably confused as it tries to get back out. There’s a cry of pain from some pokemon Red doesn’t recognize, and he glances at Leaf, but she’s holding herself together, arms tight around her middle, biting her lower lip hard.

Red turns back to the stairs, swallowing against his own fear. Whatever you are, don’t be able to go up stairs… stay down there, get out…

Something else falls over with the crash of glass, and the boy screams again. The man turns to the woman, eyes wide. “Shut that kid up,” he hisses.

She glares at him, looking like she wants to shout something back, but fear contorts her features and she starts shushing the boy, rocking him against her.

A loud banging sounds below them, somewhere near the wall, and then there’s a crash, and the sounds of battle. Something hits the first floor’s ceiling hard enough to crack the floor nearby them, and everyone scrambles toward the walls away from it.

Red gets up and rushes to the stairs. He hears a pokeball discharge and looks back to see Leaf stand by the crack with Raff, as if preparing for something to burst through.

When he reaches the bottom of the stairs he sees the huge hole in the wall, some of which is still stuck to the spikes on the carapace of the kingler smashing at a male and female nidoran that dart around it. Each one leaps forward to strike the huge crustacean as soon as it focuses on the other, biting and stinging and kicking at it until it spews a foamy stream at both, sending them scrambling for traction. The ceiling is cracked above a linoone’s limp and bloody body, which looks like it was smashed against it. Red tries to imagine how that happened before he realizes he has more important concerns.

Everything’s wet from the sprinklers going off, and Red’s hand goes to Pikachu’s ball, fumbling for a moment with the one above it. A sudden jolt of fear keeps him from pulling it off, however, imagining the pokemon not getting taken down by his first attack and all turning on him together…

This is a normal fear, it’s a justified fear, but the Pressure is amplifying it, just set it aside. He breathes deep, then lets it out as he watches the kingler scurry to the male nidoran and crash its massive claw onto it in a blow that crushes it. Red barely notes the gore, watching the female nidoran switch from trying to scramble toward the kingler to running away, out through the broken front door.

Now. Red’s arm doesn’t move, and the kingler turns itself around to search for threats… then spots him in the stairwell. NOW!

He leaps backward as another stream of foamy water shoots out, tripping over the stairs behind him and scrambling back as the attack hits his legs in a painful spray… and covering his shoes in slippery foam that would make running impossible.

Red pulls Pikachu’s ball off and aims it at the stairs above him, out of the water soaking the stairs and floor below him. “Go, Pikachu!” His pokemon appears and flinches, quivering in place until Red lifts his legs to the side and yells, “Shoot!”

Pikachu leaps forward over Red, and electricity arcs out. It bends toward a metal clothing rack to the side, but its feet are in the water, and the charging kingler falls over twitching as it slides. Pikachu lands and immediately leaps onto its back, shocking it directly this time before scrambling to avoid its flailing limbs.

Red struggles to pull a great ball out and get to his feet, shoes slipping and sliding, and nearly misses it when Pikachu, sending another jolt through the kingler, gets knocked across the room by a swing of its claw.

“Pikachu!” Red pulls the greatball out, fury and fear pumping through him. There’s a trail of blood on the ground in the direction his pokemon was flung, mixing with the water, he’s okay, he’s okay—

The kingler gets to its feet before Red does, and he’s about to unclip Oddish’s ball when he hears running footsteps behind him. Red turns to see Leaf appear, and immediately tosses her the ball. “Careful of—!” he starts, but she’s already caught it and leaping over him, feet skidding on the slippery stairs and spilling her onto her side. She rolls with it, however, a few pokeballs coming loose from her second belt, and stops herself within range to aim at the kingler as it skitters toward her.

She throws, and it bats the ball away with its small claw while raising the massive one overhead, but the contact was enough; the greatball sucks the pokemon inside as it sails away and rolls behind a service counter.

Red lets out his breath, then yells, “Pikachu, here!” as he struggles to get up again. “Leaf, are you okay?” She’s still wearing her biking gear, but he watches with concern as she pushes herself to her feet, then struggles to keep them under her.

“Fine…” She holds onto a mannequin that managed to stay up, then looks around and gasps as she takes in the bloody bodies of the linoone and nidoran. He sees her visibly shudder, then try to step forward, forgetting about what he’d stepped in. She flails for balance, nearly takes the mannequin down before righting herself, then angrily pulls the shirt off it and lifts one foot at a time to wipe off the slippery residue from the bubblebeam.

Red’s mind fills with images of his pokemon bleeding out in a corner somewhere, or with its skull caved in, and feels tears gather in his eyes. He reaches back for a side pocket on his bag where he keeps some tissues to start wiping at his own shoe soles, but they’re not nearly enough, and frustration boils up in him, an anger and feeling of unfairness similar to when he watched his spearow die.

Red yanks his shoes off and carefully gets to his feet, stepping around the bubblebeam residue and rushing toward where Pikachu flew, digging a potion and revive capsule out of his bag, ignoring the feeling of his socks getting soaked around his feet.

His heart leaps as he sees the flash of yellow against the wall, under the hanging clothes hooked against it. He crouches and carefully picks his pokemon up, remembering too late that he can use his powers to check if he’s alive.

He uses them now, and feels relief as he senses Pikachu’s mind. He quickly empties a potion bottle into the long gash that goes over his back and side.

His pokemon twitches and starts to move again as it’s healed, but Red quickly realizes something is wrong. Pikachu’s hind legs and tail are utterly still.

Red hugs his pokemon to his chest, feeling like he going to cry. He doesn’t hear Leaf approach until she puts her hand on his shoulder, and he turns to her as a tear leaks down his cheek.

“Is he?” Leaf whispers, face horrified, but then she sees Pikachu moving, and lets out a breath of relief.

“His lower spine got severed,” Red says. They could fix it at a pokemon center… maybe. Depending on how bad the injury is.

“Oh, no, poor thing.” She crouches beside him and strokes Pikachu’s head between its ears. “Withdraw him, Red, you can’t do any more for him now.”

Red nods and puts his pokemon down, whispering words of encouragement before stepping back and withdrawing him. He puts his ball carefully at the back of his lower belt, swapping its position with his spinarak, heart heavy.

Leaf wraps her arms around him, shocking Red into stillness for a moment before he awkwardly hugs her back, then squeezes. “He’ll be okay,” Leaf says, and Red nods against her shoulder, not trusting himself to speak.

Over the wind and thunder he hears another pokemon’s cry outside, either in challenge, pain, or fear. Both of them flinch, then pull apart and stare at the doorway. Nothing comes in out of the darkness.

“Here.” Leaf hands Red the kingler’s greatball.

“Thanks.” He clips it to his second belt’s remaining spot, barely feeling any joy at having caught such a powerful pokemon. His heart is still pounding, and he realizes that it’s probably not going to stop on its own, not when more crazed pokemon might rush in at any moment… “We need to…” He clears his throat. “Talk about our next step?”

“I don’t know. We should talk to the people upstairs.”

Red nods, and leads the way up, grabbing his shoes and long-stepping around the slippery spots around the stairs along the way.

Upon reaching the second floor they hear a huge crashing sound outside, a grinding rumble that goes on and on, different from thunder, and they rush to the nearest window together as Red mutters, “Oh, what now,” causing Leaf to snort in exasperated amusement.

Though night has fallen and storm clouds blot out the moon and stars, from the second floor they can make out the occasional street lights and lit windows in the distance… and the shapes of pokemon as they continue to stampede. There’s no sign of what the massive noise was, but…

“That was a building, wasn’t it?” Red murmurs, and Leaf nods, face tight. Something powerful enough to knock down buildings is out there….

“We may not be safe here,” Leaf whispers as lightning illuminates her face through the window.

“That means they won’t be either,” Red asks after the thundercrack, leaving the implication obvious.

She closes her eyes, and he doesn’t need his powers to know that she’s thinking of all those pokemon out there, hurt and dying. “We should get them to the hospital. It wasn’t far, right?”

Red checks his phone. A three minute bike ride becomes… “About a ten minute walk. But only—”

“—assuming nothing goes wrong,” they say together, and smile slightly. Hers looks as strained as Red’s feels, but he’s still glad to see it. He takes his hat off and runs a hand through his hair, trying to still his nerves, then turns back to the group of people who have regathered near the middle of the room and approaches them. He plops down onto the floor and pulls his socks off, then starts cleaning the slippery foam from his shoes with them as best he can.

“I’m Red Verres,” he says, and waits for the others to introduce themselves.

“Pam,” the mother says. “And this is Jordan.”

“Sara,” the older woman says. “This is my husband, Kaito.”

“Tony,” the lone man says, scratching at his arm.

“Where were you all going?” Red asks. “Why didn’t you stay in your homes?”

“We weren’t home when the sirens started,” Kaito says. He sounds like he’s barely holding together, clutching his wife’s hand hard as his other adjusts his glasses. “We were eating out… took a walk after, the transport services got filled or stopped, we couldn’t get one…”

“I work here,” Pam says, voice quiet. “I was doing some accounting, and my son was scared from the sirens, I had to find him, he was hiding in a bathroom and locked it…”

Red frowns at the boy, who’s pressing his face into his mom’s leg as she strokes his back, then turns to Tony, who looks defensive and upset.

“I was… napping, alright?” He shakes his head. “I’m from out of town, and my phone’s broken. Didn’t know where the nearest shelter was.”

Napping? Whatever, the whole line of questioning wasn’t important, now that he thinks about it. “Didn’t mean to sound judgemental, sorry. My friend and I were just talking about what to do next. We don’t know how safe this place will stay, and were thinking of going to the nearby hospital, at best ten minutes away, to help defend it. You guys could stay out the storm there.”

“Go back outside?” Kaito asks, a quiver in his voice as it rises. “You can’t be serious!”

“You don’t have to come with us,” Leaf says, stepping up beside Red and handing him a towel that she clearly just used to dry herself a bit. He takes it with thanks and tosses his socks aside. Pam glances at them but says nothing, and Red reminds himself to pick them back up later. “But there are others who may need our help too.”

“Would you two protect us?” Sara asks, quiet voice almost drowned out by nearby thunder.

“Of course.”

Pam hesitates. “My son, I don’t think he’d… he might get scared and panic. He doesn’t like storms, and… new things upset him.”

Shit. Red thinks of projecting calm to the boy, then realizes that if he’s having trouble even getting himself to feel that way here in the building, there’s little chance he’ll be able to while out in the storm or in a combat situation. And that’s not even taking into account his own psychic exhaustion.

He looks to Leaf, who seems as conflicted as he is. “Staying here… would it be so bad?” she murmurs.

Red closes his eyes, letting out a breath. He… really doesn’t want to go back out there.

He knows that’s the cowardice from the Pressure that he’s feeling, but there are objective reasons not to leave the relative safety of the building. That said, he didn’t leave the Cruise Convention just to hide out in a clothing store.

We saved these people, Pikachu might be crippled, that’s enough, let that be enough…

Is that the Pressure talking, or just common sense? Because if they go back out there, he knows there will more, and worse, to come.

“Pam, are there any rooms in the middle of the floor, separate from everything else that has locks on the door?” he asks, opening his eyes. Leaf is looking at him in surprise, then turns to the woman expectantly.

“No… I mean, yes, the offices, but—”

“You can open them?” She nods. “Then take everyone there.”

“I don’t… customers aren’t allowed to…”

Red isn’t sure what his expression is, but it makes Pam look nervous and Leaf cut in, voice calm but forceful. “Pam, your son isn’t safe out here, and neither are the others. Take everyone there, lock yourselves in until the thunder stops.”

“Screw that,” Tony says. “I’m not staying in an office while the place fills with pokemon. I’ll come with you two and get to a real shelter.”

Red had been about to snap at the man and tell him he doesn’t have much choice, until his final comment. What’s he going to do, say no, Tony can’t come with them? It would be easier than defending everyone at the same time, but if it’s just Leaf and Red they could use their bikes. “You don’t have a bike in there, do you?” Red asks, looking at the container ball on his belt.

The man stares at him like he asked an unreasonable question, then says, “No.”

How do non-trainers live so unprepared? He knows it’s an unfair thought, but he’s too busy thinking about ways to convince the man to stay to spare thought for being charitable. Going slow to protect 5 people makes sense, doing it for one just feels suboptimal. That might just be because he doesn’t like the man.

“We’ll stay here?” Kaito half asks his wife, who nods. “If you’ll let us,” he says to Pam. “We’ll keep out of anything.”

Pam hesitates a moment more, then her gaze flick to Tony. “Alright,” Pam agrees, seeming relieved that he won’t be with them.

Dammit. Red is glad the older folks wouldn’t be more people for them to watch over, but now convincing Tony to stay might cause trouble with Pam.

“Take us there now,” Red says as he takes his container ball out and grabs some new socks, then pulls his shoes on. “I have an idea to keep you guys a bit safer.”

They reach the administration wing, the whole thing set against a wall of the building with multiple rooms inside. “Stay in one of the middle ones, not too close to the building’s wall or these inner walls,” Leaf says.

Red brings his pineco out, near where the administration wall meets the building wall, then lifts it up and says, “Set!” The pineco shivers, then starts dropping sharp shards of its hard shell, the patter of the razor thin chitin faint on the carpet as Red starts walking backwards, repeating the command as needed.

Leaf does the same with her own pineco from the other side, and soon they reach the door. “Ok, get in. We’ll spread this in front afterward. Watch your step when you end up leaving, you’ll have to jump over it. Oh and be careful on the stairs.”

“Thank you, both of you,” Pam says, then leads her son inside. The elderly couple echo her, and then Red looks at Tony.

“Last chance to stay,” he says. “I’m pretty positive this will be safer for you than coming outside with us.”

Tony hesitates, then shakes his head. Red suppresses a sigh and finishes spreading more spikes, then withdraws his pokemon, whose bottom half now looks somewhat bare.

Leaf walks behind him and Tony to spread more spikes along the stairs as they go down. The first floor is still empty, but they’re still cautious as they make their way to the door.

Red reaches it and holds a hand up so Tony and Leaf stop. He pokes his head out and looks around. “Nothing I can see.”

“More waves are probably coming,” Leaf says, and checks her phone. “The slower pokemon.” She grimaces and tucks it away. “No signal.”

Red has none either. “Guess we’re on our own.” Shit, I forgot to tell Blue we wouldn’t be coming… He looks up at the black sky as lightning flashes nearly constantly. No rain, yet, but he can’t risk bringing Charmeleon out when it could come pouring down at any time.

Instead he summons Nidoran, then Bellsprout. Red watches his pokemon to see how they’re reacting to the Pressure. Both are tense, Nidoran’s ears twitching madly in every direction. Probably hearing pokemon that Red can’t.

Thunder cracks at the same time as a blinding flash of lightning, making Red jerk in fear, adrenaline pumping through him and setting his nerves on edge. He lets out an angry sigh as he tries to calm himself down again. It’s been barely an hour since the flock went over us, and I already feel like taking a nap… somewhere far away or deeply protected. He pushes back the instinct to run back upstairs and hide with the others, sucking in a deep breath, then letting it out slowly. It takes some time, but little by little he regains some sense of calm, and sends his psychic sense outward in a quick burst.

Other than the minds of Tony, Leaf, their pokemon, and the four upstairs, he senses nothing. He sends another pulse out just to be sure, then asks, “You guys ready?”

“Yes, dammit,” Tony mutters, breaths coming too fast.

“Ready,” Leaf says, voice steady, but with a tense edge.

“Okay. Follow me,” Red says, and leads them out into the storm, hoping he’s not about to get them all killed.

They’re not five steps away from the building when rain begins to fall.

Chapter 60: Interlude IX – Thunder

Surge, is that you on my six?”

Lieutenant David Matis checked his coordinates, then leaned to the side to look around his cockpit console. Most of the flight was through a dark and cloudless night, but the sun was just starting to rise, and he can vaguely make out the ground below. He can just make out the vague shape of the other helicopter below and ahead of him. “Yep, right behind you Smat.”

About time. Thought we were going to have to start this party without you.”

Had to loop around a patrol that Dropper spotted for us. All quiet so far for you?”

Not a peep. Saw our own patrol early on, but they didn’t spot us.”

Mm. Or they sent word ahead and are laying a trap.”

The radio was quiet for a moment, and then Helo spoke up. “Well shit, Surge, now you’re going to have him as paranoid as you.”

David smiled. “Old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots. Just keep your calm close.”

I’m calm, man, I’m calm. I’m so calm I’m sleepy. I’m so calm I-“

Shut up, Smat,” Major Key said from the seat beside David. “We’re practically breathing your fumes. Just keep them busy for a few seconds when you get there.”

Yeah, will do. What’s the key, Major?”

The major sighs, but says, “The key is to stay high and trust your maneuverability and speed.”

Thanks.”

Major Key, actual name Keaty, put his com down and looks at David with a long suffering expression. “Do I actually say it that often?”

David smiled as he kept his attention on the instruments and terrain. “No comment, sir.”

What if I order you to comment?”

Then I’d comment that callsigns are often given out unfairly, sir.”

Of course you’d say that, Lieutenant Simple Unrefined Genius.”

The helicopters continue to travel over the untamed wilds around Unova, making their way to the enemy’s territory through as circuitous a route as possible. The border between the warring cities is a no-fly zone, as in anything flying across it is immediately shot down with at least ten kinds of ordnance. These new helicopters have been designed and built specifically for war. Resistant to heat, cold, blunt trauma, able to fly through storm-force winds, and silent as modern engineering can make them. Best of all, they’re powered by just a pair of voltorb that can be easily swapped out for fresh ones, and designed to absorb any electricity that hits them for more power. They’re likely the most expensive pieces of military hardware on the planet.

Which doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to make it through, of course. If something sufficiently heavy hits their blades they’re in trouble, and of course a well aimed hyper beam or similarly powerful attack would blow them out of the sky. Still, they’re the coolest thing Surge has flown so far, and by far the smoothest, more responsive than even his braviary. It was an honor to be picked as one of the pilots for this mission.

Signing up for the military was the easiest choice David has made in his sixteen years of life. He still remembers exactly where he was when it happened: the news coverage was absolute, showing the smoking buildings, the fleeing people. He assumed it was just another Tier 3 event, maybe one that was particularly bad, to be getting so much attention. Then he saw what the cameras were showing.

Trainers, giving orders to the pokemon that were rampaging through the town. Demolishing buildings, killing the pokemon that came to stop them. They didn’t order them to attack humans directly, but humans died anyway, from area of effect attacks or just being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The recruitment videos practically made themselves. With a “renegade region” nearby, no Unova town or city was safe as long as they were willing to stoop so low.

The politics of the situation all went over his head. He was too busy working his way through the gyms to pay attention to arguments about Unova’s expansion efforts into the wild and its effects on the ecology bordering the Inuvik region. It didn’t ultimately matter. Whatever their grievances, some lines just weren’t crossed. Not without expecting retaliation.

And retaliation was swift. Within a day Unovans with registered teleportation locations in both regions made quick strikes that did little overall damage, but sent the Inuvik population into high alert and practically froze their economy and civic business. Their League denounced the strikes as acts of “terrorism.” Unova’s champion and Elite Four responded by teleporting over all at once, attacking five different locations.

One quick acting defender managed to kill Valera, the Unova League’s Water Type master. Hostilities paused after that, the loss of such a skilled trainer a heavy blow for any region’s stability and safety. But tentative peace talks broke down when Inuvik refused to release Elite Valera’s pokemon back to the League, and Unova insisted it wouldn’t stop efforts to expand into the wild. Soon the war was back on.

Now retaliation was coming on metal, spinning wings. One of the major actors justifying the war was the Inuvik League’s most charismatic figure, Elite Sioux. All the known teleportation points were being closely monitored, but Unova got intel putting the Elite at a small town that functions as a defensive coordination point along their borders, near a major Ranger outpost.

Each copter had six soldiers in addition to their pilots, two of which had a gothitelle on their belts, the psychic pokemon specially selected for their unusually strong ability to block teleportation.

Two of the other six in each were Hunters, with confiscated renegade pokemon on their belts.

There was a lot of disquiet in David’s company when the Hunters were introduced to it. All of them were quiet and reserved, seeming unused to the company of others. Most were on the older side, and no one recognized them from basic, though the Major assured them that they enlisted and went through their own training.

It wasn’t really the Hunters that made the others uncomfortable, though. It was what they implied for the mission. Not a destruction of supply factories or power plants, nor a disruption of their economy or coordination ability. The only reason to bring Hunters was if this was an assassination. Their “actual” mission didn’t say that, of course, it said to secure the Elite’s pokemon for Unova, which is why they weren’t just going in to bring the building down on the Elite’s head, but no one doubted what securing his pokemon would entail, with the Hunters in their unit.

David wasn’t particularly bothered by that. Pokemon kill trainers when going all out all the time, and the idea of beating all your opponent’s pokemon so that they surrender is unrealistic in the heat of a wide scale battle. What worried him was the potential for escalation. How would Inuvik respond if Hunters are being conscripted as soldiers?

David pushed down his speculation and doubts and focused on the mission. David didn’t have to like the mission, or that he was working with Hunters. They were brothers in arms, fighting for a common cause: protecting Unova from the Inuviks. His job was just to get them in close enough to drop in, do the deed, and teleport out.

Lights up ahead,” Smat says. “We’re almost there folks. Blockers out.”

The major unstrapped himself and went back to the troops to relay the message and give them some final instructions. At the sound of the two pokeballs opening, Surge glanced behind him and saw the two creepy humanoid pokemon adjusting to their environment.

Confirmed, blockers are out,” he said into the radio.

Confirmed,” Helo echoed.

Staying dark unt-CONTACT!”

David’s adrenaline surged as he saw the line of energy lance out into the night. He can’t tell if the lead copter was hit, it looked like an Ice Beam—

Electricity arced up a moment later, and then another beam shot out. “Smat, you alright?”

Going in low! Sunsabitches have a whole—”

David was close enough to see the next attack coming, now, and shouted, “Brace for evasion!” over his shoulder as he prepared himself. Most attacks won’t reach them this high, but the defenders are aware of that: an assortment of flying pokemon are rising up in the distance. Most are turned toward Smat’s copter, but not all. “Incoming interceptors! Going down.”

Belay that,” Major Keyes said as he returned to the cockpit and strapped himself in. “Keep us high until we’re at the drop off zone.”

David’s lip thinned, but he nodded and fought his urge to start evasive maneuvers. The target was still some distance away, but they were passing near the Ranger Outpost now. Neither side would want to risk damaging it, as that might lead to backlash from CoRRNet, which has remained stubbornly neutral so far, even after a few rangers in Unova stepped down in protest and joined the army.

Sure enough, the defenders spotted them and started forming an aerial net. David flew in similar formations a hundred times, designed to “wall” enemies that might try to fly past by ensuring multiple pokemon would be in range to attack if they try. As the distance between his copter and the enemies shrank, he quickly scanned their forms and judged their lethality. They should be okay from most of them, but if those Steel or Dragon types get in striking distance… “Don’t think we’ll make it through this net, Major. I gotta bring us down.”

Shit, Surge, they’re waiting for us down there!” But he braced himself against the seat as David tipped the copter into a dive, eyes scanning for incoming projectiles.

Sure enough, arcs of lightning and beams of various energy lanced up at them. David swerved to throw their aim off, blinded briefly as they were struck by two bolts of electricity. He watched the copter’s energy levels spike, and grinned as he poured some of that juice into higher throttle. The longer they went without realizing how useless that was, the better.

Then another flash of light blinded him, and when it faded half the cockpit was iced over, making it hard to see and causing the copter to drag slightly as he maneuvered.

Thankfully he could still make out the pokemon forming the aerial net as they dove to stay in front of him. He could even vaguely see the shapes of their riders. “Hang on,” he yelled, and yanked the collective lever up, sending the copter into a steep climb. Far steeper than most pokemon could rise, causing only the top layer of the web to get close enough to attack as he buzzed past. The whole copter rocked as a powerful gust hit it, and rapid clunks sounded as something sharp and numerous peppered the vehicle’s side and rear.

Then they were past the net, racing toward the building Smat and Helo were heading toward. “Everyone okay back there?” he shouted, hoping nothing pierced the copter’s armor to strike the trainers.

They gave the affirmative, and he asked the same of the other pilots.

Helo and I are dropping payload now,” Smat said and David saw them in the distance, a pair of specks hovering over a wide compound. As he got closer he spotted the ropes, then the trainers at the ends of them as they bungee’d down.

Bring us down on the far side, Surge,” the Major said. “We’ll go in through the wall while they’re distracted by the roof.” David reached the clearing around the building and brought his copter down while Major Keyes checked the rear camera. “LZ’s hot, prepare for deployment!” The Major unbuckled himself and put a hand on David’s shoulder. “Take off as soon as we’re out, Lieutenant.”

Sir!” A battle erupted above him as the trainers made it to the roof and brought their pokemon out just ahead of their pursuers’ arrival. David hit the button to open the rear hatch, then touched his vehicle down and turned to watch everyone run down the ramp, pokeballs opening ahead of them as the two gothitelle followed their trainers.

As soon as the last boot hit dirt he lifted off, engines loud through the closing hatch as he made some vertical space, then jerked to the side to avoid some pokemon streaking right toward him. The rest went after his squadmates, but he had no time to worry about them, too busy trying to avoid the burst of fire that suddenly engulfed his copter.

The air inside the cockpit became searing, ice melting off the glass as sweat broke out all over his body. The hatch was still open, and he spared a quick glance back to make sure nothing critical was on fire. Just the seatbelts and cargo netting, as it turned out.

This is fine,” David muttered as he shoved the lever down to momentarily stall and avoid a metallic pokemon that flashed by above him, narrowly dodging its sharp wings before he shot away from the compound, a flash of electricity hitting him and making the console short out briefly. “This is all fine. Everything’s fine.” He switched on his com. “Dropper, we’re done here. What’s your position?”

Passing over the Outpost now. You guys drew them all off, I’ll be good. How much longer can you give me?”

I’ve got three on me like remoraid on a mantine!” Smat yells. “You make it out Helo?”

Yep, three more on me,” the other pilot drawled.

David glanced at the rear camera screens. “Got four on the hook that I can see.” One was almost directly above him, and he stomped on right pedal and twisted the throttle, accelerating toward the rising sun and hoping it would blind them as he began his run for the border… but not at max speed. Their second objective wasn’t to escape, but to draw attention and keep it on them so the assault team wouldn’t be overwhelmed. David could pop the hatch, bring his elgyem out and teleport if he wanted to abandon the aircraft, but then the Major and the others would have to deal with the trainers pursuing him.

They’re not using anything flashy in case they hit the buildings below,” Smat grunts, voice strained as he likely pulls off some maneuver. “Gonna stay here.”

They’ll box you in man, you need to race them.” David turned the copter hard to the left as a flash of light alerted him to an electric attack. It connected anyway, but as long as it looked like he was trying to dodge… they fired another one at him, and David smiled as he blinked the spots away. “Alright guys, let’s see who tires first…” He lowers the throttle, letting the pursuers get within attack range, then ramps it up again, jetting ahead.

The trainer riding the hydreigon was saving its own burst of speed, however, and kept growing in his rear view. “Shit, this thing’s fast.”

Dropping payload now,” Dropper reports. “Still got no one on me, anything I can do to lighten your load?”

No, we’re too far now. Just get out of there.”

Negative Lieutenant, not until our boys are safe.”

David scowled as he started climbing again, but knew she was making the same decision he was. “I might be leaving some behind, make tracks south-southeast and maybe you’ll catch them heading back.”

Roger.”

Surge, your tail is getting closer!”

David looked back to see Smat was right, then looks around quickly. “Where you coming from Smat?”

Your two o’clock, they’re trying to cut me off.”

I told y-“

Yeah I heard you the first time!” David saw him now, coming in at an angle and moving at full throttle. He must have been burning through his battery at that speed, but maybe he got hit with more bolts than David did. “Gonna pass in front of you and let them all eat our exhaust together.”

Alarm rang through David, but he failed to put his misgivings into words before Smat crossed into his line of sight, and a moment later he had to up his throttle to stay ahead of the pokemon cutting across to pursue him. His battery started to drain notably faster, bringing him down to 50% as the copter spent four times the output the voltorbs were supplying to stay ahead of the pursuers.

We can’t keep this speed up, Smat.”

Just a bit longer, we need them to peel off a bit.”

He was right, and slowly but surely David watched the pursuers fade as they tried and failed to keep up, a few wheeling away entirely as their pokemon tired. By the time his battery dipped below 30%, even the trainer on the hydreigon was starting to shrink.

And then they passed the edge of the the town, nothing below but dense forest, and their pursuer sent a ball of orange, glowing death above his copter. “Draco Meteor!” David shouted, and cut his throttle. The ball exploded into dozens of small orbs that descended in streaks of bright light, all of which sailed through the space he was just about to fly through…

…and where Smat’s copter still flew, trying to evade the streaks as they fell all around him until one hit his tail, bursting the metal apart in a flash of light. David watched in horror as the copter started to spin out of control from the torque of its rotor.

Jack, port out!” he yelled, but couldn’t spare attention as his pursuer used the slowdown to reach him. David went into a steep climb to avoid the wash of plasma that spread out under his copter. The hydreigon would down him soon, but if he bailed now without knowing if Smat made it out…

David cursed, then engaged autopilot and opened the rear hatch as he unstrapped from his seat. Thankfully the fires had blown out by the sudden rush of wind, and he could move into the holding area as he clasped his pokebelt on and unclips a ball.

Go, Braviary!”

His pokemon materialized on the ramp, just barely able to fit. He brought its whistle up to his lips and blew the command to attack any nearby pokemon indiscriminately, then watched as his friend launched herself out of the copter at the enemy hydreigon just as it prepares for another attack. Two of its three heads swerved to follow his pokemon, and the Dragonbreath that blasted out from the remaining side head only managed to melt the tip of the ramp rather than the whole underside of the copter.

David was already summoning his eelektross without waiting to see if his braviary was okay. His pokemon floats and curls around itself mid-air until it orients toward the dragon outside. “Thunderwave,” he yelled over the roar of the wind and propellers, not even sure if Zeus would hear him. Then the air crackled and popped with electric discharge as a bolt lanced out between his pokemon and other trainer’s.

The dragon barely reacted to the electric surge, but its movements slowed, and the trainer on its back visibly struggled to shake off the paralysis. She was directing her pokemon with her hands, and when her arm spasmed, the hydreigon took the taps as some command and started trying to bite at his braviary, who raked at it with one talon, the other leg missing.

David stood paralyzed for a moment as he watched his opponent fall farther and farther behind. Her head looked up at him, but he was too far to make out her expression. He had to fight down the urge to blow on his whistle and call his pokemon back, to leave her alone. I can’t let her go, I have to turn around, Jack may be dying down there… “Thunderbolt,” David yelled, and this time he heard the other trainer scream as the electricity hit her and her pokemon.

She fell limp against its back as it continued fighting his braviary. David considered hitting it again, making sure it wasn’t a trick or just a temporary stun… then withdrew his eelektross and pulled himself back to the driver’s seat, feeling numb, feeling a pit of something sick in his stomach as he strapped himself in and started his descent and turn, looping back around toward where Smat’s helicopter went down. He checked constantly to see if he was being pursued, but didn’t spot anyone, let alone the hydreigon trainer. He knew he should probably have gone back toward the objective, seen if he could distract any of his previous pursuers…

Smat, can you hear me?” He asked once he thought he was in range, torn between leaving and continuing his search. “Jack, answer me if you’re there.”

Surge!” Dropper’s voice. “What happened to Smat?”

He went down. Gonna check if he’s okay. What’s up with you?”

The Major said mission’s a success. They’re on their way out. You need help?”

He saw an irregularity in the forest below, and his heart leapt as moments later he spotted the copter wreckage wedged between some splintered trees. “No, I found him. Get out before you’re shot down too.” He searched for a clearing big enough to set down in.

Fuck that, I’m heading toward you.”

You might bring them, Dropper. Get out, now.”

Shit. Alright. Be careful, Dave.”

David found a clearing just a few minutes’ jog away, and set down. He quickly powered down so the voltorbs could rest, then grabbed the mediball and ran down the half-melted ramp and through the woods toward the downed copter, spraying repel on himself as he went and hoping the crash and his rotors would have scared any nearby pokemon away.

His heart was pounding with more than just exertion by the time he reached the wreckage. The blades had shorn off as they cut into the trees and cracked the smaller ones in two as it tipped onto its side. His feet sped up to bring him around to the cockpit, fear making it hard to breathe.

Shit,” he groaned as he saw Smat’s body against the cracked glass, blood pooling beneath him. “Smat! You alive?” David approached the glass, then hesitated and went to check if the ramp was down.

It was. He crawled in and clambered over the seats, one hand extending to release the mediball’s container box. “Smat, wake up,” he said as he crouched beside his squadmate and checked his pulse. His chest felt like a weight fell off it as he felt a weak pulse, and he grabbed a potion and started spraying the visible wounds as he assessed them, trying not to panic as he tried to figure out what to do next. Broken leg, possibly both, broken arm and shoulder, or maybe just dislocated… luckily he had his helmet on.

David looked around and saw the pokeball in the corner. Probably his elgyem’s. It wouldn’t respond to David’s commands…

Nngh…” David’s head snapped around as Smat stirred, then his eyes opened, gazing blearily around. “Wha…”

Jack! Swords of Justice, am I glad you woke up. Carrying you would not be pleasant for either of us.

Surge?” Bloodshot eyes travel from David’s face to the smashed glass and sideways tilt of the cockpit around him. “The fuck did you do to my helicopter… This is why you had to fly with Major…”

David grinned as he went to retrieve the pokeball, feeling slightly dizzy with relief. If Smat was feeling well enough to joke… “Yeah, yeah. Small man, always talking. Say something useful for once and get your elgyem out so you can get back in one piece.”

Smat grabbed his arm as he lifted it to aim the pokeball at the cabin, fingers tightening around as he met his gaze. “You’re… okay? Copter?”

Landed nearby. I’m fine.” For some reason he thought of the trainer on the hydreigon, of his braviary… “For now at least. Get out of here before you get me caught, huh?”

Smat nodded, and Surge held the ball out while he raised his voice and hoarsely summoned the elgyem in it. The small blue pokemon appeared, its large head and strange eyes tilted this way and that as it took in its surroundings. “Here,” Smat muttered, and the pokemon floated over and settled on his outstretched hand.

“Get back quick, Dave.”

Yeah.” David stood up. “See you soon.”

See ya. And thanks.” Smat smiled up at him, the expression half a grimace, then said “Teleport,” and vanished in a flash of light.

David wasted no time packing as many things of value as he could find, then heading back to his copter. He’s halfway there when he hears the twin explosions from behind him. Giving the voltorb the self-destruct command had felt wasteful, but he knew it was necessary to minimize how much of the copter tech fell into Inuvik’s hands.

He took off and flew over the forest back toward Unova, allowing himself to relax after a few minutes passed and no pursuit started up. He flew on until afternoon, where a hero’s welcome was waiting for him. Smat was on the mend, and told everyone that Surge had saved him. Spirits were overall mixed; the mission had been a success, though a costly one. A third of the strike force hadn’t made it out, and Helo’s copter also went down, the pilot presumed dead. Major Keyes commended David publicly for helping keep the casualty count lower than it could have been… and then told him in private that many on the strike team had died on the way out, from flying trainers who were returning from their chases.

He didn’t ask if David did all he could to keep them occupied once Smat went down. David didn’t ask if a hydreigon was among the pokemon that returned to kill his squad mates.

David went to bed feeling a mix of guilt and stubborn pride, and woke twice in the middle of the night from dreams of the hydreigon trainer plummeting down with her pokemon. The second time he rushed to the bathroom and threw up until nothing but bile came out.

A week later, a Unovan town was reduced to rubble, the earth shaking for hours of sustained and concentrated pokemon assault until its streets cracked and its building toppled.


When Surge took leadership of Vermilion Gym, his very first order while his pokemon were still being healed was to start renovations. The previous gym was a standard building full of training rooms and arenas. What he wanted was a true training facility that would allow him to centralize facilities for all the various skills he felt a trainer should have, and eventually, that’s what he got.

While that was still going on, he expelled every single gym member, causing a region-wide scandal that brought him League attention and a visit from a very concerned Champion. Surge explained his reasoning, and then started testing each one for continued membership. Not one at a time, but in groups, by demonstrating not just their trainer competence but also their teamwork, ability to teach each other, and ability to follow and relay orders. The scandal quickly died down when many of the old members still managed to pass, and spoke in favor of the system, but murmurs of a foreign Leader without respect for tradition still sounded around the city, especially when so many trainers came with him from Unova and quickly rose among the ranks of the gym.

Surge only waited a year before he started pushing his ideas for city planning at his meetings with the city’s mayor and legislators. They were met with bafflement at first, then anger. A gym leader presuming to believe they should have a say in issues of construction and zoning laws, let alone asking for certain buildings to be put in certain places. But once he grew more popular from a few defenses of the city and made his case to the public, outlined the defensive benefits of his choices, they eventually put pressure on the politicians and businesses themselves, and over the past five years he’s been slowly but surely altering the city’s layout to be more defensible.

Everyone thinks the changes are to help against pokemon attacks. They’re not wrong in every case. The rest, however, are to prepare the city for war.

It’s coming, of that he has no doubt. The destructive power of pokemon was a threat to human survival for centuries. Now, thanks to their ingenuity and technology, they’ve come close to being the most powerful creatures on the planet. Not entirely, of course, but the days when towns or cities would be wholly lost, let alone entire regions, is fading from living memory. Only the legendary pokemon are real societal threats anymore.

Or they would be, if not for pokeballs.

Ironic, that the same technology that protects them from one threat creates another. No wild pokemon is as dangerous to humanity as one in human hands, wielded by human intelligence. The war that forged him was the first in history to use pokeballs, but it won’t be the last… and the technology has only gotten better.

Sooner or later, another would start. And if anyone ever manages to catch a legendary pokemon… they could easily conquer entire regions, like the warlords of old.

Surge would be ready. And so would his city.

“Challenger, Blue Oak. Third Badge.”

Surge hears his gym raise their voice for the Professor’s grandson. His Second told him about the kid: sharp in combat and out, highly capable, charismatic enough to draw other trainers to him. He’s mildly interested in this fight, and watches as the young trainer walks into the arena like he owns it… wearing…

Surge frowns as the camera zooms in on the kid’s shirt, which is decorated with Objections like military commendations, each one with something written on them. A dull pulse of anger goes through him at the arrogance of it. This is someone who clearly missed the point of the system, if he’s wearing his peers’ tokens of submission like trophies.

There had been a lot of one on one requests relayed to Surge from the boy, he remembers, but he doesn’t respond to those unless something exceptional happens, and having “Oak” for a last name or selling abra to his gym for cheap didn’t qualify. He feels justified in that decision, now, but part of him does wish he did make the time to talk with Oak before now. It’s always better to dress someone down in private first, if possible, rather than in public. He’s surprised that none of the others have already curbed this sort of attitude from his classes or preliminary matches.

“Leader Surge, of Castelia City, Lieutenant First Class in Unovan Military, ”

Surge takes some Third Badge balls from the wall and attaches them to his belt. He’s tempted to swap one out for a Fourth Badge, as punishment for the kid’s attitude, but restrains himself. If Oak can beat him, he should, regardless of his other failures. He wouldn’t necessarily grant him a badge just because he wins, if his behavior in the stadium doesn’t demonstrate worthiness.

The noise of the crowd washes over him as he enters the arena and walks to his platform as he hastily rewords his usually planned opening speech. His main challenge arena is outdoors, by necessity: it’s not unusual for his pokemon to call lightning in his 7 and 8 badge challenges, and he knows that those facing him will be using ground types quite often. He doesn’t know how Brock and Giovanni justify the expense of artificial earth floors in their arenas, but he’s satisfied with using the real ground.

By the time he ascends the stairs he has his anger mostly under control, and the face that he presents to his opponent is the stern but calm one he expects all his subordinates to mirror when they need to take someone down a peg.

Surge toggles the private channel on while he waits for the arena to move into position. “You made a mistake wearing those like prizes, son,” he says. “I’m going to be harsh with you, but if you show humility and win the battle in good form, you’ll still get your badge.” He switches to the public channel and starts speaking before his opponent has the chance to respond, though he can distantly see Blue’s expression shift. “Welcome, trainer. Before we start, I must address the breach in decorum you’ve brought to my arena.”

The crowd goes instantly quiet, and Surge lets it hold for a moment before he speaks again. “The tokens on your shirt were given to you as signs of respect from your peers. You will not wear them as trophies during our battle. You will remove them before stating your Challenge.”

The cameras have shifted to a close-up of the trainer’s shirt, their blown up images on the monitors above the stands showing each wooden token, and the names written on them. Surge feels a pulse of anger again at that, but he manages to control it, expecting the kid to start sheepishly pulling them off…

…except he does nothing of the sort. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Leader,” the trainer says, speaking calmly and confidently to the arena. Surge’s anger flares, and he feels his teeth grit against each other. He’d given the kid a chance, and he— “These tokens represent all the trainers who helped me get where I am. They’re not worn as trophies, but to show that I’m not here by just my own merits.” Oak touches one of the Objections. “Each of these represent not just someone who gave me their respect, as you said, but also taught me something, trained with me, and in some cases fought beside me against wilds. I wish I could bring them with me in truth, to Challenge for our badges together, as a unit, which is what your gym taught us… but since challenges are only allowed as single battles, I honor them with these. They are not signs of their respect for me, but of mine for them.”

Surge stares at the challenger as the audience murmurs around the stadium, feeling like he’s been punched in the gut. This kid didn’t just turn around his intended browbeating, that’s just the sign of an adept showman. On its own it would be worth a grudging respect.

What has Surge struggling to respond is his offhand criticism of the gym. It was barely there, almost only in tone rather than content, but…

Blue Oak had spoken loud and clear to the Gym Leader. Your gym teaches us how to work together. Why are we still challenging for badges as individuals?

It’s not that he’s never thought of it before. His tenure as a Gym Leader has been one of throwing out convention when it got in the way of what had to be done. But changing the nature of the Challenge battles, even if it’s just for Mastery, would be a logistical nightmare. Difficulty would be almost impossible to scale properly, even if he restricts all the challenges to be with those of equal Badge count, as team synergy matters far more for multi-battles. It would also encourage people to only seek out and train with those who they immediately identify as good battle trainers, losing a lot of the cross-transfer of skills and the more natural formation of bonds that would persist beyond their time at the gym.

The murmurs have begun around the arena. He’s been silent for too long, fighting his urge to address the youth’s criticism, to respond with excuses. And they would be excuses. He agrees that it would be a more meaningful test of Mastery, at the very least. Perhaps Membership, and yes, even Leadership. It would just…

…be a lot of work. And it might fail horribly.

Surge smiles. Not much of a reason not to try.

“Very well,” Surge says at last. “Your challenge?”

“I challenge for Mastery.”

Surge knows that people often wonder how much of the pre-Challenge dialogue is scripted. It always seems too dramatic, too well paced. Even he’s thought it on occasion, when watching a Challenge at another gym.

But most Challenges are pretty straightforward, and Surge tries to keep his own parts free of flowery language. It’s only when a natural showman like the young Oak arrives that Surge notices himself naturally sensing the dramatic beats, the knowledge of what feels right seeming to align with what will be the most meaningful and correct statements.

“Vermilion Gym declines.” Surge gives his words a moment to sink in and watches on the monitor as the young Oak’s expression shifts to shock, a surprised hum of conversation breaking out in the stands a few seconds later. Anger follows, briefly, before the youth smooths his expression out, and that’s when Surge continues. “I’ve always thought that single battles don’t fully mark one’s Mastery of my gym, but the duties of a Leader have kept me from designing a better one. One thing I do pride myself on is running a gym that’s open to better procedures and ideas. If you want your Vermilion Badge to matter, then I charge you with designing a better process for attaining one. You will Challenge for Membership.”

The crowd is loud, now, shocked conversations coming from every direction of the bleachers. Declining a Challenge is rare, and always embarrassing for a trainer (or, even more rarely, a gym leader, if it’s a Challenge for Leadership). But as far as Surge is aware, it’s unprecedented for a Gym Leader to dictate what the Challenger will fight for. He’s not even sure it’s allowed: if his opponent decides to get the League involved, Surge could end up pretty embarrassed. He has no actual reason to decline Oak’s Challenge, except for maybe the decorum argument for wearing the Objections.

But it feels right. And whatever the kid’s other plans were, he’s caught in the drama that he himself began. The chatter among the audience is finally fading as people wait with bated breath for the trainer’s response. Blue Oak looks like a man fighting with himself, and it’s not hard to guess why. He’s been on a warpath to get his badges quickly, and staying at a Gym is often an investment made in months, at the very least. He also probably has journeymates that have their own plans.

David Matis feels a little bad for forcing the youth to make such a decision on the spot and in public, but Gym Leader Surge wants the young Oak for his gym, now. He wants to see what that creative intelligence comes up with, to see if it’s something he can make workable.

That is the challenge that Gym Leader Surge set for Blue Oak. And what young trainer with visions of glory in their head could turn down such a thing?

Eventually Oak smiles, the expression captured on every monitor. “I accept.”

“Excellent. Then I will use only one of the pokemon I brought out. You may use two against it in a simple elimination. Prepare for battle!” He unclips the strongest pokemon he has on him. “Ready… set… go, Eelektross!”

The pokemon appears in the middle of the arena, one of the many children Zeus has had since arriving with Surge to Kanto. The floating eel undulates through the air, one of the few electric pokemon that can stay safe from ground attacks. He fully expects the young Oak to win this match if he came ready to challenge for Mastery, but there’s no reason not to try his best to win anyway.

“Go, Zephyr!”

Surge’s brow rises as he sees the pidgeotto appear, the surprise and confusion of the crowd mimicking his own sense of curiosity. He trusts a 3rd badge challenger not to bring a Flying pokemon into his arena without good reason, but… “Strike!”

Oak blows into his whistle, and his pokemon flies far to the side, out of range… then begins to beat its wings, sending clouds of dirt up into the arena as Surge’s pokemon starts to pursue to attack, its body glowing with the built-up charge. Surge holds a hand up as some of the dust blows over him, and grins. It’s not quite a sandstorm, but it’s enough to blind his pokemon.

“Your pokemon could be considered out of bounds, Trainer,” Surge says into the public channel. “It is too far to protect you if this were a real battle.”

“Normally you’d be correct, Leader. But your pokemon is just as blind to my location, and if it gets lucky, Zephyr knows Brave Bird.”

Surge shakes his head. “I won’t ask you to demonstrate that yet, but unless you have another strategy to show soon…”

The whistle blows again in response, and the pidgeotto returns to Oak, only to be withdrawn. A moment later Oak yells out, “Go, Rive!” Surge sees the flash from the other side of the settling dust cloud, and he uses the monitors to see what Blue just summoned: a rhyhorn.

That’s more like it.

“Atah!” Oak yells.

As the pokemon lumbers toward his blinded pokemon, Surge keeps his face calm… and only calls out “Sap!” when the rhyhorn is within striking range.

It throws its head up to jab his pokemon with its horn, but Eelektross knows where it is now and just takes the hit and latches onto its opponent’s grey hide with its wide mouth, green light shining as it begins its Giga Drain. The rhyhorn tries to shake it off, and only manages to by rolling its body along the ground. Surge yells “Sap!” again, but the pokemon is withdrawn a moment later.

“Nice,” Oak says in Surge’s earpiece as he swaps balls. “I figured you wouldn’t use an Electric pokemon without some Grass or Water moves. But I’ve won the match.” He summons his pidgeotto again, and whistles for it to start another huge sand attack from a distance.

“A bold claim, Trainer. But whatever damage that wound did to my pokemon will have been healed by its drain. Just blinding it won’t be enough to win, and your pidgeotto will tire eventually.”

“Eventually, yeah, but not before your pokemon drops. My friends yelled at me last time I kept this secret, so I’ll just let you know that my pokemon’s horn is poisonous. You’re going to notice your eelektross tiring very soon.”

Surge’s eyes widen, and then he laughs briefly, stopping himself before too much floating dirt can get into his mouth. “Full points for your honesty, Trainer. Ceding a tactical advantage to ensure safety is appreciated at any gym. But you could be bluffing, and so I’ll have to try my best to win before my pokemon starts to show its effects.”

“Understood.”

Surge leans against the railing and takes a deep breath, then yells “Wild Charge!” His pokemon shoots out in a more-or-less random direction, escaping most of the cloud but not approaching the pidgeotto. Once it looks around and recorrects, Oak is already re-positioning his pokemon with a few quick blows on his whistle. Surge prepares another command to try and cut it off—

“David, stop the fight,” his Second says in his earpiece, and Surge immediately transitions to calling out “Stop!” instead. His pokemon freezes in place, and a moment later Oak blows his whistle, causing his pokemon to loop back around toward him.

Surge switches to his Second’s channel. “What is it?” Surge murmurs as the arena and his opponent watch in confusion.

“Zapdos is coming up the coast. Multiple confirmations. ETA is no more than an hour.”

The words are like a bucket of ice water on Surge’s head, cold spreading down his whole body as his mind stutters in shock, then tries to regain its bearings.

“Eelektross, return!” he shouts. “The match is over. The Challenger’s pokemon poisoned mine with its strike. Blue Oak has demonstrated sufficient skill to join Vermilion Gym.” Surge’s mouth is on autopilot as his mind races to all the things he has to do, the preparations that need to be made, even as fear and predicted grief continue to spread through him.

There’s scattered applause throughout the arena, everyone taken a bit by surprise from the abrupt end to the match. “I’ve also just received word that Vermilion is entering a Tier 3 state of emergency,” Surge says before the reaction can swell in the wrong direction. “Zapdos is coming. I repeat, Zapdos is arriving at Vermilion City within the hour. Everyone, please find your shelter or evacuate as soon as possible. If you plan to fight, assemble in the courtyard for briefing.”

Surge looks to Oak, switching to the private channel to ask what he would do. Though he’s a new member of the gym, Surge wouldn’t hold it against him if he doesn’t stay and fight; it would be too much to expect of someone who was pseudo-forced into it. But he stops as soon as he sees the expressions flow over the young man’s face.

Shock that shifts toward rage, and a determination so absolute that Surge doesn’t even need to ask.

Young and foolish, as many were in adolescence. Surge hopes he survives it.


The crowd fills the gym grounds, hundreds of trainers from the city and outlying areas who rushed here as soon as the call went out. Above them, the sky is still mostly clear… for now. The light is fading, however, and when Surge mounts the podium and looks to the southwest, he sees the storm coming, a blot of darkness that breaks up the horizon.

By the time he switches frequencies on his earpiece to the speakers his people are still deploying around the field and attaches the extended microphone, the crowd has fallen deathly quiet. Thousands of eyes watch their Leader. Tense eyes. Trusting eyes. Even a few excited eyes, from those who don’t understand what’s coming yet, or the adrenaline junkies who live for the dance with death.

But most of the eyes are fearful. Those who live here, particularly, and have family in the city, some in the crowd with them, some heading to shelters. He sees a number of younger men or women standing beside their parents or aunts or uncles, ready to face the storm together.

“Thank you all for coming,” Surge says, hearing his voice reverberate through the crowd. “Time is short, so I’m going to keep the motivational part of this brief. Not all of you are here because you want to be. Most aren’t even here out of a sense of duty. You’re here because some scary shit is coming, and when scary shit is coming, our instinct is to either run and hide, everyone for themselves, or gather together and draw comfort from our fellows. Draw comfort from a sense that someone is in charge and knows what they’re doing.” He wants to pace, to start using up the frenetic energy that’s filling him. Instead he stands still, hand clasping his wrist behind his back, feet parted and back straight. “I am not that person. Those of you here listening to me because you think one person, or even a group of people, can plan for what’s coming, you’re in for a rude awakening. It’s alright. We’ve all been there.”

The crowd is still and silent. Surge releases his arm and points over their heads, to the southeast. “The moment that storm hits this city, any plan is going to get shot to hell. We know it’s Zapdos coming, obviously, so we know to expect constant and powerful lightning strikes, and every building in this city has rods to draw them away, so that’s the one thing we have on our side. But everything past that is a variable.” He lowers his arm and clasps it behind his back again. “We don’t know if it will be a dry storm or a heavy deluge. It’s coming up the edge of the coast, so any last minute changes in trajectory will alter that. We don’t know how long we’ll have cell reception or other electronic coordination. We don’t know what pokemon are rampaging at the stormfront. We don’t know if Zapdos will descend and wreak havoc personally, or stay above the clouds. We don’t know how many trainers in total will be available to help in the city. We don’t know how many of those trainers will still be alive after the first hour. Or the second, if there is one. Or the third.”

The eyes are wider, now. More of them filled with fear, doubt, uncertainty. He nods, though only those at the very front will see it. “Whatever you’re feeling now, it’s what you should be feeling. Even if it’s terror. If you would run, start running now. If you would hide, find a place to hide now. Because this is the truth, and the truth is terrifying. When the Pressure hits, and you feel more than just what’s true, when your doubts and fears are amplified beyond anything you’ve felt before, there’s a chance you’ll crack like an egg, and become another liability.” He’s careful to keep his voice calm and level. “So go, if you must go. There’s no shame in it. If you think you’ll break, then the best thing you can do for the city and those around you is to do your best to keep yourself safe. And to convince you I mean every word, I’m going to waste a precious minute right now to have everyone mill around aimlessly, to give cover to those who need to leave.” He sees the surprise on those closest. “You heard me. Sixty seconds, starting now: move, and if you’re going, go. Good luck to you.”

He starts walking in circles, having no one to mill with, just to show that he’s not paying attention to anyone and to get everyone moving as he counts under his breath. He hears the crowd around him start to move, quietly and without too much bumping into each other. A minute isn’t enough time for those close to the front to make it all the way out through the shifting press of bodies, but those that arrived first are the least likely to change their minds, and it’s better than nothing.

“Just got word from the League,” his Second suddenly says in his earpiece. “Leaders Sabrina, Erika, Koga, and Giovanni are confirmed to be on their way. CoRRNet says they’ve got two hundred rangers in the city or arriving in the next thirty minutes, with another hundred moving into the outlying areas.”

Some tension in Surge loosens. Having half of the Kanto League here would help immensely, and two hundred rangers are more than he expected. “Good. And from the Plateau? Lorelei’s up, right?”

“Yes, her and Karen.”

Elite Karen. Supposed to be some Dark pokemon prodigy, and currently the youngest of the whole Indigo League. Wouldn’t have been Surge’s first preference, or even his fourth, not least because she wouldn’t be able to teleport straight in. Lorelei will be a welcome addition, at least. “Got it,” Surge says. “What’s the ETA for Karen and Giovanni?”

“She was in Celadon apparently, so she’ll be here soon. Giovanni will take an hour.”

Better than he thought. “Thanks, Smat. With Lorelei we’ll have a chance at repelling Zapdos if he comes down, at least.” Fifty-four… fifty-five… He reaches sixty, then stops moving and switches back to the public channel. “Company halt,” he says, and the crowd quickly comes to a stop. They look around themselves, some smiling from the silliness of walking around aimlessly, checking out who they ended up beside, or looking for missing faces. There are notable gaps, now, but not many. A few people are still moving away at the edges of the field, and Surge waits until they step through the doors before he smiles. “Good, not everyone left. That’s always a relief.”

A chuckle moves through the crowd, nervous but still breaking the tension a bit. He lets it run its course, then waits another few seconds as he collects his thoughts. “I know that wasn’t the sort of encouraging talk people expect. I do want you all to know that I’m profoundly grateful and proud that so many of you are here and ready to do what individual humans have always needed to do: risk everything we have, to save everyone we can. Earlier I said that any plan we try to form is going to be shot to hell. It’s the truth, but there are still basic objectives that will hold in the form of priorities. Priority 0 is always in effect. Communication will break down at some point, and when it happens you will know best what to do in any given situation you find yourselves in, to keep yourself and those around you safe. But Priority 1 will be to keep the shelters secure. Gym members are waiting outside to direct you to each and make sure we’re spread out enough. If there are friends or family or journeymates you want to stick with, find them there before heading out.”

Surge watches as people start to move again. “Not yet,” he says, and everyone stops. “Priority 2 takes precedence. The hospitals and pokemon centers are going to be staffed throughout the storm. Over the years the mayor and I have tried to ensure that they all are nearly as durable as the shelters, but many are still vulnerable. Those with five badges and up or experience in a previous Stormbringer attack, get assigned to one of those first. These places will need lots of volunteers afterward to cut down on the number of tragedies coming.”

Someone is raising a hand, like this is a class. If Surge calls on him more would raise their hands, and the momentum would shift, but the first person to raise their hand in such a situation is either brave or stupid, and it’s worth checking in case it’s the first. “Yes?”

“How do we know who to listen to if communications break down?”

Surge shakes his head. “I don’t know what your situation will be when that happens. If you’re at a priority site, listen to the rangers or gym members there. New priorities will likely come up, and the chain of command will be scattered across the city. If you’re not sure, always default to Priority 0.”

A few other hands pop up, but they’re out of time. Surge looks at the oncoming storm that now fills half the horizon. “One final note. Not everyone is going to make it to the shelters. Some people are going to try to ride things out in their homes, others just won’t get to one on time. It happens every Tier 3, no matter how much warning we get.”

Surge looks around the crowd. Everyone is absolutely silent, watching him. Many know what’s coming next. “They’re on their own. We cannot afford to spread trainers out too thin. They will have to reach a priority site before we can help keep them safe.” He lets out a breath as he asks the trainers to do something he would have had trouble doing, earlier in his life. That he did have trouble doing. “If you know of friends or family or even strangers that are in danger, and want to go help them… well, I won’t tell you to ignore your conscience. But just remember that you’re making a choice, and good intentions can often cost more lives than they save.

“Good luck to you all. A god is coming to raze this city, if it can. May yours be with you, as you stand in its path.”

Chapter 59: Interlude VIII – Organization

Welcome back everyone! Getting back to work was rough this month, so expect a moderate amount of editing over the weekend, as this one didn’t have a chance to get much proofreading. Hope you enjoy it, and as usual, all feedback welcome, either here or on /r/rational!


Chapter 59: Interlude VIII – Organization

Sakura thought she was out of tears.

There were plenty, when they first told her. When she first saw her baby brother’s remains, when they interred him beneath the earth. Six years old, and grown so fast. Already talking about his dreams. Already preparing for his future. Only to have it snatched away by a monster in the shape of man.

Over a year of tears after that, as the trial went on. As her mom, first in shock that her son could be gone, then in denial that her husband could be the killer, went from a source of added distress to an infuriating enemy, to a monster of a different shade. Months of tears, of listless despair punctuated by fits of crying, of sobbing herself hoarse. And then the final verdict. Not guilty. That storm should have squeezed the last drops out. When she rose from her exhausted sleep the next day, feeling drained, feeling empty, she thought she’d cried her last tears.

There was only one thing left to do, and tears weren’t part of it.

Dry eyed, she planned. Dry eyed, she kept her mask in place. Pretended to be glad that the monster was free. Expressed relief that it was all a misunderstanding. Her mom insisted that now they could “really grieve” for Sokka. As a “family.”

Yes mother, she said. But there were no more tears to give, and eventually her mother left her alone.

It was easier when she was old enough to leave. When she could go from planning to action, didn’t have to pretend anymore. Just another few months to find the right pokemon. To train them without using their pokeball, after the initial capture. To give them the right commands and training, to overwhelm the initial conditioning.

More difficult was the timing. The monster went to nearby incidents all the time, to fight the other monsters. To act the hero, or maybe help him believe himself one. There were a few times she went with him, fought alongside him, keeping a different death hidden in her bag each time. But there were always others around.

Until one day there wasn’t. It was just the two of them, keeping the pokemon to the edge of the forest. It’s been unruly since Articuno flew by and buried a third of it in snow, a different population expanding too much every week as the ecosystem re-balances in the wake of the loss of habitat and Pressure induced rampage.

She was distracted the whole fight, looking for an opening. Worrying that someone else would come. Worrying she would miss her chance. And distracted by his smile, after they took down the third wave together, their movements and orders coordinated from multiple fights together. An encouraging smile. Like they were comrades. Like she’d forgotten. But that was the point, so she smiled back.

And when his pokemon was injured after what seemed to be the last wave, and he went forward to heal it, she looked around, withdrew her pokemon, opened her bag, and spoke a single syllable, low, under her breath. Just enough for the weedle to hear.

And to spring.

And to sting.

And sting. And sting. Until his raticate finally managed to scramble over despite its injuries and crunch it between its jaws.

“Sakura,” her father gasped, hand scrabbling weakly at his bag, body locked in pain. “Po…nnn…”

She moved to him, took his concerned and injured pokemon’s ball off his belt, returned it. Then she simply watched until his movements slowed to sluggish twitches, then stopped altogether.

Something in her loosened, after that. A knot of anger and grief she’d been holding onto for years. But still, she didn’t cry. She had no more tears.

She never saw the camera, set high in the trees to mark the perimeter. She thought she was safe, until the Rangers showed up.

She defended herself, mask cracking just a little as she poured passion into her voice, tried to call upon her grief and direct it to serve her. But still, she didn’t cry. Once it became clear that she would be branded, she came clean. Reported where her other lethally trained pokemon were kept. Waited for the end.

Now she sits strapped to a chair in a secure room in Viridian Gym, and her death comes in a neat black suit, his movements quick and purposeful without seeming hurried. He sits in a chair across from her, and his voice is the same deep, commanding voice she has heard in interviews, turned toward something new. Perhaps an attempt at gentleness.

“Hello, Miss Uryuu.”

Her gaze rises to meet his. “Hello, Leader.”

Giovanni Sakai does not look disgusted, or fearful, or angry, or shocked, or even carefully professional, the way all the expressions she’s seen since being caught were. Instead the young Leader looks… curious?

“Are you comfortable?”

It’s a question she doesn’t expect, not just from her executioner, but also from Leader Giovanni in particular. She never really paid too much attention to her city’s pride, didn’t seek out stories of his childhood here, or his rise to Champion, or his political efforts that preceded his recent return home to head Viridian Gym. But people talked, information was hard to avoid, and what she’d learned of her Leader was that he was a man with keen perspective, intense focus, iron will… and a willingness to do what needs to be done, no matter how controversial.

She could admire that, in the abstract way she was able to admire anything, while obsessed with her own singular goal.

Insofar as she allowed herself to imagine her execution at his hands, it was always quick and efficient. Perhaps he would briefly berate or lecture her for wasting his time. Instead he asks her if she’s comfortable, and the numbness that has surrounded her since she was branded finally fades around the edges as she wakes up to how her body feels.

She was allowed to use the bathroom, thankfully, but not fed in the past… ten hours? She thinks she’s hungry, but it’s hard to tell. Her legs are a bit cramped from being in the chair for so long. Rear a bit sore. But not bad, all things considered, and given what’s about to come…

Or is she mistaken, somehow?

“Does it matter?” she asks, and clears her throat. “You’re here to execute me, aren’t you?”

The Leader’s dark gaze stays steady on hers, and after a moment he reaches into his jacket and removes a syringe, placing it on the table to his side.

Her eyes linger on it, then she looks away. “I’m fine, then. Just…” She wants to say get it over with, but can’t quite form the words. Her heart is beating faster, some instinctual will to live reaching up even at this late stage.

He doesn’t respond to the implication, instead saying, “Could I trouble you to tell me why, first?”

“I already confessed.”

Giovanni is quiet, a moment. “Let me rephrase. You confessed to what you did and why you did it. But you could have just stabbed him with a knife, risked an investigation, at worst gone to prison for a decade or two. You could have attacked him with your pokemon openly, thrown your life away to ensure his death. Instead you were meticulous. You tried to thread the needle, tried to make it look natural.”

She stares at him, unsure of what to say. Of what he wants from her. Her numbness is still fading, her awareness of her body and situation only growing in her final moments, and she’s not sure she should thank him for that.

“You wanted to live,” he says simply. Not a question.

She looks away. It seems cruel, to ask her now. Why. Why did she try so hard to kill him in just the right way, if she knew what she was risking?

“My brother,” she says at last. “Would have wanted me to.”

“And so you were patient, and careful, and tried to give yourself the best chance.”

“Yes,” she whispers.

“Do you want to live?” he asks. There’s something calculating in his demeanor, she knows, but he also seems genuinely curious. “Or is it just the wish of what your brother wanted, that kept you from simply ending him the moment you trained your first pokemon to attack humans?”

Sakura doesn’t know how to answer that. She spent little time with friends, after, or fun things. She knew, on some level, that if she succeeded then she would one day have to consider those things, but she always put that off for later, considering it a distraction, and a seductive one at that.

But at this moment, with the syringe so close (What’s in it? Something painless? Or is Viridian’s new Leader old fashioned enough to have filled it with weedle venom?), and the hard chair beneath her, and her rumbling stomach, she thinks of how much she’d rather be safe at home in bed, or at the cafe by her old house, having her favorite dish with some plum wine. That would be… rapture.

“Yes, I would prefer to live for my own sake too,” she says at last, voice angry as a tug of longing goes through her. “Is that what you want to hear? I didn’t take you for someone who has time for… cruelty.”

“I find there is often a regrettable overlap between what is cruel and what is pragmatic,” the Gym Leader says, sounding undisturbed by her accusation. “I’d say it is intention that ultimately matters, but I know others disagree. What if you could never see your family again, your friends, your home? What if living meant exile, in a land far away, your old life left behind?”

She stares at him, anger twisting into confusion at the sudden change in topic. “I don’t… yes. Of course.”

“Would you train pokemon to kill again?”

“No.” A flame of hope is lighting in her chest, suddenly. Is this some final trial? It seems impossible to contemplate, that a Renegade would be allowed to live after admitting her guilt, she’s never heard of such a thing… exile… “I only did this because of my brother, I’d never—”

“What about teaching others how to?”

She blinks. “What?”

“Would you teach others your methods for training pokemon without their ball? For lethal commands, if it meant you could live?”

She stares at the Leader, whose face is still curious, eyes intent. She shakes her head, just once, the motion aborting as she realizes she doesn’t know what he’s asking her, what she’s answering.

Giovanni sighs, seeming to read her expression. “I’m sorry. I’m getting your hopes up. These are just hypotheticals, you understand. I wanted to get to know you, a little. I try, for all the Renegades that fall under my jurisdiction. Some rage at the world or some particular target, others are excessively greedy or impulsive. And of course, there’s the simply mad.” He shrugs a shoulder. “You seem one of the rarer sort. Poor judgement, but not excessively so. I find it tragic. A waste. You would have made a fantastic coordinator, Miss Uryuu…”

She stiffens. Here comes the moralizing, the judgement—

“…I’m sorry our society has failed you so thoroughly.”

And then it comes: her eyes prickle, her throat feels clogged on her next breath. A single tear escapes, and she breathes in, whole body shaking once.

She’d wanted to be a coordinator, once.

Sakura regains control quickly, embarrassed. Still, it’s better to feel something, at the end. To know she isn’t dry and dead already, after all.

“I’m sorry too, Leader,” she whispers. “Not for… that. For the trouble I’ve caused.” She swallows past the lump in her throat as her pulse speeds up, as she steels herself, closing her eyes. “Thank you for speaking to me. For looking at me like I’m a person, still. I’m… I’m ready.”

There’s silence, for a while. And then she hears the syringe scrape against the table slightly as it’s picked up. “Goodbye, Miss Uryuu.”

She feels the prick of pain, and then spreading numbness, and then nothing.


Silver watches on the monitor as a trio enters the room where Father sits. He has long-since memorized his father’s body-language: the current pose is one he internally dubbed The King in His Castle, a position of calm strength, inviting supplicants in magnanimously.

The three guests don’t look like the usual supplicants, however. All three are dressed in red and black, and their leader has hair a shade lighter than Silver’s, though still closer to red than orange.

“Hello, Maxie. It was good of you to come. I hope your quarters are suitable?”

“Giovanni.” The tall, thin man’s tone is cold, his aloof face seeming to permanently be set in an expression of sharp focus and slight annoyance. He’s a stark contrast to his right hand man, who’s round and cheerful, or the girl to his left, who seems unconcerned with anything around her, gaze staring off in the distance from beneath her hoodie. She’s technically wearing a uniform like the other two, but seems less committed to treating it as such, with lots of personalized touches. “Our quarters are quite pleasant. Your hospitality is appreciated. But what I care about is your answer. I would have it now, if you’d please.”

“Of course. I’ve already requested two labs to wind down operations and prepare to collaborate with your people, and have Senji picking a field team.”

“Excellent. As ever you vindicate my confidence in you. This removes two points of failure from our path, bringing our estimates of success to—”

“—seventy-three percent—” says the woman in a distant tone of voice.

“—and will allow us to move forward on the next stage by—”

“—six months, four days—” says the round man with a grin.

“—ahead of schedule. Your payment will be delivered tomorrow. And the search itself?”

Silver’s mouth hangs open slightly. The two had spoken without hesitation, Maxie pausing for each to supply the information as if they were extensions of himself. Father has a lot of really cool minions (he’s not supposed to call them that when they’re around) but he doesn’t have any who do stuff like that. Silver wonders if the three are psychically linked, then realizes they wouldn’t have had to talk separately.

Father shifts to Apologetic Resoluteness between breaths. “I’ve reviewed your plans extensively, and had many of my most trusted advisers do so as well. I’m sorry, but I can’t support that endeavor at this time.”

“Hm.” One hand goes up to adjust the tall man’s glasses. “And your reasoning?”

“Assuming the legends of Groudon’s powers are accurate, it does not diminish concerns about secondary effects,” Father says with his hands steepled below his chin. “Creating more landmass can be incredibly valuable, but upsetting the water cycle can have effects on the climate beyond what is immediately noticeable.”

“This is not new. I am eighty-three percent confident that the extent of his abilities are exaggerated.”

“Be that as it may, the effects on even a single region can have dangerous externalities.” Giovanni’s hands fall to his desk, clasping there. “And you know of my position on the current crop of weather-wielding pseudo-gods facing my own region.”

“Prudence as a virtue has taken you far, but I see the makings of a fault in you through it,” Maxie says, speaking as though to a student. Silver has to admit, the man is brave to talk to Father like that. “I’d hoped your vision and mine could meet somewhere. Do let me know if there’s some alteration on my end that would change your answer. I would put it under most serious review.”

“I’m sorry, but it’s simply impossible at this time. Even if we could come to some agreement, I have too many pressing projects to tend to.”

“Understandable. The offer is open. So long as you do nothing to impede our efforts, future alliance is possible. Good day.”

Silver watches as Maxie turns to leave and the man with him turns on one heel within a heartbeat, as if waiting for the movement so he can walk in step with his boss. It would probably look more impressive if the woman had done the same, but despite being on point with her earlier calculation, it takes a full three seconds before the woman notices that they’re leaving and turns to follow them.

Father waits until they’re at the door. “Yes, about that…”

The tall man stops, hand out for the handle, then turns his head to father, just enough to reveal his profile.

“I believe you know how much I value peace. Peace, and the lack of investigation that comes with it. If things come to war between you and Archie, I will have to, regretfully, join my forces to his, in order to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible.”

Silver leans forward. He can’t make out any changes in Maxie’s expression on the monitor, from this far away, but the woman’s voice still comes clearly, quiet though it is: “Fourteen percent.”

“Unthinkable,” Maxie says, sounding as though his jaw is stiff. “You, assisting that brute? That pirate? His goals are… epistemically…”

“Just business, Maxie. Strategically, the fighting would end soonest if I were to work with him. As I said, I value the current peace immensely. Perhaps that will soon change, but I only thought it fair to warn you, given our history.”

“Does he know?”

Silver can’t see Father’s expression, but he can guess: Who Do You Take Me For. Or perhaps I Will Give You a Moment to Recall Who You’re Speaking To. A subtle but powerful difference.

“Thirty one percent,” the girl says into the silence.

It looks like Maxie might say something after that, but after a moment he simply dips his head in the barest of acknowledgements and opens the door. His lieutenants follow him out, and the video feed cuts out, turning the screen into a dark mirror through which the red haired boy sees himself.

Silver leans back in his chair and places his hands beneath his chin as he tries to think through his father’s reasoning. He expected his dad to keep himself neutral in the budding shadow war in Hoenn, particularly if either side drags the whole conflict into the open. He could have even warned that he would side against whoever attacked first, as a deterrent, but he very specifically seemed to choose not to do so, and warned that he would pick a side instead. Father wouldn’t tell Archie of course, it would just incentivize him to start a conflict he could be confident he will win, but still…

His thoughts circle fruitlessly from there until Silver notices the repetitions and gets out of the chair to finish his history lessons. His tutor expects him to complete the whole book by the end of the week, and when he complained to Father, the Gym Leader merely looked at him and said that he was welcome to attend a regular school if he’s finding his workload “too great a challenge.” Which of course just made Silver want to work twice as hard to prove it wasn’t that, it was just boring compared to training his pokemon or honing his throwing and catching reflexes.

But that sort of argument only occasionally works on Father, and he has to space out when he uses it with lots of actual work done. So Silver rewards himself for going back to his study desk with a braided whip of gummy candy and gets to work as he eats it, half a dozen sweet and sour and salty flavors filling his mouth as he reads the next question he’s on:

This chapter recounted how the three southern Kanto warlords finally agreed to negotiate for alliance after over ten years of diplomatic relations. Describe, as though you were each of them, first their reasoning for resisting, then what they believed each of the other two warlords’ reasoning was.

Silver studies the question, eyes narrowed as he sucks on the end of the gummy braid, then gently peels a string off with his teeth. The book he read didn’t really go into much of what each warlord thought of the other two’s reluctance. One of the warlords, Takeda, never even wrote about his political thoughts, and instead practically all the writing directly from him involved his records of training pokemon to be ridden into battle for combat purposes rather than just transport. So, as usual with his tutor’s assignments, Silver would have to look up secondary and ancillary sources to try and model the ancient warlord’s perspective.

This takes him over an hour to do, and his candy whip is long gone by the time he finishes. He eyes the jar afterward, but it’s only there for reinforcement of positive actions, and he doesn’t think his father would think “continuing to do the same task because I’m getting bored but didn’t stop” qualifies. Not that he is getting bored, but… they’re just so tasty.

Once he finishes with Takeda, however, he does think he deserves another to keep working, and that he can justify it to Father later. He gets up and goes to the jar, only to stop as the screen snaps back on and he hears his father say, “Thank you, Kiba. Let him in please.”

Silver blinks, then hurries back to his seat in front of the secured monitor that’s connected directly to the camera in Father’s office. The candy can wait.

Once again the door opens, this time without a knock first, and in comes an athletic man with dark skin, a roguish beard, and a dark navy coat that flares at his knees when he walks. He’s followed by his own pair of minions, an even more muscular man who’s almost as wide as the door and a woman with wild hair that goes down to her waist. Silver wonders if everyone in their organizations dresses the way they do, and how they keep them secret if so. If Father made everyone that works for him wear a uniform… well, that might be pretty cool, actually, judging by his visitors today.

“Gio! Good to see you!” Archie walks up to Father and extends an arm to his side, as if getting ready to slap the Gym Leader. Silver’s eyes go wide, and his mouth drops open as Father’s arm rises to meet it when it swings, and the two clasp arms. He’s never seen Father greet someone with anything but a brief handshake, a nod of the head, and just once, a bow.

“Welcome, Archie. Shelly, Matt.” The minions get the head nod, and nod or wave back. “I take it the voyage went well?”

“Ahh, well enough, well enough. We were in the area anyway, you know.” Like Max, Archie doesn’t sit on the available chairs, though he does lean his arms against the back of one while his subordinates lean against the walls farther back. “Great operation you’ve built here, Gio. Could use some of your touch again back home, even on a part time basis. I miss our talks.”

Father snorts. “You miss having someone who would argue with you, you mean.”

“Ha! These two will do it,” Archie says, jerking a careless thumb over his shoulder. “But about different things than you. All under the same flag, we are. Not the same. So? You’ve considered my offer?”

“I have. I can gather the information you asked for, and possibly even acquire a copy of the blueprints.”

Archie’s eyebrows rise. “Seriously? You have operatives in Slateport?”

“Seriously,” Father says, tone bland.

“‘Course you do. And in return?”

“You would need to refer at least another six staff by the end of the year.”

“Six.” Archie taps his fingers on the back of the chair. “That’s asking a lot, Gio. Only got another two lined up, both of them Dark.”

“If it helps, all six can be, just this once.”

“Aye, it does,” Archie admits. “What do you need so many for, anyway?”

Father smiles. “How do you travel so far, so fast?”

Archie grins. “Maybe someday you’ll find out. Guess that applies to me too. Alright, six more. Will you be signing onto our venture, then?”

“Unfortunately, I have to decline for now. Too much on my plate to try and operate from multiple regions at once.”

Archie shrugs. “It’s not Gio the warrior we need. You can think from anywhere, direct from a phone or cam, can’t you?”

“Through trustworthy intermediaries, perhaps. In some advisory role. But manpower is hard to spare, obviously.”

“Good enough! And for the rest?”

“For that, I cannot help you. To release such a beast into the oceans would be catastrophic if even half of the legends about it are true. You would need to capture it instantly, or it would be nearly impossible to ever stop.”

Archie snorts. “I never took you for one who let fear get in the way of greatness, Gio.” Silver blinks, feeling surreal at watching a second person talk to Father like this, one right after the other. Who do they think they are? “These powers are going to be used one day. It’s either us or someone else, this one or some other, and the sooner we’ve done so, the better prepared we’ll be.”

“You’re speaking of Maxie.”

“Aye, and others. But mainly him, for now.” Archie’s face is solemn, voice flat.

Father lets out a sigh. There are no stances now, Silver suddenly notices. His father is just… being himself? No, surely he’s still setting his body language deliberately, just not in as strict a sense. “The very last thing I need, currently, is any kind of attention. If there comes a point where you and Maxie come to blows, I’m afraid I’ll have to side with him, just to end the fighting quicker.”

Silver flinches as the big man suddenly grips the chair, face fit to pick it up and smash it over Father’s head. “That madman? You would pick him over me?”

“I’d prefer to pick neither,” Father says, face and body still totally “natural” and relaxed, but tone suddenly harsh. “If the two of you would just sit together and—”

Archie shakes his head, releasing the chair and stepping back. “After what he did? Not happening. Not if the world was ending and he came to me on his knees.”

Father sighs, but nods. “Then I hope the two of you can find some other path to victory that doesn’t cross each other’s…” Even without a visual angle, Silver can hear a small smile in Father’s next words. “Exciting as it might be to face you again.”

Archie is quiet for a moment, face still livid… and then he cracks a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Aye. Exciting as it might be.” He turns, and the other two step away from the walls to follow him to the door, not at all in lockstep, but clearly at attention. “You’ll have your people, Gio. Just get me the info.”

“Won’t you stay a while, enjoy some—”

The door closes behind the three before Father can finish speaking. After a moment he shrugs, as if to himself, and the screen goes dark.

Silver sits where he is, absorbing the new information, candy and history lessons forgotten.

There’s no way Father would send his people to both Archie and Maxie at the same time and tell them to fight each other… or would he? It wouldn’t be too hard for them to recognize each other and avoid attacking each other. Maybe they could sabotage both organizations from within, but that could just delay the conflict…

Silver smiles. He thinks he has it: if Father puts people in position and has both Archie and Maxie killed, it would end the fight as well! They spoke like they were friends, but, well, Father pretends to be friends with lots of people, if not exactly in the same way…

Satisfied with his answer, Silver eventually goes back to his work, rewarding himself with another candy whip. Once the assignment is done he plays a sim for a couple hours, grinding his team up in preparation for a gym challenge until a family of primeape start rampaging nearby and kill him. He scowls and shuts the game off. He knows he’s supposed to party up with others if he spends too long in the wild, but most of the other players are dumb. If the developers made the game more realistic he could have had his pokemon dig a hole and stayed in it with an air tank to avoid the primeape instead of being forced to fight them again and again until his team went down.

Silver takes his anger out on a nearby punch-dummy shaped like a hitmonchan (he’s sure no one would be stupid enough to actually punch a hitmonchan, but it does a cool thing where it spins and hits back if he hits it hard enough), then goes to watch some of Father’s recorded battles. Not the ones from his gym, but from before he was even Champion. There aren’t nearly as many, of course, and their quality is poor; most are recorded by people’s phones, and many are incomplete, either starting at some midway point in the fight or ending before it finishes as the recorder gets scared off or distracted.

But they’re real. Father’s fighting for his life, even as he’s still developing his skills. His verbal commands have little of the iron calm they do today, and his physical motions aren’t nearly as efficient… but he seems more alive in the footage than any other time Silver sees him.

The one he eventually settles on was recorded from the fourth floor window of some building in Fuchsia City. On the street below, Father uses a donphan to clear the road of the various pokemon running through it, until a crowd of people start to run down a different intersection that had seemed safe a moment ago. They’re being chased by a venusaur that lumbers toward them, and if there are any trainers left behind it that are still alive or able to try to slow it down, the camera footage doesn’t see them. The rare pokemon is throwing razor leaves at the fleeing people, cutting at their knees and ankles until they collapse, then sending vines out that glow green and start to melt the flesh of the downed humans upon contact.

Silver knows that objectively he should be disgusted or sickened by the gruesome deaths he’s seeing. He knows that’s what most people would feel. Or say they would, anyway, and the emotion in the repeated “Oh, Arceus, oh, lord, no,” by the guy holding the phone seems genuine enough. But Silver’s too busy anticipating what Father would do next, imagining what he would do in his place.

So when Father summons a geodude and a machoke, and the machoke picks the geodude up and throws it at the venusaur, Silver has already anticipated the explosion that almost makes the recorder lose their grip on their phone. The venusaur had tried to bat the hurtling rock pokemon away as it sailed at it, but the by the time it was close enough, it was too late.

The image before the explosion looked like many of the injured victims were close enough to get caught in that blast, but it’s hard to tell in the aftermath, and the recorder just stays on that street long enough to confirm that the venusaur’s head is gone and quietly swear before he quickly pans back to Father’s donphan when it bellows in pain. The ground beneath it is crumbling, and soon plants begin to grow up through the pavement, lashing out at anything nearby.

“Watching these again?”

Silver twists in his chair to see Father standing by it. He hadn’t even noticed him come in, and wonders how long he’s been there. “Rhetorical question. I think you’re actually asking for justification. It feels… judgey.”

“Do I sound judgemental?” Father asks, eyebrows raised.

“No. Just curious.” Silver turns back to the screen. “But it still feels judgey.”

Father pauses to consider that. “My real question was, what are you looking for, in these old videos? I ask with curiosity, to know if there is something valuable for you in them, but yes, also with a predisposition that you are wasting your time.”

Silver nods. “I want to learn from you. But in most vids, you’re too far away. You’re like a character in a movie. Here you’re…” Silver gestures toward the screen, where the younger Giovanni is spraying a potion onto his pokemon and yelling some command to a different one, too late, his hands blurring as he drops the potion bottle and slings a pair of pokeballs out. “Closer. I can see what you’ll do next, sometimes. I spot mistakes, though those are rarer.”

“Oh? Was there a mistake here?”

“Yes. The geodude and machoke should have been out and prepared ahead of time. The only downside would have been slowing you if you had to run, but in that case they could have served as a distraction, or been deployed first in case it would have avoided a rout in the first place.”

“Good catch. Yes, this was the battle that led me to always having a pokemon on standby during every fight, one that would not respond to any commands but the one I would give if I had to run. This combo in particular is a bit too risky, now. Can you guess what I use instead?”

Silver thinks it over. What would he want protecting his retreat if his life was in danger? It has to be able to adapt to a lot of different threats, and not be easily taken out. Tanky pokemon are no good, though, most are slow, and he needs something that can be a credible threat, not just be run around by something fast and lethal enough.

“How worried would you be about collateral damage? Public perception?”

“I’m curious to know your answer, without knowing either of those.”

They watch the screen until the end of the video, when the person recording suddenly pulls the phone back into the apartment a couple seconds before the whole building shakes, and then the feed ends. By then Silver has already crossed out a number of obvious but insufficient options. Pokemon like Dragonite and Tyranitar are powerful, but it would be a waste to keep them exclusively to last resort bodyguard duty. Pokemon with good crowd control are a must, but also those that aren’t weak to too many types. Speed is what he keeps going back to. What’s faster than the fastest jolteon? Able to do indiscriminate damage in a wide area without risking himself?

As soon as Silver mentally swaps himself with Father, still trying to answer the original question at the same time, he has it. “Something psychic. A mental attack, fast, hitting everything around it… except you.”

“It’s remarkable, what psychic pokemon can do to the reactions of those around them, all without causing any damage, mental or otherwise.”

Silver smiles, briefly, but it fades as he browses the videos available for what to watch next. “Do you ever miss it?”

Father sits on the arm of his sofa, face thoughtful as he watches Silver select another video. “No. No matter how strong I became, I was only one man trying to hold back an endless tide. Even then, I realized it. From the beginning I knew I had to build my individual strength only insofar as it allowed me to grow my collective strength.”

“But doesn’t that mean you’re not the strongest anymore?”

“I was never the strongest. My excadrill was far stronger.”

Silver frowns at him. “You’re being pedantic.”

“Not so. My point is my power was always in the pokemon I had under my command. On my journey, I had a few dozen. Today I have hundreds. More importantly, if something happens to me, the system I’ve created would ensure the work continues. Now, are you ready for dinner?”

Silver is. It’s his turn to pick the dinner, so they have sashimi and cranberry juice. It’s clear that Father dislikes the juice, but Silver smiles each time he drinks it and makes a face, so he keeps sipping it. The two sit alone to eat today, a luxury that Silver always treasures, even if it gives Father the freedom to ask him questions about how his studies are going.

He answers them as quick as he can, then goes to the question that’s really been interesting him. “Father, why did you promise both of your friends that you would support their enemy in a fight?”

“You haven’t guessed?”

“I think I have. It was to have them both killed by one of your agents once they trusted you, right?” Silver smiles.

Father’s chopsticks pause on the way to his mouth, ever so briefly. Silver isn’t sure if others would have noticed it, but he notices everything Father does. “Do you think I would kill my friends?”

Silver shrugs. “If you had to.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

“If you were just doing it for fun, maybe. But you’re trying to stop monsters. You have to be a stronger monster to do that, don’t you?”

After a moment of silence, Silver looks up from his food to see that Father has stopped eating, gaze distant. He hesitates, realizing that calling someone a monster is probably not considered polite. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No,” Father immediately says. “No, you didn’t. You simply held up a mirror to show me the sort of man I appear to be. I’m glad, that you can do that for me.”

“Oh. Okay.” Silver’s legs kick beneath the table as he tries to figure it out on his own, but eventually his worry that he did say something wrong is too great. “Why?”

“Because,” Father says, and begins to eat again. “Perhaps if your grandmother had such a mirror, she would not have become quite the monster she did.”

Silver still isn’t sure he understands that either, but he resolves to figure it out himself instead of going on about it for the rest of dinner while there are other things to ask. “So I was wrong? About your plan?”

“Yes. I decided that the best way I could ensure that my friends did not fight was to make them think I was more on their opponent’s side than theirs. As long as both believe I will side with their enemy, and thus put them at a severe disadvantage, then both have an added incentive not to begin hostilities. And since both know why I would not tell their opponent that, they also have an incentive not to refer to it themselves, or tell any of their own people, for fear that it would get to the other.”

“Huh.” It made sense, in a roundabout sort of way. “I guess it’s better to lie to friends than kill them. How often do you do that?” Silver is thinking of the shows he watches, sometimes, and how often secrets between the heroes cause trouble. He doesn’t bring them up; Father doesn’t like him getting his sense of what’s realistic or true from media, and Silver knows how much smarter Father is than the writers of the shows or movies from the rare nights when they watched something together. Silver would be asked to write out what the characters did, what he would do instead, and then Father would point out all the better choices they could have made.

Father takes a sip of his juice, grimaces, puts it down. “Perhaps most would not need to. For certain people, however, secrets are required to ensure safety.”

Silver nods. This he understands; secrets are what keep him safe. Father puts a lot of effort into ensuring his enemies don’t know Silver exists or where he is. But still… “When do you know that it’s safe to share a secret, then?”

“When the consequence of it staying hidden becomes worse than the consequence of it getting out. Or when someone’s trust is about to be broken.”


Dr. Light watches the rest of the team file into the room with a barely controlled, simmering anger that makes it hard to sit still. One or more of these eight idiot geniuses has broken ranks, and now they’re all going to be paying for it.

“Alright folks, let’s get this started. I’m sure we all have important things to get back to,” she says. As head of Cinnabar Labs, she’s the de facto highest ranking administrator in the room. Not that she asked to be; she was happily working on her gene editing research until 2.351 “awoke.” Labs across the region shut down rapidly after that as staff consolidated to work on all the breakthroughs that followed. Unfortunately that meant senior staff quickly became supervisors as they had more people to manage, and supervisors quickly became administrators. Soon she had less and less time for research, and before she knew it she was administrator of the whole lab, a job Dr. Fuji would have been much better suited to…

She forces her thoughts away from that sad path. Better not to think about it, and besides, she has more immediate worries.

“What’s this all about, Ivy?” Dr. Burnam asks her, and she meets his gaze, searching it for any sign of complicity. “Next administrator meeting is supposed to be in a week.”

“You may have noticed the word ’emergency’ in the email,” she says, voice dry. “It can’t wait until next week. Someone’s drawing from the communal pool out of rotation.”

A few people at the table curse or mutter under their breath, and Dr. Light tries to watch them all at the same time, as well as everyone else. It’s no use, she knows that, she’s not going to be able to tell who’s in on it just by watching for guilty tells. If they were the sort of people with tells, they wouldn’t have their jobs.

“Now obviously we can’t just get a psychic in here and have them check for guilt,” she says, which elicits some chuckles from the room of dark and psychic scientists. “But I’d like to resolve this without getting Giovanni involved. I hope I don’t need to remind you all that part of our jobs is to try and solve these sorts of problems before they get to his desk. He’s got enough on it.”

“So what’s someone doing?” asks Dr. Martin. “How are they getting away with it? There’s logs for every request, isn’t there?”

“Sure, yeah. Have you checked it recently?”

The man frowns. “I don’t know what you’re implying, but I—”

“—she’s not implying anything, it’s a simple question.” Dr. Bosch interrupts. “Have you looked at it recently, or do you just sign your name and move on?”

“Look, when you make it sound like—”

“Enough,” Dr. Light says, already feeling a headache coming on. “I brought the book, just take a look at it yourselves.” She lifts it from the portfolio from the stack behind her and starts passing it to her left, where people begin to rifle through the pages of signed names, times, and requisitions.

Dr. Martin shakes his head and frowns, passing it on with a puzzled expression. Dr. Sato does the same, but Dr. Brown’s brow rises, and she sees that he spotted it. “A lot of these are just scribbles.”

“What?” The woman next to him takes the book and looks it over, then scowls. “Who did this?”

The others are clamoring for a look now, and Dr. Light raises her hands. “No need to check yourselves, it’s not that complicated. I’m pretty sure my 5 year old niece has done something similar when she needed her mom to sign a note for school once. At least one person has been just scribbling something that looks like a name on the form, but it’s illegible. Avoiding electronic records keeps us safe in one way but opens us up to shit like this. So, let’s get to the bottom of this now. Quick and easy. If you’ve been doing this, raise your hand.”

Everyone stares at each other, some in consternation, others in bland confusion. Dr. Light drums her fingers on the table, hoping with every passing second that someone does the right thing… until it becomes clear that no one will.

“Dammit people,” Dr. Collins says with a disgusted look. Head of the reconstructive cloning program, and suspiciously good at finishing his projects on time. She hears he drives his people to the bone, though, so it may just be that. “I’ve got two samples that need to be monitored for the rest of the day, I don’t have time for this.” He makes to get up.

Sit. Down,” Dr. Light says. “We all have places to be, but this is serious. People aren’t just asking for supplies, they’re asking for staff too.”

“Well, then, what’s the issue?” Dr. Brown asks. Mechanical R&D. He’s working on making environmental suits resistant to cold, heat, and electricity all at once, including Mewtwo’s. “Just ask them who they worked for.”

“Thanks, Mark, I didn’t think of that,” she says with a sweet smile. “Maybe if we’d spotted these right away that would have worked, but no one remembers whose lab they assisted in every day for the past five months. Anonymous records, folks! Get it through your heads. Unless one of you wants to put your name on some file that might get emailed? We can cast a vote, what do you say? Anyone?” She glares around the room, but no one raises their hand. “Thought not. So what’s the solution here?”

“Don’t you have one?” Dr. Martin asks.

“Clearly not, or she wouldn’t be asking,” Dr. Collins says. “I don’t see what the solution can be, though. We’re all hurting for manpower at some point. We just need to check the book daily from now on, make sure no one makes a request without printing legibly.”

“That’s only half the problem,” Dr. Light says, and sighs. Most of her anger is spent. “The reason people are doing this, I’m pretty sure, is that it lets them get through crunch time on their projects. We’ll have to implement a project scale down—”

The whole room starts to shout her down, but she takes the binder and slams it on the desk until it’s quiet. “I don’t like it either, but we’re running our people ragged like this! If we all follow the rotation, no one gets burnt out, but we clearly can’t do that, so this seems like the best option.”

“Easy for you to say,” Dr. Sato says, taking her by surprise. “Of course if there’s an emergency going on, Cinnabar Lab will get the priority, even outside of rotation.”

Her temper flares back up. “I’m sorry, do you want the living superweapon’s room to be understaffed on the day it happens to decide it wants out? I know it won’t be your people who get pasted to bloody jelly first, but—”

“No one’s saying they want that,” Dr. Brown says, holding up a soothing hand. “I think the main argument is that we all have critical projects to work on, and without the ability to pull people as needed, many of them will fall through.”

“And if everyone pulls at once, or people start to pull extras with scribbles, normal projects are falling through,” Dr. Romero says, speaking up for the first time. “I’ve got a backlog that I’ve been waiting for some openings in the roster to tackle. Now I know why it’s been taking so long.” She shakes her head. “We should be better than this, folks.”

“If we could just hire more staff—” Dr. Collins starts, only to have Dr. Brown make a sound of exasperation.

“Not this again. It’s not going to happen, Perry, not anytime soon. You don’t think Giovanni’s been trying? We’ve practically tapped the whole island dry.”

“Hell at this point I’m pretty sure they’re thinking of retraining the electricians and janitors,” Dr. Bosch says with a smile. “It’s not like we can hire interns or temps from the outside and have them sign an NDA, right?”

The discussion continues off topic from there, but Dr. Light makes no effort to rein it in. She knows better than to stop a bitchfest this massive before it lets off some steam, and despite what Dr. Sato said, she knows what it’s like to be hurting for manpower too.

It’s a simple coordination problem: nine labs set up in Kanto, with enough full-time staff to run maybe seven of them at once… but all nine are working on critical projects that can’t be stopped or delayed. Ostensibly. In truth, any of them (except maybe Cinnabar) could wind down some operations, consolidate, and take turns using the same resource pool, but… no one’s really willing to be the one to do that first.

So people make special requisitions of resources or general staff to deal with some emergency or opportunity, and then the lab they came from falls behind, so they do it, and on it goes, until all anyone’s accomplished is overworking everyone to complete a “normal” week’s worth of productive work instead of recognizing that the expectations are unrealistic. The first person to admit their lab could get by with less would just get by with less, freeing more for the other labs, who now don’t have to sacrifice as much.

All that would be okay if there was maybe another 100 staff to go around, but as Dr. Bosch mentioned, it’s not like they can hire just anyone, even for small positions. The two full-dark labs are the greatest drain on scarce resources, as Giovanni tries to bring a second lab of Cinnabar’s capabilities up to speed for project 3.0.

It’s a point of major concern for her, since she doesn’t know what will happen to 2.351 if they finally do get the staff needed to scrap the risky hybrid and start anew. People have been expecting it for years, but the logistics are just too great a hurdle. They still don’t know how unique 2.351 may be: the second lab that tried to recreate it kept failing, and no one’s sure if it was the presence of the other minds that were needed, or some quality of that combination of minds in particular, or even just one of them.

Those projects were shut down quickly. Erring on the safer side to avoid an explosive intelligence growth only to create batch after batch of varying degrees of “feral” mewtwo has been a nightmare to contemplate, and she doesn’t envy Dr. Sato for having to deal with it. Getting most of his geneticists poached by Dr. Martin’s hybrid project didn’t help either…

“—think it’s clear that this is more widespread than any of us want to admit,” Dr. Brown says. “Not that I’m admitting anything, but… just supposing you’re all in on it, I guess I’d think that’s just the normal state of affairs, and I’ve been missing out. I do sort of feel that way, to be honest.”

Dr. Romero raises his hand. “I haven’t been. This is all news to me, though I guess I should have seen it coming.”

Dr. Light raises her hand too. “I also don’t do it, and you’re missing the point. This isn’t sustainable. Whether all of us are doing it or just one of us, it’s messing with everyone’s productivity and worker well-being. Which is important, because I don’t want to bring up anyone here’s severance package.” She glares around the room, and is satisfied to see everyone look away.

Just then the door opens. Dr. Light is about to yell at whoever it is to knock first, but immediately gets to her feet when Giovanni himself walks in the room.

“Sir! We weren’t expecting you…” Normally their boss will communicate with them through video casting, or just a voice call. Traveling without the ability to teleport is annoying for all dark folk, but for someone as busy as the Gym Leader, she legitimately doesn’t know how he manages to get so much done. What’s he even doing here? Did someone leak the meeting to him?

“I apologize for dropping in so unexpectedly,” Giovanni says, voice steady and calming. “I’ll only be a few minutes. What’s this meeting concerning?”

“Ah.” Dr. Light feels a pit of dread in her stomach. She didn’t want to get Giovanni involved for her own sake, but she also didn’t want whoever was pulling this crap to get fired. The word takes on a different sort of meaning when you work for secret organizations doing highly illegal experiments.

Dr. Burnam gets Giovanni up to speed, either unaware of the implications or uncaring. She never managed to get a good read on him.

“Well, that does sound like a frustrating problem. What solutions have you proposed so far?”

Dr. Light clears her throat and sums up the ideas they had (except for hiring new people, since it goes without saying), without mentioning that each have at least one person who spoke out against them. She sees a few grateful looks flashed in her direction. She’s still a bit nervous, but has calmed down from the initial jolt to the heart that came from seeing the boss so unexpectedly.

“I see.” Giovanni stands with his hands clasped behind his back, gaze taking in the room. “Well, it seems you’re on the road to a solution. I won’t distract you all any further. Dr. Collins, I just came for you. Completely unrelated.”

Dr Light blinks as she looks at Perry. The head of the Celadon lab goes pale, sweat beading his forehead, and Dr. Light looks back at Giovanni just as he pulls a greatball from inside his jacket.

The room explodes into motion as everyone suddenly moves for the walls or gets behind other furniture, while Dr. Collins babbles “I… I don’t… Sir… Please, I can explain…”

Giovanni points the ball at him. There’s a ping. Dr. Light is still seated in her chair, staring in shock as Perry finally pushes himself up out of his seat and tries to run.

The ball hits him in the back, his wail of fear abruptly cut off as he’s sucked into it.

The room is quiet as the ball falls to the ground and rolls up against the table leg.

Giovanni steps toward the ball. “Would you mind, Dr. Light?”

“No, sir,” she says, lips numb as she leans down and takes the great ball with trembling fingers. Part of her wants to ask what Dr. Collins did. What terrible betrayal, what monumental incompetence. The rest of her doesn’t want to know. Sorry, Perry. She hands it to her boss without looking at him.

“Thank you. Do keep me posted on how all this resolves, won’t you?” He’s not looking at her, but at the rest of the room. Dr. Bosch looks like he’s going to be sick, and Dr. Romero’s face is turned toward the wall, shoulders shaking. “I’ll see you all for the normal meeting next week.”

Giovanni leaves. Dr. Light stays seated. Slowly, one by one, people make their way back to the table. Lift overturned chairs. Sit down.

“So,” she says after everyone’s back, some with their head in their hands, others staring blankly at her or the table. “Those in favor of a slightly scaling down operations, raise your hand.”

Every hand goes up. Politics, Dr. Light thinks in a mix of disgust and relief. She just wanted to be a researcher. Still, if she was a praying woman, she’d be thanking Arceus every day that she works in an organization where someone in charge can step in and enforce coordination, frightening as it sometimes is.

At least she doesn’t have to apply for grant money.


If there’s one thing Tahu always knew he was meant for, it was understanding what people wanted.

“I’m sorry,” the renegade says. “I just… I don’t know what came over me! Please, don’t, don’t kill me, I’m sorry!

Desperation. Fear. He types the words out with trembling fingers as he feels the sensed emotions in himself. Then he withdraws his mind from theirs, knowing what was coming next. No mystery here; the man is malleable, but weak. What he wants doesn’t matter compared to what Giovanni does.

“They had to die. Parasites, swollen on the blood of the people. The legal system’s in their pocket, they had to see what happens to them! It’s less than they deserved!”

Righteous anger. Complete conviction. Some mystery on this one. Tahu tries to predict Giovanni’s response, whether he thinks the renegade could be tempered, made useful. In the end he predicts wrong, which only drives him to understand more.

“Go fuck yourself, ‘Leader!'” The woman practically spits the word out. “If you’re going to kill me then get it over with!”

Rage. Self-loathing. No mystery. If death is what she wants, death she’ll have.

Month after month, whenever Giovanni has to execute a renegade, his personal assistant Tahu is nearby, listening to the conversations through an earpiece and typing what he finds to his Leader. He’s gotten better at predicting what Giovanni would choose, whether he would give them the shot that kills them, or the one he keeps in his jacket that would only make them appear dead. But his Leader still surprises him, and his explanations of why are always enlightening, to the point that Tahu has requested to be present and listen in on even dark and psychic renegades, just so he can try and predict Giovanni’s choice. He was granted that, for which he’s grateful. He has a lot to be grateful for, overall.

“This has all just been a terrible mistake. I wish I could do something, say something to convince you of that…”

Tahu sits with his back against the wall dividing him from the renegade, eyes closed as he feels for something, but… there’s barely anything there, and what he finds is hard to parse. He’s used to numbness when people are facing their final moments, but this is different. It’s not numb but nearly empty. Some traces of tension, some wariness, some anticipation. What he thinks of more than anything are numbers that go up or down, expectations and… calculation. That’s the word.

Tahu opens his eyes and types into his phone: No regret. Seems to be calculating what the best thing to say is? Hard to read, feels neither sincere or insincere. Tahu feels a brief stab of frustration and worry that he can’t be of more help, but a greater part of him is excited. How would Giovanni handle this?

There’s a pause, and then the Leader says, “Unfortunately, even if I believed you, it would not matter to your sentence. You know that. I’m curious if there’s anything you would have done differently, looking back on what’s happened?”

“I don’t know. Worked a different job, I suppose, so that I wouldn’t have become a suspect.”

Tahu hears Giovanni sigh. “Mr. Ueno, you’re about to be executed for a crime that, in most people’s eyes, deserves a punishment far greater than a quick and painless shot into oblivion. This conversation is not being recorded, one of the few rights I have managed to acquire for branded renegades in our region, so that their last moments would not be spent thinking of their legacy. So they could have some freedom, some space to be genuine, in their final experiences. If you truly wish this to be your last conversation, it is of course your choice. But I’ve seen your code… or I suppose I should say, the code that was used in the attacks. It’s impressive stuff. You can use your final moments how you wish, I just thought you might appreciate someone to talk to.”

That last was a good touch: a lie of sorts, Tahu knows Giovanni doesn’t actually understand much programming, but he sensed the flicker of pride when the Leader mentioned the code. Now the renegade is feeling something more familiar, cycling between a desire to share, to be understood, with honed instincts of keeping the truth to themself.

“Well, it was worth a shot,” Giovanni says. “Oh, pardon me, that was thoughtless.” The faint sound of a hypodermic needle being picked up from its table—

Resolution, like standing at the edge of a cliff.

“Wait.”

—and the sound of it being put down. “Yes?”

“I would have waited a day.”

Giovanni doesn’t pretend to misunderstand. “What would have changed, if you waited?”

“Everything. I thought of a far more elegant solution just a day after I left the ball, but didn’t want to return and risk being seen on camera taking it back. It was well hidden, even more than the other cities.”

“The other cities.” Giovanni lets out a breath. “So you were behind the incident in Fuchsia? It seemed similar. Well planned out. Methodical.” More pride, and some annoyance? Tahu sends a quick text. “And others,” the Leader says after a moment. “I’ve missed some, haven’t I?”

“Not just you. My first experiments were in Carmine and Ivory Town, but no one noticed. They were chalked up to just random pokemon attacks, as if a parasect and kingler just happened to wander into the middle of town without anyone noticing.”

“So four successful tests in all. What were you trying for each time? Not just a delayed autorelease, surely.”

“Set, preconditioned behaviors. Imagine the applications.”

“Oh, I have, believe me. Security. Search and rescue. Transport, if people want to travel from fixed locations by pokemon without a handler. Is that the sort of thing you had in mind?”

“Sure, if my thinking was stuck that small.”

Tahu’s breath stops. He’s been Giovanni’s personal psychic for over eight years, and he’s never heard someone so much as insinuate that the Leader was less than a genius, even outside of his presence. Not that the people he spends time with are likely to say so, but still…

“Oh, I can think bigger,” Giovanni says, and it’s only from long association that Tahu can hear the slight, dangerous smile on the Leader’s face. “But they’re all the sorts of reasons hacking pokeball tech is illegal in the first place. Is that what you were actually aiming to do, ultimately?”

“Yes.”

“And would you, if you were given a second chance? Warned away from it?”

“Probably. It’s too great a challenge to just ignore. What am I supposed to do, pretend there are more interesting things to work on? There aren’t. Not to me. That’s why you’re going to let me live.”

“Am I?”

“Of course. All this isn’t for my sake, and you’re not just building a profile of renegades. You want to know if I’m controllable. If I’ll be able to work for you secretly, if you get me out of this somehow and stick me in a facility somewhere. I’m not the first to think of this, there are conspiracy theories online. I was always skeptical of them, but now I’m starting to believe it.”

Tahu blinks. This is the first time he’s heard someone get so close to the truth, even if they’re motivated to believe it by egotism. The man is more confident than he claims: Tahu senses a sliver of hope, a shard of curiosity… but mostly what he feels from Ueno is that of course he would be spared death. A man of his genius is too valuable to kill, his story too important to end here.

Tahu lets Giovanni know, though he doesn’t think it will change the Leader’s obvious next response: “And would you?”

“Yes. Absolutely.” Ueno’s hope grows, as does his egotism. Vindication is a singing chorus in Tahu’s mind, and he quickly withdraws his connection with the renegade, disliking the feel. It was like a drug.

It wasn’t the only thing he felt, however. Sincerity, Tahu types out… then hesitates.

If he sends this message, he predicts Giovanni will spare the renegade. He’d think someone this skilled would be a waste to kill, that his potential positive impact would be too great not to explore, in a safely restricted way.

But Tahu doesn’t quite agree. There’s something off about the man’s thoughts, his inner experiences. It would be one thing if he felt like a vibrating voltorb, but instead he’s more like… some ghost that might fade out of the corner of your eye as soon as you look away.

He could change the message. Lie about the renegade’s sincerity.

But Giovanni trusts him. It’s part of the puzzle of the man, the way he assigns trust to others when he has so many secrets to keep. Tahu has no doubt that if he betrays his Leader he would be snuffed out, but he’s okay with that. Because just as he’s trusted, he trusts his Leader in return.

It would be one thing to act without his knowledge for his benefit. But to deliberately deceive him… that would be a step too far.

Perhaps there’s another way.

Sincere, he sends, the wait already having gone on for a few seconds longer than customary. But there’s something about him that seems inherently hard to pin down. I would not trust him. He rereads the message twice, then sends it too.

It’s the first time he’s ever added commentary to his readings.

If Giovanni is surprised, it’s not evident in his voice. “I suppose we’ll see.” There’s the scrape of the needle…

“Wait. Wasn’t that the poison one?”

“There’s no non-poison one. It’s just a matter of dosage. I advise you keep still.”

Well, I tried. Tahu lets out a breath, then stands and stretches his legs and shoulders before he makes his way out of the room and around to the front of the building, where he takes a pull on his e-cig, holding it in his lungs for a while to relax his nerves.

No matter how many times, the moment of injection always brings him back to his own, even when it’s non-lethal. He hadn’t known that at the time. He thought he was going to die.

He was just a thug, back then. He gravitated toward the strongest kids in his neighborhood, did his best to understand what they needed, then give it to them. He was good at it. Even without people saying anything, he’d get feelings about what those around him needed or wanted.

So when he felt his whole gang’s anger at someone in an opposing one, how everyone seemed to feel it would be best if they just weren’t around anymore, the easiest thing to do was use a pokemon to kill them. Nothing fearsome, just a crappy bug that he caught and barely trained. Hopefully something that would be seen as an accident.

And it was. The first time. He wasn’t so lucky the third.

He may not have been spared if the Leader sent to execute him hadn’t noticed his untrained psychic powers. Apparently they made him so valuable that he was already “sold” by the time he woke up a few days after his supposed execution, body recovering from the comatose state slowly but surely. He barely had time to get used to the idea that he was actually still alive before he was told what would happen next in no uncertain terms.

He would be sent to another region. Minor plastic surgery, newly forged documents, and a falsified civil record would allow him to leave his past behind him. He would dedicate himself to the service of the Leader who had purchased him. His life would be full of work, but not cruel. He would be allowed a salary, some personal time. He could eventually retire, even.

But he could never speak of what had happened to him. And he couldn’t quit. Not unless he wanted to be hunted down a second time, and killed with even less of a trial.

Tahu agreed. It seemed, on balance, an excessively fair trade, even to his young and stupid self.

He had few opinions about his new lease on life, at first. He was just happy to be alive. When he was told that it was Leader Giovanni, of all people, who had purchased him, it felt like a dream. Even a gutter punk from another region like him knew about the youngest Champion in Kanto history. Apparently the Viridian Gym Leader was paying a premium for psychic and dark renegades, even without training.

Traveling to Kanto felt like something out of a kid’s movie. A month before, he had been a petty criminal. No prospects, barely any money to his name. Now he was on his way to a foreign region, where food and lodging would be provided indefinitely, as well as training for his latent psychic powers, all so he could help one of the most powerful trainers in the world.

And all I had to do to earn it was try to kill someone, and get branded a renegade, he remembers thinking as he watched the island he would soon call home approach in the distance.

Life is strange, sometimes.

Leader Giovanni eventually calls for him, and Tahu presents himself to his boss’s office. Or at least the one in the Gym. It’s far more ostentatious than the ones in his less… public places. Trappings of the position are important: even Tahu, who’s been in here countless times now and is always acutely aware of Giovanni’s position in comparison to him on even a personal level, feels their difference in status more keenly when he walks in.

“Sit down,” the Leader says, typing something on his computer. “I’d like you to report more fully on the renegade we just interviewed.”

Tahu feels himself start to sweat, suddenly worried that he’s here to be punished for his comment. He instinctively reaches his mind out to sense what his Leader is thinking, and of course senses nothing at all. It’s surprising how that never stops getting ever-so-mildly frustrating. It’s the reason most psychics don’t spend a lot of time around dark minds, if they can help it.

“I feel as though I have a weak grasp on his psychology,” Tahu says after a minute, knowing his Leader would never begrudge him time to think. “I don’t know how to evaluate what he believes is true about himself and what he will justify tomorrow. I think it’s… risky, letting him live. More than most, I mean. Even given what he can accomplish, I wouldn’t have made the same decision.”

Giovanni nods, and continues to type into his computer. Tahu waits, knowing he isn’t being slighted and needing the time to think through what he just said over and over before he’s satisfied he didn’t leave anything out, or assert something he can’t stand behind.

Eventually Giovanni stops typing, clicks something, then gives Tahu his full attention. “Is this the first time you had an opinion on whether a fellow renegade was too dangerous to risk?”

Fellow renegade. It’s been so long since he’s thought of himself in those terms. “No.”

“Why haven’t you shared them before?”

“I didn’t feel it was my place,” he says automatically. “I’m sorry if—”

“No,” Giovanni says, and Tahu falls silent. “Skip that part.”

After a moment the psychic nods. “Sir. I worried you would make a mistake. I hoped to help you avoid it, if possible.” His throat feels dry, but he doesn’t swallow, face schooled as he meets his Leader’s gaze.

“Good.” He looks at his screen, mouse moving to bring something up. “Do you know how many lives you’ve saved, since coming to work with me?”

Tahu blinks at the sudden shift. “I don’t.” He’s fought alongside the other Gym members, of course. He can remember a few of the people he’s saved, like a group of trapped trainers during the Viridian Forest fire a few months ago. When he was still new to all this, he kept track; it felt like something that might eventually balance out the ones he took, someday. Eventually he stopped counting. “Do you?” It wouldn’t surprise him to learn that Giovanni was somehow tracking something like that.

“No. Even counting just the renegades you’ve helped, there’s no way to tell which were the direct result of your intervention. But here’s what the record shows.” He turns the screen, and Tahu sees a graph that stretches back decades. “Notice anything?”

It’s faint at first, but there. A steady upward trend, starting eight years ago. By the beginning of this year, the percentage of renegades that Giovanni has managed to spare from execution has more than doubled from the point it was before Tahu joined.

“I long ago honed the art of speaking with and discerning which renegades were safe to spare and which weren’t to what I thought was as good as I could do. It was only with your help that I was able to break those limits.”

A swell of pride in Tahu’s chest makes him feel oddly embarrassed. Praise by the Leader isn’t unheard of, but this is more than that. It’s… something very close to validation, and Tahu is alarmed to feel something like tears prickling at the back of his eyes. “I’m… gratified that I can be of such help, Leader. But wouldn’t any psychic serve as well to pass along simple impressions?”

“Would they? I’m told that there’s a depth and nuance that comes with skill for these things, as well as the ability to keep your perspective while merging it with someone else’s emotions.”

“Yes, of course. I didn’t mean to dodge the compliment, I only meant that any psychic of sufficient skill could do what I do.”

“To a certain degree, yes. Sabrina, if she had no other duties, or Hitoshi, perhaps. But you weren’t selected for your abilities alone. You were selected because of your background, and because of your loyalty. Loyalty I fostered in you, so I could extend trust. Do you understand?”

“I… believe so. You’re saying you trust me to share my thoughts with you.”

“Yes.” Giovanni’s lips quirk in a smile. “I often find that confidence is not just a matter of our own assessment of our competence, but also our assessment of how those around us recognize or value our competence. For whatever reason, it seems I’ve signaled enough positive signs of trusting your judgement to warrant you to feel confident enough to share some of it. This is me reinforcing that confidence more explicitly.”

Tahu bows his torso, taking on the cultural practice of the region to show the depth of his feeling. “I’m honored, Leader. More than I can say.”

“I did end up sparing Mr. Ueno.”

Tahu blinks, still bowing. He sits up. “Ah.”

“I don’t want that to discourage you,” Giovanni says. “There are factors beyond those you’re aware of. Some who request renegades are less, ah, lenient than others, with those they employ. Taking your advisement into consideration, I believe Mr. Ueno will do well with someone who will keep a closer eye on him than most, while still ensuring his particular skills and genius can benefit others.”

“I understand.” It’s hard not to think of what sorts of living conditions might be required to keep a renegade of Ueno’s genius under such close control. Not that it matters: in the end it’s surely better than death, and perhaps the programmer would relish an environment that lets him dedicate himself entirely to his work.

“Now that you’ve extended not just your trust of me, but of mine toward you, I want your perspective on something that I’ve shown few others. Perhaps you can advise me on it, the same way you do with the renegades.”

Tahu feels pride swell up in him again, and smiles. “Of course. I’m at your service, Leader. Always.”

Giovanni sends a message, then stands. “Good. Because we’re going now.”

When Giovanni tells him where, Tahu feels his heart leap, and hurries to follow. Today began as fairly normal. He wouldn’t have guessed that his decision would change so much.

He knows what’s been going on at Cinnabar Island, of course, but only second hand. He’s never been in the same room as the creature, and no video footage exists. It’s one of the greatest mysteries around, and it’s hard to contain his excitement at finally having a closer look at it, if still indirectly. Sabrina talks about it with him, now and then, but not in much detail. He gets the feeling she doesn’t like him, though it’s hard to know for sure with how good she is at mental defense.

Eventually Tahu stands with Giovanni before a door, waiting for the system to boot up.

“It takes a few minutes for the room to clear out, normally,” Giovanni says. “I often spend the time reviewing my goals for the meetings, playing through what it might say, how I will respond to certain questions.”

“And are you not now?”

“No. For this, I’ve developed a script.”

“Ah.” He’s not sure he understands, but he has a more pressing question. “Wouldn’t it help if I could merge thoughts with it first, at least once? Get a sense of how it thinks and feels?”

“I’m sure it would, but for matters such as that, I must defer to Sabrina. I know your shield is sufficient, or you would not be here, but if she gives you clearance then we can discuss it for one of the upcoming visits.”

His jaw sets. “As you say, Leader.”

“Until then, I’m curious about your impression without such. What I want you to focus on are the same sorts of things you would with a renegade interview. Understood?”

“Yes.”

When they get the notification that things are ready, Giovanni taps the screen beside the door, then walks in. Tahu gets only a glimpse of what’s inside, then it closes, and he’s left to watch on the monitor.

The experimental life form hangs suspended in his pod, various media systems around it to play him music or display videos or digital books. The computer terminals and chairs are all empty, the guard and their pokemon absent. He spots the new addition of the mobile life support suit, which hangs nearby in its own chamber where it can be serviced and deployed as needed. It’s apparently used more and more often these days, as Mewtwo leaves his chamber to interact with the rest of the facility, and spend time outside. Giovanni stopped requiring his own presence for those; according to Sabrina, the Leader’s creation seems content to simply stand and stare, or walk around the manor grounds.

Tahu knows that at first Giovanni only pretended to be absent, watching from a distance through binoculars until Mewtwo returned downstairs. Lacking the ability to teleport is one of the Leader’s greatest frustrations, and so after a dozen such incidents, when it seemed truly content to simply bask in the sunlight, Giovanni allowed the trips more often, and put his time to better use elsewhere.

As he said, trust is hard to develop.

“Greetings, Giovanni. How are you today?”

Mewtwo’s synthetic voice fills the chamber, and Tahu watches as the Leader reaches the chair in front of the tube and sits, one leg crossed over his knee as he gazes up at his creation. “Greetings, Mewtwo. Well enough, and you?”

Scripted, he said. Tahu tries to determine what the point of this script is. What he’s meant to witness and advise on, with everything so set in stone.

“Yes. Shall we play a game?”

“Not today.”

No immediate response. Is that part off-script? Tahu watches both of them, but his gaze moves more often to the creature’s face, fascinated. He knows it’s half human, but he sees nothing familiar in its pinched, bone-white features. No lips, no eyebrows, a snout instead of a nose… he can’t make out the eyes from this distance, but he imagines them as similarly alien.

“Is something wrong?” Mewtwo finally asks.

“Yes. Something is wrong, and has been for a long time, now.”

“What is it? Perhaps I can help.”

Giovanni gathers himself with a breath, then expels it and stares down at his clasped hands. “You cannot help with this. It was my error, you see. My mistake. I didn’t trust you.”

The room is quiet. There’s the background noises of the creature’s life pod, and the monitoring equipment. It all sounds so real, even through the speakers. The one for Mewtwo’s heart rate stays constant, steady, despite the surprise it would surely be feeling. Little things like that keep distracting Tahu, and he makes an effort to refocus, in case he misses what he’s supposed to see.

Finally Giovanni’s creation responds. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s quite simple. I didn’t trust you, Mewtwo, when we created you. I hoped for intelligence, and intelligence you have, in abundance. I hoped for power, and that too you have, far outstripping our expectations in some ways, even if others are not yet met. But I did not dare hope for obedience, for trust. Hope for such things would be foolish. Dangerous. I needed to be cautious. Safe. And as a result, I fear I have ruined things permanently.”

Mewtwo is silent again. Tahu can’t imagine what responses it might have prepared for something like this, except to ask the obvious…

“Ruined things how? What have you done?”

“I manufactured your illness.” Tahu’s eyes widen. “It was meant as a control mechanism, when you were created. Many of your non-dark researchers truly do not understand it, to help sell the illusion. The others enhance it, keep it evolving, to keep them befuddled. When they reach a breakthrough or suspect the truth, we have them inflict Amnesia on themselves if psychic, or transfer them to another facility if not.”

Silence, for almost a minute. Tahu uses the time to guess what Giovanni is thinking, what the consequences he’s expecting from this will be, until a single word is spoken:

“Why?”

“We had no way of knowing how smart you would be. How… human. Or how powerful. If you were to somehow escape, despite all our other precautions, we needed something immensely deadly and pernicious, beyond even the ability of a powerful psychic’s ability to regenerate.” Giovanni pauses, seeming to let out a heavy breath. Surely part of the script as well. “We succeeded.”

Silence in the room, but for the occasional fluid transfer, the steady beep. Beep. Beep. Tahu watches Giovanni’s fingers smooth the material of his pant leg. It’s the first time he’s seen the Leader show any sign of nervousness. Pent up energy, yes. Tension, of course. But this can only be described as nervousness. Tahu can see the moment when he calms himself, and raises his gaze to meet his creation’s again. To focus on the importance of the moment.

“I cannot be cured?” the synthetic voice asks at last, so deep and powerful. A fitting voice, somehow.

“On the contrary, you can. The problem is that I do not trust that you trust us. I have come to realize my error in stages, over the years. I did not like those realizations, but I endeavored to consider them, focused on discerning how justified they were. I listened to counsel from those who know you best. I now believe my errors were severe.

“Had I simply trusted you more, given you more freedom sooner, perhaps you would be a perfect partner, now. A few years in, there was still much testing to do. Much to learn. And always, more excuses to be made, more reasons for caution. Your threats were, of course, the greatest justification to stay the course, but I do not blame you for them. I blame myself, for making them necessary. Perhaps if I had been less cautious, trusted the human in you more than the pokemon, there would exist a strong bond, if not like that of a parent and child, at least not one of master and slave. I do not…” Giovanni stops, and it’s hard to tell if it’s part of his script or not. “I am imperfect in many ways. I have learned much over the past decade. I hope you understand that. I hope I have not ruined things irrevocably. That by coming clean, I can salvage some seed of trust. That is all I need, in truth. To really, truly feel that, even if you cannot forgive me, it would be safe to grant you your freedom, and perhaps start anew.”

Tahu is holding his breath despite himself. He forces himself to breathe out, then back in. He’d gotten caught up in the moment, when he should be trying to think through what he’s seeing, the implications, and what Giovanni’s imagined responses to this script, this confession, are.

He knows enough to already presume that the Leader would have used prediction algorithms that studied every word Mewtwo has ever spoken, running millions of simulations (imperfect, all imperfect, for of course they can’t put the real Mewtwo in a ball and risk damage to his mind), coming up with all sorts of answers, until he could find the right words to say to get the right response:

“Of course we can. I understand your choices, whatever pain they have caused me. Once I am cured and free, we can begin building true trust between us.”

Giovanni closes his eyes, breath coming out in a near silent rush. He’s focused on something, though what it is Tahu can’t begin to guess (so frustrating!), and he’s glad he was told to engage his shield so he isn’t tempted to reach out, only to feel that void again.

No, he has to try. Tahu puts himself in Giovanni’s mind as best he can. Not just what he might feel, hearing those words, but how he wants to feel.

Is it even remotely like what he feels when a renegade says they would toe the line, if spared?

Giovanni’s eyes open. He watches his creation a moment longer, as if contemplating feelings that just… won’t… change.

And then he presses the button beside the pod that would terminate Mewtwo’s life.

Instead of poisons flooding the pod, Mewtwo simply disappears from inside it. The rest of the room flickers on the monitor, fading back into the bare whiteness of the holochamber. Giovanni sits still as the simulation ends yet again, finger finally leaving the empty air where the button was.

Tahu watches as Giovanni sits for another minute in that white, empty room, then stands and leaves the chamber.

The Viridian Gym leader takes a handkerchief from his suit pocket and wipes sweat from his forehead as he rejoins Tahu. The psychic barely notices, still thinking of what he saw.

“Do you understand?” Giovanni eventually asks.

“I think so,” Tahu says, each word measured, careful. “It is not enough to hear the right words. Difficult choices don’t come when you hear the wrong ones. What matters here is not what the creature says, but how you feel about what it says.”

“Yes. I’ve rarely found it so difficult to understand my own feelings on a matter, but in this case it seems impossible for me to separate my caution from my perception of reality. I’ve lost perspective.”

Tahu feels uncomfortable, if touched, for being so confided in. “Does that mean that it’s best to simply start anew?”

Before Giovanni can answer, his earpiece rings. “Yes?” Tahu sees the Leader’s eyes widen, then narrow, before he begins to stride down the hall. “I’m on my way. Have everyone assembled in ten minutes. Let the League know I’ll be going.”

Tahu takes his phone out to check messages. “Trouble?”

“Just the world’s well timed seasonal reminder of what my indecision costs.”

Chapter 58: Precipitate

On the fourth morning of the cruise, the ship stops by the northernmost of the Sevii Isles so people can shake off whatever cabin fever they might have before the return trip to Vermilion. Knot Island is long and thin, with a massive, dormant volcano called Mt. Ember hogging most of its landmass at the northern end. The port at its southern end is highly focused on tourism, with lots of restaurants, hotels, and offers of guided trips to the mountain or the other Sevii islands.

Red and Leaf spend most of their time ashore by exploring Treasure Beach, so called because the tides often bring in pearls, shells, scales, or other valuables from the unusually high number of aquatic pokemon around the island. There are people who scour the beaches as a second job or profitable hobby, but most tourists are required to stay relatively near to the town to avoid wild pokemon, which means the area has been mostly picked clean. Since Red and Leaf have their pokemon to protect them, they move farther along the coast. Crimson flies above them looking for danger while their other pokemon help them dig, with varying degrees of success.

Luckily no wild pokemon attack them, and Red’s just happy to spend time with his newly evolved pokemon. Pikachu is incredibly fast compared to when he was a pichu, able to dash from the shoreline to the tall grass beyond the sand and back before Red can call out a command to return. They break up the digging with occasional training exercises, and even Leaf seems happy to do things like target practice again. It takes Red almost an hour to get used to Pikachu’s stronger and more accurate electric bolts, but isn’t sure how much of that may have to do with the difference of the beach’s air humidity.

After a few hours they manage to find a tiny pearl that some shellder spat out, as well as a small pocket of ruby “star sand,” the deteriorated remains of staryu and starmie gems that often find their way to shore. It’s not much given the time investment, but upon seeing Leaf’s sad expression when she carefully scoops the ruby grains into a pouch, Red manages to cheer her up a bit by suggesting they give the money from selling it to Aiko’s ranch. Eventually they return to town to try one of the restaurants there for lunch before they head back to the ship. Since it’s technically off the ship, Red orders food without any pokemon in it, which also seems to cheer Leaf up. They spend most of the meal talking about what other options there are for tasty, pokemon-free salads and pastries.

Afterward they head back to the ship, and Red tries calling Bill to see if he has anything to say about the psychics on the cruise. The inventor doesn’t answer, as usual, so he calls Ayane next.

“It’s not unusual for us to keep details about jobs to ourselves,” she says, and Red can hear the frown in her voice. “But that does seem like a context where it wouldn’t be as big a deal as you’re reporting. Do you have any reason to believe something criminal or wrong is happening?”

“No,” he admits. “It’s just a feeling. Have you ever been asked to come on one of these?”

His teacher laughs. “No, Red, I’m afraid I’m not quite as renowned as to be hired by the sorts of people on the Cruise Convention. But plenty of businesses employ psychics to help in their negotiations and to tell if they’re being influenced when they know other psychics will be around. Your plan to talk to the ship’s captain seems reasonable, but I wouldn’t start throwing accusations around without something more concrete to report.”

Red thanks her and says goodbye, then turns to Leaf, who’s on the phone with his mom.

“Uh huh. Yeah.” She notices he’s free, and says, “Hang on, here’s Red.”

He takes the phone from her. “Hi Mom!”

“Red, can you repeat what Mr. Silph said to you?”

Red blinks, her tone forestalling any questions he wants to ask. Instead he just recalls the conversation as best he can.

When he finishes, she lets out a breath. “Okay. And just to be sure, he came to you, right? Was there any reason to believe that he might have known you were on the boat before he arrived?”

“I don’t… think so,” Red says, trying to remember what might have hypothetically tipped Mr. Silph off. He turns to Leaf. “You didn’t post about us coming online, did you Leaf?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I thought about it, but decided not to drive up expectations in case I wasn’t able to write something. I… did tell someone at Aiko’s ranch, a guy named Adom, but I don’t think he would have told anyone, since he told me something about the cruise in confidence.”

“Leaf says—”

“I heard her. So there’s one potential source, aside from Bill himself. I’ve never met him, do you think it’s something he might have done?”

Red closes his eyes and tries to model Bill as best he can. What does he want? Why did he send us here? What purpose do we serve in being here? He doesn’t know enough, it’s all speculative. “I can’t think of anything, but… I mean, the two probably do business together. Mr. Silph might have asked if Bill was coming, and he told him we were instead?”

“Yes, that’s what I was afraid of.” The tension in his mom’s voice adds worry to Red’s confusion. He can’t imagine what his mom is so concerned about, but she’s not the type to worry needlessly, and clearly she has some information he doesn’t. “And he hasn’t talked to you again since that first time?”

“No. What’s going on, Mom?”

“It’s a long story, but the less you know the better, from what Leaf told me about all the psychics on the ship.”

Red’s hand tightens on the phone as protective anger creeps up his temples. “You think he’s trying to get to you somehow, through me?” He acted so friendly, too…

“Maybe not explicitly. Just stay calm and avoid him as best you can for the next few days. Can you do that for me?”

“Of course. Sorry if I said the wrong thing to him—”

“No, hon, I’m sure you didn’t, and you couldn’t have known either way. I could have told you earlier… though maybe it’s best that I didn’t after all. I’m sorry you’re getting caught up in this.”

Red feels curiosity warring with his sense. She just said that the less he knows the better, and he’s still itching to know more. “It’s okay,” he says after a moment.

“Does that mean you won’t try to pry into it yourself?”

Red is acutely aware that the last time they met in person she was berating him for breaking a promise to her. She’s not using the word, but she doesn’t have to. “You can tell me when the cruise is over though?”

“Yes, and I will. I was planning to soon anyway.”

“Okay, then.” Silph probably has a psychic constantly in his mind to let him know if another tries to invade it anyway.

“Thank you, Red. Just enjoy the rest of your cruise as best you can. I love you. ”

“Love you too, Mom.” He hands the phone back to Leaf, who says goodbye shortly after, looking as troubled as him. “Well? What else do you know about all this?”

“I promised I wouldn’t say, Red, plus the psychics…”

Plus the psychics. Meaning she promised in a context separate from knowing about them. But he’s sure she has her reasons, and slowly lets the anger go as he breathes out. “Alright, fair enough.”

Leaf looks a bit surprised. “Really?”

Red smiles and starts looking through his phone directory again. “I’ve found that trusting you is pretty easy, in general. Come on, let’s see how Blue and Aiko have been doing.”

Turns out, not so well.

“Oh, no!” Red hears Leaf exclaim, hand over her mouth as she listens to whatever part of the story Aiko is on. “Are you… is everyone alright?”

Red himself is still in a mild state of shock as Blue finishes summing up what happened in the tunnels. “That… really sucks,” Red says, thinking of how much time and effort he and Blue put into training Kemuri back in Pewter. “I’m sorry, Blue. What about the girl who got hurt?”

“She’s set to undergo some more specialized treatment. We’re still waiting on updates to see how much she’ll recover.”

“Damn.” Red wants to say he’s sorry again, but it feels inadequate. I should have been there…

“I know what you’re thinking.”

“Do you?” Red glances at Leaf, who’s pacing restlessly with a concerned look on her face.

“You warned me to be careful. I should have been more prepared.”

“I wasn’t thinking that, actually. Just… wishing I could have helped.”

“Oh. Yeah, it would have been good to have you down there.”

Red isn’t sure how to respond to that. He wants to say sorry again, this time for not being there, but it would feel hollow, knowing that he’ll be going to train with Sabrina soon. Again he feels like he should say so, and again he balks at making the words real, not sure how to actually approach the topic given yet another example of what he’s risking if he leaves.

“How’s the cruise, anyway?” Blue eventually asks after the awkward silence spins on a while.

“Oh, uh, good,” Red says, relieved. “Some of the tech is really cool… oh shit, Blue I totally forgot, you guys haven’t heard anything yet, right? It hasn’t leaked?”

What hasn’t leaked?”

So Red sums up the pokemon cloning tech demonstration, along with all the shortcomings, both admitted and imagined by Leaf.

“Blue? You there?”

“Yeah,” he says, sounding a bit dazed. “I’m here.”

Red grins. “How blown is your mind?”

“Red… that’s…”

“I know.”

“How long?” Blue demands. “How long before it’s ready? I… damn it, I already wiped Kemuri’s ball… why haven’t they already announced this?”

“I don’t think they know, yet.” Red notes his own surprise; he hadn’t expected Blue of all people to want to bring back his pokemon instead of get a new, top shelf mon. But after further thought, it makes sense: Blue has never wanted to be seen as taking an easy route. He wants to prove he has what it takes himself to train and raise the best pokemon. “Honestly, I’d be surprised if they even know what’s wrong. If it turns out to be trivial, maybe they’ll be ready in a year or two. If it turns out not to be, well… a decade, maybe a bit more?”

Blue lets a breath out. “Yeah. Alright, then. Still, this is going to throw the markets into chaos.”

“Not just pokemon markets, all of them.”

“Shit, yeah. Is there any way we can use that?”

“People are talking about which stocks to short sell, so maybe that. I’m not really sure how it works though: something about borrowing stocks, selling them, then buying them back when the price is down.”

“I’ll check with the others, and Gramps and Daisy, maybe someone will know how we can get in on it. Damn, I don’t have time for this now!”

“What’s going on?” Red asks.

“I’m getting ready to fight Leader Surge. Trained up my dugtrio, just seeing if I can get a last minute evolution out of Gon to cover for Kemuri’s spot on the team.”

Red hears the clipped, tense note in his voice. “Have you gotten the chance to talk to Surge yet?” he asks, trying to get the conversation somewhere more positive.

“No.” Dammit. “He’s either really busy or too above talks with random trainers at the gym. Either way, he’ll have to give me some face time after I beat him.”

Red grins. That’s more like it. “Well, good luck. I’d say I’ll be cheering you on, but I don’t think the ship’s net will handle streaming.”

“No sweat, just watch it later. I’ve got some ideas I want to test with you when you get back.”

Red opens his mouth, then closes it again. Just say it.

“Red?”

“You haven’t asked the others to try them out?”

“Different sets of skills. It’ll be too late to help with Surge, but I want to see if I can get my team to respond to stressed syllables on commands. What do you think?”

Huh. That would be hard for some pokemon with less acute sense of sound, but would really allow for more variation in each command’s specificity… “It sounds like a good challenge. But… Leaf can probably help with that more than I can, since it’s not necessarily combat related.”

“I’ve got another idea for her. Plus, you can use your powers to figure out when my pokemon are hearing different pitches, right?”

“I could, yeah.”

There’s another pause before Blue says, “Well, it was just an idea.” There’s a frown in his voice, and Red knows his own hesitation was clear. “It’s fine if you’ll be busy with something else.”

“I might be, yeah,” Red says slowly. He struggles one last time to explicitly say it, and fails. It seems this is the closest he can come for now. “I’ll let you know when I get back?”

“Alright, sure. Anyway, I gotta go. Enjoy the rest of the trip.”

“Sure. Good luck with the match, and say hey to Aiko for me.”

Red ends the call, and stares at the phone for a bit, wondering why it’s so hard for him to tell Leaf or Blue that he’s going. Should he take it as a sign that he’s not actually ready to leave, that he would regret the choice later? That there’s some part of him that doesn’t want to go? Except that’s not a new insight, he knows there’s a large part of him that doesn’t want to go.

Red feels his thoughts going in useless circles and contemplates getting his notebook out, but decides to check his messages and email instead while he still has some internet connection. Soon the boat announces that it’s preparing to sail again, and Red sees Leaf finally end the call as they make their way back over the docks together.

“Hey. Crazy stuff, right?” he asks.

“Yeah.” Leaf looks troubled, and Red assumes it’s about their friends almost dying underground until she says, “Red, Aiko reminded me of something I wanted to talk about, before we came on the cruise. She told me about you using your powers to remove your pokemon’s conditioning, and let them follow their battle instincts at just the right moments.”

“Yeah, Blue calls it sakki. It translates basically to ‘killing intent,’ which isn’t quite accurate for what I feel when I use it. That depends a lot on the pokemon” He trails off as he sees her expression. “What about it?”

“I don’t understand how you could do something so reckless. Aiko was saying you’ve been careful, but all it takes is one slip up, and you could have your license stripped, or worse.”

“Oh, no, it’s not like that!” he says, smiling. He sees a flash of irritation on her face, and stops. “Come on, Leaf, you know how risk-averse I am. I wouldn’t do it if it was that dangerous! Like I said, it depends on the pokemon. I refused to use it with Charmeleon after he evolved because I wasn’t sure it was safe.”

“I know you’re sane, Red, I’m just concerned that you can’t actually know how dangerous it is, and the consequence if you’re wrong is too high. Don’t you think if that sort of thing was safe, other psychics would have thought of it by now?”

“We don’t know that they haven’t,” Red points out. “Battle Trainers are so secretive already, and a lot of psychics like to act all aloof and mysterious on top of that. A psychic battle trainer who figures it out would be twice as unlikely to tell anyone, they’d just want to keep the advantages it gives to themselves.”

“Did you at least reach out to Professor Oak or Psychic Ayane to see? Or Sabrina? She’d know if anyone would, right?”

Red hesitates a moment. “Not… yet, no—”

“Swords of Justice, not you too, Red!” Her hands cover her face. “Why are you keeping secrets now?”

Red feels a flare of indignation as he remembers how he specifically chose not to keep the ability to himself. “I’m not, there just wasn’t time! I told the others, didn’t I? That’s how you found out about it in the first place!”

“But none of them are psychic! And they’re battle trainers, none of them are going to tell you not to do it anymore!”

Invisible bands squeeze around Red’s chest even as his indignation grows. Why are they arguing again, he doesn’t want to argue with Leaf, even more than arguing with Blue or his mom it makes him feel wretched… “The way you are?”

“Yes, the way I am! I’m worried about you, Red, and Aiko, and whoever else you guys might test this thing on!”

“Leaf… I appreciate the worry more than you might believe, but really, you don’t know what it’s like, using it. I’m in their head the whole time, remember? Feeling what they feel. I started using it with Pikachu before he evolved, and he didn’t feel any kind of desire to kill, even in battle, it’s just a useful way of knowing when a good time to use an electric attack is. I did it again on the beach today, and there was no sense of… leashed violence or desire to kill anything, he was just thinking about how his electricity would act. What’s wrong with that?”

Leaf rubs her temples. “Nothing, but that’s one pokemon in some situations. I don’t want you to let your guard down and then get taken by surprise when some other instinct surfaces.”

“I know what to look out for. If my pokemon starts to want to attack a human or go for a kill, I’d just end the mental state to stop them.”

“And what if Aiko figures out a way to imitate it, but without whatever safety you might get from the mental link? It’s just a ridiculous risk to take, all for some advantage in trainer battles.”

Red frowns as he considers that. Does he actually trust others to use this kind of ability without a psychic connection? “I mean yeah, that could be a problem. I’ll talk to her about that too, if you want.”

“That’s not enough, not if you continue to use it. Even if she says okay, others might figure it out and try.”

“So… what, you do want me to keep it secret, now?” Red asks, bewildered.

Leaf makes a sound of frustration as they board the ramp leading back to the ship, causing one of the older cruise members to look over at them. She lowers her voice, though still sounds like she’s holding back a yell. “I don’t know! At the very least, you should ask Sabrina or your teacher from Cerulean.”

“Yeah, of course.” He could have brought it up with Ayane, but she’s not a trainer, and he’s going to be with Sabrina soon… “I was planning to, you know. Really.”

“Alright. But in the meantime, you’re way too confident about a risk that might get you labeled a renegade, just for the edge it gives you in a fight. Don’t you think it’s possible that getting into trainer battles may have warped your perspective a bit?”

She’d said the magic words: too confident. “Hang on, I need to process that.” Red pulls out his notebook and starts to write out the benefits of practicing the mental merge… no, specifically the sakki that arises in battle, as they reach the deck of the ship and find a table to sit at so they can watch the cast off. Waiters are circulating with beverages, and Red distractedly takes a glass of chilled juice as he works, nearly spitting it back out for being bitter instead of sweet. He sets it aside to concentrate, and after a minute shifts to outright goal factoring the decision as he starts to break it down into each piece of value he gets from it.

But it’s hard to focus, hard to tease apart each motivation on the spot. All he can really think of is that it makes him stronger as a trainer, and helps him learn about his pokemon. And… well, he enjoys the company too, the camaraderie. The challenge, coming up with new strategies, thinking about ways to beat theirs…

“You might be partially right,” he eventually says, leaning back in his seat and reaching for his juice again before remembering the taste. “But it’s not winning itself that I care about. It’s… There are a couple things, and I won’t deny that it’s exciting to use it in battle and pull off a win, but it’s not that I need the win, I just… it’s the craft of it.”

Leaf stares at him over her own fruity beverage. “The craft of turning your pokemon into a killing machine?”

“No! To… gah, I don’t know how to describe it.” Red taps his pencil against the page where he wrote some question marks. “It’s a creative thing, I think, and also a competence one. There’s just this rush when a plan comes together, you know? Being connected with my pokemon enough to know what they’re thinking, to be able to stop them when I need to, to judge the right time for changes in their mood, integrating all that into a strategy… I feel like I’m good at it, I mess up a lot but rarely the same way twice, and each new battle is like a new puzzle—”

“So play the sims!” Leaf exclaims, then glances around self-consciously and lowers her voice again. “Or figure out other skills they can do, like a Coordinator! Or just… keep battling but without this thing with your power. Why do you have to risk their lives, or others’ lives?”

“But that’s the other part of it,” Red says, voice lowered too. “We’re all risking our lives! If this is something that might help keep us alive at some point, I need to practice using it in fights.”

“But that sort of thinking could justify anything!” Leaf shakes her head and puts her drink down as she leans back in her chair. The expression on her face rends something in Red’s chest. “It’s no use. I thought… I don’t know, Red, I thought you understood, but you’re just like everyone else, even Aiko…” She sighs and covers her eyes with her palms. “Is it me? I know I’m not the only person in the world who feels like how we use our pokemon should matter too, but maybe I’m just fooling myself by trying to be a trainer too.”

Red feels like there’s an iron ball in his gut. He wants to insist that he is different, though clearly he’s not, or that there’s nothing wrong with her, but he can’t think of a way to show that rather than just say it. “Maybe if… if you try to explain again, from the bottom… like your base values, what you’re building from and why they matter?”

“It’s no use, Red. I think you just have to feel it yourself, or it won’t matter.”

Red’s not sure how to respond to that, and they sit in silence as the boat finally starts to move below them. Leaf lets her hands fall from her face, and Red relaxes slightly when he sees her eyes are dry. They watch the shore start to recede away from the ship, until the island and its mountain are just a part of the horizon. Her words keep running in Red’s head until he realizes the answer is right there in them.

Red turns to her. “So show me.”

Leaf glances at him, wary. “Show you?”

“The way you feel. Show me, while I’m reading your mood. We never tried me learning that trick you did with the abra, maybe that will help me understand your perspective better.”

“Well first of all, it’s not a trick,” Leaf says.

He makes a brushing off gesture. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. When I shift my mental state to match someone else’s, I actually feel what they do. Mental powers work by symmetry.”

Leaf looks suddenly speculative, which is much preferable to her despair or frustration. “I remember hearing you say something like that before. But it’s only temporary, right?”

He shrugs. “Sure, as temporary as any other emotion.”

“I mean, it doesn’t affect your worldview, your day to day life. You can feel sad if you merge with someone who’s watching a movie that makes them sad, but you won’t start feeling sad every time you watch that movie afterward… will you?”

Red opens his mouth, then closes it. “I… don’t know, actually. I doubt I’d feel what they feel every time, but I’ll still have the memory of their sadness, and might be able to experience it at least somewhat the way they do.” He grins. “This is something I really want to test, now.”

Leaf seems to grow excited too. “Okay, yeah, why not? Let’s see, the exhibits are starting in like ten minutes. Maybe tonight, after dinner?”

“Sure!” He returns her wave, then makes his way to the next presentation with some relief. He was worried they’d end the argument on a down note, but instead he’s going to get a unique opportunity to change his views on something. That’s normally enough to excite him on its own, but he can’t help also having a spring in his step at the thought that it might bring him and Leaf closer together. All he has to do is understand where she’s coming from, and maybe even help her better understand him too.


Leaf has a nagging sensation that she’s missing something.

It follows her all through the presentations that afternoon, causing her thoughts to keep circling back to the experiment she and Red are going to try. At times she’s elated: if there’s a way for Red to really, truly feel the way she does about pokemon, how could he go back to feeling the way he does now? He’d have to see how important it is to minimize their suffering.

But something about that train of thought bothers her, and she finally realizes what it is on her way to dinner, once she’s not trying to split her attention so much. Mental powers work by symmetry. Red already explained how powers are split by reception and projection; if he can mimic what she’s feeling in order to feel it himself, then what would stop him from projecting what he feels about pokemon so she has to feel it too?

Not that she thinks Red would do something like that… But it does mean that any sort of thought or mood altering that the powers facilitate must be temporary. The alternative would mean…

“Leaf!”

She looks up and sees Red waving at her from the corner of the dining hall. She goes to join him, and his smile fades as she sits down. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Red, have you heard anything about psychics being able to change how others feel about something permanently?” A chill works its way up her spine as she thinks of the way Giovanni (probably) set a psychic to read her thoughts (and possibly project moods onto her!) without her even knowing. “Sorry, better question: how do we know they don’t? Is there anything you can think of that would stop it?”

Red blinks. “Well, first off, I think others would figure that out. Even if there was some worldwide conspiracy among psychics, which, I mean, no one’s told me yet, there are also some people just psychic enough to notice when others are merging with their minds, and they’d have no reason to keep quiet.”

“Couldn’t they just make someone feel ambivalent about it?”

“They would have to feel ambivalent about it too, which they clearly don’t if they’re going out of their way to force it onto others. At best maybe, they could just spread the feeling that it’s a good thing to do? But changing how you feel about something isn’t the same as changing how you think, and psychics can’t give others amnesia, so people would notice their views suddenly changing…” He trails off, and she sees her worry start to reflect on his face. “Though… I guess if someone was able to do that, like if it was a unique power of theirs, we wouldn’t necessarily know about it. In both cases, it would depend how subtle the effect is, given the context it happens in.”

Leaf looks around. “Like if the psychic just hung out at the buffet and projected an enjoyment of a certain fruit, people could just naturally think they’re in the mood for that fruit.”

“Temporarily, that would work, sure. To make it permanent…”

Leaf watches Red’s expression as it shifts into his now-familiar ‘thinking face,’ and she smiles when he brings his fork to his mouth without realizing that most of the spaghetti on it fell off. Whatever Red’s other flaws might be, she appreciates how readable he is. He’s not just a bad liar, as the recent incident with the ship steward showed, but he expresses all his emotions so guilelessly that it’s clear he’s not even aware of how he wears his heart on his sleeve. There’s something uniquely pleasurable about interacting with someone whose honesty is paired with such openness. Even if there really is some massive psychic conspiracy out there, she knows Red wouldn’t be able to keep it from his friends if he ever finds out about it. “Operant conditioning?” she suggests.

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. If the psychic is craving that fruit themself, they can project that craving. The target eats the fruit, and assuming they like it… or maybe if the psychic is eating the fruit too they can project their enjoyment… I mean, it would be hard to do for multiple people all at once, but…”

“But the idea makes sense, right?” She feels icy fingers around her heart. “Forcing people to feel positive things until they associate them with whatever they’re doing, the same way we train pokemon…”

“It… doesn’t seem impossible.”

The two of them stare at each other for a moment. “How many psychics are here, again?” Leaf whispers.

“A lot. But it would require massive effort to do something like this. We’re probably being a bit paranoid,” Red says, though his voice is also lowered.

“Are we? Because even if it’s really hard to do, I don’t know if it’s possible to be paranoid enough about people who can literally change how you think and feel.” She sees his expression shift. “No offense, I know you would never do something like that, but you can’t expect everyone to have the same moral compunctions—”

“Wait.” Red starts eating faster. “If you’re that worried, we should talk more in our rooms.”

Leaf can hardly argue with that, after she’s the one that brought up the concern. She feels warmth inside at how willing he is to take the concern seriously, even if he’s skeptical, and tries to focus on the flavors of her food as she finishes eating, all too aware of how many other psychics may be around them. When they’re both done, she leads the way out of the dining hall, trying not to visibly hurry.

She feels a little better once they’re in the empty halls, but Red doesn’t start talking again, so she decides to wait until he deems it safe. He seems to relax once they near their rooms, and opens his mouth to say something when he stops suddenly. A second later she notices the note taped to their door, and watches him tug it off and flip it open.

“It’s from Paul,” Red says. “The captain isn’t available to talk to us, apparently, but the head steward can for a few minutes tomorrow morning.”

“Oh. Good enough?” Leaf still isn’t even sure what they should say to the captain anyway. “They probably just want to make sure we’re not wasting the captain’s time, first.”

“Yeah.” Red opens the door and leads the way into their mostly-reconstructed living room. “Which we might be.”

“Even considering what we were just talking about?”

Red sits on one of the couches, two hands rising to his head. One goes for his non-existent hat briefly, as the other runs its fingers through his hair. “To be clear, it’s not that I think people aren’t immoral enough to do something like that. I’ve been trying to imagine how it might actually be done, and the scale and effort required would just be immense.”

Leaf lowers herself into the seat across from him, tucking her legs under her and wishing she could summon Raff. “You’re still new to all this, Red. You can’t know what a really experienced or powerful psychic, or group of them, is capable of. I’m more curious to know why I haven’t heard people talking about this before. Like, not even psychic villains in movies or books do this.”

Red’s gaze drops to his folded legs. “Probably because the only way to stop it would be to kill all psychics.”

Leaf frowns. “That’s not…”

“Isn’t it? Really think about the consequences of what you’re saying being true. How do you think society would react? What possible solution could non-dark or non-psychics come up with that actually wards off that kind of fear?”

Leaf thinks for a few minutes, and Red lets her, eventually taking his notebook out to write in. How would she try to be safe from a threat like this? Write down all her major opinions and preferences, check over them every month? Write out events that might realistically change people’s preferences so she can track those that make sense? But people sometimes change their preferences for no apparent reason at all.

Leaf remembers hating hummus sometime between when she first tried it and after she stopped eating pokemon, until one day she tried some again and it tasted great. At the time she thought that one just had a really good recipe, but after that she enjoyed most brands to some varying degree. She also thinks about a show she watched before coming to Kanto. It was about a bunch of angsty teenagers who went to a special school for kids with magic powers, but kept whining about how empty their lives were when they could have whatever they wanted. At first she watched it to laugh at how terrible it was, but eventually she started to actually get invested in the story and enjoyed it, for the most part.

All of which is normal behavior that everyone probably experiences from time to time… except maybe it’s not, some of the time. Leaf doesn’t actually believe that some psychic employed by Big Hummus is going around singling kids out to make them change their tastes, but if she ever changes her mind about something that’s more important, she’d probably feel pretty paranoid if she knows that psychics could cause that change.

Leaf’s recently filled stomach churns as she thinks of the ways society would probably react to that knowledge. No psychic would be able to do business with someone without them being suspicious… or marry a non-psychic… and, yes, it’s even possible that they might get killed, depending on the culture. From what she understands, Kanto has a history of treating its psychics with something close to reverence; today they’re respected and valued beyond most other professions. Unova’s past treatment of psychics wasn’t nearly so rosy, and they’re much less high-status today.

“I don’t think a mass killing would happen,” Leaf says at last, and Red tucks his notebook away. “But I agree that it would definitely get dangerous for many, and there would be… social consequences.”

“Mmhm. So maybe some psychics can do this, but they all have a huge incentive to hide it if so. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First we should know if I can even change my own views permanently before we speculate about psychics changing someone else’s. And even if I can, that doesn’t mean others can. It might be unique to my way of thinking. Or my powers, which may be the same thing. And that still won’t mean I can change others’ beliefs or values.”

“I get it. But even just changing your own seems… creepy, to me, now that I’ve thought about it more. You’re not worried about suddenly changing who you are?”

Red shrugs. “Not really.”

“Why not?”

“Not sure. I guess because I change all the time, and it’s only sometimes deliberate? And it’s not like I don’t know who I’m changing into, in this case: someone more like you.”

She stares at him, heat prickling her cheeks. “That’s… pretty flattering, Red. But if it’s that easy to just decide my values or perspective is better than yours, why not just… change them?”

“Well, what if I can’t? That’s the point of this, isn’t it? To see if there’s some extra feelings or something that would help me actually change my values in a way I normally can’t?”

“Sure, but this seems like more of a trick now. Is it really okay to force yourself to change?”

“Why wouldn’t it be, if I’m choosing it? If I’m stuck on some value that causes suffering, then hopefully at some point I realize it and that value loses its strength relative to one that helps me be more moral, but why not shortcut that process if I can? If some sociopath realized their lack of empathy was harmful, wouldn’t we be glad that they might want to take a pill and change, if they could?”

Leaf grins. “Are you trying to get me to argue against my own views?”

Red smiles. “No, promise.”

“Because, I mean, certainly think that it would help you be more moral, don’t get me wrong… I just don’t get how you can make that decision about your own values. The idea of my values being changed like that is kind of scary, to me. Like I’m killing off a part of myself.”

“It is an interesting question about how one ‘decides’ on their ethics,” Red admits. “I guess it’s more about meta-ethics? Like if I think the change in views would make me have more moral beliefs, I might tweak one of my values in a way that my other values tell me would make me a better person. But why am I prioritizing some over others, so that they can gang up on it? Maybe that value is more important than I think, and once it’s tweaked, I might change a different one that I normally would not have been okay with changing. Even if it only happens two or three times, I might end up changing myself to someone that my original self would find abhorrent.”

“See, exactly! You definitely shouldn’t try something like this if that’s even a possibility. If you can change your values through reason, rather than brute-forcing it, you should. Otherwise, how would you actually know it’s a better moral position?”

“Values don’t always run on logic, though,” Red says, shrugging a shoulder. “Some are just… formed out of whatever basic experiences people have. Take the sociopath example again. Someone who doesn’t empathize with suffering is going to have a harder time understanding why suffering is bad. At best they can just recognize consequences to it that may interfere with other values they have. What if I just have faulty wiring?”

Leaf shakes her head. “There’s something wrong with those people, though, you can’t compare something like this to that. I mean, by wrong I mean ‘by my values,’ obviously, but I also mean on a somewhat objective scale?” She frowns. “It sounds like I should feel guilty about saying it, and I do, a little, but… if there’s something different in their mental wiring or the chemical mix that influences how they think or experience the world compared to 99.99% of other people, we can recognize that as the fault of biology. Any difference isn’t bad, again by my values—”

“I get it,” Red says with a grin. “You don’t have to keep repeating ‘by my values.'”

“Okay. But I just mean that it’s not the difference itself that I think is bad, but the kind of difference this in particular is. It’s just such a huge breakdown of a core experience in society, which leads to some pretty important values. As long as we have that common ground of basic values to draw on, particularly things like… Anti-Suffering, and Happiness, and Truth, and Logic…” Leaf trails off, thinking about the people who argued against her Pewter Museum article. They would say that they valued those things… “Well, we’ll still probably disagree about a lot of stuff, but on a long enough timeline, with enough resources and discussion, we should be able to reach agreement eventually. If there aren’t other values that take precedence, I mean. And I don’t think there are, for us. I don’t think there’s something missing in you.”

Even as she says it, she feels a bit of doubt inside. Maybe there is something missing in Red… but if there is, it’s missing in the vast majority of people, and the only reason it seems more clearly missing in him is because he’s so reasonable otherwise. Leaf remembers the discordant feeling she had after realizing that Aiko doesn’t eat pokemon despite being a trainer, and wonders again if there’s just something wrong with her own self. Maybe from their perspective, there’s something missing or warped in her. She doesn’t think she values humans any less just because she also cares about minimizing pokemon suffering, but objectively, she’s less willing to trade-off one for the other, so it seems pretty obvious that she does. Which… may be bad, actually.

“Well, that’s nice to hear,” Red says with a smile. “But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t try this experiment. We don’t even know if it would permanently change anything, and I’m okay with risking it, for something like this. Worst case scenario is that I think more like you, a little, and that doesn’t seem so bad.”

Leaf frowns as she tries to put into words the twisted feelings of worry and danger she senses about all this. If she’s wrong to feel the way she does, she’d hope that reason and evidence would be enough to shift her views. If Red actually changes his values like this… what would stop her from just as easily changing her own if subjected to the same thing? “Why not try something less core, then? Like the fruit thing, just to see if it works?”

“I mean, we can, but… I really think it’s alright, Leaf. If it was this easy to mess up, Ayane would have told me about it. I’m just going to be sampling how you feel, for now, the same as I’ve done with her. Not trying anything new or fancy.”

That… does sound reasonable. Leaf lets her breath out. “If you’re sure…”

“I am. Trust me.”

Leaf nods. She does trust Red. Even if he sometimes thinks in ways that she finds frustrating or lacking in empathy, she mostly believes that he’ll find the right answer eventually, and recognize it when he sees it. “Alright. Here goes, then.” She repositions herself to be more comfortable, then closes her eyes and tries to focus on how her brain feels, then how her emotions feel, trying to detect when he starts.

She still hasn’t noticed anything by the time Red quietly says, “Okay, ready.”

“You’re merged with me?” she asks, voice also quiet. She suddenly feels a tension in the air, nothing supernatural, just an intimacy that makes her feel oddly vulnerable. “You can feel what I feel?”

“Yeah. I don’t feel anything different, though.”

“Well, what do you feel?”

Red is quiet, and she peeks under one eyelid to see his expression. It seems normal, but also slightly flushed. “Nervous?” he says at last.

“Oh. That might be me, then, yeah. Did you want me to start?”

“Yeah. Just show me how you feel about your pokemon.”

“Alright.” It’s easiest to imagine Joy first, with her big blue eyes, her white and pink fur, the happiness she always shows at cuddling. Leaf smiles as love for her pokemon fills her, and soon she’s thinking of Raff too, with his toothy grin, and Crimson, flying so fearless and free, and Alice’s floppy ears.

She almost forgets that Red is even there until she hears him sigh. “Wow. That’s… nice.”

Leaf grins, eyes still closed. “Isn’t it?” She thinks of her companions’ pokemon, from Pikachu with his timid explorations to Maturin’s bold bids for snacks or affection, to Eevee’s energetic drive to keep up with the other, more experienced pokemon. Leaf’s thoughts briefly touch on Kemuri and the others who she never met that got killed or hurt in the tunnels, but she shies away from that pain, instead focusing on all the other pokemon out there, with all their quirks and mysteries, all their quiet, private lives, all the fascinating wonders of unique biology that they are. Even the dangerous ones, and they’re almost all dangerous by default, are living beings whose suffering is sad, and could be made to live happier lives with human assistance. Soon she feels an endless ocean of warmth inside her, a swirling cauldron of wonder and joy and gladness that she can tap at any time by just thinking of the shining future that may some day come, when every living thing is free to live without suffering.

Red doesn’t say anything this time, merely letting out a long, slow breath as they bask in the feeling together. For a moment she imagines what it’s like for him, not feeling this way. She always thought it must be lonely to only love a few things, a practical rounding error in terms of absolute numbers of living things. Like whole swathes of the world are just lacking in color or beauty…

Leaf’s eyes fly open as Red makes a strange choked sound, and something in his expression clears as he relaxes. “Sorry! Are you okay?”

“Yeah, fine.” His eyes open, and after a moment he smiles, looking a bit dazed. “That was… really nice.”

She examines him for a moment, but he really seems genuinely happy about what he felt, and eventually she smiles too. “Right? So how do you feel about pokemon now, if you think back to that feeling?”

“One sec.” He closes his eyes, and she watches as he breathes deep, then lets it out. “I can feel… some of it. But it’s a memory of a feeling, not the feeling itself. Like remembering that I used to enjoy roller coasters.”

“Oh.” Leaf can’t help but feel disappointed, even though part of her is glad that he didn’t permanently alter himself that easily.

“Hang on, though, I’m going to see if I can recreate it.”

“And that’s safe?”

“Yeah, like I said I did this with Ayane all the time, mimicking states of mind… this is just an unusual one in some ways…” He trails off as he continues to breathe, eyes closed.

Leaf watches him a moment, curious and mildly worried as his face starts to twitch in minor frowns. After surreptitiously checking the time and letting a few minutes pass, her curiosity wins out. “Well?”

“It’s not… really working…”

“How come?”

“I’m trying to mimic the state of mind, but other feelings get in the way. I’ve never had that happen before. It’s hard to focus without letting them mix.”

Leaf frowns. “Other feelings?”

“They’re a bit hard to explain. There’s some grief, like usual when I use my powers a lot, but it’s just a small part of it.”

“Well, can you project it, so I can feel what it’s like?”

Red opens his eyes in surprise. “Uh. I don’t think I should. It’s not… pleasant.”

If he’d said it was dangerous, that would be one thing… but unpleasant she can handle, if it means better understanding what he’s going through, and what obstacles are in the way of seeing eye to eye. “Hey, you risked having your values altered by me. I think it’s fair to see what you’re going through when trying to recreate how I felt.”

“Uh. Okay, then. Starting…”

The psychic connection is felt immediately, this time, like some giant drain got unplugged deep inside that endless ocean of joy in her, its waters rapidly receding from the shore of her thoughts as it gets sucked down.

She barely has time to panic before more sensations are there, the drain revealing jagged rocks that don’t translate into words, but in flashes of insight and concepts that only roughly bring up errant thoughts about how pokemon hurt each other all the time, they hurt humans, they killed Red’s dad, killed Blue’s parents, they’re not people, they’re just biological machines, they’re monsters—

She starts feeling a sort of creepy-crawly disgust, a fear of something alien, and suddenly imagines bug pokemon, all the most vicious and creepy ones, until she physically flinches.

they’re wondrous but dangerous, they feel sensations but they don’t care about anything, they can’t, any joy they feel around us they were conditioned to feel, they’re Other—

The ocean is almost gone, and rain falls in her head, down her cheeks, dark clouds of fear and anger and under it all there’s that grief

“Stop!” Leaf says, voice strained, and she gets one last snapshot of feelings not her own, a horror at hurting someone incredibly precious, the sensation rapidly fading even as it leaves her with a glimpse of herself that shocks her, a tenderness and desire to be near her that utterly distracts her for the space of a breath.

Then the feelings seem completely gone, and Leaf opens her eyes to stare at Red, emotions mixing violently inside her. Anger, fear, disgust… is that really what he thinks of pokemon? Pity, grief, affection… there’s so much pain, there, she sensed it tingeing every thought. And that last thing… she feels butterflies in her stomach as she suddenly realizes what she sensed.

Surely she misread that? Red gets flustered from time to time, and she always thought it was cute how clearly unused to being around a girl his age he is… but that glimpse of how he saw her, far more idealized than how she sees herself, makes her suddenly second guess her usual perceptions. Leaf’s cheeks start to burn at the level of affection and esteem he holds her in. Had she really thought him an open book, if she missed something that big?

And despite the sharp disagreement in their philosophical differences, he admires her perspective. That came clear, even through the dark feelings.

She wishes she could say the same about his.

Red is looking down at his legs, chagrin clear on his face as he breathes steadily. “Sorry about that,” he says, not looking at her, and she wonders if it’s the grief he’s apologizing for, or if he understands what else she glimpsed. “It’s gotten a lot better lately, believe it or not…”

“Red,” she interrupts, putting her confusing feelings aside and taking a deep breath, trying to consider her next words carefully. “I… I think you need help… Your thoughts, they’re…” She almost says twisted, but she understands the root of that twist now, doesn’t she? Pity fills her as she imagines living with that grief every day, it’s a wonder he can find any joy and affection in pokemon at all… “They’re all colored by that loss, and I understand it, I think, a little anyway, but you can see that it’s not reasonable, can’t you?”

Red frowns, crimson gaze coming up to search hers. “I’m not sure what you mean…”

“I mean, have you considered that the… the loss of your dad, the trauma of that, may be what makes it so hard for you to care about pokemon? What makes you think of them as… ‘Other?'”

Red’s face clears. “Oh. No, it’s not what you think, that’s just how it always goes with my powers. The grief isn’t related to what we were thinking about.”

She stares at him. “You really believe that. That those feelings you had… the thoughts they translated to, things like pokemon just being biological machines, you think that’s normal?”

“I mean…” He’s frowning now, still not meeting her gaze for more than a heartbeat at a time. “I don’t know what ‘normal’ is in this context, but I don’t think it’s related to my dad, if that’s what you mean. I don’t hold all pokemon accountable for what happened to him.”

“Don’t you?” she asks, voice softening.

“No! The way I think about them is… I mean, it feels completely separate, like obviously it’s informed by tragedies like that, but it’s still built on… you know, rational basis, on observations, on what I value.”

But that would make it so much worse, she thinks, biting her lip to keep from saying it. “I don’t… think you’d necessarily be able to feel that, if that’s true or not, I don’t think you’d know that, that’s how trauma works, it… it exaggerates negative things…”

Red’s brow is drawn, his lack of understanding making her heart sink. “I’m telling you, that’s not how it is,” he says. “You’re just linking the two feelings because they seemed so entwined in the projection. Look, I’ll send you something unrelated—”

No!”

Red’s frown slips, and he looks ashamed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to… make you feel that…”

Leaf makes a conscious effort to relax. She hadn’t meant to yell… “No, that’s alright. I just don’t… want to feel it again right now, or anything remotely like it. And I believe you, that it’ll come across regardless of what the topic is. But… that doesn’t rule out the idea that they’re connected.”

Red looks frustrated, and also a little guilty, still, as he nods and suddenly gets to his feet. “Okay.”

“Okay?” She watches him go to where his shoes are, confused and nervous.

“Yeah. I get it. I’ll think it over.” He slips his sneakers on, and with a start she realizes that he’s leaving.

Leaf’s hands find each other, twisting as she wrestles with her worry about having hurt him. She didn’t mean to push him away… “Where are you going?”

“Nowhere. Just want to clear my head.” He still won’t look at her, even as he steps out the door and closes it behind him.

Leaf watches him go, unable to think of anything else to say. In truth, she could use some distance too. She knows it’s irrational to blame psychic powers for what Red’s going through, how his views were formed, just because it’s how she was made aware of them, or how he has to keep revisiting them. And she knows Red would never force that feeling on her. But she can’t help but wish in that moment that all psychics lost their abilities, if it was the only sure way to ensure he never feels the way that projection did again… and to ensure that she never has to either.


Red wanders through the halls, a violent stew of emotions causing a trembling somewhere in his stomach. His thoughts constantly dash around and collide, with a single refrain going around and around in different iterations.

I hurt her.

He passes by rooms where people talk and laugh, feeling like a ghost drifting by, untouchable by whatever is around him.

I made her feel bad.

Eventually his feet bring him up enough stairs that he emerges onto the deck of the ship.

I made her scared of me.

On the first few evenings of the cruise, the decks were often populated by attendees looking to enjoy the sun set over an uninterrupted horizon. Red goes to the eastern side so he can have the ship’s rails to himself. He barely notices the changes in the sky as the sun dips toward the water behind him, instead focusing on his breathing, on calming himself.

He screwed it all up. This week was supposed to be fun and educational, and a chance to get closer to Leaf. Instead they just keep having arguments, and now his final chance to bridge the difference in their views completely backfired. Instead all he accomplished was disgusting her and driving a wedge between them, all because he didn’t think to stop and recognize how his grief might feel to her, how unused to it she would be.

Irrational as it is, for a moment he wishes he didn’t have his psychic powers. If it meant undoing what had just happened, if offered at this second, he would give his abilities up to turn the clock back and take away whatever hurt he inflicted on her.

But that’s just childish. It’s not the fault of his powers, it’s his. He should have gone slower. Should have taken the time to examine what was so hard about mimicking her state of mind, recognized that his partition had weakened too much, insisted on waiting.

Instead Leaf asked him to show her how it felt, and he didn’t want to deny her.

And now she’ll probably never let me try anything like it again. Maybe just not anytime soon, but if the cruise ends and they still haven’t resolved this, if he leaves to train with Sabrina… he and Leaf will just keep drifting further apart. He knows they will, it feels like a branching timeline in his head, where one path leads to futures he’ll be forever barred from if he doesn’t get the chance to understand her better.

Why is he choosing to leave her? Leave all of them, that is? Blue and Aiko could have been killed in those tunnels. How can he help keep Leaf safe, keep them all safe, if he’s not with them? His goal factoring was done before he knew how close they’d come to dying without him even being aware. How could he risk going off with Sabrina and finding out second-hand that they… that she…

Tears prickle at his eyes as he feels the ache of losing his dad, mixed with the feeling of wanting to be with Leaf, of preemptively missing her, like a gouge in his chest, so sharp it makes him actually put his hand over his heart, trying to hold the painful emptiness closed.

I can’t do it.

He can’t leave her. Not like this. If he does, she’ll just… go on thinking that he’s a monster. He has to stay, to show her… show her how he can stop eating pokemon, how he can stop using the sakki.

He’ll have to tell Sabrina no. Maybe she’ll have an opening later, a few years from now… he’ll be a better psychic then, anyway, he’ll keep practicing. He’ll even stop training so he can practice more, that way he can show Leaf that he’s taken her seriously, and he’ll get more control so he can copy her mental state the next time they try. Surely there would be a next time, if he stays…

There’s a voice inside wondering if he’s really okay with that, with not spending any more time with Blue and Aiko’s friends at the gym, with not exploring the use of his powers in battle. But it’s a small voice, easily shouted down by his other desires and fears. Red rubs his face, then moves away from the railing to head back to the room and tell Leaf. His heart feels a bit lighter just having made the decision.

As he walks through the halls, he notices how oddly quiet everything is. There’s no sound of chatter or cheer coming from the various common rooms, though the lights are on. Dinner should already be over, people were already gathering in various lounges when he was headed to the railing… where is everyone now?

He sends his mind sense out briefly, a bit longer than a locating ping, just enough to get a sense of the general “mood” of the thoughts…

Worry. Panic. Resignation. Sorrow.

Red stops in his tracks, eyes wide, then bursts through the door to his side where he sensed a crowd of people, about to ask what’s happened—

His eyes absorb the information in bursts, jumping from place to place:

A monitor, hanging on the wall.

The timestamp on the news footage, a few minutes old.

Dark roiling clouds, blotting out half the horizon like a cloak.

Stabs of light illuminating the coast below them.

“…dropped from cloud cover less than ten minutes ago, according to eyewitness reports,” the news anchor is saying, voice distant to Red’s ears. “It was only for a few moments, but combined with satellite images, we can now confirm that Zapdos is making its way in a north-northwestern direction.” The image shifts to a storm projection map that shows the cone of probability engulfing Amber Town, Vermilion City, and possibly the Pokemon Tech campus farther to the west. “The League has confirmed deployment, and Rangers are enacting Tier 3 emergency protocols for the tri-city area…”

Red can’t breathe. A sliver of air enters and leaves his parted lips, but attempts to suck in a deeper breath, to ground himself, aren’t working. His fists clench until his nails dig into his palms, but he doesn’t wake up from the nightmarish haze that’s surrounded him.

Not fair, it’s not fair, summer is practically over, why would it come now, why would it come again…

He forces himself to cut off that line of thinking, to close his eyes and try to predict what would happen next.

There’s no question of trying to convince Blue to keep to an edge of the crisis zone, to help how they can without risking himself. Blue and Aiko are there, right in the path of the stormZapdos is coming to them, faster than a mounted pidgeot could fly, even if they had one to carry them, even if there would be any around not already in use to evacuate.

And Red is all the way over here, out to sea with rich and intelligent and influential people who are just standing around and murmuring in worried tones, just watching

Just like me.

Red’s feet pound the carpet of the halls as he runs for his room, gasping in a sharp breath now that his body is forced into motion, unaware of when exactly he started moving. He passes by the corridors and cabins unseeing until he bursts into his bedroom and starts grabbing everything he has out and tosses them into a container box as thoughts keep bubbling to the surface of his panicked brain, uncertainty about what he’s doing finally slowing his hands as he gets to the notebook he’s been using for the exhibits.

What if Zapdos turns? There were parts of that projection cone that carried it away from Vermilion. He can’t teleport back to the ship once he leaves, he’ll miss the rest of the presentations… would Bill understand? Or what if Blue and Aiko and the others are out of town already, gone on some trip after his battle with Surge was over? No, Blue would go back as soon as he hears…

Red needs data. He needs to know how often these projections have been wrong in the past, needs the base rate so he can…

So he can what? Find a reason not to go? Convince himself that a 10% or 20% or even 50% chance of being wrong is worth staying safe on the cruise? The excuses are already there, within easy reach.

I’m here on Bill’s assignment, I don’t know for sure if Blue is still in the city, I’m mentally exhausted from using my powers earlier—

He slaps the excuses down, one at a time, forcing himself to stuff the next thing into his bag, then the next, then the next, until he suddenly hears running footsteps, and the bang of the living room door slamming open.

“Red?!”

Leaf. He hadn’t even checked if she was still here, she must have gone out after he did. Red stays frozen in place, tempted suddenly to stay quiet, to teleport away without telling her so that she stays here, stays safe

His connecting door opens a moment later, and there she is, face flushed and breathing hard. “Red, Zapdos is…” She trails off, wide eyes taking in his mostly packed bag.

Red straightens, meeting her gaze. “I’m going,” he says, hoping she decides to stay, stay, Leaf, please…

Leaf nods, fear and anxiety fading as resolution takes their place. “I am too.”

Chapter 57: Autoargumentation

Somehow the exhibits on the second day just aren’t as interesting as the first.

Of course, Red reflects, that might just be the new feelings clashing around in him taking up his attention. He does his best to focus on the presentations, but doesn’t dare use his powers any more today, since he can feel the grief lurking at the edges of his thoughts already. It’s hard to tell what relationship they have with exacerbating each other, if any, but dealing with both would really suck.

The most interesting tech demo is the advanced potion delivery system: at first he imagined a more technical and useful version of the idea he had when he was young about filling a balloon with healing potions to throw at injured people. Unfortunately too much exposure of it on undamaged flesh would cause other medical issues, so application needs to be pretty precise unless the liquid can be cleaned off soon after, which it won’t be able to in most cases where you’d need to apply it from a distance anyway.

Instead the company is developing a drone that takes in its surroundings, scans for open wounds, then shoots a high powered mist of droplets at any it detects. It’s effectively a more precise version of having trained medic pokemon, and is similarly limited in cases like when Red and the others found the trainer in the field full of beedrill back in Viridian, as the wild pokemon that make the area unsafe might just destroy the drone. But the demonstration video showed how it could be helpful in combat situations, where it frees up trainers from having to switch to medic duty.

After the exhibits are over, Red meets up with Leaf again for dinner, where they exchange notes and try out the new artificial meats. This time the options are all plant pokemon, so Leaf gets some steamed bellsprout while Red munches on fake oddish. Just as flavorful as the “real” kind, if a bit less juicy, and the bellsprout he swaps with Leaf for is better.

They wander the boat after eating, passing from the pitch dark of a cloudy night over the ocean to the bright and cheerful lights of the boat’s corridors. As they near doors to the common areas, Red hears the sounds of conversations and subdued revelry. Leaf pokes her head into them, seemingly at random, until they reach one that seems to strike her fancy. “Let’s see what’s going on in here,”

“No, I’m okay,” Red says. “I’ve never really been into big crowds or parties…”

Her brow furrows. “Are you shy? I never noticed you having trouble talking to strangers before…”

Red shrugs. “It’s different if I have something to talk about with them. I just feel a bit out of place, here.”

“Well, if you’re going to be a Professor one day, you’ve got to learn to mingle. Come on, this is part of your PR training.” Leaf takes his hand, warmth spreading from the contact all the way up his arm and through his chest as she pulls him into the wide, sparsely crowded room.

Red doesn’t put up much of a fight. “Should I take notes?” he asks with a slight smile.

“Absolutely. Observe: humans in their native habitat.” Leaf gestures broadly at the room. “A luxurious cruise, where their every need is catered to, and their only concerns are social.”

Red snorts. Then he notices that Leaf is looking expectantly at him, and grins as he dutifully pulls his notebook out. “What part of that was actually an important lesson?”

“None,” she cheerfully says. “Just making sure you’re paying attention. What we’re looking for is a moderately sized group, where an extra arrival or two wouldn’t come off as intrusive.” She gestures with her elbow as they pass people, all of which do indeed look like ‘moderately sized groups,’ no fewer than four and no more than seven, as far as Red can quickly discern. “There’s not really such a thing as one that’s too big, but when groups get big enough in a setting like this they tend to fracture into smaller ones, and we don’t really want to be an active cause to that unless there’s someone who seems like a straggler themself that we want to try and poach from a conversation. Then, look for those with natural openings for someone else to step into… or sit in, or whatever. See there? Group of six.”

Red follows her gaze. “Yeah.”

“Lots of empty space between the members that we can sidle into. And for what they seem to be doing… ideally you want to enter at a time where one person appears to be the main one talking, like either telling a story or explaining something, rather than a more intimate and active conversation. An energetic debate works too. Something that doesn’t come off as private, basically, something we can enter as participants.”

Red dutifully notes down the bullet points. “Okay, so we’re going to join that one?”

“No, it sounds like he’s talking about trade tariffs, and I don’t know about you but that’s not super exciting to me. Let’s try that one near the corner… Notebook away first, though, they might get the wrong idea. Look casual and curious. Yeah, like that.”

“I’m not—This is my normal expression.”

“Perfect.”

Red shakes his head and follows as she unobtrusively walks by another group, then another, until she sidles into an empty space to listen to two people who seem to be arguing about differences in regional markets based on trainer culture. Eventually someone else poses a question about the relative “star power” of different league members, which seems to give Leaf permission to ask a question of her own after that one is answered about the effects of different educational attitudes. The answer to this prompts another argument, which leads the conversation onward as members of the group occasionally excuse themselves and are replaced by others.

Red is content to just listen, and not jump into the conversation without something particular to say. After this goes on long enough, however, Leaf seems to feel he’s not being sufficiently mingley.

“Go find another conversation, if this one’s boring you,” Leaf eventually murmurs. “See if you can find your own group to infiltrate.”

There’s a moment of unease as he considers walking around the room alone just to find someone to force into talking to him, but he doesn’t want to look like a coward. “Yes ma’am.” He wanders off, listening to the different kinds of conversations and looking for similarities to the one Leaf gravitated toward. As he drifts between them to listen for an interesting conversation, however…

“…about Raikoth, though getting enough at once will be…”

Red’s head turns at the familiar word. Wasn’t it something Bill mentioned working on?

He finds the speaker the next time they say something, and frowns. It’s a group of just three people, two girls and a guy. All three are relatively young, and the main speaker is animated as she talks, hands moving constantly as the other two nod along. Would one person be too much of an intrusion? They’re not quite positioned in a “closed” way, with two of the sitting on opposite ends of a couch while facing a third person in a chair. Another chair is sitting open across from it… should he take the fourth corner of the square? Are there rules for being the person that makes a group look “closed,” especially if he doesn’t know any of the others?

He drifts closer all the while as he frets, until finally he’s just sort of hovering near the empty chair, looking at something else as he listens to their conversation. Something about incentives for early speculators…

Hey Present Red, you know the longer we just stand here the more awkward it’ll be when we finally make it clear we’ve been listening the whole time, right?

Yes Future Red, but I currently have no control over my legs as the thought occurs that dying of awkwardness may be impossible, but suicide as a cure for awkwardness is not.

That got dark, Present Red. If it’s any consolation, I won’t hold you accountable for any awkwardness we endure. That blame will go strictly to Past Red.

That does help, actually, thanks. This is all his fault.

Hey, screw both of you, let’s see how well you can say no to Leaf! Or are you going to run and tell her you took the coward’s way out after all?

That sounds like Future Red’s problem.

Joke’s on you Present Red, now that you’ve thought this, you’ll have to do it soon enough that your memory of episodically experienced moments will still make it part of your continuous present self!

Shit, you’re right! Red forces himself to move around the chair and plops down on it while looking at the person speaking.

Which causes everyone to stop paying attention to her and stare at him.

You fools, you’ve DOOMED US ALL!

“…Hi? Can we help you?” the girl who was speaking asks.

“Yes!” he says, too quickly. “I mean no, sorry. I was just… I heard you say something about ‘Raikoth’ and I think Bill mentioned it and I was just… wondering what you were talking about. Sorry. I can go.” He pushes himself out of the seat.

“Wait, hang on. Bill told you about it?”

“Yeah?”

The three glance at each other. “What did he say, exactly?”

Red slowly sits back down, heart pounding. Maybe this was a mistake… would Bill have wanted Red to advertise that knowledge? He never said anything about keeping it secret. “Uh. Just that it was something that would help with research funding and publishing using… prediction markets, I think?”

“Huh,” one of the others says. “Yeah, that’s about right.”

“And he called it by its project name,” the original speaker muses. “Guess it’s okay that you know, then. Why’d he tell you in the first place?”

“To cheer me up, sort of. I had some problems with the research publishing world.” Red thinks of the recent flood of churned out articles. “Still do, come to think of it. I didn’t mean to interrupt, though, I was just curious to know more. Are you guys working on it?”

“Yeah, actually.” The girl studies him briefly. “Our presentation is one of the last ones, and we were just going over what to highlight, given potential failure modes. Maybe we can use you as a soundboard, since you just know the general points… and you’re familiar with research funding and publishing, apparently?”

“Oh, yeah. I have my Researcher license.”

“Wait, wait,” the guy says. “Are you Red Verres?”

Red smiles, wondering if being recognized is ever going to get old. Probably someday. “Yeah, that’s me.”

The guy looks to the other two and jerks his thumb at Red. “This is the kid who caught like two hundred abra for research, and gave half of them away, or something like that. He’s responsible for the recent churn of psychic paper grist.”

“Woah, I’m not… I mean first off it was closer to a hundred, and we didn’t give them away, we sold them at a third their market price. But more importantly I don’t like to think I’m responsible for the recent articles just because they followed my single, relatively simple paper.”

“It’s cool, he’s not blaming you,” the other girl says. “Happens a lot when new discoveries pop up, big or small. Which is kind of why we’re working on this. I’m Haley, by the way.”

“Rick.”

The girl he interrupted when he sat down raises her hand. “Sarah. So you tell us… What do you think of the state of current research?”

Red hesitates. “Well… I only really know about pokemon research.”

“Good enough,” Haley says, propping her chin on her fist. “What bothers you about it?”

“Getting grants,” he immediately says. “Which is kind of understandable given how many trainers are out there that might be asking for money to experiment with their pokemon. But it also probably discourages a lot of independent researchers who are starting out.” He grimaces as he remembers the ache in his fingers from typing in Pewter. “I had connections and got lucky, and then that paper wasn’t conclusive enough to be publishable. And since getting published is necessary to get the research bought by the labs that update the pokedex, there are a lot of journals that will publish just about anything, no matter how sound the research methods or useful the result, and skip right over things like peer review.” Red sighs. “And of course the more of those there are, the more researchers will manipulate the data or adjust their methodology to meet whatever minimum standard they can.”

“Seems frustrating,” Rick agrees. “And the root of all of those problems is?”

Red blinks. “All?”

“Yeah. Say most, if that helps. If you could change one thing for maximum impact, what would it be?”

Red’s nervousness is long gone, mind turning itself to this new challenge. After thinking about his frustrations of the past couple months, he eventually says, “Non-professional reviewers? Like if there were researchers whose only job was to peer review and replicate stuff…”

“Not bad,” Haley says, while Sarah waggles her hand side to side in an even less enthusiastic endorsement. “It comes with its own complications,” she acknowledges with a glance at Sarah. “Instead, what do you think of making sure scientists who come up with an experiment can’t be the ones to test it?”

“But… then who would?”

“Other scientists!” Sarah says. “The way things work now, researchers are both the people who come up with the theory they want to test, and then do the experiments to test them. Right away, you’ve got a bunch of biases interfering with what should be a truly objective process. What if, instead, anyone could come up with a theory, and outsource the experimentation to a neutral, special lab that has no skin in the game?”

“I see why it removes bad incentives,” Red says, speaking slowly as he thinks through his words. “But… I like coming up with research ideas and testing them.”

“And there’s the ego thing,” Haley says with a sigh. “No offense to you, this is part of what we’re worried about. Too many prominent researchers may insist on testing their own hypotheses. People aren’t used to the idea of getting credit just for coming up with a hypothesis that pays off when someone else does the work. Or they just feel protective of their ideas, insist that no one else can do it justice.”

Red digests that, and has to admit that part of him would feel skeptical that others did his own experiment right if he’s not involved at all. Well, not any others, if Doctor Madi or Professor Elm or Bill or Professor Oak did it, he’d accept those results. “Famous researchers may be able to work out agreements between themselves, but what about lesser known scientists? What if no one wants to try their idea out? And how does that fix funding or publishing?”

“You said it yourself; the prediction market,” Rick reminds him.

“Oh. Oh! So people bet on what research they think will be worth running?”

“Not quite. People bet on what they think the outcome of a particular research question will be. Some particular hypothesis might start out negative-sum, with the missing money going to fund the research when the betting pool becomes large enough. But we were talking about ways to convince corporations or labs or regional governments to subsidize payouts.”

“In a somewhat randomized way, of course,” Sarah says. “Which is another hurdle they would likely balk at.”

Rick nods. “Once some can be convinced to do that, though, you’ve got positive sum markets that start to look very lucrative to the average citizen that might want to make some money, not to mention investment firms. Instead of reviewing hundreds of proposals by dozens of labs trying to get a taste of the yearly research budget pie, governments can just pay that money to Raikoth, marked specifically for a particular kind of research they want to see done. Private organizations do the same thing: take some of their research budget, put it into Raikoth on specific ideas they want to see tested. And when those preferences become known…”

Red thinks it over, and slowly smiles. “Then researchers can propose ideas that match what the money is available for, which brings more money in to fund them as people start to bet on the outcomes. That’s awesome!” Sarah chuckles, and Red lowers his voice. “It sounds too good to be true, really. What about the lab or researcher who does the actual experiment itself, though? The consulting scientists would have to be watched to make sure no one involved is betting.”

“Naturally. The oversight would come from investors on both sides, and once a lab or researcher is selected, they’d take proposals from both and decide on an experimental draft. Then they’d publish it.”

“Yeah, pre-registration to make sure they don’t change the methodology was one of the answers I considered giving.”

“More than that, it’ll be the exact paper that’s published, just with the numbers all blank. ‘We compared three different levels of muk exposure and found that the highest level had X percent more health problems, characterized by fever, rash, cough, and so on, than the lowest, Y.’ After the research is done, just fill in the numbers, add a Discussion section, and boom. No alterations in changing how the results are shown or which tests are done during the data gathering.”

“And since the research odds are being made public,” Haley says, “Everyone can weigh in, with not just their money, but also their reputation.”

“Which means some will abstain, of course,” Sarah responds with a sigh.

“She’s a cynic,” Rick tells Red. “But not wrong. We’re still trying to get enough big names to get in on it so people can’t just avoid getting involved.”

Red grins. “Yeah, I can think of a lot of people who wouldn’t want their mistakes to be public.”

“Oh, yeah. Researchers and consulting scientists are going to be held to a new standard, completely by natural incentives. A public record showing a history of accurate predictions will become not just financially lucrative, but give a lot of prestige that makes particular researchers more likely to have their own ideas funded and tested out in the marketplace, or even hired to consult.”

“And,” Haley says, “If the results don’t feel conclusive enough, and people are still arguing over whether it’s true or not, a replication study can be funded the same way, because people obviously still care.”

“What if an idea doesn’t get funding?” Red asks, thinking of his search for spinarak experiment funding again. “What if no one cares enough about the proposal?”

“Then we’re no worse off than we are now.” Haley shrugs. “But remember, this can be crowdfunded incrementally. People have opinions about things, people want to make money with little effort, and there are guaranteed to be science hedge funds that go around trying to make a quick buck off someone’s hypothesis.”

“My favorite part?” Rick asks with a smile. “The people who keep pushing bad ideas, even after research debunks them.”

“Oh, right!” Red laughs. “They’ll keep betting against the research! Until they go broke, anyway, or admit that they don’t believe it enough to put money on the line.”

Sarah snorts. “Some of them will stay in denial, insist that the system is corrupt or biased somehow anyway. But yeah, it’ll punish that kind of thinking pretty hard, and make their views mostly irrelevant. Same with companies falsifying reports by paying researchers to do the studies for them. With Raikoth, there’ll be a profit motive for everyone to be on the lookout for corruption.”

“Sounds great,” Red says, feeling wistful and frustrated as he imagines such a system. “I hope you guys finish it soon.”

“Depends how the post-cruise funding goes, but with Bill’s help and connections we’ll hopefully get there eventually.”

Red nods, lost in thought for a moment as he considers how different research fields would be once they’re done. He’d miss not being able to come up with his own experiments, but picking from a list of others to try could be fun too, and he can still come up with hypotheses for others to test… “Well, thanks for explaining it. I’ll let you get back to your conversation now.”

“No problem!”

“Bye!”

Red is out of his seat and looking for Leaf when he remembers that he had a secondary mission, and turns around. “Oh, one more thing…” He leans over the back of his chair, lowering his voice. “Do you guys happen to know why there are so many psychics here on the ship?”

“Sure,” Rick says with a shrug. “Everyone hired one, for when we’re meeting with potential partners or investors. It’s a basic way to check for honesty, and to ensure our own thoughts aren’t being picked apart during negotiation.”

That… makes a lot of sense. “Got it. Thanks again.” Red heads off to find Leaf, glad that mystery was solved so easily.

Red wanders around the room looking for another conversation to join until Leaf finishes hers, but doesn’t find one by the time she gets up and makes eye contact. She tilts her head at the door questioningly, and he nods.

“Well? How’d it go? I saw you talking to some people,” Leaf says with a smile.

“Good, actually!” He shares what he learned as the two head back to their room.

“Nicely done. And yeah, I got a similar explanation about the psychics.” She’s quiet a moment, then sighs. “I’m glad it’s something so innocuous, and that everyone on board seems to know about it, but I still can’t help but feel a bit paranoid.”

Red frowns. “From what they said it’s just for explicit meetings, though. I doubt they’d care what random participants think.”

“Sure, and I know that off the cruise I could be talking to a psychic at any point in my day and not realize it. Still just a bit wary after the Giovanni thing, I guess.”

Red has no reply to that. Soon the topic is forgotten as they reach their quarters and repeat last night’s mix of training and talking about the exhibits of the day. Red brings his metapod out and props it up against the wall, then puts Pichu and Nidoran through their paces, not wanting to risk Charmeleon in the enclosed (expensive) space.

Once they and their pokemon are tired out, they decide to try some of the assorted drinks from the room’s bar. Leaf opens one of the miniature liquor bottles, some kind of plum flavored rice wine that they both take turns sipping and making faces at as they try to acclimate to the taste. Red’s lips tingle each time they touch the bottle mouth, and he’s not sure if it’s from the alcohol or from his knowledge of what was just touching it. Soon his cheeks feel flushed, which he’s pretty sure is not from the alcohol. Or not exclusively, anyway.

Eventually they start pouring bits into cups and mixing them with fruit juices and sodas to see if they can make it bearable, after which they just start mixing sodas and fruit juices to try and invent the perfect beverage. After Raff tries to sneak some for the fifth time, Leaf starts looking up what sodas are safe for ivysaur to drink. The resulting expressions and eagerness on her pokemon’s face as he laps the fizzing drinks up from a bowl send them both into laughing fits, and soon they’re bringing the rest of their pokemon out to see all of their reactions too.

By the time midnight rolls around, Red goes to bed feeling enormously content. Which, in turn, makes him feel dread for when the cruise ends and he has to leave Leaf again. He stays up late and stares at the ceiling as Pichu quietly snores beside him.


Red sleeps in again the next day, and wakes up for lunch with a vague sense of despair that’s exacerbated by not seeing Leaf in their rooms, or even in the cafeteria. He tries once again to immerse himself in each exhibit to occupy his mind, but he can barely pay attention to them until it’s time for the one simply titled “Replication breakthrough.”

Red makes his way to the listed room wondering if it has something to do with scientific study replications or some more efficient way to replicate goods and speed up production, until he notices that everyone around him seems to be moving in the same direction. Soon he suspects that everyone on the boat is heading to the same exhibit, a common bloc that everyone’s supposed to attend at once, and he wonders just how big a breakthrough it will be. He starts to look around for Leaf, wondering which direction she might be coming from and hoping to snag a seat near her.

Upon entering the auditorium, however, what immediately takes Red’s attention is the live charizard that lies curled up on the side of the stage. He considers walking up to the presenter and asking him what he thinks he’s doing, letting a charizard out here, this is a boat after all, but it’s a brief thought compared to his awe and admiration. The pokemon appears to be sleeping, its slow breaths expanding its sides in a steady rhythm that’s hushed but still clearly audible over the crowd. Red finds his seat while barely taking his eyes off the great lizard, its orange scales glinting from the many lights around them. It isn’t until he finds a seat that he wonders at what its presence here might imply.

Eventually the lights dim but for the ones illuminating the stage and the middle aged, athletic man standing beside the pokemon. “For decades, we used pokeball technology to merely catch and release,” the presenter says. “It’s only recently that we began to edit the physical properties of those inside the ball, and then their mental experiences.”

The man holds up an ultra ball and withdraws the charizard into it. He then aligns the lens with a machine on the table behind him, and the monitor behind him lights up to show the charizard slumbering in the simulation its ball presents for it. He takes something out of his pocket, and a moment later it expands into another ultra ball.

“Witness, an empty ball.” Its click echoes around the quiet room as it opens, showing the reflective inner surface of the base and lid to the audience. The speaker moves it in a slow half-circle so everyone can see before he closes it and places it in the receiving slot of the PC behind him. “And our custom hardware, which has no pokemon inside it: only a carefully measured amount of certain substances.”

The giant monitor behind him starts to list the contents in the form of a container scan. Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Calcium, Sulfur… Red sees the amounts start to drop off rapidly, and mutters “Holy shit” before he can help himself. By the murmuring and muttering that’s filling the room, he’s not the only one that suspects where this is going…

The presenter ignores them, waiting for the scan to finish displaying everything there. Eventually it stops, the last elements listed as Other. The ultra ball with the charizard in it is still displayed separately, showing that it hasn’t left its ball. “The next step is obvious. What can be broken down, altered, and released whole again, should also be able to be copied. All this matter simply needs a fitting schema with which to be arranged, a template that’s provided by our good friend Carnus. Let’s say hello to Carnus again, shall we?”

The presenter takes the ultra ball out of the machine and points it to the open space to his left… but not the one that the charizard was in. Nevertheless, there’s a flash, the auditorium’s shocked reactions almost drowned out by the sound of the charizard appearing: the same hue, the same proportions, and lying in the exact same position.

“Woops,” the man says, smiling at the audience as a buzz of conversation grows even louder. “Wrong ball.” He points the original back toward his right, and another charizard comes out: the original Carnus.

“Holy shit,” Red says again, barely able to hear himself as shouts and applause break out in the audience. Red stares at the two charizard, looking back and forth as thoughts crowd his head, too many to make sense of. Cloning has been imagined in fiction since before Red was born, he grew up on stories of how it could change the world and knew that some people, somewhere, were working on it… but always in the same way he knew people were working on nanotech and genetically engineered hybrid pokemon and infinite energy sources. It wasn’t something he expected to see any results of anytime soon.

This changes everything, the entire fields of catching and training pokemon just became much less important, pokemon value by rarity is practically gone… hell, this totally outdoes Red’s abra trick, obsoletes it and any others for catching large amounts of rare pokemon, the sheer scale of how much this changes makes Red feel like he’s in a dream…

The presenter lets the noise continue for another few seconds as he clips the two ultra balls to his belt, then raises his hands, palms out. “Hold on, everyone, don’t get too excited yet.” The room quiets down almost instantly, and Red feels his mental footing refirm. Of course there’s something else, some catch…

The presenter goes to the cloned copy and puts a hand on its shoulder. “While this Carnus is a living, breathing charizard, and not just some statue made of biological parts, there are still some flaws with the process that we’re trying to figure out. The cloned pokemon’s autonomous functions all seem in good order, but they don’t respond to any but the most extreme stimuli, and always in what appears to be a fairly mindless way.” He looks a little sad as he says it, looking at the cloned charizard and giving its shoulder a rub. “We’re working hard to figure out what’s going wrong, and with your help, I’m sure we’ll get there soon.”

He smiles and steps back up to the front of the stage. “People said it was impossible. That despite all our technological marvels, the complications involved would make this a step too far. And we’ve all had doubts, one way or another. But today, the goal of pokemon cloning now appears to be years away rather than decades. Since we have some of the finest minds in biology, tech, and business in the room, we’re hoping that this demonstration will bring us the talent and funds we need to make history, and truly change the world. We look forward to hearing from you.”

The room explodes in applause, though there’s a layered, stilted quality to it, as much of the audience is slow to get over their shock. The presenter bows, then gestures to his side as he names the team leaders standing there, ready to be approached. Some people are already moving toward the stage, either to talk to them or examine the clone, while the rest of the audience breaks into a hundred different conversations.

Beside him, Red hears a pair of poketech engineers speculating about potential data loss from the order in which the pokemon is reassembled, while one of the women ahead of him turns around in her chair to begin an animated conversation on the effects of even minor mistakes in the base material amounts with the man sitting beside Red. He tries listening to one conversation first, then the other, but both are on specifics of the fields that leave him with the now-familiar feeling of being out of his depth, and instead he just sits and stares at the two charizard as his mind fills with wonder and speculation. The notebook page in front of him is blank, and he eventually just writes “Converting base matter into cloned pokemon, autonomous living functions, no mind?”

As soon as Red writes it, his mind extends outward, curiosity like a restless itch. His head immediately bows against the cacophony of thoughts; trying to focus through it is like he’s trying to feel a raindrop on a single patch of skin in a thunderstorm. Thankfully the charizard’s mind is different enough that he can isolate it from all the humans’, focus his thoughts on its blunter/fuzzier/more singular rhythm…

But there’s only one of them.

Red frowns as he tries harder to isolate a similar mental signature, but there’s nothing even remotely like it in the room. Red opens his eyes to confirm that yes, the cloned charizard is still there, and feels a twist go through his stomach.

Did they create a Dark charizard?

After a moment Red’s skepticism kicks in. There’s no way they haven’t hired a psychic to help diagnose what’s wrong with the clones, they would know by now if they’re somehow turning the pokemon Dark by testing psychokinesis on lifting its tail or something. But the alternative is that they just don’t have a brain, which seems unlikely, considering it’s meant to be a complete clone, and is at least able to breathe on its own… then again, maybe they just recreated it with some other autonomic nervous system. How would he know there’s an actual brain in its skull? It’s not like anyone would open it to find out. Also he can’t imagine why they would do that on purpose.

Maybe it’s not brain activity that my powers detect. Maybe it’s… mind activity?

Red needs to talk to a fellow psychic. He uses his “echolocation” to search for any other psychic minds around him, focusing as best he can with his eyes open as he slowly turns to match faces to hits.

He finds a few nearby, but his sense of them fades when he gets out of his chair and starts to approach them. Red immediately stops, not wanting to seem aggressive. The next psychic he homes in on doesn’t move away, but when Red focuses on the person he thinks it is he finds the woman looking at him with a guarded, almost hostile expression. Red holds his hands up in a gesture of apology while stepping away. There’s got to be a better way to do this…

He finds his seat again and closes his eyes, then focuses on his curiosity, trying to project it as best he can without forcing it on others. He then adds his sense of general… openneness, his desire to talk to someone and learn and share information distilled into a feeling that doesn’t really have a name.

He’s starting to feel some grief undermining his concentration, but does his best to isolate it. He hopes whatever he’s doing feels more like a sign that says I’m very interested in chatting with anyone who can feel this rather than HEY PSYCHICS! COME TALK TO ME RIGHT NOW!

“There are over a dozen Gifted in this room too polite or wary to ask you what you’re doing,” a voice says, deep and roughened by age and cigars, and Red looks up to see an older man with short, grey hair, a thin mustache, and a striped suit and hat. “But novelty overrides such concerns, for myself. Or perhaps that’s just your feelings splashing over me like a bucket of paint.”

Red quickly stops the projection and forms his mental shield as he turns to the man. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to be rude, I just figured it would be better than walking up to strangers and telling them I know they’re psychic. You know, in case they don’t want to be outed. If that’s a thing people worry about.”

The older man raises a brow. “And why would you need to speak to a fellow Gifted so urgently?”

“I just wanted to ask some questions about the charizard. I’m Red, by the way. Red Verres.”

“Watari.” The psychic turns to the charizard with no apparent recognition. “I admit that this situation is rather intriguing in its own right. At first glance, it appears to vindicate those Gifted who have always spoken of a ‘soul’ that exists separate from the mind, and insisted that this is what we are in truth interacting with.”

Red blinks, skepticism warring with the evidence of his (extra sensory) perceptions. “Well,” he says, speaking slowly as he considers the problem, “I guess if I was thinking in terms of disproving the hypothesis that the clone is missing a soul, I would first have to determine whether it being brain dead was a more important variable. Do you know if anyone has ever lost the ability to have their mind sensed, through an accident or something?”

The psychic drums their fingers along the top of the chair in front of him. “Not that I can recall, short of the sorts of injuries that would kill someone.” he eventually says. “Even those with extreme mental trauma have some sensorium that can be sampled, even if their thoughts or emotions are, in essence, gone. They are not… this.” He gestures toward the cloned charizard. “This emptiness.”

“What about the opposite?”

“Gaining a sensable mind, where there was none before? Only if you count children.”

Red rakes the fingers of one hand through his hair, missing the weight of his hat. He’d never thought to wonder about that, and he should have. “What age do children become detectable?”

“Depends on the species,” the man says, giving him an appraising look. “Humans, after a handful of months within the womb. Pokemon that are born from eggs have detectable minds long before they actually hatch, which can be anywhere from a few weeks to even longer than humans.”

That… doesn’t track with what little Red knows about brain development. “Shouldn’t they be detected earlier than that?”

“By what measure? Whatever your political or philosophical frame, I can assure you that someone has come up with an explanation that fits. If you’re speaking purely from the perspective that active brain activity should be detected by a psychic, however, I do believe that is the question at the heart of this mystery. We only detect that which we can understand and feel ourselves in some fashion, after all.”

“Right,” Red says, frowning. “Thinking about it more, I’m mostly confused at why I can’t at least detect what the clone’s body is feeling, since that at least seems like it shouldn’t require it to be conscious. I’ve merged minds with my pokemon while they were napping before, and it still felt like something, and of course the original charizard’s mind is there… Is this clone just totally unable to sense the world around it?”

“I’m sure they have Gifted on staff to try and understand where their technology has gone wrong,” he says. “Or they’re here to attract those that can better help them assess the problem, along with the more obvious recruitment of money and other talents.”

“Are you thinking of approaching them?” Red asks.

Watari glances at him. “I am already quite gainfully employed.”

“Oh, cool.” Red smiles. “Are you one of the truth checkers?”

The psychic stares at him, and Red’s smile eventually fades. What is with psychics and their weird social norms? Is he committing some taboo that Ayane never told him about?

“Uh. You don’t have to answer.”

“Who are you, really?” the man asks, seeming genuinely curious.

Red is taken aback not just by the question (and the confirmation that he doesn’t recognize Red’s name) but by the implied context around it that he feels utterly unaware of. “I don’t…” Red stops, thinks a moment, then says slowly, “I feel as though I’ve been dropped into a movie and don’t know my lines, or character. Did I say something that strange? I’ve met four psychics already, and their jobs never seemed like a secret…”

The older man meets his gaze for another few moments of silence while Red tries to keep from fidgeting nervously, and wonders if he should drop his shield. Maybe it’s making him look guilty, as though he has something to hide. But even if he drops the shield now he’ll be wondering if he’s meant to be keeping something hidden, which will inevitably draw up things like Bill’s secret, thus making him seem guilty as soon as he starts thinking about the very fact that there’s something he wants to keep secret at all. Maybe he should try to partition that meta knowledge into its own shield to keep it separate—

“Oh!” Red’s eyes are wide as he considers that briefly, then realizes the danger and lets the train of thought go. He looks up at the bemused psychic. “Sorry, I think I just figured out how we do the ‘amnesia’ thing. A little. I was told not to experiment with it on my own, but now I’m actually worried I’ll do it accidentally.”

The older man slowly blinks. “Now am the one who feels a character in the wrong play. Which, I’m sure, is the point.” He considers Red a moment longer. “Do you by chance know the story of how General Hideyoshi fooled the Mori clan’s undefeated psychic warlord at Himeji Castle into falsely believing that he was surrendering?”

“Uhh…” Red wants to say that he doesn’t know much history, or that the question doesn’t make him feel any less like he’s cluelessly in the middle of something that he doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t want to admit to ignorance without at least trying to figure out the answer.

So instead he puts his attention into actually trying to guess what the ancient general had done, and why the older psychic was asking him about it in this particular context. How would Red fool a psychic? He couldn’t use another psychic or dark person to lie to them, they wouldn’t believe anything they said. Professor Oak told him that the best thing to do to prepare for meeting a psychic is to make sure he has nothing on his mind that he’s worried about the psychic learning. This was fairly easy to do when he met Narud, since he didn’t know anything important, but harder with Sabrina, when he did.

Though, actually… it wasn’t Red’s information that he wanted to keep Sabrina from knowing. It was Bill’s. And Bill hadn’t told him that information, he had figured it out himself, after already giving Red the tickets. Bill can’t have been worried about people here finding out things about him, but the very act of warning Red about psychics would prompt Red to be on the defensive. Which would make it seem like he’s hiding something regardless of whether or not Bill has something to hide.

Hell, if Red hadn’t even known it was a big deal, he wouldn’t have even had to try and keep himself from thinking about it. But even if an interrogator isn’t specifically looking for some information, they would be able to sense that feeling of guilty desire to deceive or hide something, and ask the right questions to bring it to the forefront of Red’s mind either way.

The older psychic seems amused that Red is actually giving the idea some thought, and doesn’t interrupt his thinking. Red’s doesn’t need his powers to try and put himself in the other man’s shoes and look at the world from his perspective. Red isn’t the general in this circumstance; he’s the one sent by the general, who would be Bill. Red’s psychic, so that kind of breaks the pattern of the hypothetical, but if there isn’t some norm among psychics not to ask what people do, then maybe there’s one specifically on this cruise…

He realizes with a sinking feeling why hiding in plain sight is the ideal form of deception. If “everyone knows” why there are so many psychics on board, then any psychics not on board for that reason aren’t given additional suspicion. Except, perhaps, from other psychics, and so of course a psychic asking another psychic what they do on the cruise is frowned upon. Espionage seems the easiest answer, but Bill didn’t even know Red was psychic when he first invited him, and thought that he still didn’t know how to pick up on emotions when he gave him the tickets, so it’s not like he would worry about that. But he definitely knew before Red came on the cruise, and still said nothing.

Which means saying something would have just made things worse, or that he was purposefully pretending not to know that Red was psychic so that he could act surprised upon finding out so that Red could assume that he had no ulterior motive for sending Red…

Complexity penalty. That way lies madness. He can entertain it as a possibility, but for now he has no evidence to confirm it one way or the other, and it would just distract from more probable likelihoods.

“I guess,” Red says slowly, “If I were that general, I would convince my negotiator or second in command or whatever that we were surrendering. Maybe even fake suicide, and stage the beginnings of a surrender. Have my people start dismantling the camp until the negotiator leaves. Maybe even send some prisoners who are told and see the same thing. Then, they wouldn’t need to worry about honesty: you can’t betray a falsehood or even the possibility of a ruse if you don’t suspect one yourself.”

“So you do know the story.”

“No, I just… it’s obvious, once you think about it.”

They stare at each other in silence for another few seconds while the dominos finish falling one after another in Red’s head.

I’m not actually a secret agent of Bill’s he thinks, then doesn’t say, recognizing how useless a defense it is, even against someone who can read his intentions.

I don’t think that I’m a secret agent, really, I wasn’t given any instructions beyond to just take notes about the presentations, would be similarly pointless, since the person being anticipated is the only one who knows what he’s actually after.

“I just wanted to talk to someone about the charizard,” he finally says, feeling an odd sort of shame. “Sorry for bothering you.”

“No bother at all,” the man says, and tips his narrow hat. “Have a good night, Gifted.”

Red watches him go, brain feeling like he just went through a battery of tests. He sits idly for a few minutes until the crowd finally begins to thin out as people make their way out of the exhibition room.

“Red!”

He looks up to see Leaf on her way toward him, apparently having spotted him on the way out. His heart swells at the sight of her, chasing away his dark thoughts.

“Hey! What do you think?” He gestures at the two charizard. “Pretty crazy, right?”

Leaf is close enough now for him to read her expression, which doesn’t look particularly impressed, let alone awe stricken. “Yeah. Pretty crazy.”

“What’s wrong?”

She shakes her head. “Is there something you’re waiting for, here?”

Red glances at the crowd near the presenters, which looks like it won’t be thinning any time soon. “I guess not. You going somewhere specific?”

She shakes her head. “Nowhere. I was just going to walk around the boat. Maybe go to our room and cry a bit. Or scream.”

Red stares at her in shock. “Why?”

“Not here. Come on.” She starts walking, and Red quickly follows her. The halls of the boat are a bit crowded as people rush this way and that, but soon they reach one of the doors to the outer decks, which are practically empty. Eventually, Leaf says, “Please tell me you understand at least a little bit why I’m so upset right now.”

Red rubs his temples. “Leaf… normally I’d be happy to try and model you, but I just finished some spy movie crap with another psychic, and my brain still feels soft.” She gives him a surprised look. “I’ll tell you later, but for now it would really be nice to just have a straightforward conversation.”

“Okay, well then being straightforward, I’m pretty disgusted by the world right now. Cloning mentally crippled pokemon is just the start of what looks to be a pretty horrifying future.”

Red’s never heard so much venom in Leaf’s voice, and tries to pick his words carefully, forcing himself to try and model her perspective despite his earlier protest. “If it helps, there’s no mind there at all that I could sense. It was as close to literally braindead as I could imagine, as unthinking and unfeeling as a rock.”

Leaf looks surprised by that. “Okay. I guess that’s not quite as horrifying as it could be.”

“And I know we don’t agree on the weight of pokemon personhood, but I can sort of understand why you would be weirded out by the idea of cloning Joy or Raff. It would basically treat them like commodities, right?”

“Yeah, that’s part of it. I know Aiko would be pissed about it because it’ll just encourage people to all raise copies of the same pokemon, instead of taking care of all the other pokemon that already exist.”

Red didn’t think of that part. “Yeah. Though it would mean people aren’t breeding dozens of pokemon just to try and get one particularly rare or powerful combination of genes. That’s good, right?”

“Oh no, they’ve got a much better market for that now.”

“What do you mean? They said they just stored all the needed elements and…” Red trails off. “Huh. How do they even know how to stabilize each combination of molecules? That Other metric must be full of something specific, but they didn’t just list it out… I mean, we still can’t artificially recreate charmander oil in a lab, that’s one of the first things I looked up after we started out. But… that clone’s tail had a flame so I guess just copying the form is enough…”

“Right, that might just be the result of putting the right biological organs together in the right places,” Leaf says.” Artificial pokemon meat is made by specific software to turn the right elements into the right pattern of biological compounds as efficiently as possible. But whatever script they’re using to fit atoms into the whole blueprint is bound to be more prone to error the more precise they try to be, and the main issue is that meat is still something we understand how to code as output, while other stuff pokemon make or have as part of them are not.”

“They’re not trying to code one from scratch, though, they’re just copying the process that happens when you bring a pokemon out of its ball.”

“No they’re not,” Leaf says as she stomps along the corridor and out onto the deck of the ship. “They’re applying that process to a new bunch of matter! That’s important if we’re thinking of what goes into the ball in the first place, think about the ‘flying particles,’ we definitely don’t know how those are emitted! Maybe it’s just about putting the right organs in the right places too, but what if it’s not? Even if its brain worked alright, it might not have been able to breathe fire, or fly. They probably just put together something impressive enough to show for investors.”

Red considers this silently for a while as he follows Leaf to the railing at the edge of the deck. The two stare out into the dark waves below and brilliant stars above as Red wonders how accurate her suspicion is. Leaf may be too cynical, part of the mindset she’s been cultivating to be a journalist, but either way, surely the psychics on board would notice something that deceptive. Plus, many collaborators might not actually care.

But ultimately he realizes it’s irrelevant to the real point. “Okay, let’s say they can only really effectively clone a pokemon by using other pokemon. For a while, anyway, eventually it’ll get figured out when we understand them and how their abilities work better. But Leaf, don’t you get it? They’ll eventually be able to bring pokemon back to life with this!”

“No, Red, they won’t! They’ll just make a clone using the remains of the previous pokemon, or others. There’s no continuation of consciousness like there is when we digitize a pokemon in their ball, or store them, it’s not analogous to sleep, it’s just turning dead matter into living creatures.”

“Why is that bad?”

“Because there are already living creatures around!” Leaf waves an arm in a gesture that’s probably meant to encompass more than just the ocean around them. “Come on, Red. Don’t tell me you haven’t already thought of what this will probably lead to.”

“I was distracted, really. I get it now, though, you think people are going to just… store a bunch of charmander for biological parts. But even if people need to use charmander to make a charizard, nothing says they have to be alive first.

“And who’s going to stop them from using living pokemon?” Leaf shakes her head. “You can’t see past the potential benefits of this, that’s the problem. Like everyone else, you’ll just accept whatever cost there is as unimportant compared to the gains.”

An announcement interrupts Red before he can respond, alerting them all that dinner is being served. People around them start to change the direction in which they drift. “Leaf, I don’t—”

“Sorry, can we table this?” Leaf lets out a frustrated breath. “I have to go, I made plans for a couple interviews during dinner.” She starts heading to the dining hall, and Red follows her with an ache in his chest. He’d hoped to eat with her and talk more, but she clearly wants some space from him.

He contemplates going to the dining hall and sitting alone, or trying to strike up a conversation with someone. After the stressfully enigmatic talk with the psychic, however, he finds the prospect daunting, and just grabs some food to take to his room, thoughts still swimming with amazement at the cloning technology, curiosity about what it was doing wrong, and, more often than he’d prefer, the conversation he had with Leaf, and how irritated she was, and how irritated he’d made her…

He’s still in bed an hour later, food eaten, mood swinging between various pessimistic thoughts. Eventually he has the presence of mind to realize he’s just sulking, and brings Pichu out to keep him company the way he would if his depression was particularly bad. That comparison distracts him briefly; what he’s feeling now isn’t nearly as strong as the feelings of using his powers too much… of missing his dad. But he still would have thought he’d be better at overcoming it than this.

He needs to get his mind off this frustrated worry that she’s going to hate him forever just because they argued before he leaves the journey. Red takes his laptop out and starts typing up a report of the cloning presentation for Bill and doing his best to ignore his argument with Leaf. Blue he’s used to not getting, they just have such different priorities, but Leaf… If only he wasn’t leaving soon, he might not be so fatalistic about it all…

He’s still writing out his thoughts about the presentation when there’s a knock at the door to the living room, and Red stares at it a moment, heart hammering. “Come in!”

Leaf opens the door and pokes her head in. Her buneary, Alice, curiously sticks her head in from around Leaf’s knees, nostrils flared at the lingering scent of food. “Hey. Are you joining us tonight?”

Red smiles, some weight rolling off his shoulders. “Sure!”

Leaf smiles and closes the door, and he quickly changes into his workout clothes, body feeling light and full of energy. He pauses as he changes, a bit amazed as he realizes how much of a shift in his mood and energy level was dependent on just knowing that Leaf wasn’t mad at him. He quickly grabs his notebook and writes out, find out what the link is between mood and energy/motivation level, see if it can be harnessed independently or summoned on command? Then he summons Metapod and Pichu, and carries Metapod into the living room to lean it against the corner.

Pichu runs off to say hi to Leaf upon spotting her, as usual. She smiles and gives the pokemon she caught an affectionate rub, then sends him back to Red, who steps up to the opposite side of the obstacle course. “I shifted some things around,” she says. “Haven’t tested it much, but let me know if it’s not working for you.”

“Right.” Red watches her go around the course to get an idea of what the new configuration is intended for, then starts his track when she gets to the end of it.

Soon he’s gotten into the new rhythm of things, and is wondering if he should bring up their previous conversation. It feels risky, and he doesn’t want them to argue again. But he also doesn’t want the topic to have ended on such a negative note, and he never had trouble talking to her about things before. She might find it odd or disappointing if he started now.

“So, about what we were talking about, before,” Red says carefully, stretching his thoughts out to test her mood.

“Yeah?” Leaf seems curious, not hostile at all, mostly focused on her workout. Red withdraws so he can focus on his own and talk at the same time. “Oh! You said something about psychic spy stuff?”

Red misses a step and almost twists his ankle on the edge of a couch cushion. He’d completely forgotten about that, he was just so upset at the idea that Leaf might be mad at him that he forgot…

“Right, that.” He summarizes the conversation with Watari, and Leaf stops exercising so she can listen, causing him to slow to a stop too. As he explains his suspicions, she starts to pace by the windows, an intense look on her face.

“Okay, I’m back to suspecting something shady is going on,” Leaf says. “I think we should tell the captain or event organizers, just to make sure they’re aware of how many psychics there are here.”

“But we don’t even know how many there are, or should be,” Red says. “What are we going to say? ‘Hey, there’s more psychics than we two kids who have never been to one of these before expected and one of them seemed secretive about his job?'”

Leaf sighs. “I know, we need more info first. Still, I’d feel pretty silly if we didn’t raise the concern and it turned out to be something important just out of fear of being embarrassed.” She gets back onto the obstacle course, and Red starts moving again too. “I really need to figure out how to guard my thoughts and mood from intrusion. We should practice that sometime.”

“Yeah.” Red’s mood plummets again as he realizes it would have to be sometime soon. He should tell her he’s leaving… But it’ll just depress him more, and he was enjoying thinking about other things. “I’m a bit psychic’d out today, but maybe tomorrow night, or the one after?”

“Sure. And I’ll see if I can get a five minute conversation with the captain or someone else with authority tomorrow.”

They exercise in silence a bit, and Red’s thoughts go back to the argument from earlier, the things he didn’t get a chance to say. Just out of fear of being embarrassed. That’s not quite why Red’s hesitant to bring the conversation up again, he’s more afraid of spoiling the mood, but he knows it’s going to continue to bother him if they just leave the conversation there. So he considers what the best opening statement would be to set a more positive tone, and the next time he vaults over the two couches, one after the other this time instead of all as one maneuver, he catches his breath and says, “About that other thing… from earlier. I’ve been thinking about what you said, and you’re right. I think I might be too quick to just accept the opportunities.”

“Yeah?” Leaf asks from behind him, sounding surprised.

“Yeah. But I also think we might have drifted off point, a little… I was curious to know, what if we forget about this technology as it currently exists and talk about the ideal? Maybe we disagree less than it seems, philosophically.”

“Maybe.” Leaf’s buneary hops straight over both couches at once, its ears just missing the ceiling. It lands on her shoulder, then rebounds forward. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, if we could just collect a bunch of dead matter for the elements and work out the algorithms to perfectly duplicate a pokemon, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen will get you most of the way there for most—”

“People aren’t going to want most pokemon, they’re going to want the rare and powerful ones. You think most people have a ton of iron lying around to turn into a steelix?”

“Okay, but pretend they just buy iron in bulk to use, and can easily purchase any rarer elements they need, all ethically sourced. I know you have doubts about that actually happening, but hypothetically, would you still be against being able to revive your pokemon?”

“But I wouldn’t be reviving them. Like I said, I’d just be making a copy.”

“A copy that’s using like 90% the same matter?” Red pants as he leaps from side to side between the chairs. “Like if you make a backup copy of your pokemon, and they get killed, and you have the extra elements around to repair whatever wounds they got and bring them back to their previous saved state… is that bad?”

Leaf is quiet, and he wishes he could see her facial expression for longer than a couple seconds at a time as they pass by each other. He’s about to use his powers to check her mood when she says, “I can’t say that I won’t be tempted to just… turn some bushes into a new Raff if something happens to him. But there are other pokemon in the world that could use a loving trainer. I should just raise another one and raise them instead. To be honest, ever since we’ve been to Aiko’s ranch, I’ve been wondering if I should even catch any new pokemon, outside of like a life or death situation.”

Red tries to wrap his mind around that, and fails. Not just the idea of not catching new pokemon they encounter in the wild, that requires a whole separate conversation and time to contemplate. What he really can’t imagine is being given the ability to return a dead pokemon to life, and just… starting over with a new pokemon instead of regaining all the time and effort he’s already put into his. To lose the relationship between himself and his pokemon…

“I think you’re an incredibly moral and caring person,” Red says. “And I feel sincerely awed that you have that level of care for each pokemon as an individual rather than a… I don’t know, a pattern of interactions with a persistent chain of experiences? But what if it happened to me? Would you really not want me to come back to life just because it was a copy?”

“Do you want a clone of you just picking up where you left off after you’re dead?”

“Of course! I mean for all I know, someone secretly kills me and puts a clone in my place every few months while I’m asleep, right? If I died and someone cloned me from a backup I might not even notice if it were done carefully enough. I’m basically a clone of Past Red, and I’d be upset with Past Red if he didn’t want me, as Present Red, to exist, just like I’d be upset with him making a decision that ignored my well-being. Similarly, I have to consider what’s best for Future Red when I make decisions, who’s kind of not-yet-created clone of me. And if I would be mad at Past Red for not caring if I exist, it would be a dick move to not want Future Red to exist.”

Leaf stops to drink some water, and gives some to Alice too as she stares at Red with an expression he can’t quite place. “You have the strangest way of thinking sometimes, you know that?”

Red stops to rest and hydrate himself and Pichu too, and briefly samples her mental state as he does so. There’s more admiration and pleasure than confusion, and he grins. “You realize how that sounds, coming from you?”

Leaf laughs. “Fair enough. I didn’t say I don’t like it, though.” She gives her buneary a nut from the pouch at her belt, then gets back onto the track. “But okay, let’s say you do know you’ll be cloned if you die. You wouldn’t go charging into dangerous situations, would you?”

Red considers that as he takes another drink, still warmed by her words. “I’m not sure, actually. If there was really no cost, and by putting myself in danger I could save others… but wait, if that was possible for me I guess everyone would also be able to be revived. Or cloned. Whatever.”

Leaf is frowning at him as she jogs by. “Don’t you think there’s something perverse about that? Would we even value life if it was that easy to replace?”

“Yes? It’s not like we’d be suddenly okay with someone’s backup being wiped out in that circumstance. ‘Life’ and ‘death’ would just have a different meanings.” He watches her move around the track, waiting until she’s opposite him to rejoin. “Wouldn’t you want to be immortal?”

“If it was actual immortality that I could end whenever? Sure. But clones… I don’t know. It just feels like that’s not me anymore. And if copies of me are just using up resources that other people could be using, that seems really narcissistic. No offense.”

“Some taken. But…” Red shrugs as he runs. “I like myself… uh, mostly. I like my values. I like my goals. I want them to continue, even if it’s through a clone. I guess maybe I am a narcissist?” That thought is unpleasant, but he can’t deny the truth of what he said. “Though I think that word means more that you don’t care about others… I wouldn’t kill someone else to make a clone of me.”

“Why wait until you’re killed at all, then? Why not just clone yourself, if the tech is available to do it out of inert matter?”

Huh. Now that they’re talking hypothetically, the possibilities of what the new poketech would let them do if they ever fix the problems with storing humans would allow cloning humans… What a weird world that would be.

But not one he feels intrinsically opposed to. “I think I could get along with myself,” Red says. “And that way I could have one of me focus on research, one of me focus on training, and one of me focus on my psychic abilities.”

“And how would the yous decide which does which? Drawing lots? If you can’t decide between them now, why would your clones be okay with only doing one over the others, and not eventually get upset at being stuck with one?”

Considering that takes Red’s attention for awhile, trying to model himself as a version of himself that is aware of other versions who are going to go off and do other important work so that he can focus on training/research/psychic abilities. He thinks he’d be okay with that, as long as he can keep checking in with his other selves to see what they’ve learned and maybe work together sometimes…

His musings are interrupted by a sudden knock at the door. Red and Leaf both slow to a stop, their pokemon immediately halting beside them. The trainers exchange a look, then reach for their pokeballs.

“Wait,” Red suddenly whispers, and bends down to pick Pichu up. “Too loud.”

Leaf picks Alice up, and they quickly head to their rooms to put their pokemon away as a knock comes again. Despite his nonchalance to Leaf when they first came on board, he suddenly imagines a dozen potential consequences to breaking the rules of the cruise, including having their pokeballs taken away for the remainder of the journey, or being barred from attending any further exhibitions.

“Stay,” Red says to Pichu. “Rest.” He pours some berries on the ground from the pouch at his waist, then takes the whole belt off and puts it in an open container box before returning to the living room to grab Metapod and stick it in his closet. Leaf is closing her door by the time he comes back out, and the knock repeats, louder, as they move together to answer the door. Red opens it and sees the boat steward from their first day standing there with his fist still raised.

“Hi… Paul,” Red says, remembering after a moment before he has to look at the name tag. “What’s up?”

The young man glances back and forth between the two smiling, sweaty, somewhat winded trainers. “Good evening. We’ve received noise complaints, from both those below and above your suite, over the past few nights.”

Oops. “Oh. Right. Sorry.”

“Normally your conduct in your own rooms would be your own concern,” Paul says, voice a bit stiff. “But due to age…”

“Oh!” Leaf says, and Red turns to see her blushing furiously. It makes her look particularly pretty. “Oh, no, it’s… look…”

She takes a step back, surprising Red, who’s confused at both the implication and her sudden decision to show off their ad hoc gym.

The steward stares at the transformed living room, eyes widening. “Was your room… not to your liking?”

“It’s just a place for us to work out,” Red says.

“We have facilities onboard…”

“Privately.”

“Of course.” Paul is giving Red a level stare, and he wonders if the young man is remembering what they wanted before and putting two and two together… “I’ve been asked to ensure nothing untoward is occurring, however.”

Nothing untoward?’ Do people really talk like that? “Um. Sure.” Red steps aside too, watching Paul walk in and frown at the obstacle course. He tries to imagine it from his eyes, and wonders if it just looks like a jumbled mess from the angle of the doorway.

The steward goes over to the furniture, examining the expensive looking couches and cushions. “And just the two of you have been climbing and running over these?”

“Yes,” Leaf says before Red can wonder if there’s any telltale marks of their pokemon’s claws cutting at the material. “I’m sorry, I didn’t consider the potential damage to them from how rough we were being.”

Paul’s gaze lingers on the edge of one couch, fingers running over the top, then he walks around the room, making Red nervous when he approaches Leaf’s door in case Alice makes some sound, or he decides to investigate it. Instead he continues past to the bar, where he takes in the small mountain of empty containers there. Red is suddenly glad they only opened one alcoholic drink, long buried by all the juice bottles and soda cans.

“Did we drink too much?” Red asks.

Paul turns to them just as a muffled thrumming and crackling comes from Red’s room. “What was that?” he asks, turning to Red’s door.

“I left my TV on,” Red blurts out, causing Paul to turn back to him as a panicky voice in his head wonders if Pichu fried something. Hopefully not the TV…

“You left your TV on,” Paul says, not a question.

“Right.” Red tries not to look nervous or glance at Leaf.

“While you exercised.”

“Yeah. For the… background ambiance.”

Both Leaf and Paul stare at him, now, the silence suddenly incriminating.

“Wait, no,” Red says, cursing himself for being a terrible liar. “I think that was my alarm going off on my phone, actually. I forgot all about it. That’s why I set it. So I wouldn’t forget… to send an email.”

“I see.” Paul’s hand rises to rub his eyes briefly. “Would you mind if I check your room, sir?”

“Check my room?” Red asks as he suddenly sends his powers out toward Pichu, enmeshing their minds and pushing past the sensations it sends him as he hurriedly sends his vague fear at his pokemon. Not mindless fear, that might make him lash out at anyone who walks into the room, but specifically the social fear of awkwardness, of some indistinct threat. It’s easy to project the desire to curl up and hide… “Not at all!” Red lunges forward before Paul can reach for his door knob so that Pichu smells him coming through the door first, still sending the impulse to hide and be quiet as he opens the door and holds it wide for Paul’s inspection.

Paul is frowning at him, but after a moment steps into the room and looks around. Thankfully there’s nothing that looks electrocuted, and on top of that all the berries from the ground are gone. The steward eventually steps back into the living room.

“Thank you. Please try and be more considerate of the other guests, and refrain from any more indoor athletics.” He glances at the windows. “And try not to leave the windows open for too long. The salt and wet isn’t good for the furniture.”

“Of course!”

“We’re sorry for making trouble,” Leaf adds. “But actually, now that you’re here… would you mind passing a message along to the captain, or telling us how we could speak to him? It doesn’t have to do with any of this! Totally unrelated. We just have something that may be important to ask him.”

Paul gives her a skeptical look that’s so subtle it must be trained, but merely dips his head. “I’ll inform the Chief Steward and let him decide to pass the message along or not.” He examines the obstacle course once more as he walks past it, and Red is suddenly glad they keep the window open. The ocean breeze is nice, and it’s useful for pokemon waste removal, but the smell of the ocean is also more than a match for flushing out not just their sweat, but any scent of their pokemon. “Have a good night.”

“Night!” they chirp, and Red relaxes his projection as soon as the front door closes behind the steward.

Red and Leaf look at each other, and their overly wide, cheerful smiles slowly shrink into more relieved and real ones as they relax and lean against the walls on either side of the door.

“Red, you are the worst liar!”

“I refuse to feel bad about that.”

“You left the TV on?

He turns back to his room. “What was that, anyway? He must have been cooking one of the berries, but I thought I trained him not to do that indoors…” They both go to Red’s room, and he looks around to ensure again that there’s no damage. “Pichu, here,” he whispers, tapping his leg.

A pair of black and yellow ears emerge from under his bed, and Leaf gasps as Red stares at the shape of them. They’re long, and thin, and—

“Your timing is just the worst,” Red says, hands on his hips, but he’s grinning wide as his newly evolved pikachu finishes wriggling out from beneath the bed and runs up his bare leg. “Gah! Nails! Sharp!”

Leaf giggles as she watches him dance in place until his pokemon reaches his shorts, then pulls itself up his shirt to rest on his shoulder and start nuzzling his cheek. “Shh! Do you want Paul to come back?”

Red grumbles and carefully repositions Pichu… Pikachu, so that he’s settled more comfortably on his shoulder. “Good point. I’m not sure if we actually fooled him.”

“Yeah. It sucks that we can’t train with them anymore, but at least this happened first. Congratulations, Red!” She scratches the fur between Pikachu’s ears, and laughs as he runs along her arm to her shoulder instead.

Red goes to check on Metapod just in case he has a butterfree now too, but the dull green pokemon is still sitting where he left it. He sighs. “Well, they can stay out until morning, at least.”

“Yeah. Let’s go put the living room back together and try out some new sodas.”

Red falls asleep easier, that night, though his dreams are full of versions of himself, all talking with each other and fighting over who would get to be the one that stays with Leaf and the others on their journey. Each time he thinks he’s won, his perspective shifts to a different clone, and the argument starts anew.

Chapter 56: At Sea

Hey everyone, welcome back! Naught new to report, just getting used to a new job and trying to keep up with my various projects. Hope you enjoy the chapter, and all feedback welcome, as always!


Chapter 56: At Sea

Red wakes on the morning of the cruise and quickly staggers into the shower so he can wash the grogginess away. They added an extra hour when setting their alarms to make sure that, short of some city-wide catastrophe, they’d have plenty of extra time to make it, but he doesn’t want to get complacent because of that. He dries his hair as quick as he can, noticing that it’s getting shaggy and making a quick memo to cut it when he returns, then gets dressed and heads down to the Trainer House lobby to meet Leaf, constantly checking the time and traffic on the route there to see how much wiggle room they’ll have before boarding starts.

The elevator doors open, and Red is about to step forward when he looks up from his phone and sees Leaf, causing his forward momentum to halt as his heart thuds in surprise. Instead of her normal travel clothes, she’s dressed in an elegant black dress that leaves her tanned arms and knees bare, and her hair falls in a straight and shining curtain to her upper back.

She turns at the sound of the elevator opening, then frowns. “Really, Red?”

Red twitches, eyes guiltily jumping to her face. “I ah… I was…”

“You’re wearing that? We’re going on a swanky cruise! Don’t you have any dress clothes?”

Red blinks. “Dress clothes! Yes! I thought… that I’d change there…” His cheeks are burning as the elevator doors start to close. “Be right back…”

He rushes back to his room, suddenly glad his mom convinced him to pack a few sets of some nicer clothing. After a few months on the road, the thin material of the button-up shirt and khakis makes him feel vulnerable… particularly once he puts his hat on, then takes it off upon realizing that it looks very out of place. Come to think of it, his white and red hiking shoes clash a bit too, but he doesn’t have anything else.

Red quickly tries combing his hair into something neat, but eventually gives up on it once it’s passable and goes back downstairs with some trepidation. Thankfully Leaf smiles when she sees him. “Much better.” Her eyes flick down to his shoes, but she doesn’t comment, and soon they’re heading out onto the street to find their cab.

To distract himself from looking at her, Red takes his phone back out as they ride and starts checking his sites while he can; internet signal on the ship will be spotty, and he’ll hopefully be too busy to want to surf the net anyway.

What immediately catches his eye is a trend of headlines in his science news sub that follow a certain theme:

Study finds link between psychic ability and pokemon size.

New research on “psychic particle” shows link to gender.

Are psychics from certain regions stronger?

“Leaf, have you seen these?”

She leans over to read from his tilted screen. “Huh. They’re all from the same couple of journals, too. You think they’ve been sitting on this stuff for a while?”

“Maybe…?” Red starts reading the abstracts, his frown growing into a scowl. “I recognize these journals… they’re the ones that just churn out publications. One of them tried to get me to buy in after Pewter!”

“That bad, huh?”

He’s too preoccupied to respond to her tone. “Oh come on, look at this one, Psychic powers may be linked with nose size. Nose size! Off of a single correlation found in drowzee!”

“Do they mention that it’s just drowzee in the article?”

He opens the full text and does a search. “Yeah. Barely though. And people are already talking like it extends to woobats and spoinks.”

“Hmm.” Leaf reaches out and pinches his nose. “Sorry Red, looks like you’re not a natural.”

He bats her hand away. “This is serious, Leaf! They’re citing me!”

“What, all of them?” She looks impressed. “Oh, you poor thing, how horrible.” His scowl completely fails to affect her as she gets on her phone and starts tapping on it. “I’m more interested in how they’re all coming out at once.”

Red goes back to flicking from paper to paper, looking at their methodology. Evaluation of component parts… new interpretive technology… uncategorized matter, as shown by Verres experiments…

It doesn’t take long for Red to figure it out; some of the smaller labs must have gotten together and churned through hundreds of captured pokemon data, applying Pallet’s new scanning tech to categorize it legibly, then used some algorithm to search through the massive amounts of data and spit out correlations that would be publishable. Barely.

“I need to talk to someone about this,” Red says. “See if there’s something I can do…”

“No time,” Leaf says, slapping his arm. “We’re here!”

Red glances out the window just as the buildings on either side of the street fall away to reveal the massive, curving city harbor. Traffic picks up as they approach the docks where the SS Anne is waiting, with an intimidating amount of security already set up for early boarders.

Red and Leaf thank their driver, then take their tickets out as they strap their bags on and make their way toward the line. “So what did Bill say?” Leaf asks.

“About what?” Red asks, mind still on the articles.

“Last minute instructions?”

Red blinks. Right, Bill did say he’d send something like that… “I didn’t see anything…” He checks again, then sends Bill a quick message. He probably should have done that earlier, but he got distracted…

There’s no response by the time they reach the front of the line, and their tickets are closely scrutinized once the cruise agent sees the two of them. Red starts to feel nervous as they speak into their phone briefly, and then he and Leaf are taken out of the line while someone calls Bill to confirm that he gave his tickets to them.

“Still no response,” Red says, checking his phone. “What if he’s in some kind of work frenzy? Or asleep?”

“Just be patient. We’ve got time to work whatever confusion there is out.” Leaf seems utterly calm and unconcerned, and he does his best to mimic her, impressed by her confidence or acting ability. Eventually he decides to cheat a little, and mirrors her mental state. Turns out she’s not acting at all, and soon the nervousness in his stomach fades.

Eventually they’re let on and told to enjoy their stay, much to Red’s relief. Once they’re on board, however, it quickly becomes clear that they’ll continue to draw scrutiny for awhile yet; within the first hour they spy a few attendees in their mid to late 20s, but no one near as young as them, and dozens of others far older. They draw a number of looks as they make their way to their cabins.

“Yeah, arriving in my travel clothes might have been a mistake,” Red mutters as he sees all the people wearing fancy suits and dresses.

Leaf smiles. “Maybe they’ll stare less once we put our bags away.”

It’s a good point; both have their fully loaded travel bags with them, while everyone else’s luggage apparently fits in a container ball or two at their belts. Red sees that most attendants have pokeballs too, though none others have six like he and Leaf.

Their rooms are in the same hallway, with another door dividing them. Red wonders who the neighbor between them is, then enters his door and is taken aback by how fancy it is, even after seeing the other cruise attendees. He has a king sized bed, a huge wall monitor, and his own bathroom. Before Red can check out what looks like a whole separate room, the door opens and Leaf pokes her head in. “We have a living room!”

Red blinks, then follows her to see that the door between them actually leads to a shared common space that’s twice as big as his bedroom and just as luxurious. He walks around the couches to inspect a bar stocked with not just alcohol, but a variety of soft drinks and juices. “Think anyone’s going to come and take the booze, now that they know we’re underage?”

“Psh, whatever. We’re old enough to be trainers, we’re old enough to drink.” Leaf inspects one of the bottles, then puts it back. “That said, I’ve never liked the taste.”

“You’ve had wine?” Red asks, impressed.

“Beer, mostly. Grandpa gave me a sip now and then. He seemed to like the faces I’d make.”

“Well, we can always experiment.” Red takes his phone out to snap a picture to Blue, then changes his mind. He doesn’t want to look like he’s bragging. Instead he checks the headlines again.

“Come on, let’s go explore.”

Red follows her out into the common areas, where a number of guests have already settled in to have snacks, play pool, or just sit and chat. The rear deck has an outdoor swimming pool that’s currently unused, and there’s a fitness center that they can see a single person already making use of, lifting weights at one of the machines.

“Must be getting his daily workout in,” Leaf says. “Think they have pokemon training rooms here?”

Red looks around until he spots someone in the staff uniform and approaches him, glancing at his name tag. “Hey, Paul? Quick question, do you guys have rooms for pokemon training?”

The young man blinks. “No, sir. No pokemon battling is allowed onboard. This is a boat.”

“Not for battling, I mean for just training.”

“And… what would training entail?”

“You know, training.” Red makes a careless gesture. “Like… target practice, or…”

He trails off at the expression on Paul’s face. “Sir… this is a boat.

Red opens his mouth to say something about how they’re not going to be training a tyranitar or anything, then closes it, recognizing the futility.

“We can run around with them though, right?” Leaf asks, sounding worried. “Just to get some exercise?”

He hesitates. “I think it might be better not to, ma’am. It might upset the other guests.”

“What if I did it early in the morning? Or late at night?”

“I could ask the captain, and leave a message for you with his answer.”

“Please do.” Leaf gives Paul her room number, and watches him head off with a troubled look on her face. “A whole week without being able to take a run with Raff would drive me nuts.”

“I’m sure it’ll be okay,” Red says. “If not, we can just move the couches around to set up an obstacle course in our living room.”

Leaf eyes him uncertainly. “Really?”

“Why not? They gave us all that room, we might as well use it.”

She grins. “Come on, let’s go watch cast off.”

Leaf leans against the railing to watch the people boarding the ship, and Red mimics her. He recognizes a few faces here and there from various tech companies, but most are utter strangers to him, probably the high and mighty among the business world.

Eventually the last few walk up the ramp, and the crew starts the process of unmooring the vessel. The ship shifts beneath his feet as it starts to move away from the pier, and Red looks up at Vermilion City to watch as it starts to slowly shrink.

“It looks so big, from this angle,” Leaf says, voice quiet.

“Yeah.” Red managed to see more of the city than Pewter or Cerulean, but there’s still whole districts and neighborhoods he hasn’t set foot in. “It’ll be weird coming back to a city after leaving it, for once. Want to explore a bit more when we get back?”

“It’s a date.”

Red’s cheeks heat at the choice of words, and he wonders whether it was intentional or not. He’s tempted to use his powers to check, and before he can really reconsider or stop himself his mind brushes hers.

Cheerfulness. Excitement. Impatience. Some other stuff. Nothing like what he’s feeling.

Red withdraws and chides himself for breaching her privacy, minor as it had been. He didn’t even get any kind of answer, really… and what kind of answer was he looking for, exactly?

“We’ve got an hour to schmooze before the welcome speech,” Leaf says, breaking him out of his thoughts. “Want to go check out the breakfast buffet?”

“Sure.” A moment’s indecision, then Red offers her his arm. She takes it with a grin, and his pulse kicks up as they walk toward the nearest dining area. Red knows he’s going to miss Blue and Aiko, but right now he’s absurdly happy that the coming week will just be him and Leaf.


The main dining hall is packed for the welcome speech, which is itself fairly uninteresting to Red. Some talk about the history of the Cruise Convention, thanks to all sorts of people and organizations, blah blah. He perks up a bit when the day’s schedule is finally revealed to the participants, eyes scanning the big screen as he quickly jots down everything mentioned. Without any further instructions from Bill, he just has to make do with what he was told before, and take notes on all the tech he sees… and particularly any on storage technology. He wonders if the inventor even remembered that the cruise was today, or that he sent them.

Eventually the host reminds everyone that recordings are strictly prohibited, and then the lights come on and people start to make their way to various exhibitions.

“See you at dinner!” Leaf says as she springs up. “Unless you want to see the artificial meat replication exhibit too?”

Red considers it, then realizes he just wants to spend more time with Leaf and shakes his head. “I think Bill will be more interested in the simulation stuff.”

“Oh yeah, I was going to check that one out during the third time slot.”

Red checks his notes. “I think I’m going to be at the ‘battle tech demo,’ whatever that is.”

“Ugh. Pass. I guess I’ll see you later!”

“Later!” Red watches her go, then gets up and makes his way to the room where the simulation technology is being showcased. It starts a few minutes after he arrives, and Red quickly jots down the basic premise; the makers are working on something that would allow a trainer to virtually interact with their stored pokemon in real time, rather than just use pre-set programs that borrow their likeness.

“Once your voice and appearance are uploaded, you then provide samples of hair, skin, sweat, and clothing so that your pokemon can ‘smell’ you,” the presenter says as he moves his hands in a petting motion, encased in their shimmering gloves, while on the screen they see him petting his pokemon up close within the artificially rendered battle arena. “For all practical purposes, you’ll be able to train your pokemon in any way you can imagine, short of actual human simulation!”

The following hour is spent going over technology specs and business models and compatibility with various existing software for training. A lot of it goes over Red’s head, but he dutifully writes down as much as seems important, feeling a bit like he’s in one of his nightmares about going to school and finding out there’s a test the next day on material he’s never seen before. Oddly enough he never had nightmares about the test itself, though occasionally he’d get ones where he finds out it was the day before and he missed it.

He wants to ask how the simulation will handle situations that have never occurred before. After some initial stage fright, he forces himself to raise his hand along with everyone else asking about investment opportunities and production plans and visual fidelity. Time runs out before he’s called on, however, and Red drops his hand to applaud along with everyone else. The tech will probably be a big hit among civilians and parents who want their kids to get some practice interacting with pokemon virtually, but he can’t imagine that professional battle trainers or coordinators would be able to push the envelope with it.

As the lights turn on, the presenter starts talking about the demo they’d be offering after dinner to those interested (and able to pay), and Red follows most of the crowd out as he checks the schedule, then heads to another auditorium. This one’s pretty interesting too; the stage has a pokeball mounted on the end of a robotic arm, with a camera and speakers on the end.

“So picture one of these at every corner of your house,” the presenter says as the screen shows them what the camera sees. “Pokemon comes nearby?” A rattata mounts the stage and approaches the arm, which immediately swings around to point the ball at it. Soon there’s a ping, then the arm throws it and captures the tamed rattata. “No problem, right?”

Red can see there’s some interest in the crowd. This tech has been around for awhile, though its reliability is still an issue, and it doesn’t work for pokemon in the air or that come underground, limiting its uses. This one seems more refined and flexible than the others…

The presenter replaces the ball. “What about this one?” The sound of wings comes from behind them, air blowing Red’s hair, and everyone looks up to see a pidgey flying above, no doubt released by one of the assistants. The arm once again homes in on it as it gets close, pings a lock, then throws, quickly, accurately, catching the pidgey mid-air. The people below it flinch as the ball drops, but it suddenly zips back toward the arm as some thin fiber is reeled into the center. There’s applause this time, and the presenter takes the ball off, then turns it to show them the custom shell.

“More accurate, responsive, and reliable than any on the market. But wait, there’s more!”

A third ball is placed on the robotic limb, and another rattata is sent toward the stage. This time the ball doesn’t lock on to catch it; it releases an oddish. “Sleep Powder,” a voice commands from the arm, and the oddish sends some spores at the rattata, who quickly slumps to sleep. The arm withdraws the oddish, and the audience applauds again, louder.

“Did I say every corner of your house?” the presenter asks. “Well now imagine a line of them around every town and city in the region! With seismic sensors and longer arms, our tech will be deployed by private citizens, governments, gyms, and rangers to finally bring us all what we’ve been dreaming of: peace of mind.”

More applause, more questions, more notes, and then it’s off to the third presentation room, which has a pair of rattata facing each other on stage as if ready for a battle, and their trainers each wear some kind of headgear with a screen in front of one eye that reminds Red of Bill’s gear. He quickly finds his seat as the presenter steps to the front of stage.

“Welcome everyone! We at Game Freak are happy to unveil our newest generation of simulation technology; rather than a VR game, we’ve been working on an AR program that will revolutionize pokemon battles the world over. For almost a decade now we’ve seen more and more professional trainers using some form of Heads Up Display to augment the amount of information they have during a battle. But what if we could give more immediate data about the pokemon battles themselves…?”

Red watches as the big screen lights up to show a split of what the two trainers see on their small visors. The clear glass displays a green bar floating beside each of their pokemon, and Red grins as he sees where this is going. Blue is going to FLIP! Sure enough, as soon as one of the rattata is ordered to tackle the other, the hurt pokemon’s bar goes down slightly on both trainers’ screens.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is not pre-rendered. It’s a live calculation being made based on factors like species, mass estimation, contact type, velocity of contact type…” The rattata that was attacked is ordered to use Double Edge, a far more powerful version of the standard tackle. Red winces slightly at the bone-jarring impact that sends one of the rattata tumbling out of the small arena. Its trainer follows it with her vision, so that they can see its “health” drop quite a lot. Meanwhile, the attacking rattata’s trainer keeps his vision on his own pokemon, whose health has also dropped some smaller amount. Half? A little less? It’s hard to be sure with such a small bar and no numbers.

“Currently, the technology relies on the careful testing and simulating of pre-registered pokemon that have fought dozens of times. Useful for trainers to have a visual representation of how hurt their own pokemon are while training. But that’s just what the launch product will feature.” The presenter paces the stage as the monitor changes from a perspective of the two trainers’ HUD to recorded footage from dozens of other tests. “Imagine what the analysis of millions of hours of battle footage from hundreds of thousands of battles, not just in our labs but also in the wild or gym arenas, will eventually let it do. We predict that within a year of widespread use, our algorithms will be able to provide an estimation of damage for every attack by any pokemon against any pokemon, not just based on how and where it was struck, but by aggregated data from every time that pokemon has been struck by that attack by that opponent in recorded history.”

Red applauds with everyone else, though his gaze stays on the rattata that was tackled out of the arena as its trainer gives it some quick care before returning it to its ball. Watching the pokemon take such a powerful attack just to demonstrate some tech made him feels a pang of something he imagines is close to what Leaf feels when she watches trainer battles. He knows it’s silly, testing the technology would require all sorts of actual pokemon fighting each other, and it’s no less important than the training people put their pokemon through while not being recorded or analyzed.

After a moment he begins to applaud a bit harder, already thinking of all the ways this tech could make pokemon battles safer, and give trainers in the wild an edge in determining not just how close their own pokemon are to serious injury, but how careful to be with an opponent that might die before it’s caught.

The next couple exhibits are less interesting to him, one on travel technology and another on refined compression. Red does his best to follow along for the sake of the note taking, and practically forgets that he’s on a ship until he steps outside of the last one and sees that night has fallen on the ocean around them. He heads toward the dining hall to meet up with Leaf and compare notes. He notices that a lot of the people in the various lounge areas and then the dining hall are on their phones or laptops, and wonders how strict the NDA really is. It’s probably expected that many of them would already start talking with their various teams, as long as the information doesn’t reach the press before the companies are ready to go public.

He half expects Leaf to already be typing up an article about the meat production, but instead he spots her still at the notebook writing stage. It takes Red a few minutes to decide what to eat with all the options that are on display, and he finally decides to grab a little of everything before heading to the empty spot at her table.

“Hey. Pretty exciting stuff, huh?” he asks.

“Exciting, yeah,” she says. “Sorry, in a bit of a flow… talk after?”

Red stifles the little stab of hurt. “Sure.” He frowns at himself. Since when did he start feeling hurt from Leaf being productive? They spent whole weeks barely talking to each other, each lost in their own projects.

Red takes his phone out to work on one of his, but is distracted by the notification of new trending articles. It must be from while they were still in reception range…

He opens it and starts to read. Sure enough, more garbage. Psychic particle correlated with glucose… Psychic ability may be reduced by low melanin… Red blinks. Psychic power found to correlate with amount of gut bacteria?! He had made that exact joke, back in Viridian Forest!

Red feels himself getting angry again. All this “knowledge” is useless; it’s like overlaying a graph of “deaths by wild pokemon per year” and another of “amount of pop music videos created per year.” Whether they’re correlated in a positive or negative direction, the information tells you nothing about any causal link between them.

What’s worse is the imprecision of the headlines. He has to delve into each one’s methodology to figure out what exactly is meant by “psychic ability” each time the phrase is used. In Red’s papers, he was careful both times to specify in the title what was actually tested: strength of fear based mental projection for the spinaraks, and psychokinetic lifting strength for the abra. These headlines are all just treating psychic abilities like one unified thing, even as they specifically draw correlations between the Other category and various other metrics, then take his research about Other being linked to stronger psychokinesis as justification for the importance of their “study!”

The sheer amount of these things that have come out in the past couple of days is itself a problem. He sees comments by people already complaining about how it’s clogging up news feeds. Sites that allow for user voting have thankfully responded swiftly, consolidating them all to mega-threads or downvoting them into oblivion, but that latter just risks a negative response to any future claim of measurable basis for psychic phenomenon!

If someone had asked him yesterday whether he’d ever be upset at his research being cited in dozens of papers, he’d have said the more the merrier. But… not like this. His work is being used to justify all sorts of sensationalized nonsense.

“Red?”

He blinks and looks up. “Huh?”

“I asked if you’re ready to go?”

Red looks around. The dining hall is mostly empty, as is his plate. He barely remembers what he ate. “Yeah, sorry.” He gets up, and she follows. “Did you finish your notes?”

“Yeah. You looked really focused on something, so I didn’t want to bother you.”

He would have preferred the interruption to just getting more and more upset by headlines, but he can’t think of a way to say so. He doesn’t want to bring up the articles again, after she dismissed his anger earlier.

Instead they walk the halls of the ship in silence, until Red forces himself to think of something else. “I just realized, we never signed a non-disclosure agreement or anything when we got on board… are we allowed to talk about this stuff to anyone, or post about it online?” he asks. “Since they don’t want us recording anything…”

Leaf shrugs. “The majority of guests here are potential investors and collaborators. You only make someone sign an NDA if you have leverage over them or want it, which would be pretty counter-productive for the people the companies here want to work with.”

“We’re kind of an exception to that, though, right?”

“True. That might be why we had some trouble getting on board. But they let us on, so I don’t think they’ll have much to complain about if I write about some of the stuff we saw.”

When they get back to their room there’s a note waiting on Leaf’s door. “We can let out ‘small’ pokemon at the pool area, but not in the halls, and not if it would ’cause a disturbance,'” Leaf reads. “Well, that’s something I guess.”

The expression on her face belies her casual tone. It bothers Red that he won’t be able to spend much time with his pokemon for a week, but he knows that Leaf really values the time she spends working out and playing with them. “So, is Plan B a go?”

Leaf’s slow smile brightens the hall. “Really? I thought you were joking about that. We really shouldn’t, they might get upset…”

“So? What are they going to do, kick us off the boat?” Leaf snorts, and he shrugs. “At worst maybe one of the staff finds out and we just put everything back where it was.”

“Alright, twist my arm why don’t you!” They go inside, then take a look around. “Let’s see, if we push all the furniture into the middle we’ll have a decent amount of space to run laps in…”

“Yeah, and we can move those two couches back to back for a three-step obstacle, then stack the cushions for a small wall to climb.”

“Yeah…” She’s quiet for a moment as she looks around the room, and for a moment he’s afraid she’s going to tell him to just forget about it. Then she turns to him with a grin. “Think they’ll give us extra pillows if we ask for them?”

He grins back. “Can’t hurt to ask.”


An hour later, the living room is transformed. To an untrained eye it may just look like they’ve just strewn things about at random, but the end result was each pillow, couch, cushion, leg rest, and garbage bin carefully placed from multiple tests and iterations. There didn’t end up being quite enough space for a satisfying outer track, so instead they set up a pair of parallel courses that go up and down the length of the room twice so that they can swap back and forth as they reach each end.

Red leaps forward with wide side to side movements, bare feet landing on cushions that get progressively higher until he reaches the end, hands reaching up to brush the ceiling, then coming down to balance his landing. Pichu leaps straight from the highest cushions to Red’s shoulder, and he turns and steps to the side to start on the other track, which uses the couches as a three step, followed by the coffee table that he falls onto his belly to crawl under while Pichu leaps off his shoulder and races ahead to his bedroom door, which is propped open so he can jump and grab the top, brace his feet on the handles, and leap back onto the start of the other track, usually just as Leaf and Raff finish it and leap up the couches.

Red starts to work up a sweat after a few iterations, but they’ve found the right rhythm to keep moving at a steady pace. After the training courses at Vermilion Gym, all the running isn’t too strenuous. “So how was the ball-made meat?”

“Good!” Leaf crawls under the table as Raff jumps up to run atop it. “It’s been so long since I had any that it tasted strange, but I think that was just me. The fake oddish tasted better, and the others there seemed to like it!”

“So you’re going to write a piece,” He huffs out a breath as he lands. “On that?”

“Yeah! I already talked to some of the engineers… they’ve been making meat for years now, but it was never economic or tasty enough.”

“Does it come out precooked?”

“They make both! I tried to get some for you, but they said you can get some at lunch tomorrow!”

“Will do!” Red uses his hands to vault over the couch without his feet touching it this time and stumbles, reminding himself to use more force on the next lap. “What about the other exhibits?”

“Nothing too exciting. Some new aerial surveillance and signal relaying drones for better emergency control. Useful for things like the Viridian Fire.”

“Or to start settling more of the wilderness. The automatic pokeballs will help with that too, so that it’s easier to set up defenses.”

“Yeah,” Leaf says, and he hears her slap the ceiling behind him before she asks, “This whole island chain isn’t totally inhabited, right?”

“No. There’s been talk of Kanto and Johto working together to push out past Mount Silver for new settlements, though some are worried they would be too far, and form a new region.”

“Why does that matter?”

Red shrugs as he runs. “Some political thing I guess. Never really got it.” He notices that Pichu’s energy is flagging, and unclips his ball. “Pichu, return!” He reclips the ball and unclips another without slowing down, bracing his arm as he points it to the empty space beside the bar area. “Go, Nidoran!” His pokemon materializes, and Red says “Follow!” as he reclips the ball and starts leaping across the pillow path again. “But I don’t think it’ll happen anytime soon. Dad used to say there aren’t enough extra people yet who would want to live on the frontier until it stabilizes. What about around Unova?”

“The frontiers around it have been slowly expanding,” she says. “But there was a big setback a couple years ago. Thundurus hit one of the cities there, forced it to be abandoned, and there were calls to stop trying to push further for a bit.”

“Damn,” he pants. “And what do you think? Should they have?”

“I guess it made sense, at the time.” She leaps over the couches, and takes a deep breath before diving under the table. “But… eventually… I hope… we try again!”

“Same.”

The conversation lulls after that, the sounds of their movements and breaths filling the silence. The room is starting to feel hot and stuffy, and Red suddenly breaks from the course to go open the window, letting in the cool night air and smell of the ocean. He scratches Nidoran behind its ears, then approaches the obstacle course again and waits for Leaf to get to the opposite side before jumping back in. Nidoran has some trouble with the table, electing to run around it instead of trying to go under like red or over it like Raff, and waits at the other end for Red to come out, somehow managing to look impatient. “Cheater,” Red accuses as he pushes himself back up.

“Do you think our ancestors ever imagined something like this?” Leaf asks eventually. “That we’d grow so much, connect with each other across the globe, start pushing out?”

“Maybe in a different way. Like a single empire sweeping across the island or continent, eradicating pokemon along the way.”

Red can hear the frown in Leaf’s voice. “That’s horrible.”

“Yeah. But much as we might treat them poorly now, people had even worse perspectives on pokemon before we were able to catch them.”

“I know. Grandpa talks about what it was like growing up, and even then it wasn’t so bad as in his grandparents’ days. But people’s minds are changing, same as our tech. So as long as both keep changing…” Leaf runs out of breath, and on his next lap, Red sees that she’s stepped to the side to rest.

He slows to a stop, then goes over to the bar and considers the options there. His hand hovers over the wine, curious, but then he grabs some juice for him and Leaf, as well as water and a bowl. He returns to the couch and hands hers over, then pours some water in the bowl for their pokemon.

“Do you think one drives the other?” he asks as he takes a swallow, enjoying the way the breeze from the window feels on his sweaty face. “Like, people are more accepting of other cultures today than they used to be, but part of that comes from the ability to learn about and talk to people around the world, and travel being so much easier. If the tech for fake pokemon never advanced, would people’s morals have changed eventually?”

“I’m not sure,” she says slowly. “There are other issues where it looks like cultures made moral progress without new tech, like most regions try to rehabilitate criminals rather than just punish them.”

“Unless they’re Renegades.”

“Sure, but even they’re killed more humanely now than they used to be, most of the time. So I want to think attitudes on eating pokemon might have changed on their own, but… morals are kind of a luxury, aren’t they? Like I know that people can only worry about not eating pokemon because they have other things to eat, now. Back then it was all about survival. But maybe they would eventually have realized what they were doing was wrong, but necessary.” She glances at him. “Taking for the sake of argument that eating pokemon is wrong.”

Red shrugs. “I don’t want pokemon to suffer on ranches, I just… don’t really care if they do, I guess.” He frowns. “It sounds bad, when I say it out loud.”

“Mmhm,” Leaf says with a raised brow, sipping her juice.

“They’re just really delicious.”

“I get it.”

“Like really-

“Stop!” she says, pushing his shoulder… but she’s smiling. “You’ll try the fake meat tomorrow?”

“Promise. I’ve got nothing against it.”

“But will you stop eating real meat after?”

Red tries to picture avoiding all meat. The food at Aiko’s was pretty tasty… but… “Is it… going to be available on the market?”

“Of course!

“When?”

“Soon.”

“…How soon?”

“Red!”

“I’m trying to be realistic!” he protests. “I don’t want to give an overconfident promise and then break it.”

“What about what we talked about in Vermilion? Can you at least keep to fish or something? Or just cut out any beef?”

“I think I can do that, yeah.”

Leaf turns to him. “Really?”

She looks so excited that Red smiles, warmth filling his chest. “Yeah. You know what, I’ll try it all. As soon as the cruise is over, I won’t buy any more meat that’s not grown in a ball.”

“Yay!” She wraps an arm around him and hugs him, causing heat to flush through his body and up his face. “You know it’s not actually grown in pokeballs, though, right? It’s just using the same tech.”

“Ah. Makes sense,” he mutters as she releases him, quickly raising his bottle for another drink.

“What about not eating any on the cruise too?”

“Oh come on, they’re already dead!”

“Fine, fine…”

She’s still smiling, and the sight makes Red smile again too. “Fair warning that I might change my mind after I run out of my own stocks.”

“Oh I know. But at least you’ve tried, then. And maybe you can just cut out one type at a time, see what works.”

“Yeah.”

They sit together in silence for awhile, and Red slowly regains his energy. He takes Pichu out so he can do the same, and watches as his two pokemon explore their surroundings. Now that he’s not following the order to run around with Red, Nidoran looks the most spooked. His nose keeps twitching toward the open window, and Red wonders if he’s ever smelled the ocean before.

“It reminds me of home,” he says suddenly. “The scent.”

“Were you on boats often?”

“No. But on a clear day you could smell the salt in the air from right outside my door.”

“That sounds lovely. I wasn’t there for long enough to notice.”

“We should go back sometime, when we can fly on our own pokemon. I know my mom’s not there anymore, but it’s strange to think that we’re going all over the region, and the place that Blue and I are most familiar with is the one you spent the least time in. Plus Aiko hasn’t been there at all, and she’d probably get a kick out of Pallet Lab’s ranch.”

“That would be cool, yeah. I’d like to see where you and Blue grew up. Maybe someday I can give you guys the tour of Unova.”

Just imagining it makes Red happy, and he smiles at her. “I don’t know if I mentioned it, but… I’m really glad you joined us, Leaf. I can’t really imagine the journey so far without you.”

Leaf’s looks surprised, then pleased. She picks Raff up off the floor and puts him on her lap so she can inspect his fronds, and Red notices that the ivysaur is positioned so that his plant hides her face. “Well. That was sweet. And I feel the same, of course.”

The warmth stays with him for the rest of the night.


Red wakes to the smell of the ocean, eyes opening slowly as he moves one sore limb at a time. Eventually he checks his phone and sees that it’s near noon. All the presentations are between lunch and dinner, so he should probably get up soon.

Instead he browses on his phone for a bit, first checking to see if he has any messages from Bill or Blue, then drawn irresistibly back to see if any new “research” on psychic particle or predictors has been published. There are some, and Red’s remaining sleepiness quickly fades as he searches through the headlines for anything remotely interesting.

Eventually biology forces him out of bed, and from there it’s easier to put the phone away and get dressed. He goes through the transformed living room afterward, and spots the note on Leaf’s door telling him that she’s already out “schmoozing.”

Shaking his head at her energy, he takes a walk around the outside of the ship, curious about what the other guests are doing and trying to avoid the temptation to look online again. He passes by various lounges, indoor and outdoor, and sees a lot of people either on their laptops, or in small groups and talking. Each time he tries to listen in as he walks nearby, it quickly becomes clear that they’re discussing some technology or aspect of business or investment that is way over his head, and he moves on before they can wonder whether he’s eavesdropping, interpreting the looks he gets as more wary or aloof than curious or inviting.

Red starts to feel a bit isolated as he walks from one floor to the next, seeing all the people involved in their interesting conversations that he can’t take part in. Eventually he starts to specifically look for Leaf, until he realizes he can try to use his powers to pick her mind out. He needs to practice anyway, and it’s been awhile since he tried a broad reading of his surroundings.

As he walks through a hallway and extends his senses outward as far as he can, he suddenly staggers and leans against a wall. His range is larger than before, and he senses minds in three dimensions for the first time. It feels like he’s standing in a storm, the mental impressions so spread out that their position is like a whole new level (or dimension, rather) of information for him to process. He doubts he could identify Leaf’s familiar signature even if she happens to be nearby. What jumps to his attention instead is the two psychic minds in the room above him. And a couple to his left… there are six in total… No, seven… nine… twelve… in all directions…

Red’s eyes fly open, withdrawing his senses as he recovers from the strain. After a moment he walks to the nearest room where he sensed psychic minds and looks around at the crowd of people in various types of casually formal attire, trying to spot anyone with more obviously psychic clothing. He sees nothing.

Why are there so many psychics here?

Red starts to wander again, occasionally extending his senses out to find psychics in the same room as him to try and identify them. Their minds quickly vanish however, blocking themselves from his senses, and he eventually gives up, not wanting to be rude even if his curiosity is burning. Also now he has to worry about thinking the wrong thoughts at the wrong time… how could so many rich and important people be okay with this many psychics around? Maybe they don’t know… he should find someone to ask about it…

“Good afternoon, everyone!” Red jumps as the PA system comes on. “This is your five minute reminder that lunch will be starting soon in the dining hall. That’s also where the programs listing this afternoon’s presentations can be found. Please make your way there if you’d like a copy!”

Red watches the mass migration begin, though some people seem content to wait where they are for awhile longer, at least. He considers asking one of them, but decides to find Leaf first, now that he knows she’s likely to head to the lunch room. He should warn her of the psychics’ presence as soon as he can, since he knows how wary she is of them after meeting Giovanni. Red decides to try and maintain his mental shield as best he can. It’s a good way to get some extra psychic practice in, anyway.

He doesn’t see her upon arriving at the dining hall, and goes to wait in line for the buffet, mind holding the default-mental-state shield in place as best he can while looking around. There’s a booth in the corner of the room where the artificial meat creators are offering samples, and he heads over after filling his plate.

“Hello! Interested in getting a taste of the future?”

“Yeah, my friend was raving about you guys last night.”

“You must be Red,” one of them says with a smile. “We told her that you might enjoy them more fresh. What can I get you?”

Red looks at the options. “Ah… pidgey nuggets?” He watches as they carefully serve him three. “You wouldn’t happen to know where Leaf is now, would you?”

“Haven’t seen her yet today, sorry.”

“Same.”

“No problem. And thanks!” He goes to find an empty table so that he’s easy to spot (and not because he doesn’t know anyone here and would feel awkward sitting beside them) and shakes some salt on his mashed potatoes, keeping an eye on the doors as he continues occasionally reinforcing his shield. Someone takes the chair to Red’s left, sitting with a contented sigh before they ask, “Could you pass that when you’re done, please?”

“Sure.” He gives it a couple more shakes, then turns and hands it to the president, founder, and CEO of Silph Corporation holy shit. The old man is wearing a simple button up shirt, suspenders, a red bowtie, and a kindly smile. A cane rests against the table, a white hat beside his plate.

“Thank you,” Mr. Silph says as he takes it from Red’s frozen hand. The Silph president gives it a few shakes over some strawberries on his plate, then places it aside. “Adds a bit of a tangy taste,” he confides upon seeing Red’s still-shocked expression. “You should try it, Mr…”

“Verres. Red Verres.” Red hurriedly wipes his hand and offers it before he thinks of how presumptuous it might be.

“Kazue Silph.” He takes Red’s hand in a firm grasp.

“I know! It’s an honor to meet you! I use your products all the time!” Tone it down, Red.

“Ah, a trainer!” The president’s eyes search Red’s briefly, then he releases his hand to begin eating. Red starts to dig into his food too. “I’d heard there was a young journalist on board, and thought it might be you.”

“Oh, no, that’s my friend Leaf.” He looks around for her again, then turns back to the company president. “She’s a trainer too, though.”

“I see. Well, I suspect she’s finding a lot of material to write on. Quite the interesting exhibits, wouldn’t you say?”

“Oh, yeah. Is Silph going to be presenting something too?”

“No, this year we’re strictly on the hunt.” He smiles. “Which technology are you the most excited for, so far?”

Red considers it a moment, then says, “Probably the remote pokeballs? In the sense that it’s the one that seems like it has a lot of potential to save lives.”

“Yes, that seems likely. Now, what about one that you predict most of your peers will purchase?”

Ah. I’m a one-boy consumer panel. The thought reminds him that he should put his shield back up, and he takes a moment to do so while considering his answer. “Probably the AR visor,” he eventually says. “I don’t see how that won’t be a huge hit, unless it just doesn’t work reliably. I’m tempted to invest in it myself, if I have enough money to matter.”

“Yes, that was my choice as well, assuming something else doesn’t come along that seems more commercially viable. Though these fake meats are intriguing.” He pokes his fork at a thin slice of some steak that Red assumes was ball-grown too. “Have you tried them yet?”

Red shakes his head, then takes a cautious bite of his pidgey nugget, chews, swallows. “It… tastes like pidgey,” he says.

Mr. Silph cuts a piece of his steak and tastes it, brow rising. “And this like tauros.” His jaw works as he chews. “A bit tough. Care to trade some for one of your nuggets?”

“Oh, sure!” They do so, and sit for a moment chewing the pseudo-meats. “A bit dry too, right?” Red asks after a moment. “Or is that from the way it was cooked?”

“No, you’re correct. Perhaps from insufficient fat generated in the meat.” He takes a sip of wine, and Red follows his example with his water. “Well, I’m sure they’ll be able to correct it eventually. In either case, the price of food will soon get much lower.” He eats the last of the steak, with some apparent satisfaction.

“Which means more money for people to spend on Silph products,” Red says, smiling.

Mr. Silph winks and takes another sip. “So, if you’re not here as a journalist or investor, what brought you to the Cruise Convention? It’s not often we have mere trainers here, let alone those so young.”

“Well, I’m actually a Researcher too,” Red says.

“Ah! Verres you said, yes? I thought your name was familiar. Something about psychic pokemon? There are quite a number of papers coming out now that cite you.”

Any pleasure Red might have had at being recognized fades at the reminder. “Yeah.”

“Something wrong?”

“No, nothing.” He makes an effort to look cheerful as he starts eating again. “The accomplishment just feels a little muted, after seeing all the derivative discoveries that came out from a mindless algorithm.”

“Nonsense. As a Researcher, shouldn’t the information be celebrated, regardless of the source?”

Red frowns. “But all of it… or at least, the vast majority of it that I saw, it’s meaningless. They didn’t actually try to test specific hypotheses, they just threw a bunch of data into a computer and picked out the correlations that fell below the .05 or .01 threshold. It’s just… noise, noise that they get attention for without providing any real knowledge. Just look at the news sites, jumping all over every correlation and sensationalizing them!”

The older man snorts. “Believe me, there is no love lost between myself and the press. Incentives, Mr. Verres, are what the world runs on, even more than money. And the incentives of journalism are inherently destructive toward any values of truth or clarity.”

Red feels a bit of indignation at that, considering both his mother’s profession and Leaf’s current activities in the field. The Silph president chews some food while Red tries to think of a polite way to disagree, unable to before the older man continues. “But that’s often the case in a free society. That’s why we must understand the role journalists play, and approach them as warily as one would a combee nest while attempting to extract what honey their industry produces. The same goes for these mass produced studies. The incentives in science are to publish, and so publications are the first metric that matters, and so all else that matters falls under it in importance. True, the majority of them will be ultimately meaningless. But as a matter of efficiency, finding these correlations the way they have seems to have a minimal associated cost. Why not see it as a filter? A filter through which diligent researchers such as yourself may eventually gain some value, as you examine the data and consider new hypotheses?”

Red doesn’t have an immediate answer to that, and takes a moment to think through his objection as he eats. “That sounds good when you phrase it that way,” he eventually admits. “The problem is that it’s sucking the air out of the room. All the researchers that are now trying to pick through the results are wasting time and energy and grant money on things that aren’t directed by any intelligence.”

“That seems like a perfect opportunity for those with intelligence to stand out,” President Silph says, eyeing Red candidly as he eats. “Ignore these publications and continue on with your research as though they had not surfaced. Unless your ambition is already satisfied with what you’ve accomplished?”

“No,” Red says with conviction. “No, I’ve got a lot more work to do.”

“Then take the advice of an elder, not in age, but in facing adversity. Those things that vie for your attention, but do nothing to further your goals, should be cut out from consideration. Talent is easy to find, Mr. Verres. Great success comes first and foremost from the discipline to make productive use of your time.”

“You’re right,” Red says, frowning at his plate. “I know it’s better to focus on my next project than worry about the impact of the last one. Not unless the impact was from a mistake I made.”

“Do you think you made one?”

“Not really…?”

“Then there you have it. Let others chase false gold while you seek your own fortune.”

Red smiles. “Is that a personal motto?”

“I suppose so,” Mr. Silph says as he finishes his wine. “If a man can have more than one, it has a nice ring to it. But my real motto is ‘Every minute should be spent at least as deliberately as every dollar, and every dollar as deliberately as the first you ever made.’ And on that note, I see them putting the afternoon’s schedule out, and so my allotted lunchtime is over. But it was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Verres.” He wipes his mouth with his napkin, then gets to his feet. “Perhaps we’ll talk again.”

Red hurriedly swallows his mouthful. “The pleasure was mine, Mr. Silph. Thank you for the advice.”

“Advice is also easy to find. Remember: discipline.” He puts his hat on and strides with purpose toward the exit, taking a folded program from the table by it. Red watches him go, then resolves to put his attention for the rest of the meal where it should have been; deciding what he’s going to do when he returns from the cruise.

At first consideration, the question might be what research he’ll conduct next. But in truth, there’s a higher level question he has to answer, a choice centered around what goals he’s going to pursue. Is he a trainer at heart? A researcher? A psychic? Sabrina made it pretty clear that he’d have to stop being a trainer or researcher while studying with her, to have enough time for his lessons. If he decides to put one of those on pause, then becoming her pupil is the right choice. If he decides to just keep practicing his powers on his own for now, he should stay on his journey, where he can make progress in all three.

He takes his notebook out and writes:

Trainer – Increased survival skills, new sources of fortune? protect others

Researcher – Learn secrets of the universe, leverage for fame and fortune, discover origin of species/change the world

Psychic – Lots of mysteries to explore, unique skills and insights, accelerated self growth

Red stares at the words. Taken as they are… he can’t imagine not continuing his research. He spends too much time thinking about things, working to test them, he doesn’t know if he could stop himself from trying even for a few months. And if he’s going to do it anyway, it would be a waste to never try and publish what he finds. And his psychic powers are a force multiplier; the things he gets from developing them are useful to practically everything he can think to do.

It seems the aspect he loses the least in giving up… is his trainer activities. It makes sense. He’s not going for badges, he’s not trying to be a Ranger, and while he does enjoy training his pokemon, and teaching them unique commands or getting them to pull off strategies… it’s not like he’s amazing enough that only he can protect others in ways no one else can.

Red leans back in his chair, gaze unfocused as he feels the decision crystallizing. It’s a little surprising how quickly he decided it, after waffling so much before.

Well, that’s it, then. He’ll tell Sabrina that he’ll become her student.

Which means he should keep practicing his powers. He lets his mental shield slip, then picks his spoon up and tries to feel the shape of it with his powers. His rock is in his bag, and maybe he just has some kind of block against beginner level techniques…

Red’s still trying to sense the shape of the handle past where his fingers are when he spots Leaf walk into the cafeteria, talking to a pair of women with her notebook out. That’s not all I’d be giving up.

The thought comes like a strike to his chest, concentration scattering as he suddenly imagines actually leaving the others in their travels. A hollow sort of fear fills him, a preemptive loneliness that he immediately backs away from.

Leaf spots him and waves, then says goodbye to the other two to get food and join him.

“Hey! How was your morning?”

“Pretty short, but eventful,” he says, amazed at how steady his voice is given the sudden hole between his ribs. He latches onto the imagery and uses his powers to quickly contain it, cut off its effects on him for now, keep hidden the sudden insight at the center of it. “What have you been up to?”

“Interviews!” Leaf puts her notebook on the table and starts to eat. “Lots of them. Everyone here is excited to talk about their work, it’s like trying to drink out of a firehose.”

Red smiles at the mental image, and her excitement. “I’m glad you’re getting a lot of material. Maybe you can solve a mystery for me. Do you know why there are so many psychics here?”

Leaf pauses with her fork halfway to her mouth, then looks around. “How many are there?”

“Right now?” He quickly checks, trying to juggle the two different effects as grief starts to creep through all his use. “Um. Over a dozen in the dining hall.”

She lets out a whistle. “That is a lot. Are they all clustered together? Like maybe they’re from some organization.”

“No, as far as I can tell they only ever group in two or three at most.”

“Are they ever in groups of just psychics, though?”

“I don’t… remember?”

Leaf flips to a new page of her notebook. “Draw it out.”

“From memory?”

“No, where they are right now. Maybe we can get some ideas.”

He picks her pencil out of the spiral slowly. “It’s kind of hard to figure out people’s exact positions…” And he doesn’t know if he can maintain his concentration on the thing he’s containing in his chest that he can’t let out, particularly when the more familiar grief starts to come in force.

Red buys time by drawing a rough approximation of where the tables around them are, then starts to focus on one table at a time, quickly sending his senses out to glimpse the minds at each before drawing circles and stars around where the minds are at each table. Like pings of radar, giving him a quick and fleeting glimpse of sensations that he then tries to remember and draw meaning from, all from minimal use of his powers.

It’s hard, at times, to get a good read on exact position for each mind within a cluster, but he doesn’t worry too much about that. Instead he tries to make sure he only counts the people at each table rather than letting any minds from one blur into another table’s “zone.” He uses visual confirmation when he can to make sure each table has the right amount of people, though the occasional Dark mind throws him for a loop sometimes.

By the time Leaf has finished eating, he’s sketched out about three layers of tables in every direction. The grief is manageable, and his chest-vault is secure. He stares at it while Leaf looks over his shoulder.

“Not clustered, but also never alone,” Leaf points out.

“And symmetrical,” Red says. “Look, every time there are two in one place, there are two non-psychic minds with them. Or three… the individual psychics break the pattern, but even they’re never totally alone.”

“That might be unrealistic to expect, given how outnumbered they are,” Leaf points out.

“Yeah. Feel comfortable asking someone?”

“Sure. Who are you going to talk to?”

“Uh… well, I don’t really know anyone here.”

Leaf raises a brow. “Neither do I, Red. What you do is, you go up to them and introduce yourself—”

He rolls his eyes. “I just feel awkward doing it.”

“You mean you haven’t spoken to anyone else here yet?”

“Of course I have,” he says automatically. “I spoke to… a couple of the people from the ball-meat company—”

“—please don’t call it that—”

“—and,” he says with some pride, “I may have had lunch with President Silph just before you arrived.”

“Really? That’s awesome! What did you want to talk to him about?”

Red opens his mouth, then closes it. “Career advice,” he says at last.

Leaf gives him a level look.

“He was actually very helpful.”

“Uh huh. So what did he want from you?”

“I think he just wanted my demographic more than me. But he was nice enough. Not a fan of journalists though, apparently.”

“Well, that’s no surprise. Most rich and/or famous people aren’t, given how easy it is for some hack to just write whatever they want about them and have thousands of people lap it up without interest in any kind of clarification or rebuttal.”

The bitterness in her tone takes him by surprise. “That’s fair, I guess.”

“Sorry, famous grandpa, remember? Anyway, Silph has more reason than most, lately.” She chews her food, eyeing him speculatively. “Did you tell him your last name? Because he might be a little miffed from the article your mom published.”

Red stares at her. “What article?”

“You don’t read your mom’s articles?”

“Hey, I’ve been busy. Do you read everything your mom puts out?”

“…Fair. Anyway, your mom wrote about some corruption from Silph employees not long ago. Bribing a mayor and stuff.”

“Huh.” Red considers the conversation in light of that. “I did tell him my name, but he didn’t seem to react to it. Not in that way, he actually recognized it from the science side of things.”

“Oh. Well maybe he doesn’t pay much attention to articles about his company. I’m sure there are a lot, and he’s probably busy.”

“He did give that impression, yeah.” Red shrugs. “I’ll ask my mom what she thinks after the cruise.” Maintaining the block around whatever’s in his chest has gotten slightly harder as the grief starts to build up at last. Just the mention of his mother makes him terribly homesick, for no particular reason. He clears his throat. “So what’s on the agenda today?”

“Presentations for some kind of holo-communication device, automated potion dispersal? What does that mean… uh… improved scuba equipment, trainer coordination software…” She starts to take notes of questions she wants to ask of each presenter, forehead creased with concentration as she works.

Red just stares at her, the words fading from his comprehension as he feels a warmth in his chest… She’s really pretty when she’s so focused. Red blinks, a sudden sinking feeling mixing with the warmth as the block around his chest suddenly cracks open, and the insight spills out to suffuse his thoughts.

“Red?”

“Hm?” His gaze snaps to hers.

“You okay? You spaced out a bit there, and looked like you just remembered something too late.”

It takes a moment for Red to shake his head. “Nothing important, just trying to figure out what Bill would want us to attend the most.” Just realizing that I have a crush on you, Leaf, you’re smart and pretty and confident and good, and I like spending time with you, and-

“Right. I guess we’ll just have to split up again to attend as many as we can.”

and leaving you is going to be the hardest part of going to learn from Sabrina, and I’m just realizing all this as I’m about to leave you, and now I don’t want to. “I guess so, yeah…” The block is completely gone, and now he feels hollow inside, even as he tries to convince himself that it will just be for a few months, maybe a year at most, that she would be fine with Blue and Aiko, that he would still be able to talk to her and occasionally see her… “That’s probably for the best.”

Chapter 55: Accountability

She remembers this feeling.

Not from before, when they fought the absol the first time. She was too distracted during that fight to process what she was experiencing or connect it to any memories, simply trying to push through it as best she could. It wasn’t until she heard the Ranger’s explanation that she linked the two feelings from her recent and distant past together.

Fear. Deep as her bones, practically vibrating them as she trembled and bent, made herself small as she could… even while staring up at that shimmering glow, that terrible beauty, every feather a gem of a different color. Fear like a weight… like pressure… compressing every part of her, inside and out.

But there are differences. There’s no heat prickling along her skin like something alive. The fear itself isn’t as sharp, the pressure isn’t as heavy. She can move. She can run. She can speak.

She can fight.

Aiko prepares to face an onix for the first time, feeling the vibration of its oncoming arrival beneath her feet. She wanted to go with Blue and Elaine, but has nothing tanky enough to contribute to their team. One of the trainers that came with them from Golden Hills, Payton, went with them instead, so she stays with Bretta’s group and doesn’t look back, even as the sounds of battle start behind her.

Instead she alternates between watching the tunnel and her sandslash. Dune is clearly on edge: his claws are slightly embedded into the ground to feel vibrations, and his sharp scales stick out in all directions. “It’s almost here,” she tells the others. “Plan?”

“Aiko, right?” Bretta says from beside her. “Sumi usually tanks while Slava and I hit them from afar.”

“Try to draw it in,” Sumi says from the far left. “We’ll hit it from the sides and—”

Even with the growing rasp of stone on stone to give them warning, the onix barrels into the open chamber frighteningly fast and grinds to a stop as it sees the half circle of trainers and pokemon blocking the way to its eggs. To Aiko’s eye it’s half again as big as the one Blue fought for his badge, but standing so close makes it seem tall as Aeosis. It raises itself to look imperiously down at them, then roars again, the sound a physical assault on her eardrums that drowns out her first command to her sandslash.

As soon as it ends, Aiko backs up and yells “Dune, Trap!” through the ringing in her ears. An answering roar comes from behind her as the other parent attacks her friends, but Aiko puts it out of her mind, trusting them to handle it.

The biggest difference of all, that. She and her pokemon aren’t alone anymore.

As her pokemon starts to crawl slowly backward, quills fully extended, the onix tries to pick its target between it and Bretta’s bayleef. It crawls further into the cavern, not spotting Slava’s poliwhirl or Sumi’s hariyama at its sides, and as soon as it looks like it’s about to lunge, the trainers all speak at once.

“Tarro, BB!”

“Pol, Submission!”

“Dune, Fast!”

“Bayleaf, Leech Seed!”

Their pokemon attack within a heartbeat of each other, and the onix twists hard to the side to avoid most of the scatter shot of seeds, but staggers and groans as the length of its body gets sprayed by the poliwhirl’s bubblebeam while their melee fighters use the distraction to reach it. Dune digs his claws into a boulder segment about halfway along the onix’s body just before it rolls to the side to break the hold of the hariyama that grabs it from behind. The violent motion displaces both attackers… along with four thin wedges of rock that tear off with a grinding crack.

The onix roars in pain this time, and snaps its body sideways to keep its injured segment unexposed. Aiko predicts that it will sweep its tail toward them, but like in their last absol fight, a command gets caught in her throat, fear for her pokemon suddenly suffocating her, and she watches in horror as the rocky whip sweeps out and hits Dune and Sumi’s hariyama, sending them flying back.

The hariyama is heavy enough that it doesn’t go far, but Dune hits the ground and bounces before he rolls up against the wall, trembling. Aiko wants to run to her pokemon, but can’t leave the others.

“Go, Dugtrio!” Her freshly registered pokemon appears, and she yells “Fast!” before remembering that she hasn’t trained it in her personal commands yet.

The onix is more wary now, the brief opening gone as it begins to use its shovel-like lower jaw to scrape up wedges of rock and dirt, then fling them at the attackers. Aiko spends another moment paralyzed with indecision: Bretta said to draw it into the chamber, but it’s not chasing after her bayleef, instead attacking the pokemon from a distance while it stays on guard against the hariyama.

Slava tries to get close enough for his heavy ball to register while the onix scrapes up another mouthful, but leaps back or to the side every time the onix moves too quickly or looks like it’s going to turn to him. Aiko can see his arm trembling, and knows the Pressure is getting to him too.

He needs an opening. “Dugtrio, Dig!” As her dugtrio starts to burrow and prepare for a sneak attack, the other pokemon keep shooting seeds and water at the onix to keep it ducking and weaving and ensure they can dodge its rock throws.

Sumi’s hariyama lunges close enough to start slamming its palms into the onix, and it staggers under the blows, body rolling to avoid the attacks and moving away from the tunnel opening. Slava and his poliwhirl scramble back to avoid getting crushed, but in the midst of it all he still holds the ball steady enough for it to get a lock. As soon as the ping sounds, he throws.

Aiko doesn’t know if it’s from some effect of the Pressure or the unfamiliar weight of the ball, but the throw doesn’t have enough force behind it. The heavy ball clunks to the ground just in front of the onix’s rolling form, and gets crushed a moment later.

“The entrance!” Ranger Miko yells from behind them. “Cut it off!”

They startle and turn to see the absol racing toward them. The two rangers and the other Golden Hills trainer, Abdu, give chase, their pokemon clearly chosen for speed to try and keep up as the absol bounds around the outer edge of the cavern. It can’t escape with the onix fighting at the exits, but unlike when they fought it earlier, it has the room to maneuver, and uses it to slip away from the pursuing pokemon between the occasional precise strike.

And now it’s making its winding way toward them, and the newly cleared tunnel opening.

Aiko has a moment to wonder if it’s not better to just let it go, weighing the current risk against yet another confrontation, but Sumi is already moving. She withdraws her hariyama and runs up the incline to throw and re-summon it at the tunnel entrance ahead of her. “Guard!”

The absol is already at the foot of the incline, and instead of bounding up toward the hariyama, leaps to the side, its horn piercing Sumi as it runs by. Blood flicks across the cavern floor like water off a snapped towel.

Aiko sees her fall, hears Slava and Bretta cry out, as if from a great distance, her heartbeat pounding in her ears as fear suddenly chokes her. The absol is bounding her way, its red eyes almost glowing as they bear down on her and… her body… won’t move…

Her hand grasps feebly at her pokeballs, trembling and indecisive over who to summon, knowing she has nothing that can stop it. I can’t die, some part of her yells, but even in her head it sounds panicked and whiny rather than defiant. Dad’s waiting for me!

At the last second she throws her body weight to the side in an awkward sprawl that does nothing to keep the absol’s horn from slashing across her torso.

Aiko feels the sharp edge cut through her armor mesh and grate over her ribs just before Abdu’s stantler collides with the absol and knocks it away, her blood speckling its white fur. Aiko loses track of what happens next, eyes screwed shut in pain as she hears Ranger Miko yell “Stay focused on the onix!”

Aiko tries, but there’s so much pain, and the blood… Her hands are sticky with it as she tries to hold her wound closed and lie still, breathless screams escaping through clenched teeth. The fear and pain take turns pounding through her consciousness for what feels like hours, and when relief finally comes she still gasps and clutches at her bloody side, fingers probing the new flesh in a panic and shuddering as fresh pain is felt along her ribs.

“Stop, hey, stop!” Hands grab her wrists. “Let it finish healing!”

Aiko opens her eyes to see Abdu’s concerned face. She takes a shuddering breath and holds it as she lets him finish bathing her wound with the headless potion bottle. She realizes she’s about to pass out and slams her hands against the floor, the fresh pain forcing things back into clarity as she starts to take deep, calming breaths. The gradual pain relief makes her shudder, dizziness slowly fading.

Aiko suddenly remembers Sumi and cranes her neck to the side. She sees Ranger Miko tending to her, and snaps her attention back to the onix, which is only being kept in check by Bretta and Slava’s poliwhirl and bayleef now. Both are visibly tiring, however, and despite the leech vines and grey splotches riddling its form, the rock snake still moves quickly, paternal rage driving it through the pain.

The poliwhirl’s next burst of water is suddenly weaker than the previous ones, and it stops shooting any new ones after that. As Slava quickly swaps his pokemon out, the onix takes advantage of not being on the defensive to strike… and roars in pain mid lunge. It twists back upon itself, then starts to crash its body against the wall. Everyone stares in confusion, and for a moment Aiko thinks it’s under some mental attack… until she remembers her dugtrio. She feels a sudden, piercing pain in her chest as the onix stops thrashing: in the dim light, she can vaguely make out the thick gouges in its hide… and the red stain on the wall it had been rubbing against.

She’d sent it to its death without even getting the chance to know it. All to buy a few extra seconds.

Aiko pushes herself to her feet, knees shaking. “I’m fine,” she tells the concerned Abdu. “I’m fine, help them!” He nods and heads toward the onix, and Aiko starts to move as fast as she can toward Dune despite the ache in her left ribs.

Her sandslash is still lying by the wall he fetched up beside, and she lets out a breath that’s half a sob as she sees that he’s still alive. She kneels and looks her pokemon over, making soothing noises as she strokes his snout. Oddly, comforting him makes her fear more bearable, even as her heart aches for the pain he must be in. Four scales were broken off with a dozen more on that side that are cracked where the tail hit, and a bruise is spreading along his middle. She fumbles for a potion bottle, cursing herself for not getting it out earlier, and starts to spray it over his injuries, flinching as something crashes against a cavern wall behind her. Next she takes a towel out to quickly wipe the onix’s thick, gel-like blood off Dune’s claws so she can make sure they weren’t damaged by its hide.

She finds nothing, but by the end of her inspection Dune still appears to be having trouble breathing. She wishes she had Red’s ability to feel what her pokemon are feeling, and considers just withdrawing him. But no, the fight is still ongoing, and she has nothing else that can do much. Her krabby and oddish might distract an onix for a bit, but… her hand shakes as she thinks of that massive body crashing down on them.

She gets out a syringe and fills it with potion. “I’m sorry, Dune, you’ll have to fight a little longer…” She steadies her hand with a deep breath, then injects some potion into his blood to help with potential organ damage. As she waits for it to work, her eyes scan the diffuse light that fills the cavern to see how Blue and Elaine are doing. Their graveler and shiftry are still fighting the onix, along with Payton’s kingler.

As she watches, her heart begins to lift. The three pokemon are effectively keeping the onix penned into the tunnel entrance, and each time it sticks itself out too far for some maneuverability, Blue orders Kemuri forward for a quick slash or two before leaping back out of range. They’re wearing it down, she can see it, another couple minutes and—

Tremors suddenly shake the cavern as a grinding cacophony reverberates around them. The onix seems to have decided that two dimensions isn’t working in its favor, and the front half of its body is disappearing underground as it spins itself like a slow drill. If she wasn’t already crouching beside Dune she would probably have fallen to her knees.

Blue’s group is knocked off balance, and barely have a chance to react before the ground crumbles beneath his shiftry. Aiko watches as if in a nightmare as the onix pulls it out of sight, Kemuri’s hoarse cough of pain mixing with Blue’s yell of rage as Elaine grabs his arm to keep him from running toward the hole. A moment later there’s a cracking sound, and the onix emerges, splinters of wood and leaves showering around it.

Blue tears free of Elaine and rushes forward to stand impossibly close to the emerging onix, one arm out… and a ball held facing it. Aiko hears the distant ping just before Blue pelts it at the center of the onix’s body.

Even at this distance, Aiko sees something wrong before he even releases the ball. She’s watched and faced Blue in dozens of battles now, and can count on one hand the times his stance was sloppy, his aim off, his follow-through weak. She’s studied him closer than she’d ever admit out loud, and sometimes he seems more like a machine than a person, body executing perfect catches, throws, and swaps without any wasted motion or energy, almost making it all look effortless.

This throw is like watching a different person. His arm trembles, he releases the ball a hurried heartbeat early, and the throw has too much force, sending the ball just over the onix’s body as it lunges forward. Payton’s kingler stops it cold before it can crush Blue, its massive claw clenching between two boulders near the onix’s rear as its claws dig into the ground. The onix whips around only to have a bubblebeam spewed in its face, and Blue manages to stumble away and summon Maturin.

Aiko releases a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. She’s starting to feel like she’s in a nightmare, everything’s going wrong and she’s just sitting here, afraid to send a potentially injured pokemon to his death. She should have stayed above ground, let Glen come down, he’s more experienced, has stronger pokemon. Ranger Fischer was right. She’s not strong enough to be down here, to be part of a group like hers—

My team members are more than they appear on paper.

Blue. He believed in her. Professor Oak did too. She may not have the experience of a veteran trainer, but her pokemon are just part of what she brings to a group.

A trainer who only trains their pokemon will never become great, Giovanni had written in his first Rationally Thinking post. It is the mind that directs the pokemon. A trainer who only trains their body will never become great. It is the mind that guides the body. Train your mind, and you may triumph even when your body or pokemon are insufficient.

Red taught her how to meditate once, when she saw him practicing some psychic ability. She doesn’t think she can get into the right state of mind with the chaos and Pressure all around her, but she still closes her eyes and lets her thoughts scatter as she concentrates on the feeling of air rushing in with a deep breath.

A sharp pain in her ribs makes her let it out, but she pulls in another, a little more shallow, then blows it back out, slow as she can, trying to calm herself so she can focus her thoughts one step at time.

Needs: Survival. Capture threats.

No. Just survival. Run. Regroup. Return.

Onix would chase. Need to remove their need to be here. What happens if the eggs disappear? Would only stay to defend if they’re being moved. But then other would chase the mover.

There’s a loud crash, and lots of yells, some in pain. Aiko gives into the fear hammering at her mind by huddling into herself, not caring how it looks to others as long as she can appease the fear enough to concentrate. The Pressure makes it hard to think, her thoughts on the verge of scattering as her heart hammers and every loud noise of the battles makes her flinch. But once the chain of ideas starts linking together, not even the fear can stop it.

What are their needs? Think like them. Food. Dryness. Safety for self and eggs. They want to protect them, eliminate threats. If we can’t leave, and we can’t beat them, we need them to leave. Apex predators. Not scared of any pokemon cries. What do they fear?

Water.

Aiko’s eyes snap open. The beginning of an idea is there.

Flood the chamber. Not enough water. Make it sound like it’s flooding? Play rainfall noise from speakers? Get up high, spray water from above? Would that just confuse them?

She discards the idea. Too much effort. Focus. What are they feeling? What’s the experience of the Pressure to them? Protective rage? Acute fear for their eggs?

Aiko turns to the clutch of eggs near the center of the room. Each one is about the size of a small adult curled into the fetal position, and weighs almost as much as solid stone. Aiko doubts she could move faster than a waddle with one, assuming she could even lift it for long. She could try putting them in containers, but to the onix that would just appear as if they’ve vanished, and enrage them further. Maybe they could strap some onto the backs of strong pokemon and have them run… but she can’t think of a pokemon that can both carry the egg and outrun an onix with its weight, let alone one that they have with them.

So they can’t move the eggs themselves. Which means she needs the onix to want to do it. She knows they can swallow their eggs and regurgitate them later if they need to be moved.

I don’t need to flood the whole chamber.

She recoils from the idea of hurting the baby onix, and reminds herself that it would be too hard to break through the shells anyway. If she just pretends to try, that might get the parents’ attention, but they might just fight that much harder to reach and kill her.

No, she needs to make them afraid to leave them here. She can’t flood the chamber, and she won’t hurt the eggs, but could she at least make it look like the eggs are at risk in a way that forces them to move them?

Aiko starts to dig through her bag until she finds the container ball that holds all her water. “Dune, follow.” She moves toward the eggs, and her hands shake as she releases the box, then tosses the lid off and stares at the rows of bottles that take up roughly half of its space. Not enough. “Dune, follow!” She pushes herself to her feet and they run to where Elaine and Blue are fighting, pain radiating from her ribs with every step. One or more is probably cut or fractured, every breath painful as she tries to draw in enough to speak loudly. “Guys! Need your bags! Water!”

To her relief neither ask questions, simply shrugging out of their straps so their packs fall to the floor as they continue to give orders to their pokemon. Aiko starts rooting around in them until she finds the right containers, then runs back to her box and opens theirs beside it, looking at the bottles and canteens within. Blue has all of Maturin’s water in here too. And it still won’t be enough!

Aiko looks around the chamber and spots Bretta and Slava’s bags, dropped to their sides at some point in the battle. It would take forever to find the right containers… unless…

Aiko dashes across the cavern toward Sumi, grabbing her team’s bags along the way. “Sorry just borrowing them!” she gasps over her shoulder, unsure if they heard her but unable to yell louder with the pain in her side. Ranger Miko is still with her, an open medkit and bloody gauze pad to the side, along with a pair of scissors. The girl’s shirt and jacket have been opened and cut, revealing a line of flesh that’s been mostly wiped clean of blood. A pale pink scar runs from the center and down at a diagonal.

The ranger’s attention seems completely focused on the potion she’s injecting into the girl’s chest, but as soon as Aiko arrives she speaks without looking up. “Trainer, can you take over—”

“No, sorry, I have a plan to get the onix to leave!”

The ranger’s eyes flick up at her for just a second. “How?”

“Water, enough to put the eggs at risk and make the onix leave with them.”

A tense moment passes as she finishes injecting the potion, then nods as she tosses the syringe aside and grabs another pre-filled one from the open kit beside her. “What do you need?”

“Can she talk? Sumi! Are you awake?”

Sumi’s eyes flutter open, and she nods, face covered in sweat.

Something in the ranger’s shoulders loosens. “You’re lucky to be alive, hon. I thought it pierced your heart, might have just clipped it. Try not to move.”

Aiko feels a flood of relief, for more than one reason. “Listen,” she half-yells over the renewed crashes and shouts of the battles behind them. “I need your water, all of it, and the rest of your group’s. Do you know where they keep theirs? Can you point to them?” She holds up their bags.

Sumi stares at her in confusion, and Aiko isn’t sure if she heard her.

The nearby onix roars again, and as soon as it ends Aiko raises her voice, both in frustration and to account for the ringing in their ears. “DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR TEAM KEEPS THEIR WATER?!”

Sumi blinks, slowly, then inclines her head a few degrees.

“Point them out to me!” Aiko starts taking every container ball out of the bags, watching Sumi until one finger weakly raises. She repeats the process with the other two. “Thank you. Ranger?”

“Left lower pocket, bottom ball.”

Aiko grabs it and stuffs her pockets, then runs back toward the eggs, tossing the trainers their bags along the way. “Sorry!” She pauses as the absol and pursuing pokemon pass close by, ready to run if it turns toward her. It dodges closer to the wall to avoid a gout of flame from the ranger’s ponyta, however, and Aiko takes the opportunity to dash to the center of the cavern where she left the first boxes.

Once the four new ones are all out, she pops the tops off and checks to make sure they’re the right ones. Rows of water bottles and canteens face her, three of them even including ten gallon jugs for recharging water pokemon. Enough. It has to be. She drags the boxes around to form most of a half-circle, all of them more or less pointing at the clutch of eggs, then collapses beside the first one, one hand clutching her ribs as the other starts uncapping bottles, jugs and canteens one after another.

She’s just finished the third box when Blue suddenly yells “Heads up!”

She turns in time to see the three rocks sail up to crack along the roof of the cavern, then fall in a spread that forces Bretta, Slava, and Abdu to retreat with their pokemon or risk being crushed. The onix they were fighting uses the opportunity to twist around along the wall and grab Bretta’s bayleef in its jaws before it can go far.

Aiko shuts her eyes, but still hears the horrible crunch, the cut off bleat of pain, and a cry of grief that chills her blood.

“Aiko!”

She turns to Elaine and sees that the onix has finally broken free of Blue’s group, perhaps scared by how close she is to its eggs, perhaps smelling the water and panicking, and is barreling toward them.

Toward the eggs, and toward Aiko, who’s between them.

Aiko feels the world narrowing to the feel of her heart in her throat, the rumbling beneath her feet, and the sight of the scarred and mottled onix. She tries pushing through to command Dune to try a Sand Attack to distract and disorient it, but her voice comes out in a breathless whisper.

Her pokemon leaps forward, and for an instant Aiko thinks he heard her anyway. But no, instead of trying to blind the onix, he simply dashes at it head on, injury slowing him too much to be of any use.

Aiko’s hand snaps up, pokeball aimed. “Return!” The beam catches her pokemon just before he’s out of range, and he disappears. If she’s going to die, she’ll do it alone. The others can care for her pokemon. In her last seconds, she takes out the heavy ball, hand trembling as she holds it up, knowing it won’t lock on time but preparing herself for another attempt at a dodge that might buy her an extra second…

There’s a thud behind her, and the sound of rushing water, followed by another, then another. She turns to see Payton kicking the boxes over, all the caps opened while she was busy watching the fight.

Bags of food and various trail rations spill onto the cavern floor, and along with them come gallons and gallons of water. Some of the bottles and canteens fall out as well, but this only quickens the spread of the pool, and once she kicks her boxes over as well, the pools begin to converge and expand even faster. Some patches of the ground absorb the water, but most of it is solid, and soon there’s a rushing tide spreading outward… most of it is heading straight for the clutch of eggs.

No roar sounds, no cry of alarm or fury. One second the onix is bearing down on her, and the next it’s juking its body toward the clutch of eggs. The rock snake begins to swallow her eggs whole, one after the other, and a rumbling from the other side precedes the father arriving to help as the water begins to reach them.

Aiko is tempted to raise her heavy ball, but even as she debates the risk of it, unsure of what one will do if their mate suddenly vanishes, they’re already done and fleeing toward the exit that the mother came from. Elaine scrambles to get out of their way, returning her graveler as she goes.

There’s a moment of relative silence as their rumbling retreat echoes behind them, but it’s quickly broken by one of the Rangers: “Cover the exit!”

The absol is leaping after the departing onix, almost reaching the opening before Elaine can re-summon her pokemon. The kingler scuttles toward it, apparently out of water, but the absol is able to run around it easily until the ponyta chases it off with another burst of flame, causing it to juke toward the other exit.

But Bretta, Slava, and Abdu are already converging on it, and as one of the rangers tries to intercept it along the way, it’s forced to dodge to the side again and again. Aiko has summoned her oddish, and a cloud of spores makes the absol leap back just as twin orders of “Wrap!” send two sets of vines from two different tangela lashing out at it, Elaine and Payton standing side by side as their pokemon grab at the absol’s neck and legs.

It begins to thrash wildly to untangle itself, and before it can a bolt of electricity hits it from Ranger Seishi’s jolteon, one leg severed during the chase. The absol sags against the tangela’s insulated vines, and they unwrap from it a moment later as three different pokeballs ping a lock, throw, and hit it, the first opening to pull it inside.

In the space of a heartbeat the Pressure fades to nothing, and Aiko feels its absence like a breath of renewed life, looking around at the others as they blink and gasp in air as if waking from a nightmare.


They spend a few minutes making sure everyone is okay and collecting their things. Half of the trainers got injured in some way that Aiko didn’t notice, the worst beside Sumi and herself being Blue, who lost an entire pant leg with the skin on one side a bloody abraded mess, and Payton, whose arm got dislocated somehow. Aiko is given another shot and advised to be careful on the way up until she can be checked out at a proper medical facility.

Sumi takes longer to stabilize enough for the rangers to feel safe with her moving, and even then they summon a stretcher for her. Aiko sees Blue go to the hole his shiftry disappeared down, great ball in hand. She feels a moment of hope, but after a few long breaths staring down the hole, Blue reclips the ball and turns away, eyes down. She wants to comfort him, but her gaze moves to the red stain along the wall, the vague, crushed form below it, and tears press against her eyes and spill down her cheeks. Elaine is suddenly there to put an arm around her shoulder, and Aiko gratefully turns her face to her shoulder, trying not to sob so that her ribs don’t hurt any more.

“I’m okay,” she whispers. “Hooo, I’m okay, I’m okay… Are you okay?”

“Yep.” Elaine says, squeezing her shoulder.

“It just… hit me, I guess. How close we came.” Blue approaches with some napkins and one of the water bottles that didn’t empty. “Thanks. I’m sorry, about Kemuri…” She wipes at her face.

Blue lets out a deep breath, hand brushing through his hair, then nods. “Gonna help with the cleanup.” He wanders away, and Aiko sees a couple other pokemon bodies that she missed during the battle. She wonders if he’ll want to bury Kemuri, but from the way he walked away from the hole she can’t imagine there was much left of the shiftry to gather in a container. Like her dugtrio.

The combined smell of various different kinds of blood in the cavern is suddenly hard to take, and she feels her gorge rise. “Gonna get some air,” she says, realizing how stupid it sounds but trusting Elaine to know what she means. Her friend nods, and Aiko makes her way carefully to the tunnel entrance so she can lean against the wall inside it and breathe a bit more easily, closing her eyes.

For the first time, she wonders to herself whether she’s ready to be a trainer yet. Maybe her dad was right. Maybe she should have stayed longer… trainer battles are fine, and the earlier fights were okay, if a bit terrifying, but losing pokemon like this… she’s not sure she can take that.

“Hey.” She turns to see Ranger Miko standing at the entrance. “You okay?”

“Fine.” Aiko wipes at her face. “Just need a moment.”

“Alright. Let us know if your side is hurting you more. And good job, Trainer. You saved lives today.”

The ranger leaves before she can respond, and after a moment Aiko closes her eyes and rests her head against the wall again, trying to get the images and sounds of pain and death to stop.

When they’re finally ready to head back up, everyone moves with a slow, quiet pace that lets Aiko replay what happened what feels like a hundred times, sometimes focusing on different details in particular, other times just running the same jumbled flash of highlights in a loop. The ranger’s praise wars with her own self-recriminations for how badly she choked, and her shame only grows as they travel up and up, and she has time to remember her mistakes again and again.

They’re about halfway to the surface when they hear noises coming from ahead, and everyone quickly prepares themselves as best they can for a fight. She offers to take the front of the litter from Slava, who’s behind her, and he accepts, carefully transferring the poles to her before moving up the line, hand on a pokeball.

A minute later Aiko distantly sees light appear around the corner up ahead, then hears Elaine shout Glen’s name. The relief in her tone matches Aiko’s, and she smiles for the first time in what feels like days as she sees their friend is the first to round the corner, looking at them in surprise.

“Hey guys, I brought the cavalry!”

“The absol was captured,” Ranger Miko says. “The cavalry should about-face.”

“Woah, nice job!”

“Now, trainer. We have injured.”

“Oh. Shit.” He turns around, causing the person behind him to do the same, then the person behind them, presumably along the rest of the procession. “Hey, pass on the message that we’re going back and see if whoever’s on the end feels confident to lead the way?”

“I got it,” Elaine says, ducking and squeezing her way through the crowded tunnel to help the new arrivals reverse course.

Slava reaches out to take the litter poles back, pointing out that she’s injured too, and Aiko lets him without protest. Her side doesn’t hurt as much now that she’s not running around, but it still feels tender, and the weight of the litter had been making her ribs ache. The rest of the journey feels quicker, and once they reach the surface, the rangers move off together to debrief and call an ambulance as the two groups begin to intermingle, sharing the details of what happened below.

Aiko and Blue let Elaine fill Glen in, the talkative girl somewhat subdued in her storytelling. Blue stares at the ground, one hand rubbing the now empty greatball at his side. After a moment he seems to realize what he’s doing and unclips it with a sigh, taking his pokedex out to wipe its registration before he shrinks it down and tucks it in his pocket.

“You doing okay?” she asks.

“Sure.” He shrugs. “Just coming to terms with it. Kemuri put me through a lot, after I caught him. But he came through for me time and again. He was good at playing up injuries, faking enemies out, you know? I was hoping throughout the fight that he’d come back up at the right moment, or that I’d find him down there after. Hurt, but, you know, mostly okay. He’s come back from… not worse, but pretty bad.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, feeling wretched. If she’d just thought of using the water earlier…

“It’s my fault,” Blue says. “All of this is. If I’d just thought to message them myself instead of assuming they’d listen to the rangers, or just checked my phone earlier…”

Aiko blinks. “What? That’s ridiculous, you couldn’t have known. But… if I hadn’t gotten so affected by the Pressure, or if my pokemon were stronger, we might have captured ours and come help. I was useless.” Blue is giving her a strange look, and she sees Elaine and Glen have stopped talking to stare at her too. “I mean before the water thing. If anything I should have thought of it sooner.”

“Huh,” Elaine says. “So that’s what that’s like.”

“What?”

“Hearing someone else blame themselves for something silly.’

“It’s not silly!” Aiko says, too loud. She lowers her voice. “I froze up down there. More than once.”

“You think I didn’t?” Blue says. “I missed an onix from close enough to spit on it!”

“Oh, are we throwing a pity party over here?” Bretta asks, and they turn to see her and Slava walk up to them, Payton and Abdu close behind. “I love these, it always turns into a game of one-upmanship for how terrible you think you are so you can feel better about hating yourself.”

“That’s not it,” Aiko says, suddenly angry. Don’t they understand? “It’s not about that, it’s about making sure you own your shit! I screwed up, okay? I did good things too, sure, but I still was too weak. I have to do better next time.”

Everyone’s quiet for a moment, and Aiko stares defiantly at each of them, daring one of them to tell her she’s wrong. It’s Blue that speaks first. “You’re right. You screwed up.”

She meets his gaze, keeping her chin high. Of course Blue gets it. “Yeah. I did.”

“I did too. Will you tell me off for it?”

“I…” She takes a breath. “You screwed up, Blue. Keep track of others better. And whatever shook you down there, learn to deal with it. That throw was yours to miss.”

“Guys…” Elaine says, sounding nervous, but Blue holds a hand up.

“You’re right. I’ll do better next time.”

Aiko nods. “Me too.”

Blue smiles. “We’ll help each other.”

“Yeah.” She smiles back.

There’s silence for a bit, and then Slava says, “I mean, if no one else is going to call me on it, I screwed up a pretty easy throw too.”

Aiko turns to him, considering. “I saw. Wasn’t sure if you wanted in on this.”

“Whatever this is,” Bretta mutters.

“I think I do,” he says, slowly.

“Then…” Aiko turns to face him fully. “Work on your throws. Because if you’d made that catch, Bretta wouldn’t have lost her bayleef. And Sumi may not have gotten hurt.”

There’s another silence, this one a bit more shocked, but Slava nods, grey eyes meeting hers steadily. “I’ll do better next time.”

Aiko smiles. “I’ll help. If you want. Though Blue can probably help more?”

“Of course.”

“I do. Thanks.”

Bretta looks at the three of them with some trepidation. “Um. Well. Obviously, I’m the most terrible one—”

“No, not like that,” Aiko says. “Without exaggeration. Just… be clear.”

Bretta frowns at the ground, brow creased. “I… fucked up. Big time. For leading you guys down there instead of going to the rangers’ meeting. For not reaching out to Blue. If Sumi hadn’t messaged him, we might all… be dead…”

“Yeah,” Slava says, voice quiet. “But we chose to follow you, so that’s on us a bit too.”

“I think I’m supposed to own this,” Bretta half-asks, turning to Aiko.

She consults her gut feeling, then shrugs. “You both screwed up. You both should take 100% of the responsibility, for yourselves.”

“That math doesn’t add up,” Payton says.

“But it feels right.” She turns to them. “Doesn’t it? I’m honestly checking, I’m not really sure what I’m doing here and mostly playing it by ear.”

That gets a round of chuckles, but Bretta and Slava both nod. “100%,” he says. “We’ll help each other do better.”

“Yeah.” Bretta’s hands rise to rub at her face. “We owe that much to Sumi.”

“I’m sorry about your friend,” Elaine says.

“Friends,” Aiko corrects, voice quiet.

Bretta meets her gaze a moment, pain leaking through her brave mask. Aiko wishes she hadn’t said anything for a moment, but then the girl nods. “You too. And I owe you guys an apology. I was a bit of a jerk, earlier. If I’d just offered for us all to go together… well, I came over in the first place to say… Your group is heading back to Vermilion Gym after this, right?”

Blue looks around at the others, who nod. “Yeah.”

Bretta rummages through her bag and takes out a handful of Vermilion Gym Objections. “Take these. You guys saved us down there. Already thanked these two. Any time we’re in a bind in the future… well, I know who I’m listening to.”

“Mine and Sumi’s too,” Slava says, holding out more. “She wanted to thank you guys.”

Aiko flushes as she sees the handful of tokens, trying to find some way to refuse them. “Aiko, you definitely don’t get to say no,” Bretta says to her. “Or I’m going to get mad about you spilling all my water. You think it grows on trees? Nuh uh. Opposite.”

That brings a weak smile, but Aiko still hesitates to take them. “You should have some,” she tells Abdu and Payton, “You didn’t have to come down with us—”

“We’ve already been to Vermilion,” Abdu says with a smile.

“You saved my life, both of you—”

“You saved all of ours,” Payton says with firm conviction. “I just came to help.”

“Goddammit, I’m trying to do something nice here,” Bretta interrupts. “Just take the damn tokens! Except for you, Glen. You were late.”

“Oof, there’s the guilt again,” he says. “Do I get to call myself weak for getting airsick?”

Aiko studies him briefly, unsure if he’s making fun. “Do you think it’s something you can improve on?”

“I… don’t know. I can try. I will try.”

“Then yes.”

“Alright then. Sorry I let you guys down.”

Elaine looks close to tears. “You didn’t… no, sorry, I know, I guess you guys… have to… but I… I don’t…”

“You were fine,” Blue says, and smiles. “Better than fine. You don’t have to look for some mistake just to fit in.”

“Oh, but… I felt so rushed, I know I was making mistakes but… I couldn’t seem to stop myself or think faster…”

“Well, I don’t want to take that away from you, if you really feel like you need to be held accountable for it,” Blue says. “But from what I saw, you did great, Elaine. Maybe reserve… this sort of thing… for when you make a mistake that you can point harm to, in specific?”

“I’m sure there will be future opportunities, if that makes you feel better,” Glen says.

Elaine smiles slightly. “It does, a little. Okay.”

“Well,” Abdu says. “I felt left out, but couldn’t think of anything concrete either. Did anyone see me screw up?”

“Nah, you did good, this time,” Payton says. “Me, though, I’m pretty sure getting distracted by the other fights cost the ranger his jolteon’s leg. I hope it can get re-attached, I feel wretched about it, especially for a pokemon that loves to run that much.”

“You’ll do better next time,” Aiko says, the words now having the feel of ritual.

“I’ll help,” Abdu says, completing it, and Payton nods.

Bretta and Slava are still holding the tokens, and Blue finally steps forward and takes them. “I’ll divide them up later, when people are feeling less down on themselves.”

“Good,” Bretta says. “Except Glen.”

“You can give some of mine to Glen,” Slava says, handing his to Blue. “I get airsick too.”

They hear the ambulance arriving then, its large tires and shock suspension helping it drive easily over the wild grass, and as a group they go to watch Sumi get loaded into it.

“Intravenous potions not working?” Glen asks quietly.

“No,” Slava says. “Some part of the injury isn’t getting reached, or it healed wrong. There’s internal bleeding, and her pulse is still irregular.”

One of the rangers points to Aiko after Sumi is loaded up, and an EMT turns to her. “Ma’am? Do you need help boarding?”

Aiko blinks. “Me?”

“You were badly injured,” Abdu says. “Play it safe, hm?”

A hand gently pushes at her back. “Go,” Blue says. “Make sure you’re okay. We’ll see you in Golden Hills.”

She checks the time, wondering how long it would take. She only has a few hours before she returns to the ranch, but the tenderness she still feels when she breathes too deep makes her abandon her protest. “Alright. See you guys there.”

She climbs into the ambulance back to sit across from where Sumi is lying down. “Slava?” the girl asks without opening her eyes.

“N-no, it’s me. Um. Aiko.”

“Is he…”

“Just a sec.” She pokes her head out. “Hey, Slava, she wants to talk to you.”

He jogs over and steps in. “Hey. What’s up?”

“Slava,” Sumi says between shallow breaths, voice quiet. “I heard… surgery… if something happens… my pokemon…”

“Hey, don’t talk like that,” the boy says, voice lowering as he takes her hand. “And I told you not to sign them to me. You know I screw everything important up. Let your sister have them.” He squeezes her hand. “And all that’s beside the point, because you’ll be fine.”

Aiko realizes too late that she should probably give them some privacy, but there’s not enough room to maneuver past him now. Sumi’s eyes open, and she looks at him from beneath heavy lids. “Promise…”

“I promise you’ll be fine.”

There’s the sound of the driver door opening and closing, and then the engine starts up. “Promise.”

He glances at Aiko, who sees pain and fear and doubt in his gaze. Say yes, she mouths. He lets out a breath. “Alright, I promise, if it stops you from worrying. I’ll look after them. If something happens. Which it won’t.”

Her eyes slip closed again. “Thank you…”

“See you soon, okay? You’ll be out by dinner time. We’ll skip it for ice cream. Sound good?”

Sumi doesn’t respond, and after a moment her hand goes limp. Slava stares at her, fingers moving up to her wrist. Aiko’s heart catches, but then he lets out a breath, and he glances at Aiko. “Look after her on the way?”

“Yeah, of course,” she says, though she’s not sure what she could do.

“Thanks. See you in a bit.” He looks at Sumi again, then backs out of the cabin, and one of the EMT enters and closes the back behind him. The ambulance starts to move, and Aiko reaches out to take Sumi’s hand as the tech starts hooking her up to the machines. Her fingers squeeze weakly back.

Aiko wonders what the girl’s relationship with Slava is like, that she’d trust him with her pokemon over family. She thinks about her own, and the thought she had when she withdrew Dune. Who would she want to have her pokemon, if something happened to her? Her dad, so he could take care of them on the ranch? Or her friends, who might use them for battles, put them at risk… but maybe get their lives saved by them, let them see more of the world?

It’s a hard question, and she feels a mix of guilt and pain over her dugtrio again. She hadn’t even gotten the chance to know it, but it was hers, she had captured it from the wild and was responsible for it. It hurts to think about, but if she continues being a trainer, it won’t be the last pokemon she loses. Is she really prepared for that?

Her thoughts run in circles throughout the trip back to town, and she holds Sumi’s hand all the way to the operating room before she’s led off to get a CT scan.


Aiko wakes with a start, scream trapped in her throat as she thrashes a moment, then realizes where she is and collapses back onto the hospital bed, closing her eyes. Three ribs cut and cracked, no organ damage thankfully. It took about an hour and a half to diagnose and treat her, then she was told to rest for a bit.

How long was I out? She looks out the window, and curses when she sees it’s dark out, swinging her legs off the bed and stumbling to her phone. A quick glance at the time while she calls her dad tells her she ended up sleeping another two hours.

“Hey Dad? Hey! I… fine, everything’s fine! I just took a nap… yeah, long day… mmhmm.” Aiko pulls her shoes on. “Yep, I’ll be right home! No, I’ll take care of that when I get there! Yeah. Right. Mmhm. See you soon. Love you.” She closes the call and takes a moment to breathe, forehead pressed against the phone screen. He sounded a little alarmed, a little worried, but seemed to take her assurances at face value. No anger for not calling, no suspicion that something bad had happened. She knows that’s not normal, but she’s a bit grateful for it, at the moment.

Aiko shakes herself and goes to use the washroom, worrying about Sumi all the while. The nightmare is stubborn in leaving too, keeping part of her in the cavern, paralyzed by fear as her friends and pokemon die one by one. Her hands tremble slightly as she washes them, and she practically attacks the towel to dry them off, angry with herself.

She needs to be stronger if she’s going to be a trainer. Her pokemon need to be stronger too, better trained. She thinks of the program she was working on at home, to help her pokemon fight more naturally on command, the way Red can make his. Whatever objections Leaf has, Aiko will do her best to pay attention to, but… she’ll take any advantage she can get if it will keep her pokemon and teammates alive.

Aiko collects her things and checks out with the nurse by the elevator, then makes her way to the waiting room below. She hears their voices before she arrives, and recognizes Abdu’s voice.

“Shit man, forget that. You get Giovanni out of the way before your fourth badge, maybe your fifth or sixth, but seventh is a bad idea. Eighth is just arrogant.”

“I’ve been called worse,” Blue says.

“You’re exaggerating.” Slava. Aiko relaxes a bit, knowing he wouldn’t sound so casual if something had happened to Sumi. “It’s not as bad as saving someone like Brock for last. Blue got it right going for him first, no one’s crazy enough to take Aeosis on.”

“I don’t blame them, after today,” Elaine says.

“Aeosis is one pokemon,” Payton says. “Sure he’s stupid-strong, but Giovanni is Giovanni. You really want to face him at his best?”

Blue snorts. “It’s not his best, challenging him for Gym Leadership will be his best. But it’s the best I’ll likely get, since I don’t plan on ever doing that. I want to beat him when he’s being at least somewhat serious.”

“Is this a pride thing? Or a fame thing?” Elaine asks. “Because I think if you can beat Aeosis, or even Sabrina’s alakazam, what’s it called, Sin?”

“Sync.”

“Sync, right, if you fight and win against them you probably get more buzz.”

“Maybe, but… look, Brock and Sabrina are great trainers, with amazing pokemon. All the Leaders are, but yeah, there are a couple with even greater pokemon that elevate them. But I want to beat the greatest trainer in Kanto, even if he has no single pokemon as strong as theirs. If anything I think that makes him more formidable. There’s no one point of strength, you just have to straight up beat him team against te—”

Blue stops talking as he sees Elaine and Glen stand up, and turns. “Aiko!” They rush over to take turns hugging her, being careful of her ribs, but she squeezes them tight, smiling.

“They told us you were just resting and everything went fine, but it’s been a while,” Elaine says. “We were worried.”

“I’m okay.” She looks at Bretta and Slava. “Any news?”

“She’ll live,” Slava says, and a weight rolls off Aiko’s chest, though some of it returns at his next words. “They’re worried about permanent damage though. Its horn went past her heart and nicked her spine.”

“We’re probably going to spend the night,” Bretta says. “They already explained how you go home to help your dad out, so don’t worry. We’ll be in town when you port back tomorrow.”

Aiko lets out a breath and nods. “Alright. Message me if you hear anything new.” She turns to Payton and Abdu. “You two staying too?”

“Yeah, it’s too late to travel anyway.” Payton smiles. “We’ll see you tomorrow, say goodbye before you all head back to Vermilion.”

“Oh, by the way,” Blue says. “Rangers came by, thanked us for our service and all that. Even though they’re the ones that caught the absol, the town’s bounty is going to be split among us, along with a bonus from the rangers for helping them acquire a pokemon that will be so important to research.”

“Except for Glen,” Bretta says with a sweet smile, causing him to snort.

“Your share comes out to about $2,500,” Blue says.

Aiko blinks. “Oh. Uhh. Wow. Okay. Great.”

“Yeah. And we’re having a small funeral for our pokemon tomorrow.”

Aiko’s feelings keep rollercoasting, and she swallows past the lump in her throat, then clears it. “Yeah. Sounds good. I’ll be there.” She turns to the room. “It was great meeting all of you, even if the circumstances were… you know.”

“Yeah. You too.”

“Night, Aiko.”

“Take care.”

Elaine hugs her again, briefly, and Aiko waves to everyone as she steps away… then stops and turns back. “Oh, I almost forgot… have you spoken to Red and Leaf? Do they know?”

“Nah, I figured I’d wait until they reached out. Don’t want to bring them down, you know? They’re probably enjoying a fun, peaceful cruise.”

Chapter 54: Into the Black

“Diglett!”

Blue’s mouth is open, but it was Elaine who shouted, beating him to the warning by a second as she turns to face the oncoming rumble of digging pokemon, hands reaching for her pockets.

Blue is faster there, having grabbed two bottles of pokemon repellent the moment he recognized the sound of the oncoming pokemon and realized its implications. The renewed jolt of adrenaline cuts through his confusion for a moment, and his voice is steady as it follows Elaine’s warning. “Elaine, stay on the absol! You and Glen on dexes, Aiko with me on repels!” He begins spraying Elaine down, keeping the triggers pressed until the cans are empty and she’s liberally coated, then tossing them aside and getting another two out for Aiko.

She’s already spraying Glen, who keeps his focus on the absol, though he’s taken his pokedex out and is holding it up. “Tell me when!” Glen says. “Machoke, Submission!”

Blue glances to the side to see the absol dance out of the machoke’s reach, then turns his attention back to his task. The rumbling is louder, and the first diglett shows up far to their right, popping out of the wall and dropping to the ground before dashing toward the opposite wall, giving the five battling pokemon a wide berth. Blue knows they won’t all be so skittish, however, and even as he finishes spraying Aiko down, he reaches into Glen’s bag pockets for two of his repel cans and runs a quick line between the four of them and the diglett that are now arriving in twos and threes from all along the wall and ceiling.

Blue starts spraying a double line of repellant along the cavern floor, and Aiko summons a container box and leaps onto it, just as diglett start pouring out of the dozen or so indents along the floor, wall and occasional hole in the ceiling. “Now!” Blue yells as their furry brown bodies and sharp claws start scrambling toward them, and from behind Glen and Elaine’s pokedexes come the echoing screeches of a pidgeot and a fearow.

The sounds are incredibly loud in the small cavern, drowning out the rumbling of the diglett. They leave Blue’s ears ringing, but he immediately sees the effect on the tide of diglett: they begin scrambling for the closest hole, often fighting against each other to see who would fit in them first, while some of the bigger ones start to make their own.

Unfortunately the dugtrio among the horde are less frightened, and while most scramble around and away from the four smelly trainers, two of them come straight at them.

“Ba!” Blue yells, and Maturin spits a handful of bubbles out in a spray that catches one of the dugtrio and knocks it back with the explosive pop. “Bab!” The bubblebeam focuses on the other one and hits it away too, but a third turns from the side and dashes at Elaine until Aiko’s oddish shoots a cloud of spores at it. It stumbles to a stop, sneezes, then turns to face the new threat, movements slower.

Blue turns to focus on the other two again, pokeballs trying to get a lock as Maturin spits water and bubbles again and again to fend them off. One dives below the ground, and Blue has a moment of relief until he feels the ground vibrating below the box they’re standing on. Dust rains from the ceiling, and more diglett are still pouring out of the wall. A particularly large one joins the dugtrio in attacking them, and when the dugtrio that caused the quake pops back up to their left, Blue quickly swaps an empty ball out to summon Gon. The shroomish manages to hold it off, but with its three heads and quick movements, it’s almost impossible to really stop.

Worse than that, with three pokemon out Blue can barely pay attention to Kemuri, and within moments both he and Aiko’s split focus is punished by a cry of pain from her sandslash, then another from Kemuri.

“Low Kick! Machoke’s tiring fast!” Glen calls out.

“Ours here too,” Aiko says, and a moment later her oddish is pierced by a dugtrio’s long claws. “Shit, return! Go, Sneaker!”

Shit is right. The diglett have finally stopped coming out of the wall, and most have fled, but there are three dugtrio and a big diglett still in the chamber with them, popping in and out of the ground to attack their pokemon from various angles. Blue can see Maturin is running out of water, and with Kemuri busy he doesn’t have any other pokemon that can really stand up to the diglett as well. Worst of all, the constant shocks to the cavern have begun sending dust and pebbles down on them.

“We can’t hold like this,” Blue yells between commands. A dugtrio gouges a chunk of Gon’s fungal dome off, and Blue quickly jumps off the box with a potion in hand to spray his pokemon, unable to risk returning him just yet. He leaps back onto the box as Aiko shouts a warning, and barely avoids the spew of rocks and dirt that one of the dugtrio aims at him. Blue drops the potion bottle without re-attaching it and takes an empty pokeball out, hand steady but heart pounding in his throat. Could really use that battle calm about now. “Gon, sal! Guys, how’s the absol?”

“We still can’t pin it down! We’ll have to let it go!” Elaine says.

Blue grits his teeth. If they let it go now, it won’t return to this chamber after being caught here, especially with all the repel they’ve sprayed. But if they keep fighting like this someone is going to lose a pokemon soon, or worse…

Frustration wells up, turns black and bitter inside him. He should just order them to stop holding back, to finish it off. Better that than letting it get away and losing it. Hell, it’s already injured, it might just end up killing itself, like the pikachu in the forest did.

The memory brings up another one: catching Kemuri the way he did, the shock and horror of those with him. Gramps telling him in Pewter later to be more careful how he does things. We came here to capture it, not kill it. We’ll have another chance.

“One more attempt, all together!” He shouts at last. “Try to get a lock and throw, then give it a path to leave!”

“On three, then!” Glen yells. “One…. Machoke, Vital Throw! Two…”

“Maturin, Withdraw!”

“Sneaker, Fast!”

“Three!”

As one, Blue and Aiko wheel around on their box and dash toward their pokemon penning the absol in, pokeballs extended. Blue takes a deep breath, aims at the leaping, slashing blur of black and white, and as he lets the breath out, holds the balls as steady as he can as he tracks its movements.

He hears three pings, one after another, and throws both balls without being sure if the locks were his own or someone else’s. The others throw their balls too, but the absol, still evading the machoke’s grabs, leaps back onto the wall of the cavern, its claws gripping the stone for a moment to avoid the half a dozen pokeballs and great balls… all but for one, which hits it in the leg, bounces off…

…and tumbles to the ground. It wasn’t one that locked on.

Blue doesn’t waste another second, merely turning and running back for the box as he takes in the situation. Their pokemon are scratched and bleeding, Maturin even retreating to her shell unprompted, which let two of the dugtrio gang up on Gon, who’s desperately shooting out cloud after cloud of spores in every direction to keep them away. “Let it go, give it a path to go! Guard our backs Glen and Elaine! Kemuri, here! Lar!” he says and points to the dugtrio that are raking dirt at Gon to keep his spores from reaching them. “Maturin, Ba!”

His wartortle sticks her head out, relieving him immensely, and half-heartedly spits some bubbles out at the dugtrio as they retreat from the shiftry’s sudden arrival, its remaining appendage slashing at them. Those damned extra heads see the bubbles coming however and they avoid them—

—only to face Elaine’s psyduck on one side and Glen’s gloom on the other, water and vines slapping them aside. “It’s gone,” Elaine says as she steps up beside Blue. “Leapt up to the higher passage!”

Blue stifles his disappointment and focuses on the battle as best he can. Before long, the four of them working together turn the tide, and once Blue catches the first Dugtrio, the other two quickly get nabbed too.

It’s the last, large diglett that somehow manages to avoid them long enough to dive back underground for a prolonged period. They all tensely wait for it to reappear, during which Blue tries to catch his breath. They only fought for a couple minutes at most, but he feels wrung out. He just has to stay vigilant a little longer to finish the last one…

Instead of the diglett reappearing, however, there’s a burst of light that suddenly shoots out from one of the holes in the ceiling above them. They all stare up at it in shock.

“Did it just—” Elaine starts, then yelps in surprise as a rumbling shock runs through the ceiling, sending more dust and chips of stone raining down on them.

“Oh, come on!” Aiko shouts as a grinding, trembling groan continues through the cavern. “Now?

“Just run!” Blue yells as he hurries to withdraw his pokemon and pick up the balls that have dugtrio in them before he breaks for the side passage they originally came from. The others quickly join him, Aiko pausing just to withdraw the container box they were standing on before running to the rest of them, arms full.

The tremors slow to a stop as they run down the tunnel, Glen and his butterfree in front to illuminate the path. Blue imagines the cavern collapsing behind them with an earthy roar, but thankfully everything eventually becomes silent but for the sounds of their quick steps and heavy breathing.

Once they reach another small cavern that branches in multiple directions, Blue calls for a stop. The party slows, then collapses against the walls or to the floor as they catch their breath.

“Everyone okay?” he asks. “Injuries?”

“Scrapes and cuts from earth shards,” Aiko says. “Okay otherwise.”

“I’m okay too,” Elaine says, and Glen echoes her. Blue finally pays attention to himself, hands roaming over his legs and torso to make sure he didn’t get cut by something without noticing it.

“Do you need help healing yourself?” Glen asks Aiko, who hasn’t moved to heal her cuts and bruises.

“No, I’m just… still recovering.” She lets a shuddering breath out. “That was intense, in more ways than one.”

“More than it should have been,” Glen says, and everyone murmurs or nods their assent. Blue lets himself slide to the floor of the cavern. The others follow suit, and Blue wipes cold sweat from his forehead as he rests his eyes for a moment, limbs and mind almost gelatinous with fatigue.

He plays the fight back in his memory as best he can, trying to remember what exactly happened and when. The whole thing felt off from the very beginning. Blue assumed it was just his frustration that the absol hadn’t actually eaten all the meat, had noticed that it was off somehow and went silent for other reasons. Despite that, and the absol’s amazing evasion and quickness, they still would have worn it down… if not for the stampede of diglett arriving when it did.

“So just to be clear,” Glen says after a minute. “And not to blame anyone prematurely… but did we screw up?”

“Nothing in the dex said that diglett were attracted to absol mating calls, or beef,” Blue insists. “I double checked. There’s never been any reports filed about that, unless someone discovered it in the time since we entered the caves.”

“Someone might have,” Elaine suggests. “Us.” She lazily lifts both fists above her head. “Yaaay…”

“No, it can’t have been the calls,” Aiko says. “Those were broadcast from a different part of the caves than where we fought it, remember? And none of the diglett went after the meat. Could have been the sound of the fighting, but… that didn’t happen in our last fight with diglett. No new ones from nearby showed up to join in.”

“And there were a lot of them,” Blue says. “So many being close enough to hear seems unlikely.”

Glen drags a finger through the dirt beside him, brow creased. The ensuing silence is unbroken except for the flapping of his butterfree’s wings, and after a moment he holds a hand up and gestures, which brings his pokemon down to rest on his arm. He takes a poffin from his bag and feeds the glowing bug. “So I think it might be time to revisit the topic of absol and bad luck, because I don’t know what else to call what just happened.”

“Well, of course it was bad luck,” Aiko says. “But that doesn’t mean the absol caused it.”

“Yeah, true.”

“Hell of a coincidence, though,” Blue says, fingers drumming against his knee.

She looks at him in surprise. “You don’t think it was the absol, do you?”

Blue shrugs. “I think after what we just saw, I’m open to talking about it.”

“Seriously? With a sample size of one, we’re really going to reconsider whether bad luck exists?”

Glen shrugs. “I’m not one of those trainers who wears lucky socks or anything, but sometimes something looks like bad luck and is really caused by something else, you know? People can psych themselves out, or get overconfident, or something.”

“The car crash thing again? People are nervous because there’s an absol nearby, so they, what, forget how to drive?”

“Something like that.”

“Come on, we’re talking about a horde of pokemon attacking. That’s not something you can put in the same category.”

Blue looks at Elaine while the other two argue, and sees her silently biting her lower lip. She seemed to support the idea of absol causing bad luck, back in town. She didn’t really defend the idea much though. “What do you think, Elaine?”

“Hm? About what?”

“The absol. The diglett arriving when they did.”

Her gaze darts around to the three of them, seeming to rest on Aiko for longer than usual. She hesitates a moment longer, then says, “I think… it was really bad luck. Too much. If it was anything less, we probably would have been okay, still. So—”

“That’s just hindsight bias,” Aiko says. “We happened to be unable to handle that, but if there was another one or two trainers with us, we could have still caught it. Do you really think more diglett would have shown up if, like, Red and Leaf were here? Or the ceiling would have come down?”

Elaine opens her mouth, then closes it and shrugs, looking down again.

“What I’m more interested in is the way our pokemon—”

“Hang on,” Blue says, interrupting Aiko. “You didn’t let her finish.” He turns back to Elaine. “What were you going to say? ‘So’…?”

“It’s nothing.”

Blue studies her, some inkling of intuition kicking in. Elaine is usually really talkative, but he remembers her seeming unusually withdrawn a few times yesterday. He’s still getting using to traveling with people other than Red and Leaf, who are always quick to speak their mind, even if it means getting into an argument. But he can’t remember Elaine ever arguing with anyone.

“Elaine, you know it’s okay if you disagree with us, right?” Blue asks.

Her eyes widen, and she nods. “Yeah. Of course.”

“Do you?” Aiko asks with frown.

“What?”

“Still disagree? About absol and luck.”

“I… um. I think… I guess maybe not… I mean, but, it’s hard to be sure, you know?” Even in the relatively dim light of the butterfree’s wings, Elaine’s face seems to be flushing rather violently.

“You don’t have to be sure,” Glen says. “But are you leaning more toward yes or no, right now?”

“Mm.” Elaine nods.

“Is that a yes?” Aiko asks, voice dripping skepticism.

Elaine hesitates, then shakes her head.

“Aiko,” Blue starts, “Your tone—”

“I know, I know.” She considers Elaine briefly, then says, “Hey, Elaine. I think tangela are stupid pokemon. Don’t you?”

Elaine’s eyes widen, and she looks down between her feet. “Um. I… I don’t think… I mean they’re not… super smart I guess… but I like them,” she finishes, voice trailing to a whisper at the end.

Glen whistles quietly, and turns to Blue. “Good catch.”

“Wow, yeah.” Aiko’s voice softens. “Elaine, I don’t really think that about tangela, you know? I was just trying to get a rise out of you. Do you really not feel comfortable arguing with us? Or is it me? Am I pushing too hard?”

“Probably a little,” Blue says. “But I think she’s been holding back from contradicting any of us.”

Elaine looks up at the three of them, blushing harder than ever. She shrugs. “I just don’t like fighting?”

“Are you not sure about that either?” Aiko asks, then winces. “Shit, that was meant jokingly. I’m sorry, Elaine, I’m not trying to pick on you. I may be missing some social filters.”

“It’s okay. I just really like you guys.”

“Psh. So?” Blue asks. “I argue with Red all the time, and he’s my best friend. Arguing with us won’t make us like you less.”

Elaine’s hands flutter around her knees briefly. “It’s not just that, I don’t know a lot, compared to you guys—”

“Elaine,” Glen cuts her off. “We literally wouldn’t be here right now without you. None of us have ever gone trailblazing or spelunking.”

“That’s different. I know what I’m good at, and I just don’t like to argue about things I don’t know about.”

“That’s great,” Aiko says. “Really, I wish more people were like that, but in situations like this, where none of us really knows, it’s okay to speak your mind.”

“In fact, we need you to,” Blue says. “We’re only at our best as a ‘party’ when we can pool our ideas, not just our skills.” Elaine smiles slightly, and Blue smiles back. “We won’t get mad at you or make fun of you if you tell us what you think. Will we?”

“Nope,” Glen says.

“Absolutely, and I’m sorry if I come off that way,” Aiko says. “I’ll try to get better with that, if you try to speak up more often when you disagree?”

Elaine’s smile widens. “I think I can try. I mean, I will.”

“Great,” Blue says. “We can start with absol. You seemed to support the idea of them causing bad luck, back in town. Can you try to give us a summary of what you think about them causing bad luck?”

“Um. Okay.” She rubs her legs, frowning down at her shoes. “So. What I was thinking of in town was that a lot of trainers have mentioned how hard they are to catch, right? And, I mean yeah it was fast, and dangerous, but we almost had it before the diglett came. It’s not that strong, like, if we had a fighting pokemon that was faster than a machoke we probably would have gotten it, you know?” Elaine’s words are speeding up as she talks, her customary enthusiasm leaking into her expression and tone. “So maybe there’s more going on, some of it that’s hard to measure or even notice at the time. Like a pokeball that malfunctions at just the wrong time?”

“Wait,” Aiko says. “You really think that’s what happened to the ball that hit it?” Elaine’s smile fades slightly, but Aiko is already making a sound of frustration. “Damn it, sorry, let me try that again. Do you… I mean, I thought the ball that hit it just didn’t lock on.”

Blue is about to add that he thought that too, but holds back so it wouldn’t feel like they’re all ganging up on Elaine. He really wants her to start arguing back, almost more than he wants to get to the bottom of the absol mystery, right now. He can’t head the team effectively if one of the members is too worried about upsetting anyone to speak their mind.

Luckily, after Elaine takes a moment to think it over, she shrugs and says, “It was my ball, I’m pretty sure. And I thought I heard it ping. But I guess I could be wrong?”

Aiko opens her mouth, then closes it again. “I think you may be too,” she says, slowly. “But I didn’t know it was your ball, so… you might know better than I do. But… okay, so let’s just talk about luck for a moment. Luck isn’t a force of nature, you can’t just… just increase or decrease the random events in the world to favor a certain outcome. That would imply that there’s some higher, conscious being or force that’s tilting things a certain, very, very specific way. Like the absol couldn’t have just caused a cave-in on us, it would have trapped itself. Or if it caused the cave-in and it somehow left it a way free, what does that even say about reality? What if the cavern is literally unable to collapse a certain way? Does the absol somehow know that? Because something’s got to.” Aiko seems to stop herself from continuing and turns to Blue and Glen. “Was that okay?”

“I think it was fine,” Glen says, and Blue nods, looking at Elaine.

“It was fine!” she says. “Um. Give me a second?”

“Sure!” Aiko takes a potion out of her bag and begins to spray her wounds as she waits, and Blue stretches his limbs out, feeling a bit more like himself now that he’s caught his breath and the adrenaline is wearing off. He sees the others stretching and adjusting themselves to be more comfortable too.

“Okay,” Elaine says after a minute. “So maybe it’s not something like a force in the world, but something that just looks like it? I felt really odd while we were fighting it, like everything I was doing was rushed, like I didn’t have any… I don’t know how to describe it, but sort of like I was watching myself act on fast forward. What—”

“I felt something like that too!” Blue says, sitting up. “Shit, sorry, I interrupted.”

“It’s okay! What was yours?”

“It’s not like yours, but it’s close. It was more like something was wrong, like whatever I thought of or did was slightly off. It kept me from really focusing.”

“Hey, yeah,” Glen says. “That’s kind of how I felt too. But more like I was… not doing my best? No, that’s not right. Like I was letting you guys down. Like I was going to screw things up for everyone. And my machoke just kept missing it, I think it only got one solid hit in, and that just made the feeling worse…”

They all look at Aiko, who’s frowning at her arm as she sprays a cut there, then wipes the blood away with a paper towel. “Nothing like that,” she says. “I just felt… afraid. That’s all. Almost paralyzed. Like I had to push through my fear to do anything.”

“This sounds like a mental attack, right?” Elaine asks. “What if absol have some mental effect to make people clumsier or less focused?”

“But I’m Dark,” Blue points out. “It would have to be a Ghost or Dark attack, and I’ve never heard of an attack like that.”

“Something more passive,” Glen suggests. “An ability that works like an aura.”

Blue frowns. “That sounds like a legendary pokemon ability. Absol are rare and dangerous, but not that much.”

“And this could all just be expectations,” Aiko says, sounding only slightly exasperated. “What you’re describing are normal feelings people have in tense situations.”

“No,” Blue says with a frown. “Hang on, I think they’re right, actually, it wasn’t normal. I can’t really explain why, but something about the battle was harder for me than any other…” He trails off, suddenly doubting himself. That’s not strictly true, is it? He’s lost his battle calm before… “I think.”

“If the effect is so different for all of us, though,” Elaine says after a moment of silence, “It would be really hard to know for sure. And not all absol might have the ability! Other pokemon might too, but without… ah, expectations, like you said,” she turns to Aiko, “It would be even harder to notice, you know?”

“So it’s something that feeds off of confirmation bias?” Aiko asks, brow raised.

Elaine raises her hands up “Maybe? I mean it could be some of that, the confirmation bias, yeah, but what if it’s not? I mean… could you imagine how many people might have reported something similar and been dismissed because others thought of another explanation? That would be really frustrating!”

“But wait, now we’re talking about something else,” Aiko says. “Or do you think the car crashes might be explained by this too? If so, why would the same effect that does that make the diglett come to that area? How far reaching does this go?”

Blue retreats from the discussion for a bit, simply listening and frowning slightly as he tries to consider both sides. Aiko sounds like Red in most of their arguments, but Elaine is saying a lot of the same stuff Blue would normally, and he tries to think through why he’s more willing to side with Aiko in this case. Is it just because he doesn’t want to believe that a Dark pokemon can actually cause misfortune to those around them? He knows what Red would say about that.

“That’s it, we’re tabooing the word ‘luck,'” Aiko says suddenly.

“Tabooing?” Elaine asks.

“It’s a way to keep from getting caught up in semantics. We’re not allowed to use that word in the discussion anymore, we clearly mean different things when we say it, and are just getting more aggravated every time that happens.” She lets out a breath. “Or I am, anyway, so let’s just focus on what we’re actually trying to say instead of tripping over that word again and again.”

“Oh, that’s like a game! What would you say instead, then?”

Aiko stops to think, then continues slowly. “If this power or ability or whatever exists, it has to be something guided. It can’t just be some diffuse, aimless effect that happens at random but also keeps benefiting the absol. Otherwise it could just as easily hinder itself with the things it causes. So it must be through some specific mechanism, something under conscious control, like clouding someone’s mind or sending a tremor through the ground or whatever.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Elaine says, after some visible consideration. “My main point is just… that it might exist, so we have to be ready, you know? We shouldn’t just assume it’s all in people’s heads, we have to be ready for something unexpected to happen. More than we usually would, I mean.”

Aiko nods. “I can get on board with that, if we can figure out how you prepare for something so… vague.”

“Do you think the rangers know something?” Glen asks. “They must have experience hunting absol, even if it’s not made official.”

“But then why not make it official?” Aiko asks. “If they can really influence events or people like this, they should be paying a lot of attention to it.”

“Well, they’re paying attention to it. They’re just not labeling it an incident, which… I mean, fair enough, right? If not all absol can do this, they can’t consider it a major incident every time one appears just in case. What has this one really, provably done?”

“What has it really done,” Blue muses, thoughts drifting as something tickles the back of his memory. He picks a pair of small stones up and begins to roll them around each other in his palm, trying to pin the association down. Something he overheard Gramps talking to a ranger about. Was it Red’s dad?

“You say something, Blue?” Aiko asks.

“Hm?” He looks up to see the others watching him. “Just remembering something. I think Gramps was arguing with Red’s dad about some risk to Pallet town. Gramps was asking him why they hadn’t classified it as an incident yet, and Red’s dad said the pokemon hadn’t done anything yet. I don’t remember what they were, I think a full nido family was migrating. The rangers knew if they marked it publicly they would have a bunch of trainers trying to catch them, and that might actually start a rampage, whereas if they left them alone they’d just move on.”

“Trying to balance their priorities between protecting the ecology and people,” Aiko says with a nod. “But for a single absol…”

“Maybe it’s not the absol they’re worried about,” Elaine says. “Maybe it’s the diglett. I mean look what happened to us.”

“But people fight diglett in the tunnels all the time! And besides, they’re coordinating some people to find the absol. They just don’t want a bunch of people around, wasting their time.”

“Whose time? The trainers, or the rangers?” Glen asks. “I mean, if this doesn’t happen a lot with absol, but there’s a persistent superstition about them causing catastrophes, they probably get a lot of false-positives. They can’t react to them all like they’re real incidents.”

The group is silent at that. Blue wonders how much that would factor into his own decisions if he were in charge, and has to admit it would. “So this is a kind of covert op, for them? A way to address the potential incident without actually making it one prematurely?”

“If that’s true, what qualifies?” Elaine asks. “If this absol is actually a Tier 1 incident, we shouldn’t be trying to capture it on our own. We have to warn the others!”

Aiko makes a face. “But warn them of what? Say we felt scared or worried? Tell them about the diglett? They’d probably just think we messed up and attracted them somehow. Or got unlucky, like anyone would expect. Even if we assume this absol can… exert some power that makes things go in their favor, what will our warning them even do? They’re probably already being careful.”

“What do you think we should do?” Blue asks her.

Aiko hesitates. “Well. Heal up, first. Give our pokemon some rest. Then… go back to the chamber and track it again. The blood trail will make it easy. We might get it this time, we can heal our pokemon much faster than the absol will recover on its own.”

Blue considers it a moment, then looks at Elaine and Glen. “What do you guys think?”

“I’m okay with giving it another shot,” Glen says. “It can’t have gone too far, after a fight like that.”

Elaine is clearly uncomfortable contradicting them again. Blue waits, giving her time to speak her own mind, already thinking about the journey back up, until she lets a breath out and says, “Okay, yeah. Let’s try it. And I’m not just saying that to avoid arguing,” she adds with a smile before Blue can say anything.

He grins. “Alright then.”

They get to their feet, and Blue and Elaine help Aiko and Glen set up a triage station that they can release their pokemon at, one at a time, for healing. Once that’s done, they let their pokemon stay out of their balls and make sure they’re fed, rested, and especially in Maturin’s case, well-watered.

“Alright, let’s try and be prepared for anything,” Blue says as they make their way back to the chamber and Aiko brings Sneaker out to start tracking it by the blood it left. “If we spot it, we’ll try to set things up so seemingly random chance can’t make any sort of difference. It’s probably looking for a place to rest…”

They confirm that it never came back into the chamber after going up the elevated path, and bring container boxes out to climb up. The ceiling is low for the next ten minutes of winding travel, and eventually Blue stops seeing any spots of blood on the ground. It’s a relief to know that they it didn’t end up dying of its wounds, and thankfully the lack of blood doesn’t stop Sneaker.

“You said it had to have stopped soon, right?” he eventually mutters.

“Yeah, their stamina isn’t amazing,” Glen says as he holds his butterfree up to light the path ahead, the ceiling too low for it to fly. “Maybe it took a quick breather here and there, but it can’t have gone much farther… we might even find it asleep…”

Blue keeps track of the time as they follow the path as quick as they can, back to marking their choices and consulting Elaine’s maps. The one theme that’s quickly obvious is that the absol was descending; within fifteen minutes, they’re deeper than they’ve ever been, and the corridors are getting less and less easily navigated.

Blue is starting to worry that they’ll reach a point they can’t squeeze through when instead they reach a large opening in part of the floor and wall, almost like a gash.

“Huh,” Elaine says. “This isn’t on the map.”

“Ominous,” Blue mutters as they watch Aiko’s raticate step up to the hole and sniff at it, then start to crawl through until Aiko commands it to stop. Elaine kneels down and touches the edges of the opening, then shines her headlamp into it. They see the floor not too far below; what to them looks like a hole in the floor is actually an opening somewhere along the edge of a wall and ceiling.

“It’s not super new, I don’t think. This area of the tunnels hasn’t been mapped for almost two years.”

“Ok, so the absol didn’t cause this, probably. If we go in there though, we won’t have the map to guide us, right?”

“Yeah.”

Blue lets out a breath. “Let’s make extra sure to mark this area up, then. Also, Glen, tie some rope around that stalagmite? It looks like we could climb back up if we need to, but it might come in handy.”

One by one they go through… and emerge into a tunnel that’s much wider than the network they just left.

“Uh oh,” Elaine says.

Everyone immediately turns to her.

“Uh oh, as in, ‘Uh oh, this place actually is on the map?'” Glen tries, voice hopeful.

“That’s more of an ‘oops,'” Aiko suggests. “Maybe she means something like ‘Uh oh, my phone is losing charge.'”

“I think I’ll take ‘Uh oh, I’ve had the map upside down all along,'” Blue sighs. “What’s up, Elaine?”

“Well.” She’s looking around the tunnel. “The smoothness here is concerning?”

“Smooth?” Aiko walks to a wall and runs a hand over it. “It’s rough to me.” She tests her footing. “Even the ground.”

“I guess I should say the… Evenness. No stalactites up there, or stalagmites around us, even at the corners. I think this is an onix tunnel.”

“Ha-haaa, well, look at the time,” Glen says. “We just hit nope-o-clock. I change my vote, Blue. This is bad luck if I’ve ever seen it.”

Blue is rubbing his eyes, trying to decide just how big a deal this is. “Aiko, Sneaker’s sure it came down here?”

“Yeah. Also… um. He’s been getting excited. I think we’re close?”

They all turn to the raticate, and Blue sees it’s true: her pokemon is practically moving in circles as it keeps trying to follow some path only it can sense, noticing she’s not with him, and turning back, only to start tracking the absol again.

“Okay. Glen, was that actually a vote to abort?”

“Shit. I guess not… not without even hearing an onix. These could be old tunnels, right?”

“Yeah,” Elaine says. “I mean it’s been here awhile. We could just go another fifteen minutes or so?”

They agree, and start to move out again, everyone on even higher alert as they follow the raticate down the tunnel, leaving an arrow on the wall. Blue feels the tension in every part of his body, ears trained for the slightest sound of rumbling. He keeps a close eye on the time too, intent on not going past the fifteen minutes, but in the end it only takes eleven.

The air changes again as they reach an opening to a wide open chamber that’s pitch black beyond the relatively dim light of Glen’s butterfree. The ground slopes down from where they are at a sharp angle that Blue is not eager to go down in the dark.

Aiko’s hand shoots out and stops Glen from reaching up to activate his headlamp. He looks at her curiously, and there’s a sudden snapping sound as Elaine activates a delayed glowstick.

“Get ready,” she says… and throws.

Three seconds pass. Four. Five… six…

It ignites mid-air, just before hitting the ground and bouncing, a flare of green that reveals most of the chamber for a handful of heartbeats.

The absol is the first thing Blue notices, the only splash of white in all the grey and brown and black. It appears to be lying on its haunches in an alcove against the wall.

The second thing Blue notices is more a collection of things. Boulders, coiled in a loose circle. Its head isn’t facing them, thankfully, so Blue doesn’t see it, but he knows what he’s looking at: an adult onix.

The third thing was also a collection. Eggs.

The flare of light dies, and Blue feels his whole body tense like a coiled spring, ready to throw himself back the way they came or unclip a pokeball. Instead, as seconds pass and nothing happens, his breath comes out in a long, low rush, and he can hear the others’ rapid breaths past his heartbeats.

“Okay,” Blue mutters, and starts to inch backward. “Bad luck it is. New plan: call for backup. Let’s get the hell out of here.”


It takes a bit less than an hour to reach the surface, Elaine guiding them to a tunnel entrance that’s much closer than the one they entered through. Returning to the fresh air and sunlight has a restorative effect that no amount of rest in the tunnels did, and everyone takes a moment to rest before they begin to get out their lunches. If nothing else, Blue reflects, it’s nice to smell something besides stale air, stone and all the repellant they sprayed themselves with. He sends a message to Ranger Tanaka and Ranger Fischer as he eats, flagging their location with CoRRNet’s generic ask-for-reinforcements button.

Normally there would be an incident page for him to put it on, but since one was never formed for the absol, Blue can’t easily let everyone else involved in the hunt know. He does at least send it to Bretta too so that her group is aware, since they’re the only others involved in the hunt that he knows of. Any motivation to gloat feels tempered by the fact that they did not, in fact, capture the absol.

He expects there to be some delay before they get back to him, assuming they’re below ground and out of reception range, but before he can even finish a granola bar he gets a call back from Fischer. “Hey, you’re not in the tunnels?”

“I’m coordinating the hunt from above ground. Where are you, Mr. Oak? What happened?”

“Like I said, we found the absol, injured it, but it got away,” Blue says. “The details are a bit of a story. Are you stationed at Golden Hills, or in the field?”

“In the field. Just tell me now.”

So Blue begins describing their hunt and encounter. Before he gets to the surprise assault by the diglett, however, the Ranger interrupts. “Hold on, this was just the four of you, then? The group you were with last night?”

Blue steels himself. “That’s right.”

“Mr. Oak, Ranger Tanaka and I made it clear that we did not think your group was suited to hunt this absol.”

“You did, Ranger, and we respectfully disagreed with your assessment. As I tried to explain, my team members are more than they appear on paper.” He catches the smiles the others exchange, particularly Aiko. “Which is why we almost caught it.”

“Almost is hardly a source of confidence. What is your team doing now?”

“Eating. Resting.”

“You could have stayed underground and done that. Does this mean you’ve given up the hunt?”

“That’s complicated.” Blue says. “It was bleeding when we let it go, and our team’s tracker was able to find it before even without that. After wearing it down, I’d say we could get it for sure… but there was a bit of a complication.” Blue trails off, seeing if the Ranger will play along and reveal some extra knowledge.

Fischer is silent for a few breaths, then says, “And yet you surfaced and alerted us. What am I missing, Mr. Oak?”

“Well, to start with, something strange had happened when we fought it. It’s hard to describe. Some sort of mental disorientation, combined with becoming… suspiciously and almost lethally unlucky.”

There’s silence on the other end of the phone, and when Ranger Fischer finally speaks again, his tone is less irritated, more detached. “Unlucky.”

“Yeah. A massive horde of diglett and dugtrio arrived and attacked us.”

“Massive?”

“More than thirty. Probably less than a hundred.”

Blue expects skepticism, even outright disbelief. Instead the Ranger just says, “That huge spike on the seismographs was you, then. It’s impressive that your team made it out alive.”

This just got a lot easier. He catches Aiko watching him, and he gives her a thumbs up. The others see it too and look relieved. “If we weren’t the type to prepare for as many surprises as we could, I don’t think we would have. Assuming what happened was in some way under its control, we don’t want to risk anything like it happening again.”

“And you have no need to, now that we know where to look. You did well in finding it, and—”

“Actually, Ranger, even the more experienced groups hunting it would have trouble… especially now.”

“Now…?”

“Now that it’s resting right next to an onix nest.”

Silence. The rest of the team is clearly distracted as they eat, waiting for Blue’s reaction. He tries to look confident, even as he expects Fischer to tell them to stand down and give up the hunt.

“Your team rides bikes?” Fischer asks at last.

“Yes?”

“The location you sent is half an hour from the Golden Hills pokecenter. Head there.”

Blue frowns. “Ranger, again with all due respect, we’re not going to—”

“Not to stay. I’m recalling our teams and meeting you there.”

Blue blinks, skepticism warring with relief. “Okay, we’ll be there,” he says after a moment. “See you soon.” He hangs up. “We’re meeting at Golden Hills.”

They quickly pack everything back away and switch their spelunking gear out for bike pads and helmets, then head to town. Blue was expecting to have to convince the Rangers or other groups to work with them based on what they saw, but it seems that might not be so hard. Still, he tries to think over and refine the plan they came up with as best he can.

By the time the party reaches the pokemon center, Ranger Fischer and a few other trainers are already there. Blue notes a stormy expression on Fischer’s face as he spots them and approaches, and quickly sticks a hand out.

“Ranger, good to see you again. We’re ready to give our report, here or elsewhere.”

Fischer’s gaze flicks down to Blue’s hand, then back up to meet Blue’s before he gives his hand the briefest of squeezes. “Elsewhere. We’re waiting on others to join us, though it’s hard to know for sure how many were within range to get the message. We’ll wait another fifteen minutes, then begin.”

“Sure thing.” Blue watches him turn away, and lets a breath out. Some part of him was still expecting a public browbeating.

“I don’t think he likes you.”

“Yeah, well, he’s only half the problem. We need to convince those other trainers to take us seriously.” He looks at the other three. “Do any of you think you’d like to do the talking in there?”

“Don’t be silly,” Elaine says. “You’re Blue Oak. If they’re going to listen to any of us, it’s you.”

“Just making sure I’m not hogging the limelight.”

“You are,” Glen says, and claps his shoulder. “But after leading my own group of trainers for a few years, I’m happy to have someone else to blame if things go wrong.”

Aiko grins. “We’re right behind you.”

Eventually they’re all ensconced in a common office meeting room at the administrative wing of the center, a large oval table taking up most of the space inside. There isn’t enough room for all the trainers who came, and since Blue anticipates doing some speaking during the meeting, he decides to stand near where the Ranger is sitting rather than take some of the seats. Aiko, Elaine, and Glen take his cue and stand beside him, and the other trainers naturally space themselves out in groups in the rest of the room so that it’s just Ranger Fischer and Blue’s party at the “front” facing everyone else.

“Hello everyone. I’ve called this meeting because new information came in about the target that changes the nature of the hunt. I was hoping everyone else could make it here on time, but better to act on what we know with whomever we have.” He gestures to Blue and the others. “These trainers encountered the absol. I’ll let them give their report.”

Blue steps forward and recounts the encounter as best he could, focusing mostly on its speed and precision, every movement either evading one of their attacks or bounding close for a quick but meaningful strike. He also described the feeling of unease and second-guessing himself, and how it made him ready for the unexpected arrival of the diglett horde. His phone chimes in his pocket while he’s talking, and he quickly dips a hand in it to silence it, embarrassed.

“We’d already come up with countermeasures for facing too many of them elsewhere in the tunnel, and quickly emptied some repel cans and began playing the hunting cries of pidgeot and fearow. Even below ground where none should have been, the smell and sounds were enough to drive most of them away so that we could fight the few dugtrio that stuck around, but we couldn’t split our attention well enough to capture the absol and defend ourselves at once. We had to let it go and leave the cavern before the diglett shook it to pieces.” Blue pauses, seeing some skeptical faces. One seems about to speak up when Blue turns to a trainer that looks puzzled instead. “You have a question?”

“Huh? No… well, yeah, I guess. Do we even know if it’s still alive?”

“Yes, we followed it again after some delay. It was able to find a place to rest, but unfortunately it had another stroke of luck, and happened to pick a location right by an onix nest.”

Murmurs and swears fill the room. “You escaped an attack by an onix family too?” one of the skeptical trainers asks before Blue could continue or call on someone else.

“Of course not,” Blue says, voice even as he meets the speaker’s gaze. “The onix appeared to be sleeping, so we retreated.”

“Why not just capture it while it was sleeping and get the absol?” he persists.

“Because of the feeling we had earlier, when we fought it. We were worried it would rouse the onix if we got any closer.”

“Because of a feeling?”

“Let’s focus on that in a moment,” Ranger Fischer interrupts. “Given your experiences, does your team have a plan, Mr. Oak?”

“Yeah. Our idea is pretty simple, but it will take a lot of work. We lead everyone down and check if the absol is still there, then do everything we can to ensure it can’t surprise us in any way we can predict. Have people on standby so that if it manages to get away somehow, we have another team standing by to cut it off, then more teams after that. We’re working off the assumption that it will make things as inconvenient as possible for anyone who faces it, but only in realistic ways. It shouldn’t be able to pull one trick, then another a couple minutes later, then another a couple after that.”

“How many onix were there, exactly?” Someone asks.

“Just the one that we saw, and a bunch of eggs.”

“Then why not just overwhelm it? Even with the onix, the lot of us could split up and probably capture it in moments, then focus on the onix together.”

“Too many eggs in one basket,” Blue says. “We want to avoid any one piece of bad luck, however unlikely, from preventing us all from catching it.”

Another trainer speaks up. “So you’re really suggesting it might… what? Cause all our pokeballs to glitch or something?”

“Or the eggs would start hatching,” a guy by the door says before Blue can answer. “Or the other parent could show up.”

“Come on, what are the odds of that?”

“It could bring the whole ceiling down,” another suggests.

“We should all get some luck charms…”

“Get off it, how would an absol even do something like that?”

Blue watches the room erupt into arguments and tries to find a good moment to step in. After that last line, however, it’s Elaine who steps forward. “We’re not sure.” Everyone turns to her. She clasps her hands behind her to keep them from fidgeting. “It’s not… we don’t really know what we’re dealing with, you know? We’re just trying to be careful. The diglett it summoned against us—”

“Summoned?” someone asks, voice incredulous.

Elaine’s hands wring together at the small of her back, and she bites her lower lip. Aiko watches with a creased brow and opens her mouth, but Blue slightly shakes his head, and she subsides with a frown.

“Not literally, maybe,” Elaine says at last. “But something like it might happen again. It doesn’t seem like an accident that it found an onix nest to rest by.”

“Sorry, but this seems ridiculous,” one of the older trainers says, ignoring the dirty looks by some other trainers. “Absol just can’t do stuff like that. If things happened the way you say they did, you guys got unlucky a couple times, but—”

“I agree with you,” Aiko says before Blue can respond. “I don’t think the absol can control luck either. But even if you think we’re wrong, we will find it again, and we’re going to play it as safe as we can. You can be part of that or try your own luck. It’s up to you. But the other things it did were definitely real, and anyone who hunts it has to know about it. Our pokemon felt it too, I think. They were less able to coordinate than they should have been, and tired more quickly.”

Ranger Fischer speaks up. “Yes, that brings us to the most important point of the encounter.” Blue watches the ranger warily, wondering if he’ll cast doubt on what they felt. “Could you each describe what it was like, facing the absol? Psychologically?”

“Sure.” Blue repeats his experience, highlighting that it was very unusual for him. Aiko goes next, followed by Elaine and Glen.

“Thank you all.” Fischer turns to the rest of the room. “Some of you may find these descriptions familiar, in some way. You may be embarrassed to suggest why. If so, raise your hands.” He smiles, perhaps acknowledging the difficulty of asking embarrassed people to single themselves out. “Please trust that this is important.”

The room is silent and still. Blue has just enough time to wonder what the hell Fischer is talking about, and then a hand goes up. It’s an older trainer, late twenties or early thirties. Two more raise their hands, then another two. All are at least a decade older than Blue, and in total make up about a third of the room’s population.

“Thank you. It’s hard to know for sure, with this sort of thing.” He takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “What I’m about to reveal to all of you can be considered cutting edge information, and also, by the same token, incredibly unreliable. The Rangers have had a suspicion about certain pokemon, and the strange abilities that are at times attributed to them. One ability in particular is worrisome, if we’re right. We’ve coordinated with researchers to try and confirm our theories, but so far we’ve had no luck.”

“Pressure,” one of the trainers who raised their hand says, and even through his shock, Blue hears a sharp intake of breath from Aiko, barely audible. “That’s what you think they’re describing? What Rangers have been suspicious about? Non-legendary pokemon that have it?”

“Yes. Pressure, or something very like it. A different variation of the same power, perhaps. Reports are incredibly rare, and only a handful of non-legendary pokemon have been suspected, such as spiritomb and weavile. Like absol, most of them are Dark Types, and most of the ones encountered don’t seem to have it. If it exists, it’s a tiny subset of a tiny subset of pokemon. In absol’s case, we don’t know to what degree this ability is related to stories of bringing misfortune. Perhaps they’re entirely coincidental. But from the sensations reported by these four, combined with the frenzied behavior of the wild diglett, we’ve decided to approach the situation as if it’s true. My preference would be to wait until Ranger Tanaka and the other trainers who responded to the bounty have resurfaced before mobilizing, but it may disappear in that time. A squad of rangers is arriving soon, and they, combined with any of us here who are willing, will move out by nightfall.”

The ranger is going on about compensation for any trainer who does capture the absol and is willing to trade it to the Rangers for study, but Blue is still trying to wrap his mind around all the implications of what he’s hearing. He wishes Red were here, wants to hear what he would make of this. Blue has spent years chasing down stories of what it felt like to face the Stormbringers and the terrifying Pressure they exert, knowing he would have to experience it himself one day. More, to endure it again and again, as few others do.

To think, that he may have actually felt it without even realizing it. A weaker form, sure, but there’s a sense of exhilaration in knowing that he survived a brush with such an ultimate challenge.

Until he remembers that even this lesser form totally robbed him of the calm clarity he’s come to rely on in battles. A chill works its way up his spine, and his heart begins to pound as he remembers that feeling of constant unsureness, second-guessing, feeling off balance. How can he face the Stormbringers like that? How much worse would the real thing be?

“—Storm Birds, then it may be cumulative in the same way, even if to a lesser degree,” Fischer says, snapping Blue’s attention back to him. “Therefore, those of you who have faced them before may want to assist in other aspects of the hunt. Those of you who will assist in the hunt, please meet back here by 6 PM. I thank the rest of you for your time and efforts thus far.”

The room stirs to life, and a few trainers rush up to the Ranger with questions. A few of those leaving glance at the four of them, but Blue barely notices, hands curl into fists as fear and uncertainty steadily grow inside him.

The first exposure was worth it, gave me a taste of what facing them will be like. But if each exposure weakens tolerance… How many fights do most trainers get with the birds before they start getting overpowered? Ten, maybe fifteen? Gramps has gone against them 23 times, the last one being against Moltres when Blue’s parents were killed. He used to think that Gramps never fought the Stormbringers anymore because he didn’t want to risk orphaning him and Daisy, but there are rumors that he was nearly crippled from the after effects, and was warned off ever attending another by his physician. None of them ever bring it up.

Blue doesn’t plan on needing 23 attempts to bring Kanto’s legends down, but the effects will start to catch up to him long before then. Catching one absol isn’t worth risking that happening a single day sooner than it has to.

I should have finished it off in the tunnels, he thinks, gut souring with anger at himself. I was too worried about looking bad, and let a really dangerous pokemon go… now this…

“Blue?”

He blinks at Aiko’s whisper, and realizes that the room is mostly empty, and the others have been waiting on him at the doorway.

“Sorry,” he mutters, and follows them out, trying to get his priorities straightened.

“I was saying, I usually head home by sunset if I can,” Aiko says. “If the plan is to go down at 6, I don’t know if… I mean, I don’t want to leave you guys…”

“It’s okay,” Glen says. “With everyone else there, we should be fine.”

Elaine nudges him with her elbow. “I think she’s probably also just not wanting to miss out on the experience with us. Missing major bonding moments with friends sucks!”

Aiko smiles. “Right, that.”

Glen shrugs. “If it makes you feel better, we’re about to become cogs in a machine. You were there for the important stuff.”

“To be honest,” Blue says cautiously, “Maybe we should all step back.” Everyone stares at him. “We did the important part. We even marked the path we took. The others can find it, catch it.”

“Well. That’s kind of unexpected,” Elaine says. “I thought you’d want to be there for sure.”

“Are you feeling okay, Blue?” Aiko asks. “You’re not just saying that for my sake, right?”

“I’m fine. And no, though that makes it even easier to decide not to go.” He tries to think of a reason not to tell them the truth, and can’t find one. He owes them that much at least. “I won’t blame any of you for not wanting to go, but I think I’d just rather not ‘use up’ whatever resilience I have to Pressure, if that’s what it really is.”

“Oh. Right, I didn’t think of that,” Glen says. “Your vow…”

“We could stay back,” Elaine suggests. “Be one of the last fallback positions. Probably won’t even need to face it.”

“That’s… not a bad idea,” he says slowly. He tries to think of whether he loses face more if he suggests staying out of danger compared to just not being there at all. All the momentum he gained of associating himself with this capture might go to waste if he’s not there for the finale, but he also doesn’t want to come off as a coward. “Let me think about it?”

The others nod, and he heads for the entrance of the pokemon center to call Gramps and ask his advice. It isn’t until he turns the screen on and sees the missed messages that he remembers putting it on silent during the meeting.

14:31 Hey, we just surfaced and got your message. And Fischer’s. Talking about heading back down where you guys came up, since we’re nearby. You guys still there, or did you go to the meeting? Do you know if it’s important?

14:52 We found the entrance. Let me know if you’re still topside, so we can join up. Or at the meeting. Whichever.

15:01 Going down. Maybe we’ll run into you!

The messages are from someone named Sumi. Blue stares at them in blank confusion for a moment before it turns to sudden horror. He quickly looks up the trainer’s profile and confirms that it’s the girl who was with Bretta last night. The one who had almost said something, then wished them luck. A cheerful notification at the side informs him that she’s Following him, and has been since his match in Pewter.

Blue’s eyes skip back to the latest timestamp. Almost ten minutes ago. He knows he’s too late even as he calls her number, but he still finds himself closing his eyes and praying that she picks up, that they did some last minute preparation before going out of cell range…

The call goes to voice message. “Hey, it’s Blue,” he says as he quickly strides back into the Pokemon center. “If you get this, call me! Don’t go back down alone, the situation has changed. Just… we’re all at Golden Hills…” He realizes that might not still be true by the time they resurface, and ends the call there as he spots the others.

“Blue! What’s wrong?” Aiko asks.

“Fischer still in there?”

“I think so? He hasn’t left…”

Blue opens the Staff Only door behind the front desk and jogs through the halls, drawing stares. My fault, this is my fault… If he’d just remembered to message Bretta to let her know he was heading to Golden Hills instead of assuming she’d follow the Ranger’s message… Blue begins to go faster, practically running through the pokemon center. He hears the others pick up their pace to match behind him.

Fischer is still there with a few other trainers, looking at some underground map on his laptop. They all turn as Blue bursts in. “Ranger! Three trainers are on their way to the absol. They don’t know what’s down there, we marked our path and they’re headed straight for it!”

The Ranger’s brow furrows. “How do you know this?”

“Look!” He shoves his phone at him. “My phone was on silent, I just saw these… they must have come up while we were in the meeting.”

Fischer stares at the screen with a blend of confusion and indignation. “You sent them the coordinates?”

“Yes, at the same time I did you! I wanted to see if they would join up, this was before I knew where you were or that you would organize this meeting… why isn’t there an incident page for this, so updates can be posted there?” Frustration and impatience is building up in him as he tries to do the math. If they went down ten minutes ago, and it took Blue’s group half an hour to get here, then by the time they reach the tunnel entrance again, they’ll nearly be at the onix nest. Assuming they don’t get lost. Please get lost…

“What’s the big deal?” one of the fucking stupid trainers nearby comments. “They’ll see the onix and stay back, right?”

Blue rounds on him and barely manages to keep from shouting. “They don’t know about the Pressure. They might not hold back. The absol might not even still be there, hell, it might go back up and encounter them on the way!”

Ranger is typing on his laptop. “I’m calling everyone from the meeting back again. We’ll have to move up the timetable and be prepared to go with who we have.” He looks up. “Oak, your team knows the path best. I’ll requisition aerial flyers from town to take you ahead of us to try and catch up to them. Leave someone at the entrance for the rest of us.” He turns to the others in the room. “Who here will go with them? Then go, now! I’ll get as many flyers as are available. Do any of you not have Heavy Balls?” He unclips a pouch at his belt without waiting for an answer and takes a ball bag from it to toss to Blue, whose hand snaps up to grab it automatically. “There are four in there, along with some others. Use what you need to. I expect the rest back.”

Blue stares at him, but the Ranger has already activated his earpiece even as he keeps typing. Blue’s phone pings a moment later with the mutual pickup spot, and after another moment’s hesitation, he turns to the rest of his party.

The three of them return his gaze steadily, ready and waiting for his lead. Their trust fills him with determination.

“Let’s go,” he says, and leads the way back out of the center.

Back toward the dark depths.


The tunnels feel more claustrophobic as the party descends into them the second time, the footing more treacherous as they try to move as fast as they can while maintaining some level of vigilance. For Blue, at least, his mind is mostly on how far ahead Bretta’s group is, and what they might do if they reach the onix chamber.

The flying mounts met them at the edge of town and took off with minimal preparation. There were six of them, which meant two of the trainers who followed them from the center had to stay behind. Blue didn’t waste any time and simply chose the oldest and third oldest looking ones, skipping over the idiot. The riders helped each of them into the rear saddles on their pidgeot and gave them quick instructions on what to do and not do during flights, then they were off.

Blue normally enjoys flying, but his stress and impatience robbed the experience of any pleasure, the birds seeming unbearably slow and uncomfortable. Still, they made it to the entrance in under five minutes, wasting just one more getting unstrapped and putting their gear on. Glen was given a sick bag before the flight that Blue saw him still clutching in one hand when they landed, though it was thankfully empty. Still, he was pale and clammy, and offered to be the one to stay behind and lead the rest of the arrivals. Normally Blue would have argued; he had some of their strongest pokemon, and the machoke in particular would be useful against both the onix and absol. But the two strangers they’d brought, combined with the two rangers that were waiting for them at the entrance in response to Fischer’s broadcast, made it so that speed was what they really needed most. They left him to recover at the entrance.

As they descend deeper and Blue starts to remember some of the tunnels they’re traveling through, he keeps expecting to hear an onix roar from somewhere below and ahead. Thanks to the flights they’re just twenty minutes behind Bretta’s group, maybe twenty-five max. If they can descend at twice the other group’s speed… if they were slowed by diglett attacks at all (their own group has encountered none)… if, if, if. It feels like a long shot, but Blue hopes they’re at least smart enough to spend a few minutes strategizing, if they end up attacking at all.

The occasional rumblings in the earth around them keep his anxiety up, but he feels a surge of relief when they find the gap in the floor and still don’t hear anything like a battle.

“We’re close,” Elaine tells the others, whose names Blue has already forgotten. “Just down here, then a few more minutes…”

They lower themselves into the onix tunnel and start to move toward the cavern at a jog. Blue wants to call out, but restrains himself, eyes straining to see past the edges of the light provided by one of the rangers’ jolteon. Almost there… almost…

“Is that light?” someone says.

Blue nearly stumbles, and a couple of the people in their group make sounds of surprise at the unexpected appearance of light around the bend in the tunnel up ahead. Soon after, a quiet shout of “Who’s there?” reaches them.

“Bretta? Sumi?”

Oak?!”

Blue is grinning with relief as the light gets brighter. The three trainers meet them at the curve in the tunnel, a magnemite floating beside them, its eye glowing. All of them look shocked at the size of the group in front of them, or perhaps just by their very presence.

“What… where were you, we followed your marks but—”

Blue steps past Bretta and pulls Sumi’s hand between his, bowing over it. “Thank you for messaging me. I’m sorry I didn’t respond on time. We got here as fast as we could… thank you,” he says, voice low.

“I… you… welcome?” the trainer squeaks, looking thoroughly confused.

Blue grins and releases her hand, taking in the sight of the three of them, then looking back at the rest of the group, who are leaning against the wall or sitting down, breathing hard to recover from their rapid pace. Most are smiling, Aiko and Elaine looking outright giddy with relief.

“It’s a long story. Let’s get out of here, and we can explain,” he whispers.

“Get out? Why? We’re about to catch the absol!” Bretta says, also keeping her voice down even as she gesticulates back behind her.

Blue shakes his head. “Too dangerous. There’s… it has a sort of Pressure-like ability, and the onix there, it might wake it up—”

“Woah, woah, slow down,” the guy beside Bretta says. “Pressure? From an absol? And what onix? It’s just lying by itself in a big cavern.”

Blue stares at him.

“We think it’s asleep,” Sumi offers, gaze searching his face. “Hopefully, I mean, and not dead. It was weird, finding it here, but not you guys, we thought maybe this was a second one that showed up after you left…”

“No onix?” Aiko asks.

“No?”

Blue feels uneasy.

He looks back the way they came, then at the rest of the group, then peers at the dark cavern ahead. “How long have you guys been here?”

“Uh. Maybe five minutes?”

“Was there any sound of tunneling when you got here?”

“Yeah, how did you know? It was moving away, though.”

Blue wipes suddenly sweaty palms on his pants, then lowers himself to listen to the ground.

And hears the rumbling.

He gets up and starts walking toward the onix chamber.

“Hey, what—”

Nine pairs of feet follow him, some of them scrambling to keep up as he breaks into a jog. The sense of unease grows as he approaches the big, dark chamber, and he stops in front of it, the others almost colliding with him as they do the same.

Blue,” Bretta hisses, grabbing his arm. “What is going on?” She jumps as Elaine snaps a glowstick and throws it. “What was… did you just…?”

“Do you guys feel it?” Blue murmurs.

“No,” Elaine says.

“Yes,” Aiko says.

“I… yes,” one of the trainers from Golden Hills confirms. “A little. Arceus, it’s real.”

What’s real?!” Bretta whisper-shouts.

The glowstick flares into light just then, and they all get a dozen heartbeats of light to see the big empty chamber… empty save for the absol, right where it was, and the eggs in the center.

“There.” Elaine points them out. “They… left them?”

“Holy shit, those are eggs?” Sumi takes a telescope out of her pocket and looking through it just before the light dies.

“Everyone, get ready,” Blue says. His eyes had locked onto the absol, then moved over the whole chamber quickly and spotted it: the hole in the wall that hadn’t been there before. He imagines he can hear the rumbling now. “Elaine, got any of those that last longer?”

“Yep. They’re not as bright though. I’ll throw a bunch around.”

“Am I right to assume that you’re planning an attack, Trainer Oak?” one of the rangers asks. Seishi, Blue remembers. Ranger Seishi. Learn their names. “We were told this would be search and rescue.”

“I think we’re the ones that might need rescuing. This is a trap. We’ve already walked into it.”

The other ranger (Miko) immediately drops to the ground and presses her ear to the stone, as Blue did. “Seismic activity. It’s increasing.” The first ranger immediately reacts to his partner’s words by taking out more of the sticks Elaine is holding and beginning to help her in tossing them around the big cavern, and behind them.

“I hear it,” Bretta says, sounding surprised. “Does anyone else hear it?”

“No… wait, yes!” another trainer says.

“Can’t we run?” Elaine asks.

“I think one is coming from behind us,” Blue says. “Took us what, six minutes to get here from the hole? If we fight it in that narrow tunnel…” He already has his shiftry’s ball out, and summons Kemuri manually as Aiko and Sumi do the same with their pokemon, followed quickly by everyone else. “We’ll be crushed like bugs.”

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” the guy with Bretta says as he summons a poliwhirl. “And I’m going to go with ‘pissed off’ instead of ‘scared’ if someone doesn’t explain it soon.”

“Onix nest,” Aiko says. “When we came here before, there was one parent. Now there’s none. The absol used its Pressure to make it leave… and then when it hit the end of its range, it came back? Or…”

“Or it found its mate and is returning with them,” Ranger Seishi says as Blue turns back the way they came and starts spraying repel along the ground. It won’t stop an onix, but just in case anything else comes too. Some others quickly start to mimic him, and Blue leaves it to them, using the rest to spray himself, then turning toward the now-mostly-lit chamber to see if the absol reacted. It’s standing up now. “Onix often leave their nest if they sense a threat and return with their mate, trusting their eggs to endure a while.”

“It… what? Guys… a pokemon can’t do that,” Bretta’s friend says, sounding half incredulous and half pleading. “I mean… that kind of planning…”

“It’s the bad luck,” a trainer that came with them says miserably as the rumbling starts to get really pronounced. Blue can’t remember his name, and really hopes that doesn’t end up getting someone killed. “Them coming now, of all times? No way that’s coincidence. I should have gotten that stupid charm.”

“I don’t think it’s a plan, or luck,” Aiko says, voice seemingly detached, almost musing, unless you pick up on the hint of barely restrained fear beneath the surface. “Or anything like luck. I think it’s just… what it does when it feels threatened. Or constantly. And what it does is shake boxes, and stay out of the way of what that results in better than those around it. And that often just looks like it has really great luck. Or everything around it has really bad luck.”

“Everyone, state your names again,” Blue says before anyone else can respond. The cavern is as bright as it’s going to get, as Elaine and the ranger seem to have run out of glow sticks. “We need to be able to get each other’s attention quickly. I’m Blue.”

They name themselves. The guy in Bretta and Sumi’s group is Slava, and the two trainers from Golden Hills are Payton and Abdu.

“We have to capture that absol,” Ranger Miko says, stepping up beside Blue and looking at the absol as it watches them from the other side of the chamber.
“It’s too dangerous to leave unattended.”

“More than you think. It’s incredibly agile, and getting close to it causes effects similar to Pressure. It’s probably going to try and stay away from us until the onix get here, then run for it, maybe striking at us along the way.”

“Then those of you with fast pokemon to keep it in check, come with Ranger Seishi and I. The rest of you, try to capture the onix if you can, but if not…” Miko glances at Kemuri. “Do what you need to survive.”

“Right.” Blue sets aside his desire to fight the absol again. He pulls the bag of pokeballs out and hands out all the Heavy Balls in it, keeping one for himself. If he misses a throw at an onix, he doesn’t deserve a second try. “Someone with a tanky pokemon, with me! They’re almost here!” He rushes down the slope into the cavern, heading for the other tunnel as the Rangers head toward the absol with Payton.

As he reaches the bottom of the slope, the full force of the Pressure is suddenly there all around him, unease and confusion making him feel as though tragedy is imminent, as though there’s something he’s missing, and there’s no time to consider what it might be, or wonder if the effect is stronger than last time, or if that’s just expectation or if there’s even a difference, because that’s when the first onix roars from within the new hole in the wall, and the other one responds from somewhere back the way they came, and all that matters is survival.

Arguing with Adults

This is a quick summary and mash-up of the sorts of things I often tell kids about arguing with adults, particularly their parents and sometimes their teachers.
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Quick disclaimer, a lot of what I’m talking about here is using generalized assumptions, like that your parents are mostly responsible adults, and love you, and have some sense of fairness, and are not suffering from mental illness, and are not in some altered state of mind due to drugs or alcohol. This may not be the case for all of you all the time, and I’m sorry about that. For those of you it does apply to, try not to lose sight of how lucky that makes you. It doesn’t always seem like much, but it at least might allow some of this advice to come in handy.
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Before talking about how to win arguments, it’s vital to understand power imbalances and learning to lose. When you learn self-defense, one of the first things they teach is learning when not to fight at all. If you take a martial arts course so you can go around beating people up, you’re going to get in trouble one way or another. Similarly, you have to be capable of recognizing arguments that are winnable and those that are not, so you can pick your battles.
Your parents have power in your house, and you don’t. Your teachers have power at school, and you don’t. That means sometimes you have to be ready to lose an argument, even if it means admitting to and apologizing for something that wasn’t entirely your fault, or being the bigger person and apologizing first even when it’s not fair. When you’re older and driving, and a cop pulls you over and tells you you were speeding when you know you didn’t speed, would you argue with them? What do you think would happen next? Arguing with adults as a child can be similar. This does not mean you should not have any pride, or just always admit to things you didn’t do to avoid arguments. It just means that sometimes the real time to fight is later.
If you forget that you’re arguing with someone who has more power than you, you’re more likely to say or do things that will get you in trouble. On the other hand, if you learn to pick your battles, you can earn trust by admitting defeat on things, which will be important in arguments that you can potentially win. Kids who always drag every argument out no matter how many times their parent says “no” quickly lose the impact of fighting hard for something when it really matters and might make a difference.
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An extension of that is situational awareness, particularly of status imbalances. Parents and teachers don’t just have more power than you, they also demonstrate status differences that are socially reinforced between adults and children in general. If you’re not polite or don’t show respect, even if you have a good reason not to, adults will often get more upset with you than they would if another adult did the same thing.
This is especially true if other adults or children are present: if you are rude to your parents around their friends or while out in public, their embarrassment will often make them more angry with you, and they may feel like they have to be more strict or else be seen as “bad parents.” If you contradict or are rude to your teacher around other students, they may feel as though they have to respond with stronger punishment to show that they are in charge and that the other students have to respect them. Do not forget the social context you’re in when arguing with adults. Try and be polite and respectful, even if you are angry, or you will make arguments even harder to win.
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With those two things in mind, the most important thing to remember when arguing with anyone is different priorities and values. It is almost impossible to win an argument with anyone if you do not understand their perspective, including what they want or care about, and why. When arguing with your parents, you have to recognize that they have different concerns and goals than you do. To use some simple examples and generalize a bit, they want you to be safe, your grades to be high, and your chores to be done, likely in that order. Most parents don’t care how well you do in your video games, or how much you want to spend the weekend with your friends. This is not the same thing as not wanting you to be happy: I didn’t list that above because happiness is hard to measure, while those other things are not.
The point is that their priorities are often skewed toward what they believe is best for you and the family in general, right or wrong, and yours are more often skewed toward what will make you happy. A more severe example is that, compared to how much your parents want to be able to afford the bills, they may care very little how much happier you will be if you get to eat out, or can have those shoes or clothes you want. To reduce conflict and improve your ability to reach compromises or win an argument, it helps a lot when you can demonstrate that you understand what they want and don’t shy away from it just because it is not what you want. Show that you actually can take their priorities seriously, and it can be a lot easier to build up the trust needed to convince them to give you leeway sometimes.
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You will almost always be entering an argument with baggage. You are going to be judged by what you’ve done or failed to do in the past. More, you will often be judged by what they believe you’ve done or failed to do in the past, regardless of whether you argue that they’re wrong. And even more than that, you may be judged by what your siblings or classmates have done, mistrusted by association. It’s not unheard of to be judged by what complete strangers do that your parents heard about and are now worried you will do.
All of which sucks. But the one thing you have control over is your behavior, and how well you have earned trust on your own. I can’t promise that everyone will always care about this, but I have often seen how much arguing with bad baggage is like fighting on quicksand. Your behavior sets an expectation of you, and that expectation will either be in your favor or against you. Trust is important in arguments. If you make a habit of saying you’ll do something and then forget to do it, you lose the trust needed to negotiate in future arguments.
So when you’re trying to decide whether to do something or ignore something that will upset someone, particularly your parents, you have to weigh not just the short-term gain you get by doing it, but also the long-term difficulty it will cause you in future conversations and arguments when your parents or teachers are unable to trust you as much as you or they might want.
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Building up all that trust is important, because it’s the cornerstone of any negotiation. This is the actual work of winning an argument with adults. It may not seem like negotiation is the right word for all kinds of arguments, and it may not be for every single one, but you might be surprised by how many arguments ultimately can be described as negotiations, or can be reframed as one to help reach a positive conclusion. Kids often argue with their parents about what they’re allowed to do, or what they want, and if the parent is resistant, it’s usually because they are being asked to give something up or compromise something they want, even if it’s invisible or not a big deal to the kid.
When you ask to stay up late, from their perspective you’re actually asking them to risk your health or ability to get up on time tomorrow morning, to risk an argument and being late to school or them late to work. Even if it’s on a weekend, you’re asking them to let you change your sleep schedule, which may carry over to Monday morning. These are the things you are negotiating for. These considerations are what parents often think about all the time.
You have to have something else to offer in return, and I’m not talking about something like money. It might be extra chores that you offer to do, but you can instead also offer your well-being in other ways. If you’re doing well in school, you have more leeway to say something like “I really need some extra time to relax after this week.” What I’ve observed is that parents are easier to talk into the things their kids want when the kid has good grades, does their chores, and is well behaved in general. This probably seems obvious, but it’s worth reiterating that these are things your parents want for and from you, and so they are what you have to negotiate with.
This also extends to more important arguments about, say, your future career, or your romantic lives, or your religious choices. These are areas where what you want to be happy and what your parents want for you are at odds because of different expectations about the world and different information. Arguments like these, including those about some scientific fact or political belief, can also be framed as a negotiation of sorts: the thing you’re negotiating for is often respect.
Parents want to make sure that you understand and respect their knowledge and experiences and perspective (whether it’s wrong or not), and offering them that respect as best you can, doing your best to make sure you show that you understand where they’re coming from, can often help a lot in such arguments, even if you still end up disagreeing forever. Which is okay too: it’s normal for parents and kids not to agree about everything. There are some arguments that you will never win with your parents, but should never feel the need to lose, either.

(Edit: for those who want more on this, r!Animorphs writer Duncan Sabien, aka TK17, has a video out where he goes even more in depth on the topic. Definitely worth checking out!)

Chapter 53: Out of the Blue

“Hey guys, get in here!”

Blue, Elaine, and Glen look at each other, then head to Aiko’s room, where their fourth member is sitting on her bed and staring at her phone. Her backpack is beside her, a few final items remaining to be put away before they leave. Blue and the others woke up early to help around the ranch so she had time to prepare for the trip, and they were almost ready to head out.

“What’s up?” Blue asks, sitting on the bed beside her to peer at her phone screen.

“I got an alert from a group I’m following,” she says with an excited grin. “Look! An absol was spotted in the caves not too far from here!”

Elaine takes her pokedex out as Blue peers at the phone to read the news articles there. A renegade was caught in Cinnabar, Zapdos was spotted flying out at sea to the southeast of Pallet Town, hopefully its last flight for the summer, some new potion formula is entering final testing stages, and, yep, there’s the absol sighting not too far from here, above one of the branching networks of the Diglett Caves.

Though actually a network of tunnels that honeycomb throughout north-western Kanto, the “caves” in the name refer to the entrances that connect to openings above ground, both natural and not, that are big enough for people to enter. The most popular and most well mapped tunnel is the one that goes all the way from Vermilion City’s eastern outskirts to just south of Pewter, traveling a winding route beneath the cities, towns, forests, and mountains along the way, but the whole network is so full of diglett that any attempts to turn it into a paved road were ultimately abandoned. “By the time we get to the nearest entrance though…”

“I know, it might be gone. But since we were just going to catch pokemon from anywhere in the caves, can we check that area anyway? Absol are one of the pokemon I’ve wanted to track for years, and they’re hard enough to find even in the mountains! For this one to come down, make a hunting ground in the tunnels, means it’ll probably stay in the area for a week or two, depending on when it first arrived there.”

“Well, this is the fastest path to the caves,” Elaine says, tracing a route on her map app and sharing it with them. “But this one has the highest chance for encountering wild pokemon along the way.”

They study the route, then look at each other. “Comes down to time,” Blue says. “Do we want to spend it getting pokemon along the way, or in the caves?”

“Anything you guys want that’s along the way?” Aiko asks.

“Not me,” Glen says. “It’s mostly just common forest and plain pokemon.”

Blue expects Leaf to jump on that pun, then remembers she’s not here. “Yeah, nothing particularly rare or strong. I’d rather get to the caves faster. Sounds like we’re okay with the fast route, unless you’ve got a strong objection, Elaine?”

“Nope! And in that case,” Elaine says as she brings up another route. “This is an even faster way to get into the network, but it’s a part of it that’s really rough going, tight passages, lots of elevation changes, but, you know, still passable, if we’re okay with that?” She looks around at them.

Glen frowns as he checks between her map and the public one. “This isn’t coming up in my recommended routes.”

“I got it from a hiker or trailblazer group I’m in, can’t remember which. Was looking through them last night.”

“Huh. Do you do that often?” Blue asks.

She shrugs. “I like exploring, playing around with route options most people don’t take, you know? It’s exciting to go places that most others haven’t been before, and it’s not always more dangerous, just usually more time consuming or tiring. Sometimes they can even be time saving too, depending on your goals.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Blue says, impressed. He taps his pokedex against his leg as he considers it, then looks to the others. “I’m for it, as long as we have the right supplies. Want to check and make sure, Elaine?”

She does while they finish getting ready again, and ends up making a list of gear the other three need to pick up at a town near the tunnels. Soon they set off from the ranch with her in the lead, bikes sticking to the main road for now. Blue quickly realizes that as the youngest member of the group, he has to pedal harder than he’s used to just to keep pace with the others. Soon his lungs are burning, and he steadily drops back to the rear of the procession.

Blue takes a hand off its handle to rake the sweaty hair out of his eyes, trying to breathe deeper despite the stitch in his side. I won’t be the first one to call for a break. Bad enough that he’s fallen behind, at least he can justify that as being their rear guard in case any pokemon come barreling after them.

The morning passes without any surprise attacks, however, and just as Blue begins to feel his energy truly waning, Glen calls back, “Elaine, good place for a rest stop?”

“Outpost a minute north-east of us!”

Glen turns and they follow, Blue counting the seconds down as he breathes deep and lets himself slow little by little. The others pull ahead, but soon enough they clear the Ranger Outpost’s perimeter, and slow to a stop. The trees and tall grass clear away past the proximity sensors, and they can see the Outpost itself on a hill in the distance.

“Let’s take a rest here,” Glen says as Blue catches up to them. The lanky older boy looks barely winded, face sweaty but chest rising and falling evenly as he dismounts and takes his pack off, rummaging through it.

Aiko and Elaine follow suite, making noises of relief as they put the kickstands up on their bikes and stretch. Blue tries not to breathe too loudly as he does the same, then slowly collapses to the ground, leaning against his backpack with his hands between his knees. His lungs feel raw on the insides, and he’s reaching for his water when a hand holding a bottle enters his field of vision.

“This’ll help us hydrate faster,” Glen says, and Blue sees he’s already handed bottles out to the other two.

“Thanks.” Blue uncaps the slightly opaque liquid and gives an experimental sip. Mostly salty, slightly sweet, with a slight hint of some citrus fruit. Maybe it’s just how thirsty he is, but it’s oddly satisfying, and he quickly takes a few big gulps.

“Mm, what is this stuff?” Aiko asks, smacking her lips.

“Basically a homemade sport drink,” Glen says. “A little less sugar, but same result.”

“It’s not bad! Actually pretty good!” Elaine says, having already finished her bottle. “You’re into more than just pokemon health I guess?”

Glen looks pleased. “Yeah, you know, there’s some stuff you learn that applies to both.”

“Does that mean you can patch us up too, if we get injured?” Aiko asks.

“Oh, sure. That’s the first thing I focused on learning, actually.” Glen shrugs. “There are so many different kinds of pokemon that learning to care for them all will take years—”

“Tell me about it,” Aiko mutters.

“—but taking care of humans isn’t so different from taking care of most Normal Types.”

“I picked some stuff up when I was helping out at the hospitals in Pewter,” Blue says. “Beyond the basic first aid I set out with, I mean. Wouldn’t mind learning more though, if you’re up for teaching some tonight?”

“Oooh, me too me too!” Elaine says, hand raised. “I love getting new skills from party members.”

“Party members?” Aiko asks.

“Well, sure, like in games. You’re the Breeder, Glen’s the Medic, I’m the Explorer, and Blue’s the Battler.” She smiles. “Everyone has their strengths!”

“Aren’t we all Battlers?” Glen asks. “I mean, we’re all going for badges, at least…”

Elaine waves this off. “Oh, sure! We all multiclass. I was just focusing on our different specialties. Blue double invested in battling though, that’s why it’s his.”

Blue frowns. “That’s not… inaccurate…” He guesses there wouldn’t be a “class” for what he’s actually trying to focus on, since “Leader” is more of a title.

Glen shrugs. “I don’t mind teaching what I know, though,” He looks at Aiko. “From the look of your nursing station I bet you know at least as much as me.”

“Maybe not. My focus has been more on rearing and natural health complications rather than injuries.”

“See?” Elaine points. “Breeder!”

Aiko smiles. “Well, maybe if we find this absol I can add Tracker to the classification. Or am I only allowed two?”

“Oh, not at all, I mean, look at Professor Oak, he’s like a level 10 for four different classes—”

“There are levels?

“Oh yeah, and unique Specializations, and Prestige titles, and—”

“Speaking of finding the absol, everyone ready to head out again?” Blue asks. Aiko shoots him a thankful look as she hops to her feet, and Blue smiles at her as the others do the same. His knees are still a bit sore, but his energy is back, and soon they’re on their way again.

Glen once again sets the pace by dint of his age, but he’s either more tired than he seemed or more aware that the others had trouble keeping up, because the new pace he sets is a bit easier to match. Blue still has to push himself, but at lunch Glen once again hands out the bottles, which they gratefully accept. Once Blue has recovered a bit and everyone’s various bodily needs are taken care of, he decides to bring up their strategy for the caves.

“Elaine.” She looks at him as she finishes the last of her lunch. “You’re running a tangela, graveler, drowzee, psyduck, fearow, and grimer, right?” She nods, and he turns to Glen. “You brought your snorlax, donphan, machoke, gloom, quagsire, and…?”

“Butterfree.”

“Right.” Glen has the most pokemon of all of them, enough to actually have a solid group of “favorites,” which in his case seem to be slow, physically tough pokemon that hit hard. It’s good that he brought the gloom and butterfree to adapt to where they’re going and what they’ll be facing there.  “Aiko, you have your raticate, sandslash, venonat, eevee, oddish, and krabby?”

“Yep. And your abra.” She smiles.

“You memorized all that?” Elaine asks, eyes wide.

Blue nods. “Gotta know what I’m working with to plan. I brought my wartortle, pidgeotto, shroomish, shiftry, shinx, and rhyhorn. So we have a pretty wide spread of water, grass, ground, bug, and flying pokemon, with a few others thrown in. Considering the close quarters we’ll be in, I think we should plan for a Diamond or Straggle depending on how tight the tunnels are,” Blue says, citing the formations they’d practiced at Vermilion Gym. “Shiftry can fight well in tight spaces, so Kemuri can make a strong front for either. With a tangela or donphan to tank, Aiko’s raticate or sandslash can go for the quick damage.”

“Straggle makes sense, if the path is twisty,” Glen says. Elaine looks like she wants to say something, but stops herself. Glen doesn’t notice. “But for the absol, when there’s enough room, I think we should use a Pivot instead of a Diamond, with my snorlax as the anchor.”

Blue gives Elaine a moment to respond, but she just bites her lower lip, brow furrowed. “We have a good set of agile attackers,” Blue finally says. “So it should work out. But I’ve never tried it before. Any of you?” Glen’s the only one to raise a hand. “Okay, let’s practice it then, while you lead us through it.”

They set up pokedolls and summon their pokemon. Glen’s snorlax is still small for its species, but plenty big enough to completely hide all four of them if they stand directly behind it as Glen calls out the timing for their attacks. Soon Blue gets the rhythm of it down and offers his own suggestions, which they take turns trying as one of them acts as the attacker with their own pokemon. The pressure on Glen’s snorlax lets up as Blue times their attacks so that he’s never fighting on his own, and soon none of the attackers are able to get a hit on any of them but the snorlax, even Blue when he tries it himself and Elaine, Aiko, and Glen practice calling the shots.

“I’ve been trying to premortem this,” Aiko says, face sheened with sweat as she sits beside Eevee and catches her breath. “Chingling and bronzor are really rare, but there are some down there. What about attackers that come from above?”

“Having someone dedicated to watching above us should make sure we’re not caught by surprise,” Blue says.

She nods. “What about protection from ground attacks?”

“Well, we’ve got some powerful ground pokemon already,” Glen says. “If they try to dig under the barriers, our ground attacks will finish them quickly, or send them running.”

“Right, but I’m talking about minimizing risk. We can still get hurt from those attacks if the diglett are near us.” Elaine is about to speak, but Aiko continues before she can. “Oh, I guess depending on the terrain, we can stand on container boxes.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Blue says. He waits for Elaine to say something again, but she stays silent. She notices him staring at her and smiles slightly, so he smiles back and moves on. “The most important thing is to make sure that we don’t keep them in one place for too long, or else their attacks will damage the area of the tunnel we’re in,” he says, citing the tips and advice he read up on while in Vermilion. “Fight until too many arrive, then retreat together to another chamber. If they cause a cave in, well, we have pokemon that can dig us free.”

“Let’s still try to avoid that,” Aiko says. “If we stay down too long and I can’t teleport back for the night… my dad would worry,” she says, clearly settling for an inadequate choice of words.

“Don’t worry, I don’t think any of us are interested in being trapped below ground, even with enough supplies to live through it.” The others nod. Blue realizes he feels less winded from their practice battles, and checks the time. “Another five minutes of rest, or should we go now?”

They vote for another five minutes, and Aiko unclips a couple pokeballs, summoning her eevee and raticate. “Will we make it to a cave before nightfall? Jump!” Her pokemon leap in place, practicing their ability to avoid ground attacks. She tosses them a couple pokepuff pieces. “If not, we should slow down. My legs are already aching and I’d rather they still be functional when I head back. Jump!”

Blue looks at the map to see their progress so far. He blinks, amazed by how much ground they’ve covered: they’re east of Saffron City now. “Between Elaine’s route and how fast we’ve been going, we’ll actually reach the town by the cave entrance we’re aiming for by sunset.” He looks around at them. “Since we’ll be spending the night outside the cave anyway for Aiko to teleport home, slowing down seems like a good idea. We’ll even be able to look around for some pokemon before we lose the light.”

“Ooo, yeah, there are some cool pokemon around there,” Elaine says. “Got a favorite in mind?”

“Yeah, kind of.” Blue smiles. “I’ve wanted an arcanine since I was a kid… begged Gramps to get us a growlithe, but he always said no.”

“Silly Professor,” Aiko remarks with a shake of her head. “Not getting you a fire-breathing dog.”

“I know, right?”

“Well, I’m okay with it, since we won’t be entering the caves today anyway. Jump! Good job!” She feeds them the rest of the pokepuff, then returns them to their balls. “Let’s get going!”


The sun is starting its downward arc when they reach the town of Golden Hills, which helps make its name more than just a geographic reference. It’s a relatively small town, just one pokemon center and trainer market, but oddly empty even given that: virtually no traffic, foot or otherwise, and stores that seem empty of customers, or even workers at times.

But what sends a faint chill up Blue’s spine are the ofuda hanging from most doors and windows that they pass. The kanji covered strips of paper flutter in the breeze, amplifying the relative silence somehow.

Aiko whistles. “Anyone know if this place is always like this?”

“What are those?” Glen asks. “I’ve seen them in other places before, but never this many.”

“Wards against evil spirits and bad luck,” Blue says. “Or to purify or exorcise… things like that.”

“So many, though, was there like an incident with Ghost pokemon here recently or something?” Elaine asks, face pale. “Because I’m okay with camping out if there’s any chance of it happening again.”

“None of us got Ranger alerts to warn us away, right?” Blue asks, and the others shake their heads, Glen checking his phone again with a frown. “Let’s just ask someone what’s up.”

They soon spot a woman walking in the opposite direction, her primeape walking at her side, occasionally hopping onto trash cans or clinging diagonally to light poles before scurrying back to her. “Hey there,” Glen says with a wave. “Can you tell us what’s been going on around here?”

She slows and holds a hand to her side in a gesture, causing the primeape to settle restlessly by her feet. “Just arrived? I guess they haven’t put it out after all. Town is under siege, so to speak.”

Blue looks around at the silent, mostly empty streets. “Under siege from…?”

“The absol,” she says, and Blue feels a resigned sort of understanding, with an undercurrent of dull anger. “One was spotted outside town this morning, and there have been a number of incidents since. Lots of minor tremors, a few car crashes, a house fire, some wild pokemon incursions. That sort of thing.”

“Has anyone died?” Blue asks, trying not to sound exasperated.

“A couple have, yeah,” she says, surprising him. “Council put a bounty on any absol after someone in town fell down the stairs and broke their neck. Then a trainer who went after them was killed. Now they’re trying to tell the Rangers to declare a state of emergency, but last I heard they were resistant.”

“You don’t seem worried,” Aiko notes.

The woman shrugs. “Pao will protect me. And I’m not afraid of bad luck.” She lifts a chain out of her shirt to show them a protective charm. “You guys should probably pass through quickly, though, unless you have your own protection.”

“Right. Thanks,” Blue says, and watches her as she walks on, a slight frown on his face. When he looks at the others he sees Aiko looking thoughtful and Elaine worried.

Glen, however, just looks confused as he reads from his pokedex. “I don’t get it. Absol can only learn Fire attacks through TM and can’t learn any Ground attacks. Why is the town blaming earthquakes and house fires on one?”

“You don’t have absol in your region?” Aiko asks. Glen shakes his head. “Most folk around here think they cause bad luck. Less superstitious sort just consider them harbingers of misfortune.”

“And the Rangers don’t agree, I guess?”

Blue anticipates Red’s answer before remembering that he’s not here. Instead it’s Aiko who says, “It’s obviously just confirmation bias. Rangers probably get a dozen reports every time an absol shows up somewhere, but have looked at the stats and seen that the amount of car crashes or whatever are normal for that day and time, or maybe it’s a slight outlier but people only notice when an absol is around.”

For the third time that day, Blue notices that Elaine looks like she wants to say something, but doesn’t. She’s normally so talkative that he starts to worry that something’s wrong. She does still seem worried… “You okay, Elaine?”

“Hm?” She blinks at him. “Oh. Fine, sure. You bet!” She smiles.

“You just seemed like you had something on your mind.”

“Ah, well…” She fidgets. “I was just thinking, like, what about the quakes?” Elaine asks. “And the fire?”

“There are diglett tunnels nearby!” Aiko says. “Maybe the quakes led to the fire… they probably encouraged some of the wild pokemon incursions too.”

Glen nods. “Or… I mean, people are clearly nervous. Not paying as much attention as they should be. That might be what caused the fire, the accident with the stairs, some of the crashes too.”

Elaine looks back and forth between them, then down. Blue frowns. He doesn’t want to push her to speak if she doesn’t want to, but something about her body language bothers him.

In the ensuing quiet Blue realizes that Aiko is looking at him, and raises a brow. “What?”

“What do you think?” Aiko asks.

“Not sure, to be honest.” Blue turns and starts walking toward the pokemon center again, and a moment later he hears the others follow. “I’ve heard all this stuff before, you know?”

“About absol?”

“About any Dark pokemon. Absol are particularly feared, but most people here think all Dark pokemon are bad luck or cause misfortune in some way.”

“Here being…?” Glen asks.

Aiko ticks them off with her fingers. “Kanto, Johto, Iwate, Hoenn, Okayama, Sinnoh… the whole island chain, and most of the smaller islands around them. In the native language, the word for the type is actually closer to ‘Evil’ than ‘Dark.'”

“Oof. That must be rough for people who are Dark. But for absol specifically, you don’t think it causes bad luck?”

Blue shrugs. “If absol can purposefully cause bad luck in some way, no trainer has been able to figure out how to get them to do it.”

“Right,” Aiko says. “Nor any coordinator.”

That seems to settle the discussion, but Blue glances to the side where Elaine is walking, unsure of why he’s so concerned about her. He sees her frowning down at the ground and the feeling grows. He tries to place it, to understand what’s bothering him about her silence.

He doesn’t figure it out before they reach the pokemon center, a fairly small building with just a waiting room and front desk open to the public. They pass a few groups of trainers in the waiting room to reach the counter, where the receptionist takes the pokemon they’ve been training with over the past couple days. Aiko goes first, then Glen, who then answers the health related questions for Blue and Elaine’s pokemon as well, giving a far more detailed description than Blue would have been able to.

They find a bench to sit down at and begin strategizing for their venture into the tunnels. Aiko starts to explain how they should each take a few minutes to come up with ideas on their own, but soon they’re interrupted by a pair of Rangers walking into the room and looking around.

“Can I get everyone’s attention a moment?” The older one says, and the dozen or so other trainers all focus on them. “Thank you. As you may have heard, the town council is asking the nearest Ranger Outposts for a response to the recent… incidents, around town. We’ve not yet deemed the situation worth a full alert or mobilization, but as a bounty has now officially been placed on any absol caught in the region, we’ve been dispatched to coordinate with any trainers preparing to hunt the creatures. If that includes you, come speak with us sometime this evening. Thank you.”

They go to sit at another table nearby. Blue shares a look with the others, and they all rise to approach the two rangers arriving between two other groups of three trainers each.

Blue listens in as the three in front of them list their pokemon and experience exploring or fighting in caves, then get instructions to meet the Rangers here the following morning. Once they step away, Blue approaches.

“Mr. Oak,” the ranger says, extending a hand. “Good evening. I’m Tanaka, this is Fischer. Here to lend your aid?”

Blue shakes it with a smile, glad as always to be recognized. “We are. This is Glen, Aiko, and Elaine. We came to track the absol before even hearing of the incidents around town, so the timing works out pretty well.”

“Well, we’re happy to have you. What experience does your group have with the diglett caverns?”

“It’ll be each of our first time there.”

“And other caves or tunnels?”

“None here.” Glen and Aiko shake their heads, and Blue sees Tanaka’s brow crease until Elaine raises her hand. “I took a few routes through Mt. Moon.”

“Main passages?”

“Just one of the four.”

Tanaka’s expression relaxes. “Excellent. Available pokemon?”

They list them, and Tanaka’s frown is back. “Well, you’re well equipped to handle the common tunnel natives, but Glen is the only among you that seems prepared for the absol.

“We can prepare around that,” Blue says. “Give support for his machoke.”

“How many badges do each of you have?” Ranger Fischer suddenly asks.

“Two,” Blue says, and Elaine nods.

“Three,” Glen says, and Aiko holds up a single finger.

Fischer looks at Tanaka, who nods. “It sounds like you four may be better off helping above ground. Your experience below ground is sufficient,” Fischer says to Elaine, then turns to Glen. “And I’m sure your machoke would be able to handle the absol, especially with support. But though you two doubtless have your own merits,” he says to Blue and Aiko, “You’re unsuited to this hunt. We would gladly accept your help with a perimeter or in defense of the town, but won’t be taking you below ground.”

Blue is silent for a moment, feeling the disappointment and frustration of those behind him, as well as their trust in him to say something, to make this right… “I understand your judgements, sir, but believe you’re mistaken.” Ranger Fischer’s eyes narrow ever so slightly at that, and Blue mentally kicks himself for the word choice. He remembers the dismissal from the one in Viridian Forest, when he got angry about not being let in on the action. But this is different. It’s not about pride, I know we can do this. “What I mean is, there’s more to us than what might show up on paper. We have knowledge and skills that make us more than capable to participate in this hunt.”

Tanaka speaks up before Fischer can. “As my partner said, we welcome any assistance you can give us, including knowledge. But I think he’s right to say that you’re not experienced enough, as a group. If you would like to split up for the duration of this hunt and accompany other groups, that of course is another option.” He looks at Aiko apologetically. “I’m afraid that with just one badge, I can’t in good conscience extend the same offer to you. Please know this has nothing to do with your potential as a trainer.”

“But I…” Aiko’s voice trails off, and Blue turns to her. He’s surprised to see the normally forceful girl look down and nod, face dejected. She wants to be a Hunter, he almost says, but refrains, knowing it won’t change their minds.

Instead he just nods to the rangers and leads the others away, to a bench farther from the rangers. Everyone is quiet and dejected until Blue says, voice low, “We’re still going.”

Aiko’s head snaps up, hope filling her face. “But…”

“The rangers tend to know what they’re doing, but these two are wrong in our case. I believe Elaine can tell us what we need to know to get us through the tunnel, that you can track it, Aiko, and that you can take it down, Glen. The four of us are going to find and catch this absol.”

Aiko nods, smiling, and Glen flashes a thumbs up. Elaine is biting at her lower lip, warring emotions on her face. “I think we can too, but… to go against their orders…”

“What orders?” Blue asks with a smile. “It’s not an official incident, remember? They’re just coordinating trainers in the area. Well, if we hadn’t come here tonight we may not have even spoken to them, and we’d still be going down there in the morning. Trust me, we’ll be okay.”

Elaine smiles back. “I do. Thanks for trusting me too.” She seems about to say something else when she notices three trainers approaching, and they all turn their attention to the newcomers.

Blue recognizes them as the three that were in line behind them, and one of them beyond that, from Vermilion Gym, an older girl with curly brown hair named Bretta who’s there for her fifth badge. They’ve trained together a couple times between their challenge matches, so he knows she’s a good trainer, if a bit stiff necked.

“Hey Oak. Came for the bounty too, huh?”

“We were in the area, actually,” he says, and nods to the other two, a guy and girl that are also about Glen’s age. They nod back. “You guys got the okay to go down tomorrow, then?”

“Yep. I couldn’t help overhearing some of your talk with Tanaka and figured, hey, I know you can hold your own. Plus, if you have some plan for finding the absol the way you grabbed all those abra, would make all this go faster.”

Blue feels a ripple of heat through his chest. She’s directing the invitation specifically at him, ignoring the others. He knows it makes sense, if she’s assuming that they’re staying up, but she could have at least offered to merge their groups. Worse than that, she’s slighting Red by assuming that Blue was the one who really came up with the abra trick. It’s a sentiment he’s heard before, though never in Red’s presence. It’s galling to have to turn away the status and prestige of it again and again.

“Actually, it’s Aiko here who’s going to track it for our group,” he says. “Thanks anyway.”

She frowns, turning to the others for the first time. “You’re the one with experience underground?”

“Nope. That’s her,” she says, pointing to Elaine.

Bretta looks back and forth between them. “Well, we can take the two of you instead, then, if you think you can handle it.”

Blue is tempted to speak up again, but holds himself back so his companions can speak for themselves. “I don’t think you heard Blue right,” Aiko says after a moment. “We’re all going down together.”

“Even with the rangers telling you not to?” The guy behind Bretta says, and shakes his head. “I’ve hunted Absol before, they’re no joke, you know? Stealthy, fast, and lethal when they go for a strike. There’s no shame in staying above ground, letting trainers with experience grab it.”

There may not have been before, but with that tone? Blue looks at the others to make sure none are showing any second doubts, then turns back to the trio, trying to insert some finality in his tone. “We’ll be okay. Thanks.”

Bretta looks back and forth between them, then shrugs. “Your choice I guess. Hope I see you back in Vermilion.”

“Right. Same to you.”

Bretta and the boy walk away, while the other girl lingers a moment, seeming about to say something else. When she notices that the others haven’t stopped, she just turns back to them and says, “Good luck.”

Blue smiles. “You too.” He watches her hurry to catch up to the other two, then looks at his group mates… or his party, as Elaine would put it.

“Frankly?” Glen says after they’ve gone. “I’m a little miffed I wasn’t asked.”

“It’s ’cause they never tasted your energy drinks,” Elaine says with a grin.

“Or seen you in battle,” Aiko adds.

“Nah, I’ve actually battled Bretta a couple times,” Glen says, scratching his jaw. “I can’t tell if she really dislikes me, or has a crush on me.”

“Definitely one or the other, huh?” Aiko asks.

“Definitely.”

“Aiko,” Blue says, causing her to turn to him. “It’s not long until you get called to get your pokemon and head home. Do you need us to get anything, for you to track the absol?”

“Right, yeah. I’ve trained Sneaker to track pokemon. His nose is really good for finding specific species by dander from others, if the conditions are right.”

“What conditions?” Blue asks.

“The trail has to be relatively new, of course, more than a week gets iffy, with the chances dropping rapidly by the end of the second. Windy days are harder to track on, which isn’t a problem underground, but dryness also makes things difficult, which may be depending on where in the tunnels we end up. But as long as we find a place that the absol was likely to be around some time recently, I think we can find it… just need some fur, urine, and scat samples.”

“We can pick some up at the pokemart,” Glen says. “Anything else?”

“That’s all I’ll need, I think.”

“Okay then,” Blue says. “Then let’s go over the rest of our strategy, for real this time.”

“You have something in mind,” Glen comments, not a question.

Blue smiles. He does, in fact: Bretta’s the one that reminded him that, while he already misses having Red and Leaf around to generate ideas and bounce them around, he can at least show that he picked something up from the way they think. “As a matter of fact, I do…”


The next morning finds the town less deserted as people head to work or school, but there’s still less than there should be, and people move with nervous energy, as if worried about being outdoors for too long. The town’s “Trainer House” is more like a small apartment building, and as soon as Aiko teleports there, they head for the cave entrance that Elaine picked out. Blue expects it to be a barely visible fissure in the hilly countryside, lost and forgotten about by most, and while it does turn out to be hard to find, when they reach the entrance they see a string taped to either end of the opening, more ofuda hanging from it across the opening.

They store their bikes, but keep their pads and helmets on as they take out the gear they bought last night: reflective jackets with inserted trackers, headlamps attached to straps. Blue brings Ion out, having already used the Flash TM on him. The others have at least one pokemon that have learned it too, in case Ion needs a rest or has to be returned, but for now the others take out their raticate, gloom, and psyduck for the tight passage.

Once they’re all ready, Elaine ducks beneath the string and leads the way with her oddish, with Blue and Ion just behind. The shinx’s fur begins to glow as the light fades behind them, and soon they’re traveling entirely by Ion’s illumination, which reveals a tunnel that’s narrow, but smooth.

The four don’t talk other than to warn of changes in footing, occasionally helping each other move over or around obstacles. Everyone’s too busy listening for tremors or the sound of tunneling pokemon to disturb the silence. They reach a fork, and Glen uses a can of iridescent paint to spray an arrow back the way they came in case their electronic map is lost or damaged. The hissing sound is loud and echoey in the long, narrow tunnels.

Blue quickly loses his sense of direction, but they keep marking the tunnels as they go, and he has to trust Elaine to guide them so he can focus on his job: keeping his attention shifting between walls, floor and even ceiling, particularly paying attention to the indents in the stone or soil. Holes, in truth, though only those along the ceiling are empty, the others mostly filled with dirt or rock left behind by whatever tunneled through them. Luckily they don’t appear to be in a part of the network with a high traffic of pokemon, or else they’re all scared off by the noise they make as they constantly change pokemon to fit through the passages.

They take another left at a fork where the ground abruptly drops off, helping each other climb down the steep slope, then travel another minute past a thin stream of water before they find a honeycomb of narrow passages that they have to crouch through, practically walking on hands and knees at one point. Blue has never felt claustrophobic before, but traveling through the dark, narrow corridor, earth and rock on every side, he could practically feel the weight of the ground above him. He hears distant rumbling and isn’t sure if it’s his imagination, then realizes he can feel it through his hands, a faint vibration.

Just some pokemon traveling deep underneath, he assures himself, but still he crawls faster, almost bumping up against Elaine’s rear before she finally reaches the end and stands up. He pushes himself up and quickly shuffles forward to clear the area, then wipes a hand across his face, feeling sweat there. Soon Aiko and Glen are out too, and Blue wants to ask if they’re okay, but refrains, not wanting to appear nervous himself. It isn’t until they reach a central chamber with multiple, large corridors away that he feels like he can relax a bit, a sentiment he reads on the others’ expressions as they bring out their larger and stronger pokemon.

The sounds of pokeballs releasing is explosively loud in the small chamber, the echoes traveling down every passageway. Glen’s snorlax seems even more massive than usual in such a tight space, but it still has plenty of room to maneuver if needed, though some of the thinner corridors might give it issue.

“This is it,” Elaine says. “The closest central hub beneath the places the absol has been seen above ground.”

“Great job, Elaine. Looks like it’s your show now, Aiko,” Blue says.

She nods and takes the baggie of absol dander out. “Sneaker, smell.” Her pokemon goes rigid, and its nose begins to twitch and wriggle as Aiko opens the bag and holds it close. After a few moments of deep, strong sniffs from her raticate, Aiko seals the baggie up and puts it in a container ball. “Sneaker, track!”

Sneaker drops onto all fours and begins to rapidly rove over the rocky floor of the tunnel, long tail held up as he sniffs and snorts. The others scramble out of his way, constantly moving to avoid him as he goes this way and that.

“Nothing here,” she says after a minute.

“Okay,” Elaine says. “This way to the next one.”

They follow her, continuing to mark their way at every turn, until they reach another hub for Sneaker to check, then another, each with no luck. As their first hour beneath the earth passes, Blue starts to feel a nagging worry that they picked the wrong tunnel to enter from. Ion has been swapped out for Glen’s butterfree, who flaps above them, wings glowing with a bright white radiance that fills the chambers and lets him see similar expressions on the others’ faces, Aiko’s most of all.

He’s in the middle of reminding himself to trust his party members as they wait for Glen to finish spraying a new path choice when he hears a distant sound. Blue focuses his attention on his ears, eyes closed. Once Glen stops spraying, he notes that it’s still getting louder. “Something’s coming,” he whispers, and opens his eyes to see that the others have heard it too.

They quickly move back into the more open area between the branching tunnels and bring out their grass and water pokemon, standing with their backs to each other.

Blue doesn’t dare blink as he keeps his eyes moving from one hole to the other in the rock around them. He quickly takes his pokedex out and taps it to a pre-saved page, finger hovering over one of the buttons as his heart pounds in his chest. His mind is racing at first, but as the scratching gets louder and louder, the battle calm descends, steadying his hands and voice. “Anyone got a lock on where they’re coming from?”

“Check your pokemon,” Aiko says. “Some senses are better than ours. I got nothing from oddish.”

“Same from Gloom,” Glen says.

Blue’s gaze snaps to Maturin, whose head seems turned to the right somewhere. “Between me and Glen?”

“I think Psyduck hears them there too,” Elaine says. “Hang on…” He hears her shift around behind him. “Yeah!”

“V formation,” Blue orders, and steps with Glen to face that direction, while Aiko and Elaine move forward and to the sides. He thinks through what’s about to happen and suddenly moves around Glen. “Aiko, swap with me. Elaine, Water Guns first, bubbles when they’re in range of the—”

The diglett appear, two, three, five, popping out of a hole at about chest level, while another three struggle to come up from an indent where the tunnel slopes up to its left. Their small brown bodies move quickly once in sight, darting this way and that on barely visible pink paws as they scramble for new indents to disappear through.

“Gaw!” Blue yells as the others give their own commands, and battle is joined, jets of water and puffs of pollen filling the cave as the diglett dodge or get blasted back. One darts through the cloud of pollen and goes for Aiko’s oddish, claws extended, but it has to dodge to the side as bubbles burst from Psyduck’s mouth.

Blue still holds his pokedex in one hand while the other holds a pokeball, expanded and aiming for any diglett that’s holding still too long. All the while he keeps an eye on the three coming from the side even as multiple ripples go through the ground and send him to one knee, taking the pain rather than risk looking away. His suspicion is confirmed when a pair of large claws emerge and push the dugtrio’s thick body out of the hole, its three heads tracking multiple enemies at once before it picks the oddish as its target.

“Bab!” Blue yells, and a stream of fizzing water jets out from Maturin with a crackling series of pops as the bubbles rake the ground and body of the dugtrio, knocking it to the side. It rolls back onto its paws and retaliates with a rake of one strong claw, chunks of the ground shooting forward and pelting Maturin with jagged shards.

The pain is enough to make her next attack miss, and the dugtrio uses the time to dash at Glen’s gloom. Blue chucks a pokeball at it, not bothering to lock on, just wanting to distract it. It pegs the dugtrio in the back, causing it to whirl around, then pop into an indent.

“Brace yourselves!” Aiko calls out before Blue can, and another series of rippling quakes, stronger than the last, makes the whole cavern shake, momentarily unbalancing them and their pokemon. The diglett are barely affected, however, and suddenly their pokemon are at risk of getting surrounded.

“Tighten up!” Glen says, and they step into a diamond formation again. “Gloom, Mega Drain!”

“Absorb! Where’s the ‘trio?” Aiko asks.

“I’m looking!” Blue keeps his neck craning around. “Ba!” Maturin’s bubbles cause a couple diglett to run, but one manages to scratch Glen’s gloom, forcing it to stop draining another one and turn to face its new attacker, who dances back out of reach and dives into another indent.

Blue is about to shout a command to fill the indent with water when another quake sends a shock up his legs, causing his ankles and knees to ache as his arms windmill for balance. Dust and pebbles rain around them. We need to finish this soon, Blue thinks, and considers tapping the dex screen. Then he sees the dugtrio poke its heads up and dash out of its hole and toward him.

Still in the envelope of icy calm, Blue stares the three heads down over the new pokeball that’s suddenly in his free hand, tracking it and waiting for the ping as he distantly hears Glen yell out in warning. He realizes it’s not going to make it on time just as the dugtrio leaps, and Blue steps to the side and turns his body sideways, avoiding all but one claw. It shreds through his jacket’s undermesh, only to snag in the one below his shirt and send a flare of pain through his side.

The weight of it spins Blue around and lands him on his rear. He scrambles back and prepares to press the dex as the dugtrio approaches, then leaps again—only to see it get sprayed with water from an advancing Maturin, who plants herself solidly in front of Blue as the dugtrio tumbles to the ground.

Blue makes his decision and closes the pokedex, jamming it in his pocket as he gets to his feet. We can do this, he thinks, just as the dugtrio raises its heads and gives a triple cry of pain and rage. The closest three diglett who saw what happened suddenly pause in their attacks on others, then turn toward Maturin.

Oh shit. “AoE on her!” Blue yells as he dives to the side to put Elaine’s psyduck between him and the dugtrio. “Maturin, Wa!”

The diglett all converge on Maturin, burying her in a pile of brown fuzz and slashing claws. Blood flicks out, and a moment later a double cloud of yellow and blue particles covers the lot of them as Aiko and Glen command their pokemon to blanket the area with sleep powder and stun spores.

As the diglett pile begins to slow and stiffen, Blue watches Elaine’s psyduck blast the dugtrio again and again as it tries to attack it, then scrambles for one of the indents. Her pokeballs are aimed and ready when it gets penned in by another burst of spores by the gloom and oddish over the escape routes, and as the dugtrio pauses momentarily, unsure which way to go, five pokeballs ping in rapid succession and are thrown: two by Elaine, one by Glen and Aiko, and one by Blue, who has risen to a crouch.

It’s impossible to tell which one catches it, once the flash fades and the five balls roll across the ground in different directions, their attention is immediately on the rest of the diglett.

Those that weren’t stunned or put to sleep turn to flee through some indent or the other, and the trainers quickly capture the remaining three. Blue quickly withdraws Maturin, stomach clenched at the sight of all the blood even as he swaps in Gon.

The four trainers and their pokemon are still and alert, breathing hard as they look around for any sign of continued attack. By the time a full minute has passed, they’ve all relaxed to varying degrees, and finally Blue returns Gon to his ball, glad the shroomish can stay fresh after all. “Everyone okay?”

“Fine,” Glen says, then goes to check his pokemon, potion in hand. “Gloom looks okay too.” He gestures his butterfree to come down and rest on his arm, then feeds her a berry while murmuring some praise.

“We’re good,” Elaine says, spraying a nasty cut along psyduck’s stomach, then wiping her pokemon clean of blood and dirt with some wet naps.

“Same here.” Aiko gingerly touches her oddish’s grassy shoots where a couple have been ripped, then feeds her pokemon.

Blue nods, then checks his wound. The majority of the claw stopped by the armor mesh, leaving just a shallow hole between two ribs. Glen notices and comes to help him clean and spray it.

“No pain when you breathe?” Glen asks as he finishes.

“Nah, it didn’t hit the rib.”

“Lucky.”

“Yeah.” He lifts Maturin’s ball and summons the wartortle. Blood stains his pokemon’s shell, but once he’s woken his pokemon up and gotten her to extend her limbs for healing, he smiles in relief, something in his chest relaxing. Her worst wounds are from the dugtrio, meaning she must have withdrawn on time before the diglett reached her. He suspects all the blood on her shell is theirs, the pokemon having cut each other in their frenzy.

He makes sure she’s fully healed, then rubs her shell and makes sure she eats and drinks her fill before joining the others in gathering the thrown pokeballs, particularly the ones with diglett in them.

“One for each of us,” Blue says. “Nice job, everyone. Thanks in particular for saving Maturin.”

“Of course. She did great against the ‘trio,” Aiko says.

“Good callouts, by the way,” Glen says. “Very smooth fight.”

“Yep!” Elaine is practically hopping with leftover energy. “Calls for a victory dance, I’d say.” They all watch her take her phone out and tap at something. “Oh, let me bring the volume down… Ready?”

“Uhh. What are we readying for?” Aiko asks.

“Victory dances! You guys don’t do that?” She looks around at them with a bright smile.

“No,” Blue says. “Best I can give you is a fist bump?”

“Hm. Well, that’s kind of like a pose. Just do poses then. Ready?” Before anyone can respond, she taps the screen again. A cheerfully triumphant jingle (set at low volume, but nevertheless filling the cavern) sounds, and they all watch her perform a spin, then widen her stance and hold a V up with one hand, grinning wide.

They all stare at her. After a few seconds, Blue tentatively extends a fist, and Glen stretches his own out to tap it. Aiko covers a giggle with one hand as the other joins theirs.

Elaine drops her hand. “Good first attempt,” she says, grinning. “Next time, add some pizzazz!”

“Will do,” Blue says. “Assuming ‘next time’ is also in a deep cave far away from any witnesses or recording devices, but also pitch black.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“…is it?”

“This one’s the dugtrio,” Aiko interrupts with a smile, and winks at Blue when he meets her gaze. “Should we RNG who it goes to?”

“Hang on, let me check…” Blue takes the ball and examines the lid, but to his disappointment doesn’t find his initials on it. “Damn, not one of mine.”

“You marked yours? Not a bad idea,” Glen says, looking at the diglett balls. “This one’s yours, then.” Glen grins as he holds it out. “Guess you’re excluded from the dugtrio pool.”

“Hang on, says who?”

Aiko puts her hands on her hips. “Would you have claimed the ‘trio if your ball hit it?”

Blue grumbles and takes the diglett as the others laugh. In truth he’s feeling pretty good about their first team battle, and watches with a smile as Glen assigns himself as 1, Aiko as 2, and Elaine as 3, then rolls a 3 sided die on his phone. The dugtrio goes to Aiko, who attempts a mimic of Elaine’s victory twirl and V, much to the other girl’s delight.

As everyone registers their new pokemon, Blue says “Be right back” and ducks into a side tunnel to change out of his torn clothing. He puts on fresh shirt and jacket, then returns to the others. “Alright, let’s take a quick rest, then get back to it. Meanwhile, what did we learn from that fight? Nice job mentioning our pokemon’s senses,” he tells Aiko. “Definitely going to keep that in mind.”

She nods. “I liked our formation, it did a great job of keeping them boxed in.”

“Right!” Elaine says. “Though their ability to pop into the ground was annoying.”

“Right, that,” Blue says. “If we ever have time to prepare a battle area ahead of time for some reason, we should plug those holes somehow, maybe fill them with leech seeds or powders.”

“Would it be worth using your earlier idea?” Glen asks Aiko. “Taking container boxes out and standing on them?”

“Maybe,” Aiko says. “Would probably save some joint pain during those quakes. But I just realized that unless you guys each have a whole container full of stuff you don’t care about losing, we risk losing things we need if we have to evacuate the chamber.”

They talk for another few minutes, at some point taking snacks out and turning the rest into an impromptu food break. Once everyone feels ready to move on, they resume their journey down the tunnel they were going to take.

Twenty minutes of stumbling up an incline, crouching below another short passage, and inching around a small underground lake later, they’re in another hub cavern, almost a dozen paths extending from it in every direction, and this time when Sneaker sniffs the baggie and runs around, his movements are different.

“He’s got something,” Aiko says as her pokemon starts to spend more and more time at one of the tunnel entrances. “I think it might… Sneaker, stop!”

Her pokemon aborts the mad rush forward it had just begun, and looks back over its shoulder at her, tail lashing back and forth.

“Okay then,” Blue says, adjusting his bag straps. “Let’s go.”

They follow the raticate from one tunnel to the next, staying on high alert for any pokemon that might make an appearance, absol or otherwise. Thankfully absol are fairly large, and none of the passages are too narrow for them to follow the scent as it takes them deeper down beneath the earth.

Occasionally Sneaker reaches a fork where he can’t seem to decide which way to go. Aiko confers with Elaine when this happens, looking the map over to see where the different paths lead and using other factors to make a decision. She instructs Glen to mark their choice with an open circle in addition to the arrow, and on the two occasions where they lose the trail and head back, has him draw an X through it.

“I think we’re getting close,” Aiko says as this begins to happen more and more often.

“Do we know if we’re following its most recent trail, or its most common one?” Blue asks.

“No, it could be either.”

“So we could be about to stumble onto it, or reach its nest?”

“Yeah. It might be there, though, they don’t have a set sleep schedule and this one might be nocturnal, since the sightings were all near sunset or sunrise.”

They make an extra effort to move more quietly. Blue can feel the renewed tension in the others and himself as they make their way through a curving tunnel, and in the deeper silence he picks up the distant sound of running water.

They reach another wide chamber and slow to a stop as Sneaker starts to walk in circles. The stream Blue heard is there, a tiny river flowing from a hole in one wall, down a shallow slope and into a crack at the other end.

“Back to the last fork?” he whispers.

“No, look.” Aiko points to Sneaker, who’s sniffling around at the far wall. “I think this is it!”

Blue sucks in his breath, taking a renewed look around, eyes trying to pick out any clues as they slowly move through the chamber. They all start to spot them at once, now that they’re paying attention.

“Some fur, here!”

“Scratch marks, yeah—”

“You smell that?

“Sh!” Blue says, and everyone quiets. They stand in silence for a moment, listening to nothing but the trickling water. Blue looks to their pokemon, who seem relaxed, curious about their surroundings. Sneaker is still snuffling at the ground excitedly, and Aiko hushes him by feeding him some poffin and stroking his fur. Glen’s gloom goes to drink from the stream, and soon the other pokemon joins it. “Okay, I guess it’s not around.” He takes his bag off, and the others do the same as he examines the other paths. There are three in total, including the one they came from: one that’s set high up in the wall, high enough that Blue would need a boost to pull himself up to it.

“So, we found the nest. That means Plan A, right?” Glen asks after a minute.

“On it,” Aiko says, and picks through her bag for the right container ball. It was difficult finding an easily carried food that absol would particularly enjoy that other pokemon down here wouldn’t, and they eventually settled on raw beef, since diglett aren’t carnivores and they’re the most common pokemon in the caverns. They help Aiko lay the meat out, enough for an adult absol to eat as a meal, and laced with just enough tranquilizer to put it to sleep for four to five hours.

“Might be a long wait,” Aiko says once they’re done. “We don’t know how long ago it left. We might have just missed it.”

The others look to Blue, who considers their options. “We have to vacate the area anyway so we don’t scare it off,” he says. “Assuming our presence hasn’t already. We can go up and hang out for a bit, then come back down to check every hour. But if we’re leaving the area anyway, I say we do Plan B too. Elaine, where’s the closest above-ground entrance? Not the one that we came in through, right?”

“Let me see… Umm… no, there’s a closer one… it’s not one humans can navigate though. Too tight in some places.”

“Too tight for an absol, even?”

“Hard to tell. Don’t think so?”

“Okay.” He bends down to scoop up some of the absol fur off the floor. “Lead us there.”

Plan B was a combination of what Aiko has learned about tracking pokemon and what Blue imagined Red would do if he was with them. They follow the path Elaine takes them for long as they can, eventually reaching a tunnel that tightens down and down until they could maybe crawl through it. Instead they put more laced meat there, then make their way back to the last defensible spot. Blue hands the fur to Aiko, who puts it in an empty container ball, then uses a pokedex app to scan the container contents. “Female,” she says after a moment.

They set up portable speakers, connect them to their pokedex… then begin to play a male Absol mating call in both directions, one toward the tunnel leading to the surface, the other back towards its nest.

Glen brings his machoke and snorlax out, while Elaine summons her tangela and Aiko her sandslash. Blue brings Ion out for light, and Kemuri out for battle. As soon as the shiftry notices its surroundings it becomes visibly agitated. His pokemon has come a long way from the unruly beast it first was, however, and he’s grown as a trainer as well. A stern command for “relaxed readiness,” followed by some pokepuff as a reward, and soon the shiftry is still.

“Let’s plug up these indents, just in case” Blue says, and they busy themselves making the chamber as diglett proof as they can while counting down an hour so they can check the bait.

The mating call repeats every minute, on the minute, a crooning, purring sound that echoes through the tunnels, almost like the breathing of some giant feline. It’s soothing in a way, and Blue has to work to keep himself alert… until a second cry quickly follows the first, and snapping him to full attention. Blue immediately ends the speakers’ autoplay, and they all sit or stand rigid where they are, ears strained.

“That wasn’t an echo, right?” Elaine eventually asks, just before the cry repeats itself.

Blue presses the play on his dex again, mouth dry. The male mating call is sent out again, and they all begin to slowly prepare themselves. The next response is closer, then closer still, and Blue wonders if it’s coming from the nest chamber yet. After the next call is sent out, there’s no response. Blue waits another minute and sends it again, heart in his throat. Still nothing.

“Aiko,” he whispers. “Keep going?”

“Let’s check the bait. It’s had enough time to put her to sleep, now…”

They pack everything up and withdraw all their pokemon but the shinx, sandslash and tangela, then move out, as quickly but quietly as they can. Soon they reach the nest. As Ion sheds light on the chamber, they see the absol.

Fur as white as a cloud, almost glowing, with a face and horn and tail black as pitch, seeming to absorb the light. Its red eyes study them as they enter, not moving from the corner where it’s standing, whole body tense. The meat in the chamber has been nibbled at, but it’s hard to tell how much was eaten.

Their pokemon tense as they spot the stranger, and Blue gestures to the sides. Aiko and Elaine spread out to cover the other two entrances, while Blue and Glen unclip their shiftry and machoke’s balls. “We’ve got it,” Blue breathes, not daring to blink in case the white and black shape vanishes or moves. “Just don’t—”

Blue stops.

Something’s wrong.

His hair is standing on end. His heart is pounding. He tries to clear his thoughts, think about what feels so strange. It’s not tension, or fear. It’s… something more primal. He tries to remember everything he heard and read about absol, suddenly paying more attention to the more “superstitious” accounts. People saying they felt death’s hand on their shoulder. People saying they felt doom staring them in the eyes.

People saying they felt a sense of wrongness.

“Get it together, Blue,” he whispers, and realizes a moment later that he spoke out loud.

“What?” Glen whispers back.

Blue shakes his head and grips his pokeball tight, wanting to summon Kemuri but not wanting to start the fight without realizing what’s wrong… But maybe once it starts and he has his battle calm, things will be clearer…

The calm. That’s what’s missing. He should feel calm by now. Cold. Focused. Not… this.

Blue quickly triggers his pokeball’s silent release and snaps his arm out to summon Kemuri, Glen does the same beside him. Their pokemon appear in a double flash of light… then tense, staring at the absol.

The absol stares back.

Blue licks his lips. The others are waiting for his lead. Why isn’t he ordering an attack? Why does he feel… trapped?

What’s wrong with me?

“Blue?” Glen whispers. “You okay?”

“Glen, do you feel weird?”

“What?”

“How do you feel, right now?”

His friend’s lips part. He blinks. His throat works. Even before he responds, Blue knows: he feels the same way.

What’s wrong?

Doesn’t matter. They have to catch it, now, while they have the advantage.

“On three,” he whispers. “One… two…”

He hears something.

“Low kick!” Glen says, just as Blue shouts, “Wait!”

The machoke blurs into action as soon as the command is given, however, and far faster than Glen can call out for it to stop, the absol leaps to meet it, and battle is joined.

Fuck,” Blue says, still not even sure why this feels like a mistake, they have it trapped… “Lar!” he commands, and Kemuri leaps forward to help with a Razor Leaf.

The absol is a blur of white and black as it avoids the machoke’s kicks, so fast that she slips between his legs and attempts to hamstring him with her horn. The machoke bellows in pain and pivots to kick at her again with his good leg, but she dances back… then has to dodge to the side as Kemuri’s sharp leaves slice a line along its side.

Aiko and Elaine send their pokemon in next, driving the absol into the corner of the chamber again. It leaps and slashes with its horn and tail like a propeller, severing leaves and vines from the shiftry and tangela, sending blood arcing from the sandslash and machoke, then leaping back in the next movement so that the return blows are just glancing. Elaine gives up on trying to entangle it with vines and sends out sleep powder, but the absol simply leaps between the machoke and shiftry, too fast for them to stop it and forcing the sandslash to intercept it. A part of Blue notices that their pokemon aren’t as coordinated as they should be, and chalks it up to their enemy’s bizarre movement patterns, the way it seems to change its mind constantly mid-action, giving the impression that it will strike one way while attacking another and avoiding a blow at the same time.

There’s still no battle calm, Blue’s heart pounding in his throat as he yells commands to Kemuri and the others. He still feels like something is wrong. But despite that, and the absol’s absurd grace, Blue can see that they’re winning. Less than a minute has passed since the battle started, but little by little, the absol is being forced back, taking hits that are forcing it to be more and more defensive. They step closer as their pokemon close the net a little more, their balls held out to try and get a steady lock.

“Almost got it,” he says to the others. “Slow and steady…” He takes a deep breath as he watches the absol back up another step, looking for an opening, then leaping toward Kemuri. “Lar!” He yells, and his shiftry swings out to score another hit and force her toward Aiko’s sandslash, who swipes at her. The absol skitters back, bleeding from four or five shallow wounds. Not enough to kill her, but enough to slow her down… they just have to catch her now. They try to aim around their pokemon as the absol continues to feint left and right.

It’s as Blue is straining his ears to listen for the ping, already half congratulating his team for their capture and chiding himself for his earlier worry, that he hears something else.

Blue’s head turns, seemingly in slow motion, and he looks past the alarm that slowly spreads across Glen’s face to Aiko’s sandslash. It’s bleeding from two deep cuts, practically vibrating with restrained tension… but it’s not looking at the absol.

It’s looking all around them, head jerking one way, then the other.

Blue crouches to one knee and places a hand against the ground… and feels the vibrations that are now constant, and growing. He hears the scratch and scramble of digging that’s coming from seemingly every direction.

Panting, bleeding, coiled like a spring, the absol still seems to stare at Blue from between their pokemon, her red eyes like twin blood moons, her gaze an omen of coming doom.

The diglett are coming.