All posts by Damon Sasi

Chapter 70: Mind Boggling

It takes ten minutes for Red to notice he’s going about things all wrong.

What’s more concerning is that after realizing that, he can’t get himself to stop.

His foot bounces against the floor as his thoughts keep jumping to solutions. Hypotheses to suggest, experiments to run, ideas to research, crosscheck, pare down. It’s not until he’s pacing around his room that he realizes he needs to calm himself, and meditates to take a step back from his thoughts and examine them as they stream by, breath by breath.

The pressure to solve this feels immense. It wouldn’t just be an (almost) novel and groundbreaking discovery, it would also give him the credibility he needs to have more time with Sabrina, and to set more lesson goals with everyone.

But he’s not going to do that by just mass guessing, and that’s really all he’s done so far. Giovanni often points out on his blog that people shouldn’t commit all their resources to finding solutions until they have reason to be confident they understand the problem, and that’s something Red completely lacks.

If a non-psychic were to ask him to explain why it’s such a big deal that someone could have part of their mind think/feel something while the rest doesn’t, he’s not sure he could do it. He feels like he understands why it’s so bizarre, but “feels like” isn’t good enough, it’s following intuition, not knowledge, and while intuition can be valuable, it can also be misleading when not trained on good data. He doesn’t actually know why it’s so impossible, it just seems like it should be because that’s what he’s used to expecting from minds; a singular intention or thought process, with any internal conflict being apparent to psychic senses as internal conflict or dissonance.

He could do more research on the topic now, try to better understand brains and thoughts and minds and partitions (no, maybe not partitions, that would still be jumping to conclusions), but he feels too antsy to do something that passive.

As he continues to focus on his breathing, continues to examine the thoughts that come by and let them go with his exhalations, he starts to notice a pattern in what he’s worried about. It’s not just that he wants to solve the problem; what he keeps imagining are the others not listening to his ideas, or outright dismissing his feedback or participation. He knows it’s likely exaggerated, but he can see how the pressure to get this right comes in part from his social concerns.

Well, he did decide to focus on those too, didn’t he? Maybe he should try that first.

Red opens his eyes, then rises and goes to slip his feet into some sandals at the door before he makes his way to Rei’s apartment, gaze down. He isn’t used to being in a group with a hierarchy, and the more he thinks about it the more he dislikes it. He didn’t mind so much back at Pallet Labs, because it was clear there that he was subordinate and why. He wanted the adults to like him, but it was easy to get their approval and friendship; he just did whatever menial tasks they needed help on, happy to absorb all the knowledge he could along the way.

Compared to having to worry about and navigate the social politics among the other students, Red finds himself missing the equal footing he was on with Blue and Leaf, even if the memories with Blue are bittersweet. He knows Blue’s new traveling group will have a hierarchy, he felt it in those days when he went to train with them at the gym; those with more badges had more status, with Blue at the top despite only having two, and Red somehow just below him despite having none. Even with his privileged position it had felt strange, and he’s glad to be out of it, even if he can admit to himself that he sometimes misses the battling and camaraderie.

For Sabrina’s students, the hierarchy is less clear. Rei and Rowan seem the most respected, but they don’t seem to get along, and Daniel is often at odds with Satori and Jason, who Red feels are the most distant from everyone but Rei, including each other. And Tatsumaki is just… there, fairly respected but not interested in anyone. As for Red, he feels like he might have the best chance befriending Rowan or Daniel, but he doesn’t particularly like Daniel, and the most valuable friend he could make would likely be Rei. It makes him feel slimy, thinking of things that way, but he reminds himself that this doesn’t mean he’s not going to try befriending the others too, and he’s definitely not going to pretend to like her if he has no reason to.

Red steps in front of her door and takes a breath, patting down his hair and checking his clothes one last time, then drops his mental shields and knocks.

The probe comes immediately. Rei tests his mental presence, and upon finding it unprotected, merges for a moment to fully sample his mood before withdrawing.

“Enter.”

Red opens the door to Rei’s apartment, which is sparsely furnished but comfortable looking, with a pair of huge beanbags taking center stage. Rei is on one of them, sitting lotus position in what looks like silk shirt and pants that seem much more comfortable than her kimono, but still elegant and expensive, with a stylized xatu embroidered on them.

“Yes?”

“Hello. I’m sorry to bother you, but I was hoping you’d have a moment to talk?”

“I hope this isn’t related to Sensei’s assignment.”

“No, nothing like that. Well, a little related, but we agreed not to discuss the issue itself.”

She nods, then gestures with an open palm. “Please, sit.”

Red walks over to the beanbag across from her, and sinks into its warm cover. “Thank you.”

“What’s on your mind?”

As if she hadn’t just checked. Red has gotten good enough at controlling his thoughts and purposefully redirecting them that he no longer worries about others reading secrets he has, which means that on occasion he’s willing to engage in “open communication,” where psychics leave their shields down so their conversation partner can sense whatever genuine emotions they want to show or thoughts they want to share. It’s occasionally broken up by shields coming up, or sudden flashes to a meticulously remembered image or song, but this is understood as an integral part of retaining some privacy, and the social norm is to not assume that the person is being dishonest in those moments.

It’s almost like learning a second language, but not one that’s mutually exclusive. Any non-psychic listening would think they’re just talking in unown, but would miss all the mental communication overlaying the spoken words and threading the silences between.

Normally it would be hard to voice what’s on Red’s mind without him worrying about sounding antagonistic, or petulant, or paranoid. But with his mind unshielded, he trusts that Rei can “hear” more than the words he speaks. “I’ve only been here about a month and a half,” he says, letting his emotions of uncertainty and curiosity and good intentions stay clear at the surface of his thoughts. “And I’ve never been in a setting like this before. So I know I might be jumping to conclusions. But I just thought I’d check whether you dislike me, in case I did something wrong?”

A hint of fear and hurt at the end makes it hard to keep his gaze on hers, and his shields down. He sees her own surprise, quickly schooled, and feels the tentative touch of her mind become more firm, reading both his anxiety and sincerity.

She takes a breath, then slowly lets it out. “I did not intend to be rude, and apologize if I have been,” she says with such careful tact that Red’s worry doesn’t decrease. “But I suppose it’s fair to say that I don’t particularly have an interest in speaking to you, or spending time with you.”

Despite having suspected as much, Red still feels hurt by hearing her say it, and has to remind himself that he’s being stupid, and obviously she has no particular reason to feel friendly or interested in him. “Oh. Okay.”

“But that’s not what you asked,” she continues, still meeting Red’s gaze and sending out a brief projection of apology. “Not wishing to befriend someone is different from disliking them, and it’s also fair to say that I disrespect you.”

Red blinks at her, says “Oh,” and then just sits there a moment, absorbing that. He’d planned for her to say something about him that bothers her, but it still feels disorienting hearing her put it so bluntly. He realizes that despite considering it as a possibility, he hadn’t actually expected it, and he struggles not to hide his sudden inner turmoil behind a shield. “Why?” he finally asks.

“You feel fake,” Rei says, voice and face still calm. “It’s hard to trust those who use a partition to lock away a part of themselves. It’s like talking to someone wearing a mask, except the mask is real, and they may have any number of them they can put on at any time. I do not believe Leader Sabrina was referring to you or Rowan when she mentioned a psychic who could evince false emotions, but I cannot completely dismiss the possibility.”

Red’s throat is dry. “I don’t… I didn’t choose this,” he whispers, stung by the unfairness of it even as part of him feels guilty. Past Red is definitely going to throw this in his face the next time they “chat.”

“Intention has little to do with it.” Rei shrugs, and he senses her regret. “Perhaps my opinion of you will change, when you have more control. In any case, it isn’t personal. As I indicated, I feel similarly about Rowan, who molds his mind intentionally.”

Red hesitates a moment. “I can bring my partition down, if you want to talk to…” He can’t say the real me. It doesn’t feel true, and would just be confirming Past Red’s perspective. “Me without it.”

“I see little point in that,” she says, apologetic. “Since you would not keep it down. It would be like speaking with someone else entirely.”

Red resists the urge to slump in his beanbag, knowing he’s radiating disappointment and closing himself off as he sighs and nods. “Well. Thank you for your honesty.”

“Of course. I do hope you resolve the issue soon.” Rei tilts her head slightly, considering him. “If I may ask… why do you want to be my friend?”

Red blinks. He hadn’t expected her to ask that, and he’s glad his shield is up so that none of the immediate thoughts come to mind. But he can’t keep it up while he answers if he wants to be taken fully honestly…

He thinks it over a moment, everything he knows about her as compared to the other psychics, and to his surprise actually thinks of something genuine. He lets his shield drop. “Other than the social benefits, you read Giovanni’s blog, and are one of the few others I know who actually tries to put the ideas there into practice. It would be nice to talk about it with someone…” again. His shield comes up as his thoughts turn suddenly to Aiko.

Rei smiles slightly. “Well, that seems a reasonable request. Perhaps we could, after Sabrina’s assignment.”

Red takes it as the dismissal it is, and says goodbye. He walks down the hall without really thinking for a bit, replaying what happened in his mind and wondering if there was something else he should have said. Eventually he’s back at his door, and only then remembers he planned to visit the others.

Tatsumaki and Daniel aren’t home when he knocks, so he goes down a floor to see Satori. There’s silence for a moment after he knocks, and once again he feels his peer mentally touch his thoughts before the door opens. Satori is dressed as she was at the meeting, her torracat padding around her skirt, its tail brushing her waist. Both look at him inquisitively, their heads cocked to the side at the same angle.

He quickly redirects his thoughts from the disquiet of the image.

“Hey!” She’s not inviting him in like Rei was. Maybe he should just cut to the chase. “So I was thinking, if we’re all going to be working together on this project, maybe we should get to know each other better? I don’t feel like I’ve got many friends here, and I would like more. Do you want to hang out a bit? I’m happy to do anything, or just chat while you go about your business, if it’s not private.”

Saying the words makes him feel anxious, and he does nothing to hide that feeling. He’s used to feeling excluded from the other kids at school, to feeling different, but it was easy not to let that bother him while he had Blue to hang out with. This is the first time he can remember that he’s actually come out and asked someone to be his friend. It makes him feel like a kid again, and he’s sure he appears even younger to Satori, whose closeness in age feels all the more significant suddenly.

Satori shakes her head. “I’m sorry, I’m trying to finish a project with my pokemon, and find other people distracting.” She closes the door before he can respond, and without lowering her shield to express any regret or other emotional signal.

Red sighs, then moves on. He supposes it’s nice that she even answered, considering how much she generally keeps to herself and sensed his intentions through the door…

When he knocks on Rowan’s door and gets a muffled “Busy!” in response, he moves on without much regret. Rowan seems nice enough, but he often feels slightly off, making Red question his memory of who he interacted with before meeting the “new” Rowan, and ah yep that’s what Rei meant…

Red tries to think of something to talk about on the way to Jason’s, something they wouldn’t normally talk about during their lessons, since that clearly hasn’t helped. So far Jason has been trying to learn to mimic different mental states while Red attempts to get as good at detecting and deciphering emotions as Jason, and so far they haven’t had much success.

Or any, really. Their sessions have all ended in quiet frustration for both as they seem to keep talking past each other while trying to explain what they did in their own terms. Red tried being as precise and clear as he could, like “imagine that mental state and anchor it in your memory through what your body feels,” while Jason spoke through metaphor and symbolism, such as “follow the echo my emotions are leaving in the astral realm” which didn’t really mean anything to Red, no matter how much he tried to pin down what an “echo” is or feels like, or what the “astral realm” is. He’s wanted to ask the others if they find their lessons with Jason more productive, but worried he would seem incompetent or like he’s badmouthing his peer.

So clearly he needs another topic to focus on, and after a moment he finds one. Like Satori, Jason is a pokemon trainer in addition to a psychic. Maybe they could discuss that. He specializes in ghost pokemon, which Red thinks he would find interesting enough to talk about.

When he knocks on the door he doesn’t sense any mental probe from Jason, and the medium answers his door with a cautious look on his face, dressed in the same clothes as earlier in the day. “Hello. Did you come about our assignment?”

“No.” Red smiles, trying not to let his earlier failure color his attitude. “I was just hoping to talk for a bit, if you’re free.”

“I was just finishing a cleansing ritual.”

“Oh.” Red only has a vague idea of what that is; some spiritual practice to ensure an environment or person is free of negativity? He’s not sure if Jason is saying that the ritual is already finished, or if Red had interrupted. “I can come back later?”

He steps back, preparing to leave, but Jason’s frown stops him. “Are you projecting your emotions on purpose?”

Red blinks, then checks. His mind still isn’t shielded, but… “I don’t think I’m projecting them at all?”

“Ah.” Jason’s hand finds his prayer beads and moves over them as he sighs. “I suppose the ritual wasn’t working anyway, then.”

Red is about to ask how he would know if it had, then stops himself and focuses on his curiosity. “What do you sense?” he asks instead.

“It feels like you’re hurt and anxious,” Jason says matter-of-factly. “It confused me because you were smiling when I opened the door, so I thought you were trying to project those feelings to alert me that you need help.”

“Huh.” Red detected no mental merger at all, but this isn’t the first time Jason has shown that he can pick up complex and deep emotions from simple proximity, just the first time Jason is treating it as something out of his control.

He was hoping to avoid any discussion too similar to those in their lessons, but this doesn’t feel like something he can just ignore, and… maybe in a more casual setting like this, if he just stays open minded and curious, he can learn more about Jason’s perspective. “And your cleansing ritual is supposed to help keep you from feeling that?”

Jason nods. “It doesn’t always work, of course. Sometimes I do it wrong, or my spirit is too open to others. I’ll have to try again.”

“Can I… is it okay if I observe it?” He keeps his thoughts focused on his curiosity and interest in learning more about Jason’s views (and abilities, but he believes the two are linked so same thing (he wonders briefly if Jason feels any dissonance in him over that bit of rationalization, then focuses on the curiosity again)).

Jason looks surprised, and fidgets in place for so long that Red is about to apologize when he opens the door and steps back. Red enters to find a simple apartment much like his own, though with a strong smell of jasmine incense coming from a small shrine in the corner. The plumbing must have been done special, because beside it there’s a basin of running water flowing from the mouth of a small stone gyarados.

The whole thing is small as a bathroom sink, and Jason folds his legs beneath him to sit in front of it while Red sits on the floor to the side to observe.

“So,” Red says, as he watches Jason take the long wooden ladle in his right hand and dip it in the water. “I just came to talk because I realized we haven’t really spoken much outside of classes. I guess I got the impression you didn’t like me, and wanted to make sure that wasn’t just my insecurity speaking.”

Jason doesn’t respond, and simply pours the water over his left hand, then switches the ladle to it and pours some over his right, then switches again and pours into his cupped left. He brings the water up to his lips, then lifts the ladle so the remaining water pours down the handle and into the basin, and sets it face-down.

Red realizes he should probably have waited for the ritual to finish before saying anything, and just stays silent as Jason lifts a censer and moves it around himself. One hand stays on his prayerbeads, fingers moving from one to the next, and the other brings the censer first over his stomach, then his heart, then his throat, then his forehead, taking a deep breath of the incense each time. On the last exhale he puts the censer down and sits in stillness, eyes closed.

Red watches the medium’s face, the only motion of his body the steady rise and fall of his chest, and wonders what’s going on in his head. He knows better than to check in the middle of something like this, but the curiosity itches at him.

He never felt particularly comfortable with religious practices, but ever since he started learning to use his powers, and particularly practicing meditation, he began to see them differently. Even without any spiritual component, his own “rituals” to ground himself, or reflect on his internal state, or to execute a particular mental motion, are all useful to him, and result in real, tangible differences. And he knows how powerful placebos can be; maybe a lot of what Jason is capable of that Red isn’t genuinely comes from his different beliefs, or the meaning he ascribes to things like his clothing and prayers.

Red would like to think that any thoughts someone can have, however they have them, can be reasoned through and understood and shared by others. He would like to think that this applies to psychic powers too; that is why they’re all here teaching each other, after all, despite the fairly strong evidence of hard limits to what different psychics are capable of. But within those limits, he feels wistful regret at the idea that his method of thinking, as useful as it is to him, may forever keep him locked out of the kinds of insights and abilities that those like Jason have.

Until he remembers that he can just copy Jason’s mental state while he’s engaging in spiritual practice, if he really wants to understand it.

Red feels a creeping unease, and quickly brings his shield up. He’s never tried copying a mental state that was so fundamentally other. The closest thing was Leaf’s views on pokemon, and from what he remembers of the feeling, it was transformative. He can’t even say for sure that it didn’t permanently affect his views, though part of that is likely just entangled with his feelings for Leaf.

Still, does he want to risk some permanent change to his thinking that’s so… superstitious? What if some of it stays with him?

He tries to convince himself that it’s a silly concern, and that believing something temporarily, no matter how wrong it may turn out, doesn’t lead to bad epistemics. Hell, that happens all the time to him and his epistemics are great! Mostly, anyway.

But what if it’s more fundamental? What if it leads to the growth of certain neuron patterns that will make faith-based beliefs feel more justified?

Red shakes the thought away. He needs to talk to others before trying it, obviously. His ability to copy mental states isn’t entirely unique, there have been others with somewhat similar abilities that might be able to indicate probable outcomes. Maybe he can-

Jason’s eyes open, and he stretches slightly, rotating his shoulders with a sigh. “You’re shielding, right?”

“Yes.”

“Would it be okay to bring it down?”

Red takes a moment to refocus his thoughts, then does so. “Done.”

Jason closes his eyes, then opens them and nods. “Thank you. It worked.” He stands. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“No, I’m f… actually, black tea would be good, if you have it?”

“I do.”

A few minutes later they’re facing each other on the couch, tea in one cup and juice in the other. Jason looks calm, but there’s something about his body language that makes Red feel like he’s nervous. One hand keeps twitching up from his cup, then returning to it, as if aborting impulses to touch his prayer beads.

Red tries to think of how to fill a silence that quickly feels awkward. He’s just about to repeat what he said earlier when Jason clears his throat.

“I do not think it was just insecurity,” Jason says, gaze down. “But I wouldn’t say I dislike you. It’s just that your way of thinking often feels painful for me.”

Red blinks, opens his mouth, closes it. He hadn’t expected that. “Painful as in… physically, or emotionally, or…?”

Jason shrugs. “To be honest, I don’t always understand the difference. When people say physical pain, they seem to mean the result of being physically harmed. But if you describe emotional pain, there’s often a physical component, isn’t there?”

Red considers that, and feels an ache in his chest as he thinks of Aiko, or how much he wants to spend more time with Leaf, or the painful mix of anger and… something, that comes from thinking of Blue.

“Yeah,” he says after a moment. “I can see that. So… there’s a physical component to it, but it’s also tied to some emotional reaction?”

“That’s the closest I can come to explaining it.” Jason sips his juice. “It’s not just you though, I feel this way pretty often. I’ve been told it’s part of being a medium.” He shrugs. “I don’t know if that’s true.”

Red shifts in his seat. “Do you have any specific examples of what I’ve thought that felt harmful to your psychic senses?”

“They were not often thoughts themselves, more the underlying… perspective. And I don’t know that they are actually ‘psychic’ senses,” Jason says. “Elite Agatha said that what I do—what we do—it’s related to what psychics do, but distinct.”

“In what way?”

Jason gives him an appraising look, as if deciding how candid to be. “My connection is to the soul, not just the mind. But you don’t believe in souls.”

Jason still hasn’t uncovered his own emotions during the conversation, so Red isn’t sure how to take the statement, and he feels himself struggling not to respond in a challenging way. Is Jason trying to bait him into an argument, or just expecting one? He came here to be friendly, dammit!

“No, I don’t,” he finally says, speaking slowly. “I haven’t seen any evidence of it that can’t be explained by other things.” He’d resolved to stay curious, so that’s what he focuses on. “But I’ve never talked about it with a medium before. What makes you so sure?”

Jason blinks, gaze meeting Red’s for a moment before dropping again as he sips his drink. “Have you interacted with any Ghost pokemon?”

“No, but I was hit with a Ghost attack from a spinarak, once.” Even after all this time Red still occasionally feels a shadow of the pain and disorientation, though it’s not enough to really distract him.

Jason is shaking his head. “You need to be in their presence to understand.”

“You’re talking about surrealism.”

“I am. What do you know about it?”

Red recalls his research in Viridian Forest, after he caught his spinarak. “People often compare it to Pressure, though that just seems confusing, since it’s not as personalized or powerful, and only really affects you if you’re interacting with ghosts in some way rather than being around them.” And having recently experienced Pressure for himself, it’s hard not to dismiss anything else for not being as bad. “Common symptoms are headaches, disorientation, distrust of senses, all of which quickly goes away once their thoughts aren’t focused on the ghost anymore. It’s part of what makes it harder for non-psychic trainers to deal with ghosts, since it doesn’t seem to be worse for psychics and we’re already used to directing and focusing our thoughts and attention.”

Jason smiles slightly. “It sounds so simple, put like that. As I said, you need to experience it yourself to understand, which is another reason people often compare it to Pressure. But what do you make of surrealism, even having never experienced it? Doesn’t it mark such pokemon as different, in some way?”

Red shrugs. “Sure, and I think it’s significant.” It’s one of the main reasons he categorized Ghost as a substance over descriptive type: there’s clearly something fundamentally different about them. “But significant in what way is the question. It’s something we don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean we should jump to conclusions about its origin, or what it means about reality itself.”

“Hmm.” Jason slowly turns his cup in his hands, then sips from it. “I agree.”

Red blinks. “You do?”

“Yes. It makes sense, from your perspective, to be skeptical. I don’t believe as I do because I have answers to all the questions you’re carefully not asking. But my experiences are enough to point me along the way, and my faith acts as a bridge for the rest, to explain those experiences and overcome that skepticism.”

It sounds like the medium is using “faith” to mean the same thing Red would call a “theory.” It’s the first time he’s heard someone frame it that way… but scientific theories can be falsified, they contain specific claims about cause and effect that could be proven wrong. They’re not just an explanation that makes sense of phenomena, they allow people to make predictions about future ones.

He has to remind himself again that he’s not here to argue epistemics, but just learn more about his peer’s perspective. “By experiences, you mean your connection to Ghost pokemon,” Red guesses. “Did you really train one without a pokeball?”

“I didn’t train it,” Jason says, seeming a bit embarrassed by the myth of himself. “Only established a mental connection, without it attacking me. We formed what I would call a familiarity, if not a friendship.”

“That’s amazing. I mean with any wild pokemon, but with a Ghost in particular. How did you do it?”

Jason drinks as he considers the question, though surely he’s been asked it many times before. “I came to Kanto when I was about your age. I always wanted to be a trainer, but I already knew I was gifted, and my family considered that a stronger trait to explore, a more meaningful path. They hired a mentor for me to explore my gift, but I was still fascinated by pokemon, in understanding their thoughts and feelings. Lavender Town is a small, spiritual community, not particularly known for its trainers. I couldn’t find one to teach me, and while I could buy a pokeball and dex, there was no safe place I could reliably find pokemon that I would be able to travel to alone.”

“Except Lavender Tower,” Red says, smiling slightly.

“Except Lavender Tower,” Jason agrees. “The Rangers there ensure no wild Ghosts harm visitors or escape into the town proper, but there are often a few lurking somewhere inside, and it was easy to find them with my inner eye. After I experienced surreality for myself, sensed their strange minds, I became obsessed with Ghost pokemon in specific. There seemed a depth of mystery and meaning in their ‘otherness’ that I wanted to understand. I spent months being frustrated as they resisted my attempts to interact with them in a meaningful way, and even my psychic training did not help. Eventually I realized that perhaps I was the problem. That all of us are, that our view of them is what causes the tension in us, the disorientation, the pain. After all, they seem unharmed by interacting with us. Who was I to impose my flawed, human perceptions on them?”

Red slowly nods. “So you played with different perspectives until you found one that helped.”

Jason raises his brow. “No. I began studying religious beliefs, read the accounts of those like Elite Agatha and Leader Matsuba, and began practicing rituals to better connect with the spiritual world. And eventually I was able to look upon them without difficulty, and merge with them without tainting my spirit.”

“Huh.” Red drinks his tea and tries to accept the statements at face value, the mildly bitter flavor somehow calming. “But not everyone can do that, right? It’s also related to your abilities as a medium?”

“Ah, yes, I’m not claiming any unique piety or spiritual virtue. My gift enabled the connection in the first place.”

Red nods. Ultimately, there are three probabilities that he finds most likely. The first is that what Jason can do is semi-unique to him, whether it’s because of his connection to the “spirit world” or because he has a unique element in his psychic powers. The second is that the changes Jason underwent in his spiritual journey, the wisdom he gained, are just a perspective shift that could be learned, a lens to see the world through that could be put on and taken off. And the third is that his connection to Ghost pokemon and/or ability to sense deep emotions is something that operates on a level beyond intellectual understanding, something fundamental to the way he forms beliefs.

Maybe his own perspective would shed some light on it. “And what advice would you give, then, about Ghosts for those that don’t have your gift or faith?”

“The same as what I believe for myself. That we must resist our attempts to rationally understand them.” Jason shrugs. “More generally, that the very belief that we can truly understand anything is an illusion, though a useful one for our time in the material plane. But Ghosts are windows into something beyond the material, and so it is not useful to try and decipher them rationally.”

Red’s mouth twists to the side, torn between the multiple strong objections that rise up. And though it brings with it a flash of anger and sadness, Blue’s voice is clear in his head; Who cares if it sounds logical? If it works, it works.

And of course he’s right. Understanding the actual mechanism at work is important so he doesn’t believe extraneous things that are wrong, but if there’s a link between Jason’s epistemics and the outcome, Red has to be able to include that evidence in his theories, no matter how much it clashes with his own epistemics. It could be as simple as Leaf’s pure love of pokemon keeping abra from fleeing, but if it’s something deeper…

“I would like to learn more about your beliefs,” Red says. “And maybe even try to mimic your perspective psychically, eventually, if that’s alright with you.”

“You believe it’s my perspective, then, as Leader Sabrina does, and not my gift?”

“Maybe it’s both,” Red admits. “But it’s worth a try, and we’ve been having trouble during our lessons anyway, so I think better understanding your perspective could help with that too. Or at least, I’ve felt like we’ve had trouble?”

Jason nods, and finally brings his shield down for a moment, just long enough to signal a mirror of Red’s relief that it hadn’t just been him. “Alright. How would you like to begin?”

Red shrugs. “You’re the expert here. I’ll do whatever you think is best.”

“I would never claim to be an expert.”

“Relative to me, I mean.”

“Still, the word has… baggage. As I said before, it was not through understanding but the release of the need to understand that I finally found connection.”

Red is about to argue that it’s just a semantic point, and that all “expertise” means in this context is the person who has accomplished the thing being discussed, but then he imagines someone calling him an expert on mirroring mental states and kind of gets Jason’s point. “You’re right, word choice can influence perspectives. So as we are both seeking humility together, what would be the first step toward recognizing the need to be humbled at all?” He hopes that made sense.

Jason spins his cup again, face thoughtful, then brings it to his lips and tilts it back, draining it and standing. “Experiences are more important than words. If you’ve never encountered a Ghost before, then experiencing surrealism for the first time might be best. We can go to the roof, and I’ll summon my pokemon there.”

Red swallows his sudden nervousness along with a mouthful of tea. The things he’s read about surreality don’t seem quite as harmless as a moment ago. But it wasn’t so long ago that he overcame fear of a different pokemon on a different roof, and this wouldn’t be worse than what Donovan’s skarmory could have done to him.

Red remembers the discomfort of the spinarak’s attack again, and feels a thread of fear. Probably. “Yeah, alright.”

The medium goes to put his cup in the sink, then slips his sandals on while Red finishes his tea. Once Jason retrieves his pokebelt and ties it on, they make their way to the rooftop, which is fairly small but only has a small number of spots taken up for registered teleportation, namely those of the students and Sabrina.

The sun is setting, but there’s still enough light to illuminate the city. The city, as far as most Kantonians see it; the biggest and most populous, home to both its most prestigious pokemon contest hall as well as the world famous Silph Corporation. It’s a culturally powerful place that he’s just starting to consider a “home” of sorts, and he draws some strength from the sight of it in the day’s last golden light, like nothing truly bad can happen to him while he’s standing here atop the shining city.

He recognizes how silly that feeling is, especially since he was just worrying about downloading superstitious wetware from Jason, and has to check his rationale for doing this again before he turns to his fellow psychic and nods. “Ready when you are.”

“Alright. I’m going to summon a gastly. Pull back your mental senses.”

And now he feels less ready. “Okay. Uh. I could also go downstairs and get my gas mask, or should I stay upwind of it, or…?”

“No, there isn’t enough wind to affect it, and as long as you can’t smell it you won’t be harmed. Just stay at least an arm’s length from the visible parts.” With that, the medium braces his arm and says, “Go, Gastly.”

The pokeball snaps open and a blinding flash of light leaps forth… but unlike with most pokemon, it doesn’t coalesce into a sensible shape. Instead the afterimage behind Red’s lids when he blinks appear to be a wide, irregular cloud.

What takes its place a millisecond later is about half as big, at least as far as he can see; a purple discoloration in the air that hangs about six feet above the rooftop. Only the center of it is opaque enough that he can’t see through it, and from within that purple mass he sees a dark orb with—

—two gleaming white voids—

—the glint of… fangs(?)—

—Red blinks, then blinks again, trying to get used to what he’s seeing. In videos, gastly appear to just be a black ball surrounded by thick purple gas, with wide, solid white and somewhat disembodied “eyes” over a pink pocket that holds what looks like two sharp canines, just floating in the blackness of the orb. But without the abstraction of simple images, his mind is struggling to make sense of what’s in front of him, which is… very much not that.

Except what else could it be? He closes his eyes, imagining the slightly cartoonish mental image of a gastly that he has in his memory, then opens them to see… something else, something that he can only vaguely recognize as having the same features as the mental image he was holding onto a moment ago. If he hadn’t known what they’re “supposed” to look like, he wonders if he would even make this much sense out of it.

After a handful of heartbeats, his gaze flinches away, the disorientation fading once he’s not looking directly at it. He has to swallow, throat dry, before he says, “All ghost pokemon are like this?” He reminds himself to be on the lookout for a headache or any other symptoms.

“In their own ways,” Jason says, pokeball still in hand. “The ones that possess some physical object are easier to perceive, but those with the gift can still see through to what they really are.”

“And what is that?” Red asks. He glances back at the gastly and feels a chill go down his spine. From the corner of his eye it had seemed like the black sphere’s “eyes” were staring aimlessly into the distance, but as soon as he looked at it, its gaze locked with his. Is that the surrealism? Has it already started?

“The spirits of pokemon.” Jason says as Red starts to shift his head from side to side, experimenting. Its “eyes” (he can’t even think of them with that word without a sense of skepticism) stay locked on his perfectly as he moves and when he looks away, its features return to vague impressions. “Instead of moving beyond our world after death, a ghost is a spirit that has imprinted onto things in it, such as a candle or doll, or in gastly’s case, the decomposing gasses emitted by corpses.”

Unfalsifiable, Red immediately thinks. Spontaneous pokemon genesis occurs in other places, labeling the ones that appear near dead bodies ‘Ghosts’ does nothing to distinguish whether that’s true from a world where their origin is any different from something like a magnemite.

But he’s here to learn about Jason’s perspective, not argue against it. It takes Red a moment to word his response through how unnerved he is by the gastly, even after looking away. “I’ve heard that hypothesis,” Red says. “But I don’t understand what differentiates it from one you’d consider false.”

“Such as?”

“Well, I’ve actually thought a lot about pokemon origins,” Red says, glancing at the gastly again, then away. It’s difficult, like the dark sphere is a black hole whose gravity is pulling at his attention, but not physically, just from simple fascination, or maybe a mix of fascination and fear, like leaning over the edge of a building despite knowing the sight will scare you. The call of the void, he’s heard it called, and that’s what the gastly looks like, a void in the world—

“Red?”

Red blinks. “Sorry, I… what was I saying?”

“Pokemon origins. Do you want me to withdraw it?”

“No, I’m fine.” He turns his body solidly toward Jason. “Right. So… if I’m understanding your beliefs correctly, magnemite could be spirits of pokemon that attach themselves to metal objects too, right? But they’re not Ghost pokemon.”

Jason shrugs. “There are many potential answers. I am a spiritualist, but find no religious doctrine more convincing than all others. I have heard that everything has a spirit, even inanimate objects, and some things may attain enough spiritual energy to become living things. Perhaps the gods are still active in the world and decide by their own whims, or perhaps there are rules they have written to guide such events in their absence that we may one day deduce. But the unnatural sensation evoked by surrealism makes it clear that only Ghost pokemon are the spirits of the already departed, rather than new souls like any others we encounter.”

“I feel like you’re…” Red stops himself. “Sorry. I’m confused. My brain is insisting that maybe it’s the substance that’s inhabited that matters. Like… imagine a world where ‘Ghost pokemon are spirits of dead pokemon’ wasn’t true. What would you expect to see different in that world, that couldn’t be explained by the ‘spirit of candles’ or ‘poison gas’ also attaining enough energy to become living beings, for example?”

Jason is quiet a moment, and Red lets him think, looking back at the gastly for a minute to try to get a handle on the way it looks. He wants to try using his powers on it to see what its mind is like, but he’s still having trouble getting his mind to see its parts as distinct things, and he should probably do that first.

Suddenly Red sees the Gastly’s “mouth” open, and calling the slimy, squirming thing that briefly comes out a “tongue” doesn’t even occur to him until after it’s back inside the sphere and he can retroactively process what he saw. He raises a hand to wipe some sweat from his forehead, even though it’s rather cool outside with fall well underway. He knows it’s from exposure to the gastly, which…

…is it getting closer?

Red suddenly realizes he can smell it, a sickly sweet, cloying scent, and panic blooms in his chest as he quickly takes a step back—

“Red, look at me,” a voice demands, and Red snaps his gaze around to Jason, who has stepped to the side so that Red can’t see the gastly in his peripheral. The medium looks calm despite suddenly sounding like an entirely different person, his whole stance feels different as he holds Red’s gaze with his own. But it’s nothing overt; Jason’s hands are folded in front of him, his shoulders are relaxed. It’s Red’s perception that has changed, his need for something stable and reassuring.

“Everything is fine,” Jason says, calm but firm, like he’s talking to a skittish ponyta. “You’re experiencing the first stage of surreality. Just focus on me, and breathe.”

Red does as he instructs, despite his confusion. The literature said that surreality would manifest as something minor at first, like a headache or increased pulse or sweating… right, he was sweating. How did he forget that symptom? No, he didn’t forget it, he recognized it as it was happening, but then the panic hit and he couldn’t connect the dots.

“Better?” Jason asks after a moment, watching him steadily.

Red nods. He feels back in control of his thoughts, though there’s a part of him that’s still thinking about the gastly, hovering just out of sight, and wondering if it’s creeping closer. “Yes, thanks. Even expecting it, it’s like it went straight to my automatic reflexes.” He steels himself, then turns his head to look at the gastly. Still far away.

“I’m not sure what I would see different,” Jason says, drawing Red’s attention back to him. Not sure what…? Oh, right, about different worlds. “I guess if it weren’t true, then I would expect there to be nothing uniform between the different Ghost pokemon compared to other pokemon that are not Ghost types. A candle and a cloud of gas have no similarity to justify belief that both should evoke surrealism.”

“But that uniqueness is what we use to classify Ghosts,” Red says. “It feels tautological to say that because they have this unique attribute, they must share this unique origin that we identify through this attribute. Especially when we don’t even know what the origin of other pokemon without that attribute is.”

“Then what is your answer? What would you expect to see in a world where Ghost pokemon are borne of dead spirits, rather than by the same process as other pokemon?”

“Weeeell,” Red says, dragging the word out as he organizes his thoughts. “First off, wouldn’t we see an infinite variety of Ghost pokemon? And wouldn’t their different species be more widespread? We don’t have any phantump here in Kanto, but we have plenty of woods and forests. If we just put a pile of screws and magnets around some pokemon graveyards, what would you expect to eventually see? Ghost magnemite, or ‘regular’ ones?”

The medium is quiet again as he thinks, and Red resists the urge to look at the gastly again. “I believe I see your point,” Jason finally says, speaking slowly. “Perhaps… magnemite are the spirits of pokemon as well, and their natures have been changed by the objects they bound to. Rotom at least are examples of ghost pokemon whose nature changes while inhabiting different ‘bodies.’ Though…” Jason frowns. “It’s not a strong example, given that even though they can leave those bodies behind and inhabit new ones, we have never seen any other Ghost pokemon do such a thing, and of course Rotom are limited to electronic device that do not mimic any other known electric pokemon.”

Huh. Red hadn’t expected the medium to refute his own argument so well. He begins to grow hopeful about the conversation. “Right, as you pointed out, there’s no consistent pattern between what Ghost pokemon are embodied as. Cloth, candles, gas, plants, clay, metal… they’re all different substances, and there are also pokemon like jellicent and oricorio and decidueye that seem to be living creatures. Or do those pokemon not feel the same to be around?” If they don’t cause surrealism, they probably shouldn’t qualify as Ghost pokemon in the first place…

“No, they do, though it’s even less strong than Ghosts that inhabit objects,” Jason says. “Here, let me show you one of those… Gastly, return!” The beam of light spreads not from the gastly’s dark core, but from somewhere on the edge of the visible cloud around it, pulling it away in a mass of red light. “Go, Lampent!”

The sky is starting to darken, but Red can still make out the twisted black lantern that appears a few feet above the ground, its core illuminated by a bright blue flame. Red prepares himself for more surrealism, but… it looks totally normal.

Except for the fact that it’s clearly suspended in midair for no reason. Red knows it’s a pokemon, intellectually, but the way it looks like a simple object makes it hard to square with the fact that it’s definitely not supposed to be doing that. And then there are the yellow glowing eyes on the round, clear “glass” of its body, but those are only unsettling if he looks at them too long.

“Huh. Yeah, this is less extreme. Instead of doubting my whole perception of it there’s just this one thing I’m fixating on. Which is weird, since there are other pokemon that float that don’t make me feel like this…” He walks a few steps to the side, then back, gaze on the lampent. The effect is a little worse as he changes his reference frame and the lantern stays suspended exactly where it is, making it seem slightly unreal, like a hologram or computer graphic overlaid onto reality…

“Oh, there’s the headache.” He quickly looks back at Jason and the pressure at his temples starts to fade. “So you were right, it’s hard to understand how different Ghosts are without experiencing surrealism for myself. But the degree is different enough that I feel like this could be a different thing entirely, if I didn’t know already to start out thinking both are Ghosts.”

Jason nods. “Your mundane senses are more easily fooled. Use your inner eye.”

Red scratches his neck, curiosity more than a match for his nervousness. “That would be okay?”

“Just don’t merge. You’ll understand why.”

Red nods and closes his eyes, wanting to focus as much as possible on what his “inner eye” senses. His range and precision have expanded over the past weeks, and he immediately becomes aware of not just the gale of emotions in front of him, but also Jason’s watchful and expectant mind, and Rei’s unshielded focus, and Rowan’s shifting mood as he sets up and brings down partitions in some exercise or experiment, and Satori’s mind as it interacts with both her swellow and torracat at the same time, and the less Red focuses on that disorienting jumble the better…

Good thing he has a gale of emotions in front of him to focus on.

It’s like standing in a crowded room, except it’s all coming from one single mind. The lampent feels unlike any other pokemon or human Red has encountered, its emotions more alien than even Bug pokemon.

Red is still relatively new to deciphering emotions without a merge, but he recognizes desire burning off the lampent like a bonfire sheds heat. There’s no question in Red’s mind of what he’s feeling, it wants something, and it wants it badly. He’s never felt anything so strong coming from a pokemon, the closest were fear from abra and when he was merged with Charmeleon and projected sakki

“It’s hungry,” Red says, opening his eyes and taking an involuntary step back as he withdraws his mind again. As soon as he says the word, he identifies the feeling in himself, or at least as close an equivalent as he can understand. He feels his stomach rumble and twist. Is it projecting onto him? “No, starving… why…”

“It had a caterpie recently,” Jason says. “But it’s never enough.”

Red expects the hunger to fade once he brings his shield up, but it doesn’t. Both arms are pressed over his stomach now, and he sucks in a breath, tries to meditate on the feeling, dissolve it, but it feels real, like he needs to find food now or his limbs will start to shake…

Then Jason is in front of him, wooden beads looped around the fingers of one hand as he passes it over Red’s head. Red feels the medium’s mind brushing his through his shield, Jason doesn’t try to merge. Instead the feeling of hunger starts to dwindle in time with the scrubbing motion of his hand around Red’s chest, until he abruptly feels fine.

It all took place in the space of a few heartbeats, and Red slowly straightens. “You felt things like that?” Red asks, letting out a shuddering breath as he eases his arms down and looks back at the lampent. “For months?”

“I had some help. My psychic teacher knew, of course, from the emotional residue that would be left on me, which you experienced. She taught me how to manage it, as all gifted trainers of Ghost pokemon must, but it wasn’t until I began walking a more spiritual path that truly cleansing it became a possibility.” He tucks the wooden beads away in a pocket. “And by enduring it more, I found my own ability to detect emotions improving, though…” He shrugs. “It was no longer always intentional, or always accurate.”

“Then maybe that’s what happened,” Red says, pulse finally slowing down as he breathes in and out. “Everyone talks about how Ghosts twist our powers and turn them against us, maybe yours have changed permanently to better sync with them.”

“Perhaps,” Jason says. “But I don’t believe all mediums have gone through the same things. If that’s a viable path, would you try it?”

Red frowns, considering a moment. “Not sure. I’d have to know more about the side effects. But in the meantime, I still want to try adopting your perspective.”

Jason nods and withdraws the lampent, which relaxes something in Red he hadn’t realized was tense. “My perspective is to simply remind myself of what I do not understand. It is a genuine humility that only feels forced insofar as it fights natural instinct to create explanations for things, to grasp at facts we have heard and knowledge we believe we have. Knowledge that, upon further examination, is revealed to be just symbols between minds to imperfectly share disparate shards of reality.”

Uh oh. They’re back at deep sounding phrases that Red can’t quite parse. “Alright… so what should I do to help fight those instincts?”

Jason shrugs. “Remind yourself of what you do not know. Do not accept your mind’s attempts to insist otherwise. When you truly realize how complex all this is,” he opens his hands out to the sides, “It seems trivial to not also realize how impossible understanding it is.”

Red frowns slightly as he grapples with such a fundamentally different ideology. Sure, the world is complex, from the mind boggling vastness of space to the alien world of subatomic particles, but impossible to understand? No. There’s humility, and then there’s surrendering to ignorance, and he can’t accept that. It’s not a conscious choice; he just knows it, as surely as he knows his name.

But a scientist should be willing to embrace uncertainty, so maybe he can reach some understanding of the same “fundamental humility,” with effort.

“I’ll consider that,” Red says after a moment, and bows. “Thank you for your time, and patience with me.”

Jason bows back. “Thank you for your vulnerability, and your trust.”


Red stays on the roof after and watches the sun set over Mt. Silver, thinking about what he experienced and the goal he set out to accomplish. He isn’t sure if he made a friend, but it feels like progress at least. Now he should try talking to Rowan too, or get to work on Sabrina’s assignment.

Instead his mind keeps turning back to what Jason said. The medium seemed so certain that they can’t understand anything, and it bothers him the more he thinks of it.

Part of him wants to go back down to his apartment and knock on Jason’s door, show him, like, a simple algebra equation, or do some basic physics experiment.

He doesn’t understand why it’s so important to him that Jason see the flaw in his perspective, as stated at least. Maybe it’s more nuanced in his head, but Red can’t help feeling that the older boy is wrong and needs to know why, even if in the meantime…

…in the meantime, he can interact with Ghost pokemon without surrealism while Red can’t. And he was able to argue against his own ideas, so he’s clearly not lacking basic reasoning abilities either. So whose perspective is actually more useful? Or maybe both are useful in their own ways…

Remind yourself of what you do not know. Do not accept your mind’s attempts to insist otherwise…

He sees the wisdom in that, so maybe it’s not as far a step from recognizing the value of humility to what Jason has accomplished, without quite swinging as far on the actual epistemics.

Red watches the last sliver of gold light fade behind the mountain, and twilight cloaks the city. He shivers at the sudden chill, and abruptly feels sure that there’s a gastly behind him. Floating toward him, ready to envelop his head, ready to open its mouth and bring out that “tongue”—

Red spins and sees nothing but the empty rooftop, and lets out his breath in something more than a sigh. Great, now he’s going to be jumpy about that for a while too…

“Red?”

Red yelps as he spins to find Tatsumaki on the roof with an abra. She withdraws her pokemon and steps off the teleporting platform, frowning at him. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing,” he says, breathing deep to slow his racing heart. “I just… met my first Ghost pokemon and… I guess it left an impression.”

“Yeah, they’ll do that.” She looks around. “It wasn’t a wild was it?”

“No, Jason’s. I wanted to know what it was like.”

“Good to get it out of the way in a safe way I guess.” She sticks her hands in the pockets of her collared dress. “So, got any ideas about sensei’s assignment yet?”

Red hesitates. “We’re not supposed to discuss it yet…”

“Whatever,” she says with a roll of her eyes, and heads for the door.

Red stares after her a moment, then blinks. “Wait! If you want, we can talk about other things—”

“Nope,” she says, and mentally opens the door ahead of her, then swings it shut after passing through.

Red sighs and heads for the door himself. He doesn’t know if he should have just said yes, but he’ll have to have something better before he tries befriending her again.

A quick check confirms that Rowan is still messing with his partitions. Red is fairly confident Rowan will have one of the more promising ideas in the meeting tomorrow. He wonders if Rowan himself feels any pressure over that expectation.

Daniel still isn’t back, so Red goes to his room, sits at his desk, and takes out his notebook so he can try to decipher the problem again.

Brains. Minds. Hiding thoughts and emotions under others.

How?

Red stares at the paper, rapidly tapping both ends of his pencil against the desk as he shifts it between his fingers.

Don’t spend resources searching for an answer until you’re justifiably confident you understand the question.

It seems trivial to not also realize how impossible understanding it is.

Red wonders what Jason would say to Leader Giovanni. What the Leader would say to him. When it comes to the mind, it’s true enough that currently there’s no real understanding it. Red isn’t going to solve the question of consciousness in (he checks the time) five hours. But he could at least check how confident he should be that he understands the question.

Red’s pencil moves to the page. He’ll start with what he knows… Thoughts are patterns of neurons firing in a specific order and shape. Feelings are experiences… of physical sensation… His pencil slows as he frowns. What are emotions, really? He could write something down, something that sounds right, like emotions are certain neurotransmitters and the felt effects they have on the body, but is that a useful definition? How does psychic power hide or sense neurotransmitters, let alone the feelings associated with particularly complex emotions?

He realizes that if he’s satisfied with that answer, he would just be “accepting his mind’s attempt to insist he understands something he doesn’t,” and decides to drill down to basics. What is a brain? A collection of billions of neurons, tens of billions, which encode sensory experiences and process thoughts and send commands through the nervous system by chemicals and electrical impulses.

Where do the impulses come from?

He doesn’t know.

Are all emotions from neurotransmitters, or are some purely in the brain, if that even makes sense?

Maybe it doesn’t. Especially since he just thought of another problem, maybe more fundamental…

What is a mind? A self-reflective emergent property of the processes of the brain, which experiences feelings and memories and desires as fuzzy, indistinct things that are somehow independent of the absoluteness of the brain. (Why are minds so fuzzy?) There’s some inherent disconnect between what the mind is aware of and what the brain does and stores. Optical illusions are strong examples of this, as is the idea of a subconscious, or waking from a dream with just an emotional reaction but no memory of what happened… Self-awareness likely comes somewhere between the top-down predictions that are being made constantly but that we’re unaware of and the bottom-up observations of reality…

Red stops and puts his pencil down, staring at the sheet a moment.

Sure, brains are probably the most complex thing in the universe, and may be the only thing literally impossible to understand given that the thing it’s trying to fully understand is itself, and if it were good enough to do that it would just become even more complex.

But Red would have guessed he could have answered more about brains if asked. Now all he can think of are irrelevant factors that don’t actually explain how it works…

…and he suddenly feels an inkling of something different, in his mind. A new track being laid, maybe even the start of a new perspective. He’d thought of space as mind bogglingly vast before, but really, everything is so complex that it boggles his mind to think about them in sufficient detail.

Is this what Jason meant? Is he touching the same frame of mind, at least a little?

Red flips to a new page and decides to try testing what he really understands about something basic. Not math basic, but… well, maybe, actually, especially if even basic things are mysteries to him when he looks deep enough.

What’s a comparison to what Sabrina’s asked them to do that’s not about psychic phenomena? Some other “impossible” problem, like… if someone told him there was a plant that grows without water, and asked him to figure out how, would he be able to? He’s not even sure how bizarre that might be compared to the perfect shield, but whatever, he’ll try it.

What does he actually know about what plants need to grow? He could say “photosynthesis” and haltingly describe how light contains energy (is energy) and certain wavelengths can be harnessed by certain plant cells, all wavelengths but green, actually… wait, do flower petals do photosynthesis? Doesn’t matter, so without nutrients from water, plants get some from light… wait, nutrients? Is that right? How would light have nutrients in it, nutrients are just a word that means the useful molecules and atoms for a certain life form. That stuff must be gotten from soil… but there are some plants that grow in water and off sunlight… is there carbon in water? No wait, duh, the air, they get carbon from the air… somehow… okay he just realized he has no idea how plants breathe, and again, what’s the light for? Energy? Instead of using sugar, their cells absorb energy from lightwaves and use it to extract and repurpose the nutrients (useful molecules) they need from the air, water, and maybe ground?

That… sounds right. So a plant that grows without water must be getting enough of the nutrients they need from the air and maybe ground. If there are absolutely fundamental nutrients in water, then maybe there’s a lot of moisture in the air and that’s how they get it. If the question is specifying there’s no moisture around at all then he would say that… the plant must somehow be able to build itself from other materials besides the ones normal plants need from water.

After a minute of thought, he nods. That would be his hypothesis. Maybe it wouldn’t even be a plant, anatomically, maybe it would just look like one, or be some unique cross between a plant and fungus, or something. Of course, his understanding of how plants work could be flawed in some way. It’s been a while since he learned plant biology, and if he’s wrong in any single belief, then the whole hypothesis could be way off, might not even make any sense.

He realizes that the moment before has passed. He’s no longer as uncertain about what he knows, and the idea of the world itself as bizarre and unknowable has faded somewhat as he feels more like, as little as he understands, there’s still a way to understand, a path that he could follow.

But maybe that’s an illusion too, of sorts, if he keeps “boggling” at things enough to get down to the atomic and subatomic level, where reality seems to genuinely stop making sense to brains that evolved on such a different scale.

Red smiles slightly and turns the page to start again with something else. He’s not sure if he’s on the right track to the exact mental state Jason lives in, but he’s glimpsed what might be a lens of his own, and that’s worth pursuing too.

Chapter 69: Missions

When Red teleports to the Sakai Ranch, the sun is approaching its zenith, and he takes a moment to enjoy its warmth on his skin. He’s not sure he’ll ever consider himself an “outdoorsy person,” but since moving to Saffron he’s come to appreciate being outdoors more than he can ever remember being before. He knows getting more sun sometimes helps with depression, but by the time he’s back to being Past Red it’s usually evening. In the week since he saw Dr. Seward, he has yet to make any meaningful progress with his other self… mostly because he hasn’t really tried.

Red finally feels like his skin has absorbed enough of the sun’s warmth and makes his way toward the ranch house, spotting Mr. Sakai as he emerges. “Hello, sir.”

“Hello, Red. So good of you to visit. It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” The rancher starts walking along the hexagonal perimeter of the nearby caterpie pen without waiting for an answer, throwing food into it from one of the sacks hanging at his waist. Red watches him go, conflicted emotions churning through him, then heads inside to get his own bags.

With Leaf living on the ranch and the RAWP therapy group coming by every few days, it rarely needs extra help. But Red still comes once in a while. Partly to help Leaf and Mr. Sakai, partly as an ongoing tribute to Aiko, a more practical equivalent to putting flowers on her grave. Even with his partition up, he still gets a little teary as he straps the feed bags around his waist, thinking of that first day they arrived here together. How nervous she was. How hopeful.

The sound of footsteps descending the stairs makes him quickly wipe his eyes before he turns.

Leaf is as pretty as ever in a plain shirt and jeans, her waist conspicuously absent of a pokebelt. He wonders if she feels strange without it. She smiles upon seeing Red, and he smiles back. Maybe there’s a part of him with selfish motive for coming too.

“Hey Red! I thought you couldn’t get a free afternoon this week?” she asks as Raff and Joy gambol down the stairs after her. Raff has gotten big, practically filling the stairway, and Red is happy to see Joy bouncing happily around the room without issue, apparently having finally gotten used to having just one eye.

“Saw my therapist last week, decided to shift some stuff around. How’s it going with you?”

She lifts a hand and rocks it side to side as she sits beside the door and starts pulling her shoes on. “The bad days are pretty bad, but they’re getting outnumbered little by little.” She finishes tying one set of laces, and he watches her brush her hair off her shoulder before she starts the second. “How’s The List? Cross anything off yet?”

On his first week in Saffron City, Red wrote up a list of the things he wanted to accomplish from his time with Sabrina, after which he would re-evaluate whether it was time to move on and do something else:

Resolve partition until it no longer limits psychic ability use.

Develop ability to meld with pokemon enough to freely teleport with abra.

Learn telekinesis (or at least try everything advised before giving up)

Find an aspect of psychic phenomena confusing enough for major experiment.

It was tempting to keep adding more, and he had to remind himself multiple times that it wasn’t a list of all the things he wants to master about his powers, just what could reasonably be expected to be done in a few years and would make the most out of having such exclusive tutelage.

“Making progress. Particularly thanks to Aiko’s drowzee.”

It was a shock when Leaf called a couple weeks ago to explain that Aiko registered a will just a few days before Zapdos hit Vermilion, a coincidence that had his thoughts turn briefly superstitious before sanity reasserted itself. It was a short document, the gist of which was that Leaf got first pick of her pokemon, with the exception of any that would help with Red’s research, and Blue would have whatever was left.

It was simple, but made sense. Aiko didn’t know when she would need her will to be executed, what pokemon she might still have, and which of the other three might even still be alive. In essence she just placed her trust in the trio to get along and work out something fair, with just a few suggestions to make it clear that she was thinking of them.

The one exception was her eevee, who specifically went to Blue, then Leaf, then Red. The reason why was obvious, but it still hurt a little, considering he was the one who diagnosed Eevee so she could be healthy. Still, since his first thought was what a waste it would be to train the shiny eevee rather than trade it for far more powerful pokemon, Red can’t even say she chose wrong. He wondered if Leaf felt the same, but didn’t ask.

The only pokemon he’d taken for his research was her venonat, one of the magnemite she caught the night of the storm, and a drowzee from the same.

“Drowzee? Why?” Leaf asks as she straps on her own feed bags and heads outside. “Does it have a particularly large nose?”

Red smiles and follows her, summoning Pikachu and Nidoran from their balls. He’d bring Charmeleon out too, but with all these wooden pens around he doesn’t want to constantly be watching in case his pokemon’s tail bobs too close to one. “You know, I haven’t checked. But no, it’s… well, since two of my goals, maybe three, can be developed by getting better at melding with psychic pokemon, I’ve been spending most of my free time at the gym.”

“Well, that’s just ironic.” Leaf and Red split up to walk along the opposite side of a path with pens on either side for them to feed. She carefully measures food out for each pokemon while he uses his powers to sense how hungry each one is. “I don’t know if Blue would be happy or pissed,” Leaf says as she throws food in different directions for a group of rattata, making the whole pen run after each piece until all but two are busy nibbling. She has to tell them “Eat!” before they accept the food.

“Not for battling,” Red explains, ignoring the usual attempt to get him to talk about or to Blue.

Yeah, because that’s healthy.

Shut up, your idea of healthy is moping around all day.

“For what, then?”

“Being linked with pokemon as they use their abilities and practice maneuvers teaches me a lot more than sitting in my room with them.”

“But isn’t that what you did with your abra?”

“Yeah.” Red grimaces. “And as it turns out, abra are pretty boring.”

Leaf giggles. “I guess they do just sort of sit there. Or float, sometimes. They’re not social creatures, so I guess their inner world is just, what, looking for threats?”

Red nods. “And their next meal. Pikachu and Charmeleon are both constantly aware of their surroundings too, but they don’t automatically categorize everything as either a threat or food. There’s enough… confidence, in their ability to defend themselves, and enough expectation of safety, that there’s room for other things, like play.”

“But abra don’t really have a concept of ‘safe.'”

“Not naturally, no. I read that the pokeball simulations took a lot of work in the early days to repress their urge to teleport away all the time, and without that hypervigilance, there’s very little left of their minute to minute experience that’s particularly interesting.” Red shrugs. “So once I got used to their ridiculous hearing and having a tail, there wasn’t much to do other than spend the time strengthening the bond, which went slowly.” He frowns at her. “What?”

She’s giggling again. “Sorry, I just pictured you with a tail. What about telekinesis?”

He sighs and throws a handful of nuts and berries at a pair of maimed nidoran, one that’s missing a back leg, the other a front one. “Eat! Tried it. I could feel them doing something as they moved stuff around, but I can’t seem to activate the same part of my brain. Maybe because their brain structure is too different, or maybe because my telekinesis is just too weak.”

“Sorry. So the drowzee…?”

“Right. It’s only been a couple days, but I already feel more in tune with her than either of my abra. She pays a lot more attention to the nuance of others’ mental states, rather than just scanning for friend or foe.”

Leaf is quiet a moment as she moves on to the next pen. “Makes sense. I read up on them, and despite looking so goofy, they’re predators. They hunt in packs to overwhelm enemies that are wide awake, but for a single one it’s unreliable. So they probably need to be able to check how sleepy their opponents are.”

“Exactly. Since I noticed that, I’ve practiced paying attention to the same things in my own reading of others.” He casually tosses another handful of food out and orders the pokemon to eat it too. “So. Long night?”

“Red!” He feels a berry bounce off the back of his head, and turns with a grin to see Leaf glaring at him. “You said you wouldn’t!”

“Just a guess, promise!”

Her glare fades to suspicion. “Okay. Sorry I threw the berry at you even though you sort of deserved it.” She smiles as she sees Pikachu sniffing at it.

“You’re forgiven. Pikachu, eat.” His pokemon electrifies the berry with a crackling sound until it’s steaming, then eats it in a quick gulp. “So what kept you up? The usual secretive project?”

“Yes,” she says as she moves to the next pen and scoops seeds over it for the three flightless pidgey hopping around in it. “Oh, also a Tier 1 went off nearby just after midnight.”

Red stops and turns to her, eyes wide. “What? I didn’t hear about that! Were you involved in any of the fighting?”

“No, by the time I was dressed and halfway there, it was already over. Guess it didn’t make major news.”

“Ah.” Red turns back to his work, wondering if she considered calling him to come help. Wondering if she didn’t because of Aiko.

Of course she doesn’t trust us. It’s only natural for her to-

“Speaking of my secret project,” Leaf says. “I want to talk to you about it.”

Or not.

“Really? That’s great! What’s changed?”

“I may need your help. I’ll tell you more after lunch. How are you and Laura getting along?”

He sighs. “Still encouraging me to talk to Blue. Don’t you start, too.”

“I wasn’t going to.” She’s quiet for a moment. “So, not well?”

“It’s not… terrible.” They did a lot of talking after the storm, once she got over her shock that he purposefully went into it, summarized what happened, and eventually described his ultimate decision.

She cried, which would have made him feel pretty wretched if she didn’t start hugging him too, which made him start crying too. She was the first person he met to wholeheartedly make him feel like she was glad he didn’t go into the building; she didn’t even bring his father up, perhaps remembering their talk after the Viridian Fire.

If they’d left it there, they might be on good terms. But then she insisted that she would talk to Blue, and he insisted that she shouldn’t, and then they had a new thing to argue about and carefully dance around. In the meantime, she’s gotten better about updating him on what she’s been working on, including catching him up on things that she was being quiet about, such as what happened to her in Celadon thanks to the kindly old President Silph, which led into her current investigations, which she still hasn’t revealed to him or Leaf, but keeps promising she will soon.

They finish feeding the pokemon while talking about why the Silph Company might have wanted to kill a Renegade on Mt. Moon, then return to the house to have lunch. The meatless spread doesn’t bother Red nearly as much as it did last time he was here, since he’s been keeping to his promise on the SS Anne with Leaf and not buying meat since he got back. It’s Mr. Sakai who has most of his attention through the meal. The older man seems more than ever like he’s just going through the motions of life, and it makes Red’s heart ache just being around him. He’s not sure how Leaf handles it day after day, but her courage gives him the strength to participate in small talk with him and act like everything is okay.

Once they’re done eating, they help him with the dishes, then Red follows Leaf into Aiko’s room, withdrawing all their pokemon except Raff and Pikachu. It’s largely the same it was a couple months ago, with just a couple changes to reflect the new inhabitants, one of which is Raff’s indoor soil to sleep on, which he goes to curl up in while Pikachu sniffs at the electronics until Red picks him up and pulls him onto his lap as he sits on the bed.

“So, what’s the big secret? What have you been working on?”

Leaf sits beside him and takes a breath as if to brace herself, then says, “The sakki program.”

Whatever Red was expecting, it wasn’t that. “You’re… did I hear you right? Sakki, as in killing intent? Not some program for Mr. Sakai?”

“Right.”

“I notice that I’m confused.”

Leaf smiles. “Well, I’m not a hallucination.”

“Then why…?”

“The Zapdos attack made me realize some things,” Leaf says gaze distant as she leans back in her chair and looks up the ceiling. “About the real scope of the problem I’ve been trying to face.”

Red slowly nods. “I’ve been reading your articles. They’re good, lots of receptive responses, particularly for the ones on that coordinator college site…”

“And lots of pushback.” She sighs. “Most of which seemed pretty intractable.”

“Stupid, too,” Red mutters, and her smile warms him. He doesn’t agree with a lot of Leaf’s positions, obviously, but he still spent more time than he probably should have trading insults with the most offensive of the poorly thought out comments on her articles. He wonders if she saw those. “But you knew you weren’t going to change the world in just a few months.”

“When Aiko and I talked about this, we spoke in years. But Red, I don’t think I can do it in a few decades. There are too many voices out there, and too many other causes, and… Every major incident is a recurring reason to keep to the status quo. Maybe I’ll eventually have enough influence to make some measurable difference, but it would be a fight of generations to really see the societal changes, and meanwhile, millions of more pokemon and humans suffer.”

Red shrugs, wanting to cheer her up but not sure how. “What else can you do? In a way I think you picked the hardest goal of all three of us. And what does any of this have to do with sakki?

She reaches into her pocket and holds a piece of pokepuff out to Pikachu’s nose. Red’s pokemon sniffs it, ears twitching, but doesn’t eat it. “He doesn’t cook pokepuffs, right?”

“Right.”

“So how long will he stay like this?”

“Haven’t checked in a while.” He counts to two minutes while Pikachu sniffs at the puff, looks away, looks back, sniffs it again… but keeps his mouth closed.

Leaf is smiling. “You trained him well. Would you mind using sakki on him, just for a moment?”

Red blinks at her, wondering what changed how scared of it she was before… then puts the pieces together.

“Killing intent” is what they called it, but only because its most obvious and immediate purpose was combat. But all it really does is give pokemon a mental state that removes restrictions of what’s “allowed.” Earlier when they were feeding the pokemon, many of them needed an explicit command to eat. Programming tech can expand the context of commands that are needed, but it can’t remove the need for them, once conditioned.

Red merges with Pikachu, acclimating to his pokemon’s mood in less than a second as his perception of the world doubles. The pokepuff smells delicious, and Red feels his own mouth watering. He starts to project the feeling of sakki, paying close attention to Pikachu’s impulses.

Once the feeling of release is complete, his pokemon darts forward to snatch the pokepuff from Leaf’s fingers. Red is already stopping the projection, and they watch as Pikachu happily chews his treat. Even without an initial command, his self-control isn’t that good that he’d stop after retroactively regaining the conditioning.

“So Aiko wanted to use a sakki program to remove the blocks from the ranch pokemon’s natural behaviors,” Red says. “Or at least the ones that haven’t been maimed, so they can be released back into the wild. But how does that help reduce wild pokemon suffering?”

Leaf just watches him, waiting with the calm patience of someone waiting for the inevitable. Whatever it is, she’s sure he’ll get it. Which reminds him to start at the basic assumptions.

There are generally just two parts to any belief someone holds: information and values. If she thinks he can figure it out on his own, she must believe that he has the information he needs to understand what her idea is based on. If that’s true, but he’s still not getting it, it’s because he’s not seeing the world enough from her perspective, through the lens of her values, to figure out what she’s thinking.

So he thinks back to those moments on the cruise, when their minds merged, and he saw the world from her perspective. Once he remembers how she feels about pokemon, and how much she values their wellbeing compared to other things he would normally rank much higher, it becomes obvious.

“You want to do it with all caught pokemon…” he says, slowly smiling as excitement grows in him. “But let them keep their non-aggression conditioning.” He has to remind himself not to get carried away before hearing more details, but… “Leaf, that’s genius.”

Leaf is grinning back, and blushing slightly. “Not genius enough. I checked online, people have occasionally brought it up as an idea, but always like a park, or your Safari Zone. I talked to Bill about it-“

Red feels a flare of envy. The inventor was upset with them for leaving the cruise, but after seeing their notes seemed mollified. Still, he hasn’t reached out to Red since, or responded to basic queries. Maybe he needs to just keep pestering the absent-minded inventor…

“-and he said that the technological barrier has two major elements. First to remove any type of conditioning we don’t want, second to maintain specific conditioning.”

“One interferes with the other,” Red guesses, stroking Pikachu’s back.

“Right. So from a programming angle, the hardest, but most direct way to do this would be to have individual programs for each pokemon to retrain them on how to live in the wild. The easiest way would be to just write a whole new and much simpler training program that only puts in restrictions on their aggressive behaviors, while keeping everything else the same… but that has additional complications.”

“Like how would it be distributed? With anti-tampering as strong as it is…”

“Right, it would mean entirely new balls specifically for this, which is economically a difficult sell.”

Red frowns, nodding. Even if existing pokeball software could be replaced, it would be a lot of work to safely wipe and download each one in a supervised environment. “Okay. So that’s a hurdle. But if people understand what it would mean…”

“I reached out to the Ranger General too. Well, to Ranger Matthew, who asked his captain, who passed it along before it came back to me. The concept itself isn’t totally strange, but using balls with a unique program for it is also a big disadvantage in the field. The ability to catch a pokemon, heal it, and use it right after without visiting a pokemon center first is often life saving.”

Red thinks of the spearow he caught on the way to Mt. Moon, then used against the paras swarm. The others probably had similar situations. “So we really do need a program to remove most conditioning, if this is going to catch on.”

“Yeah.”

Red runs a hand through his hair, displacing his hat as he considers the world she’s imagining and thinks of failure modes. “Babies?”

She shrugs. “Maintaining this would still be a fraction of current resources used for wild threats, but there are ideas to make even that easier, like adding in training that would designate breeding areas or seasons so that it’s easy to go through an area at certain times and catch babies as soon as they hatch.”

“Man, that would be… would the Rangers really be okay with something that affects wild pokemon behavior so much?”

Leaf sighs. “They would be one of the main groups needing convincing, yeah. The Ranger General said if a program like that existed, he might try picking a small and secluded area as a test zone and send a dozen ranger teams combing through it to catch every pokemon they find, recondition them to be able to live in the wild again, then keep moving on until the entire area has pokemon in it that can survive in the wild, but won’t attack humans. But they would want to wait for years afterward to make sure there’s no hidden effects on the pokemon’s life cycles or ecosystem, and he absolutely refused the idea of normal trainers getting involved.”

“I bet. There would be tons of people who’d want to help just to keep any rare pokemon they catch. But if you can develop the tech and convince governments to keep it to Rangers and maybe gyms…” He trails off, a subtle worry blooming as he finishes fully understanding what she’s trying to accomplish. The natural world of pokemon would be forever changed into something that better serves human interests. Pokemon interests too, but it’s not like there would be a way to stop human on pokemon aggression, other than laws.

Leaf is eyeing him warily. “What?”

“Nothing. Just… would you really be okay with it? You asked me not to use sakki anymore during the cruise, and even if that changed when we fought the magneton, this still feels like a… bigger change. If your idea works, we’d be forever altering the behavior of a significant portion of wild pokemon.” He watches her. “None of that bothers you?”

“Of course it does, Red.” She sighs. “You didn’t say it, but we also talked about mind control, and yes, to a part of me, that’s what this feels like. But what happened in Vermilion…”

Her gaze drops, and Red watches her cautiously. They’ve never talked in detail about what they went through, either alone or together. It’s easy to guess at what might have changed her mind, assuming he was there for it. The conflicted fear and sorrow that filled her voice when she told him to use sakki. The people they left behind at the burning building. The nidoqueen almost killing her…

“I can see why you became the way you are,” Leaf says. “Why everyone did. I was pretty privileged, growing up. Not just because of who mom and grandpa were, but because I was always on the move. Because I never lost anyone, the way most people did, that night.”

“Oh.” He feels like he should be objecting to “the way you are,” and he hears Past Red quietly murmuring about their decision about Aiko, but he doesn’t think that’s what she meant, and he ignores him. “I wish you still hadn’t.”

“Yeah.” Leaf looks around the room, smile watery, and takes a deep breath as she rubs her eyes, just once each. “That would have been nice.”

Red’s gaze drops, examining his hands. “I did wonder, at some point, whether you might change your mind on pokemon battling,” he says, voice quiet. “If you went through something bad enough. But it sounds like you’ve skipped ahead of the rest of us. Guess I just wanted to make sure you’re not feeling conflicted about it, or… that it’s not coming from a bad place, if that makes sense.”

“It does.” Leaf shrugs. “Humans do what we have to. I get it. But even if I grow the stomach to accept trainer battles, the real problem we all face… it’s not something that’s going to ever be solved by it. A thousand years from now, no matter how good technology gets, no matter how much society evolves, no matter how many Elite level trainers there are, even if every single legendary pokemon is caught, the wilderness will still be a hostile place, and people will still need to train pokemon to fight to defend ourselves. And that’s just…”

She lets out a breath, and shakes her head, face hard and gaze distant. “It’s unacceptable.”

Red is smiling, the iron resolve in her voice making something flutter in his chest. “Well. You don’t dream small, do you?”

Leaf’s gaze jumps to his, and she slowly grins before echoing back, “Where’s the fun in that?”

“None at all.”

“So, you’ll help?”

“Of course!”

Leaf beams at him in a way that warms him all the way to his heart, and Future Red suddenly pipes up. Hey, don’t we maybe want to talk about a commitment this big? What about all those other goals we’ve got?

We’ll figure something out. It’s the right thing to do.

And also the way she’s smiling at us feels really good.

And that, yes.

“I can already see some problems, though,” he cautions.

Leaf snorts, still smiling as she starts ticking points off with her fingers. “Poachers will be a much bigger problem if people can just stroll through any area and capture whatever they want, flying pokemon are probably never going to be fully domesticated, nor pokemon that live underground, nor water pokemon…”

“Ghosts,” Red adds, and she sticks up her pinky before raising her other hand. “And pokemon that appear by abiogenesis…”

“And this won’t help with the frontiers… yeah.” She drops her hands. “It’s not as amazing a plan as it first sounds.”

“It’s not,” Red agrees. “But it’s still amazing.” She grins at him again, and he feels his neck flush, hoping he doesn’t end up disappointing her. “What can I do, though? I’m not a programmer, or particularly influential.”

She gives him a look he can’t interpret before saying, “Well, the sakki is probably the most important thing we have to help develop the un-conditioning program. I was confused at first about how Aiko made so much progress mimicking it virtually, until I realized what must have happened.”

She’s still watching Red, as if expecting him to guess… no, as if expecting him to admit to something. “Uh. What?”

“You used sakki on one of her pokemon before she withdrew it, right? So she could analyze the changes it would have in a virtual environment?”

Red blinks. “What? No! I wouldn’t do that!”

Something shifts in her gaze, moving through doubt and into hope. “Really?”

“Yes, really! She never even asked.”

“Huh.” Leaf bites her lower lip. “Was there… any time when you used it on one of her pokemon?”

Red opens his mouth. Closes it. Shifts in his seat.

She sighs. “Red…”

“I mean, she was there when I did tests to make sure the state doesn’t persist after a pokemon comes back out, and tried maintaining it on more than one pokemon at a time… oh.”

She leans an arm on the desk and rests her chin in one hand, brow raised. He fleetingly wishes he could take a picture. “Oh?”

Red shifts again, heat creeping up his neck in embarrassment this time. “Okay, so what had happened was, the failsafe in that case was that she’d just withdraw her pokemon if she seemed worried about it. We already knew that once released the pokemon would have undergone their conditioning again and be safe, so I didn’t think of it, but… if she didn’t release and return it again after that, her ball had a record of its capture state.”

Leaf rubs her face. “And did this happen with anyone else?”

“…yes. But Aiko’s the only one that was trying to understand and replicate sakki, so I doubt any of them saved that mental state.”

“Mmhm. That sneaky, brilliant bitch.” She sighs, ignoring Red’s shocked face. “Well, I guess it could be worse. Who knows, maybe someone else will figure it out and save me the trouble.”

Red’s phone chimes, and he checks the message to see one from Sabrina. It’s requesting a meeting of all her students as soon as possible. “Damn it. I have to go sooner than I thought.”

“That’s alright. We can talk more later.” Leaf stands. “I’ll walk you out.”

They head outside, and Red goes down the porch steps while Leaf stays on it. He summons Saffron (once Cerulean, then Vermilion), wishing she would hug him goodbye. It’s something he feels she would have initiated, before. But now there’s a cautious distance in their friendship that feels fragile, and he supposes a hug might feel risky, to her. Or maybe he’s just coming off as less friendly now, without realizing it…

Red pauses to look back at Leaf. “Oh, I almost forgot. Did I seem okay to you, today?”

Leaf’s brow rises, then draws down in concern. “Uh. Yeah, I think so. Is something wrong?”

“Nah, I’ve just been spending a lot of time with psychics lately, and thought I should just check to make sure I’m still… myself.”

She smiles. “That’s a very Red thing to be concerned about. Who else would you be?”

He thinks of telling her about Past Red, but that would be a much longer conversation. “Someone who doesn’t care about his friends,” is what comes out instead, and it isn’t until after he says it that he realizes how much it hurts to think that it might be true.

And now Leaf is walking toward him, arms going around his shoulders as she pulls him into a hug.

“You care, Red,” she murmurs as heat flushes through him… and tears prick at his eyes as he hugs her back. “No matter what may have happened, or will happen, I know that.”


Red teleports back to the roof of the small apartment building where Sabrina and her students live, the feel of Leaf’s concern still lingering on his body and heart. He barely sees his surroundings as he makes his way down, feet taking him through his now-familiar new home without conscious thought.

Most of the building has been refitted for use as class and training rooms, as well as a floor dedicated to experimentation. Red was amazed and humbled by it his first couple of weeks, and it still has some effect on him, shaking him out of his thoughts as he goes to his room to change, then hurries out of the building and toward the nearby Gym, where Sabrina called the meeting for some reason. He wonders if whatever they’re being assembled to speak about will involve gym business, and worries briefly about an incident that might have occured nearby.

“Hey Verres, catch!”

Red’s arm darts up before he even spots the object, pivoting in the direction of the voice and stopping the crumpled up fast food bag an inch from his face.

In the brief moment after his hand grips it, he feels its momentum continue, pushing his hand back enough that his knuckle grazes his nose. Then it becomes inert, and he lowers his hand to see Daniel walking toward him.

Red is both the youngest of Sabrina’s students and the newest, but before last month, that second attribute would have gone to Daniel. The lanky blonde has been in Saffron for just a year, but at 16 he’s one of the best psychics in a city known for its psychics, with an intricate understanding of how his abilities work that keep allowing him to push the envelope. He’s dressed in a simple white shirt with a purple hakama that flows around his legs, attire that’s different enough to mark him as a psychic without quite fitting into any particular school or tradition.

Red eyes Daniel warily as he tosses the bag in a nearby trash can, not pausing in his walk. “Hello, Daniel.” The continued force behind the relatively weightless object made it clear that it was telekinetically propelled and guided.

The older boy shakes his head as he falls into step with Red, the two making their way toward the gym together. “You didn’t even try, Verres. How do you expect to awaken your kinesis like this?”

“I’ve been practicing it on and off for months,” Red says, voice flat. “I don’t think it’s going to randomly start working now.”

“You’re the one that said pokemon abilities are the key to understanding psychic powers, right? That kids do stuff by accident all the time, just by willpower or sudden need? Maybe once you’ve unlearned those trainer instincts, it’ll come to you.”

Red sighs. The argument had been about whether psychic pokemon could really even be considered “psychics,” since none are sapient enough to actually understand what they’re doing, and so many of their abilities have been observed in non-psychic pokemon. This seems to be Daniel’s way of proving his point that real psychic abilities are tied to a deeper understanding of what you’re doing, rather than just relying on instincts like pokemon. “And in the meantime, I should just let myself be hit in the face.”

Daniel shrugs. “It’s your theory. But it would be a small sacrifice if it ends up working, right?”

Red eyes the blonde, but says nothing. He can never get a read on him, psychically or otherwise. The first time he’d thrown something at Red it had been a pencil, aimed at his chest, shortly after finding out that he had seemingly no ability to use telekinesis at all. Since then he’s done it half a dozen times, never in a way that presented any real danger to Red, so Red might just look immature if he complains to Sabrina.

He doesn’t know that she’d think that, but even if she acknowledges it as bullying, she’s the kind of Leader and teacher who tends to expect people to at least try to work out their problems alone before coming to her.

Besides, Red’s pretty sure that even if his mind were read, Daniel would be able to honestly say that he was just trying to see if Red’s telekinesis would awaken. For all Red knows that is his only motivation; like most of Sabrina’s students, he’s even more obsessed with psychic phenomenon and advancement than Red.

Daniel was raised in a small superstitious town with no other psychics in it. He somehow managed to teach himself enough about his powers in secret that, after pretending he wanted to become a trainer, he used the money his parents gave him to apply for the license and buy equipment to travel to Saffron and get close enough to Sabrina to impress her with his mental powers.

It’s a story that would impress Red enough to want to befriend the older boy, if his perspective wasn’t so… bizarre.

“Any idea why we’re meeting at the gym?” Red asks.

“Got the same message you did. Maybe she wants us to work with some of the trainers there again.” He doesn’t bother disguising the distaste in his voice, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Like I’ve got time to teach normals.”

It’s a common word, among the psychics who dislike the term “gifted” and “ungifted,” and find “non-psychic” too burdensome. But coming from Daniel, the word has an unpleasant edge to it.

“There are psychic trainers there too,” Red reminds him. “And like I said, I’ve been learning a lot from merging with psychic pokemon.”

“Still no telekinesis though. Seems like it should be a pretty straightforward test.”

Before Red can reply they enter the gym, and see another of Sabrina’s students waiting at the elevator. The three exchange simple nods for greeting as they wait for the elevator. Tatsumaki is almost as short as Red despite being in her mid-twenties, with curly green hair and a simple black collared dress. She’s widely considered the best telekinetic in Kanto, though she’ll quickly insist that she’s only the “strongest,” and that Sabrina is close behind while also being more “versatile.”

Red once asked her what the difference is, and she went on for twenty minutes about the distinction between raw telekinetic strength and the actual ability to manipulate and affect objects with it. He sort of got part of it, something like the difference between not just how much muscle you have but how good you are at using your whole body to lift a heavy box, compared to how well you intrinsically understand the weight distribution and shifting of the objects in the box and can balance it as you maneuver on the fly. But a lot of the phrases and concepts apparently had to be experienced to be fully understood, and most of it went over his head.

Once she finally stopped to ask about his telekinetic ability and he admitted his lack of any, she lost interest in the conversation, and seemed annoyed with him ever since, as if he wasted her time.

The elevator ride up is quiet too, and they move together to Sabrina’s office once they arrive at the top floor. The rest of the students are inside already, and Leader Sabrina is at her desk, with her Second and Third, Tetsuo and Keiji, standing at her sides.

Who died? Red thinks with sudden foreboding. Whatever this is, it’s something serious. He drops his mental shield for a moment to do a quick probe around, and feels a few others probing around as a general mood of anticipation and worry permeates.

Tatsumaki and he are the only two of Sabrina’s students in what Red would consider “normal” clothes. Satori Komeiji, the second youngest student at 15, is dressed in a flowing blue blouse and a flared skirt that goes from white to pink toward the edges, matching her hair and making her look like a big flower. Despite her youth, she’s one of the best mind readers in Kanto, and bonds incredibly well with pokemon… which is possibly why she barely ever talks to people.

Rowan Donkerk, a pale young man in his early twenties, wears the same white overcoat over black shirt and pants that Psychic Narud did, with the same words warning against the idea of a set fate written on the sleeves. He specializes in partitions and memory manipulation, and is apparently from an absurdly wealthy family in another region who came specifically to train with Sabrina, while also being initiated into the same sect as Narud.

Jason Grey is a lanky older teen wearing religious vestments, the oversized clothes hanging in huge folds around his body as his fingers spin the prayer beads around his neck. Red doesn’t know much about him except that he’s a trainer too; his starter was apparently a gastly that he tamed without even using a pokeball, earning him both Elite Agatha and Leader Sabrina’s attention. He was only a year into his journey before he accepted apprenticeship with Sabrina, and has been here for a couple years now. He always seems nervous, and barely talks to anyone more than he has to.

And finally there’s Rei, Sabrina’s most senior student in both senses of the word. Her long blonde hair is tied up in a severe bun, and her kimono looks like it’s worth a fortune, back ramrod straight as she watches their teacher and waits for the meeting to begin. If she has a specialty, Red hasn’t learned it; she just seems to be good at everything, and a general genius besides.

Sabrina herself cuts an imposing figure in a simple red turtleneck and black jeans. Like most Leaders, even while sitting quietly her presence seems to fill the room, likely due to some combination of his own expectations and subtle charisma on her part. Tetsuo and Keiji wear their personalized Gym uniforms, hands clasped behind their backs.

“Thank you all for coming on such short notice,” Sabrina says, hands folded on her desk. “I’ll keep this brief. An emergency has come up, and I’m going to be unreachable for an unknown period of time of at least a few days, possibly more than a week.”

Red’s eyes widen, and he senses the shock bounce around the room full of psychics. It’s not unusual for Sabrina to go radio silent for hours at a time, and with her ability to teleport to so many places on a whim she still manages to have nearly as busy a schedule as most Gym Leaders. But disappearing for days at a time is a first.

“Tetsuo and Keiji will run the gym in my absence, but I’ll be relying on the rest of you to not only continue your classes, but assist them however you’re needed. None of you are in the gym’s chain of command, but they are both your seniors in psychic knowledge and experience, and can teach you things even I can’t. See this as an opportunity to branch out. No, Jason,” Sabrina says, looking at her student, who had barely twitched. “Not with that, it will have to wait until I return. But you will all have another assignment while I’m gone, and it has primary importance after the smooth operation of the gym, and your own classes.”

They all sit up straight as her gaze sweeps over them once before she finally takes a breath and says it: “I’ve come to suspect that someone has managed to fully partition their mind, to the point where their exposed surface thoughts and emotions are independent from their true inner ones, though still within their control. A perfect mental shield.”

The room is deathly silent. Even Tetsuo and Keiji are staring at the Leader with wide eyes, apparently not having been filled in on the reason for her sudden absence separately. This must really be fresh news.

What Red feels isn’t shock so much as dread. What Sabrina’s describing is someone who can act as the perfect liar. Not just able to hide their thoughts and emotions, but able to do so while they make people, that is to say, psychics, believe they aren’t. The difference between how they would be treated compared to someone who’s Dark or a Psychic using a mental shield would be night and day.

And just the rumor of such an ability would drastically lower trust in psychics everywhere, both those who might be using it and the ability of psychics to act as lie detectors.

“How sure are you of this, Leader?” Satori asks.

“Let’s say at least 70%. Enough to act on it decisively, and ask you all to as well. This is your assignment; try to do the same thing yourselves. Prove that it’s possible, if you can. If not, document all the things you try. Yes, Rowan?”

“Are both minds independent?” her student asks, brow drawn. “Does their behavior ever seem erratic, or at odds with themself?”

“A good question, but not noticeably. He almost always appears to be in total control of his emotional state, and the few exceptions don’t point to such a dichotomy of self.”

Red has taken his notebook out and started scribbling the questions and answers. A few of the others glance at him, but Sabrina ignores it. She knows him well enough by now. As he scribbles out the answers she’s giving to people’s questions, he also starts listing the things that he’s known have developed new abilities in him.

Unique circumstances

Mimicking other mental states

Forced to work around limits

Experiencing others using abilities

“The psychic,” he says, and everyone turns to him. “Do people know if he spent a lot of time with other psychics, or pokemon?”

Sabrina’s gaze holds his, and he reinforces his shield automatically, though he feels no attempt to breach it. “Yes,” she says after a moment’s thought. “He spent a lot of time merged with all sorts of people, not just psychics, and has explicitly merged with lots of psychic pokemon as they used abilities.”

Red’s face falls as he notes that down, and it’s Rei that beats him to the punch: “Then it’s possible more than one person, or even pokemon, is capable of this.”

The room is quiet again as people glance at her, until Sabrina finally says, “Operate as though that’s not true, for now. It’s possible he learned how to do this by mimicking someone or something else, but that still leaves the question of how they did it. I believe that he pieced it together from disparate insights and abilities, or just worked it out himself. That’s why I need you all to work together on this. You’re some of the most gifted and brilliant psychics in the world. I’m counting on you.”

They all stand at attention and bow, and Sabrina bows back. Red feels dread as he considers the upcoming days. He’s the newest among the group, and the youngest, and the weakest, and the least experienced. More than any of that, none of his peers seem to particularly like him. But then, how much effort has he really put into that, so distracted by the newness of all this, and his own issues and goals? Optimistically this could be an opportunity to show them his worth, but if they don’t take him seriously or work with him…

“Good luck, everyone.” Sabrina strides for the door.

“Leader,” Red calls out before he can stop himself, still used to referring to her by that title despite not being a trainer anymore.

She turns and gives him a passive expression that still somehow communicates impatience. “Yes?”

“Can we work with others, if we don’t tell them what it’s for?”

Sabrina considers this a moment, fingers tapping against her leg in an oddly uncontrolled gesture, for her. “There’s a saying, that three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” The room chuckles (a little nervously, in Red’s case), and Sabrina smiles. “I’ve already told all of you, and am planning no murders, which means I can only blame myself if this gets out sooner than I’d like. I took you all on not just because of your abilities and drive, but because I trust you not to do anything that will reflect poorly on me or my Gym. Use your judgement… but for now, only psychics, and preferably gym members. Understood?”

Red bows and murmurs, “Yes, Leader,” along with everyone else’s mixed honorifics. It makes sense; a psychic will have as much of an incentive to let an expert manage the release of a secret like this, and of course none of Sabrina’s gym members will want to go against her wishes.

“Then good luck to you all.” The door slides open, then closes behind her.

Tetsuo steps forward. “Okay, so that was a shock to everyone. Feel free to use gym facilities to work on this, and call on us if you need assistance.”

“Or if you plan on pulling in any other gym members,” Keiji says, gaze on Red. He nods to show he understands.

“As long as it doesn’t interfere with our gym duties, we’ll be happy to help,” Tetsuo says, and the two leave the room. As soon as the door closes, Daniel speaks.

“We should pair up,” he says, glancing at Tatsumaki. Red suspects that he likes her, and it’s clear he has his partner picked out. “We might be more productive, with someone to discuss our ideas with.”

“Or we can all discuss together,” Satori says, voice dry. “Since that would lead to more discussions. I would prefer to consider this alone, for now at least.”

“Shouldn’t we at least discuss it?” Jason asks. “We all have different focuses and perspectives. Perhaps one of us has some insight to share?”

Rowan shrugs, bemused. “I highly doubt that, unless one of you has been secretly working on this yourselves. I for one have other commitments tonight, and agree that it would be a waste of time to try and talk about it yet.”

Rei steps to where Sabrina was standing and turns, drawing all their attention to her.

“We’ve been charged by our teacher to do something no one else has,” she says, calm and confident. “It is a great honor, and likely of vital importance. I propose we all take the day to prepare and consider the problem on our own, and meet tomorrow to discuss potential solutions and plans.”

“Seconded,” Red quickly says. “It’s good practice to avoid cross-contamination of ideas, and keeps us from discussing solutions before we’ve fully considered the problem.”

“Agreed,” Satori adds, voice distant. “Like Rowan, I have other projects I must put to rest first, so I may put my whole attention on this.”

“Fine with me,” Tatsumaki adds, and the others nod or shrug.

“Good,” Rei says. “We’ll meet for lunch tomorrow in our cafeteria.”

“Should we ask them to join us?” Jason asks, pointing a thumb at the door where Tetsuo and Keiji exited.

“No. Let’s not bother them until we have something specific to test or need advice on.” She heads for the door herself. “Remember, don’t speak with each other about this for the rest of the day. I’ll see you all tomorrow.”


Red walks back home, notebook in one hand and gaze distant. He could have just teleported back, as some of the others did, and saved himself a five minute walk, but he’s so physically inactive these days that even short walks have some value, and he doesn’t want to get too lazy. Besides, once he gets to his room he’d just be sitting and thinking anyway.

His mind keeps wanting to shift away from useful pursuits to social worries about his relationship with Sabrina’s other students. On the one hand he knows it’s important to be able to work together, as situations like this show. And as Blue and Leaf convinced him, being respected is important if he wants his ideas to be taken seriously and spread.

But on the other, all of that feels like excuses to the simpler truth: he wants to be liked. Even Daniel, who rubs Red the wrong way, is powerful and clever, and as immature as it is to care what he thinks of Red on a personal level, he can’t help it.

Maybe it’s just because he spent months with people who he had a good relationship with, and he’s forgotten how to make friends. He tries to think of the last person who he actually had trouble getting along with for any significant amount of time besides Blue, and can’t think of any since leaving Pallet.

Is this helpful? Future Red wonders. You’re supposed to be thinking of the perfect mental shield.

Maybe it is. Maybe I’m stuck on it for good reason, and should deal with it before trying to just move on.

Red reaches the apartment building and presses his notebook against the wall of the elevator  as he rides it up to his floor, flipping to the page after the possible causes of the perfect shield.

Identify relative advantages. What do I bring to the table?

Formulate at least one hypothesis worth testing. Test it if possible.

Determine which students may be befriended. Try to do so before meeting.

Determine which gym members can be worked with. Meet them.

He reaches his floor and goes to his apartment, then sits at his desk and tries to think of something else. When a couple minutes pass without anything new, he tackles the first one.

What does he bring to the table? What’s special about him, his power, or the way he thinks?

Rei is probably at least as smart as him. Rowan is better at manipulating and creating partitions. Satori is a more experienced trainer and merger. Jason has a more unique outlook, or abilities, or whatever it is that lets certain psychics specialize with ghost pokemon. And aside from anything else, Daniel and Tatsumaki are just more experienced, which applies to the others.

What are his remaining strengths? No, first list the things that are unique, figure out what’s a strength or useful after.

His background in science. Being raised by a reporter and a ranger. His social connections with Professor Oak and Bill. His mind-state mimicking. His screwed up trauma reaction…

Red blinks. Rowan asked whether the psychic ever seemed to be at odds with themself, and Sabrina said no, so Red dismissed the idea that his alternate-mental-state-that-feels-like-a-different-person, which he calls Past Red, might be related.

But if he and Past Red were to come to an agreement, they wouldn’t be at odds anymore. Maybe the psychic that developed the perfect shield does have their own alternate-mental-state-that-feels-like-a-different-person, which acts as the buffer mind for the hidden one.

(He definitely needs to come up with another name for it, and he refuses to call it an alternate personality.)

He hasn’t spent the whole week putting off talking with Past Red. That would be lazy and childish. He’s just spent it preparing himself for the ways he might actually do it, to ensure he has a good plan. A foolproof method that wouldn’t risk him spending the rest of his day and night lying in bed depressed.

He flips to a fresh sheet of paper and starts writing.

Hey Past Red. I’m about to let the partition down. If you don’t respond to this and put it back up, I’m never purposefully doing this again. We both have something the other wants. Let’s talk.

He looks at the paper, then he lets his breath out. As he tries to think of anything else he can do to prepare, maybe a gesture of goodwill, he realizes he should summon Pikachu, and returns to his chair with the yellow mouse curled up in his lap. Finally, with a reluctance that takes a minute to overcome, he closes his eyes and starts to bring his partition down.

When Red opens his eyes again, he sighs at the silly paper in front of him. Of all the changes the partition causes in his personality when it’s up, the fact that he treats himself like a separate person is the most worrying. He doesn’t need a piece of paper to “communicate,” he can remember writing the words himself perfectly fine.

But he clearly does get pretty irrational with the partition up, and he supposes it’s a useful framing device that Dr. Seward would approve of that might help interface with that irrationality. Red scratches behind Pikachu’s ear with one hand as the other picks up the pencil.

Dear Future Red (I’m not calling you Present Red, because I’m Present Red, obviously),

You’re an idiot.

Love, Present Red

He puts the pencil down and stares at the paper for a moment, fighting the urge to just tear it up and forget this nonsense before passing on the idea as too much effort. His thoughts are already drifting to Aiko, today’s trip to the ranch having unearthed memories that drag at him. He needs to figure out the underlying reasoning behind what he did, understand if he made the right decision for the right reasons, before something like it happens again. It could happen any day, and he’s done nothing to prepare.

But if he doesn’t bring the partition back up, he’d lose future moments of clarity like this. Red grimaces at the idea of being a hostage to his own self, and lets the partition go back up.

It immediately feels like he just sucked in a breath of fresh air. He sighs it out, looking down at the paper. Past Red’s thought process is fresh on his mind; they can’t both exist at the same time, so this is a dead end path to go down. Red shakes his head, scowling at how defeatist he is with the partition down, and starts writing again.

Dear Mopey Red,

Your attitude sucks. If you

Red stops, then slowly erases what he wrote. It’s a symbolic gesture, since he’ll remember having written it anyway, but this isn’t going to work as long as they’re insulting each other.

Look. I know you feel like I’m just you on happy-pills or something, but if having most of my grief locked away is interfering with my thinking, then being flooded by it is probably interfering with yours too. I’m doing this because I can’t model you as clearly as you can model me, and because I think we can actually learn something from what’s going on with us. Even if I’m wrong, we should be working on resolving whatever this is anyway, right?

He reads it over, checking to make sure he wasn’t too rude, adds Thanks for putting the partition back up at the beginning, then brings it back down.

The transition is so abrupt this time that Red practically feels his thoughts changing, mood plummeting as his eyes scan over what he’d just written. It’s not impossible that learning more about this partition would be helpful in a number of ways, and he does need to resolve it. But how is the important part. While it’s up, he feels like he would happily just delete all these feelings if he could, or lock them away permanently, which feels like self-mutilation.

We can’t “resolve” it if you push off working on it and leave the partition up, he writes to his future self. The only reason it was brought down was because of Sabrina’s task. Don’t pretend that you’ll be motivated to bring it down voluntarily again after this is all over.

He brings the partition back up, and sighs. His past self is right. So what do you want in assurances? We should be able to find an arrangement that works.

Well first off I want you to stop treating this like a negotiation. You’re trying to barter with your own mental health.

I’m trying to make sure my mental health doesn’t put my life on hold.

That’s not how it works, and you know it. Plenty of people have already told you that this would take work. If you’re not willing to do it, then admit that to yourself.

What do you call this?

I call it bad priorities. How about you just do the right thing.

Red puts the pencil down and stares at the sheet, anger pushing through the haze of numbness and grief. Treating his changed personality like a different self feels like giving into pathology, but… Dr. Seward did suggest it. Maybe it will help him take what happened more seriously even with the partition up, if he can just convince himself that he might be ignoring a real problem he needs to fix.

Meanwhile, he should just leave the partition down as long as he can. It’s rare that it’s down this early, usually by the time he’s used enough psychic ability for it to come down he doesn’t usually have the energy to do more than just lay in bed. He could spend a few hours working out his decisions, maybe go back to Aiko’s ranch…

Red sighs, eyes closed, and rubs his face. He can’t blame his partitioned self that much, if he can barely muster the energy to confront such depressing thoughts himself. Pikachu stretches on his lap and walks over to his hand, nudging it for more scratches. He complies automatically, still thinking over what to do.

If he keeps the partition down, he’d be burning goodwill with his “other self.” And part of him is interested in figuring out what Sabrina discovered, though it’s distant.

“Whatever,” he mutters, and lets go, bringing the partition back up.

Red lets out a breath. That had been close. His gaze lingers on the words, Do the right thing, and something twists in his stomach. He remembers what it felt like, writing it. There was an undertone of bitterness and challenge, there.

“Whatever,” Red echoes, and turns the page. Time to form some hypotheses, then make some friends.

Spec Ops: The Line, and Choices

Image result for spec ops: the line

Spec Ops: The Line is an interesting game. It’s pretty short, maybe 10 hours long, with basic shooter gameplay, and it seems like it would be a very stereotypical experience. But its story is very subversive, not just for the genre, but also for the experience of gaming as a storytelling medium. If you haven’t played it yet, I’ll try to keep things spoiler free.

The basic gist is that you’re a special operative sent into Dubai in a near-future scenario where massive dust storms have pretty much destroyed the city, looking for survivors. A couple different factions are fighting, and you and your men get caught up in the middle of everything, trying your best to evacuate the civilians at first, then just to survive.

As I played through it, at first I was a little irritated that the game wasn’t letting me make choices that I knew should have been made by the characters and then blamed me for making those “choices.” This is deliberate: the loading screen text addresses you, the player, for what your character has done. I thought it would be interesting if they let you make other, better choices too, even if the game just ends when you do. Like you can have the “happy” ending by just cutting the experience short, even right after the very first part of the game before anything really bad happens.

But then I read an interview with the creator where he mentions that they actually thought of that, but chose not to do it because they wanted to draw players in through that sense of “maybe if I keep going things will get better” that is so common in real life. They didn’t want it to be that easy for the player, where they would have immediate confirmation that they made the “right” choice. The way to stop things from getting worse in the game is to just… stop playing. Put the controller down. Walk away. Which is so counter-intuitive to what it means to play a game that I think it really drives the point home, and took a lot of guts from the development team.

Usually when creators talks about how they wanted to set an experience that deliberately invokes anger from the player toward the creator, it comes off as just a cheap gimmick or excuse for laziness. In this game, I believe it, and it has made me re-evaluate other things I get angry at in games. Something fairly infamous in games is where they give you dialogue choices, and when you select one what your character says is something far more extreme than what was written. And you go “Well what the fuck, that’s not what I wanted to say!” But that’s life sometimes. You sometimes say things you don’t intend. Things come out wrong. What sounds reasonable in your head gets corrupted by emotions or poor communication skills.

Spec Ops game developers created a game where “winning” has consequences that the player does not intend, which reflects reality. Having objectives that you feel are right and justified, only to regret them later… where you make one decision after another, each which seems reasonable, but look back and realize you should have stopped a long time ago… that happens in real life all the time. Particularly to those who go to war.

If you feel like a game is ever “making” you do do things that you don’t want to do, it can actually be a great moment to empathize with people in situations where they feel pressured to do things for reasons far stronger than just wanting to see how a game ends. It’s the kind of experience that’s very unique to the storytelling medium of video games.

Trauma

There’s a danger mode that society has been engaging in for years (decades/centuries/millenia?) that simply denied trauma. It was ignorant of trauma, or acted as if it didn’t exist, or verbally repudiated it. People were expected to tough out bad things that happened to them. Men especially were not allowed to express it, except (eventually) if it occurred as the result of war.

The pendulum has swung somewhat, and I hear rumblings of worry about whether we’re treating trauma too seriously. If we’re over-correcting and making things out to be more traumatic than they “really are,” and to what degree trauma is the result of people being told that something that happens to them is “traumatic” or is made a big deal of. This second failure mode concerning trauma is the worry that someone will fall off their bike, scrape their knee, and be taken to the hospital amidst parental tears and shock, thus cementing a lifelong fear of bikes or intolerance of pain.

While I think this second failure mode is probably true for things like how offended or outraged people get by things, I don’t think it’s in our sight-lines just yet for “actual trauma.” Over protective parents are a thing, always have been. If a kid falls off their bike, they are much more likely to cry if their parent freaks out. And yes, to some degree how society treats a thing will inform how people react to it. There are some people who are sexually molested or emotionally abused and essentially move on from it without ever telling anyone, or seeking professional help. This is particularly something you’ll hear from people who are older, and grew up before modern perspectives on trauma or awareness of abuse or rape was as prevalent as it is. There’s a fairly famous older man who got in some hot water for saying something like “Well, I was raped a number of times at the male boarding school I went to, and it sucked, but that was just a thing that happened. The older boys would do that often to the younger ones. It wasn’t the end of the world.”

People will look at accounts like this and be somewhat reinforced in believing that the response to traumatic events is moderately, or even largely, to blame for how traumatic it is.

But the thing to remember about trauma is that by its nature it is anti-correlated to reports and disclosures. You will hear more from the people who recovered from traumatic events or were not traumatized by bad events more often than you will those who were. This is axiomatic to what it even means to be traumatized by something vs not.

On top of the other points, like how no two situations are alike, and no two people are alike, and so making a general rule out of anecdotes is dangerous, it’s also hard to think of people who are actually traumatized by the response to a thing versus the thing itself. My experience is that Eddie Kaspbraks are really, really rare in real life, even in less stereotypical, absolute incarnations.

What I do run across instead, and quite often, are stereotypical incarnations of people who have spent years, if not decades, bottling up their trauma and appearing to all observers, even close observers, as if they’re okay, or as if the behaviors that they have that are harmful to themselves or others are just the result of who they are, and not what they’ve gone through, until something comes out and sheds light on dark machinery. Part of that just comes with the territory of my field of work, but even outside of it, that seems to be far more common than the inverse situation.

And when people who go through events others might call traumatizing, but who were not traumatized by it by some combination of factors that are so far unknown, see such people, I worry that their conclusion will be that this is proof that trauma is the result of low willpower or resilience or “grit” or whatever.

The pendulum may well be swinging toward society being too sensitive to traumatic fears and causing more harm than it’s preventing in highlighting bad experiences as “traumatic.” But so far I don’t know that I’ve seen enough evidence to conclude that for sure, and I hope we get better metrics and tools to determine if that’s in fact what’s happening before we start encouraging a narrative that might make those who suffer from trauma feel in some way as if it’s “all in their head,” like society used to.

On the Same Side

Sometimes I think about people, particularly those I disagree with strongly, in a sense of “but would they be on my side, ultimately?” The group of people likely to fight with me on something gets smaller as it goes higher on the list, but usually includes everything below it.

(I’m trying to keep these strictly life or death, or else there’s a ton that can go between them, every cause or injustice in the world that people are mostly like “yeah this sucks we should donate to it” but not “this is so bad would spend my life to end it or die trying”)

Quest to End Death

[Some more stuff probably goes here]

US Civil War II (Electric Boogaloo)

Widescale Terrorist Attack

Zombie/Post-Apocalypse Survival

Time Traveling Nazis (who are bad at using time travel)

Super Happy Alien Invasion

Mindless Evil Alien Invasion

Orson Scott Card

Here are three sentences:

Orson Scott Card is a hateful bigot.

Orson Scott Card has bigoted religious beliefs.

Orson Scott Card has aligned himself with bigots.

To some people, they are all different ways of saying the same thing, or just plain indistinguishable, particularly with an eye to consequences. To others, there is an important distinction about each; not just what they say about the shape of the beliefs themselves, their bedrock, but about the man himself, his epistemology and his values.

OSC is easily in the top 3 most influential writers in my life. Not just in regards to my love of reading or writing, in my life. I first read Ender’s Game when I was 12 and cried at the end of the very first chapter. I cried again at the end of the second. This probably says more about me and my life than the book, but the series as a whole has been powerfully moving and inspiring and motivating for me. I identified with Ender, but after I read Speaker for the Dead, I wanted to be one, an essentially made up profession, embodied by his older self. I would often ask myself “What Would Andrew Do?” and would get back answers that made me a kinder and braver and better person.

I first started looking into his beliefs about a decade ago, confused by the stilted and poorly written political commentary underlying Empire. I was shocked and heartbroken, and only read about a dozen articles and blog posts he’d written on various topics before I turned away from what seemed to be either the onset of dementia or a sad example of how people can calcify with old age. That may seem like a lot, but it’s not my usual deep dive into someone I really want to understand the perspective of with the goal of feeling I can reliably predict their stance on common topics. I gave up before then because, frankly, seeing a hero spout such toxic shit (not just about homosexuality) was painful.

I did the deep dive much more recently after being told that he was a respectable conservative thinker, and sadly, I can’t even give him that. But are any of those statements at the top true?

First, let’s define bigotry. For the purposes of this post, I’ll say “false beliefs about a specific demographic that knowingly disadvantage or cause harm to that demographic.”

To be clear, Card has said many times that he believes homosexuals deserve compassion and respect and safety. I have yet to hear him say anything clearly hateful toward gay individuals or people.

But Card has also said that gay sex is sinful and that not just gay marriage but sex should remain illegal, if for nothing else than to strike fear into the hearts of those who might practice it openly and thus “shake the confidence” of the community in its ability to police harmful behaviors. He has pushed the frame that homosexuality is more environmental than genetic, and linked its origins for many to “seduction,” molestation, and rape. He asserted that children need a mother and father rather than two of one, and has even said, as recently as 2008 after judges began ruling gay marriage bans unconstitutional, “How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.”

(No, none of that is made better by context or his justifications. It’s fairly easy to read his own words if you want to find them, and to me the words are clear. If we start to argue that he was being hyperbolic or hypothetical, we’ve stopped arguing about what he actually said and started arguing about what we want him to have meant by his words, and I don’t think that’s a productive line of discussion for someone who is clearly intelligent and articulate, and an accomplished writer who should know better than to be careless with language so repeatedly and in such a consistent pattern.)

((See also, Jordan Peterson))

This presents a seemingly intractable contradiction; how can someone who writes such intelligent and compassionate characters feel so fanatically about something so harmless?

I do not use that word lightly: it is one thing to say that you disagree with gay marriage, it is another to publicly state your position, and then it is yet another entirely to go to the lengths Card has gone to crusade against it. Card is, from a policy perspective, an anti-gay fanatic, shy of actually enacting the violence he insinuated multiple times was justified to “protect families.”

I put that in quotes, by the way, not because I don’t believe that OSC honestly believes that. I know it’s a justification that makes sense in his head. But I don’t think it changes much; if you’ve spoken with bigots at all, they always have justifications for bigotry. It does not transmute “false beliefs about a specific demographic that knowingly disadvantage or cause harm to that demographic” into something else.

Regardless of what he purports to believe about the sinner, he has spent more time and energy fighting this sin specifically than any other I could find save perhaps for Islamic terrorism after 9/11.

That, to me, is indicative of something more than someone holding an honest religious belief and advocating for it. There are, after all, others sins: Card planted his flag on this one, drew a slew of criticism and appeals to his better nature, and kept planting more flags, insisting all the while that he was being maligned and misunderstood.

(Which to some degree he was, but I don’t respect people who only engage with the worst of their critics, and his attitude has repeatedly been one I would characterize as self-righteous bitterness, in much the same way a lot of modern “Intellectual Dark Web” members talk about the “Intolerant Left.” Example: “Faggot” and “Homophobe” are “exactly analogous,” according to Card, and thus anyone who decries one and uses the other is apparently a hypocrite. This by the way is from an article that’s probably Card’s most liberal explanation of his views. Again, context does not help)

So: Why do that? Why accept the role of “villain” to so many without batting an eye? More to the point, why do it specifically to fight homosexuality?

The easy answer is religion, of course. Card would be far from the first bright mind whose rationality seems bizarrely warped by his sincere and unshakable faith, and further, bent to its service. CS Lewis wasn’t just a fiction writer but a prolific Evangelical apologetic who was capable of accepting evolution as a scientific theory, and truly understood what that meant, decades before the Catholic Church could manage to, but still drew a similar line at its implications for human origins. Card has expressed other bizarre beliefs that show a similar warping root, such as his insistence that the Book of Mormon is vanishingly unlikely to be a work of fiction, not by historic or archaeological evidence (fun fact: Card studied archaeology before he gave it up for being “hard work”), but by simple analysis of the text from the lens of one who also writes science fiction.

It’s important to highlight at this point that Card is not what I would consider a particularly rational person. Intelligent, certainly. And he does an amazing job of writing intelligent and rational character in stories.

But the magnitude of the mistake that Card makes in deciding that Mormonism is likely true because he can’t imagine that someone could write the Book of Mormon, structurally and stylistically and in richness of content, as a hoax… is so irrational I would call it hostile to rationality. It’s turning 180 degrees away from not just evidence, but reason as basic as Occam’s Razor and as complex as Bayesian Probability, to bend reality around what he wants to be true.

He shows similar irrationality with things like Anthropogenic Climate Change as recently as 2007, demonstrating not just stark ignorance of the scientific mechanisms and decades of research, but that he takes his news about those he disagrees with by their political enemies: his points were not original, but canned and labeled by conservative pundits and anti-global warming “news” sites. He showed a way of thinking that makes it clear that his epistemology is not grounded in truth seeking, but political considerations. He does not see those sounding the alarm over ACC as honestly mistaken: he sees them as conniving and dishonestly motivated, and writes a narrative that appeases that outcome rather than one that fits the facts or context or history.

So while religion is a tempting answer to Card’s efforts to bend reason over backwards to justify beliefs that primarily disadvantage homosexuals, there are plenty of Mormons and ex-Mormons who rejected such things, and it just doesn’t seem sufficient to answer the question of whether Card is a bigot, or just holds bigoted religious beliefs, or is just pinching his nose while standing aligned with bigots for the sake of strong personal conviction of what’s True and Right.

Still, if you truly believe that your faith is right and you want to act out its tenets, and that those others of your faith who disagree are just misled or hypocritical, then the Good and Brave thing to do is plant your feet and tell the world “No, you move.

Right?

Weeell…

There’s another problem with blaming his religion. I’ve been saying bigotry all this time, both because “homophobic” has other connotations, and I don’t think this question can only be applied to homosexuality, sadly.

Mormonism is historically an explicitly racist religion which barred African Americans from full participation until 1978 (when Card was 27), which is about when God apparently realized that being tax-exempt might be more important than preventing interracial marriage or black priests.

And I can’t for the life of me find where Card came out against that, or talked about the church’s racist views. If someone can find an article on it, please send it to me: it could be a crux for this next part.

Because remember, that’s his justification for being against homosexuality: you “can’t serve two masters.” If God says X, you don’t try to insist that it’s genetic or that the law of the land says it’s okay, you either accept God’s word or you don’t.

So what were Card’s views on black Mormons? What are they now? Because gay marriage is legal now, but in a world where tax-exempt status for religions relied on willingness to perform gay marriages, I wonder if he would accept God’s about-face.

The world may never know. But I surely wonder, because Card’s views on Obama’s presidency reek of a similar and startling fervency to his crusade against gay marriage that makes me uneasy.

I should note first that I find accusations that any criticism of Obama are racist to be tiring and dangerous. There’s a lot you could criticize Obama for: expansion of the spy state, excessive use of drone strikes, not protecting whistleblowers, failing in his promise of transparency, too many executive orders, unwillingness to compromise with Republicans (if you’re conservative), attempting to compromise too much (if you’re liberal), and so on.

But I know racists who criticize Obama, and I know people-I-have-no-reason-to-believe-are-racist who criticize Obama, and there’s a pattern I’ve noticed in the former. While Card doesn’t quite fit that pattern, and breaks from it entirely in some places, he made one that seems to run parallel to it in other places.

In 2012, Card made the rare step of admitting that a politician he disagreed with as fervently as possible, Obama, is a better person than the one whose policies he supported, Gingrich. That’s ridiculously uncommon. He also claimed in 2008 that he voted for Obama in the Primary, though ultimately he ended up supporting McCain because Obama was seen as soft on Islamic Extremism (a view Card continued to hold even after Bin Laden was killed) and his fear of “dictator-judges.”

And then he wrote Unlikely Events, where, in regards to foreign policy, Obama is called “the dumbest president in history” not 5 years after Bush left office. You know, the guy who started the worst military blunder since the Vietnam war with no exit plan and caused massive instability in the region. No, it’s not better that Card named white guys who have never held office as runnerups; somehow it’s still America’s first black president who has that honor.

Do I think he would have said that if Obama wasn’t black?

Do I think he would say that “Obama is, by character and preference, a dictator” if Obama wasn’t black?

Do I think he would “imagine” (all in good fun, of course, haha, it’s just me Card the kooky science fiction writer imagining things that definitely won’t happen the way we science fiction writers do) Obama turning “young out-of-work urban men” into a national police force to maintain his dictatorship if Obama wasn’t black?

Or that he would say “Having been anointed from the start of his career because he was that magical combination — a black man who talks like a white man (that’s what they mean by calling him “articulate” and a “great speaker”) — he has never had to work for a living, and he has never had to struggle to accomplish goals. He despises ordinary people, is hostile to any religion that doesn’t have Obama as its deity, and his contempt for the military is complete.” if not?

…I really don’t think he would. That level of unhinged-from-reality means those false beliefs have to come from somewhere, and maybe he’s just really, really bad at filtering truth from lies and misinformation, like with ACC, and so if Obama was white the general criticism of Obama would be less unhinged and the pundits Card follows and their views of his policies would be less divorced from reality. But also maybe it’s easier for him not to filter unflattering lies about Obama than Bush for some reason.

(Counter-evidence: Card has, thankfully, been a steady critic of Trump, calling him dictatorial as well. But as far as I know, he has not apologized for or amended his views of Obama in light of what the real deal looks like.)

Part of me is asking myself right now, “Hey now, despite insisting he’s a Democrat, he very clearly holds a lot of conservative views. Isn’t extreme and undeserved hatred of Obama just part of standard conservative dogma?”

And another part of me responds, “Yes. And your point is?”

My mom is a racist. I love her, but she is. She’s not often a hateful racist. She has minority friends. I’m pretty sure she voted for Obama.

But she’s still a racist who believes certain ethnicities are intrinsically better or worse at certain things, who is quicker to attribute negative features to someone’s race if they’re not white, and who holds all sorts of prejudices both big and small. It’s a sad cultural feature of many in her generation, and seems even more prevalent for those who are even older… like Card is.
So, just on priors, what are the odds that Card avoided that cultural and generational feature? Would 50% be fair? Just from my observations of my parents’ generation, way too generous. 20% feels closer to right, and still may be generous.

All I know is that his attitude toward Obama, which is wildly out of scope in its criticism compared to the reality of what Obama’s presidency entailed (like most conservatives), strikes me as suspicious in the same way as when my mom told me I couldn’t sleep over my black neighbor’s house when I was 8 because he “lives too far” struck me as suspicious, given that “too far” in this case was a walk of less than a minute within the same gated community.

She was always friendly to him when he was around. I genuinely think she held no hate in her heart toward him. That didn’t change the fact that her perspective is racist, the same way her blatant preference for white residents years later while on the HOA for the community was racist.

So. Do I really think the man who wrote Alvin Maker is a racist? The man who wrote Magic Street?

I don’t think so. Not by most definitions of that word. Again, he has not said anything explicitly racist, and has written against the evils of racism. But there are suspicious underlying failures in thinking, which can collectively be called prejudices, that I can’t ignore. He doesn’t do well based on priors, and together with the way he pattern matches onto people I know who have stronger-than-average prejudice, the underlying irrationality that Card has shown himself more than capable of can include racism.

Alright, let’s look at these again.

Is Card a hateful bigot?

Insofar as that word denotes hatred or disgust, I don’t think so. Being so vociferously anti-gay marriage, like being disproportionately inclined to think the worst of Obama, is mild evidence for hatred or disgust, but not strong evidence.

Does Card hold bigoted religious beliefs?

Undoubtedly. Justifications do not excuse bigotry; the fact that his honest faith tells him that homosexuality is a sin does not absolve him of responsibility for the actions of that belief. Someone who shoots an abortion doctor is still a murderer, no matter how good their intentions or true their belief. Just so, someone who argues for inequality on religious grounds is still espousing bigotry.

Does Card align himself with bigots?

In many ways, yes. He fought the same fight with the same goals. He argued against hatred or violence, but he still worked to deprive gay men and women of equal rights, and stayed in and supported the Mormon church for years despite its racism.

To someone who faces oppression, these questions are academic at best and disingenuous at worst. I understand that from the person getting hit, the intentions don’t matter. I don’t say “most Trump supporters are racist” because I don’t think it’s true, but I don’t nitpick friends who say it because “most Trump supporters don’t care sufficiently about racism to let it influence their vote” looks and feels close enough.

But I think it’s important to note that, while hatred is about values, prejudice is ultimately built on poor thinking. One can be solved by education, another can’t.

Unless, of course, the value of Truth is too low on the hierarchy. There’s a chance that Truth just doesn’t matter overly much to Card. He has too many beliefs that come not just from the land of ignorance but of falsehood. When that includes religion and poorly fact-checked conservative websites, neither of which are particularly known for their tolerance or promotion of real equality, again, it seems hard to care about the difference.

Card is not, ultimately, a simple person who can easily be put into a box. I don’t think he’s an evil person. I think he’s genuinely disgusted by overt or even covert bigotry, and insofar as he was cheering on homophobes fighting gay marriage, he did it with a fervent wish that they would be more compassionate and kind. In my list of grand alliances, I think he ends up pretty high.

But at the end of the day, when I think of what’s more appropriate for a situation, conflict theory vs mistake theory, what I tend to think of is how tractable the disagreement is, and what the consequences of someone’s beliefs and actions are.

For conflict vs mistake theory, Card does not seem simply mistaken. He doesn’t act like he seeks Truth. He acts as though he is fighting a war, to preserve Mormonism, Americanism, Life, Liberty, etc… but sort of in that order? Where each value is colored by the one preceding it, and I can see him holding evidence in his hand that Mormonism was made up or that ACC is true or that Bush lied about WMDs and just tossing it in the trash.

And for consequences, at the end of the day, giving him as much agency as I want others to give me, Card has now spent decades seeing his words hurt people he insisted he held no animosity toward, for no reason and to no gain other than the strength of his conviction and faith… and he stayed the course until the bitter end, moderating his language only when his side lost. He could have put in the hard effort of looking his belief in the eyes and judging, as a being of reason, whether it was justified or just caused pain. He could have “evolved” on homosexuality as many do, like Obama ostensibly did. He chose not to.

I don’t respect that. More importantly, I don’t think it’s what Andrew would have done.

My feelings for Card used to be complicated. Now they’re just a little sad and a lot disappointed. Maybe someday before he dies he’ll recognize his mistakes and not go down in history with such a tarnished legacy. I hope so.

But thankfully, art and man are separate. Thankfully, truth doesn’t belong in a person, and someone can stumble onto it even when a little lost. I can look at the wisdom of many of his books and characters and draw from them, without being bothered by the contradictions and irrationality, if maybe not quite bigotry, in the man himself.

Chapter 68: Internal Family Systems

Pallet Town hasn’t changed in four months. Or at least, not that Red can tell just by biking through it.

Maybe some store has closed and been replaced, or some new homes have gone up. If so, they’re not in his line of sight as he bikes down the main street. The illusion of its stability is only broken by his knowledge that his home is being inhabited by strangers and that Pallet Labs, gleaming in the distance above the town’s skyline, lacks its professor.

But the relative quiet is the same, and is particularly soothing after a month in Saffron City. As is the smell of the ocean on the wind, and the distant sound of wingull crying into the open blue skies.

He reaches his destination and packs his bike and pads away, then goes inside, feeling like he’s stepping back in time. It’s only been four months since he was in Pallet Town, but he hasn’t been to Dr. Seward’s office in years. The waiting room hasn’t changed since he was last here, though the office itself has. The carpet is the same dark green, but there’s a new couch, and the paintings have changed.

Dr. Seward herself is apparently unchanged, however, and her smile is warm as he sits down. “Hello, Red. Glad you could finally make it in person.”

“Me too.” He sinks into the couch and is gratified by how comfortable it is. He’s a little sweaty from the ride, or else he’d lie down.

“You can lie down, if you want.”

Red immediately reinforces his shield, then blinks at her, and smiles. “You know, I’ve been living in a building full of psychics for a month now, and I’ve nearly forgotten how effective simple deduction can be.”

Her eyes glint merrily. “Well, I’m happy to remind you how effective simple observations can be. Plus you always did enjoy lying down. Despite the stereotype, you were my only client young enough to actually do it.”

Red grins, and decides to follow her suggestion. He lets his shoes dangle over the side of the couch and uses the pillows to give his head something to rest against.

“Better?”

“Yeah.” He lets out a breath, feeling himself relax as he stares at the ceiling, her face still in his periphery. After a moment he thinks of the attention he’s still keeping automatically to maintaining his shield. “Do you mind if I bring my mental shield down too?”

“Why would I mind that?”

“I sort of detect minds by reflex, now. It takes concentration not to.”

“Ah.” His therapist considers that. “It’s just the detection of a mind? Not a way to identify people or read thoughts?”

Red hesitates, considering it. “Well, I can’t identify people just by detecting their mind, no. But if I ever detect the same mind elsewhere, I might recognize the feel of it.”

“Might? How reliable is that?”

“The more time I spend with them, the more reliable it is. Ummm…” He thinks back to past experiences. “A couple hours would help me identify someone with something like… 80% accuracy, if I focus on their mental signature?”

“Hmmm.” She taps her fingers on her desk. “You’ll only be here for an hour, so I suppose that’s alright. And thoughts?”

“What? Oh, no. Surface impressions only.”

“Meaning?”

Red shifts, considering an example. “Again, familiarity helps a lot, but eventually I’d be able to recognize if someone is happy or sad or angry with enough exposure. I’m not good enough to tell for total strangers right away.”

Dr. Seward nods. “Alright, I don’t think that would violate any privacy. Go ahead.”

“Thanks.” Red lets his shield relax, and is immediately aware of the minds around him. Dr. Seward’s, two people in the room his feet are pointing at, a handful scattered below and above them, and a couple more moving outside around the building.

“So, how has your visit been so far?”

“Good. This is only my second stop, then I’m heading back.”

“Ah. The lab was the other, I take it? Good to see familiar faces?”

“Yeah.” He doesn’t want to talk about how empty it seemed without the Professor, then remembers where he is and lets a breath out. “Missed one, though.”

She nods, and Red notices her mind shift in a way that he finds easy to interpret as concern. “How’s Sam doing? Have you seen him recently?”

“Not since last week. But Daisy says he’s doing better. Walking again, with some help.” Red’s stomach twists briefly at the memory of the Professor lying in the hospital bed. He’s still there at the doctor’s orders instead of at home, because they knew if he was discharged he wouldn’t rest.

“Glad to hear it.” Dr. Seward watches him a moment, and something in her bearing changes. “So. Our first session since the attack on Vermilion, and you wanted it to be in person. I can’t really imagine what you went through, but I’ve been worried about you.”

Red nods, gaze down. “I appreciate it. I just… wasn’t really up to talking about anything, yet.”

“I understand. I’m sure there are a dozen things we could spend the session processing or working on, and I don’t blame you for needing time to process a lot of it on your own.”

Red thinks of that night. The fear from the Pressure and the fights, the grief and frustration over those they couldn’t save, and of course the guilt about not being able to stop Aiko. And the days and nights leading up to it, on the cruise with Leaf. And the aftermath, with her and Blue. “A couple dozen, yeah,” he says as he focuses on his breathing until the twisted knot of pain and anger and sadness and regret slowly fade.

She nods. “How’s the survivor’s guilt?” She says it so matter of factly, and he knows that it must be the most common thing for people who’ve been through a Tier 3 incident.

“Not as bad as it could be, all things considered.”

“Nightmares?”

“Very few, actually.”

“Good. Are you missing Blue and Leaf?”

Anger flashes through him, but also regret, and not just about Leaf. “Some. But there’s nothing I can do about that.” He’d shared basic details of the attack’s aftermath over email, but it was sparse on detail and didn’t include his feelings for Leaf.

“Nothing?”

“We’re all where we need to be, right now. Leaf’s at the Sakai ranch, helping Aiko’s dad and working on a project.” A project she won’t talk about, for some reason, and there’s pain with that thought too.

“And Blue?”

They haven’t spoken since after the funeral, and the only plus side to the “conversation” was Leaf has since stopped trying to get them to talk. At this point, the only thing he wants to hear from Blue is an apology. “Doing gym stuff.”

“I see.” Her mental impression shifts again, though Red lacks the context to understand how. Her face just keeps radiating patient concern. “Not to press too much, but even if it seems like things can’t get better, you might just be too close to the situation to see how. Or maybe just processing how you feel about it can help.”

Red sighs and closes his eyes. “Maybe. I get that there’s probably something to unpack in all that, but like I said, we’re all where we need to be right now. And honestly, there’s something more important on my mind.”

“Ah. By all means, then, what can I help you with?”

“My psychic apprenticeship. There are seven of us right now, and Leader Sabrina is a big believer in the idea that people learn best through teaching. So all her students spend most of our time giving lessons to each other or gym members.”

“Not exactly what you expected, I take it?”

Red smiles. “I don’t mind that part, actually. I like teaching. But because we’re all at such different levels and have different specialties, and her time is so limited, she decides on individual lessons based on our progress to make sure she’s not going to just be teaching something that someone else can.”

“Ah. I think I see. You haven’t been getting many private lessons from her?”

“Only one, so far,” Red says, voice glum. “There’s always at least another more advanced student around, which means the focus is rarely on what I’m interested in most. I’m learning a lot more control and finesse, and a few new techniques, but mostly I want help improving my connection with pokemon. I decided to practice fully inhabiting every psychic pokemon I can get my hands on to better understand the different psychic experiences, but I’m a long way from the seamless merge that Sabrina can do with her pokemon. I know it’s only been a month, but I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon at this rate.”

Dr. Seward leans back in her seat. “So you need to impress her. Not just once, I’m guessing, but enough to let her know it’s worthwhile to teach you more individually, and more often.”

“Yeah, and the main thing that’s holding me back so far is that I can only spend so much time practicing before the grief shows up. So that’s what I want to focus on.”

His therapist stares at him a moment. “Can I ask, how that feels, internally?”

“How what feels?”

“That decision process, of wanting to deal with your grief because it’s getting in the way of an ambition.”

Red shrugs. “It’s… it just feels—”

“Wait. Not off the cuff. Give it a minute. Really look.”

“Right.” He breathes in and closes his eyes. At first it feels like nothing in particular, but when he imagines things from her perspective, and he recognizes her concern; it’s a bit of a cold-blooded reason to want to get over grief.

But isn’t that right? To want to get over grief as quickly as you can? It’s not like he’s trying to get rid of memories of Aiko or his dad (he knows how to do that, now, though not with much skill yet), he just wants to get over the pain of it. “It just feels pragmatic. I know I don’t have the willpower to just… open myself up to dealing with it for its own sake. The world won’t stop for me. I learned that after Dad. So it’s not an intrinsic motivation, but if I need to get it done anyway, an extrinsic motivation will have to do.”

Dr. Seward nods slowly. “Understandable. But I do remember you mentioning that you’re worried about the way so many psychics seem to be socially hard to interact with. How worried are you that you might become more like that, now that you’ll be entrenched in that life and culture?”

Red had noticed it a few times since he moved to Saffron, but he hadn’t thought of how it might affect him for a while. “Well, I guess I’m worried about it now. Is that something you can keep an eye out for?”

“I’m happy to share observations if any come to mind, but we don’t interact in a day to day setting. Do you think you can ask someone else you see more often?”

“…You mean like the other psychics I’m trying not to become like?”

“Hm. I didn’t realize that would be everyone you interact with. Maybe Leaf?”

Red shifts. Hey Leaf, let me know if I’m acting too cold and aloof, but not because of all the awkwardness about Aiko dying or you siding with Blue. “Sure.”

Her brow rises. “And will you?”

Red sighs, smiling. “Yeah, I will. Promise.”

“Good. Alright, then. Why don’t we start by clarifying how the grief has changed, since your friend died.”

Red shifts, smile fading. The pain of thinking about Aiko in the past tense is a muted thing, both for the month that passed and his partition, but it still makes it hard to think clearly for a moment. He remembers being here after his dad died and having to struggle to even speak through the weight in his chest, the grey curtain dividing him from the world. “I had a dream last week.”

“You don’t normally mention dreams. I assume it’s relevant?”

“I think it might be, yeah…”


Ten minutes.”

A long table in an empty white room, its wood top bare of covers or sheets, its chairs simple and abstract.

To the left sat Red. His hair was wet, clothes dirty and torn. An extra pokebelt hung loose around his stomach, some balls missing from both. His gaze was long, though it ended at the tabletop just in front of him.

Across from him sat Red, looking a few years older and wearing a white lab coat. He looked frustrated, and his leg bounced with nervous energy beneath the table as his arms stayed rigidly locked across his chest.

Between them sat Red, looking more or less as his current self, attention on Past Red.

Ten minutes?”

That’s about how long Aiko kept the Second waiting. About how long his people were in the hospital before we got there. If we were with them, would we have made the same decision 10 minutes earlier?”

We can’t know the answer to that,” Future Red said. “And we shouldn’t even be talking about this to avoid projection or anchoring bias.”

Red shook his head, trying to avoid a fight that he can sense coming. “No one’s asking you to precommit to anything.”

You don’t have to ask me to do it, but I’ll still feel pressured to if we decide ahead of time that we should be more heroic because we’re guilty about Aiko.”

Aren’t we?” Past Red asked, looking up at the other two.

I don’t think so,” Present Red said.

I don’t think so,” Future Red said, more confidently. “But that might change, and if it does I’ll worry about that. Until then, don’t make decisions that might limit my ability to accurately assess a situation.”

You don’t know that you’re able to accurately assess a situation now,” Past Red insisted. “As long as the partition is up, you’re just a faulty model of our future self, and if you assume it’s going to stay up then you’re self-sabotaging.”

Future Red rolled his eyes. “All I care about is what’s best for us long term. If you want to bring down the partition and drown us in misery, if you think that’s what we need to do, then do it, and I’ll change. But you might not like what I turn into.”

We all want what’s best for you,” Red said, holding a hand up toward both of them. “But I don’t want to be drowned in misery, right now. Working with Sabrina is too rare an opportunity to risk to depression. What other suggestions do you have?”

Past Red shrugged, looking too tired to put up much of a fight. “I can only tell you what has and hasn’t worked. Keeping everything locked away wasn’t our choice, but it seemed to work out okay… unless it didn’t. If Blue is right, then we made the decision not to go in because we were scared of dying. Yes, it turned out we were right not to go in that time. But we’re not architects, or firefighters. We didn’t draw on any expertise when we made that decision, that it was too dangerous. Just an intuition, a gut feeling that said it was too dangerous, or it was just tired of rolling the dice after putting ourselves in danger too much already.”

This is backwards,” Future Red said. “You’re supposed to be the conservative one, the one that sticks to what works. Why are you second-guessing what kept us alive?”

Past Red shook his head. “I’m the one that cares what lessons we learned. I’m the one that cares that what I went through wasn’t for nothing, that the best comes from it, so that you each will know the same when it’s your time to be me. Would we have gone in when it was less hopeless?”

Yes,” Present Red said, looking uncertain.

Yes,” Future Red said, and frowned. “I’m only saying that because it’s what we hope is true, given that this worked out well for us. If it hadn’t, I would be saying the opposite… if I was around to say anything at all.”

And if it didn’t work out well in another way?” Past Red asked, looking between them. “What if Blue is right in another way? What if no one trusts us in any life or death situations any more?”

Do we want them to?” Future Red asked, sounding genuinely curious. “Is that something we still want?” A pokebelt appeared around his waist, then disappeared, then reappeared.

“The journey was fun.” Past Red sighed. “But…”

“We can help others in other ways,” Red said. “At least…”

“Until we have more to offer,” Future Red finished, and the belt disappeared. “Something more unique. So stop fixating on what Blue said, and on what happened to Aiko.”

And what about Leaf?” Past Red asked. “Do we still care about what she thinks of us?”

Yes,” Red and Future Red said together.

Then shouldn’t we make sure what we did was right?”

Future Red shakes his head. “Or we find a better way to convince her it was.”

Which we can’t do,” Red said, and closed his eyes. “Not as long as we’re not sure ourselves.”


The office is silent a moment as Red finishes recounting the dream. He shifts on the couch, turning a little as to get a better look at Dr. Seward’s reaction.

“Yes, I can see why that might be a clue of sorts,” she says at last, face thoughtful.

“I paraphrased a lot of it,” Red adds. “But it was very coherent, for a dream, and hasn’t been fading like most.”

“Was it lucid?”

“Partially? No control, just… awareness that I was seeing something unreal.”

“I see. Earlier you said the survivor’s guilt wasn’t as bad as it could be, but that sounds like some part of you internalized Blue blaming you.”

“It’s less about guilt for surviving, more about… the decision process itself. But I don’t feel that way now, it’s only when the partition is down that Past Red is more in control.”

Dr. Seward blinks. “Was that a poetic use of language, or…”

Red sighs. “Not really.”

“Then I think it’s time you explain how your partition works, exactly.”

Red nods and shifts so he can take his notebook out, then begins reading from his notes. “Okay, so first basic assumption is that all thoughts and emotions are just certain neurons activating in certain orders, right? Different sequences and patterns of neurons correspond to certain memories or experiences, so you basically have a ‘map’ of neurons that have to do with a strong memory, and it lights up again each time you think of that memory, and another map for, like, the way you feel when you listen to a certain song.” Red grows more animated as he talks, and shifts on the couch so his neck is more comfortable. “Basically the partition seems to keep certain maps or patterns from firing, but preserves them.”

Dr. Seward is frowning slightly. “Can this be mapped by fMRI or EEG?”

Red smiles. There’s more than one reason he likes Dr. Seward. “Yeah, that’s something I checked just a couple days ago.”

Dr. Seward makes a humming noise, then simply says, “That’s pretty wild.”

He grins. “I know, right? So to use a metaphor, picture your thoughts like a river.”

“This seems familiar,” she says with a wry smile. “Sorry, I’ll stop interrupting. River, done.”

“The main channel is most of what you think and feel day to day, right? It’s what has the most current and carries you in it like a fish. There are streams that feed the river from ‘outside,’ so if you think of something new or are made aware of something it can shift the river’s flow. A partition was like a dam, holding part of the river in check. When it leaked or burst from me using my powers, it altered the whole current.”

“I think I understand. But you’re speaking in past tense?”

“Well, yeah, that’s how it used to be. Now it feels like there’s a separate me behind that partition, and when it weakens enough, he takes over.”

If Dr. Seward is surprised, it doesn’t show on her face or mental impression. He wonders if that’s a trained therapist thing, or just part of the personality type that drew her to the profession. “So you’re really being literal, when you describe it that way.”

Red shrugs. “Like 70%, rounding down to adjust for overconfidence? It really does feel like I become someone else, not just me-but-sad. I have thoughts I don’t normally have, make decisions that I wouldn’t normally make, think about the future totally differently…” Dr. Seward’s lips purse a moment, and he remembers it as her way of hiding a smile, or trying to think of a way to phrase something. “Yes, I know that sounds like the sorts of things that applies to most people when they get sad, but trust me, it’s different.”

“I have no reason to distrust you,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean I understand what you mean, when you say different. To an outside observer, how would they be able to tell it was different?”

Red considers that a moment, then shrugs, embarrassed. “I guess I would be crying more.”

“Well, that sounds…” She stops herself. “I’m sorry, I was about to say that sounds like an improvement. But it probably doesn’t feel like it, I bet?”

Red shakes his head. “It’s not what really bothers me, to be honest. The sadness I’m used to, but it’s like there’s a blizzard of emptiness and confusion around it, now.”

“Alright. So the depression has shifted from primarily sadness to anhedonia?”

“Yeah. But it’s not just that, either.” Red struggles to put it into words, flipping through his notebook before he realizes another thing. “So before, I would also notice how I was feeling and wish the feelings would go away, right? Now…”

“…you get some value from experiencing them?” Dr. Seward guesses, not sounding surprised.

“No, I mean now when it happens I don’t want it to stop, don’t want the partition to come back up. Because it feels like being locked away again, or… worse.”

He was about to be more specific, but Dr. Seward looks concerned, which makes Red feel more concerned.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like being locked away; sometimes it feels like dying. And sometimes the emotion that goes along with that is relief.

It’s such an alien feeling, for him. He’s never wanted to die before, not even at his lowest point after his dad did. He’s been trying not to freak out about this, but seeing his otherwise stoic therapist’s worry says a lot about how weird it all might be.

“So you’re saying you feel like there really is another you, who would lose themself when you return.”

“Yeah.”

“Alright. Give me a moment to think.”

Red nods, trying to ignore his growing nervousness. It was hard to decide to share this with Dr. Seward. What if she judges that he’s just “crazy,” now? What if she’s right?

Eventually he can’t help but reach out for a quick merge to check her mental state, but the emotion that comes over him isn’t what he’d expect if she thought it was something serious. All he feels from her is curiosity, and concern.

“My first reaction,” she finally says, causing him to withdraw, “Is that I feel unsure of how to help address grief the way you experience it. It seems to have shifted from bereavement, however complex, to something similar to dissociative identity disorder. I’ve read up some on the phenomenon of partitions since we began again, and your explanation and analogy felt helpful, but if it’s possible for things like this to happen, it’s clear I don’t really understand it at all.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t change much from this side of things,” Red says, forcing a wry smile. The fact that it’s not called “multiple personality disorder” anymore doesn’t make it feel much less like she is, in fact, suggesting that his brain might be broken.

“I imagine you’ve already looked into it more than I have. Has there ever been an incident like this before, that you’ve found?”

“Sort of? There’s very little research on it, and what’s there is confusing.” Red sighs. “I also don’t understand enough about how brains work to follow most of it myself.” He hates taking what research says second hand from someone else, no matter how well regarded or credible. “But there are studies that showed that someone without the part of the brain that connects their left and right hemispheres—”

“Corpus callosum.”

“Yeah, that, they end up acting like they have two distinct brains, only one of which can talk, and each of which control a different hand, to the point where their hands reach for different things at once.”

Dr. Seward’s brow rises. “Really?”

“Yeah, it gets weirder. If you show something to only their right hemisphere, and ask them what they saw, they’ll say they didn’t see anything… but their right hemisphere will still use its hand to follow directions it’s shown.”

“Hmmm. I’ve never heard of this. You’re usually fairly skeptical, so I’m assuming it was well supported?””

Red smiles. “There’s videos of it, and a number of experiments.” He shrugs. “Maybe it’s all nonsense, but… it seemed like it might be relevant.”

“Yes, I can see why. You haven’t noticed yourself doing anything you don’t understand, when the partition is down?”

“Nope.”

“And no lost time, either?”

There’s a scary thought. “No, nothing like that. It doesn’t feel like a break in consciousness, just a transition.”

“Alright. Normally I would say such things belong in fiction, but I feel a little out of my depth, and want to make sure we’re being thorough.” Her fingers drum on the desk a moment, then stop. “Then my main question, at this point, is whether it’s possible a psychic therapist would better serve you, at this point?”

Red blinks. A new therapist? “No, you already know me, my history. And I trust you.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear that, Red, but it’s not just about rapport.”

“You’re also way cheaper than a psychic therapist.”

Dr. Seward can’t hide her smile this time. “A serious answer, please? Part of my job is to recognize when I’m out of my depth, and I don’t know if I have the expertise to effectively help you.”

So Red spends a moment thinking it over, imagining going to another therapist who could work with him psychically, deal with his partition and the emotions behind it in some more direct way… what had Psychic Narud said? Like doing heart surgery with my fingers. Something like that, and none of the psychics Red has spoken to about it since have made it seem any easier.

And… “I don’t want to treat it as a psychic phenomenon, yet. I know it’s probably being affected by my powers, but… I think it’s still just grief and sadness, at the end of the day. And you’ve helped me a lot, so far, with that. If we hit a wall and stay there a few weeks, I’ll consider seeing someone new, but for now I’d like to continue if you would.”

Dr. Seward considers this, then nods. “That’s fair. And yes, I would. Alright then.” She leans back in her seat, fingers steepling. “There’s a type of therapy called Internal Family Systems. Have you heard of it?”

“No, but the name is pretty evocative.” Red shifts. “It’s not going to be, like… talking to an imagined version of my dad, is it?”

“No, not unless you’d find that helpful. It’s just a frame to help understand our feelings, and better interface with them. Most people find it useful to break the psyche down into subparts, and traditionally this has been things like the ‘id, ego, and superego,’ or ‘conscious and subconscious,’ or just personifying our emotions. Whenever we experience internal conflict in a way that can be described in terms of external conflicts, that’s where Internal Family Systems can be especially helpful. We would use conflict resolution techniques and apply them to the internal parts of ourselves.”

Red blinks. “Um. I might already do that?”

She smiles. “Yes, which is why I mentioned this. Often times, the ‘family’ is literal… people identify parts of themselves that are like an internal child, playful but easily frightened, or a teenager, full of will but often resentful, or a father, protective but judgemental, or a mother, comforting but stressed. These are stereotypes, of course, just labels we put on our internal drives and aspects. But it doesn’t have to be a family, some people imagine friends of theirs or fictional characters, and in your case it seems the ideas of a Past, Present and Future Red are already discrete and… lively.”

“Yeah, no kidding. So, what, you’re going to teach me to be a therapist for my inner selves?”

“That’s one way to do it. But before we go looking for solutions, we need to better understand these parts of yourself. You described them physically, from your dream, but what about their attributes? What do you think they represent, if anything?”

Red considers a minute. His Present self often feels like the Id, but then again it’s also often the Superego… maybe it helps to think of which of them are the most like his inner child? Definitely not his Past self, currently. No, wait, maybe it is, a bit…

No, he’s thinking about this wrong. He can’t just map them onto other ideas, he has to treat each as some emergent part of himself. What do they want? Or maybe to start off, what do they not want?

“Present me is always pain avoidant,” Red says, brow furrowed. “I mean all three are, but Present me is driven by avoiding unpleasant things. It’s the main thing that the others try to negotiate me into. Past me is very… uncertain. He doesn’t like feeling judged, but he’s also self-critical. Future me is the most ambitious. He can be kind of demanding, and he hates reneging on agreements the most.”

“Alright. That’s a good start, I think. So it’s fair to say they have a lot to argue about?”

“Yeah.” Red frowns. “Actually… I’m not sure this works? Those other frames make sense to me, I can understand having different parts that make you up, like a part of you that wants to spend more time with friends and another that wants to do more research, but for Past, Present and Future me… all three of us shift over time. I was Past Red. At some point Future Red will be me. When I talk about my Future self having a different desire, I’m just talking about me at a future time, but that self won’t necessarily have that same desire. How does it make sense to say they have fixed attributes that are distinct from each other? “

“Maybe it doesn’t.” Dr. Seward shrugs. “The only reason to use this frame is if it’s helpful. But now that you’ve recognized and said all that, do you feel like that internal conflict is resolved?”

“…Not really, no.”

She spreads her hands, and Red nods, thinking about it for another minute.

“Okay, so I’m thinking about what they want, now, and Past Red is the part of me that’s focused on making sure I learn from my mistakes. That seems obvious enough. Future Red is the part of me that’s unsure about the future, so he wants security. Plans that are set and detailed and followed. But I don’t know what Present Red represents? It just feels like he desires… all the things I desire.”

“Perhaps Present Red is an arbiter then, serving a similar function to the classic frame of the Ego. It’s for you, as the Present Red in any given moment, to ensure that you understand your past and are prepared for your future. You are the rope being tugged on from both ends. Does that feel like it fits?”

Red feels it out, checking to see if anything seems wrong with that, then slowly nods. “Yeah. That description, of feeling tugged in two different directions, it actually resonated a lot.”

“Alright then. Past you wants you to learn from your mistakes, Future you wants you to plan well and follow through on commitments. It sounds like you’re all on the same side.”

“You’d think that, yeah.”

“But you still feel conflicted?”

“Right now? No, the partition is up.”

“Ah, yes. Would it be alright for you to bring it down and check?”

Red hesitates, then nods and closes his eyes.

It’s not hard, these days. Instead of having to over-exert his mental abilities, he can now feel the partition itself as it suppresses parts of his mental state, keeps certain neurons from firing. One of Sabrina’s students taught him how to notice the shape of it in his mind, the negative space where thoughts should go but don’t.

The fact that he knows what’s missing is what makes it possible to find those faded paths, feel along the edges where they should be. If he wants to give himself amnesia, all he has to do is use his abilities to quarantine a particular memory, then quarantine the memory of doing so to ensure it can’t be accidentally stumbled upon.

It’s a really fascinating set of abilities that he’d love to spend more time experimenting with and studying, but he can’t safely do it himself yet, and he’s still the lowest on the totem pole for determining what he should be taught next… which is why he’s here, so why is he stalling?

Because it’s unpleasant. Because even if it’s necessary and what’s best for Future Red, it’s still painful to go through it each time. But if he can’t live with the consequences to himself of letting Aiko go into that building alone… then maybe Blue was right.

Red lets out his breath, then brings the partition down…

…and is transported into another world.

“Red? Is everything alright?”

“No.” His voice sounds flat and dull to his own ears.

“What’s wr-… ah. Is this… Past Red?”

Red opens his eyes and turns to her, and he can sense her flinch even as her face stays placid and calm. “There is no Past Red. I was just being stupid and melodramatic. This is me.”

“I see. So what would you describe as the difference between how you are now, and how you were just a minute ago?”

Red closes his eyes again and lets out a heavy breath. “I don’t know. Naivety?”

“Hm. Well, I can tell you that from an outside perspective, it seemed like you grew more tense. Your breathing changed. Even lying down, the difference in energy level is notable; you’re completely still now, instead of shifting your feet or fidgeting, And your expression is far less animated. So if I’m able to observe all those things, from the outside, I can’t help but think that maybe there are corresponding changes with how you feel.”

Red almost shakes his head, but it’s too much effort. He realizes that sort of demonstrates her point, but it doesn’t really matter. “It’s not me that’s changed. It’s reality.”

“…Could you clarify that?”

Red sighs again. “Before I was focused on what I need to get over what happened. To move past it. I was living in a reality where it’s that simple, to ignore how much I miss my dad and how guilty I feel about A…” His throat hitches, and he feels heat spread up his throat and behind his eyes.

“I see. I’m sorry, if asking this of you was too much.”

“It’s fine,” Red whispers, and clears his throat. He keeps his eyes closed until he’s sure he won’t cry. “They’re dead, it’s the least I can do to acknowledge that, instead of ignoring it like a… a coward…” The word comes out twisted as his face contorts. The tears are closer to the surface now, and as a sob shakes him they spill down his cheeks.

Red vaguely makes out the sound of Dr. Seward moving the tissue box closer to him, and reaches out blindly for it. There’s a feeling of strong deja vu as he remembers the times he cried in this room over his dad, and as he wipes his face and tries to control his breathing he feels ashamed anew at his earlier selfishness. He hadn’t been afraid to cry over Dad, when he was younger. Now it’s just so inconvenient

“Can I ask how you feel about what we were talking about, before? If you feel up to it.”

Red clears his throat, then wipes at his eyes again. “Sorry, what was the question?”

“Just… do you feel conflicted? How do you relate to your Past and Future selves, now?”

“Conflicted. Yeah.” Dr. Seward is quiet, and after a moment Red realizes she asked about more than that. “It’s just hard to stop thinking about what happened. I know the smart thing to do is just accept that death is part of life, that it’s a risk my dad accepted every day he was working, that Aiko knew she was risking it when she left with us. When she… went into the building.” He swallows, takes a breath. “I know that. But… I can’t.”

Dr. Seward stays quiet again after he stops talking, and Red considers brushing her mind to see what she’s feeling before losing interest. “That all makes perfect sense, to me,” she finally says. “Of course you’re going to keep thinking about it. Of course you’re going to have trouble accepting their loss. That’s a natural part of the grieving process. No matter how inevitable or uncertain, no matter how little the risks were understood or how much, no matter how responsible people were or weren’t, millions of people feel the same things you do right now, Red. As unique as everyone’s grieving process is, at its core it’s based on the same pain and guilt and fear. You shouldn’t expect yourself to just… put it all aside and keep going, if you’re having trouble doing so.”

“Blue can,” Red whispers. “Leaf can. Even Mr. Sakai…” The tears burn again, and he covers his face as the memory sweeps through him.

“You think Mr. Sakai was able to put it aside?”

Red nods, feeling the hot tears soak through the tissues.

“Can you… tell me what makes you think that? Take your time.”

Red focuses on his breaths until they stop hitching, and when he speaks, it’s in a watery whisper. “I went to Saffron the day after Sabrina agreed to teach me. Leaf was stuck in the hospital, and the ranch was close, and he still didn’t know… so I went to tell him.” He swallows the lump in his throat and sighs. “It was the least I could do…”


When Red saw Mr. Sakai, he was moving from pen to pen to feed each pokemon. The sun was hot as it began its downward swing toward the horizon, but at the sight of Aiko’s father, Red felt like there was a chunk of ice in his stomach.

He didn’t want to do it. Selfishly, he wished Leaf would have told him not to come alone. To wait for her. But they both recognized that Mr. Sakai had gone long enough without knowing, and it wouldn’t get any easier with time.

Thankfully, he had his abilities to fall back on. With them he at least could deliver the news without breaking down in tears.

Unfortunately that didn’t help with the other side of things. Any other parent would have called one of them to check where Aiko was. Would have seen about the Stormbringer attack on the news. Would have known, upon seeing Red, unannounced and with a solemn expression, that something was wrong.

Instead Mr. Sakai greeted him warmly, and told him how well the pokemon have been doing, lately, and how he thought the people coming to see them for therapy has been good for them, still moving from pen to pen to withdraw each pokemon and put their ball in the bag he carried with him.

Mr. Sakai,” Red tried, voice steady. “I need to talk to you about Aiko.”

Oh, Aiko’s not here right now. She’s usually back by night, if you want to stick around…”

Red’s throat felt locked, and despite the disconnect he felt from the grief, he had to force the words out, past some other emotion. “No, Mr. Sakai, she’s not coming tonight. Could we… talk inside?”

Oh, but the pokemon need to be fed,” he responded, still moving from pen to pen with a sack of feed in one hand and a scoop in the other. “Aiko’s late sometimes, but she’ll be back soon… she’s a good girl, you know, always takes care of the pokemon…”

Red followed him to the next pen, then the next, trying to talk past Mr. Sakai’s circuitous pattern of speech and thinking, until he lost his patience and simply grabbed Mr. Sakai’s arm before he could move on to the next pen.

Aiko’s father looked down at his hand, and Red removed it, feeling ashamed. But he kept his gaze on Mr. Sakai’s face, and when his eyes met his, Red could see it. He didn’t know what his own face looked like, but he knew what it felt like. His frustration had vanished, and all that he felt was… empty.

No,” Aiko’s father said. Just that one word, but it was enough to batter at Red’s control, enough to take the air from his lungs, so that the next part was even harder than he expected it would be.

She’s dead, Mr. Sakai,” Red whispered, trying to use the opening as best he could, his carefully rehearsed lines forgotten. “Died in Zapdos’s attack on the city. I’m so sorry.”

He stopped there, couldn’t say anything more. He should have been talking about what a hero she was. He’d confirmed it with a tearful Elaine, both for that night and their journey underground. He’d wanted to be able to answer any questions Mr. Sakai might ask, to be able to provide some solace, and on top of that felt like a shield in his mind, one he could raise before him if Mr. Sakai grew angry, cursed him for taking her away in the first place.

But as he watched Mr. Sakai’s puzzled gaze fill at last with understanding, then despair, Red knew it was a paper shield, one that he would toss aside if needed. He wouldn’t accept the blame from Blue, but if a grieving father needed someone to blame…

The older man crumpled backwards to sit on the grass, head hanging as a moan of grief escaped him. Red felt his own rising despite his efforts, and almost cut off all emotion completely.

Instead he sat beside Mr. Sakai as he rocked back and forth and sobbed into his hands. “No, Aiko, not my good girl, my sweet baby… I’m sorry, Ema, I’ve lost her… I’m so sorry…”

Red wept beside him as quietly as he could as he felt his heart rend, unsure of whether he should reach out or not, if his comfort would be welcome. He felt some need to fill the silence, to explain what happened, apologize for not stopping her. But as his insecurity held him back, he realized it was what he needed, not what Mr. Sakai needed, and so he kept quiet.

They were beside an oddish pen, and a small gathering of the oddish and bellsprout within it came up to the wires to stare at their caretaker as he cried before wandering away. Red missed Pikachu badly, and wished he had more pokemon useful for comforting others, like Joy.

After over half an hour, Aiko’s father’s sobs began to trail off into sniffles, and the occasional groan. Red dried his face and braced himself, thinking the questions would come any moment.

Instead Mr. Sakai turned to him and smiled. It was a weak smile, one ready to dissolve back into tears at any moment… but he reached out and took Red’s hand, ignoring his shocked look.

Thank you, Red.” Mr. Sakai’s voice was hoarse, but present. “Thank you for taking my daughter with you. She… wanted to be a trainer so much…” His face contorted, straightened. “Are Blue and Leaf… alright?”

Y-yeah.” Red felt something like horror at the idea of Mr. Sakai thanking him without knowing what happened… but he couldn’t bring it up himself. “Yeah, they’re okay. Leaf is in the hospital, and Blue is helping with the city. I’m sure they’ll come soon.”

Good.” He squeezed Red’s hand, then slowly began to push himself to his feet. “You’re all welcome… anytime…”

Red stared at him, then rose shakily to his feet as well. “Are you…” He cut himself off. How many times was he asked that same absurd question, after Dad died?

Would you please… tell her aunt? I don’t know how long I’ll be able to… ” Mr. Sakai trailed off as he picked up the feed bag. “Excuse me, please. Some pokemon still haven’t eaten.”

And with that he continued walking from pen to pen, feeding the pokemon as tears streamed down his face.


Red wipes his face as he finishes his recount. Dr. Seward stood and walked to the water cooler, then returned with a paper cup for him.

“Thanks,” Red whispers, and drinks the soothing water down before setting the empty cup aside. “Do you mind if I bring Pikachu out?”

“For comfort?”

“Yeah. He won’t shock anything, I promise.”

“Then by all means.”

Red sits up and unclips his pokemon’s ball, then aims it at the empty space beside the couch, bracing his arm. The ball rejects the target area until he aims it at just the right spot and with a flash of light his pokemon is there.

Pikachu looks around the unfamiliar room, back to Red and Dr. Seward until Red reaches out with his thoughts. His pokemon turns to him and leaps onto the couch, then his lap and curls up into a warm twist. Red feels his mood lift slightly as he runs his fingers through his pokemon’s fur. He can feel the scar where the kingler severed his lower spine. It took a week for the pokemon center to heal him, and they said he was lucky to regain full functionality.

“So,” Dr. Seward says as she settles back in her seat. “That was quite an intense experience, so soon after losing your friend. And I don’t mean to dismiss your observations. But from what you told me of Aiko’s father, why are you using him as a normative model of mental health?”

“I thought you might ask that.” Red shrugs, feeling weary. “Not pretending I know what’s in his heart… he cried again at the funeral. But Leaf says he’s carrying on as though it never happened. Like she’s just off on some trip. And whether that’s ‘normal’ or not, he’s still doing better than I am, without my partition. And like I said, Blue and Leaf seem to be fine too.”

His therapist is quiet a moment, then shrugs. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe you really are the only one having trouble with her death. There are at least three good reasons I can think of why that’s the case, and I’m sure you can come up with more. But before we do that, you should check to make sure your model of reality is actually true. You haven’t seen Blue in weeks, and Leaf you see, what, twice a week when you go to help at the ranch for a few hours? People are capable of holding themselves together for far longer than that, Red. Don’t be so sure that everything is fine with someone just because they can put up a front. Leaf may be in a lot more pain than you think.”

Red closes his eyes, fingers still in Pikachu’s fur. “That… just makes me feel worse.”

“Why?”

“Because she hasn’t told me. Which means that she doesn’t trust me anymore, or want to talk about Aiko because she blames me, or—”

“What happened to not pretending you know what’s in people’s hearts?” Dr. Seward asks with a raised brow. “Or are you recounting mental impressions you’ve picked up from her.”

“Sometimes, yeah.”

She blinks, then rallies. “But you haven’t spoken to her about it.”

Red sighs. “No.”

“Then that’s your homework assignment. You know that what people feel is often complex, and you’re not in an unbiased frame of mind. You’re grieving your lost friend. You miss your other two friends, both of whom you feel betrayed by on some level. And you’re struggling with the guilt of the decision not to follow Aiko in, or not doing more to stop her.”

“It’s not…” Red sighs. “Nevermind. Yeah, alright.”

Dr. Seward’s brow furrows. “I’m sorry, maybe I misunderstood something. It’s not…?”

“It’s fine. Guilt is close enough.”

She looks like she’s about to argue, then just looks thoughtful a moment before saying, “Are you going to put your partition back up before you go?”

Red’s fingers slow. “You think I’ll tell you if it’s up?”

“Oh, no. I was just curious.”

Red merges with her briefly, and doesn’t sense any guilt or guile. “I wasn’t planning on it, no. Putting it back up is a weakness, a way to hide from reality.”

“Perhaps. It also might be a natural defense mechanism, a coping skill that your powers developed for you. Do you want to die?”

She asks the question so casually that Red answers before he can think about it. “No.”

She nods. “Just checking. What keeps you in this state, normally? You said earlier that you’d… not want the partition to go back up, once it’s down.”

“The partition being up is still my natural state. I’ll lose focus eventually and it’ll come back, or it’ll happen when I sleep next.” Red sighs. “And then I’ll go back to being oblivious to all this and just focused on the future, like a robot.”

“I see. And if I asked you to bring it back up before we end the session, and then you’d bring it back down before leaving, would that be okay?”

Red strokes Pikachu, gaze down. He feels like this is a trick, like she’s trying to talk to the more cheerful and focused version of him, instead of this sad and whiny one. Not that he blames her.

And in truth, there’s some part of him that feels the partition’s minor but constant tug at his attention as a siren song. A call toward peace, where he doesn’t have to think about such painful things. He resists because he knows it’s a lie, because it’s exchanging what he feels for who he is.

But he doesn’t want to subject Dr. Seward to something that makes her feel uncomfortable, or like he’s wasting her time. “Yeah, I guess I could do that.”

“Would it help to make an agreement with your Future self?”

“…I think it would. Thanks.” He closes his eyes.

Hey Future Red. I’m only putting the partition back up because she asked me to. You’d better bring it back down before we leave, or I’m going to consider that a defection and keep it in mind for the future.

Ugh. Fine. But we’ve got shit to do today, so if you spend it all moping in bed then I’m going to keep that in mind the next time we’re here.

Whatever. He hesitates a moment longer, then mentally relaxes his grip on the partition, feeling it slide back into place and rearrange his thoughts and emotions…

…until he lets out a breath of relief and opens his eyes. “Ugh. Thank you.” He scratches Pikachu between the ears, smiling down at his pokemon as he yawns. “That was unpleasant.”

Dr. Seward is watching him closely. “Can you explain how all that felt, to you?”

Red thinks about it a moment. “Kind of like someone took over my brain for a bit? Except it was a version of me where reality was way darker than it really is, lacking perspective on things or the ability to focus on the future.”

“Fascinating. It really was like talking to a different person, he seemed adamant that you were the fake version, and him the real one.”

Red nods. “It’s been a philosophical question I’ve been grappling with on and off for the past few weeks. If I wasn’t a psychic, then the partition wouldn’t exist, and Past Red would definitely be the ‘real’ me, assuming nothing else about the powers influenced things. But with my powers, this is my default state, so I’m clearly the ‘real’ me that’s not being inundated by negative emotions.”

“He was certainly more willful than I expected, given that, and your account of how he came off during the dream.” She frowns. “It feels strange talking about him as if he’s a different person, and also a bit rude. Particularly since he’s… or you’re… going to remember this once the partition is back down. I’m sorry, I’m going to try to keep that straight so as not to offend either of you, if that’s possible.” She rubs her forehead. “This has certainly been the strangest session I’ve had in quite a few years.”

Red smiles briefly “No problem here, do what you’ve got to do.” He considers telling her that Past Red was probing her mental state for her intentions, then decides against it. She’s been on the level the whole time, and he doesn’t want to make her start thinking in that way and bias things. Also he’s done the same thing once or twice. “Oh, in case you’re wondering, the thing that he almost said before was that it’s not about the guilt itself. We don’t want to be anchored by that feeling without first determining if we actually did the right thing or not. On that, we’re in agreement.”

“And as for how to figure that out…?”

“Yeah, we’re still struggling with that.”

“I see.” Dr. Seward takes a moment to collect her thoughts, then straightens in her seat. “Right. So I’ve got more research to do, apparently, but in the meantime, do try to talk to Leaf soon?”

“Oh, don’t worry, I understand that she probably doesn’t actually blame me as much as he thinks she does.”

“Yes, but the fact that you don’t believe it with the partition down is the problem.”

Red frowns, but nods. “Alright.”

“I understand that it will likely be an uncomfortable conversation, but I think it’s necessary. Whether you have it with the partition up or down is up to you.” She checks the time. “My next appointment should be outside. Same time next week?”

Red nods and nudges Pikachu off his lap and onto his shoulder, then stands. “Thank you, Doctor. I feel a lot more optimistic about all this already.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Have a good week, Red. And don’t forget to take the partition down before you go.”

She says the words lightly, but Red’s hand was already reaching for the doorknob, and he stops. “Right…” He sighs, considers just pretending to do it and being mopey as he leaves, but not seriously. Breaking that commitment might have long reaching consequences that he doesn’t really want to consider now.

It takes just a moment for him to bring the partition back down, and then he’s back in reality. “Bye,” he mutters, and shuffles out of the office and into a day that’s not bright enough to chase away the shadow of death that covers the world.

Chapter 67: Postmortem

In case you missed it, there was a mid-month subchapter, “Pyre,” published two weeks ago.


Blue sits in the uncomfortable hospital chair and stares down at the heavyballs in his hands, morning sun glinting off of each through the window. Aptly named, they’re notably heavier than other kinds, with thicker cases. It reminds him of when he first held a pokeball, fingers too small to comfortably grip the round orb, and he knows he’ll have to train with them soon to make sure his catches and throws aren’t off. A steelix and a snorlax give him more power than he expected to have for months yet, if not years, and chances are he’ll appreciate them more in a few days, when his thoughts don’t drift to less happy thoughts every few seconds.

He can’t quite remember when he fell asleep, but he woke downstairs half an hour ago feeling tired, but not exhausted. The city is in cleanup mode; trainers present for the storm are resting, while others arrive from all over the region to help catch wilds and assist with rescue and repair. Wireless networks are back up, but reserved for official use for now. Occasionally backed up messages and emails come through to Blue’s phone, but none from his friends, who he assumes are still asleep.

Blue needs to find them, needs to make sure everyone’s okay and reconnect his team. He knows Glen is safe, at least, and Elaine and Aiko were with two highly competent gym members, but Red and Leaf…

“Mr. Oak?” Blue looks up and sees the doctor. “He’s awake. I can give you ten minutes, but then he needs to rest.”

Blue clips the balls to his belt and hurries to the room. It seems wrong to hurry in a place like this, at a time like this. Like he should be walking slowly, out of respect. But there are other places he needs to be, and ten minutes won’t go slower just because he does.

When he reaches the doorway, however, he stops and stares, one hand going to the doorframe.

Gramps is lying in the bed without his coat on, dressed in a simple hospital gown like any other patient. Like he’s not a Kanto Champion, and one of the greatest researchers in the world, and just helped save thousands of people.

For once, Professor Oak looks as old as he is. Older, in fact.

He looks like he’s dying.

Blue’s throat is clogged, and he bites down on his lip to keep from making any noise. When he finally walks forward, however, it’s with all the fear and pain and childish shock of seeing a parent brought low.

He has to keep repeating to himself that Gramps will be okay in order to keep from breaking down and clutching at his grandfather’s form as he lies prone, to simply stand beside his bed and take his frail, liver spotted hand. Those faded blue eyes open, unfocused at first, until they lock onto his.

“Hey, Gramps,” Blue whispers.

“Blue.” Professor Oak squeezes his hand back without any strength. “Okay? Daisy?”

Blue nods, and has to clear his throat before he can speak again. “She got you out. And I’m fine.”

Lines of tension ease away, leaving the professor’s face simply wrinkled, his sharp jawline shifting and rounding as his lips part for a sigh. “Good.” His chest rises under the sheets as he breathes in deep. “So. Your first. How was it?”

Blue knows what he’s asking. “Too easy, at the start.” He remembers what felt like hours of staring at a rain-obscured barricade, struggling to keep his feet in place and not rush around to sate his impatience. “Then… harder.”

It took less than a minute for the Oaks working together to pummel the first steelix into submission. As soon as Blue caught it, the end came quickly for the second, and they all stood for a moment in the dwindling rain amid the torn up concrete, catching their breaths and recovering from the adrenaline rush.

And then Gramps collapsed, opening a gash on his cheek as it hit a chip of broken stone.

Daisy and Blue rushed to his side together, and after determining he was alive, Blue helped recall his pokemon while Daisy pulled him onto her pidgeot so she could take him to the nearest hospital. “Stay alive,” Daisy said, hugging him tight and kissing his wet hair before climbing into her saddle. “He came for you.”

Her words echoed in his head as he watched them fly off, and were hard to put aside when he went to help the others. Pokemon were coming out of the rift in the concrete that the steelix made when they burst free, and the entire stadium of civilians had to be moved while the trainers there fended them off.

It was tense a while longer, but with no other truly powerful pokemon around the defenders were able to secure the civilians’ safety with minimal casualties.

Relatively speaking.

Tori was killed by a fissure that opened up under her and a ranger who were defending a group of civilians. No warning, just an almighty crack that could have been thunder but wasn’t, and they were gone. Efforts to rescue them weren’t quick enough before the pokemon beneath the streets reached them.

Blue almost lost Maturin to a tangrowth, then did lose both his ekans and one of his bellsprout to it before he and Glen took it down together. Glen lost a couple of his own pokemon, but luckily nothing too powerful. Less luckily, his leg and hip were broken. Blue spent the rest of the battle keeping him safe while they moved, slowly but surely, along the path of the evacuations.

All told, the exodus from beneath the city lasted almost two hours, and an estimated six hundred people of the roughly seven thousand in the coliseum were killed, with another three hundred wounded. It would have been far worse, without Gramps and Daisy.

Blue never got so much as a scratch.

Once Glen was seen to, Blue could tell that Peter was pissed at him. It was hard to care while worrying about everyone else, and still is. He’s already gotten thanks from other trainers and civilians who saw how he helped stop the steelix and snorlax from coming after them, and he figures any reprimand would likely be done in private. Or maybe Peter would just tell Surge, and leave his judgement to their mutual superior.

Worries for the future. Right now his thoughts are still trying to expand on his answer to the question. Gramps gives him time, knowing that he would eventually.

“Harder, because I couldn’t take on any of the real threats,” Blue finally adds. “I let Aiko and Elaine get sent off, don’t know where Red and Leaf are, and Glen got hurt, and… then you collapsed and I thought you might be dead…”

He trails off, throat tight as he regains control of himself. “I was just one person, by the end, no different from anyone else,” he whispers. “Was all I could do to keep my friend alive.”

“M’sorry,” the professor says, closing his eyes. “Wasn’t there… for you…”

No trick can stop the burning from spilling down Blue’s cheeks now, and he clutches his grandfather’s hand. “You were there. A lot more people would have died without you and Daisy, and I might have been one of them.” He takes a deep breath and wipes his face with his other arm. “And the only thing I did of any real importance was because you were there. Without you… would have been a gap in the story.”

“First time,” Gramps repeats, as if to remind him. “At 12… still impressive.” He sighs. “Not strong enough… for more.”

“I know,” Blue says, letting out a breath. “I need more powerful pokemon, and need to be stronger against the Pressure, and… I need more social power, to do something meaningful next time, but I don’t know what kind would best…” He catches himself before he keeps venting his frustrations, and squeezes his grandfather’s hand. “Sorry. Can talk about that later. Can I get you anything? Or do anything for you?”

His grandfather shakes his head. “Not yet.” He takes a deep breath. “Just let Elm know… long recovery… and leave a message… for Samson…”

“Yeah. Of course.” Blue wonders if his twice-removed cousin would even get the message before he’s back from wherever he’s currently exploring, and his brow furrows as he imagines Gramps in here for day after day. “How long will you be in here?” Surely not more than a week…

“Last time was… almost a month. This time… don’t know.”

Blue stares in horror. “No, that’s… why would you… You can’t do that!” His voice is rising as his heart pounds, guilt and indignation warring within him. “Why didn’t you tell me, it’s bad enough you risked your life, but this is… You can’t just throw your life away, the world needs you—”

Sky blue eyes blaze into Blue’s, and a soft, weathered hand cups his face. “Will always come for you,” his grandfather whispers between labored breaths. “You and Daisy… are my world.”

Blue’s tears scald as they slide down his cheeks, and he clasps his grandfather’s hand against his face as he tries to regain control. It’s not fair, he’s not supposed to have to worry about this, to think that every time he faces them Gramps will…

“I’m sorry,” he whispers.

“You are who you are… And I have no desire… to bury another child…” His lips twitch upward briefly. “So you see… I’m actually quite…” The next word comes out in a shaking breath. “Selfish…” His eyes slip closed.

Blue doesn’t respond, simply holding his hand tight as his mind races to find a workaround. Zapdos came to him, this time, but if he decides to go into another Stormbringer attack… He would have to disable the tracking on his equipment first… no that would just tip Gramps off. He’d have to leave all his trackable equipment elsewhere, and his companions’ too. But what if he calls…

“Mr. Oak? It’s time.”

Blue glances back at the whispered voice of the doctor, then turns back to the professor, whose eyes stay closed. He gently releases his hand and places it on his chest, then bends to kiss his forehead. “See you later, Gramps.”

He gathers his things and heads down to the lobby. He’s expected at Vermilion Gym to debrief and coordinate with others. He doesn’t know if Surge is waiting for him or not, but he wants to hurry up and do whatever needs to be done there, so he can make sure his friends are okay.


Leaf spent the night after the storm ended in a haze, drifting in and out of sleep as medicine coursed its way through her veins, repairing the damage to her body and draining it of energy so fast that she was given a meal’s worth of calories every three hours. She was faintly aware of Elaine sitting with her as she drifted in and out of sleep, waking only for treatments and bodily necessities, while her dreams were full of dark streets and rain, lightning and danger, all of which seemed more real to her than the hospital room she kept finding herself in.

She’s reliving the battle in the clothing store, but with a far worse ending, when a jolt sends her gasping awake. Daylight streams through the window, and a nurse is preparing to wheel her out for what she fuzzily assumes will be more x-rays and injections.

“Red?” she croaks, looking around and blinking sweat from her eyes.

“Don’t worry about them,” Elaine responds from her seat by the window, bringing a cup of cool water to her lips, which she thirstily gulps down. “Just focus on getting better.” Her voice is thick with worry and exhaustion of her own.

Them? she thinks, then remembers Aiko left with him. She assumes she missed a whole cycle of them changing who stayed with her, which is disappointing. She wanted to talk to Aiko…

There’s a nurse with her when she next wakes, an older woman who smiles upon seeing her eyes open. “Hello there, hon. Happy to say you’re out of the woods, now.”

For a moment Leaf thinks she’s back in the hospital she slept in after Viridian. After a few seconds she recognizes that the stiffness in her arm and side aren’t from an electric shock, and soon she’s remembering the injury and back to full awareness.

“Thank you,” Leaf whispers. She’s starving. Her unbound arm stretches out from under the blanket to drink from the water cup beside her bed. There’s a note beside it. “Where’s Elaine?” she asks as she opens it.

“The girl who was here all night? Left you that.”

Leaf,

Morning! Doctors said you were stable, so I went to put our pokemon in queue at a nearby center. Don’t know when they’ll start accepting them, but they’re going to be backed up for a while, and I thought I should check in case it’s soon, otherwise it might take days. If not I’ll be back as quick as I can!

Hope you feel better when you wake!

Elaine

Leaf smiles. She knows it makes little sense to worry about her injured pokemon while they’re in stasis, but it’ll be nice to have them healthy again as soon as possible. “Am I free to go, then?” she asks as she puts the note back and drains the water cup.

The nurse finishes marking something, eyes on a monitor next to Leaf, then looks at her in surprise. “Go? Well, we can’t stop you, but you really shouldn’t. It’s still a bit of a warzone out there, and your injuries aren’t really healed yet; they just aren’t at risk of getting worse unless you’re too forceful with them.”

“Okay.” Without her pokemon the word warzone had killed her intention anyway. Leaf reaches for her phone and checks for messages, finding no new ones besides those sent on the emergency channels. Leaf tries sending Red one, and watches the indicator beside it spin endlessly for a few seconds before she gets back an unsent error. She sighs and sits back against the pillows again. “Is there anything I can do around here?”

The woman raises a brow. “Do you have any medical training?”

“Not really. Mostly just for pokemon, and basic first aid.”

“No fresh injuries coming in now, thankfully. Not here at least. Just get some rest.”

Leaf makes a frustrated sound. “I’ve been resting for…” She checks the time and blinks. “Thirteen hours? Thirteen hours! I can’t just sit here a whole day while my friends are still out there, I’ll go crazy.”

The nurse pats her leg in a decidedly unsympathetic manner. “From what I heard, you’ve done enough for now. I’m sure your friends will show up soon as they can.” She finishes tapping Leaf’s blood pressure into her tablet, then starts moving to the next bed. “If you want to do something so bad, take a walk around, ask people if they want water. Your legs and other arm are fine, and you can use the exercise.”

So that’s what Leaf does, slowly and carefully getting to her feet, then shuffling around the makeshift hospital. She notices that a lot of the nurses and doctors are different from the ones she remembers, while the familiar ones look exhausted. Probably nearing the ends of their shifts, but with how many people need help it’s possible they have no shifts. She hopes they get rest soon, regardless.

It’s still painful to breathe too deep, and with one arm immobilized she feels unbalanced and clumsy, but for once she’s thankful that she’s left handed. She spends an hour walking each floor of the makeshift treatment center, fetching water or blankets or extra pillows. It’s distracting and repetitive work, which is just what she needs to keep her mind off her worry for the others.

Most of the distraction comes from seeing so many people injured, many of them as bad as Leaf, though anyone worse was likely transported to the actual hospital. She sees a lot of family or friends gathered by bedsides, some having murmured conversation, others asleep, hand in hand. For the first time in what feels like days, Leaf thinks of her mother and grandfather, and wishes they were here.

An hour passes, and in that time the change in her thoughts is subtle. Seeing heartbreak after heartbreak eventually starts to lead her to thoughts about what caused all this, to why she’s worried about the others, which effectively means it stops working as a distraction. It isn’t until she sees one of the survivors from the apartment complex that she and Red saved, sobbing like he’s being torn in two as he sits at the bedside of a little girl missing a leg that Leaf has to take a moment to herself.

She goes to her bed and sits on it, eyes closed and breathing deep as she tries to identify the burgeoning pain.

You’re saying that as sad as a pokemon’s death might be, a person’s death… ripples outward more, and is much more affecting.

This very name you use, ‘pokemon,’ shows how little respect there is… I cannot describe to you what the world was like before such a word existed.

I don’t hold all pokemon accountable for what happened to him…

“Don’t you?” she whispers, repeating what she told Red that night. How could he not?

How many tragedies are playing out right now, thanks to one pokemon? One pokemon that weaponized thousands of others with no conscious thought, and turned them into murderous, rampaging monsters?

She closes her eyes as a bloody crib flashes through her thoughts, sending a pulse of anger and grief through her. Blue’s ambition is right. This… all of this… once every few years? No wonder so many people are indifferent to pokemon suffering. No wonder they’re considered so much lesser.

Something must be done.

Blue wants to capture or kill the Legendaries, but that might not be possible anytime soon, if at all. It’s audacious…

…but not enough. There are still more deaths from non-Tier 3 events. They all need to stop if people and pokemon will ever coexist.

But how? There’s an idea burgeoning in the back of her mind, but she can’t think of what it is, it’s too vague… something about the Stormbringers, about the stampede of pokemon caused by their Pressure…

She sits frozen for a moment, mind racing over the new idea, feeling it out. Their pokemon are immune to most of the effects of Pressure due to virtual conditioning to prevent any aggressive actions without command.

What if they catch every single wild pokemon in the region, then release them, but with an altered program that only prevents aggressive action against humans or buildings, so they can reintegrate into the wild and maintain an ecosystem? They would still be immune to Pressure in all the ways that matter… and better yet, this would prevent the problems of lower tier incidents as well.

It could work. No more violence by pokemon against people… and then… peace.

She feels something soul-deep clicking into place. A possible path to victory, a purpose she can meaningfully dedicate her life to. She knows that she found it, at long last. Not just getting people to stop eating pokemon, which artificial meat might do, and not just making people treat pokemon better, but eliminating any need for people to feel threatened by pokemon at all. Practically no more need for trainers, which combined with artificial meat… would mean that the vast, vast majority of harm against pokemon would be eliminated.

She wants to stand up and pace, foot bouncing off the floor, and recognizes that she’s getting too excited. Calm down. Someone must have thought of this before, right?

Even if so, just because she hasn’t heard of it doesn’t mean it was dismissed for good reason. Maybe they dismissed it as too difficult, or thought that new pokemon being born would make it too much effort to maintain, especially if no such programs exist yet. She doesn’t want to assume that the only reason this hasn’t already been done is that no one cares enough about pokemon suffering to recognize how it might benefit humans too.

But in any case, all it would take is two things: the right programs, and a way to convince the world to do it, one region at a time.

Leaf smiles. Right. Easy as pie.

She needs to talk to her mom and grandpa about this. And Professor Oak, and Bill if he’s not too mad at her and Red for leaving the cruise, oh and Red of course, and Aiko would probably be all on board…

She checks her phone for messages again. Still nothing.

A meal arrives for her as she tries to send another message, and she eats mechanically before getting up to take a careful sponge bath in the washroom, thoughts turning her new idea from every angle she can until she returns to helping around the makeshift hospital.

Another hour passes before someone shouts in surprise, causing Leaf’s head to snap around toward them. It’s a middle aged man staring at his phone, and after a moment he clambors onto a nearby chair.

“Hey! Everyone! The list is up!” Conversation breaks out in a babble, and he has to raise his voice further to yell, “Front page of CoRRNet, last update was ten minutes ago!” A nurse is trying to reprimand him for yelling while another calls for everyone to be quiet, but most are already checking their phones with intense expressions of worry and hope.

Leaf hurries back to her room as she pulls her own out, then carefully sits on her bed and opens the webpage, heart pounding. She has to try refreshing the page a dozen times before it loads, after which she just stares at categories of names and wonders if she has the courage for this.

There are three categories, and her eye gets stuck on the third one: Confirmed Deceased. The number next to it seems absurdly low given what she experienced that night, but she knows that it’s still early, and that many of those currently counted in the much more populated Missing and In Treatment columns are likely to migrate.

Migrate.” What a pleasant euphemism I’ve created. And now I get to ruminate on that instead of just looking at the names.

Okay. It’s very simple: she’ll just open a search field and type in names, one at a time.

Before she can, a wail of grief erupts from outside, followed by choked sobs. Leaf closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, then another. I’m going to start typing as soon as I open my eyes. Three… two… one…

Leaf’s fingers shake only slightly as she starts to tap out Blue Oak, and she lets out a breath of relief as the number beside the field became 0 when she reached the O.

Next comes Red Verres, and a knot forms in her stomach until she reaches the and the number goes to 0 again. She deletes back to just Red to look through the two that popped up. Only one is a first name, the other being part of Redmayne.

She’s still stalling. She swallows and starts tapping again.

Aiko S

Leaf’s fingers stop. The number beside the search window still shows 0, and she feels the last tension relax inside her. There are still other names she wants to search, but if she’s being honest with herself, those were the ones she most cared about.

She quickly searches for Elaine and Glen, and is just about look up Takada when someone says, “It updated!” and she quickly presses refresh and gets an error message.

Leaf curses and lowers her phone. We should just find a big monitor and cast one of their phones to it, reduce the server load… The thought reminds her that she can try sending a message again, and she guiltily does so, even though she knows Red and the others are alright now.

Except she doesn’t know that at all, because new reports are still coming in and the page is constantly updating. She could spend the whole day here just refreshing the page and searching her friends’ names, and she still wouldn’t know if they’re okay until she sees or hears from them, so… really, she should just skip all that and wait until she does.

So resolved, she lowers her phone with what feels like a massive expenditure of will and looks up to see Red standing in the doorway, lowering a pair of bags beside his feet.

Leaf’s eyes widen, and they just stare at each other for a moment. There’s a burning in her throat as sudden relief spreads through her, not just the absence of anxiety but a wave of warm gratitude that makes her smile and finally stagger to her feet and toward him.

He catches her in a careful hug, and Leaf closes her eyes. It hurts a bit, but not enough for her to care. “Swords of Justice, Red, don’t ever scare me like that again.” Her arm wraps carefully around his waist, which is bereft of his pokebelt, for a brief squeeze.

“Sorry,” Red says. His voice is quiet and calm. “You’re… okay?”

“Yeah. Going to take a while to heal, but… okay.” She relaxes her arm, which he takes as a sign to lower his too, and she leans back to look him over. He looks tired, but not as much as before he left with Aiko, and the fact that he’s dry and wearing new clothes probably goes a long way toward her feeling of relief. It wasn’t just his physical health she was concerned about, but somehow the visual observation of him just looking… clean and dry and relatively put-together translates in her mind as him being emotionally better. “Where have you been?”

“The gym. Leaf… can we sit down?”

Something in his voice makes her gaze snap to his, not even registering it as a simple request to rest. There’s an odd hollowness in his eyes that she missed before, or maybe it just wasn’t as strong, but when they meet hers, she sees grief and pain lurking in that emptiness, and her heart freezes.

And then she looks down at the bags, registering the implication of a second one for the first time.

“What happened to Aiko?” She grips his shirt. “Is she here? How bad is it?”

Red pulls away from her to sit on the bed, hand taking hers, and she follows without resistance, barely feeling her body as she lowers herself beside him. He won’t look at her, which scares her more than anything.

Not dead. Just don’t say that, anything else… “Red. Tell me.” It’s hard to breathe, like shallow breaths aren’t enough but if she breathes deeper her side hurts…

“I’m sorry,” Red says, and then

she watches his lips form words that hammer her chest

(no, that’s her heart beating)

vision going white around the edges

Red’s face is panicked and tilting out of view

blood rushes through her ears in a roar

that ends in darkness. Leaf drifts from glimpses of her new friend’s intense gaze, hears harsh words exchanged on rooftops, sees a smile that’s sometimes wry, and sometimes bitter, but often genuine and surprised and warm, like she just couldn’t believe that life had this to offer her, and when Leaf wakes it’s with wet eyes pressed against a damp pillow.

She stays still a moment, recognizing where she is by the feel of the hospital bed and the sounds around her. For a moment she allows herself to think it was all a dream, and she’ll turn to find the nurse beside her, but when she turns her head and opens her eyes a crack, she sees Red sitting beside where Elaine used to, looking about half of how she feels.

“Leaf, are you—”

“How?” Leaf croaks. Her throat is dry, and she shifts herself to sit up. A nurse must have been by, because there’s a pulse monitor around her wrist and a fresh cup of water beside her bed. She sits up and drains the whole cup, then scrubs her face with her sleeve. “How did it happen?”

Red stares at her. “I think you fainted, you shouldn’t—”

“You have to tell me. It won’t be real until you do.” She draws her legs up and wraps her good arm around them, not looking at him as shock settles in around her thoughts again. The tempting denial. “Now, Red. Tell me what happened.”

He’s silent for a minute, and just before she yells at him to just tell her she realizes that she’s not thinking, that it must be hard for him too, maybe even harder, but before she can say anything he starts talking, and she’s transfixed by her need to know.

“We went to one of the hospitals that got hit by Zapdos. It was on fire, being evacuated. An onix was moving through the city, probably trying to avoid…” Red pauses, blinks rapidly, shakes his head. “Sorry. She was inside, and the roof collapsed.”

Leaf stares at him, heart hammering and breath catching in her throat as she tries to speak twice. “Did… you see?” Is it possible you’re wrong?

“No.”

“Then how…” she trails off as Red raises a finger and taps his temple, and Leaf’s last bit of hope fades.

Tears blur her vision and trace new lines down her cheeks, but this time there’s no merciful unconsciousness to divorce her from the rising tide of pain. She imagines Aiko trapped under rubble and bleeding out, mind flinching from more horrible outcomes, and then imagines Red staring at the rubble and knowing that she’s gone… “Gods, Red. I’m so s-sorry…”

She reaches an arm out, and he’s there for her to press her face into his shoulder. As the grief floods through her, she feels and hears his own stifled sobs, and grips him tighter. Even through the pain, she thinks of what he showed her on the cruise; the effect his dad’s loss had on him. And now this…

That thought makes her suddenly think of Aiko’s dad, and the flood feels like it expands into every corner of her thoughts. Gods, what are they going to say to him? He barely seemed to accept her leaving for her journey… the thought of him not accepting that she was gone, just… living on as if she’s coming home at some point…

It feels like her heart is being squeezed into pulp, the pain so great that her muffled keen is as much from the simple physical feeling as the grief.

Have you ever lost a person?… There’s like a crack in your life that doesn’t ever really go away.

She can feel it, already formed. A dark rift into which all the plans and hopes and dreams of her friend have disappeared forever, a fissure that cuts across the future and splits it off forever from what could have been, and the more she contemplates it, the more it feels like it’ll pull her in too, sink her through inky depths that will crush her like an empty soda can.

And she does get pulled in, and she does get crushed, and for a time all the world is reduced to the compact agony.

When the storm finally passes, it does so in stages of awareness. First Leaf becomes more cognizant of the feel of Red’s shirt. Then her own hospital gown. Then the sounds of others in the building. Then some stray thought clutches her leg and drags her back down until she’s ready to try coming back again.

Red is quiet and patient beside her, until the world returns little by little again and stays. She keeps her head where it is, feeling like she’s cried out, for now. Red seems content to stay still too, and what eventually makes her lift her head is a sound of grief from elsewhere in the hospital.

Another tragedy, only tangentially related. Another ended future.

Leaf opens eyes that feel puffy and sore, and notes with only minor surprise that it’s still light out, the bright midday sun shining down on a city full of cracks. There’s even a rainbow in the distance, a testament to the insanity of this new world she’s sidestepped into. In a saner one it would be night already, and raining again.

“How did you stand it?” she eventually murmurs. “With your dad.”

Red shakes his head. “Didn’t, remember? I broke. Took a long time for the pieces to settle, but even then a lot was blocked by my partition.”

Leaf pulls away slightly to search his face. “And did this break you again? Or…”

Red meets her gaze, then slowly shakes his head. “It’s… different.” His voice is quiet, but she can hear the thread of pain under it. “I think I understand how partitions form, now.”

“How?” she asks, because it’s something to talk about, anything, that’s not…

“Sometimes it seems like memories and preferences and perceptions are all we are. Like a messy bundle of data files, sensory equipment, and programmed directives that…” He stops, frowns, shakes his head. “Sorry, that’s not… Anyway, partitions divide your memories. Memories are almost like a person, right? Just… with no access to the senses, or intentions… it’s just a pattern. When I was younger… I didn’t realize I had powers, but they were still developing and working to revert harm through partition.”

“So they formed… what, another person inside you?”

“No. Sorry, I’m butchering it, and I think it’s hard to explain anyway.” He sighs and closes his eyes. “I lived a pretty sheltered life as a kid. My mom and dad were my world, and that world was good. There were things that made me sad, but life still felt… fair. Sensible.”

Leaf’s chest aches. What Red’s describing sounds very much like what life was like for her, before she decided to leave Unova.

“I was practically a baby when Blue lost his parents. Only have vague memories of them, but my dad was… more than a person. He was like an idea given form. A heroic font of wisdom about how to survive, he taught me so much about how to stay safe on my journey…”

“And then he died,” Leaf whispers. “No, not just died. Was killed by pokemon.” Leaf watches Red study her bed, focusing on the sound of his voice and the ideas he’s expressing, to keep herself from dwelling on things that would make her fall apart again.

Red nods. “It was like… if some new mythical pokemon shows up and reverses gravity for a few seconds. Forget the planetary effects, I mean just from the earth’s surface. And everything goes flying up into the air, then comes crashing down. Bunch of people die, probably, and maybe a lot of houses collapse, I don’t know. But the point is you just can’t take it for granted anymore that gravity is constant. That pokemon might do it again at any point, and everyone just… The world is different. You’re different. And you’re less shocked, the second time it happens. But a partition… it holds onto the old mental pattern, or something.” He rubs his face. “Sorry, this analogy is breaking down. I have a lot of questions I need to ask another psychic.”

Leaf worries her lower lip, watching him. “I think it made sense, sort of. So with your partition weak, you were… more prepared, for this?”

“Not prepared,” he murmurs, gaze down. “And I don’t know if the partition being weak mattered. I just… there wasn’t as much, built on some idea that we were all invincible. I think if I wasn’t psychic it would have been the same. It all feels like it’s part of the same pattern now. Maybe that’s why it was easier for me, to not go in the building.”

Leaf stares at him. “What do you mean?”

Red sighs and closes his eyes. “I wasn’t with her, Leaf,” he says, voice finally descending into full monotone. “I tried to stop her from going into the hospital, but I let her go in with just Vermilion Gym’s Second. They were going in to rescue his people and others that were still trapped inside and I said not to, I said it was too dangerous, but they went in anyway. No one came out.”

She stares at him, unable to understand what he’s saying for a moment, then unable to accept it. “You didn’t… no, Red, you risked yourself to save strangers, you don’t… how could you not…”

Now he does open his eyes, and they’re wet and angry. “How could I what, Leaf? How could I not throw my life away too? How many times did we almost die last night? I count three for myself, you probably had more. What would it have taken? A command given a second too slow? A trip or slip at just the wrong moment? If that nidoqueen meant to attack you instead of just turning while you were in the wrong place, you’d be dead.” His anger has faded, anguish coming through instead. “Dead, Leaf, just gone, like Ai…” Her name turns into a sob that brings her own tears back, and then they’re holding each other again as the tears flow, and this time Leaf feels like she’s comforting him more than the other way around.

It’s hard to fully grapple with the idea of her own non-existence in any circumstance, let alone through the numbing grief. But she can feel a little bit of the horror at how close she came, through the fear in his voice.

Another endless moment passes as Leaf lets the grief take her away again. There were just so many things she was waiting for… conversations that would never happen now. Talking to Aiko about the diglett caves, and the cruise, and her ranch, and lab grown meat, and cloning… Blue probably has his own list, and Red too, and it all adds up to sorrow that has nowhere to go. A lifetime of pain that may fade, but will persist until each of them are gone.

And all because of what? Leaf finds herself searching for justification in what Red said, for and against, because it still doesn’t make sense to her. Red was so brave all that night, despite all the fear he was dealing with… Could it be that he was using his powers to keep himself steady, and then they ran out? Or maybe…

“Red,” she whispers. “The Pressure was really hard on you. Did it—”

“No.” He sounds so tired, like he’s argued this a hundred times before. Maybe he has, to himself. “Zapdos was gone. If anything I felt less afraid for myself, after that. It was me, Leaf. Just me. I decided the risk was too high and I didn’t go in. That’s all.”

Leaf hears the words, but still… doesn’t believe him. She saw how affected he was by it, even lost in her own nearly hysterical concern for the pokemon around her—

“So it’s true?”

They both jump at Blue’s voice, and Red stands and steps around the chair so Leaf can see him, standing in the doorway like Red was.

“Blue! You’re okay!” The relief is such an unexpected positive thing to feel that she forgets her injuries and tries to get up too. She quickly stops, hissing in pain, and relaxes back into her bed. “How did you find us?”

He doesn’t answer, doesn’t even move further into the room to hug Red. He just stares at Red with an expression of barely leashed anger, and it takes her a moment to remember that he asked a question.

Just when she thinks he won’t answer, his gaze moves to her. “Just came from the gym. Found out where Red was going. You’re okay?”

“I’ll be fine.” She searches his face, heart sinking at his clipped tone. This isn’t the tearful reunion she imagined, let alone the joyful one. “The others… are they…?”

“Glen was hurt too, but he’s also recovering. Elaine?”

“She’s fine. Went to a pokemon center.”

Some tension leaves Blue at that, and he leans against the wall. “Glad you’re okay.” He opens his mouth, then closes it and turns to Red. “You still haven’t answered me.”

“You didn’t specify,” Red says, and Leaf looks at him in surprise at the leashed anger in his voice too.

Sudden foreboding fills her, and she’s about to speak when Blue answers.

“They told me you were there. When the Second and Aiko died.” Blue’s voice is controlled, but his hands are fists as he crosses them over his chest, and there’s anger under the calm like hints of flames licking an underbrush. “That you let them go into the building alone.”

“Yes,” Red says. Just that. As Leaf looks at him, all traces of the sadness from before are gone.

Blue waits, clearly expecting more of an answer. Blue’s jaw sets, and he shakes his head. “You’re not a coward. You wouldn’t have come if you were. How could you do that?”

“Guys,” Leaf says, forcing herself to speak against the sense of pressure she feels filling the room. “Maybe now isn’t the right time for this. We’re all still exhausted, maybe feeling after effects of the Pressure. Let’s just… let it go, for now. She wouldn’t want us to—”

“Yes, she would,” Blue interrupts, and she sees his fists tighten as the heat enters his voice, now. “You two didn’t know her as well as I did, you weren’t there after the caves, you don’t understand. We all take responsibility for our fuckups. She understood that, started it. Now tell me what the fuck happened, Red!”

A silence of three parts fills the room: Leaf’s shock and dread, Blue’s angry expectation, and Red’s detached hostility. It’s broken not by any of them, but by a nurse who walks by the door.

“Is everything alright in here?” she asks, looking at Leaf.

“No,” she says. “We… lost a friend.”

Blue lets a breath out through his nose and turns to the nurse. “Please excuse my outburst. It won’t happen again.”

She eyes him briefly, then looks back at Leaf, waiting for her confirmation. After a moment, Leaf nods, and the nurse walks away. It’s only after she leaves that Leaf realizes she was probably asking if she was okay, if she wanted them to stay.

As soon as she’s gone, Blue closes the door. When he turns back to Red, the silence returns.

“That’s what you want?” Red asks at last. “You just want me to say I made a mistake?”

“No, that’s not it. But it would be a start.” Blue lets out a breath and rubs his face. “It’s more than that, but just… explain what you did wrong, and why, and we can go from there.”

“If you want a real post mortem, there were three mistakes,” Red says, voice soft and hypnotically monotone. “The first was made by Vermilion’s Second. It wasn’t when he sent his team ahead while waiting for Aiko and me, that made sense. Don’t think they could have reasonably predicted the onix. The mistake came when, after arriving at the clearly unsound and doomed building, he decided to go in at all. It was too high a risk. He should have known that. He did know it, but went anyway. He didn’t make a plan for the roof collapsing, didn’t have a way to deal with that, so he shouldn’t have—”

“Stop,” Blue says, and the anger is back. “You’re not doing it right. You talk about yourself, not what other people did wrong. That’s for them to do, and he’s not here. His friends and gym mates were in the building, and he couldn’t just watch and not go try to save them. Some people can’t live like that.”

“Maybe they can’t,” Red says. “But if that’s true, those people shouldn’t be leaders. Ask Surge, if you disagree,” he quickly says, seeing Blue about to speak again. “But fine, you want me to admit my own mistake? That’s the second one. I should have lied to him. The Second asked me if there were still people alive in the building. Don’t know if he would have believed me if I said no, but… I should have said no.”

They both stare at him, and Leaf can’t keep her silence. “Red, what if someone had made it out? No one would ever trust you…”

“Maybe not. But Aiko might be alive right now.”

“That’s all you care about?” Blue asks. “You would have condemned them all to death, just to save two lives?”

“My dad taught me that risk is something you have to actively manage. It’s not just about having knowledge, it takes time. Effort. Sometimes resources. If you’re not spending anything to manage risk, you’re just rolling dice.” Red shakes his head, and now some emotion enters his voice as he leans back against her bed, gaze down. “Aiko should have known that. That’s the third mistake. She’s… she was… smart, she understood risk, and I wish… I wish I could have just paused time and talked to her about it, I’m sure I could have convinced her, but it all happened so fast…”

Leaf reaches out to put a hand on Red’s arm as he trails off, sounding close to tears again. “Red, you can’t blame yourself for this. It was her choice to come with us, we all tried to get her to come but she’s the one that ultimately chose it, just like she made the choice to go in there.” She turns to Blue. “Tell him.” He bites his lip, staying silent, and anger suddenly sparks in her own chest. “Blue, tell him!”

Blue rubs his eyes, then lets out a breath. “She did it because she chose to. But you’re wrong saying it was a mistake. She followed what she felt was right. She knew it was a risk, and maybe it was the wrong call this time. Your mistake wasn’t that you failed to stop her, Red, it was not going in after her. It’s the same mistake you make in battles, that you could have learned in Pewter if you went for the badge: you’re too hesitant to take risks.”

“This wasn’t just a risk, it was suicide.”

“You didn’t know that ahead of time, you’re saying it now, after the fact!”

“The roof collapsed, Blue, if I’d gone in then I’d be dead too!”

Then you should have died!”

The silence is back, and this time Leaf pushes through her shock. “Blue, you don’t mean that.”

“Would you have done different?” Blue asks, eyes piercing her. “Be honest, Leaf. For her, for him, for me. Would you have stayed outside?”

Leaf’s throat locks. She can’t know what she would have done… she could say that, could try to stand up for Red, but…

Blue reads it on her face, and nods. “That’s what it means to be someone’s friend,” Blue says, looking back at Red now. “That’s what you don’t get, Red. You’re talking about risk and the smart thing to do like it’s a game, like your decisions don’t say things about who you are, how people see you. Forget strangers you’re on a mission with, how could anyone trust you to have their back on a journey, if they know that’s how you see things?”

“Of course that’s what you care about,” Red says, bitterness spilling out with every word. “Your precious fucking persona. Word gets out that one of your journeymates will leave a friend to die and people wonder if you feel that way too, right? That’s what being a hero is, to you, what looks heroic, not what actually saves lives.”

“Shut up,” Blue says, face red and voice deadly calm. “That’s not how it is.”

“No? That mean you’re going to stop pretending that your definition of a hero is the only one?” Red sticks a finger forward. “Did you consider that maybe she heard your voice in the back of her head, telling her she had to go in there or she didn’t belong at the great Blue Oak’s side?”

“Get that finger out of my face before I—”

“Stop it, both of you!” Leaf cuts in, heart pounding. Both boys have moved closer to each other, faces flushed, and she forces herself out of the bed to stand between them, looking back and forth. “You’re best friends, you can’t let this change that, Aiko wouldn’t want this, you know she wouldn’t!”

Blue swallows, hands balled into fists at his side as he takes a slow breath. “Just… admit your mistake. Just say it, Red, it’s okay if you were afraid,” Blue’s voice shakes slightly on the word, “You can overcome that, we’ll help you, but you can’t go forward like this, thinking that what you did was right.”

For a moment all Leaf can hear is her heart pounding and their breaths. The world outside the door is oddly quiet, as if the whole building is waiting for Red’s response.

“That’s where you’re demonstrably wrong,” he says at last, and steps around Leaf. Blue’s arms flinch up, but Red just takes his bag from the floor and pulls its straps onto his shoulders.

“Red…” Leaf steps forward, struggling to find the right words, frustration mixing with panic. Say something, if you want to persuade the world to do the right thing then you should at least be able to stop a friend from making a mistake!

He pauses and glances at her. There’s something in his gaze that reminds her of that night on the cruise, and she feels heat go up her neck in the moment it takes for him to look away. “You don’t have to worry about me tarnishing your reputation, Blue. Maybe you’re right, maybe I’m not fit to be a trainer after all. Either way, my journey’s done.”

“Red, don’t,” Leaf says, but he’s already opening the door, and he closes it without looking back.


Red spends the day walking through the city. It’s shocking to see the damage in the daylight; all the bodies seem to have been collected, thankfully, but there are entire blocks that are a wreck. That said, watching the repair efforts that are already underway is soothing, in its own way. It’s a reminder that not everything that happened last night would leave a scar.

Red doesn’t have a specific destination in mind. He mostly just walks to keep himself busy as his thoughts churn, and his emotions ebb and flow. Occasionally he thinks of the conversation that just happened, of Blue’s tone or the look on Leaf’s face, but those pains are minor.

Mostly he just thinks of Aiko, and practices manipulating his partition.

At one point Red reaches the shopping mall that he and Leaf took shelter in, and goes inside to ensure that the group who hid there is okay. A path is cleared through the spike trap they laid, so he assumes they got out okay, at least. Afterward he goes to a pokemon center and puts his pokemon in queue to be healed. It would take a few days before his pokemon are healed, but he waits a couple hours anyway to speak with a doctor who examines Pikachu’s ball, and reports confidence that he would walk again. It doesn’t undo last night or this afternoon, but it’s a small stone off Red’s heart. He misses his pokemon’s weight on his shoulder.

Wireless signal gets fully restored by dinner time, and Red eats a meal bar in a park as he composes a message, then sends it.

He doesn’t call his mom. He would probably have to tell her that he got off the cruise at some point, but right now it seems a better problem for Future Red. He does let Bill know, and apologizes for not seeing the whole convention. He reads updates about the search for Elite Karen, which resolves just as the sun begins to set: she was found in critical condition, but alive, atop her slain pokemon. The death count for the city is up to seven thousand. It’s being cautiously referred to as the least deadly Stormbringer attack on a major city in history. Mass funerals are already being planned, and there’s a speech by the mayor and gym leader tomorrow afternoon.

The sun is setting by the time he gets a response to his message. As he gets up he spies the messages waiting for him from Leaf. Each expresses caution and reassurance that Blue will come around. He sends her a quick response telling her he’s okay and would visit tonight. There are none by Blue.

It’s a forty minute bike ride from the park to the cafe, and by the time he arrives it’s fully dark. He does his best as he packs up his bike and pads to ensure his mental state isn’t too uncomfortable, then walks into the cafe.

Most businesses aren’t re-opened yet, but Sabrina is already there, waiting with a cup of something. Or maybe she’s not waiting: Leader Giovanni sits beside her, along with Leaders Koga and Erika. Their conversation stopped before he even entered, and so he steps into silence as he stares at the four Leaders, his heart pounding in his chest.

“Ah, sorry,” he says, and swallows before bowing. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“Not at all, Red,” Sabrina says as Giovanni and Koga nod in greeting, and Erika twiddles her fingers. “I already told them this would only take a moment. In fact, it’s already done.” Her gaze is sympathetic, but warm. “I’m truly sorry for your loss. But your assessment is correct. Your partition is now partially under your control.”

Red’s heart hammers as he feels hope pierce the grief, for a moment. “You’ll take me as your student, then?”

Sabrina sips from her cup, gaze thoughtful, then seems to reach a decision. “I will. When can you start?”


End of Part I

Chapter 66: Interlude XI – Pyre

Sabra is so distracted by the sight of the hospital going through its final immolation that she almost misses the young trainer sitting on the wet ground nearby it.

The top half has already burned itself out, while the smoldering bottom illuminates the boy and the bags sitting next to him. Vermilion Gym’s Third rears her manectric Sheen to a stop, then dismounts so she can approach the trainer as her people fan out to search for other survivors that may still need help. They just finished hunting down and catching the onix that was cracking streets and building foundations, and are working their way back along its path of destruction to help who they can.

The people who evacuated ensured that the fire wouldn’t spread, but few trainers are here now: it’s clear there’s nothing left to save.

The boy is staring at the hospital, gaze distant and body slouched over his knees. There are two bags and various pokeballs and medical equipment sitting next to him, and the sight of them fills Sabra with foreboding as she gets close enough to talk. “Are you alright, trainer?”

He turns to her, and even with his wet hair in his face and the dim light, his expression is one that Sabra has seen a hundred times before, and Arceus permitting will see a hundred times more. That blank, empty look of someone in deep shock.

“I couldn’t stop them,” the boy says, and she suddenly recognizes him by his voice. It’s Red Verres, the trainer that helped catch all those abra and decided to wholesale them, then took a few of her classes at the gym. “I’m sorry.”

“Who?” Sabra asks, and looks at the bags again. One she doesn’t recognize, but the other is Vermilion Gym standard, and the foreboding spreads through her chest. It wasn’t his friends, surely? If it were Oak and Juniper, wouldn’t they have all gone in together? “Who went in there, Verres?”

“Aiko Sakai,” Verres says, voice low, and turns back to the blazing hospital. “And your Second.”

Sabra spins back toward the hospital, denial and horror warring in her as she imagines Jack somewhere in that burning rubble. No one could still be alive in there, not unless… “They could be safe, they could have tunneled under, or—”

“No,” Red says, and Sabra looks back to him. He’s still staring at the fire, voice low and expression blank. “I sensed it, when the floors fell in together. Their pokemon survived, for a bit. Now they’re all gone.”

Pain pierces through her chest as Sabra closes her eyes. Jack, you brave fool. Vermilion’s Third gives herself a moment to grieve, and when she steadies her breathing and opens her eyes again, it’s as its Second. “If you’ll accompany me,” she says voice steady, “We’ll ensure you’re at a safe location while the city re-stabilizes. Leader Surge will want a full debrief, after.”

The young trainer doesn’t even look at her. Just gets to his feet, looks at his friend’s belongings, and starts to gather them up. “I can’t. I have to tell the others.”

Sabra does the same with Jack’s things, strapping his bag to her chest and filling its empty pockets with the pokemon he left behind. “I’m sorry about your friend, Verres.” She vaguely remembers the girl from classes too, usually there with Blue Oak. Short dark hair and an intense concentration, like she was soaking up every word of the lessons. “She was a hero.”

“Yes,” Verres says, still in that flat voice. “Blue will be proud of her.”

“But Surge needs to know—”

“I don’t care. You’ll have to restrain me if you want to stop me.”

Sabra turns to the boy in surprise and sees he’s already walking without her. He’s in shock, she reminds herself to keep from snapping at him in a tone of command, nerves frayed by the long night. Instead she takes a deep breath, immediately regretting it as her nose fills with the scent of ash.

Her quick strides move her in front of him before he gets far, and she lowers herself to one knee so that she can more easily meet his empty gaze, barely feeling the water seep through her pants, which were just starting to dry. He doesn’t move as her hands firmly grip his shoulders, nor when she pulls him into a hug.

It’s awkward, with the extra bags. Their clothes are still damp from the rain, and the boy has an extra pokebelt on, one of its balls pressing uncomfortably against her hip. But she doesn’t let him go, even when he fails to respond.

Surge has always told her that she relies too much on commands to be commanding. That if she loses the ability to connect with people, she’ll forever be someone that can only take the mantle of Leader, rather than being one without it.

“Just because it hurts, doesn’t mean you did the wrong thing,” she murmurs against his ear, eyes closed as her own past feelings of guilt swirl inside her, filling her with pain and nausea, letting it speak her truth and hoping that it resonates with him. “We don’t always get to know.”

It takes a minute for the trainer to thaw, and the boy to return from wherever he went. She holds him as he shakes, tears lost in the dampness of their clothes.

Eventually they part, and Sabra takes his hand to lead him to her patient manectric. She helps him into the passenger saddle, then mounts behind him and turns to look at the hospital. The night after she became Vermilion’s Third, Jack took her out for drinks. Confided the survivor’s guilt he carried, said he had made it a source of strength, pushing him to help others. His biggest worry, he said, was what would happen if he felt he had done enough… and his biggest fear was that he never could. That he would carry it to his grave.

Her hand rises in a final salute, throat tight, then comes down to command Sheen forward.

The boy keeps his gaze down, back bag resting against her front one, and neither of them look back as another part of the building caves in, sending a rush of sparks and smoke up into the cloudless night.

Chapter 65: Fearless

Fear. Deep as her bones, like a weight on her very skin. Compressing her. Making her back hunch, her knees bend. Making her want to be small. To hide.

That’s what the Pressure did to her, when it hit after the aerial wave passed by. Just like before, when she saw a myth float above her in rainbow blaze of heat.

She couldn’t believe how anyone was able to function, under that. The only thing that kept her upright and moving was sheer fear of social condemnation and letting her friends down. Once Zapdos appeared like a blazing incarnation of nature’s fury, she couldn’t even open her mouth to give commands.

Thankfully there was nothing in her section of the wall that needed attacking: she just had to stand there and not collapse until the god had flown past.

And she had. Her knees buckled, but didn’t break. And now… she’s free.

That’s how it felt, as soon as the Pressure ended. Like she was awake and alive and herself in a way that was hard not to feel innervated by. Even walking through the storm-ravaged streets, seeing all the dead pokemon and people, wasn’t enough to completely dispel that relief.

Part of her feels proud that she made it through. But mostly she’s just ashamed of how useless she was, and how she never wants to go through that again. A voice inside is whining that she just wants to go home and crawl into her bed and sleep.

More than anything, what keeps her moving is the need to shut that voice up.

Aiko moves along the street with the others as they make their way between the burning buildings, keeping the right side of the street in her field of vision, but occasionally glancing forward and back to see Jack and Mei Li in those positions. It’s a little surreal for her to be working so close to a Gym Second, but it’s definitely reassuring in a way that being separate from Blue and Glen wouldn’t otherwise have been.

Mei Li is more distracting: her goggled head swivels around to watch the ninety-degree cone behind them while her feet step backward with easy, practiced grace. They trained in this formation at the gym, but only for one class. Aiko wants to ask how long she practiced that backwards walk, but doesn’t want to distract her. There will be plenty of time to ask after, since she’s going to end up joining the gym too, after what Blue did.

Elaine makes up the other side of the formation, which puts her out of Aiko’s field of view. Aiko is waiting for an opportunity to talk to her, but both the situation and their positions makes it difficult.

Instead it’s Jack who initiates conversation, keeping his gaze sweeping forward as he says, “Now that we’re a smaller group, the need for information of each person’s capabilities are magnified. Aiko, Elaine, I’ll need a rundown of your pokemon.”

“Raticate, venonat, sandslash, oddish, krabby,” Aiko says. Eevee is trotting beside her. “And an abra, just for teleporting.” She hasn’t trained it for combat yet, in part because it doesn’t belong to her and in part because she doesn’t keep it on her belt.

“Psyduck, obviously,” Elaine says next as her yellow companion waddles beside her. “Tangela, drowzee, grimer, dugtrio, venomoth.”

“Alright,” the gym’s Second says. “Any special skills, outside of combat?”

“Tracking and pokemon care,” Aiko says.

“That’s it?”

She glances at him before looking back where she’s supposed to. “Uh. Breeding too, in case it’s important for some reason? And I do some training and conditioning programming.” She’s about to add that she can cook too, but realizes it might sound sarcastic.

“After the storm, try to go to at least the third class on leadership,” Jack says, voice empty of admonishment. “It’ll go over why even knowing unrelated skills like that might be important. And Elaine?”

“Um. Navigation and pathfinding, and I took some coordinator classes?”

“Alright. Mei Li’s top four are medical, navigation, rescue, and kiting, just so you’re aware. Mine are containment, medical, coordinator, and habitat.”

Aiko nods, like this is information that will be useful to her. Who knows, maybe it will be. She imagines that Elaine is far happier with all this talk of main skills, and wonders if she’s already classifying them (literally) the way she did her friends. “Sir, if I can ask, why are we staying near the burning buildings?”

“Well, for one they’re going to be beacons for all sorts of pokemon, even as they drive away any with a healthy fear of fire. But I’m hoping trainers with the right pokemon can come and put these buildings out, and maybe they’ll need help with that if so. If not, it’s the most likely area for rescue operations to move through in any case, and if we can hitch a ride with them we’ve got a change in priorities. Priority 1 is still catching wilds we come across, but 2 is being upgraded to 4, while helping civilians stays at 3. Time is our most valuable resource right now, and if I could sacrifice one of each of our pokemon to get there now, I would. Understood?”

Aiko is too shocked by his statement for a moment to realize he expects an answer. It isn’t until Elaine says, “Yes, sir,” that Aiko swallows and echoes her, thinking that there’s no way she’s “sacrificing” a pokemon unless someone’s life is immediately on the line.

“Good. Along those lines, if we reach an area where the road is clearer we can use mounts and bikes to—”

“Incoming from above,” Mei Li cuts in. “Magnemite swarm!”

Aiko almost turns to look, but Jack’s “Inside, this way!” draws her attention to him instead, and she runs after the gym’s Second, feet splashing the small rivers that run along the streets. Aiko keeps her gaze on her quadrant, making sure there aren’t any other pokemon nearby until they reach one of the few unshuttered doors on the street. Jack’s machoke shatters the door, and they pile inside as the cloud of metallic spheres and spinning prongs hovers over the street.

Electricity snaps and crackles between them, catching street lights below and blowing their bulbs as electricity arcs out from them into the various magnemite and magneton.

And then they’re past. It takes Aiko’s eyes time to adjust with the remaining light outside, the flames above giving everything a mild yellow and red tint. The more distant streetlights make it easier to see the outlines of things than any details in all the darkness.

“Well,” Jack says, voice quiet. “Time to find another route.”

“Think that swarm is what’s causing the evac?” Mei Li asks.

“I hope so. If it’s not, there’s something worse, like the hospital being one of the burning buildings.” Jack sighs. “If we could get word to Giovanni, he could probably take them all down himself.”

“Could we… send flares up?” Aiko asks, unsure if suggestions are welcome. “Some kind of signal?”

“Flares bigger than the flaming buildings, you mean?” Mei Li asks, but she’s smiling. It sounds like she’s smiling, at least.

“We don’t have a system of communication worked out through flares anyway,” Jack says. “Though it’s not a bad idea. We’ll be sure to include it in the debrief. Meanwhile, let’s find a route that has more light.”

They make their way out as Jack summons a zebstrika. The white stripes of fur begin to glow as a current of electricity runs along its body, and they shift to a square formation around it so its light spreads between them. Its hooves sound incredibly loud against the pavement as Aiko tries to make out any movement along the streets and between the buildings, the glowing pokemon reflecting in the windows they pass.

Normally this might all be somewhat frightening, but while Aiko feels tense and mildly exhausted, it’s all still nothing compared to the fear that’s behind her. Like the falling rain and occasional thunder that still rolls over the city compared to the previous deluge and constant cacophony, her fear is a muted and weak thing, leaving her feeling incredibly clear minded. She wonders if this is how others feel all the time. Or at least how those like the gym members or Blue feel.

They occasionally spot wild pokemon, but none seem interested in a fight, and rather than waste time chasing them through the streets or into buildings Jack tells them to keep going. Eventually they reach an intersection that crosses out of the corridor of flaming buildings and into a side street where the lights are still on.

When they reach it Mei Li steps forward to scout it with Jack covering her, while Aiko and Elaine step back to back so they can watch the whole street as they wait, and Aiko clears her throat after a moment.

“So. You and Blue, huh?” That kiss seemed to take everyone by surprise. Elaine is usually so… not bashful, exactly, but childish in a way, and sometimes meek, that Aiko expects her to blush and insist it was just a friendly kiss.

Instead, Aiko can hear the smile in her voice as she says, “Well, we’re not secretly dating, if that’s what you’re asking. And maybe he’s not interested. But it’s what I wanted to do, so I just… did it.” Her voice grows more subdued. “We might die here, you know? I just had to try. He’s a great trainer, and a great leader, and a great friend, and really cute. Friends kiss each other on the cheek, right?”

“…Right.” Aiko takes a moment to get over her surprise and keep turning her gaze left and right (and occasionally up). Growing up on the ranch, combined with her goal of traveling as a trainer, Aiko gave little thought to dating or boys, having just assumed she wouldn’t be in a relationship for years. Apparently Elaine disagrees, and Aiko’s not sure how she feels about it. Would it be weird, if she and Blue started… dating? “Well, good luck.”

“Thanks.” Elaine sighs, and after a moment says, “I wish we were all together still. Being split up around the pokemon center was hard enough.”

“Yeah.” Aiko wasn’t near Elaine or any of the others, thankfully. There was no one to see her freeze up the way she did. “Was it hard, for you?”

“The Pressure?” She’s quiet a moment. “Hard to tell, really. Felt like everything was over in a blink. It was scary at first, how fast things were happening, how little time I felt like I was actually… present. But even that didn’t last long, so it wasn’t so bad? It was like I was just jumping ahead, every time I blinked. It all sort of feels like a dream now, to be honest. I barely remember any of it.”

“Oh.” Aiko relaxes slightly, glad that she wasn’t the only one who felt useless.

“Now, though, everything’s slow by comparison. I feel like I can spend a whole minute to decide reactions that are just a second or two.”

Aiko blinks. “That… doesn’t sound right.”

Elaine laughs. “I know. Some weird subjective adjustment going on, I guess. But still, it feels like I can do anything right now. Blue described the calm he feels while he’s in a battle, like he’s just in a state of always knowing what to do next and then just doing it automatically. This isn’t like that, but… I bet he feels this invincible.”

This worries Aiko even more. Whatever perceptual illusion Elaine is having, it might make her overconfident. But hearing her so confident is nice, and Aiko doesn’t want to tear her down without reason.

Soon after they’re on the move again, making their way up a new street with the flaming buildings on just one side and the streetlights still on. Jack keeps his zebstrika out, however, and takes a moment to put its saddle on it so he can switch places with Mei Li and ride it backward, watching behind them as they travel.

By Aiko’s estimation they’re just over halfway to the hospital when they hear the screams for help.

They’re distant, but clearly coming from above. Everyone looks around in the flickering orange light, but no one can see where it’s coming from.

“There,” Mei Li says, pointing up at the burning building ahead with one hand as the other adjusts a lens on her goggle. “About ten stories up.”

Vermilion’s Second doesn’t respond for a series of heartbeats. Aiko looks at him in the dim light, and sees him twisted around in his seat and staring up with a look of intense thought even after they hear whoever it is cry out again.

“ETA?” he finally asks.

“At this rate? Maybe another fifteen minutes out.”

“Then use Tiānkōng.”

Mei Li nods and steps toward a wide open part of the street before she summons a pidgeot. She quickly climbs onto the saddle and straps herself in, then takes off.

“You two, eyes out and keep moving up,” Jack says, and Aiko and Elaine immediately stop looking up after her to form a triangle with their backs, watching for any pokemon that might be approaching as they keep walking. Aiko’s throat is dry, thinking of Jack’s moment of hesitation… surely it was just about the best way to help whoever is up there…

Nothing attacks them while they walk, and soon they hear the beat of wings approaching. The pidgeot glides overhead, then hovers just above the ground, its wingbeats sending gusts of wind around it as it carefully clutches an older woman in its talons, and Jack dismounts to run under it and help her without getting into the path of the huge bird’s gales.

Mei Li gives some command, and the huge bird stops flapping, releases the woman, and lands, all in one practiced movement of its wings to let it glide forward just after letting her go. Aiko has a moment to boggle at the skilled maneuver, then remembers that she’s supposed to be watching for pokemon and scans their surroundings again.

“Thank you… oh, thank you,” the woman says in a trembling voice, and as she looks around Aiko sees Jack carefully help her sit on the wet ground, clearly unable to stand just yet. “Oh gods, I thought…” She starts to cry. “There were… pokemon in the halls…” She clutches at Jack’s arm. “There are others in the building!”

“Where were they?”

“I don’t know… Robert, he lives a floor below me, he said he was staying too… and I heard yelling, when the fire started, and then the pokemon came and people were running…”

“Okay. We’ll do what we can, ma’am,” Jack says, and leads her to Mei Li. “Right now we need to get you to safety.”

Aiko watches through corner glimpses as the pidgeot kneels down, and he helps the woman up onto the saddle behind Mei-Li, who turns to help her strap in.

“Sweep north from here,” he tells her. “Sweet spot is above the light posts to avoid the magnemite, and below the tallest buildings to avoid lightning.”

“Yes, sir. Rendezvous?”

“No, just stay there and help as you can.”

“Right. Good luck, Jack.”

“And you.” He steps back so she can fly off in a gust of wet wind. Once she’s gone, he looks up at the burning building, then turns to them and gestures up the street. “Go ahead, 120 degree sightlines each. I’ll bring up the rear.”

Aiko stares at him a moment in the dim light as the rain falls, then turns to keep their surroundings in view. Understanding creeps through her with cold tendrils, like the rain is seeping through her skin to fill her chest and stomach.

“But,” Elaine says, voice quiet. “She said…”

“We don’t know what pokemon are in the building,” Jack says, and his voice is neutral without being flat, absolute without being cold. “Or how many civilians, and where. Any we found would need to be guarded, and none of us have any pokemon that can carry others. Priority 3 remains assisting with the hospital evacuation. Still, I can’t force you to come with me, and I can travel faster on my own, though it would be safer if we all move together.”

He doesn’t say that they agreed to follow orders, because he doesn’t have to. “But the Pressure is gone,” Aiko says. She’s reaching, and she knows it. “All the pokemon we’ve encountered since have been less hostile.”

“The ones in the building are seeking shelter,” Elaine says, voice low. “They’ll be on edge, especially if they think they’re competing over limited safe space.”

Aiko turns to her in shock. “So you think we should just go?”

Elaine glances at her, then turns back away to keep scanning around them. “Didn’t say that,” she murmurs, and Aiko winces. She thought she was getting better, but her tone was still incredulous and scornful.

“I can assure you we will not lack for people to help,” Jack says before she can apologize. “And choosing to try to help whoever might still be alive in there is choosing to ignore those who are likely still ahead.”

Aiko is back to watching her quadrant (now tridrant?), though her thoughts are still on Elaine, bothered by the other girl’s response. She feels a little resentful, as if she’s being asked to make the decision for both of them.

Aiko shivers in the rain, and takes a deep breath, trying to think through the confusing stew of emotions roiling through her. It’s a hard moral choice, one that she knows there’s likely no right answer to, and she doesn’t want to make it. Feels like she’ll regret it no matter what she chooses. And feels… a bit of resentment, to Elaine. For not siding with her, for forcing her to make this decision, in a way.

But no. Elaine has been working harder to be more assertive, to speak her views even if they might disagree, and she’s been getting better, but she still needs encouragement. That hasn’t changed just because of their circumstances. “What do you think, Elaine? I’m really curious.”

Elaine opens her mouth, closes it, looks at her, then back away. Finally she says, “I think… he’s right?” Before Aiko can respond, she says, “Yeah. Not a question, sorry. I think he’s right.”

Aiko reaches out to take her hand, and squeezes it briefly before she lets it go. It feels like there’s a lump of ice in her chest, like a betrayal to what she’s even doing here… but she can’t ignore the logic of the Second’s words, even if she’s willing to ignore his expertise.

“Alright. Let’s go.” She starts walking, and Elaine moves with her, and Jack follows them both without a word, the low crackle of the distant fire quickly swallowed again by the shushing rain.

Aiko tries to stay focused on watching for dangers while they move, thoughts spinning uselessly over her decision as the minutes pass and they make their way to the hospital again. They pass by a small apartment building that looks like something burst out from underneath and inside it, and at one point there’s the sound of an explosion in the distance, making them all turn toward it as it echoes off the buildings, the sounds muted by the rain. Twice they have to hide as more magnemite swarms float by, forcing them to take alternate routes to still have more light than just Jack’s zebstrika provides. It’s in those brief periods that they’re the most vulnerable, as the only source of light along otherwise dark streets, but Aiko still never feels any real fear, just a sort of distant worry and a tension as she stays alert for what might be coming.

They’ve just reached another area that still has streetlights on when Aiko’s gaze moves over the bodies without registering them for a moment. Then she sucks in a sharp breath and runs forward a few steps before staggering to a stop, remembering protocol. “Bodies!” She turns to the others and points.

“Watch the streets,” Jack says as he dismounts and runs forward, and the girls move to flank him while turning back to back. Anxiety makes Aiko’s weight shift between her feet as she watches for any threats, part of her wondering why this form of fear is somehow fully felt, where the distinction is drawn in her own mental landscape.

“I’ve got pulse,” Jack says after a moment, cutting her anxiety in half. “…Steady breaths. No wounds.” Thunder rolls overhead, and when it ends Jack’s voice comes from another place behind Aiko. “Same here.”

She turns to catch him in her periphery this time when he moves to the third body. He curses as he suddenly lifts the woman up, checks her pulse, then lower her onto the ground face-up and starts performing CPR. Aiko’s heart pounds so loud in her ears that she can barely hear him when he finally speaks, voice flat. “Dead. Her face was in water. Drowned in a goddamn puddle.”

Aiko closes her eyes as anxiety turns to grief and denial, though only for a moment. If they’d been here sooner, they might have saved her… but they made it in time for the other two. And if they had stopped to search that building, they might not have.

It’s just like Jack said. Time is the highest priority.

“The others are okay?” Elaine asks.

“Unconscious, but no visible injuries,” Jack says, and grunts. Aiko turns to see him lifting a big man by his shoulders so that he’s propped against a trash can, well away from the water on the floor, and looks back at her half of the perimeter before he does the same with the younger figure. “I’m guessing mental attack.”

“Could have been plant based,” Aiko suggests, voice dull. “Rain would wash away spores.”

“Right… we’ll administ… er…”

Aiko blinks as Jack trails off, and turns to him just in time to see his body hit the street, the sound of it muffled by the rain. His machoke, however, makes a much louder sound when it falls.

Something that bears only a passing resemblance to fear goes through Aiko, an empty and meaningless sensation compared to what she felt from the Stormbringer’s pressure. “Elaine!”

Elaine turns and sees Jack. She gasps and moves forward… only to stumble.

“Hypnosis,” she says, falling onto her hands and knees, and then mutters something else that Aiko can’t hear before she falls facedown too.

There’s no moment of hesitation, even as Aiko fears her friend drowning too, panics at the sudden sense of exhaustion that makes her eyelids heavy. Her arm moves to grab the awakening on her belt as Jack’s zebstrika falls over, followed by Elaine’s psyduck.

“Eevee,” she mutters as she brings the bottle up to her face, arm heavy. “Track…” She feels herself falling, but even still jams the rubber nozzle into her nose and breathes in as she squeezes the handle. One.

The awakening lights her sinuses on fire, a jolt that knocks her mind reeling out of the beginnings of sleep and makes her heart start pounding again. She catches herself against the ground as her mind clears, looking around as pain jolts up her arm.

Eevee is barking at something, but the sounds are fading as her pokemon sags with exhaustion too. Aiko follows its gaze past Jack and Elaine’s figures to an alley behind them across the street, where something yellow and humanoid standing at the mouth of an alley… four of them, one taller than the others.

Aiko rushes to wake Jack two then his zebstrika three before moving to Elaine. “Drowzee in the alley!” she yells as she pushes the nozzle into Elaine’s nose and presses it. Four.

“Cover your eyes! Zee, Flash!”

Aiko presses her arm over her eyes and covers Elaine’s face with her body just in time for the blinding light to creep in at the edges. When it’s gone, Elaine is stirring against her, and Aiko quickly jumps up to help with the battle.

Jack’s zebstrika is racing at the figures, electricity arcing outward to shock the wild pokemon as they try to recover from the blinding. Its charge suddenly falters from some combined mental attack. Five. “Eevee, Fast!” she yells after her pokemon gets back to its feet, then grasps for her sandslash’s ball and summons it too.

Mental attacks are hard to avoid or protect against, though most rely on something similar to line of sight. As soon as her sandslash is summoned, Aiko points to the drowzee and says, “Dig!”

Her pokemon’s claws move in a blur, ripping up asphalt and burrowing into the wet ground with a full-body shimmy, its scales scraping and churning the ground up as its legs kick it out behind it. Jack has summoned a liepard, and Aiko feels a rush of relief at the sight of the dark pokemon.

As the lean purple feline dashes forward to tear into the group of psychics with claws and teeth, Elaine’s psyduck starts to spray them with water guns while Eevee dashes in and out for tackles, dodging the drowzees’ fists. The three trainers advance on them even as the hypno leaps at Jack’s liepard with a headbutt that sends it sprawling, and Aiko tries to keep up with everything happening.

“Double Edge!” she yells as Eevee is knocked away, then turns in alarm as Jack stumbles to one knee. But he already has an awakening of his own pressed to his nostril while Elaine summons her own drowzee and commands it to hypnotize their opponents as she wakes her psyduck back up.

The hypno has dropped down onto all fours to rush at the liepard again, but leaps away a moment before claws dig out of the ground below it. Before Aiko can give her pokemon another command, the hypno’s eyes glow, and Aiko’s sandslash slumps back into its hole… just as the liepard leaps back onto the hypno, tearing bloody lines down its yellow hide and trying to bite its neck through the thick white fur there.

Eevee went down while she wasn’t looking, hopefully asleep, but before Aiko can summon another pokemon the drowzee break and run, all three racing on their stumpy legs down the alley. “Don’t let them get away!” Jack yells between commands, crouching beside his zebstrika to reawaken it.

Aiko stops moving toward her sandslash and races after the drowzee, free hand going to her pokeball pouch as she keeps the awakening in her other one. It should have two or three more sprays left in it, she can’t remember if she’d used it five times or six, and she knows she used it three times before—

She gets close enough to lock onto the rearmost drowzee and throws just as it and the one ahead turn to her, eyes glowing. Her target disappears in a flash and she presses the nozzle into her nose in anticipation…

…just before getting punched in the stomach.

That’s what it feels like, anyway, despite nothing touching her. She sprawls back on to the wet ground as the breath rushes out of her, confusion and pain making her head spin as Elaine dashes forward and captures the drowzee just as it turns to her.

“Aiko!”

“I’m fine,” she tries to say, and instead just wheezes with pain. She waves her free hand forward instead, toward the last retreating drowzee. Her friend looks at it, then back at her, then takes off at a run.

Aiko leans back onto her bag and pulls a potion out, lifting her shirt over her stomach to spray where the telekinetic hit landed, and sighs as the pain is somewhat numbed. As she lies there and waits to heal, another one of those echoing explosions reverbrates throughout the city.

After a minute or so it’s easier to get full breaths, and she pushes herself to her feet with one hand on the wall until she’s standing. She’s about to start after Elaine when her friend turns the corner back into the ally and jogs over, picking up their captured drowzee along the way.

“You okay?” she asks Aiko.

“Yeah. Go help Jack.”

“Right.” She starts jogging back the way they came, and Aiko hobbles after her. By the time she makes it to the street again, the battle is over.

Aiko uses a flashlight to reach into the hole and awaken her sandslash, then wakes Eevee up and checks her for injuries. The bottle is surely empty now, and she takes a moment to look for a trash can to throw it out in before realizing she can’t find one. She places it carefully on the ground, feeling absurdly guilty, then goes to Jack and Elaine next to the two civilians they saved… and the one they didn’t reach on time.

“You saved us,” Jack says, looking at Aiko and clearly reading her expression. “Which means you saved them too. Focus on that.”

“Elaine figured it out,” Aiko says, though she still feels her spirit raised a little. “If they’d targeted her first instead of you, I wouldn’t have…”

“It was just a guess” Elaine says.

“Good job to both of you, regardless,” Jack says. “With the battle too. If I were traveling alone and came upon them I might have stopped despite my better judgement, and would have paid the price for that.” He sighs and looks down at the bodies. “But now we have another hard choice to make.”

Aiko looks at him, then the civilians. “We’re not going to leave them?” she asks, unable to keep the incredulity from her tone. “Just because we have no transport—”

“We don’t know what condition they’ll wake in,” Jack interrupts.

Aiko gets it just as Elaine covers her mouth, eyes wide. “You think they were fed on.” She slumps against a light post, a weariness that has nothing to do with sleep coming over her. “Of course they were.”

The damage done by “dream eaters” like drowzee and hypno often vary in symptoms from instance to instance; Aiko has heard of people and pokemon who temporarily lose their memories, have trouble with random types of physical movement or coordination, can’t control their emotions, hallucinate, and more… all of which might be permanent if fed on for long enough, until the victim is comatose.

“Even if they weren’t,” Jack says, voice just loud enough to be heard over the rain. “One of them died. If the other two wake… they likely won’t be able to just brush that off.”

“So what do we do?” Elaine asks. “What can we do?”

“My machoke can carry one. I can put the other in Zee’s saddle, and walk beside him to make sure he doesn’t fall off. The third…” He trails off, letting them work it out themselves.

Aiko doesn’t need him to lay the options out for her again. She can see them. “If we work together to carry her in a sling, we slow down a lot. Limit our reaction time. Get tired faster.” She swallows. “And there are more people ahead who may need help, right now, while we stand here waiting.”

“There almost certainly are, at the hospital,” Jack says.

“It feels wrong,” Elaine says. “Leaving her here. But we… saw others. And we left them. This just feels worse because…”

“Because of them,” Aiko finishes, looking at the other two. Whatever condition they wake in, when they regain their senses (assuming they do), they’ll wonder where she is. And know that she was left behind.

“I’ll remember where she is,” Jack says. “And ensure she’s picked up soon.”

It takes a couple minutes to get both of them secured, the young boy cradled in the machoke’s arms, the older man slumped against the zebstrika’s neck. Aiko is still trying to think through ways to bring the woman too, and almost asks if he has any container boxes big enough to fit the woman, but… whatever he would have to empty out to make the room for her might be things they end up needing. She doesn’t ask, but resolves to buy a bigger container ball herself as soon as she can.

Eventually they’re ready to go, and without looking back they start moving again, Jack walking with his hand over the man’s around the pommel and looking over his shoulders as Aiko and Elaine watch in front and to their sides.

They’re almost at the hospital when Eevee alerts them to the coming danger. Aiko sees her shift to a battle stance, large ears turned upward as she barks.

It’s another magnemite swarm, or perhaps one of the earlier ones: it’s hard to tell its size as it spreads and condenses, electricity arcing through it and outward at its surroundings. Once again Aiko’s only reaction is a faint and empty panic, and vaguely wonders if such emotions would ever feel meaningful again, or if the Thunder God’s Pressure broke something in her.

“Shit!” Jack says. “Get ready to run if it turns this way, we’ll head into the—”

A blast of orange light spears through the darkness and hits the ground beneath the swarm and drills into it… and a moment later there’s an eruption as a column of earth soars up and encompasses the magnemite before detonating as well, knocking scores of them to the ground and burying them in rubble.

Aiko’s hands are clapped over her ears from the now-familiar noise, which is far louder from this close up. She watches wide eyed as more beams of light hit the remains of the swarm from different directions, and Aiko follows them to their sources to spot the green, sinuous bodies of the flygon that glide soundlessly overhead.

It takes them less than a minute to blast the remains of the magnemite swarm out of the sky, and then they’re descending, half a dozen of them, to capture as many as are still alive.

“About time,” Jack says, and Aiko turns to see him smiling. “Wasn’t looking forward to having to deal with that myself.”

Aiko turns back in time to see one of the flygon swooping down to land in front of them. Its rider quickly unstraps themself and slides off, then fiddles with their hood as they approach…

…and pulls it off to reveal Giovanni Sakai.

“Leader.” Jack is still smiling as he steps forward to clasp hands with him. “It’s good to see you.”

“And you, Jack. What’s your objective, here?”

“We’re on our way to evacuate a hospital to the north, which we think may have been in the path of Zapdos’s attack.”

“It was. The hospital is burning.”

Aiko’s stomach sinks at the words, dispelling some of the feeling of being starstruck by her proximity to the ex-Champion and Leader. She turns and sees a similar expression of dismay on Jack’s face. “How bad is it?”

“The top few floors were lost almost immediately. No telling how many died then, but there were a number of trainers there who worked their pokemon ragged to try and stall the fire from going lower, and the evacuation got the next few out before it spread. It’s an ongoing race since then.”

“Shit. They still need help, then?”

“Badly. My men and I have been ensuring no major threats approach as the hospital’s defenders help escort its civilians out. The job is almost done, but the bottleneck is still trainers able to assist in escort. The sooner you arrive, the better… but I see you have wounded. Civilians?”

Is that judgement in the Leader’s tone? Aiko tries to read his expression, but it seems neutral… though intense. He has the same air of focus that he exudes through videos.

“We just picked them up,” Jack says. “Can you assist us in transporting them?”

Giovanni looks at his people a moment, then back to Jack. “Yes, we can take all of you. It’ll only be a couple minutes for us, opposed to another ten for you. Come and help with the captures, and we’ll fly over together.”

Aiko lets her breath out, relief making her almost dizzy. She doesn’t know how much more there’s still to come, but for now at least it feels like the hardest part of the night is over.


It takes five minutes to finish catching all the magnemite that are still alive, and then fly to the hospital. Aiko and Elaine managed to get 4 and 5 respectively, and she can’t help but feel that they, along with the drowzee she caught, are something of a reward for choosing to stay and help… even if some part of her feels disgusted at herself for thinking of pokemon in that way.

Aiko has never ridden on such a smooth ride as a flygon, and the simple lift and forward propulsion created by its sail-like wings allows her to relax for the first time since they left the pokemon center. She takes in the city as best she can on the short ride. There are whole blocks that are dark, and the giant torches of the buildings cast a broader glow from up high, letting her see how little the slice of the city they’ve been struggling through really is. She hopes the others are alright, wherever they are now.

Then she can make out their destination, and squints against the wind and rain to scan the hospital campus. She can see most of the defensive perimeter is still in place, but the area within it has become a mass of people as the flaming building continues to be evacuated. In the handful of seconds before they land, Aiko can make out two processions of people: one thick and bustling mass going to the southwest, likely toward the pokemon center she and the others came from, and one similarly thick one going to the east toward another shelter.

Once they land she discovers there’s a third, much smaller one underway.

Aiko and Elaine rest against one of the barricades, shoulders leaning against each other as their backs lean against their bags. Eevee and Psyduck are resting with them, eating the same nutrient bars they’re munching on.

“How’s your stomach?” Elaine asks after a minute.

“Only hurts when I breathe,” Aiko says, causing Elaine to snort and nudge her shoulder. Aiko nudges her back, smiling. “How you feeling? Still invincible?”

“A little. Mostly tired. Think it’s too early for a victory dance?”

“Probably.” Aiko glances up at the burning building. There’s a wide area around it that’s empty, which makes the rest of the campus perimeter a bit crowded. “We’re definitely doing one before we go to bed tonight, though.”

“Oh, man. I’m excited already. Mostly for the bed part, though.” Elaine turns to her. “We going to do that thing again, too? Where we talk about how we screwed up?”

Aiko blinks. “Yeah, I think so. I will, anyway. You been thinking about that?”

“Uh huh. Been trying to come up with a name for it too. How does Aiko Accountability sound? AA for short.”

Aiko laughs despite herself and nudges Elaine’s shoulder again, harder this time. “No thanks.”

“Heroic Accountability?”

“HA, for short?”

“Hmm.” Elaine munches her bar. “I’ll keep thinking. But yeah, I’ve been considering how I could have dealt with those drowzee better.”

Aiko thinks back to the battle. “I think you did great, but if you have something specific in mind…?”

“I felt like every decision was fully thought out, like I had plenty of time to think things through. But looking back… could have stopped those drowzee more easily if I’d been willing to switch to lethal attacks right away. Just didn’t consider it.”

Aiko did, once the drowzee ran. Jack had said to stop them, and Aiko interpreted that as run after and catch them. If she’d summoned Sneaker or other pokemon, she could have taken them down much easier. But… they were running. She didn’t want to hurt them if they weren’t even trying to fight back, at the time. “Well, I’m definitely not someone who’s going to blame you for that. Not just because I didn’t either, but also because I think people resort to lethal means too easily when dealing with pokemon. And everyone got out okay, right?”

“But maybe we might not have. Couldn’t have known that, at the time.” Elaine sighs. “And it’s not about whether you blame me, is it?”

“No. I guess it’s not.” It’s strange, seeing the thing she created adopted so fully that it’s being applied beyond her own views and boundaries for it. Before she can think on it further, she sees Jack making his way back to them, with another two Vermilion Gym members she vaguely recognizes.

“Aiko, Elaine, this is Sab and Josh, boys, these are the two who I came here with, and likely to be new gym members soon.”

“Good to meet you,” Sab says, and Josh nods.

Aiko nods back while Elaine waves. “Same.” They appear to have gone through their own ordeals tonight: Sab’s pokebelt is half empty, his hand tracing over the spots every so often as if confirming that they’re gone, and Josh’s clothes are covered in soot stains that the rain hasn’t fully washed away. She recognizes the look on their faces every time they glance at Jack: something like relief and trust and hope, that the worst of the night is over.

“The two civvies we brought were folded into the patients that are being transported in groups,” Jack says. “You’ve both done plenty already tonight, but this is what we came here for. If you’re still able, every trainer will help us transport more people faster.”

The girls look at each other, and Elaine speaks first. “Is your dad going to be okay?”

Aiko checks the time and is shocked to see it’s only 9:14 PM. Did it really only take them an hour to travel here from the pokemon center? “I think I’m okay to help a bit longer. I don’t want to leave you here.”

Elaine nods. “Then I’m okay to help more too.”

“Good. Let’s move out, then.” He holds a hand out to each of them, and Aiko smiles as she takes one and gets to her feet with the help of the Gym Second, then tucks the rest of her meal bar away. “Patients are heading out in a procession every few minutes. Anything you need to do before we go? There are working PCs here if you need to swap pokemon or transfer equipment.”

“I’m good,” Aiko says. She has all her strongest pokemon with her already.

“Same.”

“Alright then, let’s go.”

They meet some hospital staff and another three trainers around a small fleet of enclosed transport gurneys meant for outdoor travel. After just a couple minutes of waiting for a hospital orderly and a nurse to arrive with one last patient, they all begin their journey past the perimeter, trainers in a wide eight point star that keeps the patients and hospital staff in the middle. There are flares along the road to indicate the fastest route to the nearest hospital, and by now enough trainers have made the journey that the route is fairly clear, allowing everyone to move at a brisk pace, alternating between quick steps and jogging when they reach long stretches of empty street, the sounds of the gurney wheels nearly thunderous.

Aiko stays alert throughout the trip, waiting for something to go wrong. Occasionally an ambulance passes by in one direction or the other, those headed to the same destination no doubt full of patients, and they also spot other trainers going back the way they came on bikes or riding pokemon, probably having just finished their own escort. Overall the trip feels far safer than the other traveling they’ve done, and after about half an hour of jogging through the rain, they spy the hospital.

The group makes for the guarded gap in the perimeter, and once they’re inside the hospital staff thanks the trainers profusely as they lead their charges either into the building or to some outdoor treatment areas.

“Good job everyone,” Jack says. “Fifteen minute break, then we’re meeting here to head back, but only those of you with bikes or pokemon to ride. The rest should stay here and see if there’s anything you can do that’ll be useful.”

Elaine approaches Aiko as she sets an alarm on her phone, and together they go looking for another spot to rest in. “Let’s try inside,” Aiko says. Her legs ache and she’s sweating under her clothes, but mostly she has to pee.

“Gods, yes. Getting out of the rain for even a minute sounds amazing.”

There are a number of buildings on the grounds, and they head for the nearest one, a squat reception center that looks like it’s mostly for administrative purposes. When they arrive, however, it’s clearly been transformed into another treatment facility, all the furniture inside cleared away for patients to lie down or rest in chairs as tired looking medical staff move from one person to the next while concerned friends or family hover nearby or hold their hands.

There’s no line for the bathroom, thankfully, and when they both emerge they find a bare patch of tile to rest on. It really is nice to be out of the wind and rain for a moment, and Aiko is just wondering if a five minute nap would make her feel better or worse when she spots a familiar red outfit and mop of black hair passing by from the direction of the bathrooms too.

“Red?” she whispers, heart racing, and stands. “Red!”

The boy’s head snaps around, eyes wide, and then they’re running to each other and hugging, and Aiko feels some last bit of tension relaxing inside her. “Are you okay?” they ask at almost the same time, then grin at each other as Elaine approaches, beaming.

“I’m fine,” Aiko says. “We rode out the Thunder God at a pokemon center, then went with Blue and Glen and some gym members to help at a nearby hospital that was set on fire… Elaine and I just got here by helping with the evacuation.”

“Hi Red! It’s great to see you again.”

“Hey Elaine. I’m… really glad to see you guys too.”

“Why are you wearing two pokebelts? And…” Aiko studies his face as her initial joy fades, her smile fading with it. “Red, you look… awful.” Not just exhausted, but also like he’s been crying all night. Dread suddenly fills her stomach. “Wait, where’s Leaf?”

Red’s smile drops, and the dread reaches her heart, freezing it and sending ice through her veins. No, he wouldn’t have smiled at all if she’s…

“She’s here. Alive.”

Aiko feels her heart thaw, but it’s still pounding. “Alive is nice. ‘Great’ is better. I’ll even settle for ‘Fine.'” Red doesn’t smile, and Aiko’s grip on his clothes tightens. “She was injured?” she whispers, and when he nods, she has to swallow against the dryness in her throat to ask, “What happened?”

“We didn’t make it here until after Zapdos left too,” he murmurs. “Got caught in the storm and did our best to help people. We… didn’t get everyone, but… we had to clear out an apartment building and… then there was a nidoqueen…” Red passes a weary hand over his face. “I caught it, but Leaf got hurt. Bad. One of her arms was broken in three places, and some ribs on that side, and her lung…”

“Oh, Leaf,” Elaine whispers, and Aiko hugs him tight again as he trails off, eyes closed as if that will block out the mental image of her friend so badly hurt.

“Where is she now?” she asks after she manages to get herself under control, voice hoarse.

“Here. I carried her to the barricades with the help of someone we saved, and a doctor that saw her started treating her outside. Once she was more stable… there’s not enough room in the main building, with everyone that’s coming here, but they’ve prepared surgery rooms on the third floor.” Red leads them in the direction he was heading before, and they go up some stairs and into an office space turned patient resting center.

The second floor’s atmosphere is more hushed and calm, though not by much. Still, the nurses and doctors moving between beds are doing so with more purpose than the frenetic triage going on downstairs, which is somewhat reassuring, and instead of cots the rooms and open spaces are full of hospital beds and equipment that must have been brought over from the main building’s storage. Red leads them to a windowed office that’s been converted into a single patient room, and they file in to see Leaf lying on one of the beds.

Aiko feels tears gather in her eyes at the sight of her friend lying on the cot, half her body wrapped up, but to her shock and delight, Leaf is awake, and smiles at them as they walk in.

“Heyoo,” she says, voice low.

Aiko wants to hug her, and settles for clasping her unhurt hand tight to her chest. “Don’t you heyoo me! You were supposed to be safe on a cruise!” One hand rises to wipe at her cheeks. “You should have stayed there!”

“Pretty rich… coming from you. What about… your dad?” It’s clear that it’s hard for her to take deep breaths, each word sounding strained and breathy. She turns her head as Red approaches with a water bottle and a straw, and takes a drink.

“Dad will be fine.” She feels a bit of guilt saying it this time as she glances at the clock. Almost ten. “Is there anything we can do?”

“Nah. I’ll be… fine too.” Leaf turns her head a bit. “Hey, Elaine.”

“Hi Leaf. I’m really glad you guys ended up at this hospital instead of the last one we saw.”

“What’s wrong with… the last one?”

“It’s on fire.”

Leaf winces, and turns to Red, who shrugs. “Haven’t been paying attention to much since we got here,” he says, and Aiko sees something in his face, the way he looks at Leaf.

“The others… okay?” Leaf asks, turning back to them.

“As far as we know, yeah. We split up after Zapdos blasted—”

Her phone alarm goes off. “Fuck,” she whispers, taking it out and turning it off, then checking to see if service is back up so she can send a message to Jack. Still nothing.

“Such language.” Leaf’s voice is more wary than teasing. “What’s up?”

“That would be the burning hospital,” Elaine says. “We’re supposed to head back to help with more evacuation.”

Leaf’s brow rises, and she looks at Red, who immediately starts shaking his head.

“No way. Not leaving you.”

“This isn’t like… the forest,” she says. “I’m safe here. There are others… that need help.”

“Screw others!” Red half shouts, and everyone flinches except Leaf, who just watches him as he takes a deep breath, eyes down and hands gripping the railing of her cot.

A nurse walks by and pauses at the door. “Sir, please keep your voice down or go outside.”

Red’s eyes are closed. “Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

The nurse looks over them a moment, then walks on. Aiko realizes Leaf is putting some pressure on her hand, trying to tug it back, and reluctantly releases it, watching as her friend rests it on Red’s instead.

“I understand,” Leaf murmurs. “And if you’re… at your limit. I get it. We’ve done enough. But if it’s just that you… don’t want to leave me… I appreciate it. A lot. But they’re going… back out… and they’ll need you… more than I will.”

Red takes a deep breath, then lets it out, and nods. Aiko almost says she’s not going back out, she’s with Red on this one, they’ve done enough and just leaving Leaf alone makes her feel terrible—

“I’ll stay.”

Everyone looks at Elaine. “I agree with Red. Leaving you here would be really demoralizing. And I think we can all use a rest. Maybe we switch off? They mostly need warm bodies at this point, so Red and Aiko can go back now for another run, then when they get back Aiko can stay, then Red again. If we’re not done by then.” She turns to Aiko before anyone can respond. “You can stay first instead, if you want. But we can’t keep Jack waiting. He’s going to be our Second soon, too.”

“Wait… what?” Leaf asks, eyes wide.

“Oh, right. I’ll explain it to you while they’re gone. Or Aiko will.”

Everyone looks at her, and she takes a moment to consider how she feels. Okay, overall. And she’ll have to head home eventually tonight… she’d rather give Elaine some rest and then stay with Leaf before teleporting, rather than stay and then leave without giving Elaine a chance to.

“Alright, let’s go before they leave without us.” Aiko leans over and kisses Leaf’s forehead. “Rest up, okay? I don’t care if this hospital catches fire too, no heroics allowed from people with multiple broken bones.” She turns to Elaine. “Take care of her, E.”

Leaf rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling. “Finally.”

Red looks like he wants to kiss Leaf too, but instead he just squeezes her hand. “I’ll be back soon.”

She squeezes back, then lets him go, smiling wider. “I know… you will.”


Aiko and Red hurry back to the perimeter, where Jack is waiting with an impatient look on his face, already mounted on his zebstrika… alone. Whatever he’s about to say gets aborted when he sees Red with her instead of Elaine, however. “What happened?”

“Long story,” Aiko pants as she summons her bike and starts getting her gear out of the box to strap onto her elbows and knees. “Sorry we’re late.”

He’s quiet a moment, then says, “You came. That matters more.”

“Where are the others?” Aiko asks, a brief flare of pride chasing away some of her regrets.

“Sent them ahead when I decided to wait a bit longer. Can take care of themselves, and might be needed to make up another group.” He looks at Red. “Verres, right? Pokemon and special skills?”

Red lists them as he pulls his own gear on, and Jack perks up at the mention of him being psychic. “Alright, it’ll be good to have an extra early warning system, if you’re up for sweeping for wilds?”

Her friend looks as though he’s going to say something, but just nods distractedly as he clasps his helmet on, and gets on his bike. “Sure. Do you want to know if any are in buildings, or just outside? And what about people?”

“Just wilds and people outside. Everyone ready? Let’s go.”

They head out, and soon Aiko’s thighs are burning as she struggles to keep up with Jack’s pace. She’s not sure if he’s trying to reach his people or just in that much of a rush to help with the next escort or both, but she wishes she had put her goggles on too: the rain is annoying enough without it whipping her face as she speeds by. On the plus side, the rain is definitely lighter than it used to be, and she can’t remember when she last heard thunder. The storm seems to finally be ending.

Red rides beside her, quiet and focused on whatever he’s sensing. She wishes they were able to talk, she wants to know more about what happened with him and Leaf, to know why he felt so nearly at the end of his rope… and why he was looking at Leaf that way, as if she couldn’t guess. It’s strange thinking of yet another romance budding around her without her realizing it, though the two did have some time alone together lately. Or maybe it’s just the extreme circumstances.

While racing back to the burning hospital, they pass by two formations of patients and trainers early on, and then no one else. It makes Aiko feel nervous, then hopeful. Maybe there’s no one left to evacuate. Maybe they can just turn around and head back to Leaf…

A vibration runs through the ground, shaking the street beneath her tires and almost spilling her. She hears breaking glass and cracking sounds from the buildings around her, and sees the water on the streets ripple with the vibrations. Aiko glimpses a squad of flygon soaring overhead, probably hunting whatever might be in the area that caused it, and hopes the fight doesn’t take place near the hospital.

When they arrive a couple minutes later, she immediately notices two things: how much more of the building is now on fire, and how much emptier the campus around it is. Jack leads them through the barricade and starts looking for someone in charge to direct them, but the few people still around appear to be preparing to transport the final civilians away from the area. There don’t appear to be any other patients that need escorting, but they eventually find some hospital staff in a cluster nearby, staring at the burning building or recovering from some ordeal. The Gym Second pulls his zebstrika up alongside them.

“Hey! What’s happening?”

“Building too far gone!” one man gasps, clutching at a stitch in his side. “Some pokemon came under and sent a quake through the place, and it started to collapse! Fire’s spreading faster above, and first floor entrances are blocked!” In the dim light Aiko can see tear tracks on his dirty face, and that he’s not wearing black clothing but hospital scrubs, covered in soot. “Some trainers that just arrived went in, but the atrium collapsed! Doesn’t matter who they save, they’re trapped on the floors above!”

Jack is turning his pokemon and riding for the hospital before he even finishes speaking. Aiko stares after him a moment, then follows, legs pedaling furiously.

“Aiko!” Red yells as he bikes beside her. “What are we doing?”

She doesn’t answer, doesn’t know how to answer, but trusts Jack to have a plan. He rides past the entrance, which she can see is filled with the collapsed ceiling above it, and stops at a spot just past it and along the wall. When she reaches him he’s dismounting from his pokemon and swapping it for his machoke and a blastoise.

“Aiko, Red, you don’t have to follow,” he says without looking at them, pointing instead to the wall and saying, “Brick Break!” His pokemon rush forward and smash through the concrete, forming a wide hole. Beyond it is just more rubble, but his next command is “Brick Break, slope!” and his pokemon keep going, focusing their efforts upward and creating a steadily climbable pile as they toss what they find behind them.

“What are you going to do?” Aiko asks, and still the panic she feels is hollow and empty. It’s a worry, nothing more or less. She can think through it, she can act. She’s not stuck in fear.

“Create an opening, find my people,” he says, and there’s a fierceness in the Unovan’s face that Aiko hasn’t seen all night as he pulls his bag off his shoulders and tosses various medicines off his belt, adding burn heals instead. “Rescue whoever I can.”

“Sir, this isn’t going to work,” Red says, voice strained. “Even with the blastoise, you can’t know what path they took, it might run out of water before you find them. And if the roof comes down on you… there are too many things that can go wrong, we’d need everything to work perfectly…”

“I know the hospital, and I know my people. Might be enough.” Jack pulls an air mask over his head, and just a single raindrop beads the face visor. “You two don’t have to come. I’ll welcome the help, but I don’t expect it. I should have died a long time ago, to my own mistake, but someone came for me when it wasn’t smart. Saved my life. Kept me close after, so I’d rise up with him. Trusted me with command… and I used it to send these trainers here. No one’s fault. But now it’s my turn.”

Red stares at him, then turns to her. “Aiko… we can’t—”

“We’ll be okay, Red.” The thought of just staying out here while the people and pokemon burn inside… she wouldn’t be able to live with herself, would never be able to look Blue or Leaf in the eyes again… The memory of how she froze up when Zapdos appeared shames her all over again. This is my chance.

“We need to think this through, to premortem it! I don’t have any water pokemon, or anything strong enough to help with rubble—”

“Didn’t you catch a nidoqueen?”

“I… yes, but it’s not trained!”

“Doesn’t have to be to push rubble! And I have a sandslash to dig us out too!” She’s doing the same thing Jack did, stripping off everything unimportant. Her only pokemon that will be needed inside are her sandslash and krabby, and maybe Sneaker too. She drops the rest of her pokemon into her bag, then clips more potions and burn heals onto their spots.

Jack’s pokemon have found the stairwells that he clearly knew was there, and Jack whistles sharply, causing them to stop digging. “It’s okay to stay out here,” Jack says to them. “I hereby give you permission. Just tell me one thing, Verres: are there people still alive in there?”

Red’s face twists in anguish, and his mouth opens, closes, opens, jaw trembling.”Y-yes.”

“Where?”

“Spread out, every floor above the first.”

“And my people?”

“I… I don’t… how many?”

“Seven.”

Red closes his eyes tight. “Third floor.” Tears leak down his cheeks. “That side.” He points to the left and rear of the building.

Jack clasps his shoulder. “Good man.” And with that, Jack scrambles up the rubble and into the building.

Aiko turns to Red, her own air mask hanging from her neck. “I’m going.”

“Don’t, Aiko, please, the risk is too high!”

Aiko looks at him a moment, then reaches out to brush a tear from his cheek. He wasn’t there, after the fight with the absol and onix. Maybe it would be unfair to think that he wouldn’t understand, he did come all the way from the cruise to face the Thunder God… But whatever he went through while here, whatever got Leaf injured, it used up what brought him.

And Jack’s already inside. Jack, who twice tonight made hard choices, hard sacrifices, for the greater good, and twice let her make them too. She’s sick of making those kinds of sacrifices, and if he’s going in, she can hardly do less.

“It’s okay,” she says, and on a whim kisses his cheek for luck. “I’ll be back soon.”

Then she slips her mask on and runs after Jack. Red’s shock lasts long enough that she gets a head start, but she feels his hand on the back of her shirt, trying to pull her away from the rubble as she starts to climb. She keeps going until she tears away from his grasp, and by the time she’s in the stairwell, he’s not with her anymore.