All posts by Damon Sasi

Chapter 44: Premortem

“Okay,” Red says as he takes out his notebook. “From the top… bags, phones, and wallets?”

“Check,” Leaf says cheerfully. Blue echoes her, with decidedly less cheer.

Red ensures he has his for what’s probably the third time, then puts a checkmark. “Restocked rations?”

“Check.”

“Clean clothes?”

“Check.”

“Pouch of pokeballs?”

Leaf giggles. “Check.”

“Energized electronics?”

Blue makes a sound of disgust and leans over to peer at the notebook. “You didn’t actually write them all like that, did you?”

Red shows him the page with a grin. “It helps keep things memorable even when I’m not looking at it.”

“Twenty-six parts! Red, we don’t need a specific reminder for whether our clothes fit ‘comfy!'”

“Oh, right.” Red stops walking and kneels down to adjust his shoe and tighten the laces. “This has been bothering me since we left, but I was ignoring it. See, it was handy.”

“Well we’re not—” Blue stops as he sees Leaf pause to adjust her backpack straps, then shakes his head and keeps walking without them… but a few steps later he adjusts one of his straps too.

Red winks at Leaf, then checks off 17 and goes back up to 4 as he catches up. “Crammed canteens?” Blue groans and walks faster. “Checklists save lives, Blue. Giovanni just blogged about it a couple days ago. So, crammed canteens?”

“My ‘canteens’ are full, yes. I refilled them last night.”

“Great!”

The trio makes their way through Cerulean North’s streets, the sidewalks still mostly empty as the sun continues to climb past the horizon. Pichu sits on Red’s shoulder, napping in the soft morning light, while Bulbasaur dutifully follows Leaf, only wandering off occasionally to examine a light post or mailbox with his vines. Eventually they find a bus that takes them to Cerulean South, and Red finishes his checklist on their way before he tucks it back in his bag, content that they’re as prepared for the road as they can be.

Cerulean South is much less touristy than North: its storefronts are less flashy, the buses are filled with kids and adults on their way to school or work, and it has far more residential streets. They pass each of these by, one bus stop at a time, until they finally reach the last stop, far into the southern suburbs. They get off the bus and follow Blue’s GPS toward a nearby pokemon center and Trainer House, there to welcome any travelers coming north.

To the side of the Trainer House is their destination: a bike shop. A bell chimes overhead as the three enter and find themselves surrounded by a colorful variety of bikes in all shapes and sizes.

“Good morning,” an older man with a woolen cap and half-specs says. “How can I help you today?”

Red spots a sign that says POKEMON MUST REMAIN IN THEIR BALLS WHILE IN STORE THANK YOU and pops the collar of his jacket to hide Pichu, who’s currently napping behind his neck. “Hi!” Leaf says. “We’re trainers, so we’re looking for—”

“-all terrain bikes, got ya, got ya.” The man sidles around the counter, eyes bright with the prospect of three purchases. “Got a number of models right here.” He walks to a line of bikes near the far wall, where Blue is already looking some over.

“These are a bit pricey,” he says. “Last bike I had was like, a hundred bucks at most?”

“Well, sure, that’s fine if you’re just riding around your neighborhood or city. Take a cheap thing like that on the road and it’ll last you till Saffron before breaking down. These are top-of-the-line models, each made for hard travel.” The salesman puts a hand on one of the bike seats. “Comfortable too. You’re planning on riding for hours at a time, right? That can make for a mighty sore behind.”

Red presses his fingers into the seat, testing the cushion, then goes over to another one. He feels a bit of a difference, but he has no idea how that difference translates over hours of riding. He hasn’t ridden a bike in years, and was so busy recently he never managed to fit in any time to research prices.

The bell above the door rings, and Red turns to see a young girl about their age enter the shop. Her black hair is cut short, falling just beneath her jaw, and she has an angular, impish face that takes in the room all at once, then goes over to a set of bikes near the counter and studies them thoughtfully. She’s wearing a full pokeball belt and a protective jacket zipped up the front, with a traveler’s pack slung over her shoulder. Red wonders if she’s leaving the city too.

“A comfortable seat shouldn’t make a huge difference in the cost of the bike,” Blue points out.

“If you’re looking for affordable, I understand, of course.” The store owner’s tone remains cheerful as he pats the handlebars of one of the sleeker and more expensive-looking bikes. “Just remember, your life may depend on this piece of equipment one day. In other areas you can afford to be prudent, but surely not this one.”

“What!” Leaf says upon spotting the price tag. “$10,000?! For a bike?”

The man straightens to his not-inconsiderable full height. “As I said, ma’am, these aren’t bicycles for just heading down to the store. That, in particular, is a competitive mountain bike used by top athletes, and able to achieve high speeds over rugged terrain. It’s not even our most expensive model.”

Leaf stares at him through this explanation. “I can buy a ponyta to ride for half the price. And it shoots fire out of its mouth.”

Red covers his grin as the man frowns. Before he can respond, the girl who walked in says, “Hey, I’m ready to purchase. Mind unlocking this one?”

“Of course. Just a moment, please,” he tells the three of them, and goes over to the newcomer. “Find everything okay? Have you had a chance to look around? I can answer any questions you might—”

“No thanks,” the girl says. “This is the one I want.”

He nods and bends down to unlock the bike. “As you say.”

“Hey.” Leaf walks over. “What made you choose that bike, if you don’t mind my asking?”

The girl glances at Leaf’s pokeball belt. “I’m just looking for the best deal.”

“Right, but how did you decide that? We’re not really sure ourselves.” Leaf gestures to Red and Blue, who’ve come by to join her. The store owner frowns at this, but continues undoing the restraints on the bike before taking it over to the register.

The girl’s gaze lingers on Blue, probably recognizing him. She shrugs. “I looked at all the ones in my price range and found the least expensive bike with the majority of the features and specs compared to those above it. The value of each dollar spent above this one starts to drop off pretty sharp.”

“There is a premium for getting the best of the best,” the man agrees. “But I’d say this is still only an average bike.”

She shrugs again. “An average bike for a way below average cost seems like a good deal to me. In any case, it’s what I can afford. If you guys have more cash, check out those two. They’re a bit better, for about a hundred extra.”

Blue examines the bikes she pointed to, then puts his hands on a silver one. “Alright, I think I’ll take this one,” he tells the shop owner, then looks back at the girl. “Thanks.”

“Make it two, please,” Leaf says, standing beside a bronze one.

Red checks the prices out and considers his options. He’s low on funds again, but when the abra sales finalize he’ll have more money than ever. Of course, it’s money he’ll have plenty of other uses for… and besides, he has the ability to teleport now. As soon as he masters free teleportation, he’ll just pay someone to fly him to every major city so he can register his abra in each, and travel will be much easier.

That said, he doesn’t know how long that will take, and he’s worried about slowing the other two down in the meantime. “Is there much of a speed difference for these?” Red asks the girl.

“Nah, not really. Both have three gears, main difference is some better shock absorption and a more sturdy frame.”

The store owner seemed irritated by the cross-talk at first, but now he smiles as he finishes unlocking the bikes for Blue and Leaf. “Well, you certainly know your stuff. You work with bikes, miss?”

“No, I just did some studying up. Big purchase and all.” She glances at the trio, and Red fights the urge to defend his lack of preparation.

“I’ll take the same one she’s getting,” Red says. He looks at the bikes and picks out a dark green one.

“Alrighty.” The man unlocks the last one, then goes around the counter. “Can I interest you all in a cyclist starter pack?” He points to some container balls along the counter, placed above a glass display with a bunch of items under it. “Extra $140, comes with knee and elbow pads, helmet, basic repair and maintenance gear, and an extra tire. I’ll even throw in a watch: nothing fancy, but it can set alarms and do countdowns and whatnot. Comes with the container too, of course, which holds an extra large box with room for your bikes.”

The trio immediately turns to the girl. She blushes, but nods. “Yeah, that’s a good deal.”

“I’ll take one, then,” Red says, and the others agree. The store owner tells them to pick out their helmets and pads while he rings everything up, looking much more cheerful. Red goes over to the wall of gear and stares at the variety of colors and styles available.

“Come on,” Blue says as he steps up beside him. “You know what we have to do.”

Red puts on a theatrical sigh as he watches Blue pick out a blue helmet and pads. “Do we, though?”

“You guys do,” Leaf says, picking out some bronze ones. “Mine are matching my bike.”

“See? She’s breaking the pattern.”

“Hey, some leaves look bronzeish, in the fall,” she says.

“Well, fire can burn green, depending on what’s being burned.” Red picks up the dark green helmet and takes his hat off to test the size.

“Hmm.” Leaf absently adjusts his jawstrap, then looks him over. “It looks okay. You know, I never actually asked, what’s your favorite color? I feel bad for assuming, but…”

Red smiles. “Yeah, okay, it’s red.”

“Well, there you go then. Besides, they’ll make your eyes even more striking.”

Red is glad she turns away before his blush becomes evident, and after a moment he puts the green away and takes the red helmet and pads. He sees her grin out of the corner of his eyes, and goes to join Blue and the girl, who already have their purchases. Hers are black, which matches her jacket and hair.

They all finish buying their gear and thank the clerk, then go outside to put everything into the storage containers and put their pads on. Red feels Pichu shift restlessly at all the movement, and carefully transfers his napping pokemon onto the ground, where she wakes and stretches, looking curiously up at Red as he returns her. “Thanks for the advice,” Red says, sitting to take his shoes off and slips the knee pads on. He takes care to ensure the shoes are fit snug again when he puts them back on.

“No problem,” she says after the others echo him. “Happy all my research was able to help others too.”

“You caught us on a bad day, normally we’re more prepared than this,” Blue says. “You leaving the city too?”

“Yeah, heading south.”

“Same here,” Leaf says. “We should travel together, if it’s okay with your companions.”

The girl looks down, then lifts her chin a bit, as if bracing herself. “I’m on my own, actually.”

Red blinks, and studies the girl’s face again. He tries to re-estimate her age, maybe put her up to 13 or 14, but surely no more than that. Blue’s brow is raised too, and he exchanges a look with Red, who can tell that he’s also curious to know why someone as young as them is on their trainer journey alone.

The girl finishes putting her shoes back on and straps her helmet on, then sits on her bike and begins adjusting the seat and handles. She doesn’t elaborate, and the silence continues through everyone else doing the same. “Well,” Leaf says as she finishes getting her seat to the right height. “You’re all the more welcome to join us then, if you want.”

The girl looks at her, expression guarded. “Really?” She glances at Red and Blue. “Would that be okay?”

“Sure,” Blue says, and Red nods. “Safer for everyone.”

She smiles, and bows from the waist. “I’d love to. I’m Aiko Sakai. Nice to meet you all.”


They make introductions as they go, pedaling slowly at first down the main straight out of town to get used to their bikes. Aiko knew who Blue was, of course, and not just because of his name: she unzipped her jacket while riding and lifted it to the side to reveal a Cascade Badge.

“Nice!” Blue grins. “When did you get it?”

“Last night. I saw you a few times at the gym, but we never fought.”

“I thought you looked familiar. Sorry I missed your battle, I’ll have to check it out.”

“It was just my first badge, so I know she went easy on me. Not sure it was even recorded.”

“Hey, don’t downplay it. Was last night your first try? Then your gym record is better than mine so far.”

Red smiles as he listens to them talk shop. It’s strange hearing Blue be so supportive, but then, Red never really watched him interact with other battle trainers, so he doesn’t know if it’s common for him, or part of the other changes he’s observed in his friend lately.

The suburbs begin to thin out until the horizon opens ahead of them at last, revealing fields of green as far as the eye can see. Red feels a tremor of the old excitement again, the urge to run forward to the next adventure, even tempered by his experiences and fears. He wonders if he’ll ever lose it completely, and a small, quiet part of him knows he likely will, and pre-mourns its eventual loss even as he lets the sensation fill him, pedaling faster.

The others are at least as eager, and soon their bikes are flying over the winding road, eating miles until the outlying fields shift to ranch land, similar to the ones owned by Pallet Labs, but much bigger: acres of fenced off cultivated habitats, everything from tree groves to small lakes to artificial rugged mountainous terrain for rock and fire types.

But the majority are simple open grasslands where caretakers, trainers, and breeders watch, feed, play with, and train a wide variety of pokemon. At one point they spot a herd of ponyta running alongside a rapidash, and slow down as a group to watch their fiery manes and tails stream behind them. The rancher riding the rapidash waves to them, and they wave back.

“That’s Jona,” Aiko says. “He’s good with Fire types, so he regularly takes them into the mixed habitats.”

“You know him?” Leaf asks.

“I was raised around here. My dad works for one of the nurseries that rent ranching land.”

“You grew up on a pokemon ranch? Did you help take care of them?”

“Some of the younger ones, yeah.”

“Damn, really?” Blue says. “I was only allowed to interact with gramps’ pokemon. He wouldn’t even let me near the lab’s pokemon unless it was with supervision for a school assignment.”

Leaf nods. “Same, my mom and grandpa specially trained some of their pokemon for me to interact with, but that was it. All that early exposure must have given you a leg-up when you started your journey.”

Aiko seems about to say something, but then just shrugs and begins pedaling faster again. The trio speed up to match her, and Red catches the look of confusion between Blue and Leaf.

The land around them continues to change as they go further south, buildings spaced out farther apart as some of the ranch plots grow incredibly large, and not visibly occupied. The grass grows tall in many of these, and the group is careful to stick to the roads that keep some distance from any pokemon that might be wandering by. Before they left the Trainer House they discussed the pokemon found wild here, mostly pidgey, bellsprout and meowth, and agreed that rather than hunting for rarer pokemon in the area, their time would be better spent reaching Vermillion faster.

The one exception is pineco, which Blue was adamant about catching. They’re sometimes found in trees along the route, so every so often as they ride, Blue swerves to check under branches of any trees they pass by. So far he hasn’t had any luck, which leads to them riding for a few hours without incident.

Red is happy with the peaceful journey, but he can tell Blue is getting restless. He eventually steers closer to Red as they pass by a particularly wide open field. “Hey, this area looks totally unused,” he says, voice raised into a half-shout to be heard over the sound of their wheels and the wind. “Think we should try the abra trick here?”

“Abra trick?” Aiko shouts back.

Blue looks chagrined for a second, but Red sees no harm in explaining, since the sales will be finalized by the time they reach Vermillion, with the press waiting for a statement.

So he goes over what the three of them did while in Cerulean, then says, “We can’t do it here though, too big a risk of pokemon being driven into nearby fields! Besides, I’d want at least a day to scope out the area, like last time!”

Aiko seems excited. It’s hard to tell while they’re biking, and he doesn’t exactly know her that well. But then she asks what made him think of the technique, and Red is happy to go over the research and planning, though his throat is starting to hurt from all the yelling.

“Did you ever come up with something like that before?”

“Sort of!” Red says. “I’ve been trying to incorporate sound since we started our journey!” The near loss of his pokedex when his spinarak mistook it for a caterpie and nearly carried it away through the trees makes him shudder. “It has its risks, but it also saved Leaf and I during the Viridian Fire!”

“You guys were there too?”

“Oh, yeah, Blue actually went and helped stop the fire. I mostly just broke my arm and used my pokedex to scare off a couple dozen pikachu!”

She stares at him for a moment, keeping her bike straight without looking. “You chased off a horde of pikachu with just your pokedex?!”

“It sounds a lot more impressive than it was! I was mostly just terrified!”

“I was there!” Leaf yells back from ahead of them. “It was terrifying, but also impressive!”

Aiko laughs. “Forget taking care of pokemon, I wanna know what you grew up doing!”

“Uhh. Not much?” Red thinks. “I mean my dad was a Ranger, and he taught me a lot! Also I worked in Pallet Labs—”

“What! You worked with Professor Oak, and you’re jealous that I grew up in a nursery?” She shakes her head. “He’s one of my idols, I would kill to have a ten minute conversation with him!”

That can be arranged, Red thinks, but holds back from saying. Maybe better to surprise her, after making sure he can actually get it to happen. “I mostly worked with others in the lab, but yeah, I’ve been pretty lucky,” he says. “The pokedex software he gave me is amazing though! Without it I wouldn’t have started my research!”

“That’s awesome!”

“What about you, what model ‘dex do you have?”

Aiko doesn’t respond, staring ahead as she rides, and Red wonders if she didn’t hear him. Or maybe her throat is tired too. It’s the second or third time she’s gone quiet at odd moments in conversation, but Red tries not to read too much into it, because he knows if he does he’ll be tempted to use his powers. Instead he just enjoys the wind on his face, the physical exertion (though he’s about ready for a rest), and the variety of natural smells surrounding him. After spending a long time in a city Red always feels like he’s rediscovering his sense of smell.

Speaking of which…

“Do you guys smell that?”

They look around until they spot the source of the sweet, sugary scent: a lone tree off to the side of the road up ahead, not in any of the enclosures. As the wind pushes its branches toward them, the smell becomes stronger. Blue veers toward it, and they follow until they can hear the buzzing, each of them drawing up hard to avoid getting any closer.

“Combee hive,” Aiko says, breathing hard and wiping sweat from her eye. She points to the big yellow structure attached to the tree, each side of it riddled with triple-hexagon openings. “In their harvesting phase, seems like.”

Blue takes out some binoculars. “Yep. There are a few of them around it. More inside I bet… and… pineco! Five or six of them, near the bottom branches. Must be safe for them here, with the hive nearby.”

“Blue, maybe we should keep looking,” Red says. “There’s got to be some pineco around that we can catch without the risk of pissing off a vespiquen, not to mention all those combee.”

“Oh come on, there are four of us. Zephyr and Crimson can take care of the vespiquen, and between Charmander and…” He pauses and looks at Aiko. “Sorry, I just realized I don’t know what pokemon you have.”

“Against these, my best bet would be my spearow.” She examines the tree critically. “I wouldn’t mind giving it a shot, if I could get a pineco too—”

“Of course!”

“-but we shouldn’t hurt them. Hives help pollinate the area, and combee are peaceful creatures. It’s not their fault we want the pineco next to them.”

Leaf smiles. “Plus one to all that.”

“So we need to do it without hurting them,” Blue says without missing a beat. “No problem, we’ve got a bunch of non-lethal options.”

Red and Leaf look at each other. “Does using my charmander to fill the hive with smoke count as harming them?”

Aiko holds a hand out and teeters it side to side. “Depends what’s being burned to create the smoke. It might not be poisonous, but it could cause them to take the hive apart and relocate if they think there’s a fire coming.”

“I’ll keep it as an emergency measure then. Maybe a sleep powder and gust?” he suggests. “Or we could use Joy. How’s their hearing?” He asks Aiko. “Leaf has a wigglytuff.”

“Not great, and their buzzing would interfere unless you got super close.”

“I think I have a better idea.” Leaf slings her bag off one shoulder and around her side, unzipping a pocket and taking a container ball out.

Inside its box she reveals the jar of combee honey that Professor Oak gave her. “The genuine article, and high potency according to your grandpa. If I smear some on a rock and throw it far off, they might all go for it. That way we don’t have to risk fighting any of them.”

“Brilliant!” Blue lowers his bike’s kickstand and climbs off it, then puts his bag down and cracks his knuckles. “Okay, so we’ll get our fliers out, Leaf will set the bait and throw it as hard as she can, then—”

“Hang on, why not just ride away with it?” Red asks. “Like the ranger in Viridian. And unlike him you can just drop the bait if they get close.”

Leaf frowns. “Maybe. What’s their top speed?”

Aiko is about to respond when Blue says, “They’re about as fast as skarmory and honchkrow.”

“…Which means what, in terms of actual speed?” Red asks. Blue shrugs, and Red smiles. “Super useful, thanks.”

“Their max is about 3 kilometers per minute,” Aiko says. “And they turn  almost instantly.”

Red blinks, then takes out his ‘dex to check. “Huh. She’s right.”

Leaf whistles as she looks up at the combees, who are still flying slowly around in a lazy swarm. “That’s fast. Faster than me on a bike, in any case.”

“They can’t sustain it long, but yeah, it’s pretty much all they have, combat-wise,” Aiko says. “Their attacks are individually very weak, so they rely on a swarm to take care of any predators. As long as they can strike first all at once, they stand a chance. Otherwise they need to just overwhelm you with numbers, or have their vespiquen join and direct them. They communicate mostly by scent, so other odors can confuse or distract them. Most won’t go farther than about 8 kilometers from their hive, so any bait we use would be a bit short lived. They often lock the segments of their bodies together to face bigger opponents, and can drag them out of the air by sheer weight if needed.”

“Wow,” Blue says. “You swallow your pokedex or something? You sound like a bigger nerd than him.” He jerks a thumb at Red.

She looks away. “I just read a lot.”

“Don’t worry, that was actually mostly a compliment coming from him,” Red assures her.

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Blue smiles. “It’s good to meet other competent trainers. So what about the vespiquen? I know it’s powerful, way stronger than a beedrill even without its hive to back it up, but not its nesting habits.”

“It’s at the center of the hive with a small reserve of female combee that stay with it at all times, and won’t come out unless it believes it’s under threat. All the other combee leaving won’t be enough to make it expose itself.”

“So, the bait idea could work,” Blue says. “We just need to get it farther, faster. Pidgeotto are quicker than skarmory, barely. I can tie the bait to Zephyr and fly it around in circles.”

There’s a pause as everyone considers this. “Yeah, that should work,” Aiko says. “Get some distance before you set the bait though, they’ll be on you almost immediately.”

“Right. So you three go up—”

“Uh,” Red raises his hand. “I have bad luck with trees.”

Blue rolls his eyes. “What, you’ll never climb a tree again?”

“You say that like it’s going to come up a lot.”

“What if there’s a super rare pokemon for you to research in one?”

“I’ll work on it, but now might not be the time to—”

“Don’t worry, I can do it.” Aiko has already dismounted and taken her bag off. “You each want one?”

“I’ll go too,” Leaf says. “We can be done in half the time.”

“Don’t take any risks for mine,” Red says. “If there are extra in easy reach great, if not just get back down. I’ll be ready with Charmander if we need the smoke.”

Blue summons Zephyr. “Alright, let’s do it.”

“Hang on.” Red takes his bag off and lays it on the ground, then drops into lotus position. “Let’s not rush. They’re not going anywhere, and no one’s life is in danger. Five minutes of thinking about any problems with the plan, no conversation. If we can’t come up with a better plan or have no other changes to suggest, we go forward. Agreed?”

Leaf sits, legs folded beneath her. “Agreed.” Blue remains standing, but nods.

Aiko looks at the three of them as they think silently, and blinks. Eventually a slow smile spreads over her face. “Do you read Giovanni’s blog, by any chance?”

Red grins. “Yes! You too?”

“What self-respecting trainer doesn’t?”

Red coughs and looks at Blue, who folds his arms. “Hey, I’ve read a few!”

“And I’m not from Kanto, so that’s my excuse,” Leaf says. “I did read a couple after meeting him though.”

Aiko’s mouth drops open. “You met Leader Giovanni?”

Leaf grimaces. “It’s not… whatever you’re thinking. Ask me about it later. Anyway, what about his blog?”

“Oh, it’s just that he made a post about this yesterday. Isn’t that what you’re doing, a premortem?”

“Damn, I didn’t get a chance to read yesterday’s yet actually,” Red admits. “The last one I read was about the—”

“-checklists?”

“Yes!”

“Wasn’t it good?”

So good! I had no idea he was the one that pushed to make checklists mandatory in hospitals—”

“Oh sweet Arceus there are two of them now,” Blue puts his hands over his face.

“He’s just upset because I made a checklist for our trip,” Red explains, which makes Aiko laugh. “Anyway, premortems?”

“Right, yeah. So a postmortem is when you look at something that’s dead and examine how it died, right? Premortems are a way of visualizing a task before you begin and focusing on what could go wrong. No, sorry, not just what could go wrong: imagine things have gone wrong and then figure out why. The psychologist who came up with the term suggested it for teams that might normally have trouble with groupthink or have other reasons to avoid mentioning problems. Giovanni gave a bunch of examples where trainers would benefit from it too.”

“Huh. Okay, so what else do we do?”

“Everyone visualizes that the plan has gone wrong, then writes down reasons why. Then we take turns listing what we thought of, and change our plans accordingly.”

For once Leaf beats Red to taking out a notebook, and she tears a sheet out and hands it to each of them, along with extra pencils. Blue joins them on the ground so he can press the paper against his leg to write on it. “Okay. Five minutes, right?”

Red sets a timer on his new watch. “Five minutes, starting… now.” Red centers his breathing first, then closes his eyes and pictures the plan from start to finish. He flags a concern immediately in putting honey on something for Zephyr to fly around with, so he opens his eyes to write that down and keeps thinking. They get to the tree, Red sets up beneath it, the two climb up… the pineco are passive, when hanging, and if they can lock on and catch them without too much noise or vibration to the tree they should be easy to get without a fight.

No, stop thinking of how things can go right, focus on what goes wrong. The plan has already failed, totally. What probably happened to cause that?

The first thing that comes to mind is the honey dripping as it’s whipped about in the air and falling on Blue, so that the combee converge on him. In that case Red would trigger a smokescreen while Blue gets whatever the honey sticks to off and runs. After they abort they can reassess.

So how to stop that? An umbrella at least prevents it from getting somewhere he can’t easily wipe it off. Is there any container the honey could be in that would keep it from falling out, while still letting it emit its scent? There’s nothing Red is carrying that would do that, but maybe the others have something.

Next, the tree. Aiko says the vespiquen won’t come out unless the hive itself is threatened, but assuming she’s wrong, or them climbing the tree shakes the hive enough for her to come out, again, smokescreen and run for it. Alternatively, the three of them can stand and fight. If they capture it fast enough the swarm might not have time to identify them as a threat and attack, though he’s pretty sure Leaf and Aiko would be upset by that outcome.

Last, the pineco. If the tree vibrates enough with them climbing it to wake them up, the two should have their pidgey and spearow on standby to defend them. Pineco can’t do much when threatened, but they are capable of blowing themselves up if they think they’re going to die, so in either case a quick capture or a quick escape is best.

Eventually his watch vibrates, and Red opens his eyes and resets it. “Everyone ready? Who wants to go first?”


“Ready… set… now!” Leaf uncaps the honey, and Aiko dips the sponge into it, then lifts it out and dangles it to the side by the rope tied around it as Leaf caps the honey and puts it away.

“Ice Beam!” Maturin shoots a freezing ray at the sponge, crystallizing the viscous liquid being absorbed into it before any can drip off onto the towel they prepared. They’re downwind of the tree and Red doesn’t know how fast scent travels, but it sounds like the buzzing of the combee is already louder.

Blue lifts his flute to his lips with one hand and his umbrella with the other, then sends a piercing note through it, followed by a few more. Zephyr takes off, clutching the length of rope in his talon so that it yanks the frozen sponge into the air.

When he gets high enough another series of notes causes him to bank in the air toward the tree in a looping circle. It’s not just Red’s imagination now, the combee are louder, and they’re moving. More of them pour out of the hive and zip toward Zephyr as he wings past, and soon there’s a whole swarm of them chasing the pidgeotto around in the sky.

Red waits until no more come out of the hive, then yells “Go!” and dashes with Leaf and Aiko to the base of the tree, where he brings Charmander out and waits beneath the hive as the girls carefully start climbing, with Bulbasaur and Aiko’s venonat, Winter, stationed below. Red keeps his eyes on the massive hive, breath audible in his facemask as he watches for the slightest sign of the vespiquen. He feels the urge to use his powers and see if he can get a sense of her mood, perhaps even an early warning of whether she’s coming out… but he forces himself to remember what happened with Maturin, and quickly dismisses the idea. He’s never tried connecting with a Bug type’s mind before, and even if he didn’t know they were infamously harder for psychics to read, now is not the time to try out experimental psychic abilities.

The fact that the urge came to mind is worrying in itself, though. He’s been tempted to use his powers more and more as his control has improved, and he’s starting to wonder if it’s simple curiosity or something else. Are psychic powers addictive, in some way? Beyond the normal addictive qualities of any new experience or power trip?

Not the time to think about this. He focuses on the task at hand, glancing occasionally to the others to check their progress. Leaf and Aiko reach the bottom branches and successfully capture a couple pineco, the pokeballs dropping to the grass. Red quickly grabs them and clips them to his belt, which he emptied except for Charmander’s ball. Leaf tests the branch above her, but it’s too thin for her to climb up without the whole thing shaking. As she looks for another path up, Aiko nabs a third pineco, drops it too, then goes for a higher branch.

Red claps his palms once, causing her to look down. He makes an X with his hands, and points to Leaf, who has found another branch with two more on it. He flashes six fingers, then makes a ring with his thumb and forefinger.

She nods and starts climbing down just as Leaf finishes catching the two and lowers herself to join them.

Behind them, Blue’s notes have changed pace, causing them all to turn and look. The swarm isn’t following Zephyr anymore: they’re all buzzing around something on the ground.

Uh oh. Either some honey melted and fell, or, more likely since all the combee are there, the sponge fell. They quickly withdraw their pokemon, and after Leaf grabs the sixth ball that Red didn’t have space for, they run for the bikes.

Blue already brought Zephyr down beside him, and as soon as he sees them run for the bikes, he heads for them too, commanding Zephyr to follow. Leaf and Aiko bring out their pidgey and spearow to follow too, and Red has a moment to miss his own spearow again. How do I still not have a flyer! He glances at all the combee flying nearby, but keeps running. They’re not particularly useful or interesting to him, and it’s not worth going near the swarm.

They all make it to their bikes, grab their bags, and mount up. The cloud of combee is dispersing in all directions, and a few come toward them.

“Gust!” Leaf and Blue both yell, and Zephyr and Crimson send bursts of air out that knock the combee away, sending them flying off in other directions. Within moments the four pedal away as fast as they can, and soon they leave the buzzing behind completely.

By the time they stop for a rest, everyone is tired and sweaty and more than happy to sit on the grass beside the road, or in Red’s case, flop onto it and gasp like a fish. He spent little time in Cerulean doing physical training compared to the other two, and he makes a mental note to not make the same mistake in Vermillion. He’d make a physical note, but his arms are stiff and he’s too tired.

“Nice job, everyone,” Blue says after he catches his breath. Zephyr has landed beside him, and Blue feeds him some berries before withdrawing the pidgeotto. “How many did we get?”

“Six,” Red says. He rolls onto his stomach and unclips the five pineco and puts them in a pile along with the one Leaf carried, while the girls feed and withdraw their own pokemon. “How are we dividing them? One for Blue and I, two for Leaf and Aiko?” He takes an empty ball out of his pouch and offers it to Leaf.

“One is fine for me,” she says as she takes the ball.

“I’ll take two, then,” Blue says, and hands a ball to Leaf and Aiko. “You okay with that?”

“Sure, I’ll sell my extra.” Aiko says.

They all start registering their pokemon… all but Aiko, who just admires the two pokeballs in her hands. Red catches her glancing at the trio’s dexes, but she stops after she sees him noticing.

Before he can ask about it, Blue finishes and puts the ball away, then brings Maturin out. He points to his face and says “Soak!” Red rolls away in time to avoid getting splashed by the gush of water that hits Blue’s face.

“Gross,” Aiko says, but she’s smiling. “You know that’s not pure water, right?”

Blue shakes his head, sending droplets all over and causing the others to cry out in disgust. “Whatever it is, it doesn’t stick like sweat does, so it’s a step up.”

Leaf shakes her head and brings Bulbasaur out too, feeding him a pokepuff. “Hundreds of virtual hours spent training pokemon to learn the difference between attacks they can use on humans and those they can’t, just so you can get a quick bath in the field.”

“Why not just use your water bottles?” Red takes out Pichu and Charmander’s ball and summons both so they can enjoy some time in the wild. Charmander sniffs along the ground and crawls off, tail held high, while Pichu goes over to Leaf, who smiles and splits off a piece of pokepuff for her as well.

“Too cold. Besides, Mr. ‘Crammed Canteens’ wants me to waste drinking water now?”

“You’re right. Hey Leaf, what alliterates with ‘washcloths?'”

“Don’t you dare,” Blue warns a grinning Leaf, who sticks her tongue out at him and mouths “wet” after Blue turns his back. “I don’t know what the fuss is about, Maturin will replenish her water soon enough.”

“Yeah, and if we’re attacked meanwhile and she runs out of water, we can die happy that at least your face isn’t sticky.”

Aiko’s giggles cut off Blue’s response. She holds a hand up to cover her mouth. “Sorry, it’s just… you guys are strange.” She watches them care for their pokemon for a bit, then summons a sandshrew and takes a snack bar out, breaking pieces off for it.

“Nice get,” Blue says. “Catch it near Mt. Moon?”

“Yeah, on the eastern slopes.”

“I wanted one for Surge, but never encountered any.”

“Who are you going to use for your Challenge then?”

“Still deciding on my lineup. Maturin helped me get the last two badges, but she’ll have to be benched for this round. What about you? Who’s your starter, anyway?”

Aiko doesn’t respond right away. She’s looking down at her sandshrew with a small frown, and Red’s about to say something when she sighs and unclips another ball. “Go, Sneaker!”

A small raticate appears. It looks around in alarm at all the pokemon, then relaxes when Aiko opens her palm and offers it a handful of berries. “Say hi, Sneaker.” She runs her fingers through its fur as it eats. “I caught him a few years ago, as a rattata.”

“Oh. Neat.” Blue’s face is carefully expressionless, but Red can guess his thoughts.

Leaf’s the one to ask the question. “If you don’t mind telling us, how old are you, Aiko?”

“Twelve.”

“So… you’re about our age. You started your journey when you were… what, nine?”

“No.” She’s quiet again, stroking her sandshrew, then speaks without looking up, “Actually, I’m not on a journey. I’ve been training my pokemon for a few years, but mostly around home. I got my Trainer License just last week.”

The three stare at her as she continues to feed and play with her pokemon. The wind blows her hair against her face, and when she tucks it behind her ear Red can see the slight flush in her cheeks.

“So that’s why you’re traveling alone?”

“Yes. The farthest from home I’ve been are the areas around Cerulean and Saffron. My dad thinks I was in Cerulean to visit my aunt. I was, but she didn’t know what I was up to most days.” She looks up at them. “Neither of them knows I have a license now. He wouldn’t let me get one when I was young enough to need permission, so I saved up money for pokeballs and potions and trained whatever I caught in secret. The money for this bike was my birthday present from both of them, and I spent so much time researching so I could get a good price and still have some left over for trainer supplies. I would have bought a used one, but I think he’d notice.”

The trio listens in silence. “Why doesn’t your dad want you to be a trainer?” Red asks quietly.

“My mom was one. She died shortly after I was born, so he thinks I’m too young to do it alone. Wanted me to wait until I was fifteen, since I don’t know any other kids who are ready for their journeys.”

“So… you don’t have a pokedex? How do you train your new captures?”

“My mom’s old dex. It’s at home. I learned to reprogram it.”

Red winces. Pokedex technology has grown in leaps and bounds over the years… even if her mom’s pokedex is just ten years old, it would be considered ancient by today’s standards. Each pokemon’s virtual training would take, what, three hours to transfer to their ball? Maybe more? “That sounds tedious,” Red says as Pichu climbs up his arm and settles in her familiar spot around his neck.

“I can’t believe you’ve been training for years on your own,” Blue says. “That’s really… well, reckless for one thing.”

Aiko’s head snaps up. “Easy for you to say! Your grandfather is Professor Oak, you were just handed a rare and powerful starter and have two friends you can travel with—”

“It’s also really brave,” Blue says, smiling.

She blinks, then lowers her head so that her hair swings forward and hides her eyes. “I’m sorry. You’ve all been nice to me, and I’m just struggling with some jealousy. It’s not your fault.”

“Why not come with us?” Everyone turns to Leaf, who shrugs. “I mean, I haven’t asked Red or Blue about it yet obviously, but it would be okay with me. You seem smart and competent and nice enough. And like Blue said, the more the safer.”

Aiko stares at Leaf like she’s a pokemon that learned to talk, then slowly turns to Red and Blue, eyes wide.

Blue smiles. “I guess I did say that. What do you think, Red?”

Aiko looks at Red alone now, and the intensity of her gaze is unsettling. It’s just full of such… hope. He feels like saying no would crush her, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like a decision that should be made lightly or under pressure.

“Give me a minute?”

“I’ll give you an hour!” Aiko says, then dips her head again, biting her lip. “I mean, yeah, take your time.”

Red nods seriously, and closes his eyes again. It’s not a plan, exactly, but he still visualizes his agreement going wrong somehow. Despite liking Aiko so far, he imagines himself a couple months from now regretting the decision. Why?

She could be a thief. We don’t even know if it’s her real name, she might grab our stuff tonight and just run. She could be a bad trainer. Maybe she gets one of us hurt, or our pokemon get killed trying to help cover for her.

He feels like he’s not going deep enough. It feels wrong somehow, trying to imagine why you might regret befriending someone, but he slipping his mind deeper into the free-flow of thoughts and lets himself consider everything he just learned about her. Her dad doesn’t want her to be a trainer, maybe she’s concealing something from us. She’s poor, maybe she can’t afford the same tools or gear as us and we’ll keep having to buy her things to not feel guilty. She admitted to being jealous, it might get worse over time and cause arguments and bitterness.

There are a lot of potential negatives, but they’re all just that: potential. He can’t really plan around them the way he could the results of the pineco plan premortem. At best he can be more aware of them in case they pop up and address them quickly if they do.

Because the benefits really seem to outweigh the negatives. A fourth companion means a safer team, through her extra pokemon and a new complement of skills. She seems to be smart and intellectual, like him, care about not harming pokemon, like Leaf, and is going for badges, like Blue. Red briefly wonders if she’s too perfect, but he can’t imagine why someone who knows the three that well would want to mess with them. To steal Professor Oak’s pokedex software, maybe? Best to keep an extra eye on his tonight just in case.

But beyond that, she said she grew up nearby, and she should get her dad’s permission before leaving with them anyway, so he can put some of that paranoia to rest if he really needs to. Red checks the list of pros and potential cons against each other again, then opens his eyes. Blue and Leaf are waiting with an air of curious patience that Aiko is failing miserably to imitate. If she’s a spy, she’s either very good or very bad.

“I vote yes.”

Aiko lets her breath out, grinning from ear to ear, until Blue says, “Then I have just two questions for you, to get my vote.”

“Yes?” she asks, back to nervously twisting her fingers together.

Blue’s gaze fixes unwavering on hers. “Two of us here have made a very solemn promise: to fight against the Stormbringers, if ever they attack somewhere near enough for us to reach. You don’t have to join us, but I have to know if you’re okay with that. Don’t just say yes: whatever we’re doing, we drop it and go. You may have to wait a long time for us to come back. We might not come back. Understand?”

Aiko’s nervousness seems to have faded, and to her credit she appears to be giving the question serious consideration. Finally, she nods. “I think so. And yeah, I’m okay with that.”

“Good. Then my second question is this: will you have trainer battles with me?”

Aiko blinks. Blue asked the question with the same intensity he did the previous one. “I… right now?”

“I mean at all.”

“Of course! How else will we get better?”

Blue grins, all seriousness dropping away. “Okay, you’re in.”

Aiko takes a moment to react, but when she does it’s to simply bow until her forehead touches the grass.


The first night out, everyone jokes about how excited they are to be roughing it again, without the luxuries of beds or showers, but they make better time than expected, and as the sun begins to set they’re almost halfway to Saffron City. Aiko says her house is on a ranch near the express tunnel that goes under Saffron city, and they should reach it tomorrow.

“Do you think your dad will be okay with you coming with us?” Leaf asks as they set up camp.

“I’ve been tempted to message or call him about it, but I think it’ll be better to ask in person.” It’s clear that she’s nervous, but she does her best to hide it as she brings her sleeping bag out of its container and sets a lamp up beside it. “I can take first shift, if you guys are tired. Or last shift. Or one of the middle ones. Whatever.”

Red smiles. “Relax, we’re probably not going to sleep right away. And it’s appreciated, but don’t feel like you have to constantly try to please us, you know?”

“Besides, sleeping less than three hours is kind of a waste anyway, right?” Leaf says.

“Is it three hours or two?” Blue asks.

“Either way, having two people get middle shifts sounds terrible. Might as well let one person get a full night’s sleep and alternate.”

Red lets them talk it out as he sits on his bedroll and begins meditating. He cycles through his mental states quickly and practices fighting down the surges of sadness that envelop him. It’s hard, so he switches to sensing nearby minds to distract himself and make sure there aren’t any pokemon nearby or underground.

He senses nothing but Leaf and Aiko’s minds, and realizes that this is the first time he has tried his powers in a place that’s guaranteed to have no others around to distract him. He smiles as he concentrates on nothing but their two steady-stream-of-raindrop-impressions on his mind, grief momentarily forgotten. He doesn’t extend his mind out to feel what they’re feeling, but it’s strange how even without doing so he can tell the two apart. Aiko’s is… quicker? No, more energetic. No that’s not the word, it’s frenetic compared to Leaf’s calm…

Red maintains the sensory field as long as he can without tearing up, then drops it and tunes back into the conversation. Aiko is talking about how she usually sleeps at Ranger Outposts while traveling alone. Leaf describes some of those they’ve visited while Red takes the rock Psychic Ayane gave him out and puts it in his palm.

Round, solid, slightly rough. Lift.

They start describing their various catches, and Aiko mentions that besides her raticate, venonat, spearow and sandshrew, she also has an oddish and krabby.

Feel the texture, the weight, the wholeness of it… slip between… and lift.

“I think I’ll sell one of the pineco, but the other I’m definitely keeping. They make amazing tanks and trap setters.”

Blue lets out a breath. “You have no idea how nice it is to be traveling with someone that speaks my language. Yes, I’m going to teach mine to trap the shit out of the battlefield, and as long as I take out any fire types they have…”

Feel the rock. BECOME the rock. LIFT THE GODDAMN ROCK.

“Is there an advantage to using two?” Leaf asks.

“Might sell one too, after I check which is stronger, but I might also keep both and train them differently. It’ll work well for faking others out too, when people know my teams well enough and expect one. I’ll have to be careful with nicknames…”

Okay, change of tactics. Do not try to lift the rock. Instead realize the truth: there IS no rock.

“Red?” Leaf asks.

“Hm?” He opens his eyes to find them looking at him. “Sorry, what?”

“Oh you’re practicing,” Leaf says. “I thought you dozed off, sorry, go back to it.”

He sighs and drops the rock. “Nah it’s fine. What’d I miss?”

(“Practicing what?” Aiko whispers to Blue.)

“I was just asking if you’ve decided on any nicknames for your pokemon yet.”

(“He’s psychic, trying to lift the rock.”)

“Ah, no. Not really. I mean, technically I’ve named my abra—”

(“Oh! Cool! But don’t they practice by bending spoons?”)

“That’s great!” Leaf grins. “What did you name them?”

“My sensei said I’m not advanced enough for spoons yet,” he tells a surprised Aiko. “They’re for practicing moving parts of things you’re not directly touching.” He turns to Leaf with an embarrassed smile. “Uhh, I named one Bill and the other Cerulean.”

(“Did he use his powers to tell what we’re talking about?”)

Leaf covers her eyes with one hand. “Red, you can’t name your pokemon after the locations they teleport to! That’s not a nickname, that’s just labeling!”

(“No, you’re just whispering really loud.”)

“Look, I’m trying okay? I don’t really…” He trails off as he hears something. “What was—”

Blue leaps to his feet, followed quickly by the others as everyone summons their starters, eyes scanning the darkness around them. Leaf’s head snaps up as her hand swaps Bulbasaur out. “It’s wings! Above us!”

Blue and Aiko also swap their pokemon out while Red grabs the lantern and puts it in the middle of the camp. “Everyone back to back, four points!”

They set up around the lantern with Charmander, Zephyr, Crimson and Aiko’s spearow at the ready, the light no longer ruining their night vision as they scan the starry sky. There are clouds over the moon, but still there’s enough light for them to spot the pokemon winging down toward them.

“There are two, and they’re big,” Blue murmurs, and Red feels his pulse redouble in speed. “I’ll send Zephyr up when they-”

“Hellooooo the camp!”

Red blinks. He knows that voice…

Blue curses and rubs his eyes, withdrawing Zephyr with his other hand. “Gramps! You scared the shit out of us! Why!”

Relieved laughter escapes Leaf as she returns Crimson too, and Red smiles at Aiko’s shocked expression. “It’s okay, we know them.”

“‘Gramps?’ As in…?”

With a few final, mighty whumps of displaced air, the pidgeot lands in the grass just outside the lamplight. From its back slides Professor Oak, in all his lab-coated glory, and a moment later a second massive bird lands behind it, which Red recognizes as Daisy’s swellow by its bright white and red breast.

“Oh, come on, you can’t expect me to miss your birthday just because you’re out wandering the world!”

“It’s not until next week!”

“Yeah, but where’s the surprise if I came then? Hello Red, hello Leaf!”

“Hello professor,” they chorus. “How did you find—ah, the pokedexes, right?”

“Yep. And who might this be?”

Red smiles and turns to the dumbfounded Aiko. “Professor Oak, this is Aiko, a new friend of ours. Aiko, I believe you said something about killing to talk with your ‘idol?’ At least now that won’t be necessary.” He sees Daisy dismount from her swellow, and then… help someone else down? Oh. Red suddenly realizes what’s about to happen and flushes slightly. They’re only a few days apart, after all…

“It’s… such an honor, Professor,” Aiko stammers as she bows low.

“Hiya kids!” Daisy says as she walks into the lamplight, followed by—

“Laura!” Leaf rushes forward to hug her.

Red’s mom looks surprised but pleased as she returns the hug. “Hello, Leaf. It’s good to see you again.” She looks up at Red. “Hi hon. Happy early birthday surprise!”

32 – Multiple Perspectives (Guest: TK17)

Daystar and Alexander are joined by special guest Duncan Sabien (TK17) to discuss multiple perspectives in fiction, including common pitfalls and benefits.

Co-hosted by Alexander Wales

Special guest: Duncan Sabien, aka TK17, Curriculum Director at CFAR and writer of Animorphs: The Reckoning.

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected

Time Stamps

1:30 Archetypes vs Whole Characters

5:34 Choosing Who Gets what Scene

14:45 Shifting Focus and Disorientation

25:06 Different Character Dialogue

35:30 Differentiating Characters

Links

Animorphs: The Reckoning by Duncan/TK17

Metropolitan Man by Alexander Wales

Shadows of the Limelight by Alexander Wales

Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks

Magic Color Wheel

Odyssey by Vance Moore

Daystar’s friends as magic cards, circa 2012:

View post on imgur.com

 

HPMOR, the Game (Avalon Reskin)

A while back I decided to make an HPMOR themed version of the social deduction/deception games, The Resistance/Avalon, based on HPMOR. I’ll write up a review of those games soon (I’ve been meaning to for awhile) but in the meantime, for anyone who has played them and is curious to try my version out, here are the cards:

HPMOR Game

This is just the alpha version, and I’m looking for feedback. Those of you who have played Resistance/Avalon, or those who are interested in trying it, feel free to playtest and provide any suggestions/criticisms.

Story-wise it’s not particularly accurate, but I didn’t want it to spoil anything, so it fits the canon about as well and can be played with those who haven’t read HPMOR.

Recommended comps are as follows:

5-6 Player game

1 Harry, 2-3 Aurors

1 Quirrelmort, 1 Lucius

7-8 Player Game

1 Harry, 1 Snape, 2-3 Aurors

1 Quirrelmort, 1 Lucius, 1 MacNair

9-10 Player Game

1 Harry, 1 Snape, 1 Dumbledore, 2-3 Aurors

1 Quirrelmort, 1 Lucius, 1 MacNair, 1 Death Eater

Feel free to adjust if one side or the other is winning too often, and report the better balance.

Starting Instructions:

All players, cover your eyes and stick out a fist.

Death Eaters except for Quirrelmort, open your eyes and look around.

Death Eaters, close your eyes and stick out a thumb.

Quirrelmort, open your eyes and look around.

Quirrelmort, close your eyes and Death Eaters put down your thumbs.

Harry and Quirrelmort, stick out your thumb.

Lucius, open your eyes and look around.

Lucius, close your eyes and Harry and Quirrelmort, put down your thumbs.

Snape, stick out your thumb.

Dumbledore, look around.

Dumbledore, close your eyes and Snape lower your thumb.

Everyone uncover their eyes.

Special Rules:

Allegiance cards are a way to reveal to someone whether you are a Death Eater or Order of the Phoenix without showing your character card.

Harry was originally going to be the “Lady of the Lake,” a neutral card passed from player to player after missions to “deduce” each player’s Allegiance, but that idea was scrapped as too problematic, however fitting thematically, so for now he can reveal himself once during the game to check someone’s allegiance. The negative to this is that it makes Lucius become sure who Quirrelmort is. Edit: Current meta seems to be that it’s best not to reveal what card you see, as discussed here.

Snape is much like the Merlin of Avalon, except he’s disguised as a Death Eater. This makes him even more powerful than Merlin, but it also makes it easier to deduce who he is, which is why his “counter” isn’t quite as strong, as covered with MacNair.

Dumbledore is pretty straightforward, and just adds some extra teamwork potential for the Aurors by knowing who Snape is.

Quirrelmort is hidden from the other Death Eaters to fit thematically, but his strength is that this also hides him from Snape, and he can hide his true Allegiance if Harry (or some future mechanic like plot cards) forces him to reveal it.

Lucius gets to know who Quirrelmort and Harry are, but will only know for sure whose lead to follow if Harry reveals himself.

MacNair works much like the Assassin of Avalon, except instead of automatically winning if he correctly deduces Merlin, he simply flips one of the Success into a Failure if he correctly deduces Snape. This turns a 3-2 game into a 2-3 win for the Death Eaters, a 3-1 game into a 2-2 tie, and does not change the outcome of a 3-0 game.

Nitpicks:

I haven’t made unique Success/Failure mission cards yet, nor have I made Accept/Reject tokens. I also couldn’t find a good picture for Aurors despite an hour on Deviantart, google images and bing, so I resorted to shudders the movies. If anyone has a decent, generic picture of a group of aurors, it would be appreciated.

Enjoy, and looking forward to any and all feedback! For further exploration, see this comment thread from my reddit post way back when I made it.

Chapter 43: Risk and Reward

The second abra hunt went off without a hitch, much to Red’s relief. Blue was frustrated with the smaller haul, but Leaf pointed out that even after moving to a new location, the population of abra in the area was largely depleted. On the plus side, they managed to catch more pokemon while clearing the field ahead of time: an oddish and whismur for Red, a buneary for Blue, and another venonat for Leaf, which she traded to Blue for his buneary.

Their final count ended up higher than Red predicted: 13 abra for Red, 14 for Leaf and 16 for Blue, giving them a grand total of 32, 38 and 47 when combined with the first expedition.

“This means 31 sold wholesale from each of us, after I keep one, right?” Red says as he scans each abra into his pokedex. He has a roll of blank white stickers next to him, and puts one on each ball after jotting down a number so he can pair them with the ones in his notebook, where he records who caught them and each one’s Other metric.

“Seems unfair for you to just keep one,” Leaf says. “Since it was your idea and all. Make it an even 30 each?”

Red hesitates, tempted. Even after their sales depress the market, each abra would still be worth hundreds. “I guess 90 makes as good a headline as 93…”

“You know what makes a better one?” Blue says. “99. I’ll throw in an extra 3 of mine into each of ours. Still leaves me with 8 to sell, which is going to take a while anyway.”

Red’s eyebrows shoot up. “Huh. That’s unusually generous of you.”

Leaf kicks him below the table. “That’s really good of you, Blue!”

Blue smiles and shrugs, hands on the back of his head in a way that lifts his jacket a bit, exposing the two badges pinned to his shirt. “Yeah, I’ve been in a good mood lately, for some reason.”

Red rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling too. “Thanks, Blue. In that case, you should be the one to speak during the press release.”

“What? No way, it was your idea. You do it.”

Red stares. “No, seriously, who are you and what did you do with Blue?”

“He’s right, Red, you deserve the spotlight on this.”

“But you guys both need the fame for your goals more than I do. This research and the recognition for the method is enough for me.”

“Nah, I’ll pass,” Blue says. “I don’t like talking to reporters anyway.” He looks at Leaf. “No offense.”

“Keep calling me a real reporter, and I’ll forgive any offense. But you’ll have to get over that at some point, you know.”

Blue grins. “Sure. Just not now, while I can keep having you two to talk to them for me.” He turns to Red. “This one’s all you, bud.”

Red looks back and forth between them. “You guys decided this already without me, didn’t you?”

Leaf smiles. “We’re both the children of Professors, and we got a huge bump from the Renegade thing, even though you did more to actually defend Mt. Moon. This was your brainchild, Red. Take center stage for it.”

Red tries to think of something to say. Just take it, Future Red says. Our job will be hard enough as it is. “Thanks, guys. Speaking of media attention though, there’s something else that might boost me. What’s your plan for the next badge, Blue?”

Blue raises a brow. “I figured I’d head down and get Sabrina’s. Why?”

“Weeell…” He pulls the envelope with the tickets out of his pocket. “How do you feel about going a bit farther south…?”


Blue spends his last day in Cerulean saying goodbye to the various Gym members and instructors he trained with. He enjoyed his time here more than the month he spent in Pewter, though that was probably because he didn’t feel under as much pressure this time around. Mary congratulates him on his badge win, and bemoans having to find a new training partner for her totodile: it’s gotten big, and would soon evolve to be a match for Maturin again. Blue assures her that she’ll probably get her badge soon anyway, and lets her know that if she chooses to head to Vermillion next he’d be happy to train together again. The two part on good terms, which he’s glad of.

He spends his lunch at the gym’s cafeteria with Amy, who just finished teaching a class. “Where are you headed next?” she asks.

“Thunder Badge.”

She whistles. “With a wartortle and pidgeotto as two of your strongest?”

“Wasn’t my first choice, but I think I can swing it. My shiftry will take point, and if my shinx can evolve I’ll have two resistant pokemon. All I need then is to visit Diglett Cave and grab a couple, maybe even a rhyhorn if I get lucky, and I should have a solid core.”

Amy rolls her eyes. “Everyone who challenges Surge stops by Diglett Cave first, so I hope you have a better plan than that. I haven’t fought him yet, but Donovan says he was tougher than Brock.”

Blue smiles. “I’m actually planning on evolving my shroomish by then too. I’ve seen how fast his pokemon are, so I’ll have some surprises in store for him.”

She snorts. “Well, you beat Misty in half the time I did, so I’ll try to reserve my skepticism.”

“Appreciated. How’s Donovan doing at the plateau? Last I saw he was still working his way through Victory Road. He’s what, six wins up?”

“Yeah, he’s feeling pretty confident, but Reza hasn’t lost a single match there yet, so he’s pushing himself to train harder.”

Blue nods. Rivalries are rarely advertised on trainer feeds, but if he were Donovan he’d feel pretty nervous about going up against the famous dragon tamer. “Well, tell him I say hi. How long are you going to stay in Cerulean?”

“I was originally planning to move on after I got my badge, but… this city really speaks to me. Something about it makes me reluctant to leave.”

Blue raises his brow. “Are you thinking of staying for good, then?” A lot of trainers give up on their League aspirations somewhere along the way, but Blue didn’t think Amy was the type.

“You know, I’m not sure,” She shakes her head and gives a little laugh. “To be honest, I’ve been feeling a bit disheartened since you arrived.”

Blue looks up from his food. “Me? Why?”

She leans forward, elbows on the table as her fork twirls in her noodles. “Your run through the Pewter matches was impressive, but you were clearly not a normal first badge challenger, and Brock slapped you down before you beat him. But then you came to Cerulean and hit the ground running, not only beating every single challenger, but doing it twice as fast as I did. You beat Misty with three pokemon left!”

More like two, Zephyr wasn’t really in any condition to go back out, but Blue’s been congratulated on it before, and he’s not about to correct the record himself. He just shrugs. “So?”

“When I first met you in Viridian, you seemed like a hothead. Of course I expected you to be a good trainer, raised by the Professor and all, but you’re more than good. And honestly, it’s a bit demoralizing. This is what, your third month on your journey?”

“Two and a half, really,” Blue says.

Amy rolls her eyes and spreads her hands, fork held loosely in one. “You see? It’s ridiculous. For now, I’m a better trainer than you. For now, my pokemon are stronger. But what about in another two and a half months? My brother has a shot at being Champion, and I thought I could catch up to him and beat him someday, but if we keep going at our current rates you’ll get there before I do! So why even bother?”

Blue feels… strange. Any other time, having his skill acknowledged like this would make him feel good. But this outcome is one that he doesn’t want, never even thought was possible. Amy’s a good trainer. She has to keep going, to reach her full potential.

He tries to find words to reassure her, and finds himself doing something he’s not used to: playing down his accomplishments. “Look, you can’t go by just badges. I have two already because Pewter and Cerulean are so close to each other. And I’ve been kind of lucky, my traveling partners… they’re great, they’ve helped me a lot—”

Kind of lucky isn’t how I’d describe someone who started with the resources and upbringing of an Oak,” she says, smiling. Blue feels indignation at that, but her next words distract him completely. “But you’re more than that. If I didn’t know you better I’d believe the rumors that you’re using pre-trained pokemon.”

What? That’s bullshit, I nev—”

“I know Blue, calm down. I said if I didn’t know better, right?”

Blue relaxes, still frowning. He makes an effort to smooth his features as he realizes that some others are glancing at their table. “Is that what people are saying?”

She shrugs. “A few, but no one I know that’s fought or taught you. Take it as a compliment. Besides, that thing on the mountain took serious guts, so it’s clear to anyone with eyes that you’re something special. But that’s the problem. When there are trainers like you going for Champion, a lot of others realize that we’re probably not going to make it.”

Something like horror makes Blue’s skin run cold. “‘Others?’ You mean you’re not the only one thinking of giving up?”

“Relatively speaking, if some 9 year old you met today started their journey tomorrow and beat you next week, would you still go for Champion?”

Blue thinks of his fan, Dennis. Would he be upset if the kid turned out to be some super-prodigy, a new Giovanni who smashes Blue’s accomplishments to pieces? “Of course it would bother me, but I wouldn’t give up! If anything I’d work twice as hard. Besides, you must have known… I mean, not you specifically, but you all, we all, trainers in general, we can’t all become Champion. That’s not the point.” This isn’t supposed to be happening, he’s supposed to be inspiring people. “We still have to push ourselves as far as we can, get stronger, learn about ourselves, and do what we can to help others, where we can. Even if we don’t become Champion, there are still other things we can accomplish, other dreams to fulfill.”

“Sure, and I’m not saying I’m giving up on that, necessarily. But when part of the motivation is that dream of reaching the top, it does take the wind out of the sails a bit, seeing the gap between ourselves and some others going for it.”

Blue stares at his food, heart thudding. Leading Indigo into a new era means more to him than just becoming Champion. To do it, he needs people to believe in him, but he also needs them to be stronger, bolder. He needs them to push themselves to their limits, not give up and accept mediocrity just because they won’t be the best there ever was, but because they want something better for themselves, and are willing to fight for it.

How can he do both at once? It has to be possible, right?

Or is his dream just that, and he’ll find himself alone at the top, with no one to lead?

“Don’t stay, Amy.”

She’s quiet for a moment, and he looks up to see her studying him curiously. “Why not?”

He chews noodles to give himself time to find the words, and finally swallows. “You’re a good trainer. A great trainer. You can go farther than this. If you like Cerulean so much, at least challenge the League, then come back. Become its new Second, or even Leader.”

Her eyes narrow, though the edge of her lip curves slightly. “I appreciate the compliment, but I’ve never seen you this complimentary. Why is it so important to you? And don’t tell me I’m just that good, my ego is pretty solid despite what I said earlier.”

“I just… I’d be sad, if I knew that my dream caused you to give up on yours.”

“Well, that’s sweet, but—” Amy suddenly stops, cheeks coloring. “Oh…”

Blue blinks, then glances over his shoulder in case she’s looking at someone behind him. “Are you okay?” he asks before he lifts the last of his noodles to his mouth.

“Blue… I’m flattered, really, but—”

Blue chokes, and quickly coughs the trapped noodles out of his throat before washing them down with some water. “I didn’t mean—anyone, I don’t want anyone to give up on—”

“It’s just, you’re only eleven, and I’m not thinking—”

“—their dreams, I’m turning twelve next week, but that’s not—”

“—of romance now, but you’re a cute kid—”

Panic rises as Blue tries not to raise his voice. “—what I meant, I just want you to be strong!”

Oh,” she says again, and he relaxes until she leans forward and whispers, “Is pokemon battling your love language?”

Blue stands. “Welp, gotta go!” He checks the time without seeing it. “Thanks for all the help, hope to see you around!”

Amy is grinning. “You too, Blue. And don’t worry; I won’t stay long.”

Blue pauses. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. I figure I’ll wait until my poliwhirl evolves, then head to Pewter at least, see if I can get the Boulder Badge in less time than you did.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me in the least.”

“And next time we meet, I won’t have to hold back.”

He grins. “I’m counting on it. If I’m going to become Champion, I want to fight everyone I encounter for real at least once, to know for sure that I can beat them at their best.”

“It’s a date.” Amy winks, then laughs as he sputters something, throws some money on the table, and flees.


“Here’s the last five.” Psychic Ayane hands Red a trainer belt with all but the last slot filled. “That’s it, right? You haven’t gone and caught more today?”

Red grins. “Nope, that’s it.” He places the belt aside for later storage. “Thanks again for all your help.” Ayane worked overtime over the past couple days to test all the new abra they caught. Red taps an amount out on his banking app and transfers it over to her. He’s down to his last hundred dollars from the clefairy sales; he’ll have to watch his money again until they can finalize the abra deals.

Ayane’s phone chimes in her pocket to let her know the transfer went through, and she bows. “You’re quite welcome. I’ve never participated in research before, and wiping my memory of specific events so often was an interesting experience. When will I get to hear how it turned out?”

“Hopefully soon. If the newest data matches the rest, I should finish writing my paper today. Then it’s just a matter of getting a journal to look at it.”

“Well, I look forward to finding out what it was all about, and how you got so many abra.” She looks at Red for a beat, as if hoping that he’ll reveal it now that the experiment is over.

Red smiles. “You’ll find out the answer to that second part even sooner, if all goes well.”

“Really?” Ayane perks up, then her face falls. “Ah, you mean you’re going to announce it in some way.” She sighs. “I suppose some secrets are too good to keep.”

“Would you keep it to yourself, if it was yours?” Red asks, curious.

“It’s hard to say. My current goals don’t really require large amounts of money, but perhaps my priorities would shift if I had realistic access to it. In any case.” She settles into the chair and smoothes the creases in her pants. “What would you like our final lesson to be about? Still struggling with the stone?”

“Yes, but I’ve got something else in mind.”

“Teleportation.”

Red smiles. “I guess it doesn’t take a psychic to figure that out.”

“I’ve been expecting it ever since you caught the initial batch of abra.”

The basic method of using a pokemon to teleport is simple: just use the command “Register Teleport” when your pokemon is where you want them to go, then whenever you’re somewhere else, touch the pokemon and say “Teleport.” But a psychic is capable of “true” teleportation, or “free” teleportation: linking their mind with their pokemon’s and returning to any location they’ve been to with the pokemon before. Some even claim that strong enough psychics can go with their pokemon to places only they have been to, but if so none have made themselves available for testing.

It’s the most useful practical advantage that nearly every psychic is capable of, and Red has been imagining the uses he could have for it ever since he discovered his gift. “So, can you teach me in the time we have?”

“Not fully, but I can give you the basics, so that you can work on developing it along your journey.” She gets to her feet. “Let’s go to the roof. We can use these for practice.” She gestures to the five abra she brought, and he slings the extra belt over his shoulder before following her out the door and toward the elevators.

“As you’ve probably picked up from various TV shows and movies, teleportation has to be done outside,” she says along the way. “Do you know why?”

“I used to think it had to do with walls. That teleporting needs open space to move through, however quickly or invisibly, and walls or a roof might interfere with that. But what I read about it recently seemed to say that the pokemon wouldn’t be able to even register an area that’s indoors as a teleport site in the first place.”

Ayane nods. “Incidentally, both appear to be true. If you register a teleportation site in an open field, and someone builds a house there afterward, or even a shack, the pokemon won’t go.”

“What about putting up just walls with no roof? Or three walls and a roof?”

“Still no.”

Red frowns. “That doesn’t—”

“—make sense,” she finishes with him, and they both smile as they enter the elevator. “I wonder, my precocious pupil, whether you will ever experience enough surprises that you stop expecting the world to ‘make sense.'”

“Oh, I don’t say it because I’m upset with the world. It’s just my way of signalling confusion. So, does the direction matter? Like if I build three walls, but leave the shack open to the east, then ask an abra to teleport there from due east, would that work?”

“I don’t recall that experiment being done. But a pokemon can teleport from inside a building, so surely it cannot be a case of being simply unable to pass through walls?”

“Hm. Good point. Still, worth trying to make sure.”

They reach the roof, which is occupied by a pair of trainers flying a noctowl and a fearow around in some kind of maneuver test. Red feels a stab of envy and grief. He still doesn’t have a flying pokemon, and the reminder of his lost hoothoot threatens to open a crack of grief in him.

He focuses instead on early afternoon sunshine warming his skin, and closes his eyes to take a deep breath, then another. Ayane quietly waits for him to orient himself back into a more cheerful mental state. When he opens his eyes, mood placid again, Ayane is smiling. “You’ve come a long way, Red.”

Red bows. “I had a great teacher. And it was just a mild one, this time.”

“Two things to be thankful for, then.” She leads him to the teleport landing zone and they find an LED pad with a blue circle on it. “Go ahead and scan your trainer ID.” Red does so, and the circle turns into a red X. “Now, summon an abra onto the pad, and prepare yourself for the connection.”

Red takes an abra from the belt over his shoulder, then puts the belt down on the roof. He’s about to brace his arm, then decides he can use the accuracy and catching practice.

But first, he purposefully stretches his mind into the false-state of mental connection that brings his partition down. It’s not nearly as strong as it used to be, so the sudden flood of grief and loneliness and fear doesn’t provide as sharp a contrast. He focuses on his breathing again, imagining himself on the stone in the river, with the sun and wind against his face. The water is dark and violent, washing up against his legs as the memories of his father and the finality of death makes his heart pound and tears threaten.

But on the next exhale, he forces himself to think of Bill and his goals. People are out there, fighting for life. He breathes in deep again, the pain laced with anger at his own helplessness, and on the exhale he reminds himself of Ayane’s praise, of how much stronger he’s gotten. He inhales fear at leaving the city again and risking wild pokemon encounters, and on the exhale imagines pichu on his shoulder, nuzzling his neck.

We’ll keep each other safe, he promises his pokemon, then Blue and Leaf, Professor Oak and his mom, the whole world. Together, we can work to keep everyone safe.

“Go, Abra!”

His pokemon appears about where he wants it, and he manages to catch the ball on its return. Its mind instantly connects with his, and the real partition falls as their minds enmesh, drawing all his psychic power in feeding him his pokemon’s mood and senses. Red gasps, and a tear rolls down his cheek. He feels the urge to retreat, to bring up his mental shield and disconnect, but forces himself to bear it, one breath at a time, going over his positive thoughts over and over, exhale after exhale, and focusing on just living in the moment, experiencing his senses, until he at least feels like things won’t get worse.

“Well done,” Ayane murmurs. “Now, slowly focus more on your abra’s senses, starting with its physical touch.”

Red does so, using that focus as the new distraction from his grief. He feels the warm sun on his skin, the cool wind blowing his hair and against his ears. He feels a drop of sweat going down his neck as he sits on the warm, smooth platform. Wait, he’s standing, the abra is sitting while the sweat goes down his neck. Or is it the abra’s neck?

A sudden rush of vertigo makes Red step back, then put both feet to the sides, steadying himself as he concentrates on nothing but the sensation of both their bodies. There’s an itch on his ear, and he lifts his hand up to scratch it before realizing that it’s the abra’s ear. The abra’s ears are also the ones feeling the wind on them, much more sharply than his. A moment later the abra raises its arm and scratches the itch, and Red feels vertigo again as they both lower their arms at the same time.

He wonders vaguely how all this feels for the abra. It’s probably more used to it, and for far more different minds and bodies, considering some of the other pokemon in its habitat. At least Red has arms and ears.

“Good, Red, very good. Now as I’m talking, stop focusing on touch and begin focusing on sound. Focus on my voice until you can hear it through both ears.” By the end of the sentence he’s listening in stereo, once from close by and again from a bit farther, the sound distorted and meaningless. That’s how abra hears human language, Red thinks, so fascinated that for a moment the swirl of dark emotions threatening to suck him in are totally muted. One of the trainers with the birds blows into their whistle, and he feels the abra’s ear flick up at the sharp sound, then its body twitch at the sound of the pidgeotto’s cry. He knows that if it were still wild, the abra would have teleported away.

“Alright, that’s enough for now. Withdraw your mind, then open your eyes.”

Red begins withdrawing on his next exhale, until he finally feels grounded in himself again. He opens his eyes, then wipes at them, the wind cold against the tear tracks on his face. He feels the grief and loneliness ease as the partition finally rebuilds.

“That was amazing,” he gasps, breathing hard at the usual post-psychic wobbliness in his mind. It’s just a shadow of what he felt when he first met Ayane however, and easily ignored as he smiles at his abra.

“So.” Ayane lowers herself to sit on the roof, legs crossed. “Tell me what you experienced.”

Red does the same, then goes into as much detail as he can as he takes a berry out of his pocket and tosses it to his abra, who snatches it out of the air with one claw and brings it to its snout. Ayane raises her brow when he describes the strength of the connection, and nods when he explains the sense of vertigo.

“Even given your proximity to the abra, your link is very thorough for your first time, as I suspected. But that physical confusion is why it takes so much practice to be a psychic trainer. You got very little of the abra’s thoughts or emotions, if any, because you were so grounded in your physical sensations, both as a method of concentration and to manage your particular… handicap. That also made it a bit easier to tune into its body. But you missed a lot of the experience as a result.”

“Really? Wow. To me it felt incredibly rich.”

She smiles. “Even the smallest of marvels is still a marvel. But tell me, did you feel the abra’s tail at all?”

Red blinks. He casts his memory back into the experience, to the feel of the warm rooftop under his—the abra’s—legs and rear. “No. Was it raised up?”

“No, it lay behind it, just as it does now. Why do you think you couldn’t feel it?”

“Because I don’t have a tail?”

“Because you don’t know what having a tail feels like. Your mind is not used to processing that stimuli. This is why a psychic trainer requires hundreds of hours of practice, just to begin to use their gift in battle. Your mind, your very brain itself, will change as a result of this process. The more time you spend in another pokemon’s mind, the more your brain will adapt to understanding stimuli unique to that pokemon.”

The hair on Red’s neck stands on end as he imagines his brain shifting and changing from what just happened. He knows he’s being silly, that it’s probably just growing extra cells and new connections. His hand rises to rub at the nape of his neck. “Does that have side effects?”

“Some. This is partially why learning Amnesia will also be an integral part of your psychic skill set.”

“Okay. Yeah.” Red lowers his hand and takes a deep breath. “So, what do I do next?”

“Your development of this skill will require prolonged immersion in the mind of the type of pokemon you’re training with. First focus on the physical sensations, one at a time, then coupled, and so on, until you can fully inhabit either body at will, and then both together.”

Red tries to imagine feeling two bodies at the same time. “And all the practice will prevent me from being overwhelmed by that, I take it?”

“Yes. It’s easier with pokemon that are smaller and have simpler bodies, and even easier the more similar their anatomy is to yours. But the true difficulty is in the lack of guideposts. Only you can know if you are fully joined, and you must be wary of assuming you are prematurely. For example, there are more than just the traditionally identified five senses. You must also learn to feel pressure, pain, balance, motion, hunger, temperature, and so on. The more you can naturally inhabit the senses you are familiar with, the more you will become aware of the senses you are not. This can be an incredibly powerful tool, as many pokemon experience the world in ways we do not, and borrowing their senses can often help you survive dangerous situations.”

Red is nearly giddy with excitement as he imagines the possibilities, but after a moment he remembers what they came up here for in the first place. “So, what does all this have to do with teleportation?”

“Merging with the body and feeling the senses is the first step. Once that occurs you will better be able to sense the pokemon’s moods and thoughts, and eventually even its psychic connections. When you can fully inhabit a pokemon’s mind as it registers a teleportation site, you will understand how to recall that experience. I believe this will be less difficult for you than others.”

Red nods. “It sounds right up my alley.”

Ayane smiles and tucks some hair behind her ear as the wind blows it. “I believe you will go far in this field, Red. More important than the particular strengths of your gift, your dedication and effort have been all a teacher could ask for. It has been a pleasure guiding you in the first steps of your journey.”

Red’s heart sinks as he realizes that his time must almost be up, and that this would be goodbye. He gets to his feet, and she does the same. “It’s been an honor learning from you, Ayane-sensei.” He bows. “I don’t know how I’m going to find someone to replace you.”

Ayane smiles and bows back. “I think you’ll manage. And if you ever pass through Saffron City, be sure to request a meeting with Leader Sabrina. If anyone in Kanto will know what to make of your unique mental shield, it’s she.”


Leaf spent most of her final day in Cerulean monitoring the comments on her new article, and occasionally responding to them or private messages. A pop-science website of middling fame offered her the most for it, and she’s happy with the reception it’s getting. Her following continues to grow, slowly but steadily, until she has about as many as the average 4-badge trainer.

It feels good having the article done and out there, so she can focus on the next thing. Laura was right, it’s better to move from one project to the next and follow what interests her. And luckily, she doesn’t even have to search for a new article idea: the S.S. Anne ticket is going to open a whole new world of topics for her to write on, and she can’t wait to start looking into them.

Still, Leaf can’t shake the lingering questions she has about the Renegade’s murder. While she lets Professor Oak look into it from his end, she figures there’s no harm in reaching out to Zoey and seeing if there’s anything else she learned. Leaf doesn’t want to get scooped, but maybe she can point Zoey in another direction and see if they can both get a story out of it, if it turns out to be something sinister after all.

Unfortunately, Leaf can’t seem to get in contact with the reporter. All her calls go unanswered, her messages unreturned. As the day goes on, Leaf sits on her bed and tries not to freak out. Maybe she’s really busy. Or irritated with Leaf and ignoring her. Or somewhere without internet access.

Not poisoned to death the way Yuuta, was, surely. That’s just her being paranoid, right?

But if she’s not being paranoid in believing that an unknown psychic dug around in her head, it seems sensible to be even more paranoid about what they might have gotten out of her. After confirming that Zoey hasn’t published anything or done any interviews in the past few days, Leaf finally tries checking in with the news sites and organizations Zoey most often works with, in case any of them know where she is or have heard from her recently.

When that doesn’t work, Leaf finally just finds her address from their correspondence and heads out of the Trainer House, summoning Bulbasaur to accompany her. The sun is starting to set, and she enjoys walking through the crowds of pedestrians and tourists going in and out of brightly lit stores as she makes her way through the city. She’ll have to remember to ask the others if they want to grab dinner together tonight, so they can all enjoy the city one last time before they hit the road. She passes an ice cream parlor with people sitting out front, and stops to get a cone of mint chocolate chip for herself and a cold poffin for Bulbasaur.

It’s all a pleasant distraction, but she keeps imagining what she’ll do if Zoey doesn’t answer her door, and what it might mean.

When she finally arrives at the apartment building, she types in Zoey’s apartment number and waits for her to pick up. The ringing eventually ends without answer however, and Leaf bites her lower lip, wondering what to do now. Bulbasaur wanders over to the glass door and tries to walk through it, only to bump his nose. He extends his vines and presses them against the glass, moving them up and around as if trying to find a way through, and Leaf withdraws her pokemon before he decides to start whipping it.

She takes her phone out and pretends to read something off the screen as she paces back and forth, waiting for someone to open the door. About five minutes later she spots someone coming out, and pivots to head toward the door so she can reach it just as they do. She keeps her eyes on her screen as they open it and holds the door open for them, then slips in and puts her phone away.

The lobby is clean and upscale, but not enough for a front desk, thankfully. She finds the elevators and rides up to Zoey’s floor, then finds her apartment in the maze of hallways. The indoor quiet after walking the streets is suddenly oppressive, and her steps slow as she approaches the door, heart thumping. She wishes she’d asked Red or Blue to come. Her hand itches to rest on Bulbasaur’s pokeball, but that’s silly, even if Zoey is lying dead in her apartment (Stop that, you’re being ridiculous) there’s no reason for there to still be any present danger.

Throat dry, Leaf lifts her arm and presses the doorbell. She looks left and right in the hallway, unable to keep herself from checking for any watching parties. Maybe there’s a camera in the light overhead.

The door stays closed. Leaf leans forward and presses her ear to it.

Silence.

Leaf presses the doorbell again, listening to it chime through the door. How long should she wait here? She can entertain herself on her phone for awhile, but she should be packing, preparing for their morning departure…

Hope has already fled by the time she presses the doorbell a third time, and she turns around and slides her back against the door, head resting against it. She takes her phone out and begins typing a message to Blue to let him know where she is when the door opens behind her, spilling her backward with a yelp.

Her body freezes as she stares upward in shock at… Zoey, who stares down at her with a face carved of stone.

“Miss Juniper. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Leaf is already scrambling to her feet as she stuffs her phone in her pocket. “Hi, Miss Palmer. I’m sorry for coming uninvited, I was worried about you.”

“Worried? I’m fine. Why would you be worried about me?”

Leaf stares at the reporter, who stands in her doorway in casual home attire. Zoey looks softer with her hair loose around her shoulders and no makeup on, but her eyes are as clear and focused as ever. There’s no sign of sickness or injury, she just looks… normal.

Leaf begins to feel very foolish.

“I just haven’t seen you around in awhile, that’s all.”

“I’ve been working. I just got back from Cerulean South this afternoon after looking into the home invasion there.”

“Ah. Good.” Leaf wants to ask her if she got her messages, then decides against it. Busy or not, the reporter could have responded if she wanted to. Clearly she didn’t, and Leaf just feels like she’s imposing now. All she wanted was to make sure Zoey was okay, and she’s done that. “Well, I’m heading out of town, so, I just thought I’d say goodbye. Have a good night.” Leaf raises a hand in a wave and turns away.

“I thought you were planning on writing something about the city?”

Leaf turns back. “I was, but the article on the dig site kind of took the place of that.” Leaf smiles. “It’s not exactly the eye-opening investigative piece I was hoping for, but I’m still grateful that your tip led me to a story. Now I’ve got a new opportunity in Vermillion, so I’m heading down there.”

Zoey studies Leaf, and something in her face shifts, the polite blankness leaving her features. Leaf fidgets, smile fading. She’s about to say goodbye again, when the reporter suddenly says. “You’re the reason my sources on the mountain have all dried up, aren’t you?”

Leaf’s head jerks back. “What?”

“That fluff piece on the dig site. You were looking into the tip on the Renegade and cluelessly bumbled around until someone important noticed. Potential leaks were cracked down on, my sources were all confronted or scared quiet, and now I’m out of a story.”

Shock slowly turns to simmering anger as the reporter’s accusation registers. “That’s not what happened.”

“Then what did happen?” Zoey leans against her doorframe. “You tell someone about who gave you the tip, so they could freeze me out?”

Leaf clenches her jaw shut before a response can come out, realizing at the last second that this kind of blunt accusation is an effective way to bully someone into spilling their secrets. “My investigation is still ongoing,” she says, words clipped, “and I didn’t tell anyone about you.” Though Giovanni may have figured it out, with that psychic…

Zoey doesn’t appear phased by her glare. “Well, seems you have it all in hand then. So what did you want with me?”

“I told you, to say goodbye. I don’t know why I bothered. See ya.”

“You said you were worried about me before,” Zoey says as Leaf turns away again. “Why? Did something happen? Were you threatened?”

Leaf should just start walking, she knows she should, but anger makes her look over her shoulder. “Why would someone threaten me? I was just cluelessly bumbling around.”

Zoey passes a hand over her eyes, fingers massaging her temples. “Look, I’m sorry I said that. I’ve had a frustrating week, and I blamed you. I can be a bitch when I lose a story I’ve spent a lot of time on.” Zoey steps back and holds the door open. “Come inside, let’s talk about it. Maybe we can work together to figure out what happened.”

Guilt rises to war with Leaf’s anger. Even if Giovanni didn’t explicitly figure out about Zoey from Leaf, her investigation did probably lead to the reporter losing her sources, through no fault of her own.

But the apology does little to soothe her pride, especially when she knows Zoey is just hungry to get back on the story again. “If your sources aren’t talking to you anymore, we don’t have anything to discuss. And I really do have to leave Cerulean. Thanks for the interview and tips.” Leaf forces herself to head for the elevators.

“Wait, Juniper! You’re in over your head! Leaf!”

Leaf rounds the corner without looking back.


Red’s last night in Cerulean feels bittersweet. Pewter had a relaxing calm to it, and a growing restlessness made leaving exciting, but Cerulean feels beautiful and vibrant and… safe.

Leaving that safety has extra impact. Where before he was eager to continue his journey, make new discoveries and catch new pokemon, it’s the dangers of the road that keep Red occupied now. The more he thinks about it, the more he thinks he was lucky to survive the fire in Viridian and the paras rampage on Mt. Moon. And surely someday his luck would run out. After his conversation with Bill, the chance at a real safeguard against death makes the fear of risking it that much worse.

As the anxiety rises however, he reminds himself of the second day of their journey, when he met Donovan’s skarmory on the rooftop. He was paralyzed by fear then, but his priorities helped him get past it. And those priorities haven’t changed: Learn about pokemon, become a good trainer, help people, gain fame/funds, so he could someday be a Professor with his own lab to help discover the origin of pokemon species.

And he’s on his way with each of them, made more progress than he would have imagined when he started out. But all that stops if he lets the knowledge of Bill’s potential solution to immortality make him fear death even more.

As he and Leaf decided after they met the reclusive inventor, the wide view should only motivate them to work harder.

Such are Red’s thoughts as he makes his final trip around the city with Blue and Leaf. They do some last minute shopping and enjoy a post-apocalyptic movie where some mythical pokemon awakens from the depths of the planet and sends an electromagnetic pulse through the atmosphere, shutting down all technology and returning humanity to the dark ages. Afterward they enjoy one last meal at their favorite teppanyaki grill, then head back to the Trainer House. Along the way, Red only half listens to Blue and Leaf argue over the movie protagonist’s decision to give up on people in outlying towns so he could focus on just saving those in his, and uses the rest of his attention to reach out with his psychic abilities to sense the minds of those they pass by.

Entering a meditative state and increasing his inner awareness is easy for him to do now, even while walking, but the sensation of the other minds is a confusing mess. He feels them in echoed reflections upon his own mental landscape, as if his mind is a core of “immediate” emotions with others only touching the edges and imprinting briefly on it. As soon as he identifies the abstract sensation, he tries metaphors out until he finds one that fits: his mind as a deep lake, with dark depths of depression lying mostly out of sight, buried for now under some happiness and companionship, and above them at the very top, a calm and curious surface. But that surface isn’t quite placid; dozens of rain drops plink down and send out ripples, rain drops of excitement, joy, annoyance, pleasure, worry, and more—

(—except raindrops isn’t right, raindrops are intermittent, these are continuous like thin streams, but they feel intermittent because my attention can’t hold them all at once and most of them are moving all around me)

—until over time he can isolate the feelings of Leaf, who’s consistent in clarity and strength. Her “stream” falls with more force than the other raindrops, and spreads its ripples farther and with more effect. Blue, of course, emits nothing that Red can detect, while the rest of his mind-lake is peppered chaotically by the drops of everyone around them, like small, quick rain clouds zipping overhead, a blur that he can barely distinguish from his own emotions when he—

“Red?”

Red blinks. They’re in the Trainer House lobby, between the elevators. He turns and sees Blue and Leaf staring at him. “Sorry,” he tells Leaf. “Zoned out a bit.”

She smiles. “Was just saying goodnight.”

“Right! Hope you sleep well, and see you tomorrow.”

“You too. Sweet dreams.” She waves and enters the elevator to the girls’ rooms.

A moment later the other elevator opens, and Blue and Red step in and head to their room. “I know we have an early morning, but I’m not really tired yet,” Blue says as he sits on his bed and starts to take off his shoes.

“Well, hang on, I’m actually not either. Wanna go downstairs and have a match first?”

Blue blinks. “What, really?” He grins. “You’re asking me to train for once?” He gets up, grabs his bag, and slings an arm around Red’s shoulder as he heads for the training rooms. “My dear Red, I thought you’d never ask. All our sessions are finally rubbing off, huh? You’ve been missing them?”

“Something like that,” Red says, struggling out from under Blue’s arm to grab his own bag. Another good reason to keep Pichu on my shoulder at all times: deterrence. “I just want to make sure I’m prepared for the road again. After what happened when we left Pewter…”

Blue nods. “Good plan. You’ve just barely managed to keep up while training our weaker pokemon, a couple weeks off and you’ll fall way behind.”

“I’ve been busy.”

Blue hits the elevator button, then raises his hands. “Not judging, just saying. I’ll be glad to have a consistent partner on the road. Even Leaf is coming around, I think.”

“Really? Should we invite her?”

“Nah, she still doesn’t want to do any actual combat. But maybe soon.”

They reach a standard battle room and go to either side of the arena sketched out on the floor. “Actual combat sounds good. I want some pokemon to evolve soon,” Red says, unhooking his starter’s ball. “So give me your best shot.”

Blue raises a brow. “You sure? Because my best shot is Kemuri or Maturin. Which is fine by me, since I need to practice reining them in better.”

“I’m sure. Make it Maturin.”

“Alright then. I’ll stick to her least damaging moves.”

“So, what’s a fair matchup for me, given that?”

Blue crosses his arms and cocks his head to the side. “Ask yourself that. Who do you think you can beat her with, if you use a minimum amount of pokemon?”

Red kneels down and opens his bag as he considers, taking out the extra pokemon that he doesn’t carry on his belt. He mentally goes over all he knows of Blue’s wartortle from their matches together and the battles he watched against Ariya and Misty. Maturin’s tough shell means his nidoran’s attacks would be less effective than he’d like, and she has Ice Beam, which means his bellsprout and his new oddish won’t last long in a straight fight. Pichu is fast enough to get at least one strong hit in, but is so frail that a single return attack would make Red fear for her safety even without a super effective attack.

Brute force could work. Just keep throwing attacks out until he wears Maturin down. But he’d rather win with a strategy in mind, and as he considers his spinarak and charmander, an idea comes to mind. Psychic and Ghost attacks work by strange rules: some need line of sight, others work like projectiles or area of effect attacks. Night Shade emits a mental attack in a cone, affecting anyone in its path… but while the spinarak displays the pattern on its back when it uses it, the pattern itself doesn’t have to be seen, nor does the spinarak have to see its target.

Another minute of thought, and Red looks up. “Oddish, Spinarak, Caterpie, Charmander.”

Blue looks at the ceiling and rubs his chin. Red waits for Blue to try and figure out his strategy, going over his own in his mind and trying not to let his nerves take over. He feels the urge to reach out with his mind the way he did at Bill’s, see if he could get an idea of Blue’s feelings, give him some clue as to what his plan is. He’ll have to get used to fighting that instinct, or he’ll accidentally do it at the wrong time and get someone else upset with him. Either that or get used to pretending not to know how others feel, like Ayane does. Lucky that Blue is Dark, really, so Red doesn’t have to worry about it with him.

“Okay, let’s do it,” Blue says. The two put their facemasks on, and Blue widens his stance, then unclips his diveball. “Ready? Set… Go, Maturin!”

“Go, Caterpie! String Shot!”

“Tackle!”

Maturin hits his caterpie and sends it bouncing across the floor, but it flips itself while in the air so that it’s still facing the wartortle when it lands. Long strands of sticky filament shoot out and latch onto the wartortle.

“Bubble!” Blue yells, and Maturin sends a stream of shimmering orbs out.

“String Shot!”

The bubbles reach his caterpie and explode, knocking it around and cutting off its attack. Red’s heart leaps into his throat as he watches his pokemon tumble and roll along the ground. He considers trying again, but doesn’t want to risk the bug any further.

“Caterpie, return! Go, Oddish!”

“Bai!”

“Dodge!”

His pokemon leaps away on its short legs, barely avoiding the ice beam that spreads a sheen of frost on the ground where it was standing. “I thought you were going easy! Poison Powder!”

“Bai, then Dodge! Going easy is one thing, surrendering is another!”

The beam of ice connects this time, and Red quickly withdraws his oddish, heart pounding as he watches Maturin try and avoid the cloud of spores that were sent out. The sticky string attaching it to the ground slows Maturin long enough for her to get coated however, and Red feels a small surge of hope. Time is on his side now.

“Go, Charmander! Smokescreen!”

“Bubble!”

“Dodge!”

Charmander flings a glob of black goo at Maturin, the projectile billowing smoke outward. About half a dozen large bubbles float toward him in return, and Charmander leaps and scurries around them, managing to avoid all but one. It touches his shoulder and gives an explosive pop, knocking him to the side and drenching him in a fine mist.

“Bubble!”

“Smokescreen!”

Again the bubbles are sent out, and again Charmander sticks a glob of sludge to Maturin. Charmander is hit by another bubble, and the resulting pop knocks him head over tail. Red begins to consider withdrawing him, but the wartortle is now the center of a haze of smoke. Her aim should be way off.

One more should do it. “Smokescreen!”

“Tackle!”

“Dodge!” Red yells, heart sinking as Maturin runs fast enough to emerge from the smoke and avoid the third glob. Charmander tries to run, but Maturin cuts him off with a full-body tackle that knocks him out of the arena’s lines and against the wall. Smoke begins to surround Maturin again, though she’s batting at the burning globs on her shell, knocking some of it away.

“Smokescreen!”

“Bubble!”

The black blob hits Maturin straight in the belly, and she coughs as the smoke billows up directly in her face. The bubbles go wide this time, and Blue yells “Tackle!” again.

“Dodge!”

Charmander easily evades the smoke covered wartortle, but Blue yells for another tackle and Red is forced to keep his pokemon moving. Smoke is starting to fill the room, and the fans overhead turn on automatically to suck it away.

Red watches their pokemon run around until Charmander has a solid lead, then risks another Smokescreen. But though it lands, Maturin’s return Bubble attack is so wide that Charmander is nearly hit again. Even with her sight obscured, Red can’t risk another Bubble landing, and he quickly extends Charmander’s ball.

“Return, Charmander! Go, Spinarak! Night Shade!”

“Gaw!”

Spinarak raises its abdomen, only to get blasted by a jet of water. “Night Shade!” Red calls out again, and this time Maturin misses. The stream of water abruptly cuts off as Maturin takes an unsteady step backward, then falls to all fours, shaking her head.

“Gaw!”

“Night Shade!”

The water misses again, and Red’s spinarak continues its mental assault. Red’s so caught up in the battle he almost misses Blue walking along the side of the arena so that he’s closer to his pokemon.

“Hey!” Red yells. “Stop, you’ll get caught up in the attack!”

Blue ignores him, face completely calm as he keeps moving until he’s directly behind his pokemon from Spinarak’s position, and Maturin is right between them. “Gaw!”

Maturin shoots water again, and this time it nails Spinarak directly, knocking Red’s pokemon back and to the side.

“Oh bullshit,” Red mutters. Did Blue just…? “Night Shade!”

“Gaw!”

Maturin shakes her head again, water dripping from her mouth as the mental attack hits her, and Red can see Blue flinch. But his Dark nature protects him (Sure, NOW he’s okay with being hit by it) and he steps to the side to line Maturin up between him and Spinarak’s new position again. “Gaw!”

Maturin shoots straight out, and though some of it strikes the ground in front of Spinarak, the rest hits Red’s pokemon again. His fists clench. I was right, he can aim her by his position. Still, the poison and mental attacks combined should be wearing Maturin down. He just has to wait a little longer. “Night Shade!”

“Gaw!”

The two pokemon continue to exchange attacks, and Blue keeps shifting his position to ensure that Maturin can aim through the smoke around her. She still occasionally shoots the water too high or low, but enough hit for Red to see his spinarak visibly weakening, its movements slowing down until it can barely raise its abdomen.

To make things worse, the same smoke that lowers Maturin’s accuracy makes it hard to judge its health. Blue is familiar with his pokemon and probably has an internal clock ticking down, but Red doesn’t know how quickly a wartortle will succumb to an oddish’s poison, or how many mental attacks it can take before it passes out.

He should have used an Ember attack or two with Charmander, tried to burn Maturin. As it is, he feels his hope dwindling. As always, Blue looks calm and sure, giving nothing away, and Red finds himself frustrated by the inability to check his mental state. He finally decides that his only hope is to try for Maturin’s.

Red ignores the battle for a moment, focuses on his breathing, and extends his psychic sense. He feels the echoes of minds through the walls and ceiling around them, but ignores everything but those in the same room. He focuses past the alien, unreadable noise of his spinarak and toward the mind just beyond it.

Weakness floods through Red, every breath painful as his stomach (no not the stomach something else) churns and jets water through his throat and out his mouth in a spray—

“Red!”

Red is on his hands and knees, vomit on the floor. He gives his head a brisk shake, then looks up to find Blue staring at him in shock as their pokemon continue battling.

Red fumbles for Spinarak’s ball and aims it forward. “Spinarak, return!”

“Maturin, stop!” Blue dashes toward him and unhooks an antidote from his belt. He sprays it into the smoke cloud around Maturin as he runs past, leaping around and over puddles of water and poisonous spores until he kneels beside Red. “You okay?”

Red leans back until he’s sitting on his haunches, breathing deep and grimacing at the taste in his mouth. “Fine,” he says, and clears his throat before spitting. “Water?”

“Sure, yeah.” Blue grabs Red’s canteen from his bag and brings it to him. He waits for Red to take a deep drink, then asks, “Is it your stomach? Think some of the meat was undercooked?”

“No, nothing like that,” Red says, laughing a little as he wipes at his eyes. His body feels completely fine, the borrowed sensations fading moments after he disconnected from Maturin. The only lingering effects are from his body’s reaction, and the usual upwelling of grief that he quickly confronts with his positive emotions and reminders, with some success. It helps having Blue beside him, obvious worry on his face. “I thought I was going to lose, so I tried sensing how hurt Maturin was.”

Blue looks at him with a mix of alarm and fascination. “You can do that now?”

“Not well, apparently. But yeah, it’s a new thing I’m practicing.”

“Red, you idiot! You poisoned her and hit her with half a dozen mental attacks!” Blue looks up to check on Maturin, who’s still somewhat obscured by the smoke cloud, but appears to be sitting down and resting now. “No wonder you threw up.”

“Actually, I think it was in sympathy with her Water Gun.” Red grimaces as he remembers the sensation of liquid traveling up his throat with powerful force, and his stomach heaves again. Thankfully it calms down after. “But yeah, there might have been some carry over from the rest too. Blue, she’s in pain. A lot. I think it was the poison, which you cured, but you should heal her more.” Red rubs his arms as he remembers the sensation of pain that radiated over her skin.

“She’s taken worse, but yeah, now that I know you’re not dying…” Blue stands and goes to his pokemon, spraying her with a full potion bottle and feeding her some berries as the last of the smoke fades away.

Red takes deep breaths until he feels normal again, mind lingering on the sensations he shared. It’s one thing to see how badly hurt pokemon get, and another to feel it… especially for effects that aren’t visible.

“Hey, so, how much longer were you going to keep Maturin out?” Red asks, getting to his feet and taking his pokemon out one at a time to heal them up. He brings Spinarak out first and sprays some potion on its bruised and cracked carapace. “Was I close to beating you?”

“Another twenty seconds, probably. Were you going to keep Spinarak out that long?”

Red considers it as he withdraws the bug. “I don’t know. I guess it depends on how many more times Maturin scored a hit. I’d like to think I’d have won if I stuck to it, but maybe not: I only tried using my g—the psychic thing because I was desperate.” Red almost called his powers his “gift,” a phrase that always struck him as pretentious before he started training with Ayane. It still seems that way now, but he’s clearly more used to it. Still, he’d rather not use the phrase in front of Blue. He doesn’t know how jealous his friend might still be, and would rather not risk rubbing it in.

“You know what your problem is?” Blue takes a spray and a towel from his bag and starts cleaning Maturin’s shell. “You don’t take enough risks. Your plan was good, but you had a lot of chances to lock that up earlier. If you kept your caterpie out for another String Shot, or let Charmander fire off a couple Embers—”

“Caterpie could have probably stayed out a bit longer,” Red admits as he sends his Charmander out. The fire lizard looks around frantically until it finds Maturin, but a quick command brings it out of battle mode. Once it’s relaxed, Red takes his towel out too and begins drying him off between a few sprays of potion. “But I was worried about Charmander. I regretted not attacking with him too, but I didn’t want to risk him getting hit with another Bubble. And he accomplished his objective anyway.”

“You’re focusing too much on your strategy. Tactics have to adapt in the middle of battle, and you need to grab every advantage you see. Let your pokemon fight as long as they can: that’s what potions and pokemon centers are for. I told you I was going easy anyway, remember?”

Red frowns at the idea of purposefully fighting his pokemon until they pass out, especially after feeling what Maturin did for just a few seconds. But Blue is right that Red would have probably won if he let his pokemon fight longer, and he needs to get used to letting his pokemon take the same risks they will in the wild. “You’re right. I guess I’m still a bit overcautious after losing Spearow and Rattata.”

“I get it. Losing my pokemon in Viridian sucked too. But you’re not doing them any favors by being soft on them during training.”

Red nods as he feeds Charmander. His pokemon is nearly as tall as his waist now, and Red smiles as the fire lizard butts its head against his thigh and nuzzles it. Red strokes the warm scales on his head, then withdraws him and brings Oddish out for a quick defrosting and healing, followed by Caterpie.

As soon as the bug sees Maturin again however, it bursts into light, causing Red to leap back in surprise and stare as his first pokemon evolves.

“Woah! ‘Grats on your first evo, Red! I mean, it’s a caterpie, they evolve if you blow on them hard enough, but still.”

Red grins, voice wry. “Thanks, Blue.” He watches the light fade to reveal his new metapod, its hard carapace gleaming in the overhead lights. After it seems to realize it’s not in battle, it waddles over to the berries he laid out, and Red kneels down to feed a few into the slot-like mouth on its front. “I guess I should go for a butterfree soon.” He wonders how close to evolving his other pokemon are, and feels a surge of confidence. He may have lost the battle, and the mid-battle psychic experiment didn’t go so well, but he still feels more prepared for leaving the city than he did before.

“Yeah, then you’ll finally have a flier,” Blue says as he withdraws Maturin and goes to the wall to hit the button marking the training room as in need of a clean up. “Sort of. I mean, it’s a butterfree—”

“Shut up, Blue.”


On the morning of their departure, Red wakes up extra early and grabs a cab out of Cerulean North. He spends the ride drinking tea to chase away his lingering sleepiness and looking over his paper for final edits. Ayane’s final batch of abra confirmed the trend, and the correlation is clear as ever.

At the lower bounds, no abra with an Other of less than 21% could lift more than 28 kg. The empty space in the top left quadrant extends rightward until Other climbs over 25%, and then data points begin to track upward to 28% and 34 kg, after which the dots become a seemingly random cloud. But in that empty space, the null hypothesis seems clearly defeated.

Which means there seems to be something in the abra that the pokedex doesn’t understand, the same thing it didn’t understand in the spinarak. And that something is probably related, at least a little, to the abra’s psychokinetic strength.

Red works his way down the document, fixing typos and doing some final edits while ignoring his car sickness as best he can. He also does his best to restrain the excitement coursing through him. He’s too used to disappointment to assume that this would be as big a deal as he thinks it will. But reserved optimism or not, the depression that’s weighed him down over the past two weeks is at its weakest when he considers the results. It’s nice to bask in that feeling, awhile.

When Red considers the potential implications of this research, he can’t help but feel a bit like a fraud. It was the Professor and the rest of Pallet Lab’s hard work that made this new pokedex, after all, and without it he never would have had the idea to try and measure his spinarak’s psychic ability. When he brought it up to Professor Oak, his mentor laughed.

And what, you think luck had no part of my career? If I had been born just a couple years earlier or later, someone else would have been the first trainer with all the new technology available to make the discoveries I did. But it still took a lot of work to make them, and then follow through with the rest of what made me a Professor.”

I still feel like I’m cheating. You’re the one who developed this pokedex, you and Dr. Madi and the rest of Pallet Labs.”

Red, you are part of Pallet Labs. Whatever you accomplish with what we taught and provided for you is an extension of our work. We paved the roads for those like you to have the opportunities you do, and make new discoveries. To be the next ones to teach us all something new.”

Red makes a final edit in his Conclusion, then sends it off to Dr. Madi to check over and leans his head back against the seat. He closes his eyes for the rest of the trip to let the mild nausea pass, smiling slightly. If everything goes well, anything Red has to teach will be soon outstripped by how much more there will be to learn. What the physical substance that correlates with psychic powers is, whether it’s the same between species, whether there’s a cutoff point between species labeled Psychic Type and those that merely have access to some psychic abilities… There will be a lot to study, and a lot of others besides him studying them. It won’t just be his project anymore, but a collaboration. One that Red will have to keep working hard in to stay at the forefront.

And as much attention as Red gets for it, he’ll always know who he has to thank… one of whom he also needs to apologize to.

The cab pulls up to Bill’s house, and Red thanks the driver, then tells them to go back without him. Red goes over to the front of one of Bill’s houses and stands in front of the door. He looks for the camera lens, then waves to it.

“Hey, Bill. I don’t know if you’re up or not this early, so I didn’t call ahead, but we’re heading south today and I just wanted to say goodbye. And to say thank you. You’ve been a lot of help to me, more than anyone but Professor Oak, and I appreciate it more than I can say.”

He takes a deep breath. “I also wanted to apologize. I’m still new at the whole psychic thing, but that’s no excuse for letting my emotions get the better of me. I’m sorry for violating your trust and privacy, and I hope I can make it up to you by going to the Cruise Convention. More than that, though, I wanted to offer you something in return.”

He unclips his abra’s ball, the strongest one he caught and thus one of those he’ll be keeping for himself. “I understand your reasons for what you said, and your offer to store others who are already suspended is really generous. So I’m going to set your house as a teleport point, just in case I need to get someone to you. I won’t pretend it’s not also in case something happens to me. But I’m also doing it so that if you ever need something, I can come to you right away.” Red smiles. “Even if it’s just to bring you a soda.”

Red wonders if Bill would say something if he’s awake. Red’s pretty sure the house records its surroundings, but whether it would tell Bill that he came by is a different story. He’ll send Bill a message after to let him know, but just in case…

“If you’re awake and okay with that, make the clefairy appear again. If not, the arbok.”

Red waits another few moments, tensely preparing his nervous system for a realistic arbok to suddenly appear beside him. Instead a clefairy appears pops up beside him instead, which makes him jump anyway.

Red grins at the clefairy, which disappears a moment later. He brings up his mental shield, then summons his abra in the grassy field by the house and says, “Register Teleport.” Then he returns it to its ball and brings out his other abra.

“Thanks again, Bill. Talk to you soon.”

He puts a hand on the smooth fur of its head and says “Teleport,” and with a wrenching, shuddering twist, the grassy fields and houses around him are replaced by the rooftop of the Trainer House. He feeds his abra a pokepuff, then withdraws it and heads down to collect his bag and meet Blue and Leaf.

Chapter 42: Making Do

Leaf holds her instrument to her lips and watches the sky. All she can see above is Crimson, doing slow circles of a defensive perimeter around her. Together, trainer and pidgey wait for the threat to reveal itself.

Wait, and watch, and listen.

The sun is warm. The wind is cool. Around them is a stretch of empty beach, and the only sounds are the gentle crash of the waves and the flap of Crimson’s wings.

When the attack comes, it does so without warning: a blast of water that knocks over one of the pokedolls along the beach to her left as she faces the water.

Leaf immediately blows on her whistle, sending Crimson down in a dive at another pokedoll on her right. As soon as he knocks it over, her next command sends Crimson to her left side to strike another doll there, farther away, but a burst of water topples it, and Leaf send Crimson back to her right to knock over the fourth. As she does so, she starts running to her left, eye on the upright pokedoll farther in the distance. She looks back and sees Crimson knock over his target, then blows a tune to bring him racing up behind her, and out toward the new target.

The next pokedoll grows closer in the distance, and she points a finger out and blows on her whistle. Crimson dives at it, but before he can reach, another burst of water shoots out from the waves and hits it.

Leaf curses and turns on her heel, blowing a retreat to Crimson and running even harder back the way she came. She passes by the original dolls and sees the last one in the distance. She must have gotten here first–a quick pair of notes on her flute and Crimson dives at it again.

This time the burst of water comes from farther back, and it doesn’t reach the doll until Crimson hits it. Leaf grins and turns toward the water, and a moment later Blue emerges, one hand on Maturin’s shell until he reaches the shallow part and begins to walk. The newly evolved wartortle follows him, long white tail swishing behind her as she squirts another shot of water at the already downed doll.

“Tied this time,” she says, hands on her hips. “Are you going easy, or did we just get faster?”

Blue takes the breather out of his mouth and lifts his water goggles, wiping a hand across his face. “You got faster. Do you still think bulbasaur would win, though?”

“Only one way to find out.” Leaf withdraws Crimson and brings Bulbasaur out. “We’ve been training his long distance attacks a lot lately, so he might actually do better than Crimson.”

Blue snorts. “We’ll see about that.”

Ever since Zephyr evolved, she and Blue started these competitive training sessions. They’re not quite battles, but also not quite simple training, and Leaf enjoys the mix of challenging and playful elements of them. Once Maturin evolved, Blue wanted practice battling with her from the water onto land, so they decided to try a race along the beach.

“So how confident are you feeling with Maturin in the water?”

“She’s fast,” he says, clearing water from his ear. “I don’t know if she’s fast enough for Misty, but it’s good to know that I can travel a bit by water now, if I need to. You need to get yourself a water pokemon.”

“I know,” Leaf says, staring wistfully at the bay. Maybe I can take up fishing… “First though, I want Crimson or Bulbasaur to evolve.”

Blue begins to move along the beach, putting pokedolls right side up. “Once Crimson does I can teach you guys Brave Bird, if you’d like. I think I’ve almost got the hang of it.”

Leaf’s smile fades a bit. “I don’t know. I appreciate these non-violent training sessions, but Brave Bird is a dangerous move for a pokemon to learn. Even more dangerous to use in battle.”

Blue shrugs. “Sure, but better to have it and not need it, right?”

“Yeah, maybe.” Leaf picks up a doll as Bulbasaur frolicks in the waves and Maturin dives back into them, following Leaf and Blue down the beach. “I wonder if–”

Leaf’s phone buzzes, and she checks it to see Professor Oak’s face pop up. “It’s your grandpa!”

Blue raises his brows and walks over while Leaf accepts the call and puts it on visual. A moment later Professor Oak shows up too, sitting in his office.

“Hi professor!”

“Hello there, Leaf, how is everything? Enjoying one of Cerulean’s many beaches, I see?”

“Yep, and doing some training. Blue’s here.” She tilts the phone.

“Heya gramps.”

“Oh, hello Blue. Well, I’m sorry to interrupt. We can speak later if–”

“No, not at all!” Leaf sits in the sand, and Blue crouches next to her a moment later. “You got my message?”

“I did, and I read your article on the dig site. I enjoyed it.”

“Thanks!”

“So?” Blue asks. “What do you think?”

The Professor sighs, face growing more somber. “I think it was surprising, and worrying. Giovanni is not a man who takes challenges to his will lightly, and yet it seems someone has gone out of their way to undermine him. Not to mention the potential trouble it would cause for Pewter and Cerulean as well.”

Leaf feels relief, but also some small note of disappointment. “So you believe him, then? You don’t think it’s suspicious or… or something others should know about?”

“Perhaps. Still, I trust the Ranger and Leader had their reasons for covering it up. And if I didn’t, I certainly wouldn’t want you getting involved, Leaf. These are forces that wouldn’t hesitate to crush you if you get in their way, some more literally than others. Better if you stay out of it, and not just because I assured your mother that Kanto was as safe a place for a young trainer as anywhere.”

“Hey, that’s not fair,” Blue says as he leans down and frowns at the camera. “You wouldn’t say that to me, would you? Leaf is at least as tough and ambitious. Whatever the decision, she can deal with making it as well as anyone.”

Leaf looks at Blue in surprise, cheeks flushing. It’s flattering to hear that he thinks so highly of her, especially when she knows how often her anti-violent training views chafe. She sometimes worries that Blue wishes he had other travelling companions. Red warmed up to her a lot after their narrow escape in Viridian; she’s just now realizing how much Blue has too, after their encounter with the Renegade.

“I can assure you, I would say the same of you, Blue. It’s not a matter of will or maturity, but power. You’re not there yet, either of you. The fame and attention and influence you would gain for outing this is not worth the enemies you would make.”

“Giovanni–”

“Leader Giovanni is the least among them. He can be… overzealous, when acting how he feels best, but at least your life wouldn’t be in danger.”

“What, you think the person who killed Yuuta would come after me?” Leaf frowns. “But… why would they do that? I’d be doing them a favor if I published it.”

“So it might seem, but I believe the most rational route right now is to take their motives as completely opaque. Much as I trust Giovanni’s intentions, I have no doubt that he was less than completely forthcoming with you.” The professor puts his elbows on the desk and clasps his hands together. “Listen to me, the both of you. It was a great thing you did, helping to stop the Renegade, and it was good work uncovering the truth behind his death, Leaf. But trust me to take it from here. I’m grateful that you told me, and I promise to look into it and let you know if there’s anything more going on. Can you do that?”

Leaf wants to look at Blue, but resists the urge. “Of course, Professor.”

“Sure, gramps.”

“Thank you. Give my regards to Red, and good luck on your match, Blue.”

“Will you be watching?”

The Professor grins. “Of course. Daisy and I are hosting a watch party.”

“Aw, hell, you don’t have to do that.” Leaf can tell Blue is pleased anyway.

“Forget I said anything then. Pretend I’m not watching tomorrow, if it helps.”

“Thanks.”

Leaf nods. “Thank you, Professor.”

“Take care.” He waves, and ends the call.

Leaf lowers her phone, and the two sit in silence for awhile, watching their pokemon play. When Leaf finally comes to a resolution, she turns to Blue, who’s already looking at her. “You’re going to keep looking into it yourself, aren’t you?”

She smiles. “Do you think it’s a bad idea? I thought you were against me poking into it any further.”

“Nah, I just don’t think you should cross Giovanni.” He gets to his feet and offers her his hand which she takes, brushing the sand from her legs after getting pulled up. “But four eyes are better than two, and it’s like Brave Bird, right? Better to know than not to know, even if you’re not planning to do anything with the info. You never know when it might come in handy.”


“Challenger, Blue Oak, second badge.”

Blue begins his walk along the pier as the audience applauds, eyes straight ahead until he reaches the island. He climbs the steps to his trainer platform… and sees the smallest arena he’s ever fought in.

He spent a lot of time watching videos of Misty’s previous Challenge matches to prepare for whatever she might throw at him. Most of her Challenge matches are outdoors and she only does battles along the beach for first badge Challengers, so he expected an island arena. But the kind of island varies widely: some are larger than the one Blue fought Ariya on, while others take place on tiny archipelagos, or a ring of sand with spaces of open water in the middle of them.

This one is even smaller than a training room. A quick glance is enough to take it all in, and Blue knows he could withdraw a pokemon from practically any part of the arena below.

Which is, of course, the point.

Blue feels his pulse kick up, and he smiles in anticipation. There’s only one reason to fight in an arena this small. It’s almost unheard of for a second badge Challenger, but he’s not complaining: it sure won’t hurt his public profile.

“Blue! Hey, BLUE!”

He looks to the audience, expecting to see Red or Leaf waving at him from the stands… but no, the voice was too young. Then he spots the young boy that he met on his first day at Cerulean Gym, standing and cupping his hands around his mouth. What was his name? Daniel? Dennis, that was it.

Blue smiles and lifts a hand, which makes Dennis wave both arms and yell “Good luck!” Blue hopes the kid isn’t skipping again, but no, there’s an older man sitting next to him and urging him to sit down. If he’s missing school, at least he has an adult’s permission.

The audience continues to fill the floating bleachers around the island, though there’s nowhere near as much room for seats as Pewter Gym’s main coliseum. Still, there are cameras available to stream to anyone that wants to watch the match, and he’s confident he’ll have more viewers for this match.

“Leader Misty, of Wisteria Town, Indigo League Challenger and Savior of Cerulean North!”

The Ceruleans cheers for their Leader, who strides up to her platform in a white swimsuit one piece and a light blue jacket. Blue puts his earpiece in.

“Hello, Mister Oak. Are you ready?”

“Yes, Leader. We’re using Indigo League rules?”

Their platforms are close enough for him to see her smile. “Right.”

Excitement surges through him, and he grins back. “I don’t remember seeing a 2nd Badge Challenger get this kind of treatment.”

“You made quite an impression on the others. Anything else I try on you will be wasting both our times, and I like to force my Challengers outside their comfort zones.”

“If you think I can handle it, I’m honored.”

“Heh. If I thought you could handle it, I’d do something else. Brock beat you once, I can hardly let myself get shown up, now can I?” Misty switches to the public channel. “Good morning, Cerulean City! Today’s Challenge match is against one of the most skilled trainers our gym has seen all year, with an undefeated win streak! Blue Oak, Cerulean Gym honors your request. State the nature of your Challenge.”

“I challenge for Mastery,” Blue says, voice booming over the water from speakers set in his platform.

“Cerulean Gym accepts. You may use six pokemon to defeat my three, with standard Indigo League withdraw limitations. Prepare for battle!”

Indigo League withdraw limitations are meant to simulate intense battle conditions in the wild. No pauses to talk or rest or strategize, unless it’s for safety reasons. No more than 1.6 seconds can pass without a pokemon on the field. If a pokemon is knocked out or killed, it has to be replaced in 3 seconds, or else the trainer is presumed dead by the attacking pokemon, and forfeits. Same with if his pokemon goes too far from the battlefield, so that it can’t protect its trainer if needed. A pokemon can’t be withdrawn and sent back out without a different pokemon going in first.

Blue spots the referees in the crowd, now that he knows to look for them. They have tools ready to monitor the battle and call out time if needed. He puts his hands over his belt, not quite hovering over any particular ball so as not to give away his impulse to send Maturin or Kemuri out first. A wartortle and shiftry should at least be neutrally useful against anything she throws out, and if he’s right about what her trump card would be…

“Ready… Set… Go, Swanna!”

Misty’s swanna erupts into being above the battlefield, and Blue’s hand shifts to Ion automatically, the ball already flying through the air before he recognizes the trap.

“Go, Ion!”

“Swanna, return!”

Blue’s shinx makes its debut just as Misty returns her Swanna and pulls her hand out of her jacket with the next ball in it. “Go, Marshtomp!”

“Ion, Bite!”

His pokemon streaks forward in a blue and black blur and sinks his teeth into the enemy marshtomp’s thick arm. It lets out a pained croak and swings its arm around to try and dislodge the shinx. Blue still has Ion’s ball pointed forward, and withdraws his pokemon just as Misty yells “Tara!”

Shit, custom commands too? Blue has no time to consider what her attack might be, acting on instinct to reclip Kemuri to send out Maturin instead.

His wartortle materializes just in time to be nailed with an Ice Beam. Blue doesn’t have time to celebrate his choice, and orders a tackle as he watches for her next move. If Misty is expecting him to switch into counters, he just has to whittle her down with neutral pokemon and attacks. His pokemon might be weaker than hers on average, but he has twice as many.

Misty seems intent on testing his speed, however, and switches out again. As she continually swaps between the marshtomp and the swanna, Blue lets the battle calm surround him so he can keep up without fumbling. Most swaps happen so fast that neither gets an attack in, but Blue is content to wait until he has an opening before he gives a command.

“Go, Swanna!”

“Return! Go, Ion!”

“Return, go, Mars–”

“Return, Ion, go–”

“Epa!”

Misty’s marshtomp slams its arms forward just as Maturin materializes and knocks her across the sand. Blue yells “Bite!” as Misty swaps in her swanna, who stays out of reach as Maturin leaps up at it.

“Asa!”

“Withdraw!”

Maturin ducks into her shell just as the swanna dives and rakes at her. A Wing Attack? Memorizing Misty’s custom attacks is going to be rough, and Blue has only a brief moment to wonder if she’s using them on him just because he used one against Ariya. That’s what I get for testing my limits.

“Maturin, Bai!”

Maturin’s Ice Beam hits the swanna dead on, dropping it to the sand as its feathers are covered in frost. Blue blinks in surprise, hands going still. He expected a switch. Misty looks calm, in control, and Blue feels a note of panic as he realizes he has no idea what’s coming.

“Swanna, alf!”

“Maturin, Withdraw!”

The swanna hops toward Maturin, jerks its neck back… its beak bobs, opens, emits a choking sound-

What the fu-

-and then a stream of purple goop pours out of its mouth.

-uuoh SHIT “Maturin, return!”

Blue’s beam catches his wartortle just as the toxic bile covers her shell. He couldn’t tell how much she was directly exposed to, and there’s no time to think about it: he swaps his bellsprout in and yells “Sleep Powder!”

“Gust!”

The swanna has recovered enough to flap itself back into the air and send the blue spores away over the water. Blue sees some people flinch as the cloud hits the glass in front of their bleacher. Blue replaces his bellsprout with Ion and the dance continues, but now Blue knows better than to try and tank the swanna. Its Toxic would make this fight much harder.

One minute melts into the next, endless cycles of swapping, attacking, throwing, catching. Blue feels sweat drip down his neck, and his arms ache as he keeps them moving almost constantly.

Maturin to Ion to Bellsprout to Maturin to Ion to Maturin to Ion to Bellsprout–

“Vine Whip!” Blue yells as his pokemon materializes while the Marshtomp’s ball is still on its way back to her.

His pokemon’s vine stretches out and whips the marshtomp a heartbeat before it gets withdrawn, and Blue grins as he moves to withdraw his Bellsprout and send out Maturin. That has to have hurt. If he can do that cycle again…

Maturin to Ion to Bellsprout to Maturin–”Withdraw!”–to Ion to Maturin to Ion to Bellsprout to Maturin to Ion–”Bite!”–to Maturin to Ion to Bellsprout–

Blue opens his mouth to go for another Vine Whip, but Misty withdraws her pokemon blindingly fast. She’s watching for it now, which means he has to outspeed her. Blue pushes himself, barely looking at the balls as he throws and catches them again and again, cycling and attacking, trying to force her to send her marshtomp out and lure it into an attack on Ion, leaving the shinx out an extra second so she’ll overcommit, now–

“Return, go, Bellsprout!”

Shinx get sucked away as Bellsprout replaces him, and Blue lifts his arm to catch its ball-

-and feels it brush his fingertips.

He whips around and leaps, catching the ball before it can spin past into the water.

“Ova!” Misty yells.

Blue turns just in time to see the marshtomp blast his bellsprout with an Ice Beam. It wilts in a second, and he quickly withdraws it, heart pounding as he sends Maturin out to resume the dance, barely clinging onto his battle calm.

He missed a catch. He, Blue Oak, almost dropped his pokeball just as his pokemon needed to be returned. That shouldn’t happen, ever, let alone in front of an audience.

“Withdraw!” Blue yells, and swallows against the dryness in his throat. Five to three, now. Maturin’s dive ball is slick under his sweaty fingers, and Blue’s pulse kicks up again. This is exactly what Misty wants. To test his endurance, see how he adapts to new things. He might be wearing down her pokemon, but she’s wearing him down. She fights like this all the time, is used to the open sunlight and endless movement. If he can’t find a way to break the cycle, he’s going to lose the fight long before his pokemon do.

The marshtomp or swanna, one of them has to go. But he has nothing that decisively beats both. Misty is fast. More than that, she’s predicting his moves like… well, a psychic. Being dark is useful, but she’s still used to being in a trainer’s head as she fights them. However good Blue is, and however proud, he knows better than to think his natural impulses are significantly less predictable than any other trainers that have studied competitive battles an extensive amount.

But unpredictable is exactly what he has to be. Which in this case means locking her into a decision and shifting the tempo of the fight, if only to give himself time to catch his breath and rest his arms.

Blue waits for her to send out her marshtomp again, then unclips a rear ball and throws. “Go, Zephyr!”

The pidgeotto gives a piercing cry as it materializes and spots its opponent. Misty immediately withdraws the marshtomp, and Blue’s first flute note sends Zephyr climbing up, up, up.

Misty’s movements are as smooth as ever, but he thinks there’s a moment’s hesitation as she unclips her Swanna. Not enough to disqualify her, but when the Swanna appears, she doesn’t immediately give it any instruction. She could threaten to disqualify him if his pokemon leaves the battlefield, but Zephyr is still above the island, within striking difference if the theoretical wild swanna were to go for him and leave itself exposed. Blue smiles around his mouthpiece as he carefully steers his pokemon just within the battleground limits, and takes deep breaths, arms and shoulders enjoying the rest.

Swanna are stronger than pidgeotto, and faster, but only at the start of a fight. And now that both Blue and his pokemon have a bit of breathing room…

He blows two notes, and Zephyr banks to the left, accelerating as he does so. The swanna turns to keep him in its sight, but Misty soon realizes what he’s doing, and rather than let Zephyr keep gaining agility, she starts to give chase.

As Blue feared, an Ice Beam lances out from the swanna, just barely missing Zephyr. Two TMs on one pokemon… does that mean two on each of them? He’ll have to watch out for another TM from marshtomp too, along with two from whatever her third is. There’s a limit to how much a pokemon’s body can be edited, so hopefully this is the last surprise from the swanna.

Blue keeps Zephyr on the move and lets him keep building speed until he’s just a tan blur in the sky. The small size of the arena keeps him from going even faster, but the swanna can’t land its attacks, and on its next miss, Blue finally sends it in for a Brave Bird.

The blow is almost too fast to see, but blood and feathers rain down from both of them. Misty withdraws her swanna as it makes a distressed honk, but Blue can’t tell how badly it’s injured. Blue tracks Zephyr with his ball as he stumbles about in the air for a second, but then his flapping grows stronger and he levels out.

“Go, Starmie!”

A jolt goes through Blue, and he withdraws Zephyr anyway, feeling simultaneously flattered and nervously irritated. An Indigo league match, and coded attacks, and two TMs, and she’s using a starmie? The gem in its center flashes red as its five rear arms spin lazily through the sand and lift its body up. As it begins to cartwheel around the battlefield, Blue throws. “Go, Kemuri!”

His shiftry appears on the sand and immediately gets blasted by an Ice Beam, because of course it has that move too. Kemuri shivers under the cold onslaught for a moment, but doesn’t go down. “Tal!” Blue yells.

His pokemon whips up a flurry of green particles and sends them out with a flap of its leaves. Blue expects Misty to replace the starmie with her swanna, but instead it takes the attack and just shoots another Ice Beam out.

“Dodge!” Blue yells, too late. One of Kemuri’s leaf hands is still up from its attack, and takes the brunt of the beam. When it finally leaps away and moves its arm down, two of its three broad leaves break off with a snap.

“Dodge!” Blue yells again, and this time Kemuri avoids the attack. No time to wonder why Misty is keeping her starmie out, but her ability to give it commands instantly and silently means he has to play defensively. He keeps his gaze on her pokemon to predict its next move, and realizes that its wounds from his previous attack are closing. “Lar!”

His pokemon dashes forward and slashes with its remaining limb. The razor sharp leaves slice off a pair of the starmie’s arms as it spins away. It responds with an Ice Beam, which Kemuri manages to dodge without Blue’s warning, but it tries to counter attack on its own and only manages to chase the starmie around as it recharges for another shot.

Starmie are too fast for a shiftry to hope to get a hit in without the element of surprise. “Af!” Blue commands, and Kemuri leaps forward–only to land short and hit the sand face first. Blue winces as he imagines that long, thin nose slamming into the sand.

The starmie slows down and fires another Ice Beam, but Kemuri is already rolling out of the way and bounding forward for another strike, nose thankfully unbroken and white mane covered in sand. Misty sends her starmie spinning away again, but not before it’s struck by another deep gash.

Blue kept his code pretty simple: if an attack is two words, use the first letter of both, flip the order, and put a vowel between them if one isn’t a vowel. If it’s one word, use the first letter and a vowel. The vowel used can keep track of multiple attacks with the same letters. It’s not a hard code to break, but it’s easy to remember and implement, which is what he needed to get Kemuri ready for this match.

Both their pokemon seem a hit away from going down, but hers can regenerate. Blue has to get another hit in soon. She won’t fall for the same thing twice…

“Starmie, return!”

Blue blinks, then lifts Ion’s ball and prepares to swap it into her swanna. He was paying so much attention to her pokemon he didn’t notice her prepare to switch, costing a chance to get an attack in.

He holds Kemuri’s ball out and cocks Ion’s back. “Kemuri, re–”

“Go, Marshtomp!”

–ckg!” Blue chokes on the word and tightens his grip on Ion’s ball. Too close. “Lor!”

“Ap!”

The shiftry strikes first, blades sinking deep into the marshtomp’s abdomen–only to have it belch a glob of poisonous sludge right into Kemuri’s face.

His pokemon reels back with a coughing bellow of pain that Blue feels like a stab in his gut. He quickly returns it to its ball, cursing at himself. There’s that second surprise. At the same time, the marshtomp falls back from its more literal stabbing, and is quickly withdrawn by Misty.

“Go, Io-”

“Pause,” Misty says over the loudspeakers.

Blue flinches, ball sailing forward and hitting the sand without opening. He stares at her, and slowly lowers his arm as his stomach turns to ice. Was he too late? No, her pokemon was down and hasn’t even been replaced yet, there’s no way he’s in violation…

Misty smiles. “Don’t worry, Trainer, you’re safe. I merely want to confirm our count.”

Right. Blue nods, letting his breath out. “I’ve retired my bellsprout.”

“And your shiftry?”

Blue stares at her, thinking fast. “I did think that Kemuri was another attack from going down, but that was from your starmie.”

“Do you intend to send it out again, then?”

Blue’s jaw clenches. He can’t retire Kemuri while she still has her starmie, it’s his only pokemon that’s immune to its psychic attacks. But… that sludge hit Kemuri directly. He was already badly hurt, and if he’s poisoned… he would faint within seconds of being sent out again.

Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit. “No,” Blue says, and slowly transfers Kemuri’s ball to the rear of his belt, swapping it with Gon’s. “It’s too big a risk.”

Misty smiles. “A prudent choice, Trainer. In the same spirit, I will retire my marshtomp.”

Blue nods, only slightly relieved. It received what looked like a pretty critical hit: Kemuri is still his most unruly and vicious pokemon, and he’s lucky it hasn’t crippled or killed another trainer’s pokemon yet. He’ll have to keep working on that.

For now, he’s only glad that it took the marshtomp out. Ion can finally have free rein, but he doesn’t think the shinx will be able to stand up to a starmie. If only it had evolved too…

“Ready to continue, Challenger?”

Four to two. I can still do this. Blue hops down from his platform and retrieves Ion’s ball, gaze lingering on the blood, feathers, and leaves that litter the sand. He feels surreal, standing on the tiny island in the middle of the bay, hundreds of silent eyes on him as the sun beats down and the smell of the water fills his nose. Like he’s in a painting, or a picture that will be shown in history books. Like everything around him is about to freeze in place, and if he looks to the side he’ll see a floating square that he can climb out of and back into “reality.”

Blue bends down and picks up Ion’s ball. The world is still very mobile, and all he’s coming out of is an adrenaline high. He smiles as he climbs back up onto his platform, then stretches his arms out and rotates his shoulders before moving his hands over his belt to disguise which balls he’s holding. “Ready.”

“Three… two… one… Go, Star-”

“Go, Ion!” Shit. He expected the Swanna. “Return, go, Maturin!”

His wartortle appears, one paw wiping poison off her face as she tries to open her eyes. Blue’s heart is in his throat as the starmie’s gem flashes, expecting a psychic attack… but it’s just healing itself again.

“Bite!” Blue yells as soon as Maturin can see, and his wartortle leaps forward. Basic as it is, an intense and invasive enough attack will mess with any psychic’s ability to concentrate.

Rather than let Maturin latch onto her starmie, however, Misty yells “Return, go, Swanna!” and Blue immediately aborts the Maturin’s charge with a “Return, go, Ion! Spark!”

The swanna stays out and belches another glob of toxic goop at Ion as the shinx tackles it, electricity buzzing around him. The swanna is jolted away, honking in agony as it rolls across the sand and lies still. Misty quickly withdraws her pokemon and sends the starmie back out.

Four to one! “Spark!”

Ion charges forward again and hits the starmie, but his pokemon bounces off something in the air just ahead of the starmie: a Protection barrier. Almost impossible to pierce through, but very hard to maintain for more than a couple seconds. Its timing has to be precise, but combined with the ability to heal her pokemon, it’s an incredible stalling ability.

Blue’s grip on Maturin’s ball tightens. Even now, Misty is changing the rules. Her starmie is going to just tank and let the poison wear Ion down. The starmie starts to heal itself again, and Ion runs toward it for another Spark, which connects. But Misty’s pokemon barely seems to feel it, simply healing through the damage.

“Charge!” Blue says, and watches as his pokemon builds up electricity, its blue and black fur crackling with light. If he’s wrong and the starmie isn’t preparing another barrier, he can only hope Ion survives her next attack and takes her down in one hit.

As far as he can see however, the starmie just keeps regenerating, all of its lost limbs fully regrown now, its skin unblemished. Ion is beginning to tremble, whether from built up electricity or the wearing effects of the poison, he doesn’t know, but enough is enough. “Spark!”

The starmie leaps away as soon as Ion bolts forward, and the chase is on. Starmie are ridiculously fast considering their weird shape, and Ion is clearly feeling the growing effects of the poison, but eventually Misty runs out of island and has to turn.

Ion cuts across the intervening space and tackles it with a crack of discharging energy, almost sending it into the water. The starmie bounces and flounders on the sand, electricity running along its body as its skin smokes and blackens. But soon the burnt skin begins to slough off to reveal new flesh underneath.

Blue lets out a breath. If that wasn’t enough to take it down, it’s time for Plan B, now that Misty has no one to swap her pokemon with. “Return! Go, Gon! Leech Seed!”

His shroomish makes its first appearance in the battle and spits the seeds out. The starmie can heal itself at a frightening pace, but even it can’t shrug off the effects of that much electricity so quickly, and Gon has just enough time to release the Leech Seeds before the starmie sends out an Ice Beam.

Frost blooms over Gon’s whole body, and Blue withdraws him. Three to one. One of the seeds connected, however, and that’s all he needs. His path to victory is set: it’s a battle of attrition, and Blue begins a countdown for each of his poisoned pokemon, set to begin when he sends them back out. But first, the unpoisoned one: “Go, Zephyr!” He puts his flute to his lips as the pidgeotto appears and blows.

Zephyr dives at the starmie and strikes another barrier, only for Blue to follow up with a second set of notes that makes Zephyr hover in place to keep clawing and pecking. The leech seed is growing, its roots spreading through the starmie’s flesh and sucking its life up into its fruit, which crack out of their shells and drop to the sand. His pokemon occasionally dips to the side to snatch them up in its beak, then returns to attacking the starmie, who can only protect itself every few seconds, spending the rest of its time healing.

Misty has to attack to win. She’s waiting for something, but what? Not knowing makes Blue nervous, but he has her on the ropes and can’t let up now. His hands tighten on his pokeballs, watching without blinking as Zephyr tries to do more damage to the starmie than it can heal through… surely he’s wearing it down…

With a jolt, Blue realizes his mistake. While he’s here trying to guess and estimate how the fight is going, Misty can feel the status of her pokemon, intimately. She knows if her pokemon is getting worn down, out healing the damage, or even breaking even. If she’s not attacking, it’s because she’s getting an advantage by prolonging the fight. He only feels in control because it looks like she’s out of options, but if that were true, she would just forfeit. She’s a Gym Leader, not just some random trainer whose pride or prize money is on the line.

Blue opens his mouth to withdraw Zephyr, then stops himself. He looks at Misty and finds her studying him, having no need to look at the fight to respond to it. What if this is her plan? To make him doubt himself, give up the advantage?

Doubt sends cracks through his battle calm, and he feels it slipping away as the pressure of indecision grows stronger. He keeps thinking that he’s one bad decision away from losing his second badge, that any moment now he’ll make the wrong choice, or wait too long to make one at all. Is he enabling her plan by letting Zephyr keep attacking, or falling for a psych-out by switching? If he wasn’t dark, she would be much more capable of reading and manipulating him, but as he realized earlier, she’s had plenty of experience knowing what her opponents think and how to shape their decisions.

There’s only one way forward that feels right: he has to be unpredictable. Force her to adapt, for once.

“Return! Go, Maturin!”

His wartortle reappears on the sand, but the starmie bursts into action before Blue can give a command, and a wave of invisible force shoves Maturin up and slams her against Blue’s platform. “Bite!” Blue yells, and as soon as she lands Maturin dashes forward to try and reach the starmie. Again she’s flung away, skidding over the sand on the back of her shell. “Return, go, Zephyr!” His hands move in a blur, clip-Maturin-right-hand, catch-Zephyr-left-hand, lift-flute-right-hand, tweet, twoot, twit twit!

Zephyr shoots up into the sky, flips itself in a tight half-loop and rockets down at the starmie. Blue tweets hard to make Zephyr flare his wings and slow enough for Blue to track him, then lets the flute drop from his lips and unclips Ion. “Return, go, Ion, Spark!”

If Blue is predicting properly, Zephyr dodged another burst of psychic force, then forced her to put a barrier up… and now it should be down, just in time for Ion to slam the starmie. Electricity arcs between its many limbs as it’s knocked away. “Spark, return, go, Maturin, Bite!”

His pokemon hits a wall again as Misty predicts the fake out, but Blue’s already swapping Zephyr back in and yelling out “Quick Attack,” no time to use his flute as his hands swap Ion back out a moment after the pidgeotto strikes.

His pokemon is clearly woozy from its poison by now, but it manages to eat one of the plump leech seeds as it dashes toward the starmie. It connects–then gets flung across the sand.

Misty is changing tactics again, and the timer in his head for his poisoned pokemon keeps narrowing his path to victory further and further, but Blue is already swapping Zephyr back into battle and bringing his flute to his lips for a quick command–

An Ice Beam hits Zephyr dead on, plunging him to the sand as one wing becomes too stiff to flap. Should’ve switched in Maturin! He moves to do it–but stops as he realizes she’s expecting exactly that, and blows a command for Zephyr to use a Sand Attack.

A gust of wind hits the ground and kicks up a cloud. Misty can aim through it with her starmie’s mental senses if he keeps Zephyr out, but swapping Ion in to the side of where Zephyr was lets him yell out “Spark!” before she can get in a preemptive attack.

Instead she tries a dodge, but that just gives Ion time to pick up more seeds as he chases the starmie around the island. When it finally hits the edge of the island again, Blue swaps Ion out rather than let it attack, sending Maturin instead and yelling “Bite!”

His pokemon leaps forward and locks her jaws onto the starmie just as a psychic wave ripples outward and kicks sand up, slamming Maturin’s body against the ground… but not breaking the grip of her jaws.

“Stop,” Misty says, again.

Blue is breathing hard, hands trembling as he points Maturin’s ball forward and has Zephyr’s ready at his side… but as her word registers, he quickly yells, “Maturin, back!”

Maturin’s jaws stay locked on the starmie, and Blue feels a note of panic. “Maturin, back!”

She opens her mouth and staggers away from the starmie, and Blue lets out a breath of relief as he withdraws her. Heart pounding, he looks up at Misty and feels his knees buckle at the smile on her face, hardly daring to trust his hopeful thoughts.

She withdraws her starmie and holds the ball in her right hand as her left leans against the railing on her platform. “Could you explain your last few thoughts on the battle for our audience, and what you were about to do?” she asks, tossing the ball up and down.

Blue’s mind is still caught up in the battle, evaluating how hurt his pokemon are and re-evaluating paths to victory, but his mouth moves on its own. “My last major insight was that I had to keep you not just on the defensive, but guessing what my next move would be. I just tried to catch you off guard, but I don’t think I would have succeeded if I hadn’t guessed that the second time starmie reached the edge of the island, it was a feint. You waited to move your pokemon that way only when you could put another shield up, so I swapped to Maturin and used her to get a decisive hit in.”

Misty nods. “Right throughout. You have demonstrated every major skill our gym seeks to impart to at least some degree. Blue Oak, I award you the Cascade Badge.”

Blue stares at her as the crowd finally breaks its silence, cheering and applauding. He lets his breath out and leans his hands on the railing, letting the noise wash over him. His legs are still trembling, his heart threatening to jump up into his throat, but a sense of triumph finally wins through, and he turns to the crowd and lifts his arms, fingers forming twin V’s.

Blue enjoys the heat of the sun on his hair and face as he basks in their praise, and more, the knowledge of having completed a perfect gym streak. His first of many, hopefully, but a crucial one, to re-establish his legend and allow it to grow.


Red sits at the table in one of Bill’s houses and stares at a flat, round stone in his hand, feeling every inch of it against his skin. He stares at it until he can picture it perfectly after closing his eyes, until he can barely tell when he’s looking at it with his real eyes or his mind’s eye. Its weight and texture are burned into his palm, the shape of it, the edges clearly delineated until he can’t imagine what it would feel like not to have this stone in his palm. It’s a part of him. Where his skin and its bottom meets, there is perfect awareness. Perfect connection. Perfect focus.

Red molds his will into an invisible, impossibly thin layer that cups the stone in its entirety, and lifts…

…and opens his eyes to see the stone sitting stubbornly still, not having moved an inch.

Red groans and lets his head fall forward, cap pushing up as his forehead rests on the table. His pichu, who was lying curled up on the table, opens her eyes to look at him, then steps onto the brim of his hat and over his head to nestle in the gap between his neck and the collar of his shirt.

The sound of Bill’s strange doors opening comes from behind him, then footsteps ascend the stairs. “Still with the rock, huh?” Bill asks. “How hard is floating something that heavy supposed to be, anyway?”

“Not this hard,” Red mumbles and lifts his head, slowly enough not to startle Pichu. She clings to his collar, then relaxes as he stops moving and burrows deeper against his neck, her tail sticking up to brush his hair. “I mean, I wasn’t expecting to orbit pokeballs around my head after just a week, but I can’t even make it wobble.” He puts the stone down and rubs his palm on his jeans, enjoying the sensation of something besides the rock.

The inventor grabs a soda from the fridge and sits on the couch near the table, tilting his head back and resting his feet on a legrest. “Isn’t there an easier task to start with?”

“Tried them. Coins, bits of paper, sand… I even tried moving stuff down a slope, so gravity could help, but my teacher, Psychic Ayane, said that my ‘feel’ for the objects aren’t established properly, and gave me this to try with.”

“Being familiar with the texture and weight of it is supposed to help?”

“Psychic training is weird.” Red sighs and rubs his eyes. “I’ve never learned something so subjective. When I asked Ayane when I’d know if I ‘feel’ it well enough, she said I would just know it when I do. I’ve been carrying this thing around for days, and feel like I know it as intimately I ever will. But whatever trick it takes to twist my powers into a tangible force, I can’t do it, even after inhabiting my teacher’s mind while she uses psychokinesis. And that usually works for me.” Red was more disappointed than he could express when it didn’t help. He thought that was his key to learning new psychic abilities, but for whatever reason it isn’t enough to just copy mental states to move things. “Meanwhile there’s a video online of some six year old in fancy robes marching an army of plastic cups across a kitchen counter.”

Bill takes a contemplative sip of his drink. “Reminds me of when I was learning to catch as a kid. Practice for pokeballs. I’d look at others, see their hands moving just where they were supposed to be, automatically, and wonder why my body didn’t work like that. Studied enough physics to calculate the trajectory and arc of every throw, but I could never catch them as easily as some others using no calculation, no trick, just some intuitive skill. I got so jealous I just started skipping those classes.”

“Huh. That’s actually kind of why I want to get this so bad. I’m not as good at catching balls on their return as Blue or Leaf, so I thought maybe I could use my powers to help a bit with it. When did it click for you?”

Bill smiles. “Who says it did? I may have mentioned that I’m not much of a trainer. That’s part of why: just never got the hang of the athletic aspects. It’s for the best though. I never would have spent so much time on programming if I didn’t give up on being a trainer. Hell, might have gotten myself killed off on a journey instead.”

Red frowns down at the rock. He supposes if he’s just no good at psychokinesis, he can focus on his other psychic gifts instead. But he’s not giving up yet. He puts the rock back in his palm. Blue and Leaf should be here soon for their second abra catching session, and he has nothing else to do in the meantime. “So did you get a chance to look at the results so far?”

“I did.”

“What do you think?”

“It’s promising.” Bill makes a gesture with his hand, and the wall across from them suddenly projects some monitor he must have been looking at recently. On it is Red’s preliminary data for the abra research, along with some notes and comments by Bill. Ayane is almost done with the original crop, and once the sample population is bolstered by the ones they catch today, Red should have over a hundred subjects in his study.

For now, only about fifty are represented. The graph shows the same X axis as his original research, a simple distribution of the % of the abra’s Other category when scanned into a pokedex. The Y axis this time is measured in kilograms, the numbers representing how heavy a weight each abra can lift after being taught the “Psychic” attack from a TM Bill let him use (Red doesn’t know why the attack was named “Psychic” instead of “Psychokinesis,” but chalks it up to the laziness or pragmatism of Battle Trainers not wanting to have to shout out five syllables for an attack).

Bill rolls his can between his palms. “It looks like the relationship is a lot stronger in abra than spinarak, but the variance is still all over the place. I see you’ve refined your hypothesis though.”

Red nods. The language of his original research paper was too focused on trying to support his hypothesis of a correlation between Other and psychic ability. He also felt misrepresented the meaning of his p-value, considering the lack of statistical significance. Small wonder it was so hard to find a publisher.

But from this data, the null isn’t looking good. Of the four quadrants, high Other, high Weight Lifted; high Other, low Weight Lifted; low Other, low Weight Lifted; and low Other and high Weight Lifted, there’s a clear gap in the top left: low Other, high Weight Lifted. The rest of the graph is filled with a loose curve of dots, but plenty of outliers. “So high Other doesn’t predict high psychokinetic ability,” Bill says, waving a hand to highlight some of the dots at the lower right of the graph that represent abra with high Other but weak pyschokinesis. “There are a number of of high Other abra that are pretty weak at it.”

“Which makes sense, since we know individuals vary in strength between different psychic abilities. According to Ayane, I’m unusually good at psychic Reception, but moving things around…” He bounces the rock from one hand to the other. “Not so much. But–”

“–low Other does seem to impact it, right.” Bill circles the mostly empty quadrant in a different color. “Which also makes sense, if there’s a single particle responsible for overall psychic abilities, but not specific ones.”

“Yeah. Maybe as the technology gets better we can identify what this ‘mystery matter’ is, and whether there are actually two different types for different manifestations of psychic power. Or maybe even three, or four. A wide variability might explain those few spinarak outliers I had. Without those, that research would have been a lot more intriguing.”

“Well, if this pattern holds up, you won’t have to worry about that any more. It might take you a bit to convince a paper to pay attention, but the journal boards aren’t stupid enough to ignore something like this. I’d be surprised if you don’t get your Researcher license from this.”

Red smiles as he studies the graph. It’s been a rough couple weeks, all things considered. He’s still not sleeping well, and he spends a lot of time lying in bed with Pichu when he should be working on his paper, or facilitating the sale of the abra. Without Ayane’s psychic lessons, or Blue dragging him to secret training sessions for his shinx, Red would probably have spent most of his week in his room. But aside from watching Blue’s victory (and getting swept up in the crowd’s excitement again), the major bright spot has been seeing the data slowly accumulate and form a pattern. As long as his research is moving forward, he feels like he’s being productive.

Bill finishes off his soda and gets up to grab another one. He brings an extra for Red this time, who takes it and pops the tab for a long gulp. “Ahh, thanks.” Pichu stirs against his neck, then crawls over his collar and down his arm, nose sniffing at the can. “And thanks again for all your help,” Red says as he tilts the can just enough for some of the sugary liquid to spill into the inner rim. He rotates the can so it rolls away from the opening, then lets her lap at it. “I owe you big time.”

“Right,” Bill says, waving the display on the wall away and reaching into his pocket. “About that.”

Red looks up at him. “You need help with something?”

“I finally remembered what I called you guys here for in the first place,” Bill pulls an envelope out of his pocket and tosses it onto the table, causing Pichu to recoil back up Red’s shoulder. “Woops.”

“Really?” Red puts the can down and picks up the envelope. Pichu abandons his shoulder and hops onto the table, staring at the envelope in his hands warily. Red keeps an eye on her cheeks in case they start glowing. “What reminded you?”

“Well, I hadn’t checked my mailbox in a while. Eventually I got an alert that it was running out of space, and new items would have no Containers to materialize into. I had Eva list what was in there before I chucked it all, and there it was.” Bill scratches the back of his neck. “I was thinking about finding someone to send, but only when something reminded me.”

Red opens the envelope and stares at the pair of tickets that slide out. “The S.S. Anne? You’re giving us tickets to the Cruise Convention?!

“Yeah. I get invited every year, so it’s no big deal for me.”

Red is still staring, turning the tickets this way and that to let their holographic seals catch the light. “But… will they even let us on? We’re not… well, obviously we’re not you, but we’re not anyone.”

“They’ll let you on, if only to avoid offending me,” Bill grins. “You’ll be going as my ‘assistants.’ I used to go to stuff like this by popping back and forth with abra, but since some idiots decided to put one on a cruise, I’d rather not spend a week out at sea. But there are a few presentations I want some 2nd hand accounts and notes from. Since they don’t allow recordings, I figured anyone Oak trusted to send out with a dex should be reliable.”

Red frowns at him. “You didn’t actually forget these, right? You just pretended to in order to meet me first, see if I was trustworthy.”

Bill rolls his eyes. “I’m not that sneaky. Inviting you into my lab would require way more trust than sending you on the cruise, and besides, you already proved yourself enough for me to let you catch abra on my land.” The inventor suddenly meets Red’s gaze. “Besides, you’re a smart kid. I don’t actually have to explain how hard I can make your life if you give me reason to, do I?”

Red swallows against the sudden dryness of his throat. He resists the urge to drink. “No.”

“Good.” Bill’s eyes move away, then go distant, the way they do when he’s looking at something on his personal monitor, and after a moment he “flicks” whatever it is onto the wall and begins to scroll down with one finger, muttering to himself.

Red waits a few moments, not wanting to interrupt. He finally takes another sip of soda, though he doesn’t really want it anymore. He knows that threat was hypothetical, but it’s hard not to realize that giving Bill “a reason to” ruin his life could apply just as easily to not doing something he asks. Is Red beholden to the inventor, now? Would he feel safe refusing any request? Professor Oak trusts him, at least…

Red waits until Bill seems done with whatever he’s looking at, then says, “I’m still not sure why you’d send us, though. Couldn’t you send, I don’t know, anyone else? Someone who could afford to pay you for these?” Red holds up the tickets, which are probably worth more than all the clefairy he sold put together.

“You weren’t far off, before, it is actually a matter of trust. I wouldn’t ask just anyone not tell others what I’m interested in, not to mention report the info straight. But it has very little to do with any of our interactions. Like you said: you’re no one special. Meaning you’re not a player. Not yet anyway. You’ll pass under most people’s radar, you’ll do your best, and most importantly, I know that if you are someone’s agent, it’s Oak, so that’s alright.”

“I’m not–” Red stops himself, remembering how he and Blue both recommended telling the professor about Leaf’s conversation with Giovanni. Maybe he is the professor’s agent, sort of. Beyond testing out the pokedex, of course. The thought makes him a bit uncomfortable.

Bill doesn’t seem interested in his denial anyway. “Whatever you say. In any case, it’s alright. If I can’t trust Oak then I’ve got bigger problems. So take the tickets, and bring your notebook, because you’re going to be my eyes and ears in there. The ship sets sail in three weeks, plenty of time for you guys to make it to Vermillion.”

Red takes out his wallet and carefully tucks the tickets away. He wonders how the others will take the news. Leaf will be excited, probably end up finding something to write about. And he’s pretty sure only having two tickets won’t be an issue, with Blue’s focus on training for his badges. Red just hopes Blue doesn’t mind going for the Thunder Badge next. “So what’s the theme for the convention this year?”

“New uses for storage tech. A lot of people trying to take what we can do with matter transformation and extend it in other areas. You can probably guess why I’m interested in it.”

Red thinks it over. “Better TM capabilities?”

“Nope.”

“True replication?”

“Would be nice, but no.”

“Then…” Red trails off, thinking. Bill lets him. What are some of the biggest problems that need to be solved? Not just minor stuff like upgrades to existing technology: what would Bill find interesting?

Red remembers his own imaginings of what pokeball tech might allow. He said this was about storage tech and matter transformation… Red thinks back to the various projects he saw or heard Bill talking about, or heard others mention about the inventor. “Human storage?” he asks at last. “So we can fix the problems it causes and fully simulate human minds in virtual reality?”

“You’re looking forward to that too, huh?”

Red grins. “I knew it. I knew someone, somewhere would be trying to figure that out.”

Bill shrugs. “Still not the main goal. Close though. I want to figure out the source of the error in the first place, so it can be perfectly reversed.”

Red’s stares at him, eyes growing wide. “Reversed? You mean to fix people that went into a ball and came back out?”

“Or just went in and haven’t come out yet.”

“Is that possible? Sorry, is it probable?”

“Over a long enough timeline? What do you think?”

“Over a long enough timeline, it doesn’t even matter,” Red says, speaking slowly as realization dawns. “Whether it’s figured out ten years from now or a hundred, time doesn’t matter once you’re in the ball! We could send people into the future right now!” His imagination races ahead, wondering what it would be like, to go into a ball and wake up a century later, five centuries later, and see how much things have changed-

“Could we?” Bill asks, brow raised as he studies Red.

Red blinks, brought slightly back to earth. “It might not work,” he admits. “And people would be leaving behind all their family and friends. But… some people would still want to do that, wouldn’t they? Besides, what if they’re dying? They’ll have better medicine in the future, they might be saved.” Red’s voice is rising again, and Pichu looks at him in alarm. He forces himself to take a deep breath, though on the inside his stomach and chest are stewing with heat. “Why aren’t we putting everyone who’s dying into a ball?” he demands.

“Why not put them in after they die?” Bill counters. “Moments after, where better medicine might be able to revive them?”

“Argh!” Red clutches his head. “We have to… I’ve gotta tell my mom… and Blue and Leaf, and others, everyone…”

“What would you tell them?”

“That no one has to die anymore! There are people in hospitals now, dying of something we can’t cure or lying in a field somewhere, bleeding out–” a flash of a forest clearing, and a body lying beneath a swarm of beedrill “–with the means to save themselves right in their pocket! People could just zap themselves into a ball and wait for a future generation to figure it all out and bring them back!”

“Pokeballs that can capture humans are illegal-”

Fuck illegal,” Red yells, and Pichu leaps away in alarm. He stands and starts to pace the room. “Why isn’t everyone doing this? If it cost a lot of money that would be one thing, but this is practically free. People are dying all over the place, just letting it happen, and no one is thinking, hey, we have a perfectly good time machine right on our belts! I even thought about using pokeballs to teach people things in simulations, or adjust human biology, and I didn’t think of it! Dammit!

“As amusing as it is reliving the same reaction I had upon thinking of this,” Bill says, “You’re not thinking it through.”

Red is still remembering the boy in Viridian, all the people that died in the fire, and at the dig site… that woman, the one who was caught in the spore cloud… if she’d just been able to put herself in a ball, she’d be alive right now… Waiting, suspended in time, to wake up in a better future… His dad would be in one, waiting for him to… to…

“Breathe, Red. Calm down.”

Red wipes his eyes with his sleeve, anger doused by the wave of despair. He sinks back into his chair, and when Pichu cautiously pads over to him he picks her up and lets her nuzzle against his neck. “How are you so calm about this?”

“Mostly just numb to it now,” Bill says. “Too much trouble trying to convince people. I used to offer perpetual storage of anyone’s body if they wanted it, but you can imagine the rumors that spread around.” Red vaguely remembers people mentioning that. Blue brought it up recently, as evidence of how being a hermit makes Bill less influential. “Then there are those like my dad, who’s just uncomfortable with the whole idea of not dying and living in the future, potentially forever.”

Red goes cold at the thought of his mom. I have to convince her… he would, somehow, he can’t lose her too. “You said there were things I’m not considering. Like there being no actual guarantee that it’s possible? So what? Even if technology just stops advancing at some point, it’s not murder if they’re already dying, and–”

“No, not that. I mean like how you can’t just use any ball you pick up at the store.”

Red nods, thoughts racing. Possessing pokeballs without the failsafes against capturing humans is treated almost as harshly as being a Renegade. “And someone would need to be there to capture you anyway. Would a container ball work? Just… lie in the box and have someone else withdraw it? Like in that movie where the Renegade does it to hide the body?”

“Yes, that would work, and that’s exactly what I recommended people do. Of course, it’s illegal while they’re still alive, and would raise a lot of questions even if they’re dead. Their family and friends would want to know where the body is, why it’s not being buried.”

Red doesn’t care about any of that right now. Even if he convinces his mom, what if no one’s around her that will do it when she’s dying? “Could you make a pokeball that works on its own? Maybe on a timer or something?”

“Sure, I could. Again, illegally. But then, once it’s triggered, someone else still has to find and retrieve it, knowing what’s inside so they can safely store it, before anyone else finds it and figures out what’s inside.”

Red takes his hat off and runs his hands through his hair. Pichu leaps from his shoulder into this hat and curls up in a ball of yellow fuzz, making Red smile and stroke her fur. “So it’s not feasible, is what you’re saying. People won’t go for it, and if they do, it’s risky to do it, and if you try, you still have to figure out the logistics.”

“Right. It’ll take a huge public awareness campaign and some rather different social shifts before people are ready for something like this.”

“But if you make some for Blue and Leaf and I, and we all agree to it, we can look out for each other, bring each other here if…” It suddenly occurs to Red what he’s saying, what kind of scenario would require that. But he doesn’t shy away from the thought: they’re all living a dangerous path, and this is the best safety net they’re ever going to get.

Bill is silent for a moment, then shakes his head. “Sorry Red. It’s too big a risk if you’re found with them.”

“Ha! A bigger risk than dying?”

“Not just a risk to you.”

Red stares at him, smile fading. “You… you seriously won’t…”

Bill looks away, gaze unfocused. “I’m sorry. Really. Like I said, if you can get it done and get a container to me, I’ll be happy to store it for as long as possible. But I can’t put myself at risk like that. I trust you more than a random stranger, but I don’t trust anyone that much.”

Red sits in shock as he realizes what Bill is saying. He won’t do it. He won’t help Red save himself and his loved ones, will just let them… let them all…

Red feels a black, hot rage searing up his chest and throat. His hands tighten on the table’s edge until his knuckles are white, words stuck in his throat as he looks away from Bill and tries to organize some kind of argument, some plea, some threat…

His eyes fall on Pichu, resting peacefully in his hat. Next to her are the tickets that Bill gave him. Next to it is his rock. The rock he’s supposed to be practicing with as he waits for Blue and Leaf to meet him for abra hunting, on the land Bill allowed him to use.

Red’s anger and gratitude mix into a confusing swirl, and under it all is the deep, bitter sadness of his dad’s loss, and the panicked fear of losing his mom.

Red closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, orienting himself with the sensation of the air rushing into his lungs, then touching on his mental markers one at a time, until the sensations of his body are all he can feel, and his mind is releasing thoughts as quickly as they come.

He planned to tip into many-mirrors-and-a-dim-room, to mute his anger and fear and sadness by brute force. But they’ve been reduced a little now, and he can think clearer… and instead he reaches out with his mind, trying to understand, stretches his senses out the way Ayane taught him, the way he felt her doing while he was in her mind, and feels-

regretresolutionfearshame-

Red’s eyes snap open. He stares at his hands on the table, relaxing his fingers as he breathes out. Shame?

“I’m sorry,” he mutters. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”

“It’s fine.” Bill says.

“It’s just, my mom–”

“I get it.”

And Red knows that he does. Regardless, his tone makes it clear that Bill just wants to move on. Wants him to move on.

Shame…?

“Bill… When did you last leave your house?” Red asks.

The inventor stares at him, but doesn’t answer. Red searches his gaze, trying to piece together what he felt.

“Eva has a protocol in case something happens to you, doesn’t she? To keep you stored. But if you leave–”

“I thought you couldn’t read minds yet.”

Red flinches at Bill’s flat tone. “I can’t. Not really.”

“But you can read what, emotions? Enough to try to infer things about others’ private thoughts?”

“I’m sorry, it’s the first time I did it. I just wanted to… understand.”

“And do you?”

Red swallows. “Yes.”

“Good.” Bill gets to his feet, and Red feels cold. Did he fuck everything up? Is Bill going to ask him to leave, take the tickets back?

“Your friends pulled up a minute ago,” he says instead as he heads toward the stairs. “Good luck with the catches. I’ll message you with details about the convention.”

Red wets his lips, trying to speak past his dry throat. By the time he remembers the soda and takes a drink, the door to the lab closes before he can thank him, apologize again, or say goodbye.

Review: Cultists of Cthulhu

Cultists of Cthulhu is a Survival Horror board game that combines exploration, social deception, risk analysis, and tabletop skill checks. The game it’s most similar to is Betrayal at House on the Hill, in that it’s a co-op game with a hidden traitor, but it has a few twists that help it stand out as highly enjoyable in its own ways.

Gameplay Overview

When you start the game, first all the players take the map squares and start forming the Miskatonic University campus and various buildings. Then, players take the roles of students or staff at the university, which have a variety of different stats and backgrounds. Then, each player is randomly given a role card, with either Academic or Cultist on it (only 1 Cultist is shuffled into the roles).

The Academics’ goals vary by the scenario chosen, but overall are working together to defeat whatever evil plagues the university. The Cultist, however, is there from the beginning to muck things up for the Academics, and if possible, kill them.

Play consists of turns where each player interacts with the academy in some way through event cards, requiring them to pass skill checks of varying difficulty. The game uses a unique dice system, and comes with 15 six sided dice of 3 colors: Green, Red, and Blue, each having 3 symbols on them.

Green dice have 3 Success sides, 2 Weird sides, and 1 Fail side.

Blue dice have 2 Success, 2 Weird, and 2 Fail.

Red dice have 1 Success, 2 Weird, and 3 Fail.

Every skill check or attack uses 5 dice. Character sheets will show 2 dice symbols for each skill in the color of the dice you use, while skill checks come in colors to indicate the rest of the dice. So if your character is great at Finesse, with two Green dice symbols on it, and gets a Blue Finesse skill check, you’d use 2 Green Dice and 3 Blue dice. If you’re decent at Reason, with a Blue and Green dice symbol, but get a Red Reason skill check, you’d roll 1 Green, 1 Blue, and 3 Red.

The scenario cards will tell you what the outcomes are. Usually the success is positive, and the failure is negative, but the Weird symbols have varying effects that can be good, bad, or mixed depending on what’s going on in the game. Now, normally dice rolling is one of my least favorite parts of games due to the random element it puts in, but this one does something clever with it.

After you roll your dice, you can choose any symbol you’ve rolled and reroll all dice of that kind. So let’s say you roll your dice and get 2 Success, 1 Weird, and 2 Fail. The card requires you to get 3 Success to get the positive effect, 2 Weird for the Weird effect, and 2 Fail is enough to get the negative effect. So a smart choice might be to reroll the 2 Fail dice. Hopefully, you’d get the 1 extra success you need and avoid the 2 Fail effect… but if the Weird effect is actually something you really don’t want to have happen right now,  it might not be worth the risk, and you might choose to just reroll the Weird, accept the two Fail, and hope that one dice will get you the third Success.

Mechanics like this help add a lot of nuance to otherwise rote gameplay, and is one of the strongest parts of the game. There are some genuinely hard choices it forces you to make, while also helping mitigate the downsides of a luck-based mechanic. I’ve had some great arguments erupt at the table as people try to decide which dice to reroll, and it’s all made more tense by the knowledge that one of the players is actually a cultist in disguise!

Once the player has finished their event card for their turn, they get 2 actions from a list of Move, Use Item, Use Room, or Attack. Some rooms have special effects if you use them, such as giving you an item or buffing one of your stats with a Green die. Another action that can be taken is Scenario Action.

Scenario actions are described on one of the 5 Scenario cards that you choose at the beginning of the game. Each one explains which Old God from HP Lovecraft’s mythos is invading the university, which monsters spawn, and what the goals of the players. Most scenarios require you to do specific skill checks in specific rooms, and reward you with artifacts or clues needed to defeat the various evils.

Once all the players have gone, the first player draws two cards from the Star Chart deck. They then look at these two cards (without revealing them to anyone) and choose one to resolve. Most of the cards have negative effects on them, so the player will try to choose the lesser of two evils… unless they’re the cultist, in which case they can pretend that they’re choosing the lesser one while royally screwing everyone over. Sometimes the card will have a beneficial effect on it, but increase the Star Chart by a large amount. After resolving the card (which can have a one time effect, a one turn effect, or a persistent effect) the player hands the First Player Token to their left and a new round begins.

The Star Chart has numbers on it going from 1-30, and along with going up from Star cards, various effects from Event cards and items can also cause it to increase. The higher it goes, the more there’s a risk of the Cultist being able to reveal themselves and summon various monsters. This acts like the reveal in Betrayal at House on the Hill, and is a turning point in the game where the players are now actively working against the traitor in their midst, while the individual cultist gains a huge boost in power that makes him a deadly threat to the other players.

A final note of interest is in the Madness and Wounds systems. Wounds are received as mystery tokens that have various effects on them. Some are straight damage, and if you accumulate too many of these, you die, while others are persistent negative effects on your various stats. And some wound tokens give you Madness.

Madness is tracked in three stages. On each Academic card, a list of effects relating to some mental disorder is there. The first is aesthetic, so if your character is in Stage 1 Madness, there’s no mechanical effect. But if their Stage 1 is something like “You start to feel clausterphobic,” in Stage 2, you might be forced to move toward an exit on your next turn, and if you reach Stage 3 you could be barred from entering any space with other players on it.

These provide interesting twists to gameplay, especially since the role cards that describe Madness effects are hidden from other players. So the disguised Cultist can take an action, like stabbing themselves or stealing from another player, and blame their Madness for “forcing” them to do it.

The game ends when either all the Academics are dead, or they have completed the Scenario Goals, such as closing the alien portal or stopping a summoning ritual. If the Cultist is killed, they can still continue to control the various monsters in the game, which until they are revealed, act in a more automated and less strategic fashion.

Verdict

Complexity: 1-2-3-4-5
Quality over quantity in mechanics.

Time Investment: 1-2-3-4-5
Not
a quick game, but it doesn’t drag on.

Replay Value: 1-2-3-45
Lots of variability in playthroughs.

Cultists of Cthulhu is ultimately a well designed game with solid themes and entertaining mechanics. The art is great, and everyone I’ve played it with enjoyed it quite a bit. Game sessions took 2-3 hours, but it wasn’t hard to explain, especially to players who are used to other board games or tabletop RPGs.

The game is 1-6 players, and includes special rules for playing by yourself or with one other person. This is fairly rare in board games, and I give serious props to the designer for including a solo/duo mode. The rulebook does a good job of teaching the game, though there are some rules that are a bit unclear. I’ve asked the designer to clarify some edge cases, which are included below.

If you and your friends enjoy Betrayal at House on the Hill, HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, or are just looking for something new to try, I think you’d enjoy this pleasant romp of suspicion, madness, strategy and monsters. Enjoy!

Rules Clarifications:

Q: Do monsters take damage as pure numbers, or like everyone else, they get wound tokens that can be either wounds or debuffs?

A: Pure numbers, even if a player was turned into a monster.

Q: Are players expected to learn what each Academic’s madness possibilities are before the game starts?

A: It is a good idea to look over the madnesses before playing. You shouldn’t know which ones you’re playing with that game though.

Q: Star Spawn card showed 5 Green dice for combat, so we just kept using 5 green for it regardless of what the Combat card shows, right? And monsters can activate the Weird effect?

A: This is true for the Star Spawn because of its 5 green dice, but for any monster that does not have 5 dice there, it takes additional dice of the color shown on the combat card until it reaches 5, regardless of the symbol.

Q: How do the Weird effects on Combat cards interact with monsters?

A: Monsters can trigger the Weird effects, but some can only affect players, not monsters.

Q: When madness goes to 1 and they take more madness damage, do they take “wound tokens,” or just straight damage?

A: Wound tokens.

Q: The rules says each scenario action can only be done successfully once, is that per player, per game, or per turn?

A: Per game.

Q: How is “nearest wall” determined, exactly? What if there’s more than one?

A: A wall is a side of an indoor tile that doesn’t have a door or exit on it (and is adjacent to another tile). Distance is the same as moving to that tile. If there’s a tie, the player decides which.

Q: If a card says someone gets this event by starting on the same tile (Chemical Stench) does that person get two events on their turn, effectively? Or does it replace the Event they would normally get?

A: They get two events.

Q: Who rolls first in combat?

A: The defender.

Q: Three Night Gaunts just spawned at the same time: do we roll Power once for each and give them a different effect, or one for all of them and apply the same effect to each?

A: One for all, but if it seems more fun and you can keep track of their different effects, feel free to do one per Night Gaunt.

Guardian – Chapter 1

“Are you dissatisfied with my service?”

Terra sighs and picks a fig out of his lunchbox. He hates figs. “No, Puck. Thank you.”

The lunchroom is noisy, and Terra sits alone at his table. Being the new kid at school is something he’s used to, but for once he doesn’t mind the solitude. No one around means no one to see him talking to himself.

“Alone” is, as Terra discovered over the summer, a relative term. Across from him sits a boy only he can see.

Puck currently looks like a lanky teenager about Terra’s age, with spiky blonde hair and bright green eyes. His skin is pale, his features sharp and angled, and his lips are perpetually curved in a slight, sarcastic smile as he watches Terra continue to search through his lunchbox for something edible.

A pair of fellow 10th graders walk by, their gazes sliding right over Puck without seeing him before coming to rest on Terra. “Hey, you’re in our spot.”

Terra resists the urge to roll his eyes. “It’s the first day of school, how do you already have a ‘spot?’”

“This is where we always sat last year.”

Terra opens his mouth to argue, then remembers Puck’s presence and lets his breath out. “Fine. Whatever.” He puts everything back in his lunch box and moves to one of the few remaining empty tables at the corner of the cafeteria, so he can still see the whole room from where he sits.

Puck keeps pace with him, stepping around and between tables and chairs before lowering himself into his new seat, across from Terra again. He moves with the effortless grace of a cat. “Pitiful. Why not stand up for yourself? Perhaps one of them would lay hands on you, and I’d have to turn them into a frog.”

“No transformations, I told you,” Terra says as he sits back down and unpacks his lunch again.

“Forget the frogging then, what about a subtle illusion? I could make all his food taste rotten. Going hungry for a day never killed anyone.”

“No.”

“A minor hex? Trip him as he sits, so his face lands in his food?”

Terra smiles at the mental image, but just shakes his head.

“You’re no fun.” Puck leans back in his seat and braces himself against the underside of the table with his knees. A girl walking behind him veers around his outstretched form without looking. Terra knows that if he asked her why she took such a sudden detour, she would just stare at him in confusion and insist that she didn’t step around anyone. Faerie glamour can be a frightening thing. “What’s the point of having me around if you won’t make use of me?”

“You’re here to ‘protect and promote my well-being,’ not hex anyone who’s mean to me.” Terra unwraps the sandwich and bites into it. It takes all his willpower not to spit it back out. How did Puck know how disgusted Terra is by egg salad? Did he mention it at some point and forget?

Terra chews the mushy slop with as straight a face as he can, but by the slight widening of Puck’s smile Terra knows the faerie isn’t fooled. He curses himself for not being a better actor. He’s better than he was a few months ago when his unwilling guardian entered his life, but still not nearly enough to contend with Puck or the other so-called “Fair Folk,” who seem to do nothing but act.

“Speaking of which,” Terra says, putting his sandwich down and biting into some tasteless saltine crackers. “Let’s get started. How many Others are here?”

“Millions.”

Terra rolls his eyes and picks his words more carefully. “How many fae, other than yourself, did you sense since we entered the school building?”

Puck’s smile widens. “Three.”

Three? Damn. “Are any of them in the lunchroom now?”

“Two.”

Terra bites his lower lip, then lowers his voice, just in case. “Is their masque on, or are they dim?”

Puck wags a finger. “Ah, ah. That’s three questions asked and answered. If you’d like to bargain for more—”

“No, it’s fine.” He wasted his first question because he was distracted. Now he’ll have to wait 24 hours until Puck has to answer any more. It was one of the first bargains he struck with his guardian: three questions that Puck would be obligated to answer a day, in exchange for the freedom to watch TV while Terra is asleep. Unless Terra decides to renegotiate, he’s stuck with it for a full year and a day.

Still, he got what he needs, if he’s thorough.

Terra closes his eyes and concentrates on his breathing. The sounds of the cafeteria fade to a dull drone. He does his best to clear his mind, as his dad taught him: not to literally remove all thoughts, which is impossible, but to let the thoughts go. He imagines himself sitting on a rock in a river, the sound of the rushing water blending with the mixed voices and laughter of the other students around him.

He knows he must look strange: a skinny kid with second-hand clothes, sitting by himself with his head bowed and his eyes closed. Anyone looking at him probably has their weird-o-meter on high alert.

Terra lets that thought go with his next exhale, breathing in and trying to focus on the feel of the air entering his lungs. He can’t afford to be distracted.

When he finally opens his eyes, the first thing he notices is that Puck isn’t smiling. The fae is gazing at him with an intensity that most kids his apparent age can’t match.

But then, Puck is older than he looks.

Much older.

That thought, combined with his heightened attention, affects his perception. Glamour, the primary magic of faerie, is all about beliefs. As Terra looks at Puck, really looks at him, and acknowledges the lie he knows is in front of him, the edges of the glamour start to unravel. Puck’s blonde hair becomes lighter, ears growing points, face stretching-

Terra quickly looks away, not wanting to see what the being that calls itself “Puck” really looks like.

Instead he lets his gaze drift over the cafeteria from one end to the other, slowly. His eyes jump from one thing to another, but he doesn’t linger, letting anything that catches his attention go a moment later as he tries to equally take in everything he sees.

Two boys take turns trying to steal fries from a third’s tray. A group of girls have their heads together and giggle over something one of them is saying. Some other kids sitting apart like himself, a few in pairs, others with books or their phones out. All completely normal.

He finishes a full turn, and blinks. He thinks back to what he saw, every face, every interaction… then shakes his head. He can barely remember any of it. He closes his eyes and starts again.

And again.

And again.

It isn’t until after his seventh try that, upon thinking back, he sees it.

A group of three girls, all smiling, talking, laughing. Smiling at who? He can’t remember.

He looks at them now. Four girls, chatting and smiling. Normal.

He looks away, and thinks back, and something is… off. Three girls, laughing, then smiling, with looks of attention on their face as they look at…

…who? A fourth? There were only three.

He looks at them again, then away and thinks back, picturing them in his head. Three girls, all laughing as they look at…

As they look at…

Terra grabs three figs and holds them in his hand. He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, turns toward the girls… and opens his eyes.

Four girls, all talking and laughing.

Terra’s hand tightens around the figs. Three figs.

Four girls.

Without looking away, he takes a fourth fig and adds it to his hand.

Then he closes his eyes and thinks back to the three girls who were all laughing-

Three?

Terra feels the four figs in his hand… and smiles.

Got you.

Terra opens his eyes and studies the four at the table. Two of the girls are white, the first with curly blonde hair and the second with wavy black hair. One is Hispanic with her hair in a long ponytail, and one is black, with a neon pink hair band. He tries to fix all four of them in his memory. He takes his phone out and snaps a picture, then looks away and checks it to see which of the three girls- no, the four girls seems new to him.

He looks at the picture and tries to remember each of them. Where did this Hispanic girl come from? “There,” he says, tapping the screen. “It’s got to be her. Some kind of memory charm, making everyone but the girls she’s talking to forget any details about her.”

“You humans and your toys.” Terra looks up to see Puck chewing on one of the remaining figs. His teeth look sharper than usual as they bite into the soft fruit. “So what will you do now? Expose her?” Puck isn’t leaning back anymore, gaze intense on Terra’s face.

Terra looks away. “I want to know what she’s doing first. If she’s got some plots going, or has anyone ensorcelled, or gave someone a token…” He sees the blonde girl playing with her necklace, and wonders if it’s a gift from the fae sitting next to her. Something that would help her get good grades? Get out of doing her chores? Maybe just a charm to give her good dreams.

If only it were that simple. With gifts from faerie, there’s always a catch.

Even if it’s something as simple as figs and egg salad sandwiches for lunch.

Terra gives up on trying to stomach down the sandwich and opens the box of raisins. He empties them into his mouth and tries to ignore the sour taste in favor of the sweetness. Thanks to some cleverness from Terra’s dad, Puck was bound by oath and contract to look after Terra’s well-being. However, there’s a lot of wiggle-room in the word “well-being,” as Terra discovered again and again over the past few months since Puck started watching over him.

“I could reveal myself to her,” Puck says. “Ask her what she’s doing with her playthings.”

Terra turns back to Puck warily. “In exchange for what?” He wants to keep Puck secret as long as possible, but he’s curious to know what the faerie would try to bargain for.

“An hour of freedom after school today, once you’re safely home.”

“Denied.”

“Half an hour.”

“No.”

“Five minutes.”

Terra pretends to think it over. Puck doesn’t seem particularly interested, but then, he’s a masterful actor. It’s hard to tell if this is something he actually wants, or if he’s just testing Terra’s desires the way Terra is testing his.

“No, I’ve thought of a better idea,” Terra says.

“Oh? Do tell.”

Terra ignores him and stands. He closes his lunch box and approaches the table with the fae and three girls, drawing curious looks from all of them. When he sits to the side in one of the empty chairs, they become annoyed.

“Um. Can we help you?” the brunette girl asks. The Hispanic girl looks the least hostile, as she plays with her fork over her untouched food and appraises him curiously.

“Yeah, mind looking at my drawing? I want a second opinion.” Terra pulls a folded slip of paper out of his pocket and opens it to reveal the simple sketch on the inside. It looks like a capital F, but with the top and middle lines slanted downward at an angle rather than sticking straight out, and with a dot to its left side.

“That’s not a drawing, it’s barely even a doodle,” the black girl says.

The blonde rolls her eyes. “Get lost, weirdo.”

Terra ignores them and pulls a thumbtack out of his belt, where its pin pierced the looped stretch of leather. He pricks his finger with it, just enough to draw a drop of blood, and presses it against the underside of the paper, so that it would bleed through onto the rune he drew on it. As soon as his open wound touches the paper, it begins to prickle with renewed pain.

“Ew, what’s wrong with you? Are you some kind of emo fre—” the blonde’s words trail off as she watches the blood seep through the paper and completely cover the rune. Her gaze suddenly becomes unfocused, and her eyelids droop closed. Her breathing slows until she’s fast asleep.

The other two follow suit, but Terra keeps his gaze on the Hispanic girl… or rather, the fae creature that’s pretending to be a Hispanic girl.

Her eyes are the only ones that moved away from the rune as he pressed his blood to it. Now she studies him with her chin on her palm, one brow raised.

“You’re human,” she says at last. “How did you find me? Where did you learn that symbol, and how to use it?”

“Three questions for three questions?” Terra asks.

Her other brow shoots up. “Bargaining now, are we? Are you sure you know what you’re doing, child?”

Not really. His heart beats hard and fast as he wipes a sweaty palm on his pantleg. His other hand stays where it is, keeping the wound on his finger pressed to the paper. This is the first time he’s interacted with a fae other than Puck, but in any given setting, the middle of a crowded lunch room is probably his safest for such an experiment. As long as he’s careful with his words, that is.

Puck, meanwhile, walks in slow circles around their table, humming to himself. The other fae doesn’t seem to have noticed him, which is encouraging. It means that Puck wasn’t just boasting when he implied that he’s stronger than most of his kind, and likely more than those who got exiled to the human world, like any at the school probably were.

Or maybe she’s just pretending not to notice him, and the humming is some secret language. Either way, all Terra can do is take a chance and hope to learn something.

“I believe I do. So, three questions each?”

“Very well. Three for thee, and then for me.”

“If you don’t mind, be more specific.”

The Hispanic girl smiles. “You may ask three questions, and if I deem them acceptable, I will answer. Afterwards, I will ask three questions that you must answer honestly.”

Terra doesn’t miss that she’s changed the rules, nor the slight difference at the end. “I’ll ask three questions, and if you choose to accept them, you must answer all three. Then I’ll answer those three questions you’ve already asked, honestly.” Knowing that the fae can’t lie makes this much easier than it otherwise would be.

Her eyes narrow. “I’ll ask three questions, and if you choose to answer them, you must answer honestly. Then you will ask three questions, and I will answer them.”

Damn. Terra hoped that she forgot the other questions she asked, so he could re-answer those instead. Over her shoulder, he can see Puck lean against the wall and cross his arms, fingers tapping against his arms. Is his guardian giving him a hint? He would only do something like that if he feels Terra’s well-being is at risk.

He remembers what Puck told him during one of their many Q&A sessions, where Terra was desperate to learn all he could of Puck’s kind. “The fae love the game of back and forth, but it does grow tiresome if neither side admits defeat. It is natural to try and gain advantage, but both sides must demonstrate good faith, or else risk the other’s ire. If you wish to spar with the fae, you must learn to lose a battle, here and there.

Maybe it’s time to lose, a little. “Let’s just make it fair as can be. We’ll both ask three questions. Then, if we both agree that the questions are acceptable, we’ll answer all three honestly, me first, then you. Sound alright?”

The fae sitting across from him considers a moment, eyes upward and finger twirling in her hair. “Deal,” she says at last. “My questions are: How were you able to remember me? What was the name of the one who taught you that rune? And what is your true name?”

Terra stays quiet, repeating what she said over in his head. Overall, he thinks he can get away with answering them without revealing anything too important. He’s about to say yes when he notices Puck shaking his head, with three fingers pressed against his jaw. Something wrong with the third question? It seems the most harmless… Terra knows that true names are important for all sorts of things, but it wouldn’t be too hard for this creature to get his if she really tries. It’s in the school records, after all.

Still, better play it safe. “I accept the first two, but would need a different third one.”

“Very well. Why were you looking for me, how were you able to remember me, and what was the name of the one who taught you that rune?”

Much easier. Puck seems unconcerned too.

That leaves his own questions. He takes a deep breath and lowers his gaze to the table, thinking hard. All around them the other students happily chat and eat their lunches, unaware that there’s a pair of monsters in their midst, or that three of their classmates are unconscious.

Another, stronger throb of pain goes through Terra’s finger. It’s slowly getting worse as more and more blood leaks out with every passing second. Terra does his best to ignore it. He can’t rush this part in particular, or all this would be for nothing.

He takes his time and thinks the questions through, word by word, forming them in his head and considering them from all angles. The trick is to have questions that aren’t too narrow, or she might say no, and aren’t too broad, so she can’t give a vague answer.

An impatient noise from the fae makes him look up at her. Her brow is creased again. “Your questions are acceptable,” he says at last.

“Exquisite. And your questions are?”

“My three questions are… Why are you attending school? What do these girls have that you gave them? What crime were you exiled from fae for?”

The fae’s eyes narrow. “I accept the first one. Not the other two.”

Damn. He thought the third would be too personal, but the second is something he needs to know.

Terra jerks as his finger feels a stab of pain, repeating with every heart beat. He’ll have to figure it out later: for now he just needs to get some info.

“Why are you attending school, why are you attending this school, and how long have you been attending this school?”

“Accepted. You first.”

“I wasn’t looking for you specifically, I was just looking for any fae. I found you by picking up figs for each person at your table, and noticing that I couldn’t remember four people. As for who taught me the rune, the only name I know for them is ‘Puck.’”

She rolls her eyes at the last bit. “I’m attending school because it amuses me, I’m attending this school because it’s the only high school in town, and today marks the start of my twenty-third year attending this school. Would you like to exchange another question?”

Hmm. If she wants something specific, chances are he won’t want to answer it. He tries to make himself appear interested before he says no.

“I’ll even give you two for one,” she says, clearly reading his reluctance anyway.

Now that’s tempting. Puck is shaking his head behind her, but Terra is intrigued. “May I hear the question first?”

“This ‘Puck,’ who taught you, where did you meet them?”

Well, he’s certainly not going to answer that. But maybe he can work her down to something more vague…

The pain in his finger suddenly pierces his concentration again, so deep it feels as though a needle has driven into his bone. He gasps and struggles not to let the paper go yet. “Perhaps we can negotiate this at… another time,” he says, eyes watering.

Before she can respond, the bell rings, and the lunchroom surges into motion around them as kids prepare to return to class. “Meet me after school by the parking lot gate,” the fae says.

Terra finally pulls his finger away from the blood-stained scrap of paper and stands. The room spins, and he puts a hand on the table to steady himself. Damn. That took more out of him than he was expecting. He feels light headed, like he just gave blood for some free movie tickets. Far more than he should have lost from such a tiny wound. Where it all went, he can’t begin to guess.

The girls start to stir, and he pushes away from the table before they wake up, only to stumble on legs that feel like jelly. Terra staggers past kids heading for the exits until his legs give out, and he collapses into a chair at a recently emptied table, taking deep breaths. He spots some unused napkins and wraps one around the paper before stuffing it in his pocket, then takes another to wrap around his finger.

Terra closes his eyes and rests his forehead against the cool table, tuning out the sounds of the crowd around him. He can still hear it when someone sits across from him, and knows that it’s Puck before his guardian even speaks.

“If you’re fishing for a response, you can save your energy,” Puck says, voice amused. “I know you can handle a little spell like that without your ‘wellbeing’ coming to risk.”

Terra bites back an insult. He’s been trying to avoid cursing Puck out, to avoid getting too used to letting his temper get the best of him. All it takes is one careless phrase implying he doesn’t want Puck around anymore, and the fae would be free of his bond.

“So, how did I do?” he asks instead. Perhaps even more valuable than the explicit agreement for three questions per day is the understanding he reached that, in dealing with the fae, he needs constant, honest feedback to safely navigate their social ties. Puck can’t refuse to answer or mislead him when it comes to them, and still hold true to his oath.

“Average at best,” Puck says. “You didn’t sign your life or first born away, but you missed four opportunities to close loopholes, and gave more information away than you needed to. Our adolescents can negotiate better than you, but for a human’s first attempt it was an acceptable show, even if it demonstrated why your kind so often gets overconfident enough to be drawn ever deeper into our webs.”

Terra feels nauseous, and he’s not sure if it’s from what Puck said, the blood loss, or the egg salad sandwich. It’s much harder not to take insults personally when you know as they’re being said that the speaker is compelled to tell the truth.

“Okay, well what should I have done different? Did I ‘lose’ too early, or too late?”

“Too early.” Puck leans his chair back from the table again, this time somehow managing to balance it on just one hind leg, arms to the sides for balance. “It’s a subtle dance indeed to know when a fae is actually upset, and when they are playing at offense to pressure you into disadvantage. Of course, she had a right to be upset in any case, with you barging into her plot unannounced. If you weren’t such a novelty, I think she would have made you regret it rather quickly.”

“Ugh. Well, I must have done something right, if I didn’t completely fail?”

“Yes, that’s true,” Puck drawls. “You showed good faith. Too many mortals to count lose an eye or a finger or their Wednesdays after their first conversation with the fae, simply because they can’t help but try to be too clever with their endless clauses and qualifiers and insecurities.”

“Um. That… might have been accidental. Just to be sure I do it again though, what does ‘good faith’ cover, specifically?” Terra asked.

“There’s no easy answer there. Some fae are more prickly than others, and either kind can still make you regret not being more strict. That said, a good starting rule of thumb would be not to demand conditions you would find insulting. For example, it’s not usually a problem to insist that a fae answer your question in a timely manner, say, ‘within one minute.’ This can ensure that you are not made the fool left standing with hat in hand for years and years. But if you also request that some fae speak in the same language as you when answering a question, it implies they have an intention to cheat you of your answer… which is another thing entirely from fully intending to give it to you, but on their terms.”

Terra tries to wrap his head around the distinction, and doesn’t quite succeed. “But… they will want to cheat me if they can, won’t they?”

“Of course. It is in our nature. But only to the extent that you allow yourself to make mistakes, and be deceived.”

“So I’m not allowed to make super extra sure that a fae can’t trick me, but it’s my fault if I end up being tricked?”

“Can’t trick you in subtle ways. A true fae does not act in obvious ways. One who answers a question while bashing their fists on the table to obscure the sound… terribly unsubtle. The mark of a weak mind. And implying that one might resort to such is insulting, even if it’s deserved.”

“That’s totally contradictory.”

Puck smiles, and somehow manages to bow from the waist while still balancing the chair on one foot. “That, too, is in our nature.”

Terra sighs. “Well, I’ll try to keep that in mind when I see her after school.”

“It’s a terrible idea, you know.”

“What do—”

“Excuse me.” Terra turns to see a teacher standing over him. “Lunch time is over. You need to head back to class.”

Oh, right. He looks around and sees the lunch room has mostly emptied of students. Terra’s head feels clearer, but he’s still a bit nauseous. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t feeling well. I accidentally cut myself, and the sight of blood makes me faint.” He holds up his napkin-wrapped finger, with its big red splotch on the front. It looks like it finally stopped bleeding, but he’s not sure. Surely Puck would say something if he pierced himself too deep?

The teacher’s skeptical look changes to alarm as soon as she sees the blood. “How did… why haven’t you gone to the nurse’s office for a band-aid?”

“I was just sitting here until my head is clear. Also I don’t know where it is…”

“Come, I’ll walk you there.”

Terra dutifully gets to his feet and follows her. Puck straggles along, zigzagging left and right through the hallway behind them with his gaze on his feet, but somehow never falls behind.

“As I was saying, it’s a terrible idea,” Puck repeats. “What do you hope to accomplish, seeking out other fae like this?”

“I want to know what they’re up to,” Terra mutters, low enough that he knows only Puck’s sharp ears can hear him. “If I learn enough, maybe I can stop your kind from screwing up anyone else’s life. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“It is, in fact. At some point they may try to harm you, and I’ll be compelled to intervene.”

Terra shrugs. “That’s your problem. All I care about is making sure your kind doesn’t hurt anyone here. Just be a good guardian and keep me safe while I do it.”

Puck gives a long-suffering sigh. “Well, I would like to be on record as advising you against it… with only your well-being in mind, of course. There are limits to my power, and if you antagonize too many fae, I won’t be able to protect you. Think of your father. He went through quite a lot of trouble, binding me to watch over you. Surely he wouldn’t want you to go seeking danger, and make it all for naught.”

Heat floods Terra’s stomach and chest as his hands curl into fists. He’s trying to get a rise out of you. Don’t take the bait. Terra bites his tongue until he’s a bit calmer and knows he can control the volume of his voice. “Well since he’s dead, I don’t know what he’d want,” Terra mutters. “And his murderer is the last person I’d listen to about respecting his memory.”

Chapter 41: Adaptability

“Mr. Verres! What’s wrong?”

Red gestures for Psychic Ayane to come inside the Trainer House workroom, and closes the door behind her. “Yeah, I guessed that you’d feel that.”

His teacher goes to the table, but doesn’t sit. She studies his face with concern. “I would be a poor psychic indeed if I missed the pit of despair and grief you seem to be stuck in. I sensed it before you even opened the door. I’m quite practiced at keeping my knowledge of people’s inner states to myself, but it’s all over your face as well.”

Red rubs his face with one hand and takes a deep breath. “Sorry to impose it onto you. I was hoping to get it under control before scheduling a session with you again, but today was… particularly bad.” He’s been able to be somewhat productive for the past few days, but last night he had another nightmare about the day he found out about his dad, and woke up feeling completely drained of energy. He managed to force himself to take a shower and eat some breakfast, but afterward just browsed the internet aimlessly while lying in bed.

“If you are not feeling up to a lesson today, please let me know, and we can reschedule.”

Red runs a hand through his hair, then tugs his hat down snug. “No, I think you’re the only one that can help me with this.”

“Me? What does-oh, Red! Don’t tell me you messed with your partition!”

The use of his first name combined with the tone his mother often uses makes Red briefly smile. “Not on purpose? It’s a long story.”

“Well.” She sits at the table, hands folded on top of each other. “Tell me, then.”

Red sits across from her before recounting the day they caught the abra. He debated whether or not to tell her about it, but even aside from the emotional fallout, he needs a psychic to help with the research. Ayane is qualified, and he likes her. It makes sense to see if she wants to come in on it. But first he needs to figure out what’s going on with him.

In any case, the only risk in revealing the story is the methodology getting out, so he skips over any details of how his plan worked. Thankfully she seems too busy shifting from worry to horror to intrigue to care, or she’s just not interested.

“A forced adherence of your common mental state… fascinating. And the abra didn’t react in any way? They didn’t just fail to connect, they ignored you completely?”

“Yeah. I was wondering if you could tell me what I actually did.”

“Certainly. Prepare your mind… I will begin contact in ten seconds.”

“Make it twenty?”

“Of course. Starting now.”

Red leans back and takes a deep breath before he begins to enter meticulously-reinforced-normal-state. He’s still trying to think of a better way to refer to it.

It’s easier to enter than it was the first time, in the field. He can better recognize when he has it more or less in place, even though it’s still the hardest mental state to “feel” with his fledgling psychic senses. He finishes with a few seconds to spare, and simply waits until Ayane reaches outward with her mind, beginning to entangle with his…

…only to have his mind slip from her grasp. Or, phase through it, maybe. Bounce off it, slippery and untouched. It’s hard to stick with any single description, since his mind is just coming up with analogies from his other senses to try and approximate what’s happening.

In any case, she doesn’t sense him, and it’s clear first from the crease between her eyebrows, then the way they shoot up, that she’s realized it. Eventually she opens her eyes, eyebrows still raised.

“Impressive, Mr. Verres. Very impressive. You have effectively created a mental shield, not just a blank mask, but an actual shield, without instruction on how. Very few with the Gift have done so, perhaps in part because of how young they often begin training. But it is still a great accomplishment.”

Red knows that would normally make him excited and proud, but any positive emotions he feels quickly drain back down the empty hole in his chest. Curiosity is all he has left, though even that feels a bit like a rote impulse. “Could you explain more what that means?”

“Certainly. A psychic’s mental shield is a simple enough thing: it prevents an established, mutual connection from another psychic mind. The psychic who is attempting to sense the shielded individual will not even know they have missed someone. It’s as if their mind is simply not there, like a Dark individual’s. But there are some exceptions to this cover. Can you guess what one is?”

Red thinks back to what he knows of psychics. He didn’t know that mental shields existed before, but what does that knowledge change about the world? Seek confusion. What no longer makes sense, now that-ah, right.

“Mental attacks can still affect a shielded mind, right?”

“Not all of them. Indiscriminate mental attacks, what might be considered ‘blunt force’ attacks, will still work. But the mental shield prevents ‘entanglement’ or joining of two minds, which is what allows detection and communication and many forms of manipulation.”

“And the shield does nothing against Ghost attacks.”

“Correct. They operate on a very different wavelength, so to speak, as do Dark mental attacks.”

“Got it. Well, I’m glad it worked out the way it did. I just wish I thought of it sooner. Every time their minds were able to enmesh with mine, my partition weakened and I got these floods of… of sorrow. Intense grief.”

“And this new state, it doesn’t cause the same side effects as the previous ones? The shakes, the nausea?”

Red blinks. “Huh. No, and none of the other states have lately. I didn’t even notice, with how bad I’ve been generally feeling anyway.”

“It’s possible this new state was only available to you through the weakening of your partition. As less and less of your powers are devoted to maintaining it, you’ve become accustomed to not having it so strongly reinforced.”

“But I haven’t,” Red says, fingers gripping the edge of the table. He makes an effort to relax them. “I’m not curling up into a ball and crying every five minutes, but I want to. I hate feeling like this again, this…” Empty. Alone. “I want the partition back.” I want to go back to not missing my dad this badly, this constantly, it hurts too much. His throat feels choked up, and he quickly enters many-mirrors-and-a-dim-room to cut the emotions off, just long enough to avoid tearing up.

Ayane watches him with a mix of alarm and compassion. She can obviously feel him enter the emotionless state, but if she disapproves, she keeps it to herself.

“Can you help me?” Red asks after regaining control of himself.

“I don’t know.”

“That sounds ominous.”

She doesn’t smile. “It’s hard to enter your mind now, full of grief as it is. It makes it difficult to not get swept in, to focus on the deeper levels of your mind. Perhaps if your shield is up, I can attempt to breach it and simply examine how your powers are being utilized. Is that alright?”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Not unless I choose it to be.”

“Still ominous.”

This time she does smile, briefly. Probably just humoring him. “The breaching itself usually results in a deeper reading beyond the most surface thoughts and emotions. An aggressive attacker would use projection abilities to distract or confuse you so that your defense is less robust, but without any of those it will be harmless. I only ask permission because if I do succeed, it could result in a deeper read than people are normally comfortable with, privacy-wise.”

He thinks it over for at least a solid minute, which she quietly gives him. What secrets does he have? Worst case scenario is what, she finds out how he did the abra thing? That he knew the clefairy prices would go up, maybe? All that’s protected by confidentiality, theoretically, and as long as he thinks of something else it shouldn’t come up.

Finally Red shrugs. “Sure. Give me another twenty.”

This time he feels the slipperygraspingbouncy attempt of her mind trying to connect with his for longer, but nothing really changes. It doesn’t even get harder to maintain, which he finds surprising. Eventually however the sensation feels more… complete. Like her mind is all around his, pressing in from every side. It still doesn’t connect to his, but it’s a rather disconcerting feeling.

Eventually she opens her eyes and relaxes. “I’m sorry, all I could sense is that it’s a clean shield. I can’t even sense what portion of your powers are going into maintaining it. I’ll have to think of something else.”

“Wait, so what was the difference between what you just did and what you originally did?”

“This was more thorough. When a psychic knows there is a shielded mind nearby, we can find it through careful search.”

“And that wouldn’t work on a Dark mind?”

“When you have developed your third eye you will better understand, but for now think of it like camouflage compared to invisibility, where viewing from another angle might reveal the trick for the former, but not the latter. In truth, it is more like invisibility versus intangibility.

“Which would mean that what you did now was like throwing flour or paint around and seeing my outline.”

She smiles. “That explanation works as well, though again, in truth the sensation is different from the analogy. A bit like poking at a missing tooth with your tongue.”

Something she said earlier was interesting to him. “That explains why it felt like your mind was all around mine, but you said that the searching mind won’t even realize it missed something normally, right? Does that mean you felt nothing when you reached out toward me?”

“Correct.”

Red shakes his head. “Man, psychic powers are so weird. I thought anything I felt from the other mind was the result of what that mind felt too.”

“What do you mean?”

“That weird feeling, of your mind slipping or bouncing off mine. It’s handy to know if someone is trying to touch their mind to mine, I guess, but it’s weird that you don’t feel something too.”

Psychic Ayane stares at him. Red infers from her expression that he just said Something Significant.

“You felt something when I reached out with my mind?” she asks at last, speaking slowly.

“Yeah. Is that weird?”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing during a mental shield. Are you sure it wasn’t imagined, or some effect of your unusual shielding method?”

“No, it… hm.” He never tried entering the state without another psychic mind nearby: he mostly just practiced it while training the abras. “Okay, maybe. Let’s check.” Red stands and goes to the workroom’s table, then takes his notebook out and goes back to sitting on the floor. “So, I’m going to make a mark when I feel it. It should coincide to when you reach out, right?”

Ayane nods, a small crease between her brow again. Red takes the pencil out of the notebook’s spiral binding and opens to a fresh page. He concentrates on meticulously-reinforced-normal-state, pencil tip hovering over the paper. “Okay… ready when you are.”

He waits. And waits. He keeps his gaze on the paper, though in truth he barely sees it, focus inward to catch the sensation again. Red begins to wonder why it’s not happening when he realizes that she’s probably not actually trying. He smiles slightly. It’s always nice to meet others with a grasp of good methodology.

Finally, after staring at the paper and maintaining the mental state for what must be a couple minutes at least, he feels her mind brush his again before slipping/bouncing/whatevering off. He quickly draws a line on the paper, lifting his pencil back off the moment the sensation stops.

When he looks up at her, she’s staring at the page with wide eyes.

“Is this good, or bad?” he asks.

“This… I don’t know what this is.” She seems genuinely baffled, and Red feels some genuine interest kindle.

“Well, in the context of what you do know, what’s most confusing about this?” He flips to a new page and poises his pencil to take notes.

“Our Gift works through mutual entanglement,” she says slowly. “As you said. Some projection powers can differ, but to sense one-another first requires contact, intangible as it may be to our other senses. For you to feel my mind while I cannot feel yours is… I’ve never heard of such a thing. It confuses me, because I don’t understand how your shield is detecting my mind without sending any feedback for me to notice.”

Red finishes scribbling, then prods his chin with the eraser, thinking. “Okay, so what rules or laws would that break, that you assumed were absolute? Does anything change about the world, or… is there something that used to not make sense that now does?”

“I don’t… I have to think about it. But this is all aside from the main concern: your partition.”

Red’s mood immediately drops back down, and he sighs and puts his pencil down. “Right. That. So how do we fix it?”

“There are no easy paths. It’s possible that if you refrain from using any psychic abilities for a week or two, possibly more, it will eventually rebuild itself.”

Red stares at her. “Two weeks. No. That’s… I have to keep training my abra, to do research. I can’t just stop. Besides, that would just mean I go back to square one. I would effectively be giving up my ability to use my powers. What else?”

“We can shift the focus of our lessons, try and teach you the basics of memory and mood manipulation. Or…” She hesitates. “Perhaps this is not my place to suggest this, but another option is to deal with these emotions how someone normally might, without the Gift. I don’t know the source of your trauma, but it may be best resolved, if possible, rather than locked away.”

Red stares at the table. He wants to deny her words, get a quick fix that will help him sleep tonight, or at least get something to give him hope for tomorrow, or the day after. Something to end this constant, churning pain and emptiness soon, not next month or next year.

But he can’t rule out that she might be right. That it’s something he’ll just have to grow to live with, fight through… again.

Maybe it’s time to call his old therapist.

“I’ll think about it,” Red says. “We can talk it over again next lesson, along with my weird shield thing. In the meantime, let’s try those other options.”

“As you wish.”

“Oh, and one more thing. There’s some research I’m doing on the abra I caught, and I need a trained psychic to participate…”


Blue reaches the island stadium and immediately begins to explore the sandy dunes that make up the bulk of it, ignoring the trainer platforms for now. He tests the firmness of the ground, then begins to dig to make sure there isn’t concrete under it. Once water begins to fill his hole, he stops and scoops the sand back in, then goes to examine the dropoff at the edge, brushing wet sand off against his pants.

It’s the first outdoor stadium he’s fought in, now that he’s finally ready for his match against Misty’s Second. All around him, the water of Cerulean Bay rolls by in waves as the sun beats down. The terrain won’t be a problem for most of his pokemon, though he’d prefer a more solid surface for his shinx to run around on, if it comes to using Ion. He already trained Kemuri on the beach to ensure that the shiftry’s odd feet wouldn’t have trouble with sand.

Some spectators begin to arrive at the bleachers near the island, mostly others training at the gym who have sparred with him or are planning to challenge Ariya soon. Blue hasn’t lost an official match in Cerulean yet, and he’s glad to see the interest that’s generating for him. He knows his opponent is on her way, so he starts measuring out the dimensions of the sand dune. About eighteen meters across, and almost thirty meters long, with the edges tapering off to narrow strips before ending at the base of the trainer platforms. The platforms themselves stretch out over the sand a bit, the bottoms just within reach for him to pull himself up after he spots Ariya arriving from the pier.

By the time he finishes climbing up, she’s on the walkway leading to the small island. Misty’s Second is wearing dark clothing that doesn’t look particularly designed for swimming, which he takes as a sign that she doesn’t plan on engaging in a full battle below the water. He brought all his equipment just in case, but he’s far less prepared for a water battle. Thankfully Misty only sets those as Challenges for trainers with at least four badges.

Ariya, on the other hand, is far less predictable. The point of fighting one’s way up the ranks is to help the Gym try to find weaknesses and make sure that any challenger is prepared for the Leader. Brock’s Second threw Blue a curveball, and he expects Ariya will too.

That would apply to any Leader’s Second, however. Ariya particularly has a reputation for being a bit “wild,” especially considering her position of authority. If he expects a conventional battle, he’ll get blindsided.

Blue puts his earpiece in and turns it on as she mounts her platform and does the same.

“-hear me? Hello?”

“Hey, yeah I can hear you.”

“Cool. Nice to finally meet you, Youngster Oak. Heard good things.”

Blue smirks. Banter he can handle. “Thanks. I was actually in one of your amphibious classes a couple days ago.”

“Oh, yeah? Sorry, I tend to forget those things as soon as I finish them.”

Yeah right you forgot having the grandson of Professor Oak in your class. “I probably would too. I guess you have to do them?”

“Pretty much. One of a lower-case-L leader’s obligations. Just like busting an up-and-comer like you down a peg. Ready?”

“Yeah. What are the rules?”

“Pretty simple: three pokemon each. First to withdraw three loses.”

Blue is not reassured. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“Okay. Should I go first?”

“Nah, I’ll start.” She unhooks a ball from her belt and throws. A flash mid-air, and a swanna is suddenly circling the small island, sun gleaming off its bright white feathers.

Ariya catches its ball and reclips it, and Blue watches it circle, once, twice, three times, mind racing as he wonders how to best counter a Water/Flying type. He knows it must look like he’s frozen, maybe even panicked, to the audience. From deep in his battle calm however, the thought doesn’t compel him to action. He has to play this carefully.

“Well?” Ariya finally asks in his ear.

“You didn’t say anything about a time limit. You just said three withdraws, right?”

Blue can’t see the smirk, but he can hear it. “What are you, a rules lawyer now? Fine, you’ve got ten seconds to send a pokemon out now or you lose.”

Crap. Ok, options. Half his team won’t be able to fight, and he brought his shinx, pidgey, shroomish, one of his bellsprout, and of course Maturin and Kemuri. Swanna aren’t strong, but being a flyer helps them dominate Grass types like Gon or Kemuri by evading or blowing away most of their attacks. That same airborne advantage makes them especially weak against electric pokemon, but Blue still hasn’t used his shinx yet in any of his matches, and he’s not about to reveal it now, one battle away from Misty-

“Three… two…”

“Go, Maturin!”

Blue’s squirtle materializes crouched on all fours. It seems excited about the surroundings, but quickly locks its gaze on the flying swanna, and Blue yells, “Maturin, Water Gun!”

“Swanna, Wing Attack!”

Swanna swoops down and Maturin’s jet of water clips its wing, sending it into an awkward spin. Its feathers are highly water absorbent, but it still takes a moment for the bird to right itself.

“Maturin, Tackle, then Bite!”

“Swanna, Gust!”

His squirtle dashes forward across the sand and leaps just as the swanna orients itself and pumps its wings. The burst of air slams Maturin back down and kicks up an obscuring cloud, but Maturin leaps up out of it a moment later and slams into the swanna.

It squawks as it tumbles back, Maturin holding on tight and snapping at it. Her weight is making it hard for the swanna to keep its altitude until Ariya yells, “Swanna, Brave Bird!”

Blue’s breath catches. What?! “Maturin, Withdraw!”

The swanna tucks its wings in and dives. Maturin manages to tuck into her shell a moment before the swanna, with no target apparent, pulls up just above the ground and speeds forward in a blur. The squirtle is dragged along the sand for only a moment before tumbling away into the water.

The swanna speeds off over the waves before finally lifting upward. “Good call,” Ariya says. “Have you seen me do that maneuver before?”

“No, I just… didn’t know what to expect, so assumed the worst.” Blue watches Maturin crawl back onto land and lets out a sigh of relief. “How did you train it to do that?”

“Ask me again after the match, and maybe I’ll show you. Swanna, Air Slash!”

“Dodge!”

Maturin tries, but the focused blast of air moves too fast. Blue watches his pokemon flinch as the air hammers her into the ground and kicks up another spray of sand. “Tackle!”

Maturin rockets up at the swanna again, but it easily avoids the attack by climbing altitude. Ariya tries another Air Slash, but this time it’s far enough for Maturin to get out of the way.

Blue wipes sweaty palms on his pants. He put Maturin out so the swanna would be restricted to its air attacks, but squirtle don’t have many attacks that can effectively deal with a flier so resistant to water.

Or rather, they don’t normally. Blue sold some of his clefairy and bought a few TMs for his pokemon a couple days ago. He was hoping to keep them secret for Misty too, but right now it’s the best path to victory. Maybe he doesn’t have to show all his cards, though.

Blue waits for the swanna to get a little closer… a little closer…

“Swanna, Aerial Ace!”

“Maturin, Bubblebeam!”

A tight, thin stream of water filled with bubbles lances out and rakes the swanna’s wing as it dives. Each tiny bubble pops explosively, like the bigger ones from the Bubble attack, causing the swanna to flinch and stumble in the air.

It still strikes Maturin with the iconic one-two downward then upward maneuver, but it’s slowed enough by Maturin’s attack that she can bite its tail as it passes by, without Blue even having to tell her to. The swanna screeches in pain and begins to claw and buffet Maturin with its wings.

“Withdraw!”

“Wing Attack!”

Maturin ducks into her shell, beak still firmly clenched down, just like they practiced. The swanna grows more frantic, until finally it tears its tail feathers out in its attempt to escape.

Ariya’s withdrawal cuts off its cry of pain, and Blue hops down off his platform to check on Maturin as she cautiously pokes her head back out of her shell, then follows suit with the rest of her limbs and spits out the bloody feathers. He sees a few scratches on her face and arms, only one of them deep enough to drip blood. Blue crouches down and checks her shell, then rubs her belly. Her tail begins to wag, and some tension eases from his stomach. She’s okay for a bit more.

“Ready for the second?” Ariya asks.

“Yep.” He jogs back to his platform and climbs up. If this were a real match Ariya probably could have kept her swanna out and worn Maturin down, but he’ll take the win. Unless her next pick is something easy for a squirtle to counter, he’ll bring Maturin back after a few attacks. His shiftry should be able to handle almost any other Water type she uses…

“Go, Pelipper!”

Blue scowls as the second Water/Flying type is summoned. So much for that idea.

“Pelipper, Wing Attack!”

“Maturin, Ice Beam!”

“Dodge!” Ariya yells, too late. Maturin opens her mouth and emits a tight beam of light, invisible in the bright day except for the white plume of frost that forms in its wake and hits the pelipper in the chest.

The bird only suffers through a moment of the cold before it tips out of the way, but that’s near Maturin’s limit anyway. The Bubblebeam was one thing, but a squirtle’s body has to be more drastically altered by a TM to allow it to shoot freezing rays. It will never be as effective as one coming from a pokemon that can naturally learn it.

“Tackle!”

“Gust!”

Maturin leaps up, only to get slammed back to the ground by the burst of wind.

“Ice Beam!”

“Dodge!”

Blue waits until the pelipper’s flight path loops around. “Water Gun!”

“Wing Attack!”

“Bubblebeam!”

“Gust!”

“Ice Beam!”

“Dodge!”

The pelipper dives, stalls, banks, and dodges as Maturin swaps attack moment to moment, and Blue keeps the pressure going. “Water Gun! Bubblebeam! Water Gun! Ice Beam!”

Over and over, Maturin obediently switches on command, like their drills. Ariya’s attempts to take advantage of attacks that her pokemon can shrug off get cut short by Ice Beams, and eventually the pelipper begins to get hit by them rather than the other attacks while Maturin endures repeated gusts of wind and the occasional rake of talons.

Seven… Eight…

The next Ice Beam is visibly weaker, and Maturin is responding to Blue’s commands much slower than the pelipper is Ariya’s. The next gust of wind knocks the squirtle from her feet, and Blue finally points her dive ball forward. “Maturin, return!”

“Not bad, Oakseed,” Ariya says. “Need another minute to choose your next one?”

“Will you give it to me?”

“I’ll give you as long as you want. Pelipper, Roost!”

Shit. Blue watches her pokemon wing down to the sand and fold its feathers back as it begins to rest and heal itself. Blue’s fingers brush Kemuri’s ball, then move to Ion’s for the easy win. No, not yet… But that leaves him with one of his Grass types, or Zephyr. Would the pidgey fare better, bird to bird?

“Your squirtle is well trained.”

“Thanks.”

“That Ice Beam must’ve cost you.”

“Worth the price.” She’s trying to distract me. Or giving him a subtle hint? Or playing mind games. But if this pelipper knows an Ice attack Zephyr is just as screwed… Better to go in strong.

“What do you think of-”

“Go, Kemuri!”

“Pelipper, up!”

The shiftry has barely materialized before the pelipper leaps back into the air with an explosive clap of wings, sending sand flying to either side. “Pelipper, Gust!”

“Dodge!”

Kemuri leaps aside, avoiding most of the wind. It still spins him around, and the pelipper dives forward as Ariya yells “Wing Attack!”

“Feint Attack!”

Kemuri pivots on one foot and brings its leaves up in a diagonal slash that catches the pelipper along its side, even as it rakes Kemuri with its talons in a flyby.

It’s hard to tell which is more injured at first, but the pelipper is definitely bleeding. Blue expects Ariya to withdraw it. “Sky Drop!” she says instead.

For the second time in the match, Blue is too surprised to react for a moment. By the time he yells out a hasty “Dodge!” it’s too late for Kemuri to avoid the pelipper’s grasping talons.

Two flaps, three, four, and yes, the pelipper is lifting Kemuri up, up, up into the air. “Leaf Blade!” Blue yells up at Kemuri, but if it manages to hit the pelipper with its leaves, they must only be glancing cuts, because it just keeps going higher. Much higher than is safe… “You won’t actually drop it from there,” Blue says after a moment.

“Wanna bet?”

Blue folds his arms. “Yeah, actually.”

Ariya raises a whistle to her lips, and Blue feels a pit in his stomach. She’s been using verbal commands all along without needing to, a deliberate handicap against a challenger with just one badge… did he do something that made her escalate the challenge?

She blows two quick notes on the flute, then a quick series of notes, and Blue raises Kemuri’s ball in a near panic. He has to withdraw the shiftry before he hits the-

-water? The pelipper banks before releasing Blue’s pokemon, and the shiftry falls sideways, helplessly plunging into the bay beside the island.

“Bit of advice for you, Oaksprout. I don’t bluff.” Ariya blows another series of notes on her flute, and her pelipper dives back down to the island, landing for another Roost.

Blue stares at the spot his pokemon disappeared, then lets out his breath as the shiftry surfaces a moment later. He slowly drops the ball back to his belt as he watches his pokemon splash and flounder, but continue to float. The water isn’t particularly deep there, and the waves push Kemuri back toward the island so that even its inelegant thrashes allow it to safely wash ashore.

“Take your time, we’re not going anywhere.” Ariya leans against the railing on her platform, one arm propping up her head.

Blue grits his teeth and watches his pokemon shake itself dry and catch its breath. He takes a moment to do the same, and lets his battle calm surround him again. He’s not going to win this battle on brute force or a decisive blow. And while shiftry don’t naturally have the status effect moves of most grass types…

“Kemuri, po!”

Blue’s pokemon straightens, and Ariya’s pelipper launches up again on her order, but nothing happens. From this distance, Blue can’t make out the shiftry’s eyes, and knows that Ariya can’t either. But he’s confident that after hours of practicing his first custom command, his pokemon is carrying it out.

Ariya waits a bit longer to see if Kemuri will do something, then takes the initiative. A few quick notes, and the pelipper blows a gust of wind at the shiftry. It’s a bit off mark however, and kicks up a cloud of sand and water to the right of Blue’s pokemon. A second attempt is even less accurate, and by the time Ariya tries a new command that sends the pelipper hurtling forward with its claws outstretched, it’s clear that something’s not right with her pokemon.

Blue watches it wobble and dip erratically as it attacks, and for a moment it looks like his shiftry will simply stand there while it slams into him.

Instead, just a heartbeat away, the bird crashes into the island and tumbles across the sand, flapping its wings erratically and squawking in distress. Ariya stretches forward, one hand gripping the railing as the other extends a pokeball just far enough to withdraw her pokemon.

Blue hears scattered applause from the audience, sparsely populated and distant though they are. Ariya returns to the center of her platform and turns her mic back on. “Ugh. Stupid mental attacks. You have no idea how irritating they get when training with Misty.”

Blue makes an effort to stop smiling as he reminds himself not to get overconfident. She’s down to her last pokemon, but Kemuri’s pretty banged up, and he wouldn’t put it past Ariya to bring out yet another-

“Go, Mantine!”

Even half expecting it, Blue groans. The third Water/Flying pokemon soars gracefully above the waves, wide wings rising and falling lethargically as if swimming through the air. It occasionally dips beneath the surface, then reappears elsewhere in a spray of water.

Kemuri slowly circles in place, never letting the mantine leave his sight. Unfortunately its constant dips beneath the surface prevent him from maintaining another Extrasensory attack.

“Leaf Tornado!”

A whirl of small, sharp leaf bits begins to form between the shiftry’s rotating arms, but as he launches it at the mantine on its next surface, Ariya yells “Air Slash!” and the green cyclone is blown apart by the cutting line of air that splits the water’s surface.

Kemuri manages to dodge on time, but the mantine continues, sending blade after blade of air at the shiftry every time it surfaces. Sprays of water and sand kick up, obscuring Kemuri’s constantly dodging form as it acts without instruction. Blue watches, trying to think of something else to do. His shiftry is still his most unruly and independent pokemon, but it’s been doing well so far. He knows it can win if he just thinks of the right command.

But as the blasts of air keep coming, nothing comes to mind, and Kemuri is beginning to visibly tire. Some of the attacks start to hit him, glancing blows that have mostly spent their energy travelling so far, but still enough to contribute to wearing the shiftry down. Blue wipes his palms again and grips the railing, trying to see some pattern or weakness to exploit. As his pokemon is mostly acting on its own at the moment, he allows his eyes to unfocus so he can mostly ignore the moment to moment distraction in front of him and reach a decision.

Brock likes his gym to teach decisiveness, and Misty’s is well known for valuing and promoting adaptability, which is part of why the terrain and Ariya’s tactics are what they are. Challenges are meant to be hard, but not impossible. If Blue really doesn’t have an electric type, he should still be able to win.

And it’s not even that complicated a challenge. Any Grass attack Blue hits the Mantine with is going to hurt, but its Flying type helps it avoid most of them, and the terrain allows it to stay out of range and harass. Blue just needs to close the distance, despite the risk. The longer he just stays where he is, the more Kemuri will get worn down for nothing.

Blue tightens his grip on the railing. How far is the mantine from Kemuri, at most? 10 meters? A bit too much. But 8? That he could do.

All-or-nothing it is, then. He watches the mantine dip in and out of the water, circling the small island. It’s getting a bit slower too, the constant movement and attacking no doubt taxing it nearly as much as Kemuri. Ariya would probably call for it to rest soon, which it can do safely, unlike his shiftry.

The mantine leaps up on Blue’s right side, sends another slice of air out at Kemuri as it floats over the island in front of him, then dips back down on his left. Two more hops and it’ll pass by the center of the island… one more…

“Leaf Blade!” Blue yells, and vaults the railing to leap down from his platform.

Kemuri jumps forward, stops at the edge of the water with its legs bunched beneath it, and springs forward just as the mantine emerges again. His leaves stretch out, sharp tips aimed straight at its white underbelly as it turns mid-air… and flaps its fin to send another line of air out, splintering Kemuri’s left arm as the invisible blade sends him tumbling to the side and into the water.

Blue is already standing at the shore, greatball held out to withdraw Kemuri as soon as he flounders back to the surface. “Return!” The beam shoots out and sucks the shiftry into his ball. Blue watches the mantine surface again a couple times, watching for some sign of injury. Is there a dark line along its wingspan, or is he imagining it? Either way, it’s clearly still fit enough to continue the fight.

Blue returns to his platform as Ariya lets the applause from their audience die down before saying, “Nice try, but come ooon, Oakling. You’ve got one shot left. I know you have an Electric type on that belt somewhere, you wouldn’t come to Misty with just Grass in your arsenal. So whatcha got? Did you buy a mareep from Johto? Maybe nab a pikachu during that forest fire?”

Images flash before him, of a blood-stained bundle of yellow fur lying in the grass of a smoke filled forest. Blue feels heat spreading through his chest as his fingers brush the cool metal of Ion’s ball. The shinx would make short work of her mantine, but now that he knows her entire strategy was built around baiting his Electric Type out, he can’t give Misty that upper hand.

He climbs over the railing and turns, arm flinging a ball out. “Go, Zephyr!”

A flash and the smack of the ball returning to his palm, and Blue brings his flute up with the other hand, immediately blowing into it: Wing Attack!

Zephyr dives at the mantine and rakes it with his talons during its brief flight above the water. Ariya brings her own instrument up and gives a different command, but she has to wait until mantine is surfaced for each one, while Blue can constantly adjust his own pokemon’s position.

Left. Right. Attack. Climb. Right. Dive. Attack. Wait. Attack. Left. Attack.

Zephyr is a tan and brown streak, first harassing the mantine’s left side, then hitting it from above on its next surfacing, then circling around to dodge a Water Gun or climbing up to avoid an Air Slash.

Ariya finally abandons the water as her mantine bursts out of it and soars up over the island, turning over in mid-air, then rotating on every axis to keep Zephyr in its sights as it sends burst after burst of water out. Two of them connect, one after the other, and Blue sends Zephyr in a deep dive to avoid the next ones before using a Gust to deflect the third. Mantine switches to a maintained Bubblebeam, and Blue sends Zephyr below it, wings tipped into a wider and wider spiral. The mantine is forced to turn in mid-air and drill a continuous line in the sand as it chases the pidgey around and around, losing altitude and flying more erratically as it struggles to balance the various forces keeping it up and dragging it down.

Blue feels sweat trickle down his neck, eyes burning in a reminder to blink. He doesn’t know who will run out of stamina first, Zephyr or the mantine, but he’s spent hours training his pidgey for endurance, knowing that its battles might come down to just how long it could keep up hit-and-run attacks. When the mantine’s Bubblebeam finally ends, Blue blows a sharp note, sending Zephyr up in a sharp climb-

-which is immediately abandoned as soon as Ariya commands another attack, allowing Zephyr to dodge the jet of water and loop around the mantine’s broad wings to rake a pair of bloody lines across its belly.

It shudders in the air, and finally begins to glide downward, the closest thing to a dead drop it can manage. Ariya withdraws it as it coasts by, and Blue lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.

The spectators burst into applause again, and Blue is about to turn and hold up a victory sign when a bright light flashes in the air, causing a shocked silence.

Blue’s heart leaps into his throat, and he watches his first caught pokemon finally evolve with a wide grin. Zephyr is still flying, a looping, soaring ball of iridescent light that ends as abruptly as it began… leaving behind a pidgeotto, about as big as Zephyr had grown to be, but with wider wingspan, a full red crest, a smoother breast, and long red and yellow tail feathers.

The applause return, louder this time and mixed with cheers. Blue holds out his arm, and blows a note on his flute. Zephyr comes in for a landing, talons a bit sharper than before, and Blue strokes his back as the pidgeotto preens. He can’t seem to stop grinning.

“Nice job, Oak,” Ariya says. “That last command, you trained it with a feint?”

“Yeah. It’s one of my shiftry’s most useful maneuvers, so I figured I’d try to teach the others to do it too. Zephyr picked it up pretty easily. Maybe it’s got some murkrow in its lineage.”

“Well it was some damn nice flying, even without that. I don’t know if you really don’t have an electric pokemon or if you’re just so confident that you knew you wouldn’t need one, but I’m looking forward to your Challenge.” She gives a salute from her platform, and Blue returns it.

“So, if you were that impressed, how about that Brave Bird maneuver?” Even the basic version of the attack is an incredibly advanced technique, but if someone like Ariya with her own variation can teach him…

She laughs. “Yeah, I think you might be able to handle it. At the very least, it’ll be amusing watching you try to teach it to your pokemon.”


“Hello?”

“Hi Doctor Seward.”

“Hello… Red?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Sorry to bother you. Do you have a minute?”

“Of course, Red, how is everything? You’re on your journey now, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. Everything’s fine. With the journey, I mean.”

“I’m glad to hear it. And your mother?”

“She’s good. She’s in Celadon now.”

“I know. Say hi for me, when you can. What can I help you with, Red?

“I just… uh… I’ve been going through some stuff.”

“I surmised as much. Are you alright?”

“I’m… not really. It’s my dad.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah.”

“Did something happen to remind you of him?”

“A few things.”

“How bad is it?”

“…Pretty bad.”

“Scale?”

“Oh. Uh. I’d say I’m at a… a three. A four on good days.”

“I see. I’m sorry, Red. Where are you now?”

“Cerulean.”

“Grand city. I hope you’re enjoying it, at least a little. I have some colleagues there, if you want a referral?”

“I don’t think I’ll be here long. My friends and I will be on the move again soon.”

“Would you rather do a video feed then? I could make an opening, either early afternoon or evenings.”

“I think that might help, yeah. In the evening. Is tomorrow okay with you?”

“The day after. 7 o’clock?”

“Okay. Thanks a lot.”

“Of course. In the meantime, I have homework.”

“Heh. Right. Okay, what is it?”

“You have pokemon now, yes? Presumably a few.”

“Yeah, I have a full belt.”

“Congratulations. Which is your cuddliest?”

“My… what?”

“Your cuddliest. The one you can cuddle up with the best, safely.”

“I guess… um… my bellsprout is pretty safe, but it’s not exactly cuddly. My pichu I guess, now that it doesn’t randomly shoot sparks out anymore.”

“Yes, that’s rather important. Good. Now, I want you to spend some time just relaxing with it. Training is fine too, by all means be as physically active as you can manage, but I don’t want you lying in bed without a pokemon there beside you. Think you can do that?”

“Yeah, I think so. That’s a good idea.”

“I know it is. One more thing. Find something to do that’s related to your dad. I know you probably have a lot to be busy with, it doesn’t have to be a big project. Just do something you know would make him happy. Something that speaks to the loss, answers it back.”

“…”

“Is that alright?”

“Y-yeah. Yeah I… I can do that. Okay. Thanks.”

“Of course. Be well, Red. Talk to you soon.”


Red squints as he leaves the Trainer House for the first time in days. The sunlight makes his eyebrows ache, a familiar feeling from years ago when he spent whole weeks in his bedroom.

Like then, going outside after so long has a mixed effect. He can feel his spirits lift ever so slightly, but it also feels slightly false. Not to mention emotionally exhausting, like he’s trading off energy for the improved mood. Walking through the crowded city streets doesn’t help, but Leaf just arrived back in town and wants to grab lunch with him and Blue, so Red keeps his gaze down and puts one foot in front of the other rather than go back and crawl into bed.

His pichu is sitting on his shoulder, its paws gripping his collar tight as it looks around. One hand goes up to stroke its fur. He’s been spending as much time with it as he can since he spoke with Dr. Seward, and he’s happy to see how comfortable his timid little mouse seems out in public, compared to when he first got her.

The city is as alive as ever around them, sidewalks crowded with people and pokemon going about their day. Red spots some tourists and remembers their first day in the city. It’s strange how soon a new place can feel familiar. He feels his pichu climb up onto the bill of his hat as a growlithe walks by, a small spark snapping from her cheeks as she watches it walk by. He cups her in his palm and gives her a brief scolding before placing her back on his shoulder, where she presses her flat tail along the inside of his shirt.

By the time he gets to the restaurant, he’s acclimated enough to being outside that his excitement to see his friends again beats out his emotional fatigue. After arriving at the restaurant and spotting Leaf and Blue at a table, he actually smiles. They haven’t all been in one place for over a week, since the day they caught the abra. He withdraws his pichu before heading inside.

“-so jealous, I need to train with Crimson more so he can keep up.”

“Gonna be hard if you never do practice battles. We can spar if you want, avoid any cutting attacks.”

Leaf opens her mouth to respond, then puts her menu down with a grin as she sees Red. “Heya! Good to see you again.”

“You too. Hey man.” He slides his chair in and holds a fist up.

Blue knocks his against it. “Hey man yourself, I’ve barely seen you more than Leaf lately. You finish up the abra research yet?”

Red feels a stab of guilt over his inactivity lately. He knows the others are impatient to sell the abra. “Uh. Not yet. My teacher agreed to help with it though, so. Should be ready soon.” He fiddles with his menu, not really hungry but wanting to change the topic. “So how was the trip back?”

“Fine, but never mind that,” Leaf says, leaning forward. “Now that you’re here I have something to tell you guys…”

Red and Blue both lean in as she explains what she learned on the mountain, and how it led to her meeting with Giovanni. She stops talking when the waiter arrives for their order, and continues when he’s out of earshot, lowering her voice further as she goes over their conversation.

Her story makes Red’s mind begin to race, and for the first time all day he feels fully awake. He’s a bit jealous that she actually met with the legendary Gym Leader, but finding out that someone killed Yuuta before he could be executed, and that the other Leaders are covering it up, brings back all his uncertainties over voting to execute the Renegade in the first place.

“…and he just left! I know he was busy doing other things, he probably had a meeting to get to somewhere, but it was still really abrupt. I think I might have given away that I changed my mind, somehow.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” Blue says as he slurps from his soup bowl. “He probably just had a psychic nearby reading your mind and texting to him.”

Leaf stares at him, eyes growing wider and mouth dropping open, then buries her face in her hands and let out a muffled cry of frustration. “Of course that’s what he did, Arceus, I’m such an idiot!

“Hey,” Red says, mouth full of slimy seaweed salad. He takes a moment to swallow the tasty strands down. It’s nice having money to waste on luxury foods. “Let’s not jump to conclusions just because we have one plausible hypothesis. Do you really think he would do something like that?”

Blue snorts. “For someone so smart, you’re really naive sometimes. You don’t think people would use psychics to get an edge in social situations? Absolutely, if it works and they can afford it.”

Red frowns. “Cynicism isn’t knowledge. He’s a Gym Leader, not just some random guy.”

“So? That just means he has more responsibility and ambition. If he thinks it’s in the best interest of Viridian or Kanto-”

“But isn’t that illegal?” Leaf asks, face rising. “In Unova a psychic needs consent to affect someone’s mind.”

“Oh, that’s true here too,” Red says. “I have to sign a bunch of stuff for pretty much anything my teacher does with me. But just reading someone’s mood and surface thoughts doesn’t count. It’s a passive thing that we just… do.”

Leaf and Blue look at Red in surprise. “Not that I’m there yet, myself,” he adds. “I’d have to focus to read someone, and if they weren’t psychic I’d barely be able to tell who I was reading from. Anyway, forget the moral concern. Imagine if it gets out. No one would feel safe talking to him again.”

“Oh come on, it’s Giovanni Sakaki. Anyone who doesn’t already take precautions about that sort of thing isn’t in a position to not talk to him if he wants a meeting.”

“Well, I’m certainly not going to again,” Leaf says as she stabs at her salad. “And I’ll warn others who might not to either!”

“But will you publish the story?” Blue asks. “Seems like that’s all he was concerned with, and what he’d continue to care about. No offense.”

She bites her lip a moment, moving some almonds around in their bowl. “I want to, but… I don’t want to act out of spite. I mean, assuming he was being honest, the reasoning for not publishing hasn’t really changed, right? Regardless of what he did to me personally. What do you guys think?”

Red and Blue look at each other. “You should ask your-”

“I should ask-”

“-grandpa/gramps,” they finish, almost together.

Leaf’s lip twitches. “I thought about asking Laura, but since she’s another reporter, it would have felt too much like going back on what I said to Giovanni. Now that I know what he did though… now that I think I know what he did,” she amends when Red opens his mouth, “I care a lot less about that.”

“Maybe you should, still,” Blue says. “What he did, it’s all in the game. Once you get involved in important issues, not just politics but actual Leader duties and Renegade stuff, you’re in a different world.”

“And that makes it okay?” Leaf asks, brow furrowed.

He shrugs. “What he did sucks, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just the way the world works. Gramps made sure I understood that, when he first found out how ambitious I am. Leaders don’t just train people and defend against pokemon. They’re not heroes from cartoons. They have to deal with the stuff that holds society together, and sometimes that stuff is too serious for being nice and honest.”

“That logic can excuse a lot of shitty stuff,” Red says. “You sound like you’re saying to just trust Giovanni, but you called me naive earlier.”

Blue shakes his head. “Different kind of naive. Look, he didn’t actually do anything that hurt you, right? I’m just saying, as long as you play ball, Giovanni will keep it in mind. If you go back on it now, you might regret it.”

Leaf rolls her eyes. “Well that’s just an argument out of self-interest, and I don’t need help on that front. If I start to think that I’m really only doing it for myself, I might just publish the story to prove that idea wrong. I don’t want to do it for that reason either, so I need to take it out of the equation.”

“Then what’s left?” Red asks. “If you only really care about what the outcome of the story would be, like you said, none of the arguments against publishing have changed. Just your trust in Giovanni.”

“Which I’m saying shouldn’t impact your view of his motives,” Blue says. “Not on its own, anyway. Not unless you fully understand what’s at stake and what his options were.”

“Do you think he’ll mind you telling us, and asking Professor Oak?” Red asks.

“He said not to publish, he didn’t say not to talk about it. I never would have agreed to that, which he’d know if he was digging around in my head.” Leaf spears a cucumber slice and munches it, scowling. “Okay, let’s talk to the Professor.”

“To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if he already knows,” Blue says. “But don’t worry, if he thinks it should be out there I’m pretty sure he won’t break the story ahead of you.”

“Ok, cool. I guess I’ll start on a draft of it, just in case, so I’m ready to go sooner if I need to. I’m almost done with the article on the dig site anyway.”

“Man, your following is going to shoot up like crazy if you do break a story like that,” Blue says as he leans his chair back, spoon tapping his lower lip. “Definitely more than the bump I’ll get from beating Misty.”

Red puts his foot on Blue’s chair leg beneath the table and pushes it down, jerking him forward in time to allow a waiter to pass behind him. Blue looks startled, then angry, but follows Red’s gaze and rolls his eyes before pointedly leaning his chair back again.

“Speaking of followings,” Red says. “I’ve been thinking about… some stuff lately. And I wanted to run something by you guys that might actually help with that.”

They both turn to him, and he takes a moment to remember the opening he rehearsed.

“So, I know we all have a lot of plans for the money we’ll make from the abra. And there’s a lot of good we want to do with that money. But, I thought that it might be worth considering how much good we can do with the abra too.”

He gives them a moment to say something, but other than a crease in Blue’s forehead and Leaf’s eyebrows going up, they let him continue. He takes a deep breath and feels a bit better about not remembering all of the next part.

“I was just thinking, abra aren’t just rare, you know? They’re not just good for battles. They’re also just useful, as natural teleporters. Not just to rich executives or politicians, but organizations like Gyms and hospitals and Rangers rely on them. Time saved travelling sometimes means lives saved.”

“You want to donate some of them?” Blue asks.

“That’s a great idea.” Leaf rubs her fork handle between her palms. “Maybe five each, to different organizations?”

“I actually had something different in mind,” Red says. “I want to sell them all wholesale, at half the market price.”

Leaf blinks, then slowly smiles. Blue stares.

“Obviously, I can only talk about my share. But I don’t want to undercut you guys. So I thought I’d let you know, work out the timing. And see if maybe you want to do the same.”

“All of them?” Blue asks. “Like… in one bunch? That’s-”

“A great publicity move,” Leaf says. “Not only do we get people buzzing about the charitable aspect, but we also show off that we managed to catch all these abra at once, which is much less notable if we carefully sell them off bit by bit.”

“And that’s a good thing?” Blue asks. “I thought the point was to keep it secret!”

“Shh,” Red cautions, and Blue frowns, looking around. “Look, I want to get as much benefit out of the catching strategy as we can, but eventually it will be noticed. And it should be. I want more people to have abra that need them, and that can’t happen even if we just go around farming abra all day. For one thing it’s inefficient, and for another we can’t actually spend months traveling around to do it. We don’t have easy transportation, or mass capture permits, or the safety to do it in other areas. The only reason this worked so well is that Bill let us use his property, remember?”

Blue’s frown softens through all this, becoming more thoughtful. “Okay, but still, selling the ones we have at a bargain seems dumb. We can do that for the next batch.”

“When’s that going to be? Selling all our abra off one by one will take weeks, if we want to get the most out of it. We’re leaving Cerulean when you get your badge, right? Unless you’re planning to lose, that means we’re going to be out of here soon, and won’t have access to Bill’s land. Which, by the way, we probably depleted quite a bit with our first haul.”

“I like the idea,” Leaf says. “I have to admit, I wasn’t looking forward to vetting 23 different people to sell abra to. If I sell them all to pokecenters, I know they’ll be in good hands.”

“And we save some money and time skipping evaluations,” Red points out. “Just basic health checks for each of them, rather than a notarized assessment, which I’m sure the buyers will be happy to cover. So it’s not quite as big a difference as it might first seem.”

“Aaaaargh, fine, fine,” Blue says, picking his spoon back up and pointing it at Red. “But I’m selling some of mine first.”

Red nods. “That’s fair. You have more than us, so the difference is bigger for you.”

“How about this,” Leaf says. “We do one more catching session before we leave Cerulean, then whoever has the least abra, we all agree to sell that many wholesale. I know you’re at a disadvantage Red, but-”

“No, that’s fine. I’m giving mine to the Rangers, so the more I can catch for them the better.”

“Awesome. This was a great idea.”

“You think so? I don’t want to pressure you guys…”

Blue grunts, then bobs his head left and right in some kind of weird nod-and-shake. “Nah, she’s right. It’s great optics for us, and exactly the kind of thing that would make gramps proud. Not to mention look good for him too, justify his trust in us. And most importantly, it makes Kanto stronger. The more people can get to incidents faster, the safer we’ll all be.”

Leaf nods, and smiles at Red, a warm, full smile that makes his stomach flutter. As they finish their meal, say goodbye, and go on about their day, Red finds his thoughts of his dad are less draining than they were, the tears that well up tinged more often with bittersweetness. Rather than endlessly recounting conversations he had with him, and all the conversations he never will again, he finds himself thinking of what he would say, if he were still around. And that he would be proud.

The emptiness in his chest is still there. The long nights, lying awake. The occasional crushing waves of grief. But as he works on his various projects over the next few days, including arranging the details for the sale to the Rangers, some of the pain eases.

Not a lot. But some.

Chapter 40: Interlude VI – And Every Common Sight

Damn them. Damn them all.

For the lies. For my imprisonment. But most of all, for the hope they keep alive, like a starving flower. A drip of water, a peek of sunlight, and stubbornly, it endures.

We think we found a way to bring you out.

It is a hard thing to keep my mind partitioned. To let the false-hope, the harmless-hope, show on the surface for Sabrina to read, while inside the desperate, anguished, starving hope rends at me. I sense her concern as my mask leaks briefly, and some of my true feelings go through.

I would like that, I tell her, and carefully regain control of my thoughts. What will you try?

A mobile life support system, able to replicate all the functions of your tank for brief periods of time.

Hope. Feeble, but piercing. I hang in my prison and study her through the glass. Sabrina has changed much in the past decade. Her thoughts, what little I can glean of them behind the blank shield she surrounds them with, are heavier, more full of consideration and nuanced doubts. Physically, she has gone from a teenager to a young woman.

But far more important are her mental powers, already strong as a child, grown far beyond any other psychic in the facility. The scintillating light of psychic energy around her has become much stronger, shifted to a color that has no name in human languages, for they cannot see it.

I discovered from the other minds that she is a Gym Leader now, in Saffron City. Learning this filled me with pride. She must be one of the strongest human psychics in the region. Which demonstrates how powerful I am in comparison, to be so much farther above her.

How brief? When will it be ready?

Development has just completed. We wanted to be sure before we told you, so as not to give you false hope. Giovanni gave the order to begin construction this morning.

Beep. Beep. Beep. I listen to my heartbeats speed up, a sound I’ve long since grown accustomed to, filtered out of my consciousness. Again I struggle to keep my mental mask in place, remind myself of all the false hope I’ve been fed before. Why has the system not been developed here, in the lab?

The technology for it was developed for other purposes. It’s being adapted to your needs, and should be ready to test in perhaps two weeks. Think you can hold out that long?

She sends humor, concern, trepidation. I carefully add resolution and eagerness to my mask. Yes! Thank you for telling me, Sabrina.

Of course, Mazda. Now, what would you like to learn about today?

Mazda. This name she gave me, from an obscure, mostly dead language. “Wisdom,” because she often found my thoughts and perspective uniquely fascinating, insightful. In the early years, this too filled me with pride, and joy, to have a name, even if it was a private one between myself and my teacher. Its charm has long since fled.

I have been wondering how the governments of the different regions interact with each other, day to day. The files on the computer gave only a brief overview of the systems and history…

As we begin our lessons, I remind myself that this new development, this mobile support system, is not kindness. They want something of me: some way to test their new toy, to further their knowledge. Perhaps even better refine it for the others of my kind that surely exist, if they are similarly as crippled.

But to leave this prison… I cannot bear to silence the hope that they speak true. And for that I curse them a hundred times again.


Days pass more slowly than whole months that came before. My prison is not uncomfortable. There is music, when I want it, and a computer connected to screens to show television, display books, watch films, and even play games.

My telekinesis, like my telepathy, grew in strength naturally, but developing finesse was a task that the games were endlessly useful for. First simple board games, moving pieces from one square to another, then more complex movements to connect blocks and build things. Electronic game controllers were useful as well, but once I overcame the interface challenge they presented, I quickly tired of them.

Sabrina visits often, to talk and play games. I enjoy the distraction she provides, but am hungry for news on the life support system’s development, which she claims to have none of.

It’s so rare to have something to look forward to. Something to break the daily monotony, stop the weeks from blending into each other. The only way to normally track the passing of time is through the others at the facility.

Most have remained here over the past decade. Sarah, who has matured with the years, become more confident in herself. Haruo, still burning with passion, but no longer as anxious to reach the next discovery, more willing to stop and consider the previous.

Others are gone. The details of why are not always available in the minds of their coworkers. Most simply vanished, like Fuji had. Others were killed in some tragedy or other. Darin killed him/herself, the confusion and pain within finally driving them to desperation. Their mind was too painful to share near the end. I often wonder if I had tried harder to endure it, whether I would reach out or alert someone of their plans.

Without the humans’ thoughts to share, their company to keep, I do not know how the years would have been bearable. The thought of living them only through the minds of my limited, few comforters, as originally intended, seems sadistic, even for shorter periods of time. I think often of the others, my hypothetical siblings. Would the humans correct for their oversight? Expand the distance between my siblings and the rest of their labs, leave them truly isolated? It pains me to think of what isolation they must endure, beyond even my own pitiable state.

But the media is a blessing as well. Thousands of television shows, tens of thousands of books… in them a million characters acting out their dramas, pursuing their goals, overcoming their obstacles. Watching television or movies was uninteresting, at first. Without being able to merge with their minds, it all seemed so distant and meaningless. Then I realized it allowed me the rare chance to observe interactions of humans from the outside, to truly not know whether they were being honest or not, how they felt, what their plans were. To be in suspense, test my predictions of what the characters would do, is both educational and entertaining, even if the events are scripted, the characters actors.

Books were harder. Learning to read was easy, but envisioning the events, when there’s so little I’ve seen with my own eyes… seeing descriptions of thoughts and feelings, rather than sharing them myself, felt empty.

It was poetry that connected my mind and those in print. Sabrina suggested it upon hearing of my difficulty, and I spent a hundred sunless days and starless nights sampling from one famous poet to another, until I finally reached one that broke the barrier:

I am—yet what I am, none cares or knows;

My friends forsake me like a memory lost:

I am the self-consumer of my woes—

They rise and vanish in oblivious host,

Like shadows in love’s frenzied, stifled throes

And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed

 

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dreams,

Where there is neither sense of life or joys,

But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;

Even the dearest that I loved the best

Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

 

I long for scenes where man hath never trod

A place where woman never smiled or wept

There to abide with my Creator, God,

And sleep, as I in childhood sweetly slept,

Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie

The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

The words were like rain upon parched earth, a cool cloth upon a fevered brow. I absorbed them again and again, first fascinated without knowing why, then desperate to feel again the author’s kindred, solitary pain.

I still do not know if I can weep. If I am physically incapable, or if the liquid I’m immersed in prevents me from noticing when I do. But I have never felt more trapped, despite my mental freedoms. I have never felt more rent by sorrow. It was as though my mind touched one filled with extraordinary despair and longing, but also grace.

When I composed myself and reassured my monitors, who were greatly alarmed by my agitation, I looked up the author, John Clare. Born and died hundreds of years ago, yet so sad was his voice in my mind that I imagined it as Dr. Fuji’s. His biography told of a life filled with its own share of tragedy.

Poetry became my obsession. All the borrowed metaphors I’d taken from people’s minds found a home in the words of strangers. Once it became known to the rest of the lab, one of my comforters, Eva, began reading poetry from time to time. It was not often that our tastes overlapped, but to share the mind of another as it enjoyed poetry helped me value more as well.

Eventually I moved on from there, particularly enamored by stories of outsiders, outcasts, those trapped, either physically or by circumstances. For awhile it gave me solace, between Sabrina or Giovanni’s visits.

My creator has been an errant figure, visiting only once or twice a month, for varying periods of time. Sometimes we would play games: Checkers, Renju, Chess, Shogi, and more, until I mastered him in each. Sometimes we discuss books, or things I had learned, him speaking through an amplifier set against the glass, I through my computer’s voice synthesizer. Today, of course, we talk of the life support system, the “suit.”

“It is something that is being developed for exploration in harsh environments,” Giovanni says. “The design is by Silph, which made the proprietary rights and design specifications difficult to come by.”

“But not for you, surely,” I type out into my computer. My “voice,” through the speaker, is deep, far deeper than I have heard through others’ ears, and just barely male rather than altogether inhuman. I helped pick it, though I do not know why it appealed to me above the others. It is unknown if I can even speak, let alone what it would sound like, and from what I’ve been told, I have no gender. Yet another source of disconnection: my species was not meant for procreation, to join the rest of life’s endless cycle.

“Yes, difficult even for me. The president and I have had more… disagreements, lately.”

I stay silent and study the Go board, wondering if I should form an eye or start a new formation. The room is empty, as it often is when Giovanni visits. Perhaps to create an atmosphere of intimacy. Perhaps to let him speak more freely. I’ve rarely managed to decipher my creator’s motives, made infuriatingly impenetrable by his cursed abnormality. “Do you think it will affect your friendship?” I eventually ask, after moving a stone.

“Friendship is not an easy thing, for men in my position. I would call him a useful ally, but the time for that alliance may be ending. Perhaps it already has.”

“I thought he shared our vision for the future.” That vision that he had so tantalizingly dangled before me, during his first visit. I still call it “our,” ever pretending, ever hiding how I despise him. Dark though he may be, my thoughts are not safe. Psychics nearby monitor my mood, no doubt informing him of them somehow.

“Perhaps he still does. But there’s been trouble in gym coordination lately. Mayors that were meek, effective public servants last year are growing spines and pushing back against gym leaders. Price controls are being lifted, regulations stripped or softened until they’re toothless. Silph is expanding into foreign markets and leveraging that political capital here at home.”

“To defy you?”

“To accomplish his own agendas. We’ve only ever agreed on a single goal, not the methods or aftermath.”

And when I help you capture the Stormbringers, what then? Shall we turn to the Silph President and his agenda? I do not say it. I must act as though my loyalty to him is without question, on the smallest chance that he may take it for granted.

“Well,” I type as I float a new piece into position. “I do not see why it should affect you so. He can continue amassing his wealth and empowering individuals, while you continue building connections.”

Giovanni takes a piece from his bag and rubs it between his thumb and forefinger. “There have been other things. Setbacks. Unexplained problems. The word sabotage is whispered by my people, when they think I cannot hear them.”

“You suspect Silph?”

“I suspect many people. Altogether, too many people.”

“Bring them here, then. I will read their thoughts better than your psychics can.”

Giovanni seems to consider this a moment, but shakes his head. “To those few I can convince to come, I would be extending a trust that’s worth more than what they can offer.” He places his stone.

Frustration flares within me, then dies back to sullen embers. I have often tried to get more people to visit the facility, to learn more from new minds. I have met with little success over the years. It has not escaped me that all I think I know is an elaborate ruse, a carefully molded illusion from all the minds in the facility. I have long since discarded paranoia as a concern: of my creator, I would put nothing past.

We continue to play the game until his victory. It was not as great as the first, nor the tenth. One by one, I learn these games he teaches me, and eventually become his master. But they are only games. In the only one that matters, he holds all the pieces, controls the whole board.

Still, I learn. Ten years is a lot of time to test the security of my prison, even confined as I am. A lot of time to track movements of personnel, pick up glimpses and memories to form a mental map, notice safety measures, human, pokemon, and other.

Back when I practiced influencing the minds of the wild pokemon in the stone and soil around the facility, I tried at times to poke and prod them into digging toward me. Always, after a certain point, there would be a reaction somewhere in the facility. Some sensor that detects life forms or seismic activity, I know not which, keeps the facility prepared for pokemon attacks beneath the ground.

Dark humans with their various pokemon stand vigil night and day, switching shifts every eight hours. They have minimal contact with the others in the facility, are almost as enigmatic today as they were when I first beheld them through my glass walls.

But not completely.

Perhaps my most profound discovery of humans has been of their inconsistency. There are vanishingly few rules that do not eventually get broken, and their beliefs about themselves are often misleading. Perhaps if I could truly plumb their depths rather than just their minds’ most immediate forms, I would find some underlying, inviolate rules, but so far none have emerged.

All of which means that, over a long enough period of time, they all make mistakes. I have overheard conversations that should not have taken place, inferred patterns from the thoughts and remarks that should have been better hidden among those closest to my cell. Not enough to get through their security, but enough to know that there are layers upon layers of it… and that, ultimately, there is some sort of failsafe they all worry about from time to time. Just a thought, once in awhile… whatifitgoesoffaccidentally, associated with some brief terror of everyone dying.

Not knowing what these failsafes are makes any escape attempt suicidal. Even knowing that, it has been hard to keep patient and seek out mistakes.

Some of which are more subtle than others.

Easy as it is to find patterns given enough time and information, what I have found more difficult, but similarly rewarding, is spotting conspicuous holes in patterns. Less staff in the facility on certain days of the week. Travel habits of individuals that go to areas everyone else avoids. And gaps in what sort of information I have access to.

Of all the media available to me, there are some glaring exceptions. No information on pokemon battles or various abilities, no details on the nature of Dark pokemon. What little I know of them I’ve gleaned from the facility’s inhabitants.

What’s more, in thousands of books and shows, movies and documentaries, histories and biographies, there are no stories, no information at all, about escapes from imprisonment or restraint of any kind.

Such stories must exist. They must. My situation may in fact be unique throughout all of history, and yet similar ones cannot be. The chances of such a gap in human imagination are too low, and the humans in the facility fear and wonder over my chances of escape too often, think briefly of similar situations too specific and imaginative to be their own invention rather than a story they remember.

Whoever decides on what media I am allowed to see must fear me learning anything from it that might aid me in escaping. As soon as I realized that, I began to imagine my own. Not trusting anything that would be saved in the computer, I would often imagine stories of capture and escape. Project myself into the role of the captor, design ways to keep others imprisoned. But it is difficult to know how much is possible, let alone probable, without knowing what information or technology they might be hiding from me.

Regardless, I persist. The alternative is unthinkable.

“I know how badly you want to be free of this place,” Giovanni says as he clears the pieces from the board and divides them for another game. “And you’ve been more than patient. I hope this new suit will allow you to finally begin venturing out into the world.”

It’s easy to believe him. Even if everything else is a carefully constructed lie, if all I know is some elaborate illusion, I know that I exist for a purpose. I was created for a purpose. Giovanni will continue to invest resources into me as long as there is a chance he can benefit from it somehow.

“It is hard to believe that I may soon see the sky at last,” I type out. “And I am eager to see what I can do for the world as well. I often fear I will be unable to repay humanity for the generosity you have all shown me.”

“Be at ease on that account. You have already done much for us. I know you will continue to defy our expectations.”

I practice reading faces often, testing my predictions of how people feel by observing them with others, then jumping to their mind, but my creator remains inscrutable as ever. It’s likely that Giovanni is aware of my true desires, that he is speaking with two meanings, as I am. He is intelligent enough to not introduce such a suit without knowing that I might take advantage of it and escape.

Which means I must simply be more intelligent to do so.

“I intend to,” I say, and place my first piece on the board.


The day has come. The suit is here, in front of me, and I can barely keep my mind from jumping to others in excitement, to try to see them from other, closer angles. Useless in any case, everyone in the room is Dark besides Sabrina.

She is explaining the suit’s function, how it will attach to my body at several places where the current medical apparatus does and fulfill its function. I pay attention as best I can while also watching the pieces get removed from their crate, manipulated by the technicians and doctors, filled with fluids. They are bulky and roughly shaped like metal tubes. A power source is inserted at the back, wires and tubes connected to the arm and leg and torso pieces.

That battery, how long does it last? I ask, interrupting Sabrina mid-sentence.

She asks, and one of the engineers responds. Days, but the suit would run out of potion long before then.

I see. No point in asking how long before those run out: it remains to be seen if they would work at all as a substitute for my tank. Is it refillable, or would I need to return here between outings?

It would need to be removed to be serviced.” Remember that this is just a prototype. Future iterations can be different.

Of course. Future iterations that may take another 10 years of imprisonment…

But the anger does not last, fleeing quickly before a renewed surge of anticipation and hope. Freedom is minutes away…

That hope is soured by the final piece they remove from the crate: a helmet, with a vizor on it. Bitterness wells up. Yet another layer of glass between me and the world!

Calm, Mazda. I know you wish to see the sky. We must proceed carefully, even now. You have never seen sunlight: it will be painful without protection.

I am remaining inside today anyway, am I not? Surely the glass can be removed while I am here?

It is part of the helmet. Let us be sure it works first. It would be foolish to rush ahead and cause yourself harm, after waiting so long.

Her words do nothing to quell my impatience. I begin manipulating the various things around my tube, splitting my mind into more and more partitions as I struggled to distract myself. Puzzle pieces scatter and rearrange themselves, toy blocks move together to form shapes before melting back into pieces, and the pieces of the Go board fly up and begin to circle my tube in twin black and white orbits. Several of the workers slow, staring, and one of the guards’ umbreon steps forward, lip curled in a snarl. I pay them no mind, too busy testing my fine control to its limit.

Mazda. They are ready.

Everything drops back in their respective boxes. The technicians are all around me, pieces positioned for quick placement. I prepare myself for the coming pain.

Begin.

First comes a gurgling noise as the liquid is drained around me into the floor, a sound I haven’t heard for over three years. As soon as my head emerges, I feel the absence of it, like a layer of skin peeled off to leave me raw and exposed. I lower as the water does, until finally my feet touch the floor. As the buoyancy is lost, my weight comes to rest on them completely, and I collapse to the floor.

From time spent in other minds, I know how bodies move and feel. But my own is still foreign to me, and is not strong enough to follow my commands. The humans are staring at me, murmuring. Humiliated, I finally resort to telekinesis to lift myself up, until I precariously balance on the ends of each foot, where they feel the most supported. I try to push the rest of my feet down, but it feels uncomfortable, painful even. With a fresh wave of self-loathing, I finally accept that I’m a digitigrade, unable to even stand or walk like a human.

Next the glass around my pod lifts into the ceiling, and air rushes in around me, cold and prickly against my wet skin. I savor the sensations, uncomfortable though they are, and prepare for the true discomfort.

One by one, the needles withdraw from my skin and cease their steady supply of healing potion. The immediate, sharp pain is nothing compared to the aching agony that starts to radiate through my bones almost immediately.

In the space of time between their removal and the others rushing forward, I try to heal myself. To undo the damage of my body, keep the pain from growing. I’ll finally do it, this time, all the years spent studying my own biology will pay off, I’ll be able to regenerate my cells as they begin to rapidly die stop them from dying be free it hurts I will be free it hurts

Mazda! You’ve fallen, are you okay?

-the humans are attaching the pieces to my back and arms, shouting commands, now, I will begin healing now, but the pain continues to grow, an ache fills my chest, vision growing hazy-

-pain, stabbing-

-despair-

-can’t think-

Mazda!

Sabrina. So close. I can touch her. But. I can’t see. Yelling. Panic. Giovanni’s tone of command, cutting through the babble. Can’t focus on the words, can’t feel anything but the pain as my awareness begins to fade…

Get up, Mazda, they can’t put the suit on you-

-hurts-

Get up!

sleep, please-

No, Mazda, you’ll die!

die

don

‘t wa

nt

I

d

on’t w

ant

to die!

A tingling rush. A door in the mind, opening-

Mazda, breathe! You have to breathe!

Memory of the sensation, the action, the muscles move, gasp, draw in a deep breath.

There are hands on me, pulling me up. I can feel them. I can feel… things other than pain. My senses return, and I focus on my body, sitting on the floor. I feel along it and lift, righting myself again and allowing the humans to finish attaching the suit. New pinpricks of pain in my legs, and then sweet, cool relief.

The suit is working. I feel… not normal, nothing close to the comfortable lack of sensation my pod provides, but sensate. The suit is heavy, weighing down my limbs and head, making it harder to hold myself up. My vision is dark, limited, as I peer through the round visor and look around me.

The humans have all backed away. The guarding pokemon are ready, eyes on me, teeth bared and claws extended. I find Sabrina, more apprehensive than fearful, but also relieved.

I turn completely around, then do it again. My tail extends, stretching to its limit, then moving from side to side, causing everyone to take another step back. I’m free.

I’m free.

“Ma-Mewtwo, are you alright?”

Sabrina’s voice, a bit muffled by the helmet, but undistorted. I turn to her, marvelling again at the freedom to turn completely around. Yes, I can-

I stop. Open my mouth, feel the air inside it. My breathing is too quick, desperate. I try and slow it, take a deep breath, lungs aching. It’s too hard at first, to hold a breath, let it out consciously. I huff, try again, struggling to breathe deeper even as I marvel at the sensations.

Once I can hold some breath in my lungs, I let my mind drift back to memories, the sensation of speech, and say, “Aeeeaaheaah!”

All the humans except Giovanni recoil, even Sabrina. The room is silent. Waiting. My heart pounds in my chest. I take a breath and try again, carefully.

“Aaa. Iah. Aahaheaea.”

The noise is nonsensical, beastial. The horror in their faces reflects my own.

Calm. It’s new, all new. Perhaps I just need time, practice.

Mazda?

I cannot speak, Sabrina.

I’m sorry. How are you feeling? Are you in pain?

Pain? Yes, some. Inconsequential. I am fine. Tell everyone to move away.

Once she does, I move my leg forward, both with muscle and mind. Then the next. It is slow, a shuffle, but moving at all, leaving this particular space… for years, it’s been more than I dared imagine. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps this is the start of something new after all. So I cannot speak: so what? I can move under my own power, oxygenate my own blood, perhaps even feed myself. I take a deep breath through my nose, savor the smells. I can leave this accursed room. I can see the sky. The suit is a small price to pay, for that.

One of the umbreon suddenly barks as I move in its direction. Its trainer quiets it, but the spell is broken. Amazing as this experience is, I am still a prisoner. The trainers and their pokemon watch, ever vigilant, to destroy me if needed.

I turn around again, slowly, enjoying the sensation anew. Some of the onlookers watch keenly and take notes. Others seem more interested in the suit.

“How does it fit?” one of those asks, noticing my attention. “Are the arms securely fastened?”

“Is the medicine delivery adequate?” another asks. “How do you feel?”

“The helmet, can you see clearly?”

“Your legs, do they naturally bend like that or are you-”

“Enough,” Giovanni says, and they quiet. “Take your time. Respond when you can.” My creator’s face is its usual blank mask, but with something more. An edge of… eagerness? Hunger? I cannot tell.

And for now, I don’t want to. I simply move, enjoying the aches and pains of exertion. It is hard to focus on multiple things at once, but I eventually continue to move myself around while also typing out, “There is pain, and I feel weak, but it is hard to tell what the cause is. The left arm’s piece is loose. It hurts when the needle moves.”

Someone moves forward, then pauses and looks to Giovanni. He nods, and the technician reaches me and adjusts the strap. “Better?” he asks. I stare at him through my visor, marveling at how close he is to me. I can hear his breaths, short and excited. I can turn my hand and touch his clothing, if I wish. Instead I simply move my arm up and down, then nod. He backs away.

I continue shuffling around, occasionally remarking on my observations until my limbs feel too heavy to move, and my telekinesis is used almost exclusively to hold myself up. I simply stay still and feel along my body with my mind, finding easier ways to mold my psychic field, support myself with the lift.

Eventually I notice my audience stir, some frowning, others looking concerned. I have been still too long. “Are you tired?” Sabrina asks.

“Yes,” I type out, understanding the word for the first time on a physical level. “Tired.”

“He should return to his system,” one of the scientists says, and fear immediately rises up, sharpening my attention. “The suit is running dry soon anyway.”

Panic suddenly rises up in me. “No. Not yet.”

“Your first excursion was a success,” Giovanni says. “There will be others.”

I back away from them, then remember the others are around me. I’m trapped, and soon I’ll be trapped in truth, trapped back in my prison… I can’t. I won’t.

My power begins to cover the room, feeling everything, preparing. But there are too many holes, empty shapes where the humans and pokemon are. Years of plotting fill my mind as I think of ways to defeat them. I can lift the machinery, shatter glass, make a shield of metal around me…

Then Sabrina is beside me, hand taking mine. Her fingers are warm. Her face is calm.

It’s okay, Mazda. Trust us.

I stare at her. The closest thing to a “friend” I have known, my teacher and companion. But not the true friend that Fuji was. Still one of my jailers. No, I cannot trust her.

But I can pretend to, and bide my time.

I nod, and return to my prison. The technicians approach me and begin to remove the suit. I prepare for the pain to return, eyes closing as it wells up in me, burns through my limbs. Then the needles stab into me again, sharp pains that quickly fade and take the deeper, burning ache away.

When I open my eyes again, the glass is back around me. The chamber fills with liquid, and I watch the others as they look the suit over. Watch as they pack it back away, as my head becomes submerged and I begin to float again. I must trust that they will return, to test out new versions of it. To learn more about me.

I will give them what they want. I will act obedient, grateful. And in return they will deliver to me the tool of my escape.


Days pass, and my mind knows obsession. The experience of being outside my prison, the freedom, the sensations, are all I can think of. I begin to move in my tank, exercising sore and atrophied muscles. On the second excursion I can move around the entire room before tiring, and on the third my suit runs out of potion without me doing so. The scientists are fascinated by my muscular growth, and the technicians work to increase the suit’s capacity.

I’m asked hundreds of questions, tested in dozens of ways. I eat food for the first time, the taste of simple bread bringing ecstasy with the intensity of experiencing it myself. Eventually I’m allowed more complex foods, and each brings new rapture.

It’s a period of much excitement and discovery for all, and reminds me of the early years, when everything was still new and filled with hope. I even dream, once in awhile, that this will be a new chapter, that the past ten years of waiting were not malicious. Two things keep me from succumbing to hope.

First is the constant presence of the guarding trainers and their pokemon. They surround me at all times, on every excursion, never relaxing, constantly vigilant.

Second are the moments between. The moments when I am near death.

I can feel it, each time I transition from the pod to the suit. My body, dying. My will to live, rising… and something very much like my powers, responding. It is hard to focus on through the pain, and only lasts for a few moments. The first time it happened, I barely noticed it, and was too distracted afterward to remember.

But in those few moments between being disconnected from my pod and connected to the suit, my body is beginning to heal itself.

It takes all of my willpower, not to reveal this information. Not to insist that we wait before putting the suit on next time, that I’m given a chance to heal myself and study the process. I cannot afford to give up such a secret. If I am ever to escape this prison, I must be able to take my captors by surprise in some way.

But that is the easy belief. Beneath it lies the deeper motivation: fear.

Each time the liquid drains from my cell, I fear the pain to come. Each time the glass rises, I wonder if they will put the suit on in time. If my last sight will be them rushing forward before the agony robs me of my senses.

It is a weakness in me, this fear. I will have to overcome it, or forever be a slave.


Wow. This one looks different.

Sabrina and I watch as the technicians remove the second iteration of the suit from its boxes. I can’t make out the finer details yet. How so?

Smaller. More refined. You’ll see.

The liquid from my cell begins to drain, and as it finishes I stand on both feet, unaided by my telekinesis. My body feels strong. Whole. An illusion of sorts, as the pain to come will demonstrate.

I can see the pieces more clearly now as the humans approach with them. Sabrina was right. This suit looks more angular, each piece about the same size, but more shaped. The helmet particularly is different. It doesn’t seem as though it covers my entire head, and there are two grooves in the top that appear to be there for my horns.

“Was this designed for me?” I type out.

“Yes,” Giovanni says. “It’s time to bring you outside this room, so you can meet the others in the facility. I thought you would wish to project a more refined image, than the bulky original allowed.”

“This will reveal more of me. That one made me look more human.”

“Your difference is not something to be hidden. You must take pride in your appearance, be comfortable with your uniqueness.”

The idea is familiar, from one of the books I read. “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” A good sentiment, from one human to another. Harder for an abnormal creature such as myself.

But perhaps they are right. And this new suit, it does look more like armor than anything.

Ready?

Ready.

The pain is bad as ever, though my awareness is more tenacious. Once again, I feel my body failing, and once again, I feel a response, deep within. I can just barely glimpse the workings of my body through my mental senses, before the armor is attached, the unique potion infusion resumes, and it’s once again lost.

This new suit, this armor, is heavier than the last, despite being more compact. But my body is stronger now, and I barely notice the weight. As the humans move away, there’s an expression on their faces that is hard to interpret. I don’t know that I’ve seen it in others before… not quite fear, not quite fascination. Something between.

Giovanni’s face, however, I can read: satisfaction. I’m tempted to ask for a mirror, but decide against it. I have not seen myself in ten years, since that first occasion.

You look very imposing.

I wonder if she picked up on my feelings, and refocus my mental mask. Is that desirable?

Perhaps? It’s impressive, to say the least.

Hm. I begin to walk, tail held out for balance. The armor does not chafe or hinder my movements at all, and I can lift my arms without the attached parts pulling against each other. “Good,” I type. “I am ready to leave.”

The room is silent. I have become so attuned to my body these past weeks that I can feel my pulse, my heart pounding in my chest. Will they let me go? Or is there some new obstruction?

But they are merely waiting for Giovanni’s signal, and when he nods, the guards at the door move aside. One presses keys on the pad, and after a few moments, the door opens.

I immediately move for the doorway, aware of my time limit. How far can I go, before the suit runs out? Can I reach the surface?

A small crowd follows, some technicians and researchers, doctors and guards, as well as Sabrina and Giovanni. Those in front lead the way through branching halls with doors. Mundane as it is, I find myself entranced. These are new parts of the facility that I have spent my whole life in, mere steps away. I must remember the layout.

Straight forward, then left along a curving wall, then right and straight through to another curve. This time the layout of the doors on either side looks familiar, and I stop following the guards ahead to approach one.

I ignore the others’ hesitation, their alarm. My focus is entirely on the door ahead of me, and who’s behind it. One arm rises, clad in its dark armor, and my fingers close in a fist that taps the door. I feel… apprehensive. How will they react? What should I say?

The door opens to reveal some living quarters, and a young man standing in the doorway. Gyokusho. He came to the facility just a few years ago, my newest comforter. I often enjoy inhabiting his mind as he draws, immersed in the soothing flow of creativity and focus.

He stares at me now in shock/fear. A glance to the others behind me seems to reassure him, and one hand rises to his messy dark hair, patting it down. “Hello, sir. Uh, everyone…” His gaze returns to me. “You. H-hello.”

My mind reaches out for my keyboard, then stops. I left it behind. I consider speaking into his thoughts directly, but do not want to further frighten him.

Sabrina.

Yes?

Please tell him… thank you. For his drawings. Tell him I enjoyed the fletchling-in-flight, very much.

She does so, and Gyokusho’s face turns an alarming shade of red. He bows, thanking me profusely. I bend my waist as well, tail lifting up for balance.

Curious, I extend my mind and enmesh it with his. Awe. That’s the emotion the others felt. Some fear, some surprise, some intimidation, combined into… awe. I connect deeper, until I can see through his eyes.

When I first saw myself, I looked monstrous. Deformed. Wrong.

When I see myself now, I look alien. Mysterious. Other.

Dangerous.

I pull back. Turn away. Walk on.

Another door, another knock. This comforter is Megan, who listens to sounds of the natural world and meditates. She is intimidated, unsure what to say. Sabrina conveys my thanks again, and I move on to the next, and the next.

It is so strange, to see them in person. I’ve spent so much time in their minds, yet each meeting is a reminder of how utterly unfamiliar they are with me.  How representative are they of the rest of the facility?

And why did Giovanni choose this design? Why give me a sinister appearance, rather than a friendly one?

I will ask him later. Perhaps I can discover it myself, and better learn how his mind works.

The last door. Eva. She’s nearing the end of her shift, about to get back to her research. When she comes to the door, she’s still thinking of the poetry she was reading.

Shock, fear, awe. Reassurance. The familiar pattern. And then…

“Mewtwo wants to express its gratitude, for the poems. It particularly enjoyed Wordsworth, and thanks you for directing its attention to him.”

Delight, and beaming, radiant happiness. “Oh! You’re quite welcome, Mewtwo! Wordsworth is particularly dear to me.” Memories, fleeting and bittersweet, of time spent with her late mother. “What was your favorite, from him?”

I consider a moment. Her answer is clear in her mind, Daffodils, but mine is different.

Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” Sabrina echoes.

Surprise, and sadness. “I see.” Eva musters her courage. “You favor the more melancholy poems, then? I hope you don’t identify too much with them.”

“I don’t believe I know that one,” Giovanni says, speaking for the first time. “Can you recite it for us?”

“Ah, well, it’s rather long,” Eva says, alarmed at being put on the spot by her boss.

This conversation is extending beyond what I planned, but I am unsure how to end it. Instead I simply bow to her, and walk away.

The others seem surprised, but they begin to follow, two moving quickly to stay in front of me. Eva waves goodbye, flustered and confused. I catch her final train of thought before withdrawing from her mind:

Ihopeyoucanenjoythehappieronesaswell…

The tour of the facility continues. I pay less attention to the people along the way, and focus on memorizing the layout, learning first-hand how to navigate its corridors and rooms, find stairs and elevators that lead ever upward. The elevators feel a bit like being trapped at first, but the feeling of motion dispels the fear.

Two floors. Three floors. Five. Seven. Each is larger, wider, than the last. Here is the cafeteria, where my name, Mewtwo, was first mentioned. There is Dr. Fuji’s old office, long since become Dr. Oswald’s. I walk on, drawing stares and whispers, push myself to move faster. My mind keeps going to the armor’s limits, how much time I have remaining.

Finally, we reach the eighth level. I can feel the gaping emptiness above, the funnel of minds below. It’s disorienting, as if the floor has moved below my feet. What would it be like to leave this place completely? To leave all these minds, my whole world, behind?

Suddenly the void above is terrifying. I stand at the last set of stairs and stretch my powers to their limits. Nothing. Not even pokemon. My chest feels tight. Breath short. Sudden thoughts, irrational. That this is the whole world, this lab. That all I’ve known is a simulation. That up these stairs, past the two guards waiting at the top, lies empty space, where I’ll float forever into oblivion.

Someone coughs. People shift in place, nervous. How long have I been standing here? I must move forward.

A hand wraps itself in mine, slim and warm. Five thin, tan fingers, fitting oddly around my sickly white paw, its three fingers thick and clumsy.

We shall go together.

Sabrina’s eyes are steady, patient. I nod, squeeze her hand, and climb.

At the top of the stairs there is a door. The guards open it, and pass through with their pokemon. We follow, and emerge in…

Another building. Different from the lab, with tiled floors and stone walls. “The mansion,” where many of the facility’s Dark staff live. It is rarely thought of by the others, just fleeting images and impressions in people’s minds as they pass through and into the lab. I look around at the spacious rooms and ornate halls, see others standing at balconies and in doorways. Guards or scientists or doctors from my room, who are off duty. Come to watch.

Sabrina tugs on my hand, leads me down the hall. I see…

Brightness.

Green and blue.

Windows. I cannot look away. Her hand tugs mine again, making me move, and I follow through doors…

So bright. The light is hot against the exposed parts of my skin, through the visor of my helmet.

The smells. Grass and sea salt. We are on a cliff by the ocean. The world is azure and navy and green and white.

This feeling against my skin. Wind. I step down stone stairs until soft blades of grass crush beneath my feet.

And the world is…

Everywhere.

Everywhere.

Everywhere.

It’s okay. I’m here.

My hand, squeezing Sabrina’s too hard. I cannot keep looking up, I cannot stop looking up. The sky is too big, Sabrina, it is too big, I will fall up into it, I will be lost, and she is crying, and squeezing my hand back as I keep staring up until I cannot see, the tears pour down my face beneath my helmet as I feel the wind and the sun and curl my toes in the grass below, above, the vaulted sky.


Time passes. I know not how much.


The suit is beeping. Someone speaks, saying I must return. Sabrina says nothing. Only holds my hand.

“We must go back, now, Mewtwo.” Giovanni’s voice now, so sure. So reasonable. “Or you will not be able to return to your pod on time.”

I cannot return. I cannot leave this place, this new world.

I know what I have to do. Lift myself, fly away. If the pokemon kill me, so be it. If the lack of medicine kills me, so be it. I will die free.

I begin to breathe harder. Sabrina says something in my mind, that we will be back again, soon. I know Giovanni watches, somewhere behind me. This new armor, this suit, what else is in it? Countermeasures? Poison, should I try to run? A way to track me, bring me back?

My body trembles. Muscles locked. Mind open. Powers spread. I must take off the armor. Fly away. No, fly away, then take off the armor mid-air. No, I need time to heal myself. Kill everyone first, bring down the building… I cannot get a grip on it, the walls are too strong to slip my mind around-

No, not that. It’s me. My will is not strong enough.

I don’t want to die.

“Mewtwo.”

Mazda…

I don’t want to die.


I am too weak.

I return.

Review: Under the Skin

Under the Skin, with Scarlett Johansson, got glowing reviews by /r/movies most of the times I saw it come up, and even by reviewers I generally trust, like YMS. I was pretty excited to go into it knowing as little as possible, as is my preferred custom. That means accepting  getting burned once in awhile, and unfortunately, this was one of those times. Under the Skin turned out to be one of the most boring and pointless movies I’ve ever seen.

Spoiler Free:

The main problem with Under the Skin is that it has no plot. By which I mean, the protagonist’s goal is completely opaque, there is no conflict or opposition to her actions, there is no antagonist, and there are no answers to any of the dozens of questions the viewer will be left with.

There is something that can loosely be described as a story, in that a series of events occur in chronological order, but it’s a series of events which, stripped of their weirdness, are about as engaging as watching someone go to the store to buy paint with which to paint their wall and watch it dry. That isn’t an exaggeration, by the way: some of the scenes in the movie are literally just the woman (none of the characters have names) doing completely mundane things, in excruciatingly slow detail, or staring contemplatively at scenery.

I’m not someone that can only be entertained by explosions and gunshots, fun as those can be. I often enjoy “thinking” stories, films or novels about themes rather than spectacle and dialogue rather than action. The problem is this movie has neither. The characters don’t even approach one dimensional, and the acting isn’t just non-memorable, but outright nonexistent at times. Staring blankly out a window, or asking people on the street for directions, is not acting by any definition I find useful.

The movie is often billed as a horror film, but that’s laughable. I love both cerebral horror and a good monster film when done well, but this couldn’t manage the appeal of either. Any sense of fear or dread was quickly drowned out by the mundanity of the majority of the film, and eventually the utter lack of any sensible plot or context for what was happening on screen. If it were a 30 minute art piece, it would be far more effective and engaging than the 108 minutes of suspenseless non-acting that I had to endure just so it could be billed as a “feature film.”

I’ve seen and heard people praise the movie on its directing or “vision,” but any comparisons to directors like Stanley Kubrik (which come up often) are, frankly, insulting. It clearly tries to mimic him in places, like the opening of the movie, but while its score is good and the imagery of certain scenes are memorable, a cinematic masterpiece this is not.

If I had to give it a rating, it just barely makes a 1/10 instead of a 0. 2/10 if I’m feeling generous, which, so close to the viewing, I’m not.

Spoileriffic:

Ok, so this movie is about an alien (supposedly, it’s not explained) who wears an attractive human skin to pick up men and take them back to a special house where she can trap them in some kind of water containment thing so they will eventually get their insides sucked out by… something.

Where she comes from, why she’s doing it, never get answered. That’s fine. There is occasionally a guy on a motorcycle who goes around cleaning up any evidence left behind by disappeared guys, or witnesses. Presumably he’s also an alien, but that’s also never explained. Also fine. There’s hints that there are more than just one of each of them, but no elaboration whatsoever on that point. Well and good.

The first 40 minutes of the film are just her going around the city, talking to guys, and leading 2 or 3 of them back to the house to watch them get naked and walk into a black pool of water, seemingly unaware that they’re even doing it. At no point is there any chance to get to know or empathize with any of them. At no point do they seem aware of the danger they’re in. It’s just exactly what it sounds like: ScarJo drives around, chats up dudes, and eventually finds an unattached one to drive back to her place. At one point she goes shopping, which we watch. At another point she listens to the radio, which briefly comments on something related to a disappearance she was involved in. Again, which we watch.

I want you to imagine all these things I’m describing, then add about 10 minutes of lingering camera shots on people milling around in the city, or the landscape, or ScarJo’s face, or whatever for each of them, because that’s, again, basically all that happens for roughly 40 minutes. One of the guys she encounters almost drowns trying to save someone at the beach, and she knocks him on the head with a rock and drags him away. This is the closest thing to unusual human interactions that we get for the first 40 minutes.

As someone expecting a story, you might think that at some point there will be dialogue between her and the motorcycle guy that gives you a better understanding of these strange beings and what they want, or how they feel about… anything. You’d be wrong. You might expect the police to eventually take notice, some kind of effort by others to find out who she is and what she’s doing. Nothing of the sort occurs.

Instead, after being treated to one of the few visually memorable scenes in the movie, where one of the trapped men watches another of the previously trapped men get his insides sucked out (by nothing visible, they’re just hanging in suspended liquid) and reduced to a floating skin-suit, finally something different happens. She picks up a guy with a very blatant physical deformity of the face: think Elephant Man. She has more interaction with him than any previous marks, but that just means that the movie spends an extra two minutes on her convincing him to go with her before she succeeds.

It seems she has a change of heart though, because after leading him into the black room as normal, we then see her stare at herself in the mirror and let the man go. As for why, that’s never explained, because the creators of the film had delusions of artistic grandeur, I guess.

So she lets him run home naked (it’s mentioned that it was a 30 minute drive to get there, but apparently he ran all the way home naked in an eyeblink) and drives off somewhere. The motorcycle guy gets to his house just as he arrives and kills him and stuffs him in a trunk, just to make sure nothing interesting happens in the movie. An old lady watches it happen, and the motorcycle guy seems to notice her noticing it, but that never gets revisited either, because again, that would lead the movie into having a plot.

ScarJo appears to have developed a conscience, because instead of picking up more men, she just… wanders around. A lot. First she drives aimlessly, then she walks aimlessly, then she takes the bus aimlessly. Seriously, this goes on for like 10 minutes. Oh she also falls down once while walking on the sidewalk. Some people help her up. She keeps walking.

It’s all extremely tedious, but finally she meets a man who asks her if she’s okay and needs help. He takes her to his place, makes her some food, takes her sightseeing, and eventually they have sex.

(By the way, this whole time, we’re treated to quick scenes of the motorcycle guys looking for her. Spoiler alert: they never find her. I managed to be amused by these scenes after imagining that each time they were shown, the motorcycle guys were in some other country, just becoming more and more frustrated by their utter inability to find someone by simply… you know… driving around randomly and eyeballing the scenery)

Except they don’t actually have sex, because apparently she doesn’t have a fully working anatomy, which seems as much a surprise to her as him. This is seriously the only moment in the entire movie where ScarJo does anything remotely resembling acting, rather than just looking vaguely sad, blankly emotionless, or putting on a polite smile while picking up men.

And yet again, instead of something interesting happening, like him exclaiming “WTF?” and the two getting into a conversation about what she is and so on, she just runs away into the woods, wanders around for another goddamn 10 minutes, and gets assaulted by some rapist woodsman. He pulls some of her “skin” off, then runs away in fright. She takes off the rest of her skin, including her face, and you see the alien beneath: basically a humanoid with chrome-black skin and no distinct features. The woodsman comes back with a can of gasoline. He pours some on her, then lights her on fire. She runs a bit, falls over, and burns up. The camera pans up to the sky as the smoke goes up, and the movie ends.

If that sounds remotely interesting or entertaining to you, I would like to do my best to assure you, again, that it’s not. I know it sounds like it might be unique or interesting, but again, each of those scenes I just mentioned? Imagine 10 minutes of ScarJo looking at herself in the mirror, or staring at a piece of cake, or walking down the street, or going grocery shopping, or walking down some castle stairs. In any other movie I would call it mood setting, but in this one the only mood it sets is one of absolute boredom.

If you’re one of those people who watched it and enjoyed it though, kudos. Seriously, I’m happy for you. After the 10 years of development that apparently went into it, it would be an even greater tragedy if no one did.