All posts by Damon Sasi

You’re Probably Underestimating How Hard Good Communication Is

People talk about “Public Speaking” or “Oration” as skills, and they are. We call people “gifted communicators” if they’re generally skilled at conveying complex information or ideas in ways that even those without topical expertise will understand. 

We get, on some level, that communication can be hard. But the above is mainly about one-directional communication. It’s what you’re engaging in when you write blog or social media post, when you’re speaking at conferences or in a classroom or for a Youtube video. It’s not what people engage in day to day with their friends and family and coworkers, which is more two-directional communication.

And yet we don’t have a word for “two-dimensional communication skill,” the way we do “Oration,” or words for people who are really good at it. We might say someone is a “good listener” if they can do the other half of it, and there are some professions that good two-dimensional communication is implicitly bundled with, such as mediators or therapists, but neither is specifically skilled in doing the everyday thing.

So first let’s break this “two-directional communication” thing down. What does it actually take to be good at communicating like this? What subskills does it involve? 

1) Listening to the words people actually say, also known as digital communication.

2) Holding that separate from the implications that went unsaid, but may be informed by body language, tone, expression, etc, also known as analogue communication.

3) Evaluating which of those implications are intended given context rather than the result of your heuristics, cached expectations, typical-mind, and general knowledge you take for granted.

4) Checking your evaluation of implications before taking them for granted as true or reacting to them.

This is what it means to be a good listener. Not in the “you let me talk for a long time and were supportive” sense, but strictly as a matter of whether you managed to accurately take in the information communicated without missing signal or adding noise.

The second half of being a good communicator involves:

5) Communicating your ideas clearly, with as little lost between the concepts you have in mind and the words you use to express them.

6) Being aware of what your words will imply, both to the individuals you’re speaking to and to the average person of the same demographics.

7) Being aware of what your body language, tone, expression, and the context you’re saying it will imply. 

8) Adding extra caveats and clarifications  to account for the above as best you can.

Each of these can be broken down further, but as the baseline these are all extremely important. And yet very few people are great at all of them. let alone consistently able to do each well at all times.

I think this is important both as a signpost for what people should strive to do, as a humility check against people who take for granted that they’re communicating well while failing at one or more of the above, and last but not least, as something that should be acknowledged more often in good faith conversations, particularly if things start to go awry.

Good communication is harder than we collectively think, and effective two-directional communication is one of those skills we often take for granted that we’re at least decent at because we engage in it all the time, and usually get by just fine. But this leaves us less prepared for when we’re in a situation where we or others fail at one of the above skills, in which case it’s good to have not just a bit more awareness of why we fail, but humility that it’s always a two-way street.

Trust vs Trust

The word “Trust” was never quite operationalized as well as it should have been in society, and as a result it can now be used to mean two rather different things.

The first form trust takes is probably the most commonly understood use of the word; expecting someone to behave in a way that’s cooperative or fair. If you trust someone enough, you may enter into a business partnership with them or let them borrow your belongings or vouch for them to friends or colleagues. This trust can be broken, of course, if they start to act in ways other than what you expect them to, particularly if they start to defect from agreements. It is, ultimately, about how well you can model their ability to act prosocially.

The second form trust takes is much rarer, and yet somehow feels to me more like the “true” meaning of the word. It’s a level of trust that’s related to your confidence in someone’s character, sometimes despite their actions. It’s not about predicting what they’ll do in any given situation, but rather predicting the arc that their actions will take over a long enough timeline; trusting them, essentially, to error correct.

This may seem like it has the same outcomes, like if you trust them enough in this way you’d still be okay with lending them something, but it’s far less reliant on game theory or incentives, and far more about what you believe about what kind of person they are. In the first case, if the person you trust does not give back what you lent them, your trust is broken. In the second case, if they do not give back what you lent them, your trust endures, because your expectation is that their character is one who had a good reason not to give it back. This doesn’t require a resolution; it’s baked into the decision to lend them the thing itself, as you’d expect yourself not to regret lending it to them if you had all available future information, and are thus okay with not having that information.

That’s why, in this second sense, “Trust” really only has meaning if it’s applicable to situations where you might normally trust someone less or be unsure of them. If you can always know what someone does and why, your trust of them lacks the real power of the second definition. It’s only when someone is able to act without your knowledge, or acts in ways that you don’t understand, or even that seem like they harm you, that your “true” trust in them is tested, and either justified or not.

Because it can be unjustified. People can trust others in this “true” sense and still be wrong, and be hurt as a result. I think this is why it’s such a rare form of trust, in the end; it’s a more vulnerable stance to take, the same way an expression of love is different from an explicit commitment.

Which ultimately makes this trust about you as much as others. Whether you want to be the kind of person who trusts others to that degree or not is an orientation to vulnerability, and the deeper connections that can result from it. It makes sense not to grant it too often, but to never grant it at all would indicate either an inhibition of true connection, or a paucity of good friends.

Memorization Matters

When I was young I and others I knew used to deride “memorization tests.” In a world where being able to learn facts is easier and faster than it’s ever been, it was hard to imagine why being able to recite trivia for a test would ever be useful. And since structured education is an abysmal way to learn in general, it took me a while to distinguish the poor pedagogy from the value of actually having memorized knowledge of things, even in the Information Age:

1) Synthesizing existing knowledge is usually necessary to gain new insights about the world. It seems obvious when stated clearly, but pay attention to how often people feel like they have new or interesting ideas, only to discover that they’ve already been had by others or are invalidated by some facts they didn’t know. Knowledge builds on knowledge; the more you have, the more likely you are to generate more.

2) Memorized information saves time, the value of which is often underestimated. People spend a lot of time trying to remember things, arguing about what facts are true (often for inane pop-culture info), and even a 10 second google search adds up if you do it enough, and can break flow of thought and productivity. Personally, I spend hours every week researching stuff for my story that someone with more in-depth physics, history, biochemistry, etc education would just know and be able to utilize to write.

3) Having a large body of true knowledge is VITAL for good information hygiene. Lack of knowledge is a big part of what makes up “gullibility.” When you hear an assertion about reality, your mind often automatically feels something, whether it’s skepticism, plausibility, confidence, or just uncertainty, that weird “back and forth” feeling as your brain offers up arguments or data or comparisons for and against.

The more true facts you actually know, the better calibrated your skepticism of false claims will be, and the more likely you are to actually investigate things that are presented as true when you think they’re not, or presented as false when you think they’re true.

To be clear, when I talk about memorized facts, I mostly am referring to actual understanding, not just being able to say the right combination of noises by rote. Memorizing a list of invention names doesn’t help you create new inventions, being able to recite atoms doesn’t help you understand each one’s properties, and new information would just get absorbed if you don’t understand what you’ve memorized enough for there to be some interaction with it. But once in a while even basic memorized trivia like names and dates are valuable for their own sake too.

I don’t mean to counterswing into an opposite extreme. Simple facts are no substitution for critical thinking or creativity, and knowing how to gather good information is also a very important skill. But the knowledge you have stored is what informs your thoughts day to day, and often affects whether you will know to start gathering more when faced with new info of dubious quality.

Ontology 101

Learning new words late in life (by which I here mean “in my 30s”) is interesting, because most of the time it’s a word that’s just another version of a word I already know with some subtle difference, or a mashing of two concepts that might be useful to have mashed together once in a while. Truly new concepts become rarer the older and more educated someone is, but as faulty as words are for communicating concepts, if you have no word for a concept then it becomes much harder to think about and discuss, a bit like having to rebuild chair every time you want to sit on it, or only being able to direct people to a location by describing landmarks.

A couple years ago I had no idea what “ontology” actually meant, despite feeling like I was hearing people say it all the time. Once I did I started using it all the time too. Okay not actually, maybe a few times a month , but that still feels like a meaningful jump given I had no word to cleanly represent what it meant before! So here’s me explaining it in a way I hope will help others do so too.

The problem was, every time I saw the word used, it seemed like it could be removed from a sentence and the sentence’s meaning wouldn’t change. All the definitions I read appeared to just mash words together in a way that made sense, but didn’t mean anything. For example, Wikipedia says:

“The branch of philosophy that studies concepts such as existence, being, becoming, and reality. It includes the questions of how entities are grouped into basic categories and which of these entities exist on the most fundamental level.”

This may or may not be a great definition, but it does little to actually tell people how to use the word “ontology” in any other context, or how it can be usefully applied to confusions or conversations.

What I found most helpful, ultimately, was considering the question “Do winged horses exist?”

This a question of ontology, because depending on how we define “exist” the answer might be “Probably not, there’s no evidence of any horses ever having wings,” or it might be “Yes, I read about them all the time in fiction, in contrast to flanglezoppers, which is a sound I just made that has no meaning.”

So ontology is the study and specification of what we mean when we say “real.” But it’s also about categorization; a more useful definition of ontology I came across is: An adjective signifying a relation to subjective models.

What does “a relation to subjective models” mean? Well, all ways of thinking of objects, for example, are subjective models; reality at its most basic level is absurdly fine-grained, far too detailed for us to understand or easily talk about. So we focus on emergent phenomena that are much easier to interface with, even if they’re not as precise. For example, we can talk about a country’s hundreds of millions of individuals, with their own personal goals and desires and preferences, and that can be useful. Or we can just say “The USA wants X” and it’s understood to mean something like “a meaningful chunk of the population” or “the government.” On the flip side, even an individual is not monolithic in their desires, and can be further broken down into subagents that might want competing things, like Freedom vs Security.

So it can be very valuable to know what model/map/layer you’re organizing concepts on, as well as what level your conversation partner is, to focus discussions. I wrote a brief conversation that shows what this looks like:

The philosophy teacher hands his student a pencil. “Describe this to me as if I was blind.”

The student thinks he’s clever, so says, “Well, it’s a collection of atoms, probably mostly carbon and graphite, with some rubber molecules—”

The teacher flicks the student’s ear, causing him to wince. “You’re in the wrong ontology. What you described could be a lot of different things, it could have been a lubricated piece of coal for all I knew. Describe it in a way that makes its distinctly observable parts plain to me.”

“Um. It’s a core of graphite wrapped in wood, with a piece of rubber on the end?”

“Better. Now switch the ontological frame to the functional parts.”

“It… has a writing part that’s at one end, and it has an erasing part at the other, and it has a holding part between them?”

“Excellent. Now tell me about it from the ontology of fundamental particles…”

There may be no end to ontological frames that you can use to examine and organize reality; animals can be classified by environmental preference or limb count or diet, stories by genre or structure or perspective, food by flavor or culture or substance.  Some are more broadly useful than others, but being able to swap ontological frames of how concepts are related and at what complexity level of “reality” they emerge, can be very valuable for the whole practice of using maps, frames, lenses, etc in a strategic way.

Chapter 104: Secrets

“Sabrina seems tired.”

Red glances at Rei, who sits casually in the carseat beside him with her gaze out the window, then looks back at his notebook and finishes writing out his thought before closing it with a sigh and a nod. “I haven’t seen her this exhausted since after the Hoenn incident.”

He’s still not sure what his relationship with Sabrina’s ex-student is these days. “Co-conspirator” seems the best one that fits; they’re not exactly friends, not exactly peers, and not exactly coworkers, but once in a while Giovanni or Sabrina want something done that requires a psychic, and both seem happy to offer their employee/student to the other if the job requires more than one, or if the other is busy. It’s often a great learning opportunity, and many of the tasks involve putting Red in new situations, facing new challenges for his growing abilities. He’s helped test young psychics in Viridian to see if they had the Gift and get a sense of their abilities, and once even helped diagnose someone who was hit with a mental attack. It felt strange handing someone the same form Psychic Narud gave him a year ago.

Today they’re interviewing psychics who have had The Dream.

It’s hard not to think of the words in capital letters after they’ve shown up in the media that way for weeks, and some part of Red insists this is totally normal given how momentous it all is.

He barely paid attention to it all until it started hitting entire cities, and then Agatha’s interview made it impossible to ignore as the “new central narrative of their time,” to quote some pundit or the other… and if he’s being honest, he’s getting a little sick of living through so many of those, even if this one is relevant to his interests.

Maybe he just wants some breathing room before the next massive and/or mysterious potential calamity rears its head.

Last week was the anniversary of the start of his journey, and the three of them all went back to Pallet to have a small but warm celebration with his mom, Daisy, and the Professor… as well as a surprise visit from Leaf’s mother and grandfather, who were fun to finally meet. Once he (more or less) finished peppering them with questions and answered a number of theirs (it was mildly shocking, despite everything, to hear that both Professors had read not just his papers but the loose collection of writing that passed for his blog), the conversation turned to what’s been going on in Kanto and throughout the island chain, which the Junipers of course followed on two different levels.

Eventually Leaf asked if it’s always been like this and she only just started noticing once she started her journey, and Daisy complained that her journey only had one world-changing discovery during it, while Professor Oak admitted that his own coincided with a fair few, but not so close together, which Cedric agreed with. Leaf’s mother said hers had basically none, which in retrospect she’s rather happy about.

None of course were anything like the Hoenn incident. It’s hard to know how much of what’s happened since can be truly traced back to it, and whether the incident itself was the result of some other series of events set in motion long ago, but Red wonders how much of his life is going to end up shaped by it.

“It set her back a lot,” Red says. “And then there was the ditto thing.”

“So you think it’s just been catch-up?” Rei says.

“She’s finally finished her Challenger backlog.” Red remembers mentioning her shift in focus to Blue a few weeks ago, who just smiled and implied it was part of some deal he’d struck with her. “It’s kept her busy on top of everything else.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

He turns to see her eyes on him now, and lowers his shields enough for a tentative probe that senses her curiosity, layered over a deep worry. “I don’t think she’s had it yet, if that’s what you mean. Not unless she’s sleeping in other cities, or she got it without the rest of us.”

“She could have been one of the initial ones, when it was just going to powerful psychics.”

Red smiles. “You don’t really believe that.”

“Believe what?”

“That it was just going to ‘powerful’ psychics at first, because you consider yourself one and you didn’t get it either.”

Rei smiles back in acknowledgement. “The only alternative that makes sense is fame, and yet we’re supposed to believe one of the most famous psychics in Kanto didn’t get it?”

“Why would she lie?”

“To you, you mean?”

“To anyone, at this point.” Red doesn’t ask why she’s so curious, given that her days of obsessing over Sabrina are supposed to be behind her; he’s been curious too.

“What if she got a different dream than everyone else?”

“Has that happened to anyone?”

“Would we know if it had?”

“Wild speculation, then.”

“If you have a better hypothesis…”

The car slows to a stop, and they step out in front of a small house with a white picket fence and a well kept lawn. Cerulean South is just as Red remembers it, mostly suburbs that stretch out in every direction, and he feels a quick squeeze in his chest as he sees the road he, Blue and Leaf traveled down to the bike store where they met Aiko.

But just a quick one, and then he’s breathing again as they walk up to the house and ring the bell.

It takes a minute for the young man to answer, and when he does it’s with a furtive look through the chain link lock before he opens it more fully.

“Hello,” Rei says. She always does the talking at first; she’s older and looks more professional, which makes sense to older folk, and she’s also not famous, which means those people who know Red by sight (mostly younger psychics) are less likely to ask him questions about himself if he’s not the one who starts talking. Instead he just focuses on his notebook unless he has a question to ask. “Mr. Garcia? I’m Rei, we spoke on the phone.”

“Yes, come in, please…”

They enter the man’s home and sit on his couch. Red accepts tea, mostly because it seems like the sort of thing that would calm their host’s obvious nerves. His features are drawn, his gaze constantly either a million miles away or darting nervously around, and he twitches occasionally, head tilting in an almost desperate attempt to hear something, or convince himself he can’t hear anything.

Red’s seen it all before, but not this bad. The Dream can often have that effect on people, but usually it’s temporary, particularly since a lot of psychics just amnesia themselves of it; there’s been a rush on lessons for that and other lessons in Saffron as laypsychics who’ve only marginally explored their powers are suddenly much more interested in ensuring it’s not used against them again.

“So,” Rei says after declining her own offer of tea. “Tell us what you hoped Leader Sabrina could do for you.”

“Well, I’m ah, not sure. I’m a sensitive, like I said, not a full psychic… I ah, wish I could just… forget, you know? If it’s possible at all… I heard it’s possible… I thought surely, she could…”

The pleading in his tone makes Red’s stomach clench. He still remembers what Narud said about one psychic giving another amnesia; like surgery done with fingers, or similar. Whatever Mr. Garcia heard, it’s clearly not as deterring… or maybe his experience is just that bad.

“It’s possible,” Rei says, tone neither flat nor sympathetic, merely delivering logistical information. Red asked her once, way back when they were trying to crack “perfect lying” together, why she doesn’t try being more friendly, and she gave him an assessing look and said that she forgets how young he is sometimes, and he decided not to ask for clarification until he could figure out whether he said something insulting or if she did. “But it would be a risky procedure that most psychics would not wish to attempt, even skilled ones. We will, however, ensure Sabrina knows of your suffering.”

“Thank you.”

“Meanwhile, we would like to learn what we can about your experience in more detail.”

“Yes, yes of course. Well, to start it’s been… ah, like I said, the first dream, in Goldenrod… it was bad, but not, you know. Wrecked my concentration for the rest of the week, but the important business was already done… drank a bit more after the meetings to help me sleep, and by the time I came home, it was… easier. To put it behind me.”

Garcia swallows, then drinks some tea, swallows again. “The second time was like… it was… it’s like, because I tried so hard to forget before, I got punished. And now it’s etched in there.” He taps his temple. “To make sure I don’t, this time.”

“But the dream itself was the same?” Rei asks as Red makes a note to point out whether recognizing that a whole city got it clearly points to bad luck rather than any evidence of fault. “Please think over your answer, and don’t hesitate to voice uncertainty; you’re the only person we know of so far who has experienced it twice, and even the slightest difference may be useful to us.”

“It… I’m sorry, I’ll take a moment…” He closes his eyes, mouth set in a firm frown as Red finishes making another note about how they should put out a general call for psychics to record themselves while sleeping in case they talk in their sleep during the dream.

As the silence stretches out, Red can’t help but send out a tentative, instinctual psychic feeler that picks up on something like… pain.

Red almost pulls back, but Garcia doesn’t shift to any of the exercises he mentioned knowing to reduce unwanted psychic contact, so he feels the way Garcia is struggling against strongly aversive thoughts.

Not painful the way an embarrassing memory or recollection of grief is painful… more the pain of dread, of a potential hopelessness that’s only held at bay by a lack of close examination. Once he understands it, Red quickly pulls his thoughts away as Garcia starts to speak again. “I think so, it’s… hard to tell, but the second time was… more forceful. It was like… things were clearer, but… maybe that’s just because I—”

“Remember, no filter, no second guessing. Just share whatever notions come up. Yes or no: was it more forceful?”

“Y-yes.”

“Was it more desperate?”

“Y…no. I’m not—” He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. “If I have to choose, no. Not more desperate. I’m not sure how that fits with it being more forceful, but…”

“It’s alright. Remember, it doesn’t have to make sense.”

“Did it feel like the same projector?” Red asks, writing the question out as he says it. “I know that’s hard to tell from just two samples, but again as best you can tell—”

“Yes, same projector. Their thoughts were… distinct. Strong. It really was like hearing words, not just getting ideas and impressions. I’m more sure than I would be with just anyone.”

Red frowns as he makes a quick note, then flips to another page and crosses out one of his hypotheses before returning to his current one. “And… was the order of the dream the same? Like did it all happen in the same sequence of words, impressions, feelings, whatever?”

“Oh. No?” Garcia considers another moment, then shakes his head. “N-no. It was subtle, and… some things stayed in the same order, but I have… two versions in my head, for the sequence of both.”

“But nothing was added to the second one, or obviously missing?”

“No.”

He’s getting more confident, which is heartening to see, but thinking about the dream does seem to still cause discomfort. Rei probably sensed it too, one way or the other, because she gives him a sympathetic smile before saying, “We have one last request, if you’re feeling willing. We’d like to experience this dream ourselves as best we can, despite not having had it.”

Garcia understands immediately, knuckles turning white as he clenches his hands around each other. “Oh… I…”

“Preferably twice each, so that Red and I are not merged at once and influencing each other’s impressions.”

“I… I think I…”

Red feels a tightening in his chest as the man’s stutter gets worse, and with rising alarm realizes the older man is on the verge of tears. “Hey, uh, I think it’s okay actually. From what you’ve described it doesn’t seem like it was different enough to be really necessary.”

Garcia’s whole body sags, and he takes a deep breath. “A-alright, then.”

Rei’s irritation is only evident mentally, but all she says is, “I believe that’s all, then. Thank you for your time.”

“One more thing,” Red quickly adds. “Uh, I mean I’m not claiming to know anything here that you don’t, but if you’re thinking that any of this is, like, a punishment or something…” Red remembers, suddenly, the young man in Vermilion City during the storm, who felt Zapdos’s pressure as divine punishment for something he was guilty about and grieving over. “Since entire cities got it both times you did, I think it’s probably just bad luck?”

“Luck,” Garcia sighs. “Right.” He sounds… tired, rather than relieved.

Before Red can decide to add something else or not Rei gets to her feet, and he quickly finishes his tea before joining her while Garcia pushes himself up as well, seeming a little surprised that it’s actually over so quickly. After unlocking the door he pauses and turns to them, seeming to build up his courage. “You will… tell Sabrina? Or… others, about my…”

“Yes, of course.”

“Th-thank you. I’ve been getting… desperate, lately. Had th-thoughts of… of training a drowzee, to… to—”

A shot of alarm races through Red as he realizes what’s being confessed, thoughts scrambling for something to keep the man from admitting he’s thinking of breaking a renegade law, until to his relief Rei puts a hand on Garcia’s shoulder, gently squeezing. “I’m sure that won’t be necessary, Sir. We’ll do our best to figure something else out.”

It’s the most compassionate thing Red’s ever seen her do, and the man looks ready to cry again as he bobs his head, then whispers, “Thank you.”

Rei gives his shoulder a light pat before pulling her arm back, and he opens the door for them. Red gives one last small wave, and then they step out of the house and start walking in a random direction together, simply seeking privacy to discuss what they learned before each teleports back to their respective cities.

“Thoughts?” Rei asks after a minute.

“I’m becoming more and more convinced Agatha was right with her first guess,” Red says. “When I look at the evidence, the best explanation that fits is that an individual is doing all this.”

“Go on.”

Red reviews his notes, ticking each point off on a finger. “It’s never repeated in a city, and it’s never hit the same place twice once it stopped targeting individuals. Why do that? The second dream wasn’t exactly like the first in minor details but not major ones—”

“Allegedly.”

He frowns at her. “Come on, in that state could we really have trusted what he re-experienced?”

“Perhaps not, but it still might have been valuable.”

Red thinks through all the previous times he experienced the memories of someone’s dream through merger and shrugs. “I can’t imagine how, given the way it all fades into a background blur of impressions for me anyway.” Which, after seeing Mr. Garcia, he suddenly feels thankful for. He doesn’t feel like he particularly needs another traumatic experience in his life right now, curious as he is to know what having the Dream himself would be like.

“Mm. Well, you’re right that trauma responses are hard to predict. I’m sorry, I interrupted you as you were saying…”

Red checks his notes again. “Right, there’s also the ramp up from individuals. It’s like someone hoped that just telling some important people would be enough, at first.”

“There’s nothing stopping a hypothetical spirit or god from being mistaken about something, or poor at planning.”

“Sure, but what actual value does that explanation add, then? It’s meant to answer the question of how someone can know what the dream insists is true, and how they can transmit it like this. But if it seems like it’s making errors similar to what a human would anyway, then we shouldn’t be as impressed. Whatever sent the dreams either didn’t realize they would be hitting the same person twice in Cerulean, or they didn’t care, or they didn’t have the ability not to and still cover the city.”

“Your focus is on the wrong part of the explanation. There’s no actual reason why a non-human entity should be expected to not fall into any of those categories.” Rei shrugs. “Your models implicitly assume any non-human entity is infinitely more benevolent or capable along some dimension, rather than more capable along one or two, and that seems irrational to me.”

Red scratches his neck as he tries to fit the concept of it into his brain. It feels wrong somehow, but he can’t really think of why, and has to admit it might just be expectation. “Alright, yeah, that might be fair. I still say it’s more likely to be a human with a uniquely powerful projection though.”

“Which you believe they’re hiding because it would mark their circumstances more similar to yours.”

Red shrugs, not bothering to deny it. It’s hard not to sympathize with someone who has a unique psychic talent that others might fear, even if they weren’t putting themselves at risk to spread some vital truth… or rather, something they believe is a vital truth. He doesn’t know how they became aware of the Dream’s threat themselves, but it must have been convincing enough to have them risk their own anonymity, which is an extra weight on how persuasive the threat is.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems far more reasonable to me that a human wouldn’t want people to know who they are than a spirit or whatever. If anything knowing it’s not a person would make the message more convincing, so if they understand anything about human psychology—”

“Which they might not.”

“—sure, which they might not, but then how did they know to target the most famous psychics first? Even putting aside the projector’s city-wide power, some people just don’t like the spotlight, which yes I personally relate to, but it’s still true.”

“Mm. Isn’t there a movie being made about you?”

“Hey, that was Blue and Leaf’s idea. I can feel uncomfortable about it and still agree it’s a good idea.”

“But surely the rational thing to do would be to become comfortable with it once you recognize it’s a good idea?”

“No, I can have different parts that each have a valuable perspective on something, and I can feel a certain way and still recognize—oh you’re messing with me aren’t you.”

“Just a little.” Rei slows to a stop and unclips a pokeball, and Red matches her. “I’m off to Viridian. Do let me know if Sabrina has anything interesting to add.”

“Same to you with Giovanni.” He wonders if she actually would, given he’s her boss rather than her teacher, but if she does he’s happy to reciprocate, assuming it’s nothing he thinks Sabrina would mind being shared. “Until next time.”

A few minutes later he’s knocking on Sabrina’s office door, then entering as she calls out to come in. The Leader does look tired, and more than a little distracted… but there’s something else, too. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s almost like she has more drive than she used to. He’d be worried she’s entering a manic phase if she wasn’t still so clearly in control of herself.

“So?” she says as he sits and accepts his second tea cup of the hour. “Is it bad?”

“Very, Sensei. I know it shouldn’t be done lightly, but if you saw him yourself I think you’d agree that he needs help.”

She sighs. “I’d rather wait at least a week to see if he starts to recover on his own, particularly if he can find a psychic therapist, but after that… I’ll see what I can do. Any new insights into the dreams themselves?”

“I can send you my notes—”

“Your takeaway is good enough for now.”

Red nods. “Nothing really meaningful. He says it’s more urgent now, but… that could just be from having had it before.”

“Of course. Well, it was worth a try—”

“Actually, Sensei, there is something else, but it’s not directly from Mr. Garcia.” She raises a brow and gestures for him to continue. “I’ve been thinking about this since Agatha’s interview, and after talking to Rei about it I’m pretty convinced that this doesn’t seem to be a supernatural source.” He quickly summarizes his points from before, then adds, “I didn’t mention this to her, but if it is a psychic with a unique ability, or a semi-unique one, like we talked about… well, would you have any guess for who it could be?”

Sabrina’s gaze shifted away from him at some point while he was talking, and she’s still looking into the distance, hands steepled on the desk. Red waits, though he does send out a psychic feeler to confirm that her shield is fully solid.

What’s unsettling Red at this point isn’t how long it’s taking to answer, but why she didn’t just lie.

She should have, if she’s protecting someone’s identity. Spending this much time thinking over her answer, however, would make it hard to believe if she said no now, even if she claimed to just have been searching her memory; she doubtless has had this thought already before he brought it up.

And she should know this, and yet she’s still seemingly paralyzed by some thought or emotion or decision.

“Sensei,” Red says after a moment of mustering his courage. “Why do you think you didn’t get the dream?” It’s the closest he can come to asking if Rei was right about Sabrina lying about it.

The Leader’s eyes flick to his, then away again, then back, and this time they hold. “I don’t know. But I suspect it’s because the one sending the dreams is… one of my ex-students.”

Even expecting it, the confirmation halts Red’s breath for a moment, then sends his pulse racing as new questions start to crowd his thoughts. “Have you… mentioned them before?”

“Yes, though I didn’t mention they had this ability. Because they didn’t, at the time. But it still seems likely to be them.”

“Who are they?”

“Not someone you would know.”

Something suddenly clicks, and Red asks, “The one who disappeared after Hoenn?”

Sabrina stares at him for a moment, then another, again too long. “What makes you say that?”

“I don’t…” It takes him a moment to piece together the intuition. “You’ve been a certain way, ever since then. Half grieving, I think.” He recognized it well enough, good as she was at controlling it. “But you’re not anymore. I thought it was just because of the new mystery of the dreams, but… how do you… why do you suspect it’s them?”

“The best evidence I have is that I didn’t get the dream, and that Saffron hasn’t either.”

Red blinks. “You think they’re avoiding you? Does that mean they were never really lost?”

“It’s… hard to say. I thought we were on good terms. But given all this… how much trust could there really have been?”

Red doesn’t know what to say to that, besides, “At least they’re alive.”

“Maybe. And I could be wrong, of course. It could be a coincidence. I’ve been trying to sleep all night, just in case it’s Saffron’s turn next, but it’s hard to fall asleep when I’m anticipating what might happen if I do.” She shrugs. “I can amnesia the expectation to help me fall asleep, of course, but I want to experience it knowing what it is, wake from it with my full memories intact.”

Red tries to decide whether he should be tactful or inquisitive at the moment, but he’s still not sure what might be comforting rather than presumptuous; he doesn’t know enough about the situation, or their relationship, and asking might be digging. “Blue and I were, you know, on the outs for a while. Maybe there’s still a chance of mending bridges? Especially if you don’t know why they’re upset with you…”

“I can guess.” Sabrina smiles. “I appreciate it, Red, but the situation is rather complicated, and I’m not really in the mood to discuss it. Ask what you want to ask.”

Red smiles back, a bit self-conscious but also grateful. “Do you know what they want? Why they’re doing this?”

“If you’re asking whether I think we can trust the dream, it’s hard to tell without having the dream myself, but… yes. I think so. Whatever they learned, it was enough to make them put themself at serious risk.”

Red leans forward. “I was right then? It’s someone like me?”

For some reason that makes her laugh, brief but with a startled quality that makes it warmer. “Not like you, no. But not entirely unlike, in terms of secrets.”

“Maybe I can reach out to them, let them know what we’ve been planning!”

Again Sabrina pauses, expression sobering before she sighs. “If you can find a way to contact them, I wish you luck. But they might avoid you out of principle given that you know me. And no, I can’t tell you any more about why that is. I’m sorry, Red, I don’t mean to be mysterious, but some things are private.”

“I understand.” Mostly. “Still, if they have any other friends that you haven’t checked with recently…?”

Sabrina shakes her head. “They’ve lived a fairly isolated life. Most of their interactions with others came from their psychic abilities, which were quite powerful. Since they weren’t taught not to invade people’s privacy, they had many acquaintances that they knew quite well, but never got particularly close to any of them.”

“Sounds lonely.” Something about this description is tickling the back of Red’s mind, and after a moment he gives a wan smile. “Reminds me a bit of the story Leaf’s been writing, actually.”

“She writes fiction too?”

“Yeah, been publishing it online. I don’t know where she finds time, but it’s about a half-human psychic pokemon who’s sapient and gets raised in a lab—”

The next few moments can be measured in heartbeats, but feel eternal.

Sabrina’s eyes went wide at the words half-human psychic pokemon, wider than he’s ever seen them, wider than when he told her his secrets, and she sucked in a sharp breath at raised in a lab, mouth going slack.

It lasts just a second before her lips close, her features smooth, and her posture shifts back toward relaxed attentiveness, all so smoothly he would have missed it if he blinked.

“—that learns… about people through…” Whatever Red was going to say next has been blown out of his mind by the shock of seeing Sabrina react so strongly, and the suspicion of what she’s just done.

Red, you are the worst liar!

It’s barely even a decision, in the end.

And then…

“…through those working in the lab around it.”

“Interesting,” Sabrina says, and sips her tea. “That does sound lonely, yes.” Sabrina’s gaze is distant again, and after a moment she frowns and shifts. “I’m sorry, Red, I’ve just remembered a call I need to make. Thank you for the debrief.”

“Oh, sure.” He’s still curious about her student, but whether there’s really a call or not, he knows a dismissal when he hears one and heads to his room for a shower.

He’s just taken his shoes off when the partition drops, along with the amnesia’d memory of Sabrina’s reaction.

“Oh shit,” Red breathes as he drops onto his bed. “Holy shit. Holy fuck.”

Sabrina’s student was a lab experiment.

There are labs studying psychics, probably helping develop unusual psychic powers.

Because of course there are.

And of course Sabrina would know about them maybe she even comes from one that’s why she can see psychic colors sometimes and she amnesia’d herself mid-conversation because she was reacting too much so it must be super secret, way more secret than what they’ve already told each other, and holy fucking shit what is he going to do with this information?

Who did she suddenly remember she had to call?

What would she do if she knew Red knows?

Suspects. I don’t know anything.

Her reaction replays in his memory, and he feels something twisting in his gut. He could be wrong, but… he doesn’t think Sabrina would have reacted like that to just an unusual or interesting story idea. Maybe he’s wrong about a lot of it, maybe it’s not ongoing and just somewhere she and her friend were raised together or something. Hell, Sabrina might have helped shut it down.

But the idea of a psychic going around secretly projecting a warning instead of outing himself makes even more sense, with this explanation.

He’s halfway through taking out his journal when he realizes it might be a terrible idea to write any of this out, then remembers that there’s someone else he should be talking to and pulls out his phone.

“Hey Leaf, are you free? Yeah I’m fine, just want to talk. In person. Yeah, been a while since we hung out at the ranch, right? Exactly. Great, see you soon!”

A minute later he’s on the roof, and a few seconds after that he’s at the ranch. He looks around, then starts pacing as he waits, then summons Charmeleon and practices some battle maneuvers. After two months of fairly frequent battles with wild pokemon, his starter now stands as tall as his shoulders, tail long enough to curl around its body. It’s a little disconcerting, sometimes, to be able to meet that fierce blue gaze so easily now.

“Been a while since I could keep berries out of your reach, huh boy?” He feeds Charmeleon some poffins, other hand rubbing the base of his pokemon’s crest bone. “Not that I ever really could, with your climbing powers.”

Charmeleon gives a crooning-growl as he licks Red’s palm clean, and then there’s a distant pop as Leaf arrives nearby.

“Hey, Red!” She withdraws her abra and walks over with a worried smile and furrowed brow. “I’m assuming I interpreted that call right and this isn’t just a hang out?”

“Yeah.” It’s always good to see her, and while the circumstances don’t allow him to take much time enjoying her company, he can’t help but just smile for a moment, happy to see her and be near her. She also looks tired, and he knows that along with all her other work, she’s been helping with local incidents too. It makes him worry about her, but he knows she can take care of herself. So he sends her that mental impression, and she returns his smile.

Over the past few months they’ve had a few more moments like the one at his mom’s apartment after the tower, moments where he felt like he could say something, or should say something, about how he feels. But instead he’s just projected parts of it, careful to use his partitions to keep from sending the whole thing at once. It feels easier not to break his promise and check how she feels as long as he can be open about his own, now and then. She’s also seemed to appreciate it, so the idea of doing anything more explicit feels… scary. “Sorry, were you busy? Because—”

“I can chat for a bit,” she says as she unclips a pokeball. “Though I have to get back soon for a meeting.”

“How soon? This might be important.”

Leaf bites her lower lip. “I can probably make it there so long as I leave within about twenty minutes? I can’t really risk more, since it’s with my Fuchsia friend…”

Ah, Mom’s informant. “And you can’t really call and tell them you’ll be late, yeah… well, that should be enough for covering the basics at least. It’s about your story.”

Leaf’s hand pauses from where it’s moving from her belt to an outstretched position. It’s only for a moment, but he was watching it, and her voice is carefully controlled when she says, “Go, Raff!” and then “What about the story?”

It’s a struggle not to send his senses out, to sample her mood at least. He and Sabrina’s other students have taught Leaf what they could for completely non-psychic defenses, and she’s good at them, so a full merger might not be particularly helpful anyway if she’s actively trying to keep him out.

Still, he’s curious enough to almost try before reminding himself that he promised not to. The thought that Leaf might lie to him feels like a stone in his gut, probably all the heavier because of how many things he’s been keeping from her.

He watches her take out a training tool (and toy), basically an elastic and tough cord that pokemon can play tug-of-war with. It’s mostly meant for fighting pokemon, but they’ve found that others enjoy it too; both starters are already looking at it with anticipation, and a quick command from their trainers has them gripping the ends in their mouths and pulling.

Normally they’d be cheering their pokemon on, but there’s an awkward silence between them now, and after another moment Red decides to just be straightforward. “Alright, so I’m not really sure how else to say this, and I get that there might be some things you can’t tell me. But… uh… is your story inspired by something you’ve been looking into?”

Leaf raises a brow. “When you say ‘looking into,’ what exactly do you…”

She trails off, and, before Red can say anything, sighs and rubs her eyes. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to do this part well with friends. It feels gross.”

“I know what you mean,” Red says, maybe a bit too earnestly. “I’m sorry too, I don’t know how else to ask, but I think it’s important. When you started it you said it was just something you were experimenting with to help people empathize with pokemon better, and I’m not saying that’s like, a lie or anything, but if, uh, if there really were like, secret labs training psychics—”

“Oh!” Leaf bursts into laughter, and for a moment Red feels sweeping, glorious relief… until her laughter cuts off, and her eyes widen as she stares at him. “Oh… Swords of Justice, there are secret psychic labs—

“No no, that’s double counting!” Red holds his palms out, one still slick with Charmeleon’s saliva. “I have no evidence that there are, if you just made it up then it’s probably nothing, it’s just… uh, maybe I shouldn’t say—”

“Red this is important!”

“I know, but—wait, is it important because you do know something, or—”

She tries once again to keep her face blank, but Leaf is no Sabrina, and after a moment she mutters “Fuck!” and covers her face with both hands. “We never tell anyone about this.”

“Agreed. Definitely not going in the second movie.”

She starts giggling, and then they’re both laughing as Charmeleon and Raff continue to tug at the rope, jaws occasionally gnawing for better purchase.

“This… is why society needs… meta norms around secrets,” Red says between breaths.

“Oh yeah,” Leaf gasps, arm across her belly. “Just make talking about it a global holiday.” She giggles. “Or else just asking what someone’s meta-honesty-norms are would give information away!”

That sets them laughing again, and once it finally tapers off, they stare at each other for a moment until Red gives a helpless shrug. “So who goes first?”

“The one who has the least risky secret, I think.” She gives a wry grin. “Should we use a number scale?”

“You know what, sure, why not. What’s a 1?”

“A 1 is like, your friend will be exasperated at you for being a gossip. And a 10 is… something that will destroy the world if it gets out, I guess?”

Red’s smile slips, then fades entirely. “Right. And a 5 would be something that… brings about a region’s downfall?”

“That sounds more like, uh, an 8?”

“I think that would be all regions, if a 9 is… what, all life is at stake, but the planet will probably be fine?”

“I guess that sounds right. So a 7 is one region’s downfall, and a 6 is… multiple cities?” Leaf frowns. “If we keep doing this it’s going to make the number itself a metadata leak.”

“We could give the numbers to someone who doesn’t know what they represent, then just have them tell us whose was higher? They might get curious though, then we have to lie to them—”

She snorts. “Blue would probably roll his eyes but not ask questions. Also it would be easy to just write a script that would do it for us.”

“Right—wait, I’m an idiot, I can just amnesia myself after you tell me something if it doesn’t relate to what I thought!”

“Permanently?”

“Uh… not really…”

Charmeleon growls and falls onto all fours as Raff, feet digging into the ground and leaves rustling, starts to pull the rope harder. The flame on Charmeleon’s tail flares, and Red is alarmed enough to merge with his pokemon to check if he’s still in a playful mood. “Uh, not sure why but he’s maybe getting a bit too riled up for this.”

“They do get more competitive the closer they are to evolving. You should find some other charmeleon for him to play with.”

Close to evolving. He knows his pokemon just has a couple of feet of growth left before that becomes possible, but hearing it put that way makes it seem right around the corner. “Yeah, will do. Meanwhile…” He unclips two balls and holds one up as he sends a calming wave through his merger until his pokemon relaxes and lets the rope drop from his jaws, “Charmeleon, return! Go, Ivysaur! And before you say it, yeah, I still haven’t named him, sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize to me.” Her teasing expression fades as she checks her phone. “I really do have to go soon. Look, you’re right, your powers make telling you first the obvious right choice. But if you do decide not to tell me afterward, it’s going to be hard to justify why I shared the info with someone, and I won’t be able to lie about that either. Do you understand?”

“You’re saying it might draw more people into it.” And that whoever she wouldn’t be able to lie to, it would be someone as close to her as he is. While he’d like to think that’s not actually true, he knows there are plenty of others she would probably feel just as bad lying to, like Blue or his mom.

Red lets out a breath, rubbing his face. “Yeah, I get it. I’m actually still processing some stuff that I did actually learn and I’m not sure what the full scope of everything is. Maybe it’s better to actually just… both forget this for now?”

“That… might be the responsible thing to do, yeah.”

They both stand silently for a moment, staring at each other, and he doesn’t need to merge to guess her thoughts: “Responsibility sucks sometimes.”

“It sucks so much!”

“But we can both keep looking into it right?”

“Oh, totally! And if we find something out that wouldn’t be breaking someone’s confidence—”

“We could share that,” Red finishes, and smiles. “I wasn’t exactly looking for another project, but maybe my mom can h—really?

“I’m leaving!” Leaf declares, withdrawing Raff and summoning her abra while turning her back on him. “Goodbye Mr. Verres!”

“Wait, at least tell me—”

“Fuchsia!”

“—aaand she’s gone.” He turns to his ivysaur, who just unceremoniously lost his play partner, and picks up the other end of the chord. “Well boy, now we just have to decide if we should ask the Professor. If you win, I won’t.” Ivysaur cocks his head, then braces his feet against the ground… only to drop his end of the rope as soon as Red pulls.

He stares at the slack rope for a second and shrugs. “Well, guess that settles it. Just need to figure out some meta norms around secrets first… and hopefully not get any new ones to hold onto meanwhile.”


“I want to help.”

Blue blinks sleepily at the violet-haired girl standing outside his door. “Help with… Satori, right? Help with what?” It’s barely seven in the morning, and he went to bed around midnight after a strategy debate on how to better protect Fuchsia’s northern and southern tips went long past dinner, followed by a long walk and training session with Eevee beneath the full moon.

Satori doesn’t look like she got much sleep either. “Your project.” Her torracat is sniffing in the direction of his room, and takes a step inside before suddenly stopping and stepping back, probably from some mental nudge.

He rubs some sleep from his eyes. “I have a few of th—oh! My abra?”

“Yes. Red said you’re trying to do something like a reverse of my own goal, and suggested collaborating with Jason. He showed me your email about searching for psychic pokemon that have adapted defenses against Dark pokemon, and I began experimenting. I believe your abra would make a good test subject, first to—”

Blue’s sleepiness is rapidly fading as he tries to keep up with the exposition dump, and by the end he’s grinning. “Yeah, got it, one minute!” He slides the paper door closed and takes a step toward his dresser, then turns back and opens it again. “You’re free now, right? That’s why you came in person?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, one sec.” He closes the door and hurries through his morning routine, sending a message to his friends with one hand as he brushes his teeth with the other. Once he checks his schedule and confirms that he doesn’t have anything for a couple hours, he steps out while buckling his pokebelt on. “Let’s head to the training rooms. And start at the beginning for how you got involved.”

“Very well,” she says, and falls into step beside him as he strides toward the stairwell, being careful not to go down them too loud given how many others are probably still sleeping. Living in the gym’s trainer compound is nice in some ways and annoying in others. “But I don’t know what constitutes the beginning, for you.”

“By reversing your goal you mean you’re trying to keep your bond when your torracat evolves into a Dark type, right?” Blue vaguely remembers hearing about this and thinking this would be great for psychics but unlikely to help Dark people. “How does this help with that?”

“As I said, your email to Red was thought provoking, along with his and Jason’s investigations into how ghost and psychic phenomena are related. I began merging with a wider range of psychic pokemon specifically to see if any have unique defense mechanisms against Dark types that haven’t yet been exploited in light of the… how did you put it? ‘The self-perpetuating blindspot of not using Psychic types against Dark opponents?'”

He’s not sure he’s ever used the phrase ‘self-perpetuating,’ but… “Close enough. You found one?”

“Xatu was the first lead. Did you know they have natural anti-Ghost defenses?”

“I know wild ones can have Ghost attacks, sure. But it doesn’t really help them against Dark pokemon, since they shrug off most Ghost attacks anyway.”

“From a battle trainer’s perspective, this may be true. But it means you would focus on their Flying attacks instead, if you had to fight against one, yes?”

“Well, yeah. And I’d have to be pretty desperate to use a xatu to fight anything that would resist even that.”

“As you say.” They step into the bright morning air and start to make their way across the gym compound, where a few other early risers are already doing various chores or training their pokemon. “But Jason and Red have been making strides in delineating the boundary between psychic and medium abilities, without consideration of combat utility, and it’s become more clear how the ability to use Ghost attacks at all is a sign of some difference between one psychic and another.”

“Like a ‘ghost sense’ instead of just a psychic one? Wait, this is one of the first things Red researched with the spinarak, right?” He only remembers it because it came up in the notes Red sent to the production company making the movie about their journey. “He didn’t realize there’s not just one type of psychic particle at the time.”

“Only tangentially related; it would not have been evident through that alone, or his later research with the abra. But after a conversation with Sensei he became convinced that this sense is more broad, and may be visual.”

“Visual?” Blue frowns, hopes sinking. “I don’t get how that would be better than just using their eyes, if they have them? My abra knows I exist by now, or at least knows something like me exists even if it can’t sense my thoughts. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? For both of us.”

“Meowstic were the key; despite the similarities, both genders have different natural capabilities, complemented by expanded sensorium. Extended mergers with females showed broader electromagnetic range, as well as what we’re now calling spiritual sense. This does in fact help them detect dark pokemon from a distance, though it is hard to interpret this reliably, and they still can’t use their psychic abilities on them; only attacks of other kinds.”

“Got it, so if we figure out what female meowstic do, and someone creates a TM that imitates it—”

“This morning I managed, through my male meowstic, to see a dark aura.”

Blue stops cold on the threshold to the front door, then turns to look at her. “What the hell is a ‘dark aura?'”

She holds a hand out and waves it vaguely around him. “An energy field that I believe you and Dark pokemon ambiently have, which presumably keeps you from being affected by psychic abilities. What some Dark pokemon can project from themselves in attacks.”

“How do you even… wait, does Red know about this?”

“I left him a message. He should see it when he wakes, but I was too impatient to wait.”

He almost comments about how her impatience didn’t keep her from waking him up, but he’s glad she did. After a moment he steps aside so she can leave the building as well, then starts walking again. “How has this not been figured out before?”

“Gifted do not generally look through our pokemon’s vision.” She sounds mildly apologetic, almost embarrassed. “It is… disorienting, to see through multiple eyes, more so than other senses being expanded. On occasion it can be valuable for brief periods, but our preference is to keep our senses separate while linking our thoughts for communicating impulses and notions. If we link to psychic pokemon, of course, then their psychic senses are where we focus our attention, as they are as useful to them as vision is for us. It also feels more like a natural expansion rather than taking more focus the way paying attention to another set of eyes or ears does.”

The second half of this doesn’t mean much to Blue, and he tries to reorient to the bottom line. “So… okay so, you were saying meowstic can see dark auras, but psychics don’t use their eyes so they don’t know that?”

“Not ambiently, or else of course someone would have noticed by now. It takes intense concentration. Xatu can as well; as I said, they were the first lead, but we were unsure what they were reacting to due to their spiritual sense, and they do not naturally hunt dark pokemon.”

“But the spiritual sense isn’t necessary?”

“No, male meowstic demonstrated it’s not, as only females have it. And if it’s not for them—”

“It might not be for abra.” They’re almost to the training rooms, and Blue is already running his fingers over Tops’s ball. “What do I need to do?”

“First I’m going to get used to merging with your abra. But I suspect your abra will actually need to evolve to learn this.”

Blue stops for the second time in two minutes, frowning, then pulls his phone out. “Then evolving him just became a priority.”

“Who are you calling?”

“Red. Trust me, he’s going to want to be awake for this… and there’s something I think he can uniquely help with.” Sorry buddy. He’d hoped to protect his friend from the potential fallout of Koichi’s training philosophy, if it turns out to be true, but…

Chapter 104: Secrets

“Sabrina seems tired.”

Red glances at Rei, who sits casually in the carseat beside him with her gaze out the window, then looks back at his notebook and finishes writing out his thought before closing it with a sigh and a nod. “I haven’t seen her this exhausted since after the Hoenn incident.”

He’s still not sure what his relationship with Sabrina’s ex-student is these days. “Co-conspirator” seems the best one that fits; they’re not exactly friends, not exactly peers, and not exactly coworkers, but once in a while Giovanni or Sabrina want something done that requires a psychic, and both seem happy to offer their employee/student to the other if the job requires more than one, or if the other is busy. It’s often a great learning opportunity, and many of the tasks involve putting Red in new situations, facing new challenges for his growing abilities. He’s helped test young psychics in Viridian to see if they had the Gift and get a sense of their abilities, and once even helped diagnose someone who was hit with a mental attack. It felt strange handing someone the same form Psychic Narud gave him a year ago.

Today they’re interviewing psychics who have had The Dream.

It’s hard not to think of the words in capital letters after they’ve shown up in the media that way for weeks, and some part of Red insists this is totally normal given how momentous it all is.

He barely paid attention to it all until it started hitting entire cities, and then Agatha’s interview made it impossible to ignore as the “new central narrative of their time,” to quote some pundit or the other… and if he’s being honest, he’s getting a little sick of living through so many of those, even if this one is relevant to his interests.

Maybe he just wants some breathing room before the next massive and/or mysterious potential calamity rears its head.

Last week was the anniversary of the start of his journey, and the three of them all went back to Pallet to have a small but warm celebration with his mom, Daisy, and the Professor… as well as a surprise visit from Leaf’s mother and grandfather, who were fun to finally meet. Once he (more or less) finished peppering them with questions and answered a number of theirs (it was mildly shocking, despite everything, to hear that both Professors had read not just his papers but the loose collection of writing that passed for his blog), the conversation turned to what’s been going on in Kanto and throughout the island chain, which the Junipers of course followed on two different levels.

Eventually Leaf asked if it’s always been like this and she only just started noticing once she started her journey, and Daisy complained that her journey only had one world-changing discovery during it, while Professor Oak admitted that his own coincided with a fair few, but not so close together, which Cedric agreed with. Leaf’s mother said hers had basically none, which in retrospect she’s rather happy about.

None of course were anything like the Hoenn incident. It’s hard to know how much of what’s happened since can be truly traced back to it, and whether the incident itself was the result of some other series of events set in motion long ago, but Red wonders how much of his life is going to end up shaped by it.

“It set her back a lot,” Red says. “And then there was the ditto thing.”

“So you think it’s just been catch-up?” Rei says.

“She’s finally finished her Challenger backlog.” Red remembers mentioning her shift in focus to Blue a few weeks ago, who just smiled and implied it was part of some deal he’d struck with her. “It’s kept her busy on top of everything else.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

He turns to see her eyes on him now, and lowers his shields enough for a tentative probe that senses her curiosity, layered over a deep worry. “I don’t think she’s had it yet, if that’s what you mean. Not unless she’s sleeping in other cities, or she got it without the rest of us.”

“She could have been one of the initial ones, when it was just going to powerful psychics.”

Red smiles. “You don’t really believe that.”

“Believe what?”

“That it was just going to ‘powerful’ psychics at first, because you consider yourself one and you didn’t get it either.”

Rei smiles back in acknowledgement. “The only alternative that makes sense is fame, and yet we’re supposed to believe one of the most famous psychics in Kanto didn’t get it?”

“Why would she lie?”

“To you, you mean?”

“To anyone, at this point.” Red doesn’t ask why she’s so curious, given that her days of obsessing over Sabrina are supposed to be behind her; he’s been curious too.

“What if she got a different dream than everyone else?”

“Has that happened to anyone?”

“Would we know if it had?”

“Wild speculation, then.”

“If you have a better hypothesis…”

The car slows to a stop, and they step out in front of a small house with a white picket fence and a well kept lawn. Cerulean South is just as Red remembers it, mostly suburbs that stretch out in every direction, and he feels a quick squeeze in his chest as he sees the road he, Blue and Leaf traveled down to the bike store where they met Aiko.

But just a quick one, and then he’s breathing again as they walk up to the house and ring the bell.

It takes a minute for the young man to answer, and when he does it’s with a furtive look through the chain link lock before he opens it more fully.

“Hello,” Rei says. She always does the talking at first; she’s older and looks more professional, which makes sense to older folk, and she’s also not famous, which means those people who know Red by sight (mostly younger psychics) are less likely to ask him questions about himself if he’s not the one who starts talking. Instead he just focuses on his notebook unless he has a question to ask. “Mr. Garcia? I’m Rei, we spoke on the phone.”

“Yes, come in, please…”

They enter the man’s home and sit on his couch. Red accepts tea, mostly because it seems like the sort of thing that would calm their host’s obvious nerves. His features are drawn, his gaze constantly either a million miles away or darting nervously around, and he twitches occasionally, head tilting in an almost desperate attempt to hear something, or convince himself he can’t hear anything.

Red’s seen it all before, but not this bad. The Dream can often have that effect on people, but usually it’s temporary, particularly since a lot of psychics just amnesia themselves of it; there’s been a rush on lessons for that and other lessons in Saffron as laypsychics who’ve only marginally explored their powers are suddenly much more interested in ensuring it’s not used against them again.

“So,” Rei says after declining her own offer of tea. “Tell us what you hoped Leader Sabrina could do for you.”

“Well, I’m ah, not sure. I’m a sensitive, like I said, not a full psychic… I ah, wish I could just… forget, you know? If it’s possible at all… I heard it’s possible… I thought surely, she could…”

The pleading in his tone makes Red’s stomach clench. He still remembers what Narud said about one psychic giving another amnesia; like surgery done with fingers, or similar. Whatever Mr. Garcia heard, it’s clearly not as deterring… or maybe his experience is just that bad.

“It’s possible,” Rei says, tone neither flat nor sympathetic, merely delivering logistical information. Red asked her once, way back when they were trying to crack “perfect lying” together, why she doesn’t try being more friendly, and she gave him an assessing look and said that she forgets how young he is sometimes, and he decided not to ask for clarification until he could figure out whether he said something insulting or if she did. “But it would be a risky procedure that most psychics would not wish to attempt, even skilled ones. We will, however, ensure Sabrina knows of your suffering.”

“Thank you.”

“Meanwhile, we would like to learn what we can about your experience in more detail.”

“Yes, yes of course. Well, to start it’s been… ah, like I said, the first dream, in Goldenrod… it was bad, but not, you know. Wrecked my concentration for the rest of the week, but the important business was already done… drank a bit more after the meetings to help me sleep, and by the time I came home, it was… easier. To put it behind me.”

Garcia swallows, then drinks some tea, swallows again. “The second time was like… it was… it’s like, because I tried so hard to forget before, I got punished. And now it’s etched in there.” He taps his temple. “To make sure I don’t, this time.”

“But the dream itself was the same?” Rei asks as Red makes a note to point out whether recognizing that a whole city got it clearly points to bad luck rather than any evidence of fault. “Please think over your answer, and don’t hesitate to voice uncertainty; you’re the only person we know of so far who has experienced it twice, and even the slightest difference may be useful to us.”

“It… I’m sorry, I’ll take a moment…” He closes his eyes, mouth set in a firm frown as Red finishes making another note about how they should put out a general call for psychics to record themselves while sleeping in case they talk in their sleep during the dream.

As the silence stretches out, Red can’t help but send out a tentative, instinctual psychic feeler that picks up on something like… pain.

Red almost pulls back, but Garcia doesn’t shift to any of the exercises he mentioned knowing to reduce unwanted psychic contact, so he feels the way Garcia is struggling against strongly aversive thoughts.

Not painful the way an embarrassing memory or recollection of grief is painful… more the pain of dread, of a potential hopelessness that’s only held at bay by a lack of close examination. Once he understands it, Red quickly pulls his thoughts away as Garcia starts to speak again. “I think so, it’s… hard to tell, but the second time was… more forceful. It was like… things were clearer, but… maybe that’s just because I—”

“Remember, no filter, no second guessing. Just share whatever notions come up. Yes or no: was it more forceful?”

“Y-yes.”

“Was it more desperate?”

“Y…no. I’m not—” He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. “If I have to choose, no. Not more desperate. I’m not sure how that fits with it being more forceful, but…”

“It’s alright. Remember, it doesn’t have to make sense.”

“Did it feel like the same projector?” Red asks, writing the question out as he says it. “I know that’s hard to tell from just two samples, but again as best you can tell—”

“Yes, same projector. Their thoughts were… distinct. Strong. It really was like hearing words, not just getting ideas and impressions. I’m more sure than I would be with just anyone.”

Red frowns as he makes a quick note, then flips to another page and crosses out one of his hypotheses before returning to his current one. “And… was the order of the dream the same? Like did it all happen in the same sequence of words, impressions, feelings, whatever?”

“Oh. No?” Garcia considers another moment, then shakes his head. “N-no. It was subtle, and… some things stayed in the same order, but I have… two versions in my head, for the sequence of both.”

“But nothing was added to the second one, or obviously missing?”

“No.”

He’s getting more confident, which is heartening to see, but thinking about the dream does seem to still cause discomfort. Rei probably sensed it too, one way or the other, because she gives him a sympathetic smile before saying, “We have one last request, if you’re feeling willing. We’d like to experience this dream ourselves as best we can, despite not having had it.”

Garcia understands immediately, knuckles turning white as he clenches his hands around each other. “Oh… I…”

“Preferably twice each, so that Red and I are not merged at once and influencing each other’s impressions.”

“I… I think I…”

Red feels a tightening in his chest as the man’s stutter gets worse, and with rising alarm realizes the older man is on the verge of tears. “Hey, uh, I think it’s okay actually. From what you’ve described it doesn’t seem like it was different enough to be really necessary.”

Garcia’s whole body sags, and he takes a deep breath. “A-alright, then.”

Rei’s irritation is only evident mentally, but all she says is, “I believe that’s all, then. Thank you for your time.”

“One more thing,” Red quickly adds. “Uh, I mean I’m not claiming to know anything here that you don’t, but if you’re thinking that any of this is, like, a punishment or something…” Red remembers, suddenly, the young man in Vermilion City during the storm, who felt Zapdos’s pressure as divine punishment for something he was guilty about and grieving over. “Since entire cities got it both times you did, I think it’s probably just bad luck?”

“Luck,” Garcia sighs. “Right.” He sounds… tired, rather than relieved.

Before Red can decide to add something else or not Rei gets to her feet, and he quickly finishes his tea before joining her while Garcia pushes himself up as well, seeming a little surprised that it’s actually over so quickly. After unlocking the door he pauses and turns to them, seeming to build up his courage. “You will… tell Sabrina? Or… others, about my…”

“Yes, of course.”

“Th-thank you. I’ve been getting… desperate, lately. Had th-thoughts of… of training a drowzee, to… to—”

A shot of alarm races through Red as he realizes what’s being confessed, thoughts scrambling for something to keep the man from admitting he’s thinking of breaking a renegade law, until to his relief Rei puts a hand on Garcia’s shoulder, gently squeezing. “I’m sure that won’t be necessary, Sir. We’ll do our best to figure something else out.”

It’s the most compassionate thing Red’s ever seen her do, and the man looks ready to cry again as he bobs his head, then whispers, “Thank you.”

Rei gives his shoulder a light pat before pulling her arm back, and he opens the door for them. Red gives one last small wave, and then they step out of the house and start walking in a random direction together, simply seeking privacy to discuss what they learned before each teleports back to their respective cities.

“Thoughts?” Rei asks after a minute.

“I’m becoming more and more convinced Agatha was right with her first guess,” Red says. “When I look at the evidence, the best explanation that fits is that an individual is doing all this.”

“Go on.”

Red reviews his notes, ticking each point off on a finger. “It’s never repeated in a city, and it’s never hit the same place twice once it stopped targeting individuals. Why do that? The second dream wasn’t exactly like the first in minor details but not major ones—”

“Allegedly.”

He frowns at her. “Come on, in that state could we really have trusted what he re-experienced?”

“Perhaps not, but it still might have been valuable.”

Red thinks through all the previous times he experienced the memories of someone’s dream through merger and shrugs. “I can’t imagine how, given the way it all fades into a background blur of impressions for me anyway.” Which, after seeing Mr. Garcia, he suddenly feels thankful for. He doesn’t feel like he particularly needs another traumatic experience in his life right now, curious as he is to know what having the Dream himself would be like.

“Mm. Well, you’re right that trauma responses are hard to predict. I’m sorry, I interrupted you as you were saying…”

Red checks his notes again. “Right, there’s also the ramp up from individuals. It’s like someone hoped that just telling some important people would be enough, at first.”

“There’s nothing stopping a hypothetical spirit or god from being mistaken about something, or poor at planning.”

“Sure, but what actual value does that explanation add, then? It’s meant to answer the question of how someone can know what the dream insists is true, and how they can transmit it like this. But if it seems like it’s making errors similar to what a human would anyway, then we shouldn’t be as impressed. Whatever sent the dreams either didn’t realize they would be hitting the same person twice in Cerulean, or they didn’t care, or they didn’t have the ability not to and still cover the city.”

“Your focus is on the wrong part of the explanation. There’s no actual reason why a non-human entity should be expected to not fall into any of those categories.” Rei shrugs. “Your models implicitly assume any non-human entity is infinitely more benevolent or capable along some dimension, rather than more capable along one or two, and that seems irrational to me.”

Red scratches his neck as he tries to fit the concept of it into his brain. It feels wrong somehow, but he can’t really think of why, and has to admit it might just be expectation. “Alright, yeah, that might be fair. I still say it’s more likely to be a human with a uniquely powerful projection though.”

“Which you believe they’re hiding because it would mark their circumstances more similar to yours.”

Red shrugs, not bothering to deny it. It’s hard not to sympathize with someone who has a unique psychic talent that others might fear, even if they weren’t putting themselves at risk to spread some vital truth… or rather, something they believe is a vital truth. He doesn’t know how they became aware of the Dream’s threat themselves, but it must have been convincing enough to have them risk their own anonymity, which is an extra weight on how persuasive the threat is.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems far more reasonable to me that a human wouldn’t want people to know who they are than a spirit or whatever. If anything knowing it’s not a person would make the message more convincing, so if they understand anything about human psychology—”

“Which they might not.”

“—sure, which they might not, but then how did they know to target the most famous psychics first? Even putting aside the projector’s city-wide power, some people just don’t like the spotlight, which yes I personally relate to, but it’s still true.”

“Mm. Isn’t there a movie being made about you?”

“Hey, that was Blue and Leaf’s idea. I can feel uncomfortable about it and still agree it’s a good idea.”

“But surely the rational thing to do would be to become comfortable with it once you recognize it’s a good idea?”

“No, I can have different parts that each have a valuable perspective on something, and I can feel a certain way and still recognize—oh you’re messing with me aren’t you.”

“Just a little.” Rei slows to a stop and unclips a pokeball, and Red matches her. “I’m off to Viridian. Do let me know if Sabrina has anything interesting to add.”

“Same to you with Giovanni.” He wonders if she actually would, given he’s her boss rather than her teacher, but if she does he’s happy to reciprocate, assuming it’s nothing he thinks Sabrina would mind being shared. “Until next time.”

A few minutes later he’s knocking on Sabrina’s office door, then entering as she calls out to come in. The Leader does look tired, and more than a little distracted… but there’s something else, too. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s almost like she has more drive than she used to. He’d be worried she’s entering a manic phase if she wasn’t still so clearly in control of herself.

“So?” she says as he sits and accepts his second tea cup of the hour. “Is it bad?”

“Very, Sensei. I know it shouldn’t be done lightly, but if you saw him yourself I think you’d agree that he needs help.”

She sighs. “I’d rather wait at least a week to see if he starts to recover on his own, particularly if he can find a psychic therapist, but after that… I’ll see what I can do. Any new insights into the dreams themselves?”

“I can send you my notes—”

“Your takeaway is good enough for now.”

Red nods. “Nothing really meaningful. He says it’s more urgent now, but… that could just be from having had it before.”

“Of course. Well, it was worth a try—”

“Actually, Sensei, there is something else, but it’s not directly from Mr. Garcia.” She raises a brow and gestures for him to continue. “I’ve been thinking about this since Agatha’s interview, and after talking to Rei about it I’m pretty convinced that this doesn’t seem to be a supernatural source.” He quickly summarizes his points from before, then adds, “I didn’t mention this to her, but if it is a psychic with a unique ability, or a semi-unique one, like we talked about… well, would you have any guess for who it could be?”

Sabrina’s gaze shifted away from him at some point while he was talking, and she’s still looking into the distance, hands steepled on the desk. Red waits, though he does send out a psychic feeler to confirm that her shield is fully solid.

What’s unsettling Red at this point isn’t how long it’s taking to answer, but why she didn’t just lie.

She should have, if she’s protecting someone’s identity. Spending this much time thinking over her answer, however, would make it hard to believe if she said no now, even if she claimed to just have been searching her memory; she doubtless has had this thought already before he brought it up.

And she should know this, and yet she’s still seemingly paralyzed by some thought or emotion or decision.

“Sensei,” Red says after a moment of mustering his courage. “Why do you think you didn’t get the dream?” It’s the closest he can come to asking if Rei was right about Sabrina lying about it.

The Leader’s eyes flick to his, then away again, then back, and this time they hold. “I don’t know. But I suspect it’s because the one sending the dreams is… one of my ex-students.”

Even expecting it, the confirmation halts Red’s breath for a moment, then sends his pulse racing as new questions start to crowd his thoughts. “Have you… mentioned them before?”

“Yes, though I didn’t mention they had this ability. Because they didn’t, at the time. But it still seems likely to be them.”

“Who are they?”

“Not someone you would know.”

Something suddenly clicks, and Red asks, “The one who disappeared after Hoenn?”

Sabrina stares at him for a moment, then another, again too long. “What makes you say that?”

“I don’t…” It takes him a moment to piece together the intuition. “You’ve been a certain way, ever since then. Half grieving, I think.” He recognized it well enough, good as she was at controlling it. “But you’re not anymore. I thought it was just because of the new mystery of the dreams, but… how do you… why do you suspect it’s them?”

“The best evidence I have is that I didn’t get the dream, and that Saffron hasn’t either.”

Red blinks. “You think they’re avoiding you? Does that mean they were never really lost?”

“It’s… hard to say. I thought we were on good terms. But given all this… how much trust could there really have been?”

Red doesn’t know what to say to that, besides, “At least they’re alive.”

“Maybe. And I could be wrong, of course. It could be a coincidence. I’ve been trying to sleep all night, just in case it’s Saffron’s turn next, but it’s hard to fall asleep when I’m anticipating what might happen if I do.” She shrugs. “I can amnesia the expectation to help me fall asleep, of course, but I want to experience it knowing what it is, wake from it with my full memories intact.”

Red tries to decide whether he should be tactful or inquisitive at the moment, but he’s still not sure what might be comforting rather than presumptuous; he doesn’t know enough about the situation, or their relationship, and asking might be digging. “Blue and I were, you know, on the outs for a while. Maybe there’s still a chance of mending bridges? Especially if you don’t know why they’re upset with you…”

“I can guess.” Sabrina smiles. “I appreciate it, Red, but the situation is rather complicated, and I’m not really in the mood to discuss it. Ask what you want to ask.”

Red smiles back, a bit self-conscious but also grateful. “Do you know what they want? Why they’re doing this?”

“If you’re asking whether I think we can trust the dream, it’s hard to tell without having the dream myself, but… yes. I think so. Whatever they learned, it was enough to make them put themself at serious risk.”

Red leans forward. “I was right then? It’s someone like me?”

For some reason that makes her laugh, brief but with a startled quality that makes it warmer. “Not like you, no. But not entirely unlike, in terms of secrets.”

“Maybe I can reach out to them, let them know what we’ve been planning!”

Again Sabrina pauses, expression sobering before she sighs. “If you can find a way to contact them, I wish you luck. But they might avoid you out of principle given that you know me. And no, I can’t tell you any more about why that is. I’m sorry, Red, I don’t mean to be mysterious, but some things are private.”

“I understand.” Mostly. “Still, if they have any other friends that you haven’t checked with recently…?”

Sabrina shakes her head. “They’ve lived a fairly isolated life. Most of their interactions with others came from their psychic abilities, which were quite powerful. Since they weren’t taught not to invade people’s privacy, they had many acquaintances that they knew quite well, but never got particularly close to any of them.”

“Sounds lonely.” Something about this description is tickling the back of Red’s mind, and after a moment he gives a wan smile. “Reminds me a bit of the story Leaf’s been writing, actually.”

“She writes fiction too?”

“Yeah, been publishing it online. I don’t know where she finds time, but it’s about a half-human psychic pokemon who’s sapient and gets raised in a lab—”

The next few moments can be measured in heartbeats, but feel eternal.

Sabrina’s eyes went wide at the words half-human psychic pokemon, wider than he’s ever seen them, wider than when he told her his secrets, and she sucked in a sharp breath at raised in a lab, mouth going slack.

It lasts just a second before her lips close, her features smooth, and her posture shifts back toward relaxed attentiveness, all so smoothly he would have missed it if he blinked.

“—that learns… about people through…” Whatever Red was going to say next has been blown out of his mind by the shock of seeing Sabrina react so strongly, and the suspicion of what she’s just done.

Red, you are the worst liar!

It’s barely even a decision, in the end.

And then…

“…through those working in the lab around it.”

“Interesting,” Sabrina says, and sips her tea. “That does sound lonely, yes.” Sabrina’s gaze is distant again, and after a moment she frowns and shifts. “I’m sorry, Red, I’ve just remembered a call I need to make. Thank you for the debrief.”

“Oh, sure.” He’s still curious about her student, but whether there’s really a call or not, he knows a dismissal when he hears one and heads to his room for a shower.

He’s just taken his shoes off when the partition drops, along with the amnesia’d memory of Sabrina’s reaction.

“Oh shit,” Red breathes as he drops onto his bed. “Holy shit. Holy fuck.”

Sabrina’s student was a lab experiment.

There are labs studying psychics, probably helping develop unusual psychic powers.

Because of course there are.

And of course Sabrina would know about them maybe she even comes from one that’s why she can see psychic colors sometimes and she amnesia’d herself mid-conversation because she was reacting too much so it must be super secret, way more secret than what they’ve already told each other, and holy fucking shit what is he going to do with this information?

Who did she suddenly remember she had to call?

What would she do if she knew Red knows?

Suspects. I don’t know anything.

Her reaction replays in his memory, and he feels something twisting in his gut. He could be wrong, but… he doesn’t think Sabrina would have reacted like that to just an unusual or interesting story idea. Maybe he’s wrong about a lot of it, maybe it’s not ongoing and just somewhere she and her friend were raised together or something. Hell, Sabrina might have helped shut it down.

But the idea of a psychic going around secretly projecting a warning instead of outing himself makes even more sense, with this explanation.

He’s halfway through taking out his journal when he realizes it might be a terrible idea to write any of this out, then remembers that there’s someone else he should be talking to and pulls out his phone.

“Hey Leaf, are you free? Yeah I’m fine, just want to talk. In person. Yeah, been a while since we hung out at the ranch, right? Exactly. Great, see you soon!”

A minute later he’s on the roof, and a few seconds after that he’s at the ranch. He looks around, then starts pacing as he waits, then summons Charmeleon and practices some battle maneuvers. After two months of fairly frequent battles with wild pokemon, his starter now stands as tall as his shoulders, tail long enough to curl around its body. It’s a little disconcerting, sometimes, to be able to meet that fierce blue gaze so easily now.

“Been a while since I could keep berries out of your reach, huh boy?” He feeds Charmeleon some poffins, other hand rubbing the base of his pokemon’s crest bone. “Not that I ever really could, with your climbing powers.”

Charmeleon gives a crooning-growl as he licks Red’s palm clean, and then there’s a distant pop as Leaf arrives nearby.

“Hey, Red!” She withdraws her abra and walks over with a worried smile and furrowed brow. “I’m assuming I interpreted that call right and this isn’t just a hang out?”

“Yeah.” It’s always good to see her, and while the circumstances don’t allow him to take much time enjoying her company, he can’t help but just smile for a moment, happy to see her and be near her. She also looks tired, and he knows that along with all her other work, she’s been helping with local incidents too. It makes him worry about her, but he knows she can take care of herself. So he sends her that mental impression, and she returns his smile.

Over the past few months they’ve had a few more moments like the one at his mom’s apartment after the tower, moments where he felt like he could say something, or should say something, about how he feels. But instead he’s just projected parts of it, careful to use his partitions to keep from sending the whole thing at once. It feels easier not to break his promise and check how she feels as long as he can be open about his own, now and then. She’s also seemed to appreciate it, so the idea of doing anything more explicit feels… scary. “Sorry, were you busy? Because—”

“I can chat for a bit,” she says as she unclips a pokeball. “Though I have to get back soon for a meeting.”

“How soon? This might be important.”

Leaf bites her lower lip. “I can probably make it there so long as I leave within about twenty minutes? I can’t really risk more, since it’s with my Fuchsia friend…”

Ah, Mom’s informant. “And you can’t really call and tell them you’ll be late, yeah… well, that should be enough for covering the basics at least. It’s about your story.”

Leaf’s hand pauses from where it’s moving from her belt to an outstretched position. It’s only for a moment, but he was watching it, and her voice is carefully controlled when she says, “Go, Raff!” and then “What about the story?”

It’s a struggle not to send his senses out, to sample her mood at least. He and Sabrina’s other students have taught Leaf what they could for completely non-psychic defenses, and she’s good at them, so a full merger might not be particularly helpful anyway if she’s actively trying to keep him out.

Still, he’s curious enough to almost try before reminding himself that he promised not to. The thought that Leaf might lie to him feels like a stone in his gut, probably all the heavier because of how many things he’s been keeping from her.

He watches her take out a training tool (and toy), basically an elastic and tough cord that pokemon can play tug-of-war with. It’s mostly meant for fighting pokemon, but they’ve found that others enjoy it too; both starters are already looking at it with anticipation, and a quick command from their trainers has them gripping the ends in their mouths and pulling.

Normally they’d be cheering their pokemon on, but there’s an awkward silence between them now, and after another moment Red decides to just be straightforward. “Alright, so I’m not really sure how else to say this, and I get that there might be some things you can’t tell me. But… uh… is your story inspired by something you’ve been looking into?”

Leaf raises a brow. “When you say ‘looking into,’ what exactly do you…”

She trails off, and, before Red can say anything, sighs and rubs her eyes. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to do this part well with friends. It feels gross.”

“I know what you mean,” Red says, maybe a bit too earnestly. “I’m sorry too, I don’t know how else to ask, but I think it’s important. When you started it you said it was just something you were experimenting with to help people empathize with pokemon better, and I’m not saying that’s like, a lie or anything, but if, uh, if there really were like, secret labs training psychics—”

“Oh!” Leaf bursts into laughter, and for a moment Red feels sweeping, glorious relief… until her laughter cuts off, and her eyes widen as she stares at him. “Oh… Swords of Justice, there are secret psychic labs—

“No no, that’s double counting!” Red holds his palms out, one still slick with Charmeleon’s saliva. “I have no evidence that there are, if you just made it up then it’s probably nothing, it’s just… uh, maybe I shouldn’t say—”

“Red this is important!”

“I know, but—wait, is it important because you do know something, or—”

She tries once again to keep her face blank, but Leaf is no Sabrina, and after a moment she mutters “Fuck!” and covers her face with both hands. “We never tell anyone about this.”

“Agreed. Definitely not going in the second movie.”

She starts giggling, and then they’re both laughing as Charmeleon and Raff continue to tug at the rope, jaws occasionally gnawing for better purchase.

“This… is why society needs… meta norms around secrets,” Red says between breaths.

“Oh yeah,” Leaf gasps, arm across her belly. “Just make talking about it a global holiday.” She giggles. “Or else just asking what someone’s meta-honesty-norms are would give information away!”

That sets them laughing again, and once it finally tapers off, they stare at each other for a moment until Red gives a helpless shrug. “So who goes first?”

“The one who has the least risky secret, I think.” She gives a wry grin. “Should we use a number scale?”

“You know what, sure, why not. What’s a 1?”

“A 1 is like, your friend will be exasperated at you for being a gossip. And a 10 is… something that will destroy the world if it gets out, I guess?”

Red’s smile slips, then fades entirely. “Right. And a 5 would be something that… brings about a region’s downfall?”

“That sounds more like, uh, an 8?”

“I think that would be all regions, if a 9 is… what, all life is at stake, but the planet will probably be fine?”

“I guess that sounds right. So a 7 is one region’s downfall, and a 6 is… multiple cities?” Leaf frowns. “If we keep doing this it’s going to make the number itself a metadata leak.”

“We could give the numbers to someone who doesn’t know what they represent, then just have them tell us whose was higher? They might get curious though, then we have to lie to them—”

She snorts. “Blue would probably roll his eyes but not ask questions. Also it would be easy to just write a script that would do it for us.”

“Right—wait, I’m an idiot, I can just amnesia myself after you tell me something if it doesn’t relate to what I thought!”

“Permanently?”

“Uh… not really…”

Charmeleon growls and falls onto all fours as Raff, feet digging into the ground and leaves rustling, starts to pull the rope harder. The flame on Charmeleon’s tail flares, and Red is alarmed enough to merge with his pokemon to check if he’s still in a playful mood. “Uh, not sure why but he’s maybe getting a bit too riled up for this.”

“They do get more competitive the closer they are to evolving. You should find some other charmeleon for him to play with.”

Close to evolving. He knows his pokemon just has a couple of feet of growth left before that becomes possible, but hearing it put that way makes it seem right around the corner. “Yeah, will do. Meanwhile…” He unclips two balls and holds one up as he sends a calming wave through his merger until his pokemon relaxes and lets the rope drop from his jaws, “Charmeleon, return! Go, Ivysaur! And before you say it, yeah, I still haven’t named him, sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize to me.” Her teasing expression fades as she checks her phone. “I really do have to go soon. Look, you’re right, your powers make telling you first the obvious right choice. But if you do decide not to tell me afterward, it’s going to be hard to justify why I shared the info with someone, and I won’t be able to lie about that either. Do you understand?”

“You’re saying it might draw more people into it.” And that whoever she wouldn’t be able to lie to, it would be someone as close to her as he is. While he’d like to think that’s not actually true, he knows there are plenty of others she would probably feel just as bad lying to, like Blue or his mom.

Red lets out a breath, rubbing his face. “Yeah, I get it. I’m actually still processing some stuff that I did actually learn and I’m not sure what the full scope of everything is. Maybe it’s better to actually just… both forget this for now?”

“That… might be the responsible thing to do, yeah.”

They both stand silently for a moment, staring at each other, and he doesn’t need to merge to guess her thoughts: “Responsibility sucks sometimes.”

“It sucks so much!”

“But we can both keep looking into it right?”

“Oh, totally! And if we find something out that wouldn’t be breaking someone’s confidence—”

“We could share that,” Red finishes, and smiles. “I wasn’t exactly looking for another project, but maybe my mom can h—really?

“I’m leaving!” Leaf declares, withdrawing Raff and summoning her abra while turning her back on him. “Goodbye Mr. Verres!”

“Wait, at least tell me—”

“Fuchsia!”

“—aaand she’s gone.” He turns to his ivysaur, who just unceremoniously lost his play partner, and picks up the other end of the chord. “Well boy, now we just have to decide if we should ask the Professor. If you win, I won’t.” Ivysaur cocks his head, then braces his feet against the ground… only to drop his end of the rope as soon as Red pulls.

He stares at the slack rope for a second and shrugs. “Well, guess that settles it. Just need to figure out some meta norms around secrets first… and hopefully not get any new ones to hold onto meanwhile.”


“I want to help.”

Blue blinks sleepily at the violet-haired girl standing outside his door. “Help with… Satori, right? Help with what?” It’s barely seven in the morning, and he went to bed around midnight after a strategy debate on how to better protect Fuchsia’s northern and southern tips went long past dinner, followed by a long walk and training session with Eevee beneath the full moon.

Satori doesn’t look like she got much sleep either. “Your project.” Her torracat is sniffing in the direction of his room, and takes a step inside before suddenly stopping and stepping back, probably from some mental nudge.

He rubs some sleep from his eyes. “I have a few of th—oh! My abra?”

“Yes. Red said you’re trying to do something like a reverse of my own goal, and suggested collaborating with Jason. He showed me your email about searching for psychic pokemon that have adapted defenses against Dark pokemon, and I began experimenting. I believe your abra would make a good test subject, first to—”

Blue’s sleepiness is rapidly fading as he tries to keep up with the exposition dump, and by the end he’s grinning. “Yeah, got it, one minute!” He slides the paper door closed and takes a step toward his dresser, then turns back and opens it again. “You’re free now, right? That’s why you came in person?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, one sec.” He closes the door and hurries through his morning routine, sending a message to his friends with one hand as he brushes his teeth with the other. Once he checks his schedule and confirms that he doesn’t have anything for a couple hours, he steps out while buckling his pokebelt on. “Let’s head to the training rooms. And start at the beginning for how you got involved.”

“Very well,” she says, and falls into step beside him as he strides toward the stairwell, being careful not to go down them too loud given how many others are probably still sleeping. Living in the gym’s trainer compound is nice in some ways and annoying in others. “But I don’t know what constitutes the beginning, for you.”

“By reversing your goal you mean you’re trying to keep your bond when your torracat evolves into a Dark type, right?” Blue vaguely remembers hearing about this and thinking this would be great for psychics but unlikely to help Dark people. “How does this help with that?”

“As I said, your email to Red was thought provoking, along with his and Jason’s investigations into how ghost and psychic phenomena are related. I began merging with a wider range of psychic pokemon specifically to see if any have unique defense mechanisms against Dark types that haven’t yet been exploited in light of the… how did you put it? ‘The self-perpetuating blindspot of not using Psychic types against Dark opponents?'”

He’s not sure he’s ever used the phrase ‘self-perpetuating,’ but… “Close enough. You found one?”

“Xatu was the first lead. Did you know they have natural anti-Ghost defenses?”

“I know wild ones can have Ghost attacks, sure. But it doesn’t really help them against Dark pokemon, since they shrug off most Ghost attacks anyway.”

“From a battle trainer’s perspective, this may be true. But it means you would focus on their Flying attacks instead, if you had to fight against one, yes?”

“Well, yeah. And I’d have to be pretty desperate to use a xatu to fight anything that would resist even that.”

“As you say.” They step into the bright morning air and start to make their way across the gym compound, where a few other early risers are already doing various chores or training their pokemon. “But Jason and Red have been making strides in delineating the boundary between psychic and medium abilities, without consideration of combat utility, and it’s become more clear how the ability to use Ghost attacks at all is a sign of some difference between one psychic and another.”

“Like a ‘ghost sense’ instead of just a psychic one? Wait, this is one of the first things Red researched with the spinarak, right?” He only remembers it because it came up in the notes Red sent to the production company making the movie about their journey. “He didn’t realize there’s not just one type of psychic particle at the time.”

“Only tangentially related; it would not have been evident through that alone, or his later research with the abra. But after a conversation with Sensei he became convinced that this sense is more broad, and may be visual.”

“Visual?” Blue frowns, hopes sinking. “I don’t get how that would be better than just using their eyes, if they have them? My abra knows I exist by now, or at least knows something like me exists even if it can’t sense my thoughts. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? For both of us.”

“Meowstic were the key; despite the similarities, both genders have different natural capabilities, complemented by expanded sensorium. Extended mergers with females showed broader electromagnetic range, as well as what we’re now calling spiritual sense. This does in fact help them detect dark pokemon from a distance, though it is hard to interpret this reliably, and they still can’t use their psychic abilities on them; only attacks of other kinds.”

“Got it, so if we figure out what female meowstic do, and someone creates a TM that imitates it—”

“This morning I managed, through my male meowstic, to see a dark aura.”

Blue stops cold on the threshold to the front door, then turns to look at her. “What the hell is a ‘dark aura?'”

She holds a hand out and waves it vaguely around him. “An energy field that I believe you and Dark pokemon ambiently have, which presumably keeps you from being affected by psychic abilities. What some Dark pokemon can project from themselves in attacks.”

“How do you even… wait, does Red know about this?”

“I left him a message. He should see it when he wakes, but I was too impatient to wait.”

He almost comments about how her impatience didn’t keep her from waking him up, but he’s glad she did. After a moment he steps aside so she can leave the building as well, then starts walking again. “How has this not been figured out before?”

“Gifted do not generally look through our pokemon’s vision.” She sounds mildly apologetic, almost embarrassed. “It is… disorienting, to see through multiple eyes, more so than other senses being expanded. On occasion it can be valuable for brief periods, but our preference is to keep our senses separate while linking our thoughts for communicating impulses and notions. If we link to psychic pokemon, of course, then their psychic senses are where we focus our attention, as they are as useful to them as vision is for us. It also feels more like a natural expansion rather than taking more focus the way paying attention to another set of eyes or ears does.”

The second half of this doesn’t mean much to Blue, and he tries to reorient to the bottom line. “So… okay so, you were saying meowstic can see dark auras, but psychics don’t use their eyes so they don’t know that?”

“Not ambiently, or else of course someone would have noticed by now. It takes intense concentration. Xatu can as well; as I said, they were the first lead, but we were unsure what they were reacting to due to their spiritual sense, and they do not naturally hunt dark pokemon.”

“But the spiritual sense isn’t necessary?”

“No, male meowstic demonstrated it’s not, as only females have it. And if it’s not for them—”

“It might not be for abra.” They’re almost to the training rooms, and Blue is already running his fingers over Tops’s ball. “What do I need to do?”

“First I’m going to get used to merging with your abra. But I suspect your abra will actually need to evolve to learn this.”

Blue stops for the second time in two minutes, frowning, then pulls his phone out. “Then evolving him just became a priority.”

“Who are you calling?”

“Red. Trust me, he’s going to want to be awake for this… and there’s something I think he can uniquely help with.” Sorry buddy. He’d hoped to protect his friend from the potential fallout of Koichi’s training philosophy, if it turns out to be true, but…

If he’s honest, he’s been starting to lose confidence in his ability to beat Janine. Sure, he might get the battle with Koga anyway, since he’s fulfilling his end of the bargain… but if he doesn’t leave Fuchsia a stronger gym than he found it, if his ideas aren’t at least somewhat adopted… he’s going to feel like a failure.

We’ll figure this stuff out together.

Classy Agency

[Epistemic status: still figuring things out. Like most discussion of class or society, this is a somewhat reductive view on categories of people and their thoughts/preferences/behaviors. I’m trying to figure out and point to broad trends, not prescribe what should be, or what has to be, for any given person.]

The relationship between class and agency has been really interesting to poke into as a way of exploring both. I’ve been working on developing a new lens on this in relation to my actions and what perspectives/generators they’re coming from, and it seems to have uncovered some assumptions/blind spots.

Starting to notice what class my actions would signal has lead to a feeling of constraint on what I could actually do to solve problems around me. The explicit version of an inexplicit chain of thought I had today would be something like “If I want to test this brush before I buy it, the obvious thing to do is just lay my jacket out on the floor and test how good it is at getting dust off.” Which totally works, assuming you don’t care what strangers in a store who you’ll probably never meet again think of you.

And that lack of care can be crucial to actually getting things done sometimes. When you boil it down, about a third of what “having agency” ends up requiring in the world includes the willingness to break social norms that others would be too afraid of censure or judgement to breach. This is a big part of why Quest Day is so successful for students at the end of SPARC or ESPR; it creates an atmosphere that gives license to do things that are, in essence, “weird,” such as walking up to strangers and gathering data on unusual questions, putting on an impromptu improv show at a local pub, or asking a cab driver to let you put on a blindfold and get dropped off at a random location.  Weirdness isn’t necessary in many cases where showing agency is what gets something done, but it can’t be an impediment if the thing you’re prioritizing is actually to Do The Thing.

But there are costs to ignoring some Chesterton Fences around others’ comfort that someone blind or uninterested in class or status is much more ready to pay. And this means more than just how people judge you; it includes the comfort of those associated with you. Being able to make that trade can be vital for someone who has no other options in getting something difficult done, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it, if you judge the tradeoff too high.  you can have more than one consideration while prioritizing, and there’s a fine line between determination and tunnel-vision, and if you’re used to doing things with low resources, then you might get stuck in a local maximum when your context has changed.

High class people don’t have this problem, because they operate with fewer constraints, and have socially supported ways of exercising agency. This isn’t to say that all of them do; I’m not actually sure which classes are most or least “agentic,” and maybe the framing itself is still too entangled in what it means to enact your will on the world.

But it seems more clear to me now how, when high class individuals exercise agency, it looks different than what lower or middle class people are used to; primarily, it’s through delegating tasks to others. My friend Lulie made the analogy of limbs as an extension of the self in enacting agency in the world, and obvious though it seems in retrospect, it unlocked a whole cascade of realizations.

Giovanni makes a similar argument in my story at one point, but at the time I wrote it more as a method to achieve difficult goals, not ways-of-being. How well you delegate suddenly doesn’t just seem a matter of efficiency; it’s like an entirely different theory of self.  When you legitimately think of yourself as not just your body, but the resources at your command, your agency is enacted through everyone who does what you want them to, for whatever reason you give them to do it.

From many low or middle-class perspectives, this can look like indolence, sloth, parasitism, etc. Part of this is because being low-resourced develops habits that skew against relying on others, but I think another part is because bodily skills feel intrinsic and heroic, while social skills seem (and in the case of things like money, often are) transferrable, which is bucketed with concepts like “unearned” or “vulnerable.” The average skilled laborer could get dropped naked onto a deserted island and maybe build themselves a shelter, but the average elite raised with a silver spoon would be helpless.

Except that’s clearly a challenge biased toward one set of skills. Social skills may be more contextually fragile, but they’re also immensely more powerful in a world as interconnected as ours; success through skills useful in the state of nature may be a more deep-seated value evaluators, the same way muscles do, but social muscles are no less real for being invisible.

(This is probably in part reinforced by fiction. Heroes (both in life and in stories) use charisma all the time to talk their way out of problems, but most fiction doesn’t turn those sorts of actions into interesting plots resolutions outside of a few narrow situations like rousing speeches or duplicity. This is largely because a) most writers are themselves unused to seeing these dynamics play out, and b) most readers wouldn’t find the challenges of someone in this position as relatable or aspirational. By and large, people want to be rich and socially respected to *avoid* conflict and hardship in life, not to face new types.)

What’s left, then? Well, there’s also general attitude of what agency “looks like” and what it says about the person.

One of the major marks of an “Honor Culture” is that how you’re perceived has actual effects on how you’re treated. The best example of this is what’s considered an appropriate response when someone gets insulted. In most “modern, progressive, civilized” societies, ignoring insults is a sign of maturity and status; it indicates that you’re secure enough in your life and sense of self to be utterly unconcerned by what someone else thinks of you. But in Honor Culture it’s a sign of weakness, because reputation often means as much, if not more, than resources. If being perceived as weak invites attack, then you have to show strength at all times.

Similarly, I think taking action to solve one’s own problems seems intrinsically to be a lower class act by those in the upper classes. For the leisure classes, security is taken for granted, and so any actions taken are at most a hobby or interest, not something you get invested in. In more cut-throat setting, being invested is a sign of vulnerability; if you care about something besides your wealth, you may be willing to trade wealth for it at disproportionate rates.

In addition, not having someone at hand to do something for you could indicate a lack of sufficient security itself. Taking on the task of repairing an out of date automobile is impressive if it’s a choice, but it doesn’t signal competence at anything that “matters,” because the moment you actually need a car to be fixed, it’s almost always a better use of your time to hire someone else to do it for you.

To lower and middle class people, being personally dependable and resourceful in this way is an attractive and admirable trait, but if it is the only way you can get something done, it seems on net a weakness.

This is all still a series of tentative hypotheses, but they feel like the start of a new generator. Meanwhile the class-lens feels much clearer, and the self-reflective part of it feels less restricting; instead it’s more like there’s new space for “me” to stretch into, if I choose to.

Chapter 103: Interlude XXI – Warnings

+WorldNews, +UnovaNews, +KantoNews, -Celebrity, -Civic, -League

00h 27m 58.7k – New tangela evolution discovered in Sinnoh; Rowan claims “pattern” found

01h 44m 108k – Tier 2 declared in Vermilion, Surge calls for aid

00h 55m 73.3k – “Less ditto found every day” claims Cinnabar ranger

13h 32m 319k – Nacrene city on high alert after string of unown spotted

05h 13m 49.2k – Suspected renegade activity in Castelia, seven dead

17h 53m 101k – Fifth psychic reports shared dream of unown danger, joins warning against research…


Kazue Silph has three rules he never breaks.

The first is never to go into business with family or friends. At many points along his journey, from a small business owner to a major chain to the predominant market in the Indigo regions, he’s had friends, relations, and friends of relations reach out to present him with job applications, joint business proposals, and investment opportunities. He turned them all down without consideration, though he was happy to pass along those that seemed promising to other companies. He’s given away millions of dollars over his lifetime, but always with no strings attached and no expectation of return or service.

A successful business, he learned early on, must always be about efficiency, first and foremost. It can, within limits, have values, but personal sentiment or favoritism will act as a rot, and even deep family bonds can be ruined over the smallest, most impersonal business decisions. He’s spent considerable energy and time ensuring nepotism is as difficult as possible within his corporate culture, but he believes the policies have paid for themselves.

The second rule is to always work toward what the market needs, not what it wants. There have been plenty of enticing opportunities to expand his business into other areas beyond trainer supplies, but to do so would have risked redirecting money from a sure bet to an area other competitors were already crowding, and likely with a much wider talent pool available. At best the company would make more money; at worst they would chase fads and lose not just money, but time and focus, which are much more valuable to him.

Society would always need trainers to survive, and trainers would always need supplies. Everything else he shifts production or resources to would reduce their availability and quality, and cause more trainers or their pokemon to die. Money is just a byproduct of the real value business can create for society, but the resources and power to change the world requires focus.

The third rule is the most important: never make a business decision while angry.

“Send him in,” President Silph says, and a few moments later the door opens to admit Lance, the Champion of Indigo.

Kazue still had a full head of hair, if a bit thin on top, when Lance began his Johto journey. While the businessman’s trainer days were long behind him, it seemed obvious that a child of the famous Dragon Clan, descendents of one of the region’s oldest warlords, with a dratini as his starter, would go far. So he paid little attention to Lance showing up on the news throughout the years, thinking that fame pointed cameras in the young dragon trainer’s direction as much as merit… until he and his journeymates deflected a Beast on their own with a clever, and risky, use of a controlled landslide.

After that it was less surprise than it otherwise might have been when Lance reached Victory Road just a couple years after starting his journey. The reigning Champion has shown the same mix of daring and careful calculation in office that first made him catch Kazue’s attention.

“Thank you for seeing me,” Lance says as he comes to stand in front of the President’s desk and bows, then places his hands on the back of a seat rather than taking it. “Neither of us has much time to waste, so I’ll get to the point.”

Kazue puts on an expression of polite curiosity. “I appreciate that, Champion. What can I do for you?” The fact that the meeting was requested to be in-person makes it fairly clear what this is about, but he still can’t admit that without giving out information; he’s not positive which piece of technology, exactly, has leaked to the Champion, though given the recent news, he’s fairly confident he knows.

The thought makes his pulse quicken, and he takes a deep breath to calm himself. At the end of the day, this is just a business meeting like any other.

“I’m sure by now you’ve heard that other regions are allowing pokemon genesis research. I have been struggling against those who would have Indigo follow their example, but I cannot deny that we would be at a distinct disadvantage if their efforts bear fruit, especially given some private information I’ve been made aware of. I’ve begun negotiations with the other island regions to potentially coordinate some limited, focused, and safe efforts by the various Leagues. Cynthia is currently the only holdout, but I am confident that she will change her mind in time.”

“I applaud your ability to adjust to new circumstances,” Kazue says. “Though if your goal is to stay abreast of other regions, you know my thoughts on regulation and innovation. It is one thing to win a race begun late, another to win it while hobbled.”

“I won’t deny the practical effects of your philosophy, especially given your many accomplishments. But our goal is not explicitly to be the first to create new pokemon, and if we learn how to by unleashing another event like the ditto outbreak, the cost could well exceed the reward if we don’t manage to contain it. Other regions may gamble with their people’s wellbeing, but Indigo will not.”

Lance punctuates the media-perfect speech with a sharp smile, yellow eyes gleaming with something predatory. “And of course, we are not incapable of learning from others’ mistakes.”

Kazue returns his smile, reassured to see the glimpse of the Champion’s ruthlessness applied to matters beyond pokemon battles. “Or benefiting from them more directly.”

“Which is why I knew you would understand when I heard you’ve been developing a pokeball that could catch the Stormbringers. Perhaps even Rayquaza, should it ever attack.” Lance’s shoulders straighten. “I want you to make it available for the League, and only the League.”

President Silph taps his fingers against his desk as he meets that fierce yellow gaze for a moment, then says, “No.”

To his credit, the Champion is an adept negotiator for one who has never worked in the world of business, and doesn’t even blink. “We’re prepared to help negotiate and support some reasonable changes to regulatory laws and taxes, as long as they’re not preferential to your company.”

“Tempting as that would normally be, it isn’t enough. Those laws should be changed for the good of the region, while you’re asking me to give up what I expect to be the most powerful technological achievement of the past decade. Do you even know how much it’s valued at?”

Lance only hesitates for a moment. “Potentially, priceless.”

“Correct. But potential is hard to put a number on, so I’ll reveal that our estimates put the final auction for the first masterball to end, at least, in the hundreds of millions.”

The Champion pauses a moment to absorb that, and Kazue lets him. They both know the League couldn’t afford more than a few at that price, not without drastic cuts in trainer assistance programs… that or a dozen other smaller initiatives and regulating bodies fit under the umbrella.

“You would truly sell such a powerful tool, and potential weapon, to the highest bidder? With no consideration of whether they will be able to even properly utilize it?”

Kazue does not often waste time lecturing people on basic economics anymore, but for those as powerful as a region champion, he’s willing to make an exception on the off chance Lance will be persuaded. “That is what the market is for, Champion. The masterball is worth far less in the hands of a mediocre trainer than it is in a skilled one, and thus those who are skilled, or those willing to patron a skilled trainer, will be willing to pay more for it.”

“And what of their character or goals? Money doesn’t distinguish a Leader from a Renegade.”

Kazue spreads his hands. “Money doesn’t, but you’re suggesting we distribute it by trust, and money can often be a way to quantify trust. Stock investment, providing grants, even the basic act of hiring are all ways of using money to show confidence and trust.”

“An untrusted person may gain access to a lot of money through deceit or antisocial deals.”

“They would have to be deceitfully trustworthy first, for the financier to believe in them, which can be said of those considered altruistic as well.” Kazue shrugs. “We can debate philosophy if you wish, Champion, but my answer is still no. I will not make yet another product, designed and built by some of the greatest scientists and engineers of our era, into an object of charity, limiting the return both for them and our investors.”

Lance frowns slightly. “You’re thinking of the goggles. I understand if you’re frustrated—”

“Frustrated? Perhaps.” Kazue flicks a hand to the side as if drying it of water. “There, I have set it aside. What else do you believe I am, Champion?”

Rather than walk into the trap, Lance remains silent, wariness transmuted by status and dignity into a patient, puzzled frown. But it cannot save him; he is the one who needs something from Kazue, and so all his attempt to save face can do is waste their time.

Lance is a skilled negotiator, but even Kazue’s clerks would be able to smell the need on him; to the President’s experienced eye, this goes even beyond that. Lance isn’t just in need, he seems desperate in some carefully controlled way, and Kazue wants to know why. Knowledge is valuable, and if Lance is actually afraid of something, he likely has good reason to be.

A company can have values, after all, and still survive. If Indigo is in danger, it is more than fiduciary duty that would compel Kazue to act; with major operations in every city of Kanto and Johto, Indigo is Silph, and Silph is Indigo.

“I believe you are standing on principles,” the Dragon Master says at last, “that I may be blind to. But there must be some arrangement we can reach—”

“I understand that you came yourself as a sign of respect.” Kazue keeps his voice firm, but not angry. Never make a business decision angry. “But you are wasting both of our very valuable time. Delegate this task to someone better suited to negotiation, or else drop the charade that you are here to barter as an equal.”

That upsets the Dragon Master, and Kazue holds up an apologetic hand to soften the blow; just as he doesn’t want to make a decision angry, he doesn’t want those he negotiates with to either. True positive-sum trades cannot be those regretted once emotions cool, and anger often drives people to justify negative-sum interactions. “I mean this only in our current situation, and perhaps in our projected, ongoing interactions. Time and again, regions have treated corporations like mine as little more than pokemon; useful tools to be trained into providing valuable goods and services for them. Our ability to trade freely is limited, as if our method is completely unrelated to our outcomes, and when we lobby to attain more freedoms from regulations that would allow us to be more efficient, we are called corrupt, or treated as though we are attempting to corrupt.”

“Your grievances—”

“No, Champion. Not grievances, not frustrations. Principles was closest. You came into this room and asked me to limit the profit we could earn by our invention, as if profit is a choice, as if it comes from coercion that I might refrain from. Our plan is an open auction, which makes every dollar we might gain the result of free, individual choices. You object to this?”

“I do.”

“Then you show the common belief, on some level, that profit itself is an unjust pursuit, simply because the excess value a seller accrues can be counted, while the value a customer gains cannot. Have you considered whether we plan to simply use masterballs ourselves rather than sell it? Hire the best trainer we can find as an employee, and then sell the captured legendary? Until you understand why that is not our plan, you will not understand why your approach today has been wrong from the start.”

To his credit, Lance takes a moment to absorb all this, and Kazue lets him. If he didn’t hold some respect for the Champion he wouldn’t have bothered with the lecture, and it seems that Lance recognizes this himself before he stirs and takes a breath.

“As you said, our time is valuable,” he finally says. “If there is truly nothing that would convince you to do this, then I will accept it. If there is something you want, and it’s within my power and mandate, I can at least try.”

“As a first step, tell me what has you so concerned. Not the vague reasons, the specific predictions or warnings you have reason to believe are true.”

Lance sighs, but to Kazue’s satisfaction seems to have taken his words to heart by simply saying “The psychic dreams that have been reported in the media. There are more, and by trusted sources.”

Meaning by those among the League, probably. “I confess to not having considered the articles worth reading.”

“I don’t blame you, but the simple version is that there is a threat that appears bigger than any other we’ve yet faced, coming at an unknown amount of time.”

“One that will need legendary pokemon in the hands of trainers to defeat,” Kazue guesses. It should be terrifying, but all he feels is tired… and frustrated. For a moment he thought Lance might have learned of whatever experiments Giovanni has been working on, thus freeing Kazue to act on that knowledge without breaking their agreement.

Instead it seems yet another threat is on the horizon, and he finds he is unsure how to internalize an even bigger threat than the Hoenn titans represented. The company suffered massive losses as a result of the incident and aftermath, though they were lucky enough to be able to weather the storm better than others. Of course they were asked to provide humanitarian aid afterward, and of course they did… which just further limited the scope of new, expensive projects they had planned to start developing as the Silph Scope and masterball entered their last stages.

He told marketing to create an ad about that, perhaps earn the company some understanding of what the losses would result in in terms the public would understand, even be dismayed by. But the death count was high enough that he was convinced it would be taken poorly. Still, he feels it like a rock in his boot to think of all the potential lives that might be lost just because they end up developing such powerful technologies any later.

Sakaki understood, of course. Commiserating with him after the Hoenn incident was one of the few times lately that Silph felt they were genuinely allied again in years.

But that hasn’t changed the arc of their partnership, and for that Silph does feel regret. There are far too few equals for those in their position, and further fewer in such different areas of influence that candid conversation is possible.

“It seems likely, yes.” Lance is quiet for a beat. “I know enough about negotiation to understand that I’ve just made my position worse.”

“True enough. If other regions know this, my expectation of how much others will be willing to bid is even higher than expected. I do appreciate the candor, but it only highlights how—”

“There’s more. But it hasn’t been made public.”

“Neither has what you just told me.”

“This is different.”

Kazue’s hands come together as he considers the Champion for a moment. “You want a concession first. Because it has potential business applications?” Not that the previous revelation didn’t, but they would be relatively invisible compared to, say, a secret that would lead to Silph pivoting more visibly in anticipation to some new technology or threat.

“I’m not a businessman, but I know that all knowledge has value… and if I trust you to do one thing, it’s to make use of such information to generate more for your company.”

It’s a compliment, but a backhanded one given the way the Champion once again frames this as a bad thing. Or maybe he’s just worried about favoritism.

Kazue closes his eyes for a moment and breathes in and out until the anger fades to sullen coals. “And if corporations like mine do have the opportunity to use this information to create new products, or refine those we have, don’t you think this would benefit the region as well?”

“Of course. But I must consider how others would react as well.”

“I can have an NDA on my desk and signed within three minutes. I understand wanting a stronger negotiating position, but—”

“No, you don’t.” Lance’s whole body language has shifted, lost something, gained something. The Champion is back in control, somehow, and Kazue feels his first trickle of apprehension; he’s made a mistake somehow, underestimated something… “I don’t fully understand your perspective and values, or the wisdom of them. But nor do you mine, and so I must ask; is there anything that would change your mind? Have you spent even five minutes considering it?”

Kazue’s hands clench, then unclench as he takes another breath. “I thought I made myself clear—”

“You did, and so I’ll skip to the bottom line. We cannot allow these ‘masterballs’ to be sold to another region. Any bidding must be limited to Indigo.”

Calm, he must remain calm. “This meeting is ov—”

“In what world,” Lance says, and his voice is calm, deep and solid as the earth. “Did you think the League would not treat another region gaining a Legendary pokemon as an existential risk?”

“Another region, Champion?” He hates the quaver in his voice, the barely contained fury sounding like weakness. “Or another trainer? There are only a handful of organizations in Indigo who could outbid the League, and who below you would you trust with it?”

“If the League wins the bids, the masterballs will belong to the League. Someone else may prove themselves the strongest trainer by then.”

The words are stated without hubris or irony, and for a moment the absurdity almost makes Kazue laugh. “You’re only the strongest battle trainer. An experienced hunter—”

“Would have no experience fighting Legendary pokemon.”

Calm, calm, calm. “You can’t do this. The charter—”

“Your lawyers are the best money can buy, so I’m sure they were right to inform you that the courts would decide in your favor given what you knew at the time. I’m also just as sure that will change once the new information is revealed.”

Kazue chokes back the wild threats that come to mind, knuckles white around the arms of his chair. Before he can regain control of himself, come up with something else to say, the Champion has released the back of the seat and straightened.

“I’ll send a more skilled negotiator to discuss what we can do for you in return, in thanks for this great service to Indigo’s safety. In light of what you’ve shared about the true cost this limitation will have, I’ll be sure it’s not our most skilled negotiator.” Lance’s smile is warm, the bow of his head respectful, and then he leaves, cape just barely clearing the door before it closes.

Kazue sits frozen for a minute, part of him still in shock at what the Champion had said, another part disbelieving that he had let it happen, and another racing through things he should have said, things he could do to deny the enemy their prize, to protect against such flagrant abuse in the future. Threats to shut down the masterball research, to suspend operations of any kind, would have to be a last resort so long as he can’t trust the information not to be stolen or leaked the way the goggles schematics were.

After five minutes have passed his alarm chimes to indicate his next appointment, and his hand moves automatically to alert his assistant to reschedule his afternoon. He almost makes the call to Sakaki then, but decides to go to his private spa for a soak and massage first.

Never make a business decision angry.


Divxddd: yo

Divxddd: what i miss

Jigglethesepuffs: these sad fools still have hope

Divxddd: lol

Passifist: Hey they can turn it around

Ioutrankyou: assuming Tal wakes the fuck up and GUARDS

Ioutrankyou: THE

Ioutrankyou: HOOP GODDAMN U TAL JUST INTERRUPT ONCE IN UR LIFE

Divxddd: looooooooooooooooool

Jigglethesepuffs: that was a nice juke tho

Divxddd: true

Ioutrankyou: GOD

Divxddd: hey wheres kit doesn’t he have money riding on this one

Ioutrankyou: DAMN

Ioutrankyou: aojaifhasldqkjajkalfagbqiasklsadj

Passifist: Kit’s napping said to wake him before the last match ends

Jigglethesepuffs: Think this is it

Jigglethesepuffs: unless they pull off a miracle

Passifist: ya

Passifist: i’ll call him

Ioutrankyou: its absurd that Tal still has a contract

Ioutrankyou: absolutely absurd

Ioutrankyou: this guy’s worse than half the pugs I run into

Divxddd: Half the pugs you run into aren’t playing against pros

Ioutrankyou: doesn’t matter

Ioutrankyou: garbage excuse to not do basic shit

Ioutrankyou: even you could have guarded that

Divxddd: lol thanks I think

Passifist: Well that was weird

Jigglethesepuffs: ?

Passifist: Kit’s up but he’s freaking

Divxddd: lol must have bet a lot

Jigglethesepuffs: freaking about what?

Passifist: no not about the game not sure tbh was saying something about a dream

Passifist: nightmare i guess

Divxddd: bout what?

Passifist: think he’s been reading too many creepypastas

Passifist: something about unown are going to merge into a supermon or something

Divxddd: you know given how this year’s going that’d fit

Jigglethesepuffs: wait I think I read that one

Ioutrankyou: guys

Ioutrankyou: guys i think its happening

Ioutrankyou: holy shit did you SEE THAT

Ioutrankyou: HELL YEAH

Divxddd: woah

Ioutrankyou: HELL

Ioutrankyou: YEAH

Passifist: replaying, I missed it

Jigglethesepuffs: same

Ioutrankyou: fuck you Liquidforce

Ioutrankyou: cheap ass surf spamming scrub

Ioutrankyou: tried to hide in the grass as blastoise lol get rekt

Jigglethesepuffs: Alright that was solid

Divxddd: ya

Divxddd: gonna take a few more of those to even odds though

Passifist: So I just looked it up, cuz it sounded familiar to me too

Passifist: Its not a creepy, i mean there are tons about unown but this is different, there’s been dozens of psychics all over the island who are saying they had a dream like this

Divxddd: like what

Passifist: unown creating or summoning some mega mythic pokemon that wipes us all out

Divxddd: Kit should make sure he pees before bed

Divxddd: been doing it for years, never get nightmares anymore

Ioutrankyou: he should get the fuck on is what he should do

Ioutrankyou: missing all the good shit

Jigglethesepuffs: isn’t Kit psychic?

Divxddd: wait, really? is he?

Passifist: Ya he is

Divxddd: woah

Ioutrankyou: so what?

Divxddd: bit of a coincidence

Ioutrankyou: no it’s not

Ioutrankyou: i mean yeah, that’s all it is

Ioutrankyou: bet plenty of non-psy had that nightmare too after hearing psychs being drama queens about it

Ioutrankyou: unown are creepy af

Ioutrankyou: dreams don’t mean shit

Divxddd: our dreams don’t, but psychics might

Ioutrankyou: ffs

Passifist: looks like it wasn’t just random psychics to start with, it’s been big names

Passifist: some wrote out what they dreamed without comparing notes

Ioutrankyou: again, so what

Ioutrankyou: some similar phrases and all the differences will get ignored

Ioutrankyou: come on people this is basic shit

Jigglethesepuffs: funny you mention that

Jigglethesepuffs: there is actually one thing in particular that they all seemed to remember, including the ones that wrote their dreams down

Divxddd: ?

Kitandpals: “it is coming”

Ioutrankyou: fucking finally

Divxddd: yooo that’s creepy as fuck

Ioutrankyou: hey log on, we can get a queue going in case the match ends soon

Jigglethesepuffs: you okay Kit?

Kitandpals: no

Kitandpals: i don’t know

Kitandpals: it was so vivid, i’m still shaking

Ioutrankyou: well log on anyway you’re still better than a pug would be

Passifist: dude stfu a sec

Passifist: you didnt hear him

Passifist: do you want to do voice Kit?

Ioutrankyou: u stfu

Kitandpals: I dot know

Kitandpals: *don’t

Ioutrankyou: all acting like fucking babies over a goddamn dream

Ioutrankyou: and TAL IS NOT BLOCKING

Ioutrankyou:THE GODDAMN

Ioutrankyou: HOOP

Jigglethesepuffs: what else do you remember?

Ioutrankyou: AGAIN

Jigglethesepuffs: if it’s okay to ask

Ioutrankyou: FFS

Divxddd: its over

Ioutrankyou: yeah fuck it

Ioutrankyou: gonna hop in a game

Ioutrankyou: you guys coming or what

Kitandpals: Not sure. Confusing, shifting sights

Kitandpals: unown

Kitandpals: a whole world of them

Ioutrankyou: sigh

Kitandpals: and there was amin there

Kitandpals: *a mind

Ioutrankyou: there’s no use dwelling on it, play a match and take your mind off it instead

Kitandpals: crazy thoughts, hungry thoughts

Kitandpals: wanted what it saw to be more like it

Divxddd: what it saw?

Kitandpals: our world

Jigglethesepuffs: damn

Passifist: What’s “it?” How do you know it’s coming?

Kitandpals: dont now

Kitandpals: *don’t know

Ioutrankyou: alright I’m in queue and hopping channels you guys join me when you’re done w/ group therapy or wtvr

Jigglethesepuffs: Ignore him Kit

Divxddd: Imma join queue too but staying here this is fascinating

Kitandpals: I don’t know. It was like big capital letter words n my head

Kitandpals: It was all really clear its not fading but the words are most clear like someone said them outloud and woke me up but there was no one in my room and it didn’t sound like a voice it was just the words

Kitandpals: I don’t know what to do or feel right now I’m fucking scared guys

Kitandpals: It still feels so real

Jigglethesepuffs: You’ll be okay, there are others who had the same dream

Kitandpals: I know but

Jigglethesepuffs: they seem okay

Kitandpals: that makes it worse

Kitandpals: that makes it so much worse


The streetlights make Saffron look like a series of washed-out photos through the drizzle, every color faded and every corner shadowed. Masaki Terasoma (codename: Looker) walks from one snapshot to the next, hands on pokeballs beneath his damp coat and eyes wandering restlessly. Lea keeps her nose in the air, the mightyena’s dark coat making her nearly invisible in the gloom as she sniffs for any alarming scents, while his toxicroak slinks through the void between streetlights like the smudged thumbprint of some sloppy darkroom attendant. Above them Sever flies in nearly silent loops as the crobat listens for anything and everything that might come for them.

Some might say having three pokemon as bodyguards in the middle of the Saffron City is paranoid. If it wasn’t three in the morning, he would probably be getting plenty of odd or concerned looks from fellow pedestrians. But there aren’t any of those, because late night meetings reduce foot traffic, which makes it easier to spot if someone’s following or preparing an ambush.

Paranoid was left behind months ago; Looker has been in Kanto for nearly four months and there have already been three attempts on his life. Or at least, it’s safest to assume there have been.

It’s hard to tell, exactly, what counts and doesn’t. Whoever picked the locks on his hotel room (scrape marks along the doorframe around the latch, likely caused in frustration when the door still refused to open) may have just been trying to rob him, or even just rob the room without knowing who was in it. The fearow flock that swarmed him midflight to Saffron may have been a coincidental attack by wilds (ratio of fearow to spearow matched average records of local flocks). And the peanuts might have ended up in his food by accident; the chef seemed genuinely apologetic and embarrassed (and background check showed nothing of interest).

And yet, safe as he may be, part of him clings to the notion that he’s being targeted. Illogical as it is, he wants evidence, ethereal as it would be, that he’s on the right track. That he’s finally found something important.

Which is why he was suspicious when he got the message asking for a private meeting a few weeks ago. It was relayed from a relatively trustworthy local source, but sources could be compromised. It didn’t tell him to come alone, but did specify that he only bring along someone he completely trusts, which could have been a clever psyop meant to lower his guard, since he doesn’t trust anyone completely.

But there was an obvious choice. Agent Matsuda (codename: Notebook) has only been with Interpol for a few years, but he has an impressive record stamping out corruption in Indigo before then; if he’s compromised, Looker could only hope it’s in directions other than the ones that would impact their mission here.

Of course, if he participated in a generations-spanning interregional renegade network, “sponsoring” detectives like Matsuda is exactly the sort of thing he’d do to get someone trustworthy on the inside of investigations. But he knew the investigation would require some risk, and if he couldn’t depend on his local partner then he’d likely be dead already anyway.

That meeting was more fruitful than he dared hope at the time. This second may be even more so.

“Building looks clear,” Notebook says in Looker’s earpiece once he’s about a block away from his destination, and he mutters acknowledgement before walking past it, then around, then back, until he can do a full circuit of the warehouse himself.

Only then does he send his mightyena in, and a moment later he hears two barks, followed by three, followed by another three.

“One person. Female. Two pokemon. Going in.” Looker turns off his mic and sends a whistle to Sever to circle the building before entering with his toxicroak.

Laura Verres is standing with her back to a wall, arms folded across her stomach. He can tell she’s nervous from across the room, but it’s the normal amount of nervous, the expected amount, and so he only gives the warehouse the usual sweep before approaching her and her tangela. Her primeape is lurking on the stacked boxes above, the quiet snort of its breaths punctuating the echo of his steps.

“Good to see you again, Detective.” Her voice is soft as the rain on the pavement outside, and he notes with approval that she’s also keeping both hands on the pokeballs at her belt. “Wasn’t expecting a response so soon.”

Looker shrugs. “Your lead was better than you had any reason to expect. Fuji’s story doesn’t add up.”

Her face remains calm, but he sees something in her eyes. Triumph? Hurt? Maybe something else too. He doesn’t know her well enough to tell for sure, but he knew during their first meeting that part of her hoped she was wrong about the old scientist; he respected the fact that she went through so much trouble to check anyway.

“Tell me.”

He considered not, of course, unsure what she would do with the information. But an investigator is only as good as their sources, and given what she’s managed to piece together on her own, Laura Verres could turn out to be quite a valuable source indeed.

Still, the same things that tend to make sources valuable can often make them volatile.

“I will, once I get some assurances.”

“I won’t report it, if that’s what you mean.” She seems more exasperated than offended. “So far as he’s concerned, I’ll act as I normally would, and continue helping him spread his ideas. But there are others I’ve gotten involved, or have considered getting involved, and if he’s dangerous in some way, or being around him is, I need to know.”

“You mean Leaf Juniper. Possibly your son as well?”

“Just Leaf.”

“That story she’s putting out online, is that involved in all this somehow?”

Verres raises her brow. “You’re reading webserials now?”

“I like to be thorough.” Her brow is still raised, and he shrugs. “Alright I skimmed it. If it’s some kind of code, I can’t make heads or tails of how.”

“Me neither. He’s been pretty worked up about it though, so it may just be something he really believes in. So, is he dangerous?”

“If he is, you’ll leave this entirely in our hands?”

“Of course not. But so far as acting on your information goes, it’s your info, and I’ll respect that… assuming you’ll try to do the same in return.”

“You know I can’t promise that.”

“I wouldn’t have believed it if you tried. I’m not looking for a promise, just a sense that you care.”

Looker nods. He similarly wouldn’t have believed her if she claimed to be willing to subordinate herself entirely to Interpol; he’s starting to believe she’s one of the rare breed of true investigative reporters, willing to put their career and safety on the line to uncover the truth, and they don’t tend to trust police, no matter how separated from the source of potential corruption they’re investigating. “I looked into some financial records that are far more extensive than your source managed to take. Fuji’s been off the grid for nearly fifteen years, but he’s only been on Silph’s ‘payroll’ for about half of that.”

“You could have missed it, if they changed up how they paid for everything.”

“Could have, yeah. But that’s also around the time he started dropping those breadcrumbs that Professor Oak picked up. So my two main guesses are, either he suddenly had a change of heart about working for Silph around the time Silph changed how they were managing him, which could make sense depending on how and why. Or, that’s actually the point when he started working for Silph at all.”

“Which would mean he did what for the years before that? Vacation?”

His smile is as wry as her tone. “Maybe. But this pattern isn’t new.”

It takes her a moment, eyes darting between his, then to the side, then back. “The renegades under the casino.”

“And others, in other regions. Sometimes it’s easy to make up job histories, particularly for random civilians. Gets harder for those who have been in the public eye—”

“—or with a specific set of skills that only a handful of organizations would hire for. The researchers there?”

“Right. Most are from other regions, but of all the people hired to work on secretive projects, some seem to be less ‘hired’ and more…” He shrugs. “Kidnapped? Recruited? Traded?”

“It’s nothing illegal though, is it?”

He grimaces “No. We’ve stretched the laws in Celadon because of the Renegade involvement, but those paper trails all lead to other regions, some of which are less cooperative with interpol and others which are, frankly, too corrupt for me to trust.”

Laura shakes her head. “Whoever was involved in that can’t be involved with Silph if it was stealing from them. How sure are you that it’s connected to what’s happening with Fuji? It feels like you’re making some leaps.”

He crosses his arms. “There’s no reason the strategy would be limited by one particular organization, or even type of org. If an even moderately competent person or group could be doing something without risk that would be an advantage to them, it’s best to assume they are doing it until there’s reason to believe they’re not. But,” he says to forestall a predictable rebuttal, “That’s part of why I need your help. You’re in the best position to learn something more about Fuji’s history and situation, maybe get him to guess about some of the other missing scientists. I don’t believe he’s been as silo’d as he says, and anything you can tell me might shed light on the others, even if they worked for a different organization. If so I’ll let you know.”

“I don’t know how much longer I have. Silph may not have any proof that Fuji’s broken NDAs, and I don’t know if they have any more legal screws to turn that they haven’t already, but they could just move him to another location, or order him to stop talking to others.”

“Why would he listen? Didn’t his whole rebellion start in the first place because he doesn’t want to keep helping them? And with Oak involved now, they must know it wouldn’t go well for them if they try to do anything public.”

“He seems to think it’s important that he stay on the project.” She gives a helpless shrug. “Says he has to be involved, even if he doesn’t think it’s right… that anyone else ‘might get it wrong,’ which I guess he sees as even worse somehow?”

Looker considers that, then gives a begrudging nod. “I can see it. Alright, then do what you can and we’ll try to find out more on our end.”

“I tried looking it up, but couldn’t find a straight answer; what’ll happen to Fuji, if he’s worked with renegades and hasn’t told anyone?”

Looker snorts. “Indigo’s twisted itself around and around on this one. Short answer is, as long as he hasn’t seen renegade activity with his own eyes or heard a direct confession or report of it, he’s clear. If he has and hasn’t reported it, it’s aiding and abetting.”

“You don’t sound happy about it.”

“Nothing personal against Fuji, I have no idea what he’s done or seen yet, just think it gives people too much wiggle room. But there are worse problems with the whole system.”

“Such as?”

It still amazes him that so few people see it, even those like Ms. Verres, who has no history with the gyms, and is skeptical of those in power by trade. “That as long as someone has seen something and reported it, they’re totally clear.”

Laura frowns. “There would be records, an investigation…?”

Looker thinks back to the cool, assessing gaze of Leader Erika when she stared him down in the police department, pushed him to limit his efforts even after learning that her city had renegades hidden in it. “That assumes the leader or ranger starts one.” He sees the realization hit, and his grin is hard. “Hell of a loophole, isn’t it? All anyone has to do is find one corrupt leader or ranger, and a whole city could take turns telling them when they see any renegade activity and be totally safe from the law.”


Joining us tonight is Elite Agatha, one of the foremost experts on mental and spiritual phenomena. We’re honored to have you on the show, Elite, and grateful for any light you can shed on this growing mystery.”

By that you mean you want some reassurance, right?”

Well… If possible, I think a lot of our listeners would appreciate that, yes. With everything that’s been happening over the past few months…”

Of course. This is just one more thing to worry about in a year where every season seems to bring a new one. But I’m worried that for most people, it’ll be one too many.”

One too many…?”

One too many worries. It’ll bounce off, slide into ‘someone else’s problem.’ Even if there weren’t so many other major changes to adapt to, this is nothing tangible, nothing they can do anything about. Just a vague worry that some people they’ve never met are having bad dreams. Unfortunately, since it may well be the most important thing to worry about, I’m not sure I’d want to reassure people even if I could, which I can’t, so it’s all moot anyway.”

To be clear, you’re saying that you believe these dreams are more of a threat than Rayquaza, the renegades, ditto—”

And everything else happening in other regions, yes. And that’s because it’s unknown, utterly unknown. We have no idea why it’s happening, if it’s pointing to something real, or if we should trust it even if it is.”

I see.”

Do you, really? Because you’re not gibbering in the corner, so I have doubts. Maybe you will once the interview’s over and you can take your professional mask off, eh?”

I… suppose I should say instead that I think I see. Maybe you could explain that last part, about trusting it?”

I don’t think it’s sunk in for everyone that this is the most public and obvious sign in living memory that humans are not alone in the universe. Whether it’s a spirit, a god, or even beings from another world or dimension, this message is coming from something other.”

You really believe that?”

At first, no. I thought it was just some particularly powerful projector, a psychic good at projecting that is, creeping around outside the houses of famous psychics while they slept. Simplest explanation to fit the evidence, at the time… but now? No psychic in recorded history could send a dream to an entire town at once. Could be this is the first. I’m sure that’s what Oak would say. But then, why would they? I think it’s something else, and that something else is sending us a warning.”

I see.”

Now you do, yes, or are starting to. Looking a little pale. Need some water?”

I’ll be alright, Elite, thank you… I suppose the next obvious question is, whether it’s a person or something else, why would the dreams lie? In either case, actually. What do you think the dream projector wants?”

If their intentions are honest, it’s clear to me they’re sending us a warning about the unown. Whether they want us to kill them or capture them or stop experimenting with them, I can’t say. It may be possible they don’t know themselves. Or perhaps it’s a test.”

And if not honest?”

Then we should do the opposite of the thing they want us to do, of course. But there’s a third possibility that’s more likely, and less clear; they may just be too alien for an idea like honest or dishonest intentions to be relevant questions. Their message may itself not reflect something real or meaningful to us.”

I s… I think I see. Why just the islands?”

Maybe the threat is focused here. Maybe we’re the only ones that can stop it.”

Have you had the dream yet, Elite?”

Oh yes, weeks ago. Kept quiet, figured saying anything would play into the hands of whoever did it, but now it seems moot.”

And you feel convinced of its authenticity?”

Assuming they’re not deceitful, I’m convinced the projector believed what they projected, if that’s what you mean. Spirit or alien or god, they could still be wrong, or mad.”

Doesn’t seem like a particularly good option either.”

No, but I’d take a few sleepless nights for the world’s gifted over getting eaten by the thing it’s afraid of.”


Cyrus stands above the Ruins of Alph, eyes roaming in a steady pattern in the skies above for unown that might appear. Being so close to Violet City, Alph has been more active than most unown ruins, practically crawling with mystics and researchers, thrill seekers and protestors, so catching any that appear closer to the ground is difficult. Many seem convinced they’ll be the ones to figure out the secret of the unown, but it’s clear that no one knows what they really are, and without that knowledge they’re flailing in the dark.

Unlike Cyrus, who has never seen more clearly.

It was the dream that showed him the way, as he knew it would. There’s been no apparent rhyme or reason to when and where they would appear, but once he realized it wasn’t repeating at a location he came to Violet City, a major metropolis where resident psychics haven’t reported experiencing it yet. He visited the ruins by day, capturing unown with a steadily improving success rate, and going to bed early each night to ensure he slept through as much of it as possible.

He only had to wait eleven days before it came to him, and every other psychic in the city. And what he saw filled him with a deep existential terror… until he woke to reflect, and felt only awe.

Unlike the rest of the world, whose hysteria has only continued to increase. It wasn’t so bad when news articles popped up speculating about what it meant for a handful of famous psychics around the islands to get the same nightmare; a curiosity to be talked about over lunch with friends, and grist for the conspiratorial corners of the internet.

Then whole towns and cities of psychics began to get it, and the net went wild with speculation, fueled in no small part by the more pedestrian psychics themselves, who lacked the restraint and uncertainty of their betters.

But with Elite Agatha’s interview, even governments have started taking it seriously… in opposite directions. Some are calling for a complete ban on not just pokemon genesis, but unown research altogether, while others are pushing for more research to counter the hypothetical threat.

Even worse, there’s no rhyme or reason to who falls on which side of the battle lines; there are researchers and Professors on both, as are Leaders and Elites within the same region trying (for the most part) and often failing to dance around the issue. Meanwhile politicians are shuffling further and further toward the edges as they try to keep up with a public that, despite Agatha’s prediction, has turned out to be quite worried about a supernatural existential threat that they can neither see nor hear.

But all of that pales in relation to what it’s done to psychics, who have been drawn forcefully into the center of the cultural crossfire. Each one he knows has been peppered with questions about the dreams by everyone else, whether they’ve had them or not. No one seems to be blaming psychics themselves yet, but he’d almost prefer that over the desperate fear that’s allowed a few unscrupulous “mystics” to cash in on the phenomenon.

He resisted at first from pitting his voice against the chorus. But seeing so many wallowing in fear and skepticism was unbearable when he knew he could offer them something else.

Hope.

All his life he’s known something was wrong with the world. With the people in it. With the way society has managed, against all odds, to survive…through the pain and suffering of children they send into the thresher’s maw of nature, itself an indiscriminate charnel house of pain and grief.

Cyrus’s older brother was full of hope and will and an unstoppable drive to see the world. He was dead just a few months into his journey, shattering their parents so thoroughly his grandfather had to put the pieces back together, leaving Cyrus to handle his own shock and grief. Therapy was no help, insisting that he express his feelings while also pushing the idea that it was something to be accepted, what their family was going through. Like it was okay, as long as it was normal.

It wasn’t okay. None of it was. But no one understood that; they thought they did, thought they were all grieving for the same reasons, but Cyrus’s grief wasn’t sufficient. Only action would stop the pain, and not just his.

But his parents never truly recovered, turning into weeping and hollow versions of themselves, fearfully hypercritical of anything he tried to do to prepare for his own journey. When his psychic powers developed he realized that no amount of knowledge or preparation would convince them that he would not fail as his brother did… and yet he was still young enough to think that if he could be good enough, be happy enough despite his own grief, he could remind them they still had a son left. That life could still be good. He would try projecting his joys to them, his hope and desire for things to get better.

It was never enough.

His hair began to gray as a teenager, and few enough things in life gave him any joy that he stopped trying for his parents’ sake. Still, he thought perhaps he could do it for others; where his powers had failed, perhaps other methods would succeed. He joined organizations dedicated to helping those recovering from grief and injury, made connections among different professions and organizations, began forming interdisciplinary teams to identify what would keep people from having as much trauma after crises, or help them recover faster.

Sometimes it seemed he could do some good, here and there. They identified people’s needs that added resilience, things like robust social networks and economic safety, and did their best to facilitate and reinforce them where they could. But most regions had their own unique traumas, whether seasonal or unpredictable, citywide or erratic in destructive scope, and every tragedy would undo much of their work.

It took him years to realize that no matter how much good someone experiences, sometimes a single bad enough day can ruin their lives. For those not sufficiently chained by the biological drive to live, bad enough events can end them.

And still he tried, will flickering and fading, until he read a book by the author Terry Pratchett, in which a character said:

I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother floatzel with her cubs, a very endearing sight, I’m sure you’ll agree. And even as I watched, the mother dived into the water and came up with a plump magikarp, which she subdued and dragged onto a half submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby buizel, who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen. Mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that is when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.”

For the first time in his life, it was like someone else was speaking to him. Showing that he wasn’t alone in recognizing how broken the world was, and how flawed whatever powers or forces brought it into existence this way.

Because there’s so much that could be better, if just a single thing were different. And he despaired, not at the duty to become the creator’s moral superior, but to ever having the ability to change what it had wrought.

He thought insufficient knowledge was the answer, at first, then insufficient will to move on, then an overabundance of emotion; that people felt their pains too deeply. He considered trying to become the most powerful trainer in the world, or a politician able to unite every region under his rule, or starting a religion that could inflame the hearts and minds of all humanity… but still it seemed there was nothing that could possibly change the fundamental problems in the world.

The flame inside him, still driving him to find a way to fix the crack in his family, began at last to gutter and die.

Until the Hoenn titans arose, and changed his conception of what was possible.

Each had the power to change the world in an extreme way. Each showed a lack of ability to regulate, a lack of intelligent deliberate purpose. Humanity panicked because they thought their world came close to ending, but no one seems to have understood the potential for what almost happened.

A new world’s beginning.

A worse one, perhaps, with so much water or sunlight that more suffering became the baseline. But any society born or acclimated to such a world would surely also consider it the norm, and take for granted that its ending would be tragic.

None would have traded their world for this one, better though it is. Perhaps they would, for a world without flaws.

Many regions have myths of ancient and powerful gods and spirits, masters of some (occasionally competing) domains of reality. But few carry the deep implications of Sinnoh’s. He grew up on stories of Dialga and Palkia creating Time and Space, of Uxie, Mesprit and Azelf gifting humanity knowledge, emotion, and willpower, of Arceus creating all of reality itself with a thousand arms.

Like most others, he believed them myths, or legends gone from their world. Hoenn’s myths turned out not just to be real, but still present, and even stronger than the stories indicated.

What new reality could Sinnoh’s create, if guided by a human mind?

The secret, he’s sure, lies with the unown. It wasn’t widely spread how the Hoenn incident ended; people assumed Rayquaza saved them by chance, or out of benevolence, and that the registeel, regirock, and regice there were released by the earthquakes. All of which may be partially true.

But Cyrus was hired to help those in Hoenn after the incident, where he met and counseled a boy named Wally. The boy’s shields were extraordinary for his age, but they meant nothing once his feelings of guilt overcame him.

Cyrus assured the boy that he did nothing wrong, and meant every word. The glimpses of genius that allowed Wally to influence the living myths were hard to understand, but it was enough, combined with the dreams to know what he had to do.

There’s another pop, and then that entrancing sound from somewhere distant, almost too faint for him to hear… but not for his golbat.

Wing Attack.

His pokemon darts away, faster than those of any competing unown hunters in the area. He runs by them as he chases his pokemon, vaulting low walls and weaving between pillars as the others are still looking around for the unown. It’s remarkable how few thought to train their pokemon specifically to find the sound they make, and of those who did, how few chose pokemon well known for speed and hearing.

He passes by a researcher who’s using a loudred to orient to the unown’s noise, but by the time she sends her pidgeot after it there’s already a small black figure falling in the distance. His golbat follows it down, occasionally batting at it with his wings to keep it from recovering and flying away, and Cyrus expands a ball as he gets close.

He thought it would take weeks, maybe months, to shake off the decade of rust on his trainer skills. In the years since his younger self trained daily, determined to prove himself to his parents, the only pokeball he held was the one with his teleporter in it.

But the fire in him now is stronger than that ever was, and weeks of retraining his body were almost a formality; the skills of throwing and catching, of split second evaluation and decision, were all there waiting for him, and the two balls expanding in his palms feel like they never left.

The pidgeot and his golbat almost collide as they both attempt to batter the unown down. The researcher behind him is still catching up to him, and he sends a mental command ahead for his golbat to Supersonic it. As the bird veers away, one wing flapping so hard it nearly flips over and crashes into the ground, he reaches the unown and points the lenses forward, nudging his golbat to keep it in range until he hears the two pings and throws.

By the time the researcher arrives he’s already leaving with his new C unown. It’s his third one, but that’s alright; what Wally did required one of each, but he has greater plans.

Plans that will birth a new world.

Chapter 102: Conviction

Hey everyone, traveling again this month and next, so edits and updates may be a bit delayed. To my Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarussian readers, all I can say is that I hope this chapter provides a spot of light in the darkness, and that you’re all here again next month, and many more after. That goes for all of us, I guess.

Slava Ukraini.


Chapter 102: Conviction

Once Red and Artem shared their ideas with the other unown researchers in the What Comes Next network, and consensus arose on how paired researchers and psychics weren’t even necessary given how many people would be at the ruins in general, the next question became which ruins they should visit. Kanto has so few that they debated going to Johto instead, but Red’s free teleportation would make the most remote trip the most valuable for return visits, so he decides to go for the most isolated while Artem hops on a train heading westward.

Which is how Red ends up once again on a boat to the Sevii Islands, this time a small skiff rather than a luxurious cruise ship. The sky is gray with pockets of blue where the sun occasionally shines through, and he expects rain at some point, but all he really has to do today is make it to the island and set a teleport spot, so he didn’t let the weather deter him.

The Tanoby Ruins are hard to spot from a distance, but as they round the southern bend of Quest Island the ship’s captain helpfully points to the tiny islets the ruins are nestled on from east to west.

“Monean, Liptoo, Weepth, Dilford, Scufib, Rixy, and Viapois. Most of the buildings have fallen apart to time or pokemon or some storm or another, but each has at least one main chamber that’s underground or built into a cavern.”

“And that’s where the unown spawn?”

“Sure, but not just there, they’ll pop up all around here. ‘Specially lately; used to be I’d get just one or two jobs per month to bring people to the ruins instead of a dozen, and the rest of the trips were for trainers heading to the battle tower.”

Red turns to where it sticks up from the northern end of Quest Island. “That’s one of those places for underground pokemon battles, right? I mean, figuratively.” He remembers Blue talking about it once or twice; most regions have one, usually far from any major cities where the leagues have less direct influence.

“Well, it’s a bit too obvious for even that, eh? But they’re not ‘sanctioned,’ true enough. With just enough land here to build a small town, but no one interested in living near unown ruins, it made the perfect spot for it.”

“Right. I guess it would be unsettling to have one pop into your room one night.” After hearing the sounds they make firsthand, and spending a few hours listening to recordings of all kinds just in case he discerned some hidden pattern, he’s not sure cheap land would entice him much either, even with the ability to teleport offsetting the isolation.

As if summoned by the topic, Red sees Pikachu’s ears twitch, and follows his pokemon’s gaze to the sky, where a distant black shape floats by. It’s too far for him to make out its noise or even what letter it is, let alone do a mental merge, but he can at least track the direction it seems to be going in, and takes his pokedex out to add the trajectory to the WCN app, where thousands of thin lines show other projected routes for observed unown, including how many and what letters. Once he’s done he slides the timescale back, first a few days, then a few weeks, and finally to when the app was created a few months ago, watching lines vanish and reappear.

Still no pattern that he can make out. But hopefully getting a better understanding of where they’re going beyond the regions’ borders will help. After he floated the idea around, others have already tested and confirmed that most freshly appearing unown have a few moments of lingering memory of where they were before, making it clear that they’re teleporting in from somewhere else rather than being “born” that very moment.

He’s still playing with the map as the captain cuts the boat’s speed and starts to aim it toward the docks at the base of the nearest islet. Red does one last mental sweep to make sure there aren’t any dangerous pokemon around, then calls Wartortle back to the boat and returns him to his ball. “Thanks for the ride.” Red steps onto the dock, then resummons Wartortle so he can rest before bringing Kadabra out too. Pikachu finally jumps onto the dock beside him, sniffing around before dashing off to explore the rocky path that leads up to the rest of the tiny island.

“Sure you don’t want me to stick around? Know you said you can teleport back, but if you want to visit the other islands…”

“My pokemon can take me, just didn’t want to risk the long swim over.”

“Alright then, good luck to you.”

Red waves as the captain puts the boat in reverse and eases it away from the dock, then focuses on his kadabra, who’s doing a mental sweep of its surroundings. Unlike its younger form, Kadabra isn’t inclined to flee at the first sign of danger, his mood more of a careful wariness. Red lets his pokemon finish getting used to their surroundings, then deepens the merger and connects all the information from his own senses together with his current emotional state.

Firm stone beneath his feet, the strong scent of the ocean, the sound of the waves, sun on his skin, the feeling of excitement from being here, so far from the mainland and ready to explore the ancient mystery of the ruins… all of it merges into a unique memory that he can recall and use to return at will.

Once he feels like he has the memory down in sufficient detail, and enough time has passed that it feels like a memory and not his current experience, he walks a few steps off the dock with Kadabra, then puts a hand on his pokemon’s shoulder, focuses, and teleports back to the dock.

Satisfied, he checks on Wartortle, gives him some extra treats and water, then leads the two up the path, where Pikachu is still scouting ahead. A path has been cut into the side of the islet to ensure it’s not too steep a climb, but he’s still breathing hard by the time he makes it to the top and takes in the ruins for the first time.

Brown, mossy stones jut out of the ground in various places, some seemingly at random, others clearly the remains of some building’s foundations. A few structures are still standing, but even those have holes in the walls, and none have roofs. He can faintly make out the ancient etchings in some of the stones, thin unown shapes of all kinds forming words that can no longer be understood.

Sitting on one of the worn stone walls is a girl dressed in a purple shirt and beige cargo pants, attention on the sketchpad in her lap. She looks a few years older than Red, and beside her sits a houndoom on one side and a jolteon on the other, while a sandslash rests half-submerged behind her.

There’s also a kabutops walking around them all, maybe on patrol for threats. As Red and his pokemon approach, it glances over and seems to take their measure before the girl says, “Relax, Tops.”

Despite her pokemon all being natives her accent is distinctly Galarian. Her kabutops (seemingly grudgingly) returns to its patrol, while the rest of her pokemon stay relaxed, with just the houndoom raising a head to glance at Kadabra before lowering it onto its paws again.

The girl smiles, and he’s just starting to wonder why she looks familiar when there’s a pop sound, and an O unown appears between them, a few meters off the ground and to Red’s left.

They both react together, Red rushing forward while the girl leaps off the crumbling wall, pulling a ball off her belt (wait, what?) as he expands two from his pouch. Their pokemon startle as well, though with no clear threat the two trainers swiftly leave them behind; Red almost sends a mental command for Kadabra to use Confusion if the unown starts to fly away, but the unown is simply doing a slow rotation midair, giving them both time to reach it from nearly opposite ends.

“Don’t catch it!” she yells.

“You can go first!” Red yells back as he runs under it to cut off a potential escape route. “I just need to merge with it!”

“Okay, just don’t do anything to scare it off!” She braces her arm. “Go, Pidove!”

The gray bird appears in front of her, and she quickly kneels to tie something to its feet. Red decides to save his confusion for later and just focuses on the unown’s thoughts, hoping he can pick up some traces of memory of where it was before…

The now-familiar “window” opens in Red’s mind, showing him a second visual field of what the unown sees… which, as usual, he can barely process.

Inside what looks like their single large pupil are in fact multiple, all crowded together to give a uniquely kaleidoscopic vision where multiple different perspectives, with varying range and color sensitivity, are crowded together. It also doesn’t help that the unown’s circular body keeps spinning in circles even as the eye rolls.

Still, even all that isn’t enough on its own to really give Red difficulty; what does is the sucking sensation that the other creature’s “mind” seems to constantly experience, a drain that Red’s unpartitioned self recognizes as somehow similar to what it’s like to partition memories. Except the unown’s memories aren’t going behind partitions, so far as he and other psychics can tell; just fading.

This has always been taken as the experiential side-effect of not having much memory capacity. Still, Red expected it to feel more passive, or like the fragmenting of a dream, or simply vanishing from one moment to the next. Instead the impression of his thoughts being pulled is distinct, attention not just collapsing but compressing to fit his sensorium into the unown’s limited body. He quickly releases most of the merger so that his mind settles almost entirely back in his own senses, then begins regulating the merger the way he’s practiced with his own unown, purposefully degrading the “window” of its vision until it’s a flat, low resolution monochrome.

He’s just in time to catch the last of the unown’s pre-current memories before they’re gone, but what he sees is an unrecognizable blur that vaguely looks like… the top of a forest?

And then he hears a quick musical trill, and turns to see the girl playing a blue ocarina. Her pidove flies up toward the unown, whose circular body spins away midair, and the chase is on.

But the pidove doesn’t attack, instead just following its slower prey as the unown loops around in erratic arcs above their heads, until finally its wanderings take it too far for Red to maintain the merger.

The eerie noise it emitted takes another moment to fully fade, or maybe that’s just in Red’s head. He stares after the two pokemon for a moment, wondering if the girl is going to call her pidove back… but instead she’s tucking her ocarina away, and miniaturizes its ball to put in her pocket instead of her belt (which seems to have customized pokeballs for the other five, tops alternating purple and yellow). “Thanks for not catching it.”

“Uh, no problem.” Red thinks back to that glimpse he got of the unown’s memory, trying to remember some detail that would help discern where the forest was. But there were no mountains, no lakes, no coastlines, no landmarks at all. A total bust. “I figured you’ve probably been here waiting for a while anyway, but… what about your pidove? What was that command you played?”

“Just something I’ve been working on to track the unown.” She walks back to where she was sitting by her pokemon and Red follows, watching as she picks her notepad up and brushes dirt off the pages. “Aw, shinx. It smudged.”

He catches a glimpse of a color pencil sketch and turns toward where she was facing to confirm that she’s been drawing the chain of tiny islets to the west, sunbeams peeking through the clouds to highlight the ruins on each. She must have been sitting here since morning to catch them all as they occurred, maybe multiple days. “Sorry.”

“Not your fault.” She smiles at him and holds a hand out. “Nice to finally meet you, Red. I’m Lulie.”

Red shakes it, mind automatically jumping to make the connection with her Galarian accent. “ReasonisFun? What are you doing in Kanto?” She has a sizeable following online, but in fairly different circles than Red, who only met her once she got involved in What Comes Next.

“Why wouldn’t I be, it’s where all the fun stuff is happening!” She considers a moment. “Tragic and dangerous too, of course, but you’re not about to leave, are you?”

“No,” he admits. He’s still going to most nearby incidents to help out while Cinnabar continues to stabilize, and though it often messes with his schedules and sleep, he hasn’t considered stopping. “But that’s because all my friends are here.”

“That’s fair. But I’ve got friends here too, from back when I first visited.” She takes a new pokeball, also the default red, out of her bag and clips onto the empty space on her belt where her pidove was. “Besides the pokemon, I mean, though I think they’re happy to be back home.”

Red looks at her pokemon again, then back at her. “You’re not psychic, are you?”

“Nah, I’m just good at reading vibes.”

He can’t tell if she’s joking or not, but now he’s curious about her pokeballs. If she’s color coding, he’d expect the houndoom to be in a red ball, but the only one on her belt is the one that she just put there. “Purple are for your houndoom and kabutops, yellow are for sandslash, jolteon, and…?”

“Two out of four. Yellow are Jolteon, Houndoom, and Agarment, while purple are Slashy and Tops.”

It takes him a moment to realize Agarment breaks the nicknamed/non-nicknamed pattern rather than being a pokemon he’s never heard of. “What’s Agarment?”

“Abra.”

Her deadpan delivery is betrayed by a slight twinkle in her eyes and curve to her lip that makes him replay everything, and then he laughs. “That’s terrible, and also Leaf is going to love it. Just to make sure, Slashy is the sandslash?”

“Yep, and Tops the kabutops.”

“My friend Blue has an abra named Tops.”

“Huh. Weird name for an abra.”

Red snorts and decides not to tell her about how long all his abra spent named after their teleportation sites just yet. “So what’s in the regular ball?”

“Another pidove. Your post back in April about how to herd or follow unown on mounts got me thinking a few steps ahead; what if we can just figure out where they go instead, and find them there? There are plenty of pidove in my hometown, and they’re excellent long distance fliers with incredible memories. So I caught a bunch, trained them to follow unown, and bought a bunch of trackers.” She takes her pokedex out (also purple, with yellow trim around the screen and buttons) and taps a few times before showing him…

A personalized version of the WCN map, thick colored lines indicating where her pokemon have tracked the various unown she’s sent them after. Three of them are still being drawn in real time, blinking every second as the fronts stretches further out, often in loops or bends. “Woah. How far will it go?”

“The weakest I caught was still able to fly over a thousand kilometers in a day.”

“This is great! If there’s a pattern, we might even be able to follow it and get a confirmed sighting of them creating pokemon!”

“Sure, that too.” Lulie starts picking her colored pencils back up from where they rolled around. Her jolteon stretches its neck out to pick one up that rolled near it, then holds it up for her, and she smiles as she rubs its head and takes it.

Red helps her pick up the rest, then sits next to her as he continues studying the flight paths. “By ‘that too,’ you mean there’s something else you’re doing it for?”

“To better understand their behavior in general. I’m not sure what getting a confirmed sighting of a pokemon appearing near an unown would actually do at this point.”

“Well I know the evidence seems really convincing, but it would still be important to get observed confirmation!”

“Why?”

Red blinks. “Why… is observation necessary for confirming a hypothesis?”

“Would seeing the pokemon appear near an unown do that?”

Her tone is light and curious, and it makes him smile as he remembers all the times her curiosity online has led to people, himself included, stepping back from their reflexive responses to think things through more carefully. “Ah, no. It wouldn’t ‘prove’ anything, because we can’t prove things like that by observation. But it would lend confidence to the idea, and make our predictions stronger.”

“How?”

“We’d have at least one confirmed example that pokemon can be created by… no, that they could appear near where unown are.”

She grins at the correction. “Sure, but again, what would that change?”

“Hmm. Well right now we don’t know for sure if that can happen. Once we see it, we would.”

“Pokemon probably appear all the time near rocks, and we don’t think rocks have anything to do with it unless it’s a Rock type. I get that unown are much rarer than rocks, so it feels less coincidental if an unown is near a pokemon that appears, but ‘pokemon could appear near unown’ isn’t a useful scientific theory.”

“I think I get what you’re saying; we can’t prove stuff, black swannas can exist, and all it would take is one pokemon appearing nowhere near an unown to invalidate the idea. But until that happens…”

“You believe it would increase the odds of it being true. But induction isn’t how science is done.”

The sudden confidence is a sharp contrast to the earlier curiosity, and his skepticism blooms in response. “What makes you say that?”

She gestures at the ruins. “Why are you here?”

It takes him a moment to realize she’s not changing the subject. “To study the unown.”

“You can do that through books.”

“Right, I want to learn something new about them. Make new observations.”

“Keep going. Did someone tell you to learn something new about them? Is someone paying you?”

“No, I… want to know because I’m curious.”

“Huh.” Lulie looks up briefly, hand absently rubbing her houndoom’s back. “I feel like my curiosity always comes from somewhere, but I’m not sure if that’s actually true… it also sometimes feels like it’s just there, as a passive thing that doesn’t require a specific trigger. But as an emotion, it’s variable; sometimes I feel mild curiosity, sometimes strong curiosity. Is it different for you?”

“No, that sounds about right. Sometimes I see or hear things that make me notice a mild curiosity, but the strongest emotional response always comes from things that might be related to specific topics, like psychic phenomenon or the origin of species.”

“So why are you here, specifically, studying the unown in particular? The way you’re framing things is that you want to know something, right?” He nods. “But science is never going to give you proof that you’re right. So what is it you’re actually trying to do here?”

Red frowns. “Science may not be able to prove a specific model right, but it can prove which are false so we know which are less wrong.”

“Exactly!” she exclaims with a wide grin, and he’s not the only one who startles. “Woops, sorry boy.” She strokes the houndoom’s head, then turns back to Red. “So according to Popper, science—”

“Wait, according to who?”

“Karl Popper. He was a philosopher who wrote about the problem of induction, and why falsifiability is what distinguishes science from non-science. What makes science so powerful is its ability to falsify some set of competing theories, which means you first need at least two competing explanations to do science. If the explanation you have fits all the observations, then more evidence won’t make it any more true, so there’s no value in any further confirming evidence.”

“I know falsification is important, of course, but… he was against any retesting at all? What about peer review?”

“When someone runs an experiment to falsify something it can be important for others to check their work, of course. But if the theory properly explains the phenomenon, what’s the point of doing another test? You’d only do that if it doesn’t match some observation, which again means there’s a problem. That’s what motivates all scientific advances: solving problems. Sometimes practical, like how to build a better pokeball, sometimes theoretical, like where pokemon come from.” She smiles. “So what explanation are you here to test?”

He sits beside her to think about it, and she lets him, going back to her sketching. Red pulls a tin spoon out of his pocket and tosses it toward Kadabra to play with, watching for a while as his pokemon catches it midair and begin to levitate and bend it around. Red watches him for a bit as he spends a few moments appreciating how nice it is to meet someone else willing to launch into conversations and debates like this. He knows Blue would hate it, and remembers the way others have reacted when he did similar, but he’s already really glad he came to this island in particular.

Once Kadabra is regularly cycling through its mental exercises, Red starts to consider his potential explanations for pokemon genesis, then discard them one by one.

Unown create pokemon around them by accident, no other factors are important.

Unown create pokemon around them given certain other conditions.

Only groups of unown create pokemon around them… only certain amount of unown…

“Ugh,” he says after a minute. “Everything I come up with can’t be falsified by observation. I could come up with some more deliberately rigid explanations, but I have no reason to believe they’re true yet.”

“Noticing that is an important first step! There’s no time to test or critique every hypothesis or argument, which is why coming up with good potential explanations, ones that would actually help us discard it or competing theories, is such an important part of the process. That’s why all the greatest scientists are celebrated for their creativity in coming up with good explanations to test, or clever experiments to isolate the false variations of similar ones.”

Red considers this a moment, and realizes she’s right. It also gives him a new lens through which to view his own fumbling experiments, and how lacking a meaningful explanation for the potential experimental outcomes in his “psychic particle” experiments limited the value of what he was actually testing against. By contrast, his most recent discovery of indoor teleportation was accidental, but forming a gears-level explanation from the ground up was so useful that it not only could help reproduce the effect, it also helped Tatsumaki use kinesis through walls.

“I think I get it. So what are the explanations that you’re hoping to test against, if you can?”

She turns to another page in her notebook, then shows it to him so he can read:

1) The knowledge of pokemon biology is contained in meteorites that carry their genetic material from other worlds.

2) Unown are a conduit for knowledge from another world. That knowledge is what creates the new pokemon, which already exist in that other world.

3) Unown contain the knowledge to create new pokemon themselves, and different combinations of letters combine with different surroundings objects to spontaneously create life.

4) Living pokemon genetics contain the knowledge of ancestral pokemon, and some environments or circumstances trigger a reversion.

5) Pokemon genetic knowledge did not evolve anywhere, created by unimaginably intelligent designer—but then where did designer originate?

Red blinks, then blinks again, trying to decide where to start before picking, “You believe in parallel worlds?”

“Well sure, it’s the best explanation for what happens to single photons in the double slit experiment.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of that. Something to do with quantum mechanics, right?” He almost asks why it’s the best explanation, then decides he doesn’t care as much right now and can look it up later. “So if pokemon come from other worlds, what does it mean that unown contain the ‘knowledge’ to create them? I’ve been inside their heads, so to speak, and they’re even dumber than magikarp.”

“I know you know what memes are from that lecture you gave everyone about Pokemon types–”

“–it wasn’t a lecture, I was just saying–”

“–it was totally a lecture, Red, it was like ten thousand words, but I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I actually enjoyed it! But the comparison of memes to genes is more apt than I think even Dawkins knew; he wanted to describe ideas the way we understand genes, but really it’s genes that are the embodiment of memes. When I say ‘knowledge,’ I don’t mean just memorized facts. Real knowledge is any information that preserves and replicates itself.”

“Because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be able to be learned,” Red murmurs, trying to think of what this has to do with pokemon… “Ah, that’s what you meant by the comparison to genes. They contain ‘knowledge’ about biology. How many bones to grow, where, how thick, what shape, it’s all in the genes, along with skin, muscle tissue, metabolism, everything. If it doesn’t survive the environment it’s in and outcompete others, the genes die, and the knowledge of how to turn atoms into those particular biological containers, die with them.”

“You’re quick,” Lulie says with a smile. “I thought you would be. See, a good explanation doesn’t have adjustable parts. If pokemon appear around an unown, one explanation is that the unown ‘created’ it, but that’s no different than saying that pokemon are naturally occurring around the unown, or that Arceus created them and unown are just its eyes in our world, or that all the unown are parts of a different god who did it and Arceus had nothing to do with it. Until you have a way to test specific explanations with observations that will leave better ones standing, the observations themselves aren’t guaranteed to create any new or real understanding.”

Red slowly nods, watching Pikachu walk over to Jolteon for some mutual sniffs. “So the actual process is to first notice there’s a problem, which can be as simple as when two things you think you know, or see, contradict. But instead of following that with observations to make hypotheses, I should first come up with explanations.”

“You do come up with explanations first. All observations, all learning, is theory laden. We form explanations for things constantly, consciously or subconsciously, and what we think we know affects how we interpret information and make sense of it.”

“Right. That’s why two people can hear the same facts about something that happened, but come up with totally different explanations for why it happened, and their models might actually update in opposite directions.” That always annoyed him; it just seems wrong for two people to get the same information and not move closer to agreement rather than farther.

“There are other factors too. Sometimes two people will observe the same exact thing happen in front of them, but their attention is on different things.”

“And they’ll remember different things, which will also lead to different expectations going forward, which in turn might lead to biases.”

“You mean like confirmation bias?”

“Worse. If someone only sees or reads things that reinforce a certain belief, that might make it harder to accept something that seems to disagree with all they already believe. But taking awareness into account too… what if they don’t even register the counterevidence as counterevidence at all? That would be pretty rare though, like the starting perspectives would have to have diverged drastically, or the information about something they’ve developed a lot of attentional blind spots around.”

“Ugh. Sounds like what happens in politics a lot.” She sighs. “But yeah, this is why it’s important to think not just of what models people have of reality, but also where their awareness naturally goes. Every expectation we have is the result of an explanation our mind is using to predict what will happen next.”

“Yeah, that’s what predictive processing–” A distant pop makes them both leap up again, this time without spilling Lulie’s notebook.

“I don’t see it,” she says, spinning around to look in every direction as she unclips her red pokeball and takes another tracker out of her pocket. “You?”

Red’s senses are already stretched outward, and he starts running around the ruins in case it’s inside one of the buildings. By the time he senses it behind one of the crumbling houses it’s already flying up and away, not giving him time to glimpse its memories.

The ocarina sounds behind him, and Lulie’s second pidove launches into the air after the already-distant black speck.

Red jogs back over to her as she minimizes the ball and swaps it for another full one from her bag. “How many of those things have you got?”

“Just eight left. Never was able to send more than seven out in a day, but so long as it doesn’t rain I’m hoping I get lucky.”

“Will the pidove come back here, or do you go to them?”

“Depends; the ones that follow unown out over the ocean will turn back when they’re near their halfway flight time and rest on the roof of the battle tower until I pick them up. The ones that end up going more north or west will make their way to Cinnabar, Pallet, or Fuchsia.”

“Nice. Have you posted about this yet?”

“Just started, now that I can show how effective it is.”

Red grins. “With your following, this’ll take off big.” He should probably buy some pidove… not that they’re anywhere near as rare or hard to catch as abra, but they’re also not native to any of the island regions. “So which of your hypotheses are you expecting to invalidate by tracking them?”

“Oh, I’d be surprised if any of them would. Personally I think it’s too early to falsify any by observation until we have a better understanding of all sorts of things. Whether unown are somehow a carrier for the genetic knowledge pokemon contain or not, I’m also interested in the unown themselves for their own sake. Why they act the way they do, the unique properties they have, what sort of environment, if any, they evolved in. Exploratory research is useful to create new theories or decide which to test.”

“I totally get that, it’s why part of me is so frustrated by the research ban.”

Lulie shrugs. “Only matters if I intend to do that sort of research in a region that’s banned it. There are others that are just going ahead, you know.”

Red worries his lower lip. “Yeah, but… what if it really is dangerous?”

“Then that’s just another problem we’ll have to solve.”

Her words resonate within him, stirring the part that had been mostly, if uncomfortably, appeased by his talk with Giovanni. He wants it to be true. Would have probably agreed a year ago, and he knows it’s the sort of thing Blue would say.

But…

“I feel like that’s the sort of thing Archie and Matsubusa believed.” Salvage teams still haven’t found the stolen submarine to confirm Archie’s death, and neither renegade leader or any of their people have been seen or heard from, despite being Interpol’s most wanted criminals for months. “That they could figure out how to revive Groudon and Kyogre, and if there were any problems controlling them they’d figure that out later.”

“Yeah.” Lulie’s smile has faded, and she looks pensively up at the sky as her hand reaches back to stroke Slashy’s snout. “To be clear, I’m not saying all knowledge should be spread to everyone. All problems are solvable, but that doesn’t mean we’ll figure the solutions out on time. Still, the research should be done. If someone besides those two had learned what they did, maybe they could have stopped them or the legendaries even sooner.”

The parallel to the other regions already continuing with unown research goes without saying. “So, we should be trying to research whatever we can, and if something dangerous is discovered, then we shouldn’t share the knowledge until we can reasonably ensure it’s safe?”

“That seems nearly impossible. I’d say that it’s more about who you trust to tell than anything.”

Well, he can hardly argue with that given what he’s already decided, twice. Still, Red sits silent, thoughts turning to what they’re doing here as he uses psychic commands to train his pokemon in agile movement around the ruins. What’s more potentially dangerous, her tracking, or his memory searches? He has no idea. Red told Artem he’s not trying to sneak around the ban, but while what he’s doing isn’t technically research into pokemon genesis, they don’t know that it won’t contribute to it.

What would he do, if he discovered something important here? He couldn’t tell Sabrina or Giovanni, and even Professor Oak might feel compelled to obey their Champion, despite disagreeing. And he can’t just rely on himself to know what others might do with his research, since any piece of knowledge might be the key to another’s discovery.

But that’s true of any research, really… as he already learned, the hard way. Hell, even Tatsumaki’s discovery might just be another thing that people get scared of psychics about. The list is getting rather long, all things considered, and after a certain point it may just be a choice between stop doing anything he finds important or risk discovering something that might lead to bad stuff happening.

“Still bothered?”

Red turns to see Lulie watching him, and despite her not being psychic the words weren’t a question. Good at reading vibes, huh? He lets his senses withdraw from Kadabra’s and throws a treat out for his pokemon. “I guess I’m just trying to come to terms with the risks of all this. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, actually; figuring out what ways any of my research might lead to bad outcomes.”

“Well, I understand why, but while you’re at it, why not also figure out what ways any of your actions might lead to bad outcomes?”

“What, all of them?”

“Sure. Is there any reason to only care about research in particular?”

Her tone makes it clear she’s suggesting something intentionally impractical to make a point, but Red just gives her a wan smile. “Let’s just say I have good evidence that my research is more likely than not to cause problems, compared to all my non-research actions.”

Lulie’s eyes widen slightly, and this time she’s the one that stays silent, drawing pad forgotten as her eyes turn upward. Red merges with his pokemon one at a time, sending them through the ruins, treating it as an obstacle course, until finally she looks back at him and says, “I feel like you just admitted something rather personal, and important, and you believe it enough that I don’t feel inclined to doubt it. So, thank you.”

“You’re welcome, I think.” Really he shouldn’t have said it at all, if he’s being as cautious as he should be, but somehow he trusts her not to gossip. Some of his own “vibe” reading, maybe.

“I’ll admit to being curious, but understand if that’s all you want to say. Meanwhile, I should remind you of the good you’ve done too.” She pats the yellow ball at the back of her belt. “I was only able to afford Agarment here because of you.”

“I had some help. But… yeah, I think I did need that reminder.” He tries to let that sink in, and once it does he feels himself breathe a little easier, his worries about being a walking infohazard for psychics fading a bit. Much as it might feel lately like all he’s done is discover dangerous things, he knows he’s done more than that. “Thanks.”

“Anytime. So what’s your plan to figure out where pokemon come from?”

Red smiles. “Finding ways to test your ideas seems good, actually. The fourth one reminded me of ditto.” Part of him still stubbornly insists that metamon is the better name, but there’s no denying the tide has turned in the past few weeks. “There are stories of clefairy coming from the moon and ghosts from the afterlife, but as far as we know, minior are the only pokemon that aren’t really from our planet at all, right? Or at least, they form in the stratosphere before falling to earth. Has anyone tested whether ditto can transform into them?”

“You’re thinking, what, that because they’re not from the planet, they’re a completely different genetic branch from whatever ditto can imitate? Hmm.” She checks her pokedex, brings up the page on ditto, and starts to scroll. “Nope, they haven’t gotten around to testing that one yet.”

“Then it’s time I write up some competing theories of my own.”

Lulie grins. “And meanwhile, what’s your plan with the unown?”

“Well, I know you’re against knowledge by induction, but I still think it can be valuable. Let’s say unown really are important, in some way, to new pokemon appearing. If we want to get a sense of the range in which new pokemon might be spawned, then obviously just one observation wouldn’t do much; we wouldn’t have any sense of how relatively close or far it is from the potential maximums, or minimums for that matter. But with a hundred observations, unless there’s absolutely no trend at all, we could get a frequency curve that could be very useful.”

Lulie just stares at him a moment. “You want to make a hundred observations of pokemon genesis, when no one’s even managed one yet?!”

It starts to drizzle as they argue, and Lulie withdraws her houndoom as they find shelter beneath some trees, chatting late into the day and building up their knowledge together, one data point at a time. When Red finally says goodbye and teleports home, it’s with new conviction.

He wouldn’t experiment in any way that might create pokemon… but he would continue trying to learn where they come from, and decide what to do with that information later if he has to.


The division within Fuchsia gym starts slowly, and without any deliberate effort on Blue’s part.

For one thing, he and his friends are famous enough to naturally attract aspiring trainers wherever they go, to the point where he finds himself having trouble actually keeping track of everyone these days. It takes effort to spend “personal time” with others beyond Glen, Elaine, Lizzy, and Maria; he feels the most comfortable being himself around them. But he pushes himself to do it anyway, remembering how important it was to befriend each of them on a more equal level. He wonders where he’d be now if he hadn’t gone to the Saffron dojo that day; maybe worried to even attend classes.

Novelty also likely plays some factor in how popular their group becomes; after finally having the blessing from a gym leader to do what he wants, Blue can at last continue what they started in Vermilion. While he starts iterating on the Objection system, Glen and Elaine work together to develop a set of group training scenarios; Search and Rescue, Hold the Line, and Titan Takedown.

(That last one is the most unique, and soon draws the most sign-ups. Since they don’t have actual legendaries to practice on, the scenario features an asymmetric battle between one trainer using their most powerful pokemon and three to five using weak ones. Though it comes with an added risk to the pokemon involved, people seem as genuinely excited to try to work together taking down the “Legendary” as they do to play the villain; much debate was had over whether they should be able to ‘catch’ it, and in the end Blue decided that since no legendary has been caught yet, they would battle as though taking them down is the only option.)

And then of course there was Koga’s speech, and the way he occasionally visits to observe the “unofficial” classes they run with anyone that wants to try the scenarios. It’s hard to compress all the things they learned in Vermilion into a few lectures and practical tests, but the scenarios are different enough from regular battle matches, and the experience of those at the gym so wildly varying, that they make safety the priority and let the participants learn most of the rest live.

But still, all of that could be seen as auxiliary gym activities… until a couple weeks after starting, Janine began to post notices of private, one-on-one battle training. Not just with her; most of the veteran members of the gym also make themselves available, and far beyond what’s normally available in most gyms. Not only do they double their available times for single matches and coaching, they also post their training times, and stage them in public places where anyone who wants to observe can do so… always coincidentally at the same times that the group scenarios or lessons are scheduled.

It feels like years ago, now, but Blue still remembers what Red told him just before leaving for the cruise convention… along with the burning conviction that’s so rare to see in his friend.

“This is your chance to do something really different… prove that you can win, reveal your secrets, and then win again anyway.

The memory has nudged him, now and then, to say more rather than less, to show his secrets not just to those in his inner circle, but to the world, in the hopes that it strengthens every trainer without costing him his dream. It still feels like a gamble, every time, but one that on net he’s glad he takes.

But he hasn’t tried to preach something similar, knowing it would bring a lot of backlash from other battle trainers; for all that he’s accomplished, he’s still young, and the more experienced trainers would believe he’s just trying to get others to show him their secrets in exchange for his own paltry few.

And yet without really intending to, it seems he’s managed to push the Fuchsia gym culture onto a path that might normalize that mentality. Janine knows she can’t beat him in offering more than what gyms traditionally do, but she can double down on that tradition, with added perks.

Which is why, while some trainers are attending both, there’s been a definite drop-off since Janine’s lessons started, to the point where they’re actually having trouble forming teams for each scenario with the smaller pool of skill and pokemon available.

All told, despite Janine beating him twice more since their first match, Koga’s plan is working out wonderfully, and the Leader is sure to allow him to Challenge soon.

“So why do I feel like I’m losing?” Blue complains to Elaine as they make their way to the training rooms to practice with their psychic pokemon. Blue hasn’t given up on getting Tops into fighting shape, and doesn’t plan to, but he has to admit that a kadabra alone wouldn’t bridge the gap between him and Janine. “And I don’t just mean because I am, obviously.”

“Let me guess,” Elaine says. “At this point even getting the badge and leaving would feel like failure?”

He grunts acknowledgement. And for multiple reasons too, not least of which is that he’s losing hope that the starting animosity from Janine will turn into a more friendly rivalry over time. For reasons he can’t quite understand, if anything the Leader’s daughter seems to actually hate him more now, despite his attempts to apologize for their rough start and befriend her. “The worst part is, her training will actually help people become stronger than ours. Not in every situation, but in their ability to win trainer battles and gym challenges. And that means the scenarios will die out as soon as we leave.”

“Makes sense to me. How many people get a gym’s badge in a year, a few dozen at most? Meanwhile, you’re the first person to change the culture of a gym without being its Leader. Of course you want to keep stacking that story.”

Blue sighs as they enter the elevator and start heading down. “I only want to because I’m right though. The Indigo League’s been around for nearly a century, if focusing on individual trainer strength was enough to keep the region safe then someone would have taken a Stormbringer down by now.”

“Preaching to the choir,” Elaine gently reminds him. “But however wrong it may be to focus on individual trainer strength alone, we can’t deny that her training will help with both trainer battles and wild battles.”

“Well, no, but ours helps against trainer battles too!”

“Mmm. If I were to think up numbers for it, which I have, I’d say her training boosts Battle Power against trainers by 10, and ours against wilds by 10. But while ours boosts power against trainers by 2, maybe 3, hers boosts power against wilds by at least 5.”

Blue frowns. “Are you pulling those from a game?”

“Nope.”

“Alright, well—”

“I’m describing how it’ll be reflected in my game.”

“You’re making a game? I’m in it?”

“Of course!”

“Wait, if it’s your game why not give my training a boost?”

“I can’t do that, silly, it has to be realistic. There are modifiers for the two of you, but I think they come out about equal, and then she’s got a Second and Third on her side.”

Which has certainly tempted Blue to go to the lessons himself, as a sort of “we’re not so proud that we don’t think we can learn from you too” (not to mention the help it would be in his own battles against them), but they’re still working out the schedule rotation and he needs to be present for most. “I still think our scenarios should boost trainer battles by more. They’re not even battling wild pokemon!”

“Neither are we, just pretending they’re wild.” She pats his shoulder as they pick a training room and close the door behind them. “It’s okay, Blue, you have plenty of other perks.”

“I do?”

“Yep! First off, you have Showman, which gives you advantage when speaking in front of a crowd, which gives you a higher chance at earning bonus reputation. You also have Battle Calm, which—”

“Wait, how did you…?”

Elaine blinks. “How did I what?”

Blue feels the back of his neck burning. “Uh, nothing. Just something I’ve heard before, I think?”

“Maybe! I thought I made it up, but you’re always super chill when you fight, so I gave you immunity to reaction penalties from stress.”

“Is that… good?”

“Yeah, it’s one of your strongest perks! That and the Legendary Reflexes and Heroic Name—”

“Okay, okay, I’ve got a lot of perks. I’m satisfied.” He smiles and unclips Tops’s ball. “Thanks. Where are you finding the time to even make a sim, anyway?”

“It’s not digital, it’s a tabletop RPG! You know, pencil and paper, character sheets, stuff like that. It’s what I’ve been working on with Marcus.”

“Oh. I thought you guys were, you know. Dating or whatever.” He half expected that’s why Marcus was so quick to join up with them in Saffron, but he couldn’t exactly call the older boy out on it, especially since he’s actually a good trainer.

“Ah. No.” Her cheeks are pink as she unclips a pokeball too, and Blue is about to summon Tops when she says, “I’ve, um, got my sights set on someone else.”

Shit. Blue still remembers that kiss on the cheek during the storm, now and then, and hoped it was nothing meaningful. That didn’t stop him worrying about it off and on for months, of course, and yet he still has no idea what to say. “Um.”

“But I’m pretty sure he just sees me as a friend.”

“Right.” He doesn’t dare be too relieved, yet, and sure enough…

“Maybe because he’s still focused on another girl. I know it’s stupid to keep hoping, and I’m not rooting against them, exactly…”

“Wait. Another girl?” Does she think he and Leaf…? Or maybe—

“It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”

“It is?” Blue asks, feeling a little faint. He’s been talking to Maria a lot lately to get extra help training their psychic pokemon, but—

“Well, thought it was. He talks like Bretta is going to ask him out any day now, or else he will.”

Oh!” The relief is short-lived as Elaine gives him a quizzical look, and now it’s his turn to blush. “Right,” he quickly adds, hoping it’s a more normal response. And then, for good measure, “Yeah.”

“You think Glen’s still focused on her too, then?”

He should just lie. It would be so easy. But what if he’s wrong? In this case he wouldn’t just look foolish, he’d be misleading his friend.

“I actually have no idea,” he admits after a moment, very badly wanting to summon his pokemon and start the training. Instead he starts tossing the ball back and forth. “And it doesn’t seem like my business.”

“Right.” She starts to play with her ball too. “I just thought you were at least keeping track of things like that. For, you know. Drama-avoidance reasons.”

Blue grimaces, but says nothing. He’s read about the way romance among journeymates could lead to problems between them (despite the incomprehensible insistence of basically every movie to shoehorn it in, which is one of the many reasons he prefers films about trainers his own age) but the whys and hows have always been a mystery to him, and he’s never really wanted them not to be. As far as he can tell, romance just makes people go crazy in fairly random and uninteresting ways.

Sometimes heroic ones, too, but those would always be more interesting without the romantic motivation, to him, and observing the ups and downs of Daisy’s romantic life so far has convinced him further that the whole thing is more trouble than it’s worth, even if things seem to be going well with her current girlfriend so far.

She’s still looking at him, though, and finally he says, “I’m just trying to focus on what would make everyone a better trainer. So long as it’s not causing a problem, meddling with people’s personal lives would just be a distraction, for me and others.”

“I get that. And I do appreciate it. But you’ve earned the right to nudge, now and then, you know? If you think it’s getting to be more of a distraction than saying something would.”

Is she asking him to tell her to stop thinking about Glen? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing someone would be able to do, at least according to movies, but then they’re not reliable in all sorts of other ways. “I’m younger than everyone else in the group. Why would I have any more to say on this than you all?”

“It’s not that you would, exactly. I mean, I don’t think people are going to ask you for dating advice. But if it’s affecting our training, I expect you to notice, and… well, we wouldn’t want to disappoint you.” She shrugs. “I guess I should just speak for myself, but if you think I’ve been slipping behind because I keep trying to make sure Glen is keeping up…”

She’s right, he has noticed that. He just didn’t say anything because he figured she’s doing it out of friendship. “Would you do the same for others in the group?”

“I’m not sure. Lizzy and Maria, probably? Maybe not the newcomers, if I’m being honest. I like Marcus and Alex, but I didn’t spend that much time at the dojo, so I’m still getting to know them.”

Blue nods. “You are, a bit. Falling behind I mean. But you’ve been improving in other ways too, and… there are more important things than pokemon training sometimes.” He sighs. “Honestly, it’s been a bit of a relief. I’d probably be doing it more myself if you weren’t.”

She lets out a breath, then nods. “Well. That does make me feel better. But I’m actually worried this is all just my past debt coming due for all the motivation I got after meeting him.”

“What do you mean?”

Elaine gives him a faint smile. “You probably didn’t realize, because we all met at around the same time, and… you didn’t know me too well at the start. But a big part of why I was always so eager to work hard and do more was… I wanted to impress Glen. I mean, I wanted to be impressive so that he’d notice me. Not to say I didn’t care what you thought too, or about getting a badge, or being a good trainer. All of that mattered to me. But I never felt so… energized, and cheerful, and focused.”

“You were pretty energetic back then, but you still are, too, most of the time. I just figured, you know… the things we’ve been through, they haven’t really left any of us unchanged.”

“Sure, that’s been part of it too. After what happened to Glen beneath the Casino… I could barely think straight until he woke up. But I’ve also been feeling some heartache, and occasional jealousy, and… trying not to let that get in the way of things has been hard.”

Blue frowns, staring at his abra’s pokeball. How did he miss that? “Sorry. Not just because that sounds like it sucks. I had no idea.”

“Don’t be, I wanted to keep it hidden. I might have just confessed to Glen if I wasn’t so worried about making things awkward and ruining things for the group. But I’ve been wondering… what if I stop trying to help Glen and still can’t keep up? It’s harder to motivate myself to train these days than it is to work on a game about training. Doesn’t that mean I’ve lost it?”

Blue’s stomach clenches at the thought that Elaine might quit, after everything she’s been through. Everything they’ve been through. But… “Elaine, if you’re worried I’m going to be upset—”

“Of course I am, but it’s not just that. When I think of how badly Aiko wanted to be a trainer, and how much good we’ve done, it makes me feel like… I have to keep going, for her sake. And if I could stop others from dying like that, but instead I just spend my days in Pewter making games…”

Blue knows he’s supposed to say something here, something like she wouldn’t want you to be a trainer for reasons like that. But he’s still shaken by the idea that he missed something so big in Elaine’s journey, and it threatens to throw everything he thinks he knows about her and even the others in his journey into doubt.

Or maybe that’s just an excuse to keep her with him.

More alarming is the thought of what else his friends might be going through that he might be totally blind to. Maybe he’s too young to understand the romance stuff, but while he still wishes it weren’t something he had to think about, at least now that he knows how blind he’s been he can ask Daisy for help. But if he’s mishandling the situation with Janine, which it seems he is, it could be for another reason that’s totally invisible to him.

How would he even know how to find out?

Pull yourself together. His friend is still standing silent in front of him, and he can worry about his own problems later. There are a few things he doesn’t feel or relate to that he’s managed to at least accept are real for others, and he reaches for some of that borrowed wisdom now.

“Maybe you just need a break,” Blue says at last. “We’ve been going pretty hard for months, and all the recent wild battles are wearing a lot of people down.”

“Not you.”

Blue snorts. “You said it yourself, a while back; I “double specialized” in pokemon battles, or something like that, right?”

But Elaine just gives him a sad smile. “I know you, Blue. You want equals with you, on your way to the top. If I spend a few months at home just fooling around, is there really going to be a place for me on your journey again? I don’t mean you’ll tell me to go away, but in your heart, will I still be an equal?”

“No one is,” he says, the words coming out before he can think. “I’m sorry, that’s not—”

“No, it’s okay.” She reclips her pokeball and walks over to the wall, pressing her back against it and sliding down, then patting the floor beside him. “Tell me.”

Blue suddenly wishes they were talking about romance again, but… she trusted him with her deep fear. He can’t do less.

He goes to sit beside her, rolling Tops’ pokeball between his hands. “I don’t know why I said that. I was trying to make you feel better, but it came out… bitter.”

“It’s okay to notice you’re not like others, Blue. In a few ways, at least. I’m just worried that’s going to keep you from finding real companionship.” She sighs. “But I guess it would, if those few things are important enough to you.”

Some leader he is; now she’s the one comforting him. But this isn’t even a loss, and… it’s Elaine. She’s been with him as long as anyone besides Red and Leaf, and through even more together.

“I know it might not be actually true,” Blue says. “I mean, there are probably a few trainers out there as good as me. Glen might actually be one of them, if not for…” He swallows down the ball of bitterness and sadness.

Elaine is looking at him in something like pity, but also worry. “Give him more time, Blue, he’s trying so hard, and—”

“I know. That’s part of why I admire him so much. But even people who are as good as I am at battles don’t have the same ambition, and without that it feels… different. I’ve met so many people I respect and admire and have learned from, including you, by the way, people with skills I don’t have, and insights, and all that good stuff. But for what matters most… it feels like sooner or later I’m going to walk a different path, or they will.” He smiles at her. “So don’t feel bad about going home for a bit, Elaine. You’re special to me, but not that special.”

She hugs him, and he returns the gesture, unsure if he’s made things better or worse until she says, “Just… don’t count us out yet. When you get to the top, and put out the call… we’ll be there, even if we couldn’t walk the whole way with you.”

“What if that just gets you killed?” Blue whispers, again without meaning to.

Elaine pulls back to meet his gaze. “Is that why it bothers you so much? When people can’t keep up, or fall behind?”

Blue shrugs, looking away. “I knew a long time ago that I’d be leading friends into danger they might not survive. Everything up until now, it’s… not weeding people out, exactly? Not consciously, at least. But I know that I don’t want people to come just because they like me, or are afraid of disappointing me. I want them to come because they believe as much as I do that taking the Stormbringers down is more important than anything, and are strong enough to actually make a difference rather than dying for nothing.”

For a second he thinks she’s going to hug him again, but then she just punches his arm and stands up. “Don’t borrow so much guilt ahead of time, Blue. It’s very noble of you, but it’s patronizing as hell.” She walks back to the arena. “Go, Ekans!”

Her pokemon appears and coils around, tongue flicking out. Blue gets to his feet as well, wondering if he should say something else, but then just goes to stand across from her and summon Tops. The purple snake goes absolutely still except for its tail, which rattles, and Blue watches his abra’s ears twitch, its body trembling with the effort not to teleport away despite its type advantage.

“You’re stronger than you think,” he mutters, wishing for the thousandth time that he was psychic. “I’ve just got to show you.”

“You talking to me, your abra, or yourself?”

“All of the above.” He takes the two sound emitters out of his pocket and holds them out to the sides, letting Tops orient to his position before beginning to tap out an attack. “And the rest of the world, too.”

Epistemically Honest Reassurance

There’s a problem I’ve been seeing a lot since I started doing couple’s counseling with rationalists: we are, on the whole, uncomfortable with lying, particularly to people we care about, even if it’s for a good cause. Being put in a position where someone asks you to lie to them can feel like a gear grinding in the head, or a disembodying from your true self, or a sense of suddenly walking on eggshells.

Not just rationalists feel this way, of course, but the following exchange is nearly ubiquitous in normal romantic culture:

“Do you think [bad thing will happen]?”

“Of course not, everything will be fine.”

On an intellectual level, the person asking often knows that their partner can’t actually promise this. But for many people, particularly in times of crisis, words to the effect of “Everything will be fine” are comforting, and all they’re really asking for in that moment is emotional reassurance. There’s nothing wrong with that, any more than there is a desire for aspirin when you have a headache.

Meanwhile, this is what might happen for rationalists:

“I’m scared of [bad thing happening].”

“Well, there’s a chance that it does, of course, but on net it doesn’t seem likely.”

or, if it does seem likely:

“Well… [brain lock]… Uh… [something meant to be reassuring but undermined by tone and affect].”

And sometimes the issue isn’t even about probabilities at all:

“Have I gained weight/does this make me look fat?”

“Are we going to be together forever?”

“Do you think they’re more attractive than I am?”

“Does it bother you when I get really sad for no reason?”

Again, it’s taken as the default in general romantic culture that what matters in responses are that they are reassuring, not that they’re true. Most people in normal culture would react with indignant outrage on their friend’s behalf if told that a spouse gave an honest answer to any of the above that reaffirmed the insecurity.

And again, even for other rationalists, the person asking may know that they’re putting their partner in a double bind, but the thing they want is not actually a “comforting lie.” Many people, particularly rationalists, really appreciate a partner who will be scrupulously honest with them.

But what still matters more than the object-level question is answering the implicit query:

“[I’m feeling insecure; do I have reason to be?]”

Which is why it might help to see the desire for verbal reassurance as similar to the desire for a hug; it’s about the sensation and the signal, and those can be provided without saying anything that feels false.

How Do?

First, its important to reiterate that this is meant to be a way to reassure someone who is having a bad time, not a method of “fixing” underlying insecurities. Everyone needs a hug now and then, and sometimes all you can do for a cold is pop some aspirin. If there seems like a deeper issue at play then resolving that requires more in-depth discussion than this article is going to cover.

Second, I am not suggesting platitudes. If you can’t think of something both honest and reassuring to say, that’s a separate problem; if your partner wants reassurance that you love them or are committed to the relationship, and you can’t give that, don’t make it seem otherwise.

Third, remember to be ready to reverse all advice. Some people do actually want to be told “Yes, that makes you look fat.” But hopefully you will learn this through the relationship itself, and often even in those cases people don’t just want radical honesty, but also reassurance and understanding; this article is trying to help those who have already tried addressing the object-level and found their partner wasn’t reassured, without ignoring the possibility that they did in fact want object-level reassurance about improbability and wanted more emotional reassurance.

Speaking of which… a related problem is the one where people are unsure if their partner wants to “vent” or “problem solve,” and this post has advice on that which is very relevant here too.

…my answer is almost always “I want to understand my problem better, feel understood, and be reassured that the people important to me agree that this is a real problem, or at least that they support me in general. If understanding itself doesn’t solve the problem I will want to problem solve after I understand it”.

Similarly, people expressing insecurity through unanswerable questions often want to feel understood, and reassured, and maybe then also problem solve. That might look something like:

Am I getting fat?

What’s making you think that?

I no longer fit into these pants.

I’m sorry, I know you like those pants. I think you look great, but maybe we can find another pair you might like as much?

But that’s a nuanced and context dependent maneuver, not a one-size-fits-all password. The point of this post is to highlight to those who ask questions like this why their partner might have trouble answering them, and help those who are asked these questions understand what’s really being asked for is not always an answer to what’s being asked.

The root generator you want to tap into here is the one that creates your own optimism. What do you feel good/safe/confident about that you can share with your partner? What truth about yourself or your relationship do you want them to take comfort from?

“Do you think I’m going to get long COVID?”

“Either way, I’m here for you. We’ll get through it together.”

“Are you attracted to them?”

“Not the way I am you. You’re the only one I want to be with.”

“Do you think we’re going to make it through this?”

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m with you because I believe in us.”

“I hate how depressed I get all the time. I feel like I’m never going to be ‘normal.’”

“I know that must be frustrating, but I want you to know that I love you, and feel so lucky to be with you.”

And so on. For that last one, conversely, a bold prediction like “Don’t worry, I’m sure you will someday” could be counterproductive even in normal romantic culture. Some might want that object-level reassurance, but for others it would be missing the point;  the actual thing they want is, again, to know that your love and support isn’t dependent on that happening.

Remember, try to find words that are true for you and feel right for your partner, and stay curious about what your partner is actually seeking in those situations; it may change over time, or be different in one context vs another. Then, once the moment is past, talk to them about it! Ask them what they felt when they asked something, what they meant by it, how your response was, what they would like to hear more of or less of.

There are also of course physical things you can and should do as well; touch is important for comfort and reassurance, as are gifts and acts of service. If you own a scale and your partner asks “Have I gained weight,” there are some pretty good ways to show that you find your partner attractive, and that question is a decent signal that you should do them more often.

Chapter 101: Gauntlet

Bah, juuust barely missed the 1 million word mark… next month it is! Also, I’ve recently started being a bit active on Twitter, for whoever might find that interesting. You can probably guess my handle 🙂

Hope those of you playing Arceus are enjoying it! I’m starting it tomorrow, and look forward to all the ways it will break my storyworld’s timeline…


Chapter 101: Gauntlet

“Those of you who have been to Vermillion or Cinnabar Gyms may think you understand battle safety. This intro class is to assure you that you do not.”

The instructor is dressed in a version of the Fuchsia gym uniform that indicates his status, and stands with his hands behind his back facing the two dozen students kneeling and sitting around him on one of the Gym’s larger rock gardens. Blue sits beside his friends and tries to focus on the lesson as people keep glancing at him.

“Vermilion likes to talk about the unpredictable nature of electricity. They teach good lessons on how various objects will attract or resist it, and on judging the amount of raw power a pokemon who can call down lightning can harness. Cinnabar Gym will hammer on similar points; that trainers of Fire pokemon must understand heat in all its forms, the way it rises and spreads, the temperatures at which various materials will combust. They do this because both electricity and fire are dangerous forces even when used by your own pokemon.”

Blue shifts his weight, still getting used to sitting seiza on the small wooden benches the gym has scattered around. They’re cushioned, which is nice, and keep his weight off his ankles, but they also throw off his sense of balance unless he sits properly. He sees Glen and Lizzy having the same problem, though Elaine and Maria seem fine. Conscious of eyes on him again, he does his best to keep his shoulders square and his back straight.

“What you’ll learn here is different. Whether your pokemon deals in poison, venom, or acid, the most important thing is not the ways your environment might affect their attacks; it is your opponent’s biology itself. There will be a few classes on ensuring wind patterns for poisonous gas, on which acids will be neutralized by what sorts of terrain and which will still be dangerous, but the majority will focus on how to tell when your opponent is close to death.” The instructor looks around, maybe checking to see if anyone isn’t paying attention, which seems unlikely after dropping that word. “This is important for wild pokemon you hope to catch, but also, of course, for trainers you face who may not be as well versed in determining just how close to irreparable damage they are… particularly if they’re too focused on winning, or are used to taking risks that paid off for them before.”

This time Blue isn’t sure if people are looking at him or if he just feels like they are.

“However, this responsibility comes with a perk.” Now the instructor is looking at Blue, who snaps out of a chain of memories his words brought up. “Oak here, at least, knows one way to use that to his advantage.”

I do?

He just smiles, mind racing until he focuses on which of his battles would be common knowledge first and works through those, after which it quickly becomes obvious. “Psychological warfare.”

“Precisely. Using poison pokemon or attacks in and of itself will often make an opposing pokemon or trainer wary. More than any other type, Poison types excel at zone control.” He turns to the easel beside him and starts drawing on the poster board. “Most pokemon will avoid smog or acid or spores, but that means even a miss can help you limit their mobility by careful planning. A master of Poison pokemon knows that time is their ally; setting up traps to catch even the most wary opponent takes patience, as does using defensive positioning to stay safe while they wear themselves out.”

He finishes drawing a few arena shapes, then starts indicating by cloudy shapes how smog could be used in each. Blue dutifully takes notes along with everyone else, and then they break into groups to try what they’ve learned. None of his pokemon can create poisonous smog, which leaves him to practice using Shimmer’s poison powder for aerial dispersal and toxic spikes from his newly evolved forretress for the ground. He’s practiced zone control with the others before, but not alone, since he figured if he was fighting alone other tactics would be better than dragging the fight out.

He can see the value of it now, however, and continues working out his strategies while deliberating on which of his pokemon can most complement and benefit from an opponent with restricted movement. Slower ones are an easy enough answer, but he’s sure there are better possibilities…

Eventually the class ends, and Blue chats with his friends for a few minutes before saying goodbye. He misses spending time with them between classes, but he’s been going to meet Koga every day since he arrived, which is part of why everyone at the gym has been paying more attention to him than they normally might. They seem to keep waiting for him to speak up in classes or activities and poke at why things are done a certain way, or suggest something else entirely be done.

So far, he’s managed to keep himself from any of that. The path he’s taking in Fuchsia so far starts with humility and reception; Koga advised him that it would make the most favorable impression, and Blue is sure the Leader meant both for his Gym members and for himself.

Not that he hasn’t had ideas already, of course…

“Well? Found some way to save the gym yet?”

Blue turns to find Janine leaning against a pillar, arms crossed. She’s wearing the gym uniform, but has a purple scarf around her neck, and he smothers a smile as he takes a breath and fully faces her, hooking his hands in his pockets. He wondered how long it would take before his first meeting with her, and knew it had to come from her initiative.

“Save it from what?”

“Whatever Father thinks is so wrong that he’ll break from a decade of careful preservation and refinement.”

“That sounds like something you’ll have to bring up with him.”

“Don’t play dumb. You two worked on that speech of his together.”

He wondered if she’d bring that up; the other reason people keep looking at him, he suspects. “What makes you say that?”

She rolls her eyes. “‘Our gym needs to both preserve the traditions that have served us so well, while still adapting to the challenges of our new age?’ He might not have said your name, but saying it after you show up and having all these meetings makes it a clear endorsement of what you’ve been doing at the other gyms.”

Blue crosses his own arms, now, brow raised. “Is that a problem?” He’s genuinely curious; despite what he agreed to, he doesn’t particularly want to become the Fuchsia Gym Leader, which means that if Koga’s worry that Janine will likely succeed him if he leaves the gym is accurate…

…she’ll be one of the Leaders under Blue’s purview as Champion, while Koga is one of his Elites. Ideally he leaves the city with a good working relationship with both of them.

“We’ve done just fine without them,” is her only response, and Blue can’t help but raise his brow.

“Huh. I didn’t expect you to be more traditional than your dad.”

“Is that a problem?”

She gets his inflection down perfectly, and he can’t help but grin before shrugging. “Only if it keeps Fuchsia from being better. You can’t think everything’s perfect as it is, right? How do you know I wouldn’t point to the same things you would?”

Janine snorts. “If that were so, Father wouldn’t be paving the way for you. He’d have just listened to me already.”

Blue watches her for a moment, then nods. “Alright, I get it now.”

“Get what?”

“Why he doesn’t want you to be Leader.”

She hides the flinch well, but he still sees it. Maybe he shouldn’t have confirmed it so blatantly, but he’s not interested in beating around the bush for weeks either.

“And why’s that?”

“If he wanted you to know, he’d tell you. Figure it out yourself; you don’t need me, after all, remember?”

He walks away, half expecting her to follow but not needing her to; he made his point, and knows a perfect exit line when he says it.

Ideally, he leaves the city with a good relationship with both of them. Meanwhile he’s probably going to piss off one or the other sooner or later.

Still, it’s gratifying when she steps up beside him (surprisingly quietly, he didn’t hear her move) and matches his strides. “It won’t matter what my father wants if I beat him and undo any changes you make anyway.”

He shrugs. “By then I’m hoping you’ll see the benefits, and keep the ones that work.” Now. “If not, I’ll just have to beat you and take Leadership myself.”

Janine’s gait doesn’t falter, but Blue catches her shocked look in his periphery before she laughs. “What kind of con are you running here, Oak? Everyone knows you’re aiming for Champion.”

No use trying to hide that. “You’re right, I’m going to become Champion first. Then I’m taking a page out of Giovanni and Brock’s book, and settling in somewhere I can make a bigger local impact.”

She doesn’t have an immediate response to that, and her expression is schooled as they pass over a bridge that crosses the moat surrounding the small island where the main arena is located. Blue’s shoes scuff the sand on the other side, but Janine’s steps are as silent as before, and he looks down to watch how she shifts her weight onto each foot, trying to imitate her.

If she notices she doesn’t comment, instead looking around as he stops. “Did you bring me here for a match?”

“Just thought it would help avoid eavesdroppers.”

She frowns. “Why Fuchsia?”

“Why not Fuchsia? It’s as far out of the way as you can get without going to Cinnabar, so I wouldn’t be bumping elbows with others. It’s got the Safari Zone, which is a pretty damn important resource to protect and is likely going to only get more important as my friend Leaf’s project develops. And it’s just a beautiful city. I miss the Pallet Beaches.”

She didn’t seem to expect him to have an answer to that, or maybe she’s just having trouble believing they’re having this conversation. He watches her jaw flex, then relax. “This is my home.”

The words come across as a threat, not a plea. “Kanto is mine, and Fuchsia is in it. Why would I leave it in the hands of someone stuck in the past?”

“Oh fuck off, you don’t even know me.”

“And you know me?”

They stare each other down across the middle line of the arena, and after a few seconds he sees the older girl get it. Maybe not all of it, but enough that her eyes suddenly narrow, and dart to the arena, then around them.

There are people watching them. Not blatantly, but curiously, as they make their way from one place to another. No doubt wondering if they’re going to battle, or just what they’re talking about.

Either way, the word will spread.

“If I were to challenge you to a match right now,” Janine asks, voice low. “It would puncture whatever story you think you’re building here.”

“Funny thing, a few weeks ago I would have agreed with you. Now?” He unclips a ball and carelessly spins it on a finger while his other hand rises to cup around his lips, like he’s imparting some secret. “Even when I lose, I win.”

He’s exaggerating a little, of course. The thought of losing to Janine, particularly in such a public way, makes his stomach clench. But it’s incredibly unlikely that he’ll beat her his first time, not without more intimately understanding her strategy and tactics. So long as he can get her to agree to more than one match, and frame the narrative properly, what is he really losing that’s worse than his loss to Brock was? And that “failure” turned out to be quite an opportunity.

She watches him balance the spinning pokeball, then walk it across his knuckles once it slows, and knows that she understands that turning away now would make it look like she’s the one that declined a battle challenge.

“This sort of pageantry has no place in a proper Gym,” she says after a moment, sounding like she’s talking through half-grit teeth. “It might have worked for you in the others, but it won’t matter here. And all I need to do to stop you from making it matter here is being the better trainer, which I am.”

“No, you’re just the stronger one. Maybe you’re even better than the Third or Second, maybe even better than your dad. But better than me?” He bounces the ball to his other hand and starts tossing it back and forth. “That’s going to take more than just one battle to determine.” He smiles. “Or else you can enjoy being Leader for a couple years before I come back for the title.”

For a moment as her expression hardens he thinks he might have overstepped, and then she grins, and something in the shape of it makes him know he did. “Three on three, to the faint.”

Shit. “Of course.” Practice matches don’t tend to skirt the line for major injury that close, but negotiating now would make him seem less serious about all this. Besides, it’s not like she’s going to maim his pokemon just to discourage him.

“We’re not doing it here, though. ”

…Is she? “Afraid of an audience?”

Janine just snorts as she walks away, and after a moment Blue follows, sending a quick message to Koga to cancel their meeting. Once he puts his phone away he watches Janine as they walk, reevaluating her with everything he’s learned.

Not as interested in public perception as he hoped, and also quicker to anger. Not that he’s one to talk. Still, it makes sense that she’s taking it as a personal attack rather than a friendly rivalry. She’s got the skill to feel justifiably patronized by him throwing a gauntlet down without even getting to know her or the gym.

Now he just has to make sure she doesn’t break his nose when she throws it back.

He looked up her most used teams, of course. From what he could tell, and what she might know of his pokemon, she’s likely not going to use her anti-Psychic and Ghost pokemon, since he doesn’t have any that are fighting fit for a battle like this. On the other hand he hasn’t been shy about using his Ground types, so even if he doesn’t have to worry about her skuntank or drapion, she’s still got plenty of choices; he particularly noticed how well she tends to use toxicroak and roserade to take down anti-poison walls and weezing as a status inflicting wall of her own, with scolipede and crobat to act as sweepers.

Not the easiest list to narrow down, but he came as prepared as he could be.

They enter the main training hall and head to the elevators. Even their doors match the simple, warm wooden aesthetic, but once they’re inside it’s cool blue metal, and a few moments later they step out into a corridor as hi-tech as any other in Kanto. Janine steps over to the PC beside the door, and he looks away while she logs in and swaps the pokemon at her belt.

Once she’s done Janine leads him past the training rooms, some of which Blue has already spent time in, and toward the arenas. “Will you need any water for your team?”

“No,” he says, surprised by the offer and wondering if she picked a team for either arena type, or if she’s just that confident. Maybe he should have said yes to increase the odds of her bringing a tentacruel out for his magneton… but Rive would be at a huge disadvantage, and he doesn’t have enough of a water roster to really make up for it.

So they enter an earthbox arena, similar to the one where he fought his challenge matches in Pewter. Janine turns the fans by the door on to keep any smog from escaping before they put their masks on and take their positions on the platforms.

“Ready. Countdown if you are.”

“Sure.” He had some lines prepared for a public battle, but they’d be a bit silly to say here, particularly given how upset she might be. He feels the battle calm descend as he takes deep breath, mind focusing on nothing but the fight ahead. “Three, two, one, GO AEGIS!”

His forretress materializes together with Janine’s Galarian slowbro. Huh. Unexpected, but I’ll take it. As a Poison/Psychic pokemon it won’t have much to use against Bug/Steel.

“Sa!” he shouts to Aegis into a spin, bits of her metal carapace breaking off and flung onto the enemy side of the field, where the slowbro responds by—

—belching out a stream of fire.

Blue’s hand is already out to withdraw Aegis as she twitches and spasms, cursing under his breath. Galarian slowbro are the only pokemon in the whole family to not disproportionately favor special attacks, so of course she used a TM to teach it one anyway for exactly situations like this, where her opponent would assume it’s a physical attacker.

Thankfully he has a decent response as Rive comes out next, immediately shaking off the sludge that gets shot over the rhyhorn’s rocky hide. Blue knows better than to respond with a Ground attack when she’s still probably got a weezing or roserade to swap into, so he goes for Rock Throw, which scores a satisfying hit against the weezing she replaces her slowbro with.

“Smog!”

“Tar!” The attack misses, but Blue is prepared for a drawn out slugmatch. Sooner or later one of these attacks will poison Rive and start the clock ticking, and she’ll probably use Will-o-Wisp to add a burn soon as well, but if he can last long enough that she sends out a—

“Shadow Ball!”

Blue’s thoughts pivot, entire battle strategy reforming as the “wall” reveals itself to be another special attacker. He has no one better to switch into the oncoming ghost attack, and so he just lets his pokemon resume its offensive as it’s hit by the dark sphere. The rock throw lands with a satisfying thud, but Rive lets out a grinding roar of anguish as it endures the mental assault, visibly trembling and twitching. Combined with the potential for poison he’ll have to be withdrawn soon, but that weezing needs to go down

“Tar!”

“Go, Blaziken!”

What

Rive ejects another chunk of its rocky hide at the newly summoned enemy, who mostly shrugs the blow off. Blue’s battle strategy attempts to flip again, but there’s nothing for it to flip to.

Part of him suspected she might use a non-Poison pokemon to throw him for a loop, this isn’t exactly a standard gym battle and they never set a rule that she’d have to use only Poison types, but… a blaziken? Why pick that? Sure it gives her more options against any Steel walls he might have, but it’s just as susceptible as Poison pokemon would be to Ground or Psychic attacks…

…which makes it one of the last type combinations he’d expect her to use.

The blaziken is already rushing forward to attack, leaving bloody footprints over the spike-laden ground, and Blue has a split second left to decide between trying a Ground attack or swapping, and after the last two fakeouts he’s half convinced this is one too so he goes with his gut and yells “Ba!” as he grabs the handrails for stability.

The shockwave knocks the blaziken to its knees and coats it with earth, but it rolls forward and kicks Rive hard enough to send cracks through his hide and Blue has to swap to Nin, even knowing that as soon as he does—

“Return! Go, Slowbro!”

“Sas!”

“Psychic!”

The cone of supersonic noise only hits for a moment before his golbat is pummeled out of the air. Slowbro tend to be resistant to confusion, but he’s got no better play than to hope for the best, and it’s at that thought that reality hits him and he withdraws Nin.

“I concede.” The words hurt coming out more than he expected; he didn’t even take down a single pokemon. Hell, he barely damaged them. Despite what he said aboveground, part of him is still very glad he didn’t get handed such a total loss in front of others. “Nice moves.”

Janine just withdraws her pokemon and vaults the wall of her platform, heading for the door without a word as she takes her mask off.

“Thanks for the lesson,” he says, making sure his sincerity is at the forefront of his tone as he removes his too and hurries to join her.

She pauses, seems to debate a moment, then turns her head toward him as he catches up. “What lesson?”

“Expect the unexpected.”

Janine snorts and keeps walking, but doesn’t make any particular effort to leave him behind. “That should be basic to any competent trainer.”

“Poison is usually a defensive type, and you went with an offensive team even when it looked like it could be otherwise. More specifically, you chose pokemon that aren’t your usual best so I don’t get experience fighting your real team next time.”

“You still think there’ll be a next time, after that?”

“Sooner or later.” He shrugs. “Up to you which it is.”

He can’t see her expression, but he does his best to take her silence as a victory.


“Just focus on what you want for them,” Leaf says to the room full of psychics, eyes closed as she follows her own instructions. “Your pokemon are your partners. They rely on you, and care for you more than their own lives. They’ll always be there for you, and never let you down. Think of how much you’d care for a person that was so devoted, what you’d want for them. To be safe, and avoid suffering. To be happy, and flourish, and reach their full potential.”

Her hand strokes Raff’s head as she speaks, and she feels her affection for him grow as he nuzzles her palm. She hopes the feeling is helpful to Sabrina’s students, who are trying to learn to memorize and generate the same level of deep emotional care that allowed her to help with the marowak ghost. By their fifth session she was worried the lessons would get repetitive—or at least, her part in them, she’s not sure what they do when she’s not around—which is why she started alternating the focus of each. She started with her feelings about pokemon in general, then switched to what she felt for the abra that seemed to work to keep them from fleeing, then her memory of what Red projected from her to the marowak ghost, painful as that was to remember.

Since she’s not psychic herself she has no way to even check if they’re making progress, which is why she started asking them to fill out daily forms of how they feel about pokemon before they go to bed each night. Just a number is enough, though she invited them to expand on it with any thoughts they notice that seem new or unusual.

Today she’s hoping to broaden everyone’s connection to their own pokemon, through the deep love she feels for hers, under the hypothesis that there might be some spillover effects to pokemon that aren’t theirs. Not that it would be bad for them to care about their own pokemon more too, of course, but she’s curious about the barrier between how much affection people feel for their pokemon compared to others. She still remembers the conversation with Red and Blue at the start of their journey, and while some of the quick and strong bonds people form does seem like an obvious consequence of ownership and familiarity and affection, the same way people care about their friends and family more than strangers, it still seems like the dropoff for other pokemon is sharper than it should be (could be?).

She knows it’s possible, at the very least, thanks to her own feelings, and those of people like Natural and others who have reached out to her over the past year, some even admitting that reading her writings on the topic changed the way they feel about pokemon, even those that aren’t theirs… though she hasn’t noticed anyone who doesn’t have pokemon mention such a change, so far at least. All of which makes it hard to resist using this opportunity to try getting some deeper understanding of the bond between people and pokemon.

Still, she tries not to lose sight of the real reason she’s here… even if she finds it strange that psychics, of all people, might need these lessons.

“I don’t need to tell you that the creature in front of you is as real as you are; unlike most people, you can intimately feel its suffering, its joy. Let yourself lean into whatever natural desires you have to protect your own pokemon from harm, and imagine the pokemon you want to project onto is a future pokemon of yours.” She spends some time moving through those mental motions herself, first picturing each of the pokemon she caught before she caught them, then imagining how she feels about them now, followed by thinking of what new friends she might make in the coming years. “If you can imagine that, and how you will probably feel about them, it might help you embody a similar feeling sooner, before you’ve even caught them.”

Doing these lessons has had an interesting effect on her own experiences. A similar thing happened when she wrote about her feelings and philosophy about pokemon; making them so explicit forced her to delve into the content of every shade and nuance of emotions that felt natural to her, every notion and thought that might tangentially be related to or build the worldview. It was surprising how each article kept revealing more depth and detail to what she already seemed to feel or “know” to herself, or at least refined it.

After all that, she didn’t think her feelings about pokemon had a new way to grow. But doing the same thing even more directly, communicating the ideas to people right in front of her, out loud, while focusing on the sensations in her body as she does it… all seems to layer a richness over the expanded awareness she got from making the ideas explicit for the articles.

The experience has made the lessons worthwhile all on their own, and she draws in a slow breath as she imagines all the friends Raff has yet to make once she introduces him to them, how much joy he seems to get when playing with other pokemon, and feels her love for him swelling to fill her chest.

“Your pokemon have a lot to teach you about enjoying life, and seeing it from new angles. You just have to be willing to spend the time with them. Share yourself with them, figuratively or literally, and listen, and feel.”

She lets the last of the breath out, and opens her eyes, to check the time. Two minutes to go, which is close enough. She gives everyone another minute in the silence, then says, “That’s it for today. I hope it was helpful.”

“Very,” Satori says, and gives Leaf a rare smile, hand stroking her torracat. “Thank you, Leaf.”

Leaf grins. “You’re welcome.” She likes Satori; she’s distant, a bit like MG—Maria—used to be, but she seems to be more invested in the classes than anyone else, and not just because it might help her with her own personal project of creating such a strong bond with her pokemon that it would persist beyond its Dark evolution.

She stays behind while everyone else leaves, intending to catch up with Jason, but is surprised to see Rowan waiting too. He’s usually first out the door beside Tatsumaki and Daniel. Her surprise turns to shock when she gets a closer look and sees he’s quietly weeping.

“Are you well, Rowan?” Jason asks, and while there’s concern in the medium’s voice, there’s also a note of something like caution. Leaf noticed that the others treat Rowan a bit oddly, but she’s not sure she really gets why.

“Yes,” Rowan says, and takes some tissues from inside his robe to mop at his eyes. “I’m just… it’s beautiful, what you can do, Leaf. I think… I might have understood it, for once.”

“Oh, are these happy tears?” She grins, relieved. “That’s wonderful, Rowan!”

“Yes…” He hugs his espeon, who waves her tail, split ends twitching. “Yes, it is… I’m so lucky to have my pokemon, and I know I can do better for them…”

Leaf beams at him, but notices that Jason doesn’t seem as thrilled. She only has a moment to wonder why before Rowan suddenly takes a deep breath, then lets it out and bounces to his feet with a grin.

“That was great,” he says, wiping impatiently at his eyes. “I’m going to see how easily I can remember that series of partitions and do it again.” His espeon rubs at his leg, and his grin fades a little as he quickly withdraws it. “Thanks, Juniper.”

“Uh, you’re welcome,” she says, but he’s already leaving, and closes the door behind him without another word. She turns to Jason, who’s staring after Rowan with a resigned expression, and Satori, who is stroking her torracat with a slight frown. “Was that…?”

“As he said, his partitions,” Satori says. “Personality editing. It’s been… disconcerting, at times, but Sensei says he has not done anything obviously harmful yet, and it is his mind to experiment with as he sees fit.”

Jason nods. “I believe he’s trying to catch up to Red, in terms of creating new forms of partition manipulation, but in his own way.”

“Ah.” She’s not sure she totally got all that, but she can ask Red later. He hasn’t come to her lessons yet, which has been understandable, though also a little disappointing. His unique abilities mean he needs them the least, but at the same time she thinks that philosophically he’s the most likely to actually change his perspective if he spends more time focusing on these things. “What about you, did you two find it helpful?”

“Yes, I believe so,” Satori says with a smile. “I believe I will be ready to evolve Pela sometime in the next month or two.”

“Oh, that’s great!”

“I have too,” Jason adds. “I’ve found this compassion you generate similar to what I’ve found helpful to embody when dealing with Ghost pokemon, and it is interesting to add another layer onto that, from another angle.”

“That sounds great. I’ve been meaning to ask you about that, but I have to head out now. Let’s catch up later?”

“Of course.”

“Take care, Leaf.”

“You too!”

She withdraws Raff and heads out, but instead of going to the roof to teleport she makes her way down to the street while taking her phone out to order a cab to Lavender Town. She registered her second one to Fuchsia once she started going there regularly, and Sabrina gave her an abra registered to Saffron as part of her thanks for the lessons to her students, but cheap as abra have gotten Leaf didn’t expect to see Laura often enough to justify getting another to keep her Lavender teleport.

It’s not the price that bothers her so much as the implications of owning so many abra. She likes to get to know her pokemon, and the ones she takes care of at the ranch, understand their personality, but there are only so many hours in a day, and abra are… not the most interactive pokemon. She feels bad enough for Psyguy, whose whole life seems to be feeding and sleeping and teleporting her when she needs him (along with her occasional attempts to engage him in play, which he just seems confused by), and even worse for how little she’s engaged Aiko and Sabrina’s abras, defaulting them to a “life” spent mostly as oblivious energy. Acquiring yet another one before she even gets to know the others would feel neglectful.

So she gets in the cab when it arrives and sits back for the ride, catching up on her messages and checking the news along the way. Today it’s full of reports and articles about the latest pokemon discovered in Sinnoh; yanma don’t normally have an evolution, but a couple days ago one trainer’s suddenly evolved into an undiscovered species. At first people thought it was like the temporary evolution of Steven’s pokemon, but it didn’t revert back, and today another trainer’s evolved into the same one.

All told, “yanmega” is the ninth new pokemon that’s been discovered since the Hoenn incident, more than half of which have been somewhere on the island chain. It seems to confirm the idea that the increased activity of unown is what’s causing new pokemon to appear, which generates interest even for non-researchers… though less excited interest, and more fearful. Most articles she’s seen (not aimed at battle trainers at least) concern the chances of another major incident like what happened on Cinnabar, or even Lavender.

To the relief of many, the marowak ghost appears to have been one of a kind so far. The ditto, meanwhile, were uniquely capable of hiding and disrupting the ecosystem until there were enough of them to cause a stampede. Most new pokemon aren’t powerful or generated in high enough numbers to cause such an immediate and major shakeup of their environment; there have even been theories that the majority of new pokemon that come into existence aren’t noticed by humans at all because they’re killed off somewhere in the wilderness before anyone encounters them. It would also explain why the majority of the past few decades’ discoveries have been pokemon generated from manmade objects or ecosystems.

Still, at this rate of genesis the odds of new pokemon causing Tier 2 or higher incidents may rise until they’re a seasonal incident, at least somewhere in the world. Various regions haven’t finished recovering from the ecological shifts Groudon and Kyogre caused, and if the ditto had shown up in Hoenn, where the worst of it is still running the local rangers and league ragged, there’s no way they would have contained it properly. Not without outside help, which would open those regions up to similar risks from even their own “normal’ incidents.

All of it puts more weight on her project going well. So much so that sometimes she has trouble sleeping at night, or even playing with her pokemon, worrying over how she should be spending that time making sure she’s doing all she can. For a project that’s already far bigger than her, and beyond her capabilities in many ways, that leaves her mostly double and triple checking her own work and trying extra hard to catch up in the areas she’s still learning.

It’s also made her work in the investigation feel less important, even while it’s more interesting (and exciting). For now she has a good excuse; she did manage to actually learn things, after all, even if some of it was less from competence and more perseverance. But after she shares what she’s learned with Laura, she knows she’ll go back to worrying about whether the investigation into the conspiracy, big and important as it feels, actually matters compared to all the human and pokemon lives that would be improved by completing the program.

She wonders if this is how Blue feels all the time. If so, it could explain why he’s so focused on his goal, even more than she and Red, with their various side projects. Is it pleasant for him, living like that? Does he ever have other things he wishes he could do, or do they not even register to him in the first place? Somehow she never thought to ask him.

Well, nothing’s stopping her now, and she’s almost there anyway. Leaf writes him a message, then reads it over while imagining his perspective as best she can before doing some edits to make sure it doesn’t come across as patronizing, then hits send as the cab stops.

“Thanks,” she says as she gets out, then starts walking the last couple minutes beyond the road to where Laura’s new house is; she apparently decided to change her rental to one that’s a little ways beyond the town proper. The walk gives Leaf time to appreciate the changes around her since the last time she was here.

Lavender Town in the springtime is much prettier, but more than that its entire vibe has changed from a quiet place for mourning to a lively community. She imagines that has as much to do with the circumstances as the weather, but either way it’s nice not to be hit by any particularly strong memories from that visit.

It helps that she also keeps her gaze from lingering on the tower. She considered visiting the rangers at the tower while she’s here, but isn’t sure if she wants to face the memories there just yet… not while she still wakes from nightmares, now and then, of burnt and bloody cubone and marowak bodies piled like garbage…

She resolves to decide how she feels after she speaks with Laura.

When she reaches the right house and knocks, Red’s mother opens the door almost immediately and gives her a hug before inviting her in and serving lunch while Leaf summons her three abra.

Laura starts with small talk as they eat delicious meatless burritos, which gives Leaf the opportunity to surreptitiously study Laura up close. Red’s mother seemed distracted the last few times they spoke; Leaf imagined it was due to other parts of the investigation going well, but trusted her to share it when she’s ready.

Now Leaf wonders which of them is having more trouble sleeping; Laura looks more tired than Leaf’s ever seen her.

Tired, but focused. The fact that Leaf asked for an in-person meeting at all made it clear something important happened. By the time she refills both of their tea cups, she gets a message on her phone, then nods to Leaf and says, “Okay, we’re good to talk.”

Leaf blinks. “Did you just…?”

“Anti-spying measures,” she says with a small smile as a door opens somewhere in the house. A moment later a handsome dark skinned man with a goatee and a shaven head walks into the dining room, hands latching his pokebelt on. “Thanks, Asim.”

“Of course. Nice to meet you, Miss Juniper.”

“Um. Hello,” Leaf says trying to keep from staring. She doesn’t recognize the name or his accent. “Um. Who…?”

“Just a friend of Sam and mine.” Laura turns to him. “This shouldn’t take too long.”

“No rush, I’m going to the trainer house to see if anyone’s worth a match or two.” He nods to Leaf, then walks past them and out the door.

Leaf stares after him, then looks at Laura, who just gives her a small smile.

“Like I said, just a friend. He helps make sure we don’t have any unwanted listeners.”

“He’s psychic?”

“And good with tech. So what brought you here? News on the ninja clan?”

“Not… exactly.” She takes a breath. “I, uh, met your informant.”

Laura’s eyes widen, and Leaf quickly summarizes what happened (still embarrassed by the fact that the informant got the drop on her, though she knows that’s absurd if they really are a ninja and probably even if they’re not). She expects Laura to chastise her for the risk she took, but instead she just seems too preoccupied by the revelations her old informant passed along.

“Silph’s battling an organization that’s separate from the informant,” Laura murmurs. “And also has worked with… which means… Leaf, what do you think would have happened if Yuuta wasn’t killed? Assuming he didn’t spill any information either way.”

“Well… nothing, I guess. If we assume that he didn’t have anything else to reveal, the case would have just… faded, right? If someone hired him to steal the fossils, we’d probably never find out.”

“Right. And if that was the point?”

“Then… Silph killed Yuuta so people would investigate who hired him? But why not just tell people?” Leaf blinks. “Oh. Because if it’s an organization they’re also allied with… that would be an act of war. Instead of… whatever weird alliance they have.”

“Or the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. No organization is truly monolithic; I actually believe Silph when he says he doesn’t know about some of the stuff that was revealed. Why would he? He’s got a business to run, and a massive one.”

“That’s another thing, though; who’s big enough to be a real rival to Silph? Is Devon operating in Kanto?”

“Only minimally. It’s a good question, and there are a few companies I’ve looked into, but none fit the sorts of things that were found to be stolen under the Casino.”

“Have we learned anything else about them, by the way? Who worked there, what they were doing?”

Laura smiles. “You think they’d tell me?”

“Have you asked?”

“Leaf, I’m a reporter! Even self-employed, the police don’t talk to us, not unless someone’s got a chip on their shoulder, or some agency is screwing things up so badly that one of their officers or detectives wants to leak something that’ll put pressure on them to shape up.”

“What if you offer to trade info or something? There’s got to be something in all the data we got that could be useful to them.”

Laura opens her mouth, then closes it, frowning slightly. Leaf waits, expecting to hear some answer as to why that isn’t workable, and finally Laura sighs and drinks some tea as she rubs her forehead. “I… may have a bit of a fear of talking to the police over any of this.”

“Wh—oh.” Leaf feels like an idiot. “Sorry, I totally forgot.”

“No, it’s nothing to be sorry about. You’re raising good points, and I haven’t… actually considered the idea. Just avoided the possibility out of fear.” She shakes her head. “There’s no reason to think that Silph has people in every police department, but my gut insists it’s not worth the risk.”

“Your gut is probably right. I was just saying stuff, I didn’t just forget what you went through, I didn’t consider the risk. And it’s not like I’ve been totally open with the police.”

Laura chuckles, but upon remembering the events that led to her saying that, Leaf’s thoughts are already considering a new possibility.

“Hey, what about Looker?”

“The Interpol detective? He’s probably safe enough, but they’re not going to have much to say or do with something like this, not unless we had evidence of interregional crime.”

“What if we do, and just don’t know it?”

Laura blinks. “That’s… possible. But for the best chance of them connecting any dots they might have the other half of, I’d have to hand over everything.” She thinks for another moment, then nods. “I’ll think about it. Thank you, Leaf.”

She beams, feeling happy to have helped. They talk some more about what possible points of investigation Leaf could use to find out more, and after a while Leaf smiles.

“You know, I was half expecting you to say this is all too dangerous and to walk away from it.”

Laura smiles. “Would you have listened? Sorry, that’s unfair. You’ve been, overall, very sensible.”

Thank you.”

“Even if you did get caught and are lucky my informant just wanted to chat.” Leaf squirms, and Laura laughs. “But overall, I trust you to know what you can handle. You’ve been through a lot since we last talked about this, and I’m the one that asked you to look into my informant in the first place. I’m not going to pull you out just as you get results.”

“But they don’t want me to keep looking into them. What if they get mad?”

Laura shrugs. “You might learn something just by working together. Just be careful; they were right to say your earlier investigation probably tipped Silph and any other interested parties off. In fact, be sure to keep looking like you’re looking for them, otherwise—”

“People might think I succeeded, instead of thinking I gave up.” Leaf smiles, happy for the explicit encouragement to keep working in the investigation. “I’ll be careful. More careful, I mean.”

“I know you will. That’s why I’ve agreed to introduce you to my newest informant, assuming you agree.”

Leaf blinks. “Your… what, the one that lives here? When? Today?”

“Sure, if you have time and he’s up for it.”

“Oh, yeah! Totally!”

Laura smiles and stands, taking her phone out. “I’ll step into the other room and call him, if you don’t mind cleaning the dishes?”

“Sure!”

Leaf hops up and gets to work, excitement making everything go twice as fast. She finishes before Laura returns, then goes to check in on her pokemon. Psyguy nibbles the food she offers, but the other two don’t seem hungry.

When Laura returns, she goes to latch her pokemon belt on, and Leaf automatically moves to do the same. “He said yes?”

“He did.”

“Who is he?” Leaf asks, excitement building as she withdraws her abras. The rooftop meeting with the informant has a surreal feel in her memory, and she’s getting it again as she thinks of how much deeper into the investigation she’s about to be admitted. She’s not sure how many people she’d admit this to, but while Leaf has always known she enjoyed learning new things, she’s also found she likes knowing secret things. Not just any gossip, but important things. It feels wrong, somehow, but she can’t deny the sense of importance she feels as they step outside and Laura locks the door behind her before leading them toward the town.

“His name is Dr. Fuji. He’s a little… odd.” Laura’s voice is cautious, but also sympathetic. “He’s been through a lot, and has lived a secret, isolated lifestyle for years. In a way he reminds me of Mr. Sakai, though not in any obvious way.”

Leaf’s excitement starts to cool as the reality of the situation reasserts itself. “What’s he been hiding from? Silph?”

“No, that’s… more complex. He’s apparently been working for Silph, but only because he doesn’t trust anyone else to work on the project and get it right.”

“What project?”

Laura doesn’t turn her head, but Leaf sees the way her eyes glance around them again, clearly a reflexive check as her voice lowers further. “He calls it a masterball. A pokeball that combines and surpasses all the specialized tech of the others.”

Leaf blinks. “You mean… higher mass limit than even heavyballs, and longer lock on range than quickballs?”

“Effective underwater, elemental protection, the works.”

“That’s amazing!”

“It is. They’re meant to be a weapon against legendaries, not just the Stormbringers but in case of another Hoenn incident.”

Despite her words, Laura’s voice is grim, and Leaf frowns at her. “So what’s the problem?”

“It’s also meant to completely overwrite the pokemon’s identity. It would turn them into biological machines; no trace of anything but basic survival instincts and reflexes.”

Leaf feels a chill race up her spine. Masterball… It would be a lobotomy, as good as death. Why…?

But she knows why. If it’s meant for legendaries, the goal would be to minimize any chance whatsoever of them not being conditioned. Particularly after Groudon apparently shook off whatever conditioning came from his own capture.

Or maybe that’s just how he acted even with it.

It takes Leaf another moment to remember that most people don’t care about pokemon the way she does, and only then does she really get it.

“Would that… work on people too? Would that be legal?

“That’s Dr. Fuji’s worry. It’s not meant to, of course, which is how it might skirt the laws; changing its coding enough to capture a human in the first place is already against the law. But there’s very little incentive to do that with a normal ball, given what it does to people…”

“Until now.”

Perhaps next someone will make a ball big enough and catch the earth, or throw it far enough and catch the sun. It is folly.

“There’s more, other tech involved that Dr. Fuji doesn’t have full knowledge of. He thinks it’s going to also incorporate new material being developed to be resistant to psychic abilities.”

Leaf’s shock chases away the previous thoughts. “That exists?” Would a helmet of it protect someone from a psychic? Maybe only from the sides or back?

“He seems to think so, but… I’m honestly a little unsure.” She lets out a breath. “Investigations like this are always difficult.”

“Like… this?”

“With an unreliable informant. Oh, I believe him about most things, or I wouldn’t be in so deep. But most isn’t all, and getting any details wrong could be disastrous, not just at the point where a story gets published but even before that.”

“Is he just unreliable because he’s… depressed? Or is it something else?”

“You’re thinking of Mr. Sakai. Like I said, it’s not that bad. If Dr. Fuji is ever obviously out of touch with reality, I haven’t seen it. But he does have mood swings, possibly from years of isolation. Sometimes depression, other times a manic energy, but not a happy one. Intense, even angry at times.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t worry, I never felt any sense of danger from him. I can’t really imagine him hurting anyone. And maybe he’s completely justified in what he’s feeling. But from the perspective of a neutral observer, he’s too unusual to be a credible single source.”

They reach the house, and after a quick knock and a brief wait, Leaf gets her first look at Dr. Fuji.

The old man who opens the door is pale and skinny, with tufts of white hair around a bald crown. He blinks at them a moment, then peers beyond them, then steps back to invite them in without a word.

Leaf enters and stands awkwardly to the side, unsure of whether she should introduce herself until he closes the door and turns to her. “Leaf Juniper.”

“Hi, yes. Dr. Fuji. Nice to meet you.”

He takes her proffered hand, but carefully, and releases it quickly. “You’ve got Cedric’s eyes.”

“You’ve met my grandfather?”

“Just once, long ago.” He turns to Laura. “Thank you for coming, Laura.”

“Of course,” Laura says, and takes his hand as well. “I’ll put some tea on, shall I?”

The older man frowns. “Nonsense, you’re my guests. I’ll make the tea.”

“No offense, Doctor, but your tea is a little… overly suited to your tastes.”

“Hmph. You’re saying I steep it too much.”

“You’re just a little out of practice playing host.” She smiles. “You can practice on me the next time I come by, but let’s spare Leaf that while you two get acquainted.”

Dr. Fuji sighs, but nods. “That would be lovely, thank you.”

She sweeps past toward the kitchen, and after a moment Fuji follows, leading Leaf past the entrance parlor, where laundry is drying over the couch and chair… or at least she assumes that’s why they’re there. The house in general looks like someone’s been living in it for years without company, though she sees signs of recent half-hearted cleaning; there’s a broom and dustbin leaning against the corner, and the dining room table is half covered in a mess of books and plates and pokeballs and half covered in those same things, but stacked into piles.

It’s only once she reaches the table that she sees the pokemon; a cubone, a lickitung, and a pikachu are in the living room, which seems to have been converted into a playpen for them.

“Aww,” she says, grinning as she approaches the pikachu, then pauses. “May I?”

“Please. They’re friendly, and don’t often get new company.”

Leaf crouches and reaches out to pet the ‘chu, who nuzzles her hand, sniffing curiously. This area, she notices, is relatively clean, considering the fact that pokemon live in it. “What’s his name?”

“Custard.”

She grins. “Because he’s yellow and sweet, or because he likes to eat it?”

He chuckles. “Both.”

“How long have you had them?”

“Oh, a few years. I… needed company, you know.”

“I do.” Now the lickitung approaches, and she hesitates as its tongue waves around in front of her. She’s always been a little grossed out by them, and feels herself wanting to step away from its reaching tongue.

But she knows it uses the tongue because its other senses are so bad, and watching its dull black eyes look to her right and left as it wags its tongue closer and closer makes her feel a well of sympathy for it. She reaches a hand out to stroke its tongue, and while it’s no less gross than she expected (though drier, thankfully), the way it seems to relax upon exploring her hand makes her feel good about the decision.

“Most don’t find them a very pettable pokemon,” Dr. Fuji says, handing her a wetwipe from somewhere on the table, which she gratefully takes despite knowing their tongues emit antibacterial enzymes (when they’re not emitting a paralyzing one for battle, at least). “Do you have one?”

“No, this is actually the first I’ve met. I just… felt sorry for it.” She tosses out the wipe, then goes to greet the cubone, which is sitting in the corner, eyeing her warily. “Is this…”

“One of those from the tower incident, yes. I only acquire pokemon who aren’t fit for combat, despite the best efforts of pokeball training… this one seems to have been particularly traumatized by the loss of its parents.”

Leaf closes her eyes a moment, reliving those soul-rending moments in the tower, seeing the heaps of bodies, hearing the mournful cries… and then she takes a breath, and crouches down to gently stroke its bonelike “mask.” It goes still for a moment, then uses its club to push her hand away.

It makes her heart ache, and she wants to pet it again somewhere else, find the right thing that’ll help it relax… but instead she just carefully stands and steps away to show she’s not a threat, then goes to play with Custard again. As she does she sees the older man smiling at her.

“You certainly live up to your reputation.”

“Do I? Which one?”

“Laura told me you were with her son in Vermilion, when Zapdos hit it. And your experience in Celadon, when Groudon woke… I can only imagine how frightening that must have been.” He watches her as she rubs the pikachu’s fur. “I’d understand why you might not want to write about such experiences. But I am curious to know how you feel about legendary pokemon, whether your compassion has limits, given their destructive power.”

Leaf takes a moment to collect her thoughts. She’d been a little prepared by what Laura told her about Fuji’s concerns for the master ball project, but that just means she has to find a new way to put her thoughts into the relevant words. “Honestly, I have struggled with that. It’s not like they chose to be the way they are, and they’re not… I mean, there are some pokemon that are, for lack of a better word, cruel. It’s their nature, they didn’t choose that either, but getting them to stop hurting others would require changing what they are. So far as we know, legendary pokemon don’t seem to be ‘trying’ to cause pain, they just… do.”

Laura joins them with a tea tray and biscuits, and Dr. Fuji insists on pouring for them. Leaf takes one of the rich chocolate cookies and dips it in her tea as it cools. It’s so tasty she eats nearly the whole thing in two bites, then looks down at Custard, who sniffs at it. A quick glance at Dr. Fuji confirms it’s okay, and the pikachu eats it from her hand, cheeks showing just a brief flicker that sends a pang of ghost pain down the side of her body that Red’s pikachu shocked when she caught it nearly a year ago.

“I understand,” Dr. Fuji finally says. “Or, I think I do. Let me know if I have it wrong. Your ideal solution, given all the power in the world, would be to render them harmless. Not just them, but all pokemon, if you could. No more need to capture them, let alone fight them.”

Leaf nods. “Yes. And not just harmless to us, to each other. Make it so everyone can subsist on other diets.”

“Interesting… and very possible, given the extent of TM technology. But it would be a massive undertaking, to change their genetic code as well such that their children would retain it. And these pokemon would need to be more ecologically fit, to outcompete and outbreed their unaltered competition… unless you hope to capture every pokemon in the world.”

She smiles. “I’m idealistic, but still sane, I think.”

“Idealistic is too often a pejorative. What you are is ambitious, and I salute you for it.”

“Hear hear,” Laura murmurs, and lifts her cup as he lifts his.

Leaf feels warmed by more than the tea as she takes another biscuit. “Well, I have less ambitious plans for the meanwhile.”

“So I’ve heard. But are they similarly concerned for the welfare of the legendary pokemon?”

“Not directly. For those with Pressure, I hope my plan will remove the effects on wild pokemon, though, so… without the stampedes, it’ll be easier to just hunker down and let them pass.”

“Would you want them captured or killed, eventually?”

Leaf meets Dr. Fuji’s gaze, biscuit soaking in her tea. “If they’re captured by the masterball, it sounds like they’d be as good as dead. Worse, that sort of reprogramming would be used for more than just legendaries.”

Dr. Fuji gives her a slow nod, but doesn’t say anything more, still waiting for her answer.

Leaf has felt tested since the beginning, but nervous as she is about disappointing, she’d rather fail in a way that makes it clear she doesn’t think the question has an easy answer than “guess the password” with a belief she doesn’t have. So she sighs and strokes Custard’s fur.

“I don’t know. I guess I was being a bit naive with what I said about the Pressure… even without stampedes, the storms would do a lot of damage, so people will probably always want to capture or kill them. And the storms would still kill a lot of wild pokemon, especially if they’re not stampeding to stay ahead of them.” She eats her tea-soaked biscuit, which helps a bit. “I don’t know if there’s a good answer. I want to believe every problem has a solution, but… if I care about people, and wild pokemon, including the legendaries… I can’t come up with an answer that doesn’t rely on technology we don’t yet have.”

“I agree,” Fuji says, and gives a sigh of his own as he stares into his cup. “The masterball will be used if it’s completed. It may even work, and I can’t say that it would be a worse thing than killing them, or that that itself concerns me at all. In fact, I might breathe easier in a world where the legendaries were dead than captured… particularly if the masterball is used. But you understand the true problem. It is hard to root for my own project’s success, knowing what the next use will be once the Stormbringers are caught. Or perhaps even before.”

Leaf frowns, unsure what else they might be used for—the Beasts, maybe, or Titans if their mass storage limit is really that much higher?—but instead she focuses on her real curiosity. “So what can we do to help? If you’re being forced to work on it…”

Dr. Fuji shakes his head. “At this point, my contributions are minimal. It will be finished with or without me, and even if its creation is completely stopped, someone else will create it sooner or later.”

“Is that a sure thing? The recent unown research ban—”

“It’s not the same. Silph has poured too much time and money into this to let it go without a fight… and what’s more, they believe in the project. This isn’t just a better pokeball, to them. It’s the road to peace and safety, for the whole region.” He shrugs. “They’ll charge millions for each, because that’s what they’re worth. But the first ones made will be made for the legends, and the public has no reason to care for those. The what ifs and maybes for after won’t matter to them if it brings an end to our worst nightmares.”

The table is silent after that, and Leaf stares at the biscuits, suddenly not hungry for another one. She sips her tea, finds it at the right temperature, and drinks the rest. When she’s done, she still doesn’t have any thought of what to say, and Laura is just as quiet.

“So that’s it?” she asks at last. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, but…” She’s not used to hearing about a problem just to give up on it, either, and if there’s really nothing they could do about this one, why did he ask to meet her?

“I’m curious to know,” Dr. Fuji says, “How you would feel about a person with the power of a legendary.”

Leaf blinks. “Well… my friends and I talked about this a while back. Who could be trusted with that much power, how other regions would react to even a Champion having one…”

“Not a human with a legendary pokemon. That could be taken from them. A human with legendary powers.”

Leaf blinks again, frowns. “Like in Power Force?”

“Power…?”

“Oh, it’s a show, um, a cartoon, where certain people get the powers of pokemon. Not a legendary, but…”

“Yes, like that. Would this person deserve the rights of any other person?”

“Of course!”

“Even if they could use those powers for great harm, without being caught?”

Leaf hesitates again. “That’s… how would we even know if they did or not? Or how wouldn’t we know, if they were that powerful?”

“I don’t mean caught as in knowing it’s them. Apprehended. Stopped.”

She looks at Laura, who seems as curious about the line of questioning as she is. “I don’t know. I think at that point they’d be treated like a Renegade anyway, so their rights would be basically gone?”

“Yes. I think so too.” Dr. Fuji refills her tea cup, then Laura’s, then his. “What about a pokemon as intelligent as a person?”

Leaf takes another biscuit. “I thought about this too. With all the new pokemon appearing, some of them breaking rules that we thought existed… and Latias and Latios seem really smart… I would hope at that point it would be obvious to even the most stubborn speciesist that they should be treated like people, but I know there would probably still be some insisting on a divide.”

“So if such a pokemon were to arise, you would insist it be given all the rights of a human, despite its power?”

“Of course! If it’s intelligent enough to communicate with us, and has even somewhat human values, it should be possible to treat it just like anyone else.”

“What if it hurts people anyway? Would you be in favor of capturing it?”

She frowns. “If it hurts people it should be treated like a person that hurts people. We know what pokeballs do to humans, and should assume it would do the same thing to it. So no, absolutely not, and it shouldn’t take empathy toward pokemon for others to realize why that would be wrong.”

Dr. Fuji suddenly smiles. “I imagined you would feel that way, but it’s still good to hear it. Now I must ask…. would that be something you’d be willing to try and prevent?”

Leaf blinks. “Of course, if I can. Do you think there’s something else I can do, besides what I am already?”

“Perhaps. You see, I think fiction has an incredible power to open our eyes to new perspectives, empathize with people beyond those we normally might. To that end, I’ve spent some time writing a book. A novel, written from the perspective of an incredibly powerful pokemon with human level intelligence, struggling with its place in a world of unintelligent pokemon and powerless humans.” He shrugs. “I have a few drafts, here and there, but I think it’s missing something. I’m not much of a writer, I’m afraid.”

Leaf has read stories written from a pokemon’s perspective before; it’s a particularly popular type of children’s story. But this sounds like something different, more mature. “That sounds great, Doctor, but… why me? I’m flattered, but… I’ve written about mythology, articles and blog posts, news stories, but never fiction.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Laura says, speaking for the first time since the tea was served. “Your writing is excellent, and you’re a fast learner. You also know how to set scenes and write dialogue in engaging ways. Your first draft wouldn’t be a masterpiece, but few are, and you can certainly write well enough for that.”

“You also don’t have to commit to anything now,” Dr. Fuji says. “But if you have time to read over some of what I’ve written, maybe give some feedback, I’d appreciate it. I think you have what it would take.”

Leaf looks back and forth between them, then drops her gaze as she considers it. She thought she was past adding new pursuits and learning new skillsets, now that she found what she believes is her real, true life project. And she’s already been worrying about how she can justify spending time on things other than it…

But this seems like something really valuable, and maybe even something she’s uniquely qualified to do, or at least particularly qualified. People have wondered for millennia if they’re alone in the universe, imagined of finding others capable of higher thought… sometimes with hope, sometimes with fear. If she can help people empathize with such a pokemon, maybe by the time one is discovered, she could avert a truly terrible disaster.

She smiles, giving Custard one last scratch between his ears, then looks back up at Dr. Fuji. “I’m in. I also have an idea; the pokemon should be a Psychic type. I have some friends who I think could help get the authenticity down, and it could also help with the reader practicing empathy through the pokemon learning it.”

Dr. Fuji is grinning wide, and toasts her with his tea cup. “Miss Juniper, you’ve read my mind.”