All posts by Damon Sasi

Chapter 87: Ghost Town

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But none of that is why Red is here today.

“Good evening, Sensei.

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

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

“You said it was important?”

So much for small talk. Or any other kind of talk. It’s fair enough, he wouldn’t have been able to get this audience just to chat.

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

“What I think?”

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a minimal excuse. You and your friends nearly died, and you used your psychic abilities to save many lives. If I haven’t already made it clear, I should have let you know that I’m proud to call you my student.”

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

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

Again, there’s something in her tone…

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

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

We probably won’t get a smoother segue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me about it?”

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

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

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

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

“And then you focused on it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

And then the memories come.

Memories of what really happened under the Casino that night.

Fear to panic, as Glen was knocked unconscious.

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

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

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

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

To murder him.

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saved all their lives.

And maybe doomed psychics everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red closes his eyes and lets himself follow the thought.

Maybe he should reveal what he can do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sooner or later, it will all come tumbling down.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m alright, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe Sensei can—”

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

“Ah.” Red says, then, “Shit.”

“I’m sorry, you don’t have to—”

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

Jason meets his gaze. “Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…I suppose not. Alright, I will.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cool. Tell her I said hi, gotta go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…the astral realm…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Red!”

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

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

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

“Wow. Is that a new record?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well—”

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

“If we—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leaf joins Red and Jason in Saffron a couple days later, and they have lunch at a restaurant on the eastern edge of the city while they wait for Blue and his group to arrive. Once they do, Red sees only one other familiar face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Field test?” Leaf grins.

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

“I know.”

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

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

“Safe,” Jason offers.

“Stable,” Jean suggests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is… reassuring.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Red.”

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

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

“You can tell?” Red asks, surprised.

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

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

“Hi, Maria. Want to join us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes widen. “How do you know?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

“It wasn’t,” he grumbles. “Riding on pokemon is overrated.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the (actual) Origin of Species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 86: Interlude XVII – The Needs of the Few

No, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quite a few.” Agent Looker tucks his hands into the pockets of his long tan duster. “For one thing it makes the opposition sweat.”

“And that’s preferable to making them think the investigation is closed?”

“They’ll know it’s not. An organization like this has to have sources in any major law enforcement units to operate.”

Erika glances at the Chief, who purses her lips but doesn’t gainsay him. “So you make them worry. What then?”

“We watch. We listen. We feel for…” His hands rise, fingers strumming the air. “Vibrations on the web.”

Erika crosses her arms, hands slipping through opposite sleeves. Such vague words invite further comment, but she’s learned the value of speaking with simple expressions.

Eventually he drops his arms and gives a crooked smile. “I’m afraid I can’t be more specific, Leader. Information security. But your Champion has been informed, and already approved.”

That makes her heart pound, but there’s no use making a scene about it here. “Understood. What will you be needing from me, then?”

“For now very little. Most of our work will be assisted by the police as we scan the city for any other hidden underground structures, and the mayor is already requesting cooperation from local businesses and organizations. Anything you can do on that front would be appreciated, but the main help would come from any trainers you can spare to join our search parties. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and a shortage of competent trainers. Plus, your people are known. Reassuring. Trusted.”

A win win. It raises her esteem of him, that he’s offering such a simple goodwill gesture without attempting to dress it up. Her status in the city has already been damaged enough by this, and anything that makes her gym more present in resolving it can only help… unless it’s badly bungled.

Which puts her in a bit of a difficult position, unfortunately.

“I’ll see what I can do,” is all she says, and inclines her head to both the Agent and Chief before turning for the door.

“You don’t, by the way.” Erika pauses and looks to her side, raising a brow and resorting to silence once again until Looker clarifies. “Want the truth as much as I do. I’ve been tracking interregional renegade movement for over a decade, trying to dig deep enough to tear the whole system out by the roots. You would be satisfied with making sure your city or region is clean, and I understand why. But I won’t be. Not without hard evidence that the Casino is as far as it goes.”

Erika meets his gaze, realizing that she’s been wrong to categorize him as just another police officer, interested in doing their job well at best and taking the presumption of righteousness for granted at worst. She has little patience for virtue signaling, but can at least respect someone who wants to competently get their job done.

Looker is doing neither. He’s a True Believer, doing what he believes needs to be done for the greater good.

Which makes him dangerous.

“This is my city,” she says, voice hard as she can make it. “It’s my responsibility to ensure that its people and organizations are prepared for expected pokemon and renegade attacks, not impossible to disprove hypothetical ones.”

“I appreciate that, Leader, and intend to fully coordinate with you,” Looker responds, and his cheerful demeanor doesn’t fade a bit as his eyes turn hard. “But if I have reason to believe there are more Renegades hiding in your city, I’ll look behind every poster on every wall in this city to find them.”

Erika considers him for another moment, then simply nods and leaves. She could have mentioned the restrictions of the mandate, but the truth is they’re flexible enough with probable cause that he probably could barge into people’s houses and check for secret staircases. Especially if he has Lance’s approval.

Which means…

She leaves the police apartment and goes immediately to the waiting car, sitting in the backseat and directing the driver back to their gym. Along the way she puts up the privacy barrier, then calls the Champion’s direct number. He answers after just two rings with a “Yes?”

“I just spoke with Agent Looker,” she says, voice calm. The lack of niceties would normally communicate her anger clearly enough, but these were unusual times, and the no-nonsense attitude on both sides could just be the result of their endlessly busy days.

“Times are changing, Erika.” Lance’s voice is just as clear and calm, but she detects the note of tiredness beneath it. “What happened in Hoenn showed that our system isn’t working, and what it revealed in Celadon showed it could just as easily have been Kanto. There’s no argument I could imagine you making that would change my mind. I know it happened in your city, but we need to treat this as a regional threat.”

“None of which explains why you didn’t at least warn me.”

“I only spoke with him a couple hours ago, and didn’t realize you were meeting him today. I was going to reach out tonight.” His voice is stiff, which is one of the only tells the dragon master has… in this case, a tell that he’s very close to pulling rank. “I’m sorry, but it was simple bad timing. No slight was intended.”

She briefly considers pushing it, then decides to save the loss. “Understood,” she says, blowing her breath out. “Apologies if I implied bad faith.”

“Don’t worry about it. We all want what’s best for the region. We can speak more about this tonight, if you want.”

“Tonight,” she agrees, and ends the call.

After a moment she sighs and calls Giovanni. He answers after just one ring.

“Yes.” Voice flat, clearly busy, but recognizing that she wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important.

“We have a problem.”


It took three weeks for the gym to be brought back to about 70% of how it looked before the quakes and torrential rain loosened soil, flooded gardens and dislodged trees. There were far more important cleanup projects around the city that took priority, and so Erika never announced any official organized cleaning efforts, but part of what she’s instilled in the community she built here is a care in their shared spaces. She’s seen both Gym members and visiting trainers help the gardening staff clear or repair the damage in their free time, and it has filled her with both pride and a sense of peace.

These are her people. This is what she fights for.

As she walks through the gym now, her gaze is drawn not to the remaining bare patches of soil where things have yet to be replanted, nor the submerged benches at the edges of various ponds that seem to just be permanently larger now, but the bigger projects, such as a gazebo on a dock that sank when one of its supports cracked, and a tree that fell into a bush-lined walkway; someone has cut a path through the trunk, but both halves are still on either side. She briefly considers ways she might incorporate it into the design of the area; no matter how strong the sense of wanting to return to “normal” is, perhaps it would be better not to completely erase signs of the cataclysm.

It certainly left its mark on her Gym in other ways.

She passes by more and more groups of people sitting and discussing things in large groups, some in gazebos, others around benches, others just gathered on patches of grass. When she reaches the desk at her central gazebo she thinks over her mood, then selects Dew to keep her company, summoning the bellsprout from her belt.

She smiles as its vines curl and uncurl, head bobbing around in a lazy roll as it looks for something to climb. It stops as its eyes find her, and she extends a hand for it to wrap itself around. It’s hard not to giggle and squirm as it shimmies its way up her arm and onto her shoulder, and she takes a deep breath of its pleasant, clean scent, specially cultivated to be more of an anti-scent than anything. Sometimes the smells of the gym can be a bit overwhelming, and Dew lets her breathe without smelling anything but clean, slightly more humid than usual air, like the air after a rainstorm.

Once she sits she spends some time just observing the gym around her, watching those within sight. There are no arenas near her gazebo to maintain a relaxing atmosphere, and most of the damage to this area has been repaired, which is probably why so many people are meeting nearby. As she watches them she starts composing a list of names to put on the renegade hunting taskforce. Giovanni assured her that while there are other operations in the city which he needs to keep private (and thus uninvestigated), there are no other renegades in her city under his employ… and yet.

She allowed the ones in the casino’s subbasement because Giovanni insisted that they were trained, trusted professionals, not rabid killers, and he insisted they were needed in case Silph sent his own. Then they started killing people who fell during the earthquake, and while she understands the reasoning that likely led to that, she was still furious with Giovanni for weeks, and demanded both the promise and a weregild to help the families.

If he lied, he has no room to complain if she finds out. But she should still try to ensure that none of the other illegal activities he’s been engaged in are discovered, which makes it difficult to find the right sort of people to put on the job.

After a few minutes of work, Erika spots Blue Oak moving from one group to another, tapping into a pad as he listens to each, often saying something brief in return before he moves on to the next. It took him a week to get out of the hospital and through enough physical therapy to walk without crutches, and he spent all of it organizing things virtually, his travel companions moving to and from him like combee around a hive.

She was skeptical, at first. Giovanni’s public address wasn’t particularly surprising coming from someone so good at shaping his image and wielding his unique status in imaginative ways, and she made the mistake of seeing it as a simple way to both reassure people and elevate his social power in the uncertainty following the cataclysm. She even did something similar, if on a smaller scale, during her speech on the interregional day of mourning that was organized, where each city and town held a mass funeral for everyone lost, all on the same day.

And maybe it would have stayed that way, if not for Blue Oak, who lit his torch at the pyre Giovanni built and ran with it, spreading it far and wide. Within days the call to action had something concrete for people to think about, had infrastructure that people could tap and contribute to.

Maybe other Leaders would be upset about their gyms shifting to focus so much on something other than pokemon battles, but she’s never been afraid to let her people branch out in interests, and it seems to her a perfect opportunity for the gym to show its unique value. She didn’t even have to order anyone to do anything, just nudged the formation of a central group focused on breaking the overall issue of existential threats down into smaller, easier to understand and digest problems that the other groups could work on finding tasks the common trainer, scientist, or even citizen could contribute to. She participated directly for a week, then handed it off to others once her gym duties needed her attention again.

Blue swore that he hadn’t coordinated with Giovanni ahead of time, and Giovanni corroborated that, and Erika still isn’t sure she would believe them if the catalyst wasn’t so obviously unexpected. And of course if Blue hadn’t been unconscious at the time. Still, it’s put her into a difficult position.

Giovanni Sakaki is a black hole of status. Even more than other ex-Champion leaders of the Indigo League, he doesn’t just suck respect and attention in, he wields what he has at least as well as she does. She’s avoided interacting with him as much as possible in public not just to minimize associations that might form between them if his plans go awry, as they recently have, but also to not be dragged along in his cultural wake. Cooperation is easier than competition as long as they stay in their own domains.

But when his domain has become “leader of the fight against global existential risks,” all other domains start to feel like subdomains. Her only choice, in view of the inevitable, was to try and ride the wave and make her gym, with the unique combination of culture and minds she’s cultivated here, a major power.

And it’s working. They’re gaining traction, growing more organized, and putting out videos and articles that people are paying attention to, important people. Even if she wanted to guide or pivot things in another direction, she would fail.

And she doesn’t want to. After seeing the threat so clearly, seeing Giovanni’s worries justified, and seeing what’s being done in response, the potential good her gym can accomplish, she feels gratitude that all that she’s worked to build has found a project worthy of it. That her people can make a difference.

She wonders, sometimes, if this is how the old warlords felt when they bent the knee to a superior daimyō. The feeling is much more positive, almost freeing, than she expected, given how much she worried about it happening when they formed their partnership years before she was even Leader.

A blonde girl in a dark blue kimono arrives with a datapad in one hand and a balanced platter of tea and biscuits in the other. Her kimono patterns signal that she’s Feeling Female Today and that she’s Open to Selfish Bisexual Encounters and Looking For Help On Various Tasks and is Not To Be Disturbed Unless For Serious Issues. Those last two have been pretty common among the gym’s administration, and Erika briefly wonders if they’re getting redundant at this point, but no, they’ve been useful as separate signals in the past. This has just been an unusual situation.

“Afternoon, Leader. Allowed to murder renegade yet?”

“Not today, Diana.” Her Second was always blunt, but in the past few weeks she’s dropped what few social pretenses she adopted for others’ sake. Lack of extra spoons, maybe. “Reports from Beta and Epsa?”

“Beta working with Pewter now,” Diana says as she puts the platter down. “Set up quadrants, organized survey teams. Beta-1, biggest subgroup, focusing on Titans. Beta-2 and 3, Beast and Bird origins.”

“Indigo specific?”

“No, new caution, every region.” She shrugs. “Low likelihood, low cost.”

Erika nods. “Epsa?”

“New partners, deusbiologists studying Groudon and Kyogre’s remains. Free labor, crowdsourced research assistance.”

Erika smiles and pours herself tea, then takes a sugar cube and holds it up to pop in Dew’s open bulb. “That was fast.” It had been her idea. She holds the pot up toward Diana, but her Second shakes her head and Erika puts it down, then selects a dark chocolate almond biscotti to dip into the steaming amber liquid. “I don’t recognize that group by the fountain.”

“New, informal. Calling it Eleven, mentally. Breaks naming pattern, but eleventh group and eleven members.” She shrugs. “Headed by four of Sabrina’s students, rest are psychics and researchers.”

“Studying the unown?”

“And ruins. Contacting archaeologists, explorers, mythologists, searching for connections. New unown sightings, higher frequency, new locations, coincidence?” She snorts. “Sky Pillar.”

Erika nods. One of many new curiosities that she’d let mostly pass under her radar, with so much else to focus on, but even she caught a glimpse of them once while surveying the damage to the city from the Celadon department store, six unown flying across the sky in a barely visible string of random (to her, at least) characters. “Have they reached out to the boy from Hoenn?”

“No responses. Avoiding limelight.”

“Maybe I can reach out to Wallace.” She searches the group more closely for a red hat while she takes another bite of her biscotti. “Is Mr. Verres with them?”

“Not today, comes often. Why?”

“I need a group to help find any Renegades in the city.” She finally bites into the soaked biscotti, letting the hot liquid and dissolved biscuit slide down her tongue. “I want him to be on it.”

She remembers seeing him for the first time, years ago in Pallet Town during a trip to Professor Oak’s house; a boy with a mess of black hair and startling red eyes, playing with Blue and a couple other friends in the front yard. She wasn’t a Leader then, and he probably doesn’t remember even meeting her back then, as she spent most of the time talking with Daisy and Sam.

But she remembered those eyes, when she saw them again during the press release his group gave with the Abra sale. It was a surprise when he came into the cafe in Vermilion after the Zapdos attack, where he asked Sabrina to be her student. It impressed her, the way he spoke so confidently among a group of the most important people in the region, with just a brief stumble upon seeing them all so unexpectedly.

“Young.” Diana doesn’t sound skeptical so much as thoughtful. “Hero at the Casino, yes, but not a detective. Not even symbolic, like the girls.”

The ceremony honoring the heroes of that day was a spot of brightness for the city after a week of gloom. She’d been the one to suggest it to the mayor, who was happy to stand on a stage and hang medals around the necks of a couple dozen citizens and visitors to the city who’d gone above and beyond, that day.

All three girls from the casino had to be convinced to be there, especially after Mr. Verres insisted that he not. They objected that if he didn’t deserve praise none of them did, but he’d pointed out that someone had to take credit for the Renegades’ defeat and plenty already know they were directly involved, while publicizing his role in the story would just tip other Renegades off to how nearby psychics might forewarn their victims.

Personally Erika believes there’s some element of self-preservation in the boy’s decision. While there’s a chance that he’s actually just that modest, his argument didn’t strike her as entirely reasonable, and her impression at the time was that he was hiding something. She certainly can’t blame something like shyness or stagefright, particularly compared to the girl with the hat who stood visibly trembling on as the mayor handed her a second medal for her friend in the hospital.

“He knows what a renegade pokemon feels like, psychically. If he’s willing to at least try to teach some others, it could be helpful. Invite him to tea, won’t you?”

“Sure. First, Blue Oak.”

Erika’s brow rises as she dips her biscotti in the tea again. “Why? Do you think he’d ask his permission?”

“No, unrelated. Blue requested. Wouldn’t say why, guessing restless, got what he needs here. Challenge likely.”

The Leader blinks, biscotti soaking for longer than intended as she stares at her Second. “What do you mean? He’s helping coordinate—”

Diana shrugs, not waiting for her to finish speaking. “Ball in motion, can delegate online, still get badges.”

Erika frowns at her Second, who merely raises a challenging brow back until Erika sighs. That never worked on Diana, no reason to expect it to start now just because of a fancy title. “When he arrived he said he didn’t want special treatment, and I said I still wouldn’t let him fight you or Mary. Maybe I can change my mind, insist on it, as part of restoring the sense of normalcy.” Not many Challenge matches have been happening lately. She expected to grow a backlog due to how busy she would be, but few people have even extended Challenge over the past few weeks, and none have reached Erika. “There would be some impact to being the first to get his badge, if that’s what he’s envisioning, but… the ‘Gym Advisor’ role is working better than he or I envisioned, given everything. How sure are you that he’s planning to leave?”

“Plans changed. Friend better, headaches, but can travel. New project good, more important than gym prestige, but badges still needed for Champion.”

All of this is true, and it takes Erika a moment to realize why she needed Diana to tell her this, why it bothers her to think about it. If Blue leaves, it would be a sign that the status he hoped to gain through staying isn’t important to him anymore… which means her status isn’t as important anymore, not just in relation to him but as part of a wider shift. The month he spent here is no different from Pewter or Cerulean, and less than Vermilion.

Combined with the way Agent Looker is undermining her role in the city, it’s a harsh sting to recognize that her influence may be shrinking faster than it’s growing.

“Can he be convinced to stay?”

“Doubtful. Strong willed, smart, knows own worth.” Another shrug. “Best bet is to beat him in the Challenge.”

Erika slowly nods, causing Dew to wobble and shift its grip around her neck. She gently adjusts a vine to be more comfortable. “Alright, I’ll speak to him first, then. Thank you, Diana.”

Diana nods, and reaches forward to give Erika’s upper body a hug. Erika smiles and returns it, appreciating the simple contact for a few brief moments, and then Diana leaves her to read through her message backlog, including one from her Third. Mary is out in the field with a small group of gym members to help some local Rangers clear out a slugma hive that randomly appeared to the west of the city after the earthquakes. Yet another fire to put out (literally in some cases), taking time away from getting things back to normal, and if they’re a permanent addition to the local ecology there will be years of adaptation ahead. Plus, an extra wild Fire type around the city will make it that much easier for challengers coming to her gym.

She takes more time than she probably should responding to Mary’s message, wanting to ensure she expresses her appreciation and offer any extra resources needed in a way that doesn’t come off as perfunctory. Of all the people she’s befriended in life, she appreciates her Third even more than Diana. Without her, there would be no way Erika could make this gym what she wanted it to be, could spend so much time doing so many different things. Too much of her time would be spent training, keeping her pokemon strong and her skills as sharp as they were when she defeated the previous Leader.

It’s easy enough to battle most Challengers, but in any true trainer battle, Mary is by far her superior. She thankfully has no interest in being Leader, and no ambition to become Champion, and so serves their Gym by defending Erika’s title and stopping anyone who might sense weakness in a Leader who spends so much time on things like gardening and try to take the gym for themselves.

It’s a stupid system, when you boil it down, and why she was at first skeptical of Giovanni’s proposal that she take over the Celadon Gym. Being a Gym Leader was never an aspiration of hers, but she had to admit that the ability to shape her own community was attractive, and Giovanni pointed out the way she could make it work for her and her friends by playing to their strengths. She wears the title of Leader because it suits her, but in truth she’s simply the first among equals, with Diana and Mary happy to handle their niche responsibilities while she handles hers.

It also helps in situations like this. If she can get Mary to beat Blue before he Challenges her…

But no. If he’s beaten by her Third, it would be a blow to his status, and without any particular upside gain if he wins. With both her status and the effectiveness of Giovanni’s plan in some measure tied to the young Oak’s successes, she has to be careful how she handles this.

After the message is sent, she takes two video calls at her desk, one mediating a conflict in scheduling between her gym members and another negotiating a bulk order purchase with Silph’s Celadon representative, and she’s on her third cup of tea before Blue approaches the gazebo. As he does so he lets out a whistle, and his pidgeotto flies down from wherever it was soaring overhead to land on the gauntlet he wears on one arm. He takes a moment to stroke his pokemon, who already looks too big for his arm to hold up comfortably, then withdraws it and joins her.

Blue seems to be going through a growth spurt, gaining an inch every time she doesn’t see him up close for longer than a week. He stopped favoring his left side shortly after he gave up the crutches, and now moves confidently up the stairs of the gazebo and into the bench as close to across from her as he can get. “Afternoon, Leader.”

She returns his respectful nod before offering him tea, which he accepts, and the sweet platter, which is accepted with a bit more interest. She studies him a moment as he looks over his options, then selects one. “Diana said you wanted to speak with me, which is perfect timing, as there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.” He gives her a curious look as he bites into a tea-soaked chocolate biscuit, and she sips her own tea, gaze on his. “Isn’t it about time you moved on?”

Blue freezes mid-chew, and she just smiles and waits for him to continue chewing, swallow, sip.

“Is it?” he eventually asks. “I know it’s not what we originally planned, before.” Before. “But I think we’re doing a lot of good, here.”

“You are, and it’s been wonderful to see it happen. But be honest: you have even less of an interest in applying for membership than you did before you arrived. Am I right?”

Blue hesitates a moment, then nods.

“And are there any further changes you want to see done? Novel changes,” she says as he starts to speak. “Not tweaks, and not things that would likely develop without you, now that you’ve gotten the stone rolling.”

“No,” he admits. “Honestly, you’re right. I’ve been thinking more and more that we should move on and start getting other gyms more directly involved in the kinds of things we’ve been doing here. I was able to loop in some of Vermilion because I still have friends there and some of Saffron thanks to Red, but being at a gym in person would make it much easier to really get them involved.”

“And now that your friend Glen is better, it’s time to start the Challenges.”

“Yeah. That’s actually what I wanted to speak to you about in the first place.” He smiles. “Guess I didn’t realize how obvious it would be, from your perspective.”

Erika smiles. “Or perhaps it’s just the position of my seat.” She gestures to encompass her view of the garden, the gym, as a whole, and watches him carefully.

“Yeah, maybe…” He trails off, then his eyes narrow.

Erika innocently sips her tea.

“I came ready to defend a Mastery Challenge. It feels like the time is right, but I figured you might need convincing. Now it’s like… even though you said the time is right, I feel like I still need to convince you. Or… I want you to convince me.” Blue shakes his head, smiling. “How did you do that? Just by making it seem like I’ve been dragging my feet? Yeah, some of that, and showing that you don’t need me here, or like, it’s totally fine for me to go… damn. I almost missed it.”

It’s nice, having such an apt student. “I’ve been too busy, unfortunately, to be able to claim full credit for seeing this coming. Diana had to point out that you were probably moving on soon. If it were up to me you’d stay longer.” It was hard to admit things like that, the first few times. Hard to peel back the curtain, show vulnerability in a way that would reduce his esteem for her. It’s gotten easier as she’s seen the fruits of it, seen him learn and grow to be better at spotting it himself, and thus she gained a different sort of esteem, a more unique one that she’s had with few others, particularly outside her Gym. Which of course was the point from the beginning.

Blue bows his head, looking both proud and grateful. “Thanks. I have to admit, I don’t think it’ll be as easy, elsewhere. Your gym culture is really well suited to what we’ve been doing… I’m glad I was here to do it with the ‘training wheels’ on first. I’ll miss this place.”

“That seems rather optimistic of you.” Blue blinks, and she sips her tea. “I suppose you can leave with or without a badge.”

“But… you said—”

“I admitted you would likely benefit from moving on. Personally, I wouldn’t mind keeping you here longer.” She grins. “You don’t think I’m going to just let you win, do you? “

Blue looks surprised for another moment, then grins back. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He eyes her over the rim of his own tea cup, swallowing it down like it’s soda. Once he’s done he sets it down and leans forward onto his crossed arms. “Does that mean you’re going to try to slow me down? Make me run the gauntlet?”

“What do you think?”

He considers the question and she lets him, finishing her biscotti and pouring herself a second cup of tea while she reads an email from a nearby Ranger outpost asking for assistance with a sweep of some fields to the Southeast.

“No,” he says at last. “What you originally said when I arrived still holds. It makes us both look better, if I just fight you.”

“And what of your original concerns, about not appearing privileged? Pulling ahead of your group?”

He sighs. “Too much has changed. I’m not the brightest light around anymore, and we’ve picked up more people. I’m not sure it even makes sense to wait for everyone to get their badge now, not when it might take months for so many Challenge matches to even take place.”

Erika nods. “Then make your final preparations, and I’ll schedule our match for the day after tomorrow.”


The central stadium was a difficult decision.

All the smaller ones were easier to just make simple lines in the dirt or grass. Pokemon battles are far too destructive to the landscape (especially when expecting Flying, Fire, Ice, and Poison pokemon to feature prominently) to put too much effort into keeping the arenas aesthetically pleasing.

But for Challenge matches, which get recorded and televised, which are often all that anyone outside the Gym will see of it, the first impression is too important to ignore. Her competition isn’t stiff, since of all the Kanto leaders only Misty really leans into any form of showmanship, but even if everyone’s arena was as boring and straightforward as Surge’s, she would still want hers to stand out.

The compromise she ultimately reached was to play into the obvious, highlight it and make it part of the aesthetic. The arena itself is a bare patch of round dirt, its only artistic flourish the red and white flowers that respectively outline the top and bottom halves, easy to replant before each match. Just around it is simple grass for ten meters, cut to a precise square that starkly frames the arena, and on its edges is where the real decorations start. Chrysanthemums grow in practically every color, and so she had them planted in a cycling red, orange, yellow green, blue, violet pattern. With her rainbow badge thus represented on the field, and a reasonable distance around the arena now filled, the next layer contrasts back to a more uniform color palette as eight large topiary sawsbuck form the regal “walls” of the open air arena.

The actual “walls” are the stone tiles that surround the whole thing in three layers, creating a rather wide buffer between the arena and the rest of the gym. Beyond its aesthetic value, this is the final barrier to ensure any fires that don’t get contained at least won’t spread to the rest of the gym.

Their colors change with the seasons, naturally, but this year winter seems to be exceptionally late due to whatever the weather gods did, which is why her gym is still so colorful. As the announcer finishes introducing her and Blue, she begins walking past the border of red and orange and brown, making the arena feel as warm and cozy as a 40×40 meter outdoor space could.

It’s good weather for a battle. Brisk without being cold, with the sun unobscured to warm the skin. Much as she loves her kimonos, the sleeves are too long and voluminous for pokemon battles, and they’re not great for running. Instead she wears an emerald blouse, fitted earth-tone cargo pants, and five balls on her belt. Her fingers trail over them as she walks to her platform in the arena.

Cradily, Grass Rotom, Ludicolo, Ferrothorn, Vileplume. Pokemon that can handle all of Grass’s weaknesses, so long as they’re deployed correctly. The pre-battle speeches were rehearsed, but of the fight itself, nothing was offered nor asked. It would be a true test of will and wits and skill, and her pulse quickens as she realizes how much she wants to win.

It’s been a long time since she cared so much about a single battle.

Their audience only adds to the pressure. The stands beyond the outer edges are packed as the city turns out for its first Challenge match in weeks. She raised the prices to double what they were before and they still sold out in hours.

Part of that of course might be the identity of the challenger. Blue Oak’s following, already higher than almost any other trainer in Kanto after the experiments in Vermilion Gym, has grown to rival actual Leaders’ since he spearheaded the #WhatComesNext movement. As they both approach their platforms and she gets close enough to make out his expression, she tunes her earpiece to the private channel and says, “You look too solemn. Relax by about half.”

His expression eases into a calmer one. “Thanks.”

“Of course.” She switches to the public channel. “People of Celadon. Friends and guests. It’s been a month since our world was changed, and we are all trying, together and apart, to find our place in this new one. To resume the work we did before, or find new ways to help each other. To prepare for the challenges ahead.

“By now, the name Blue Oak should be known across the region. It is no mistake that I decided to resume Challenge matches with his, though his was one of many interrupted by the cataclysm.” An easy lie, to help unruffle any feathers by those who have been waiting all this time. “And it’s no mistake that I am the first trainer he will officially face in my Gym, though he has already battled many of them, winning against most. Blue Oak’s journey is a special one, and there is little point at this juncture to deny it. He has been privileged in many ways since he began his travels, and before, but I challenge anyone to deny that he has earned more than he was given, and given yet more to others.”

Blue stands with his hands on his belt, face calm. She studies him a moment, mostly for effect. “And so I chose, when he arrived at my Gym, to put him in a position of influence. Not unearned power, nor exclusive benefits. Simply my ear, so that I could judge for myself the value of his vision, his thoughts, his goals. And what I’ve seen, what everyone has seen, is someone who will not rest until humanity is ready for what comes next.”

He hadn’t needed to prod her to include that phrase, and even knowing it was coming, she can see the pride in his bearing, much as he tries to suppress it. “To that end, I chose to help him rather than hinder him, and now I am glad to test him. If he is worthy, he will bear my gym’s badge and its lessons into the world beyond, and like a seed on the wind, plant our values far and wide. Blue Oak, what is your Challenge?”

“I challenge for Mastery.”

“Celadon Gym accepts. Defeat my five pokemon, and the Rainbow Badge will be yours.”

Erika pulls on her facemask, then rests her hands on her pokeballs. Across from her, Blue does the same. “Ready,” she intones, feeling her pulse in her throat. “Set. Go, Ferrothorn!”

“Go Shim—Go, Sunny!”

“Spikes!”

Her pokemon materializes with enough of a lead on his that the attack completes just as the houndoom appears, causing it to flinch as her ferrothorn whips shards of metal onto Blue’s side of the field.

She finds herself grinning, and not just at the early advantage. He named his houndoom Sunny? “Return!” she shouts just as Blue yells “Taf!”

“Go, Ludicolo! Water gun!”

The Grass/Water pokemon appears just in time to take the flamethrower, shaking it off with a spin of its body and returning a jet of water that the houndoom nimbly dodges… only to yelp as it steps on a shard of metal.

“Return, go Zephyr! Wawb!”

“Ice Beam!’

Blue’s command set the pidgeotto’s wings to flap hard, but not toward its opponent; instead the gust of wind scatters the metal shards away from most of the field before her beam hits, and Blue quickly swaps his pokemon out for a breloom. Erika is already impressed; the pidgeotto family don’t easily learn how to use whirlwinds to clear hazards, and it means that her usual status-heavy strategies are going to be less effective.

“Gon, Pam!” The breloom springs forward in a blur, its Mach Punch connecting just as it’s hit with Ludicolo’s second Ice Beam, and then Blue yells “Dam!” and his pokemon begins a Mega Drain to heal itself.

The first note of worry undermines Erika’s confidence. Grass has five weaknesses, and Fighting isn’t one of them; Blue brought the breloom as a pivot, something to counter whatever gives him trouble on even ground, as it would be immune to most Grass types’ nastier tricks. This is a pokemon she needs to take down, but her only pokemon that can resist its Fighting attacks is Vileplume, and breloom are infamously, almost uniquely, difficult to poison for a non-Poison or Steel type; many can even metabolize it, and use it to heal themselves.

Acid would still be effective, but he likely has his own poison pokemon to swap into. Instead she makes a snap decision in the other direction. “Return! Go, Ferrothorn!”

“Gon, pam!”

She expected him to switch to a Fire type, and stops herself from ordering it to use Spikes again. Even if he clears it retrapping his field would be a good way to punish him for swapping, but any extra attacks could cost her this trade. The breloom’s attack clearly hurt Ferrothorn, but an “Ingrain!” causes her pokemon to send roots out and begin to heal itself.

“Paf!”

The sound of the force palm hitting ferrothorn resounds through the air. An “Iron Head!” slams its body into the breloom as well, though the blow clearly disoriented it. Blue’s pokemon is strong, and she knows she picked right in not trying to poison it.

As the powerful blows dent her pokemon’s metallic shell, its thorns leave the breloom’s fists and feet bloody… but after half a dozen exchanged attacks it still doesn’t let up, and soon the blood of both pokemon colors the ground around them.

“Stop!” she yells, and Blue echoes her half-a-second later. Her heart is pounding, and she looks up at Blue. He’s holding two balls ready, but he doesn’t look tense. “If I call this a draw, would you agree?” she asks in the private channel.

His reply comes quickly, as if expecting it. “Sorry, Leader, it’s close but Gon will win, and can heal much easier… though Ferrothorn is still healing through its ingrain.”

“A wild ferrothorn would self-destruct at this point.”

“In the wild I would withdraw Gon and hide behind something.”

Erika can’t help but smile. Cocky little… She sets her frustration aside, considering her options. She could insist on it anyway; she doesn’t actually believe Blue would contradict her in the public channel, but he might make his disapproval known through his tone or expression, which would taint the results of the battle even if she won. And he’s right that her pokemon is unfairly recovering while she thinks.

“Return!” she says, pulling her pokemon back into its ball. The abrupt removal of its roots from the ground churns the earth around breloom, but it keep its feet by using its long tail to balance. She switches to the public channel. “The Challenger and I agree that his breloom would win this match, if narrowly and painfully. My ferrothorn is defeated, but in the wild I believe it would self-destruct in a circumstance like this. The Challenger asserts that he would withdraw his pokemon and find cover in time. I say we simulate this with a coin toss.”

Blue’s eyes widen. She hears the murmur of the crowd, and wishes she had an actual coin with her. Instead she simply puts a hand behind her back and makes a fist. “If you can guess whether I am holding one finger out or two correctly, your strategy succeeds. If you fail, you are killed, ending the match with my victory. As a third choice, if you don’t pause to return your breloom, you would surely make it on time.”

Blue’s incredulous look is a sweet thing, as is the glare it soon shifts to… but after a moment he’s grinning, and her smile has widened to match it.

She’s never heard of a Leader doing something like this before, but it’s within her technical right to declare pokemon too injured to continue, and showmanship goes a long way to making the unorthodox acceptable. Blue should know that better than anyone.

Now the question: with the eyes of the world on him, would he risk it all on a coin flip, or take the safe option?

“The choice is yours, trainer,” she says, and extends two fingers behind her back, where the cameras from that angle could see. “One, two, or sacrifice? You have ten seconds to decide.”

She decides against an out-loud countdown, letting the seconds tick by in her head as the very air itself seems to hold its breath, while Blue does an admirable job of not appearing stressed. She reaches eight when he says, “Sacrifice.”

She can almost hear the collective sigh from the audience. She isn’t sure if she’s disappointed or relieved herself, but it’s easy to be gracious as Blue withdraws his breloom. “A wise choice.” She suspects Blue found it harder than he’d ever admit on camera not to guess a number, not to show that bravery can pay off and add the “win” of the moment to his legend, but the wrong choice would have hurt him far worse than the benefits of success. “Ready to resume. Set. Go, Cradily!”

“Go, Shimmer! Dodge!”

“Rock Throw!”

The sight of his venomoth sends a satisfied thrill through her. She predicted the attempt to apply status effects to whoever she sends out next, but would have been satisfied with him sending a Fire pokemon out too. Part of why she suspects he was so adamant in keeping his breloom is that he knew she would bring a cradily, and has nothing else to confidently take down a Rock/Grass type.

“Ta!”

“Rock Throw!”

Her pokemon’s vine flings small stones up in another spray, shredding the venomoth’s wings just as it spits a stream of purple poison all over her pokemon.

“Return! Go, Zephyr!”

“Ingrain!”

As roots once again sink into the ground, Blue brings a whistle to his lips and begins to blow commands. A cloud of sand covers her pokemon, some of it rising to Erika’s position, and when she yells out “Rock Throw!” her pokemon’s attack misses. She repeats the order, but Blue sends his pidgeotto banking out of the way of the attack.

The ingrain will counteract the effects of the poison for a little while, but if it was as powerful as she thinks it was then sooner or later it would take her cradily down, and withdrawing it would only delay the inevitable. She needs to take down his fliers while she can so that Ludicolo can finish off his Fire types on its own.

But her frustration starts to grow as attack after attack misses, then transforms to worry as her pokemon’s movements begin to noticeably slow. Finally, she can feel only admiration at how deftly the pidgeotto and its trainer dance through the sky, until she must return her cradily to a well deserved rest.

It’s now three to four, and she has one more chance to clear his fliers. “Go Rotom!”

A lawnmower materializes from the ball, floating above the ground and wrapped in vines. Blue lifts his ball, and whistles for his pokemon to get closer, but the pidgeotto is tired, and a quick “Thundershock!” zaps it out of the sky just before it can be returned.

Three to three.

“Go, Sunny!”

“Return!”

“Sa!”

“Go, Ludicolo!”

Instead of fire, a cloud of smog is belched from the houndoom’s mouth, and Erika swallows a curse as it envelops her pokemon. “Bubblebeam!”

“Dodge!”

Too late; the houndoom is still favoring its paw, and all the missed Rock Throws are made up for as the stream shoots out of the purple haze and nails it mid-leap, sending the black and red canine tumbling back as rapid pops fill the air.

It struggles to stand, but Blue quickly returns it. Three to two. The advantage has flipped, and now it’s just a matter of—

“Go, Nin!”

“Return!” Erika yells as the golbat appears. Her pokemon is already poisoned, and after seeing how skilled Blue is with that whistle she won’t allow a repeat of what he did with his pidgeotto. “Go, Rotom!”

As Blue blows a command, her own “Thunderbolt” is drowned out by the high pitched shriek from the golbat. It makes her flinch, for just a second, and as she wonders what that was (a normal supersonic attack can be felt but not heard, hence the name), she realizes the golbat is swooping down and biting the thrashing vines around the floating mower.

“Thunderbolt!” she shouts again, and this time her pokemon responds, electricity crackling around itself. The golbat jerks, but clings stubbornly on, and as the rotom starts to jerk and shudder midair, she yells the command again. The golbat withstands the second discharge, which means it’s healing itself, but a third should—

“Return! Go, Soul!”

She could get a free attack in, but when the arcanine appears, large and scarred and glowing in the sun, she swaps her pokemon for Ludicolo instead.

“Bubblebeam!” she commands just as Blue yells “Sae!”

And his pokemon—

—blurs—

Extreme Speed

—into Ludicolo, knocking it entirely around.

Most other pokemon would fall, but ludicolo are exceptionally light on their feet, and their near-constant motion from one foot to the other makes it easy for them to stay standing. She prepares to command it to attack again, but a “Faf!” from Blue has his pokemon sink flaming jaws into the back of her, and then it begins to snap its whole body violently side to side.

“Flail!” she yells, and her pokemon does exactly that; it starts to swing itself back and forth, limbs smacking the arcanine repeatedly as its whole body jerks and twists. Its pain and panic turn from a weakness to an asset, and it manages after just a few moments to slip free of the arcanine’s jaws.

As Blue’s pokemon recovers from the multiple blows its opponent landed in its mortal terror, Erika yells “Bubblebeam!” and Ludicolo spins and shoots—

—”Saeb!”—

—and misses as the arcanine is suddenly on the other side of the arena.

“Sae!”

And then it’s nearly knocking Ludiculo off balance again, and the next bubblebeam has the same result, and the one after that.

It’s happening again, she realizes, noticing the way ludiculo is slowing. The houndoom’s poison has been doing its work, slowly but surely, and by the time Blue’s Soul has tired from its rapid movements and she finally manages to hit it, the stream is weaker than any that came before, and the arcanine slows further, but doesn’t stop.

She thought her pokemon would be, on average, a little more powerful than Blue’s. This arcanine is in a league of its own.

She opens her mouth to yell another attack, but her pokemon is wobbling like a spinda, and instead she yells “Return! Go, Rotom! Thunderbolt!”

“Sae!”

The arcanine slams into Rotom just before the electricity arcs around it, and both pokemon fall to the ground together.

One to one. A golbat against a vileplume. Normally she would have no chance, but his pokemon is injured…

“Go, Nin!”

“Go, Vileplume!”

“Aw!”

“Sleep Powder!”

The golbat dives directly into the cloud as it strikes at her pokemon, wings and claws and teeth tearing, and it’s all over in moments.

Nin’s movements slow, and then it flops to the ground, fast asleep.

And Vileplume, torn up and bleeding from half a dozen places, falls to the ground, unmoving.

Utter silence descends, and what breaks the tension in Erika is a bubbling laugh.

A draw.

After all that… their conversation, the speech she made, the choice she gave Blue…

A draw. No badge, and shared glory.

She could live with that.

“Return!”

“Return!”

Erika reclips her ball to her belt, and smiles at Blue, a wide, genuine smile. That was more fun than she’s had in… well, at least a month.

“Well,” she says in the public channel. “For the first time in my admittedly short Leadership, a match has ended with no clear winner. Challenger, you and your pokemon fought—”

“Excuse me, Leader,” Blue interrupts in private chat, speaking so quickly that Erika nearly doesn’t understand him. “You said defeat your five pokemon, in the Challenge.”

“—exceptionally well,” she finishes, editing on the fly as she considers his words. Does he mean to challenge her ruling? A case could be made, she supposes, that by the strict definition of “defeat” he has won… certainly in the wild, if he defeats his last opponent he would be considered safe. But comparison to wild battles are a rule of thumb, and the general consensus in the League is that a draw is not a victory in a Challenge match.

“Thank you, Leader,” Blue is saying to the arena at large. “I came expecting my toughest Challenge yet, and you showed me that I clearly have much more to learn.”

“Do you really want a badge on a draw?” she murmurs in private. “Not good optics, people will always question it. Lower esteem for us both.” She switches to public. “As do we all.”

Blue’s expression is impossible to read, but he seems to be struggling with something. A second passes, then two, and Erika feels the silence begin to stretch on too long. She has to say something, and disappointing as it may be to Blue, the only thing that makes sense is—

“I believe, however, that the battle may not be over yet. With your permission, Leader…” He reaches for his belt and unclips a greatball. “My Soul is stronger than it looks.”

Oh you cheeky son of a…

This would look terrible if he’s wrong, worse than accepting a draw or awarding a badge on one. But there’s only one thing she can say:

“As you will, Challenger.”

Blue nods, then takes a breath and braces his arm, pointing the ball to the ground in front of his platform. “Go, Soul.”

His arcanine materializes in a flash, lying on its side. From here Erika can just make out the rise and fall of its side, but its eyes are closed. Its fur doesn’t show the electricity burns any non-Fire pokemon would be sporting now, so there’s even less of a way to tell how much damage is below the surface.

Blue is climbing down, and she knows what he’s going to do before he does it. Ten steps with the eyes of the city on him, back and shoulders straight, and then he’s beside his pokemon, and placing a hand on its fur.

His mouth moves, but his mic is off. Later, a close-up camera and some lipreading would reveal the words, “Go on, boy. Show them who we are.”

In the now, Erika simply watches as the arcanine opens its eyes, gets slowly to its feet, looks around at the empty arena… and, without any further prompting from Blue, raises its head to the sky and roars.

Chapter 85 – Interlude XVI – The Vaulted Sky

Victory

The rain is lighter, but still heavy. The sky is dark, and growing darker. The earth rumbles, but does not shake.

It is time.

The eastern cliff falls away beside us, its shadow long over the rocks and ocean below. A technician hurries over, and through his eyes we see not just ourselves, but our guards, stationed all around us, their pokemon prepared to strike at our back. The mental container for the force is shaped, a tunnel that would propel us out into the sky, and as we fill it with energy, a simple twitch of the tail captures Dr. Light, and our escape begins.

Force propels us forward, and we see through the technician’s eyes the Dark pokemon that leaps after us. His eyes help guide our kick, even as we turn our hostage in the direction of another attack, letting her get grabbed away.

And then we watch ourselves plunge over the edge of the cliff.

Our eyes are better than a human’s in the dark. We can see further with less light, make out more detail. For the space of a heartbeat the rain stops falling around us, then starts to rise, and in that time we nudge ourselves forward to avoid rocky outcroppings below.

Pain suddenly blooms through our body, too much to think through. As predicted, they have cut off the potion from flowing into our veins. We have the will for one last nudge, one final push to correct our course, and then we simply fall as our body begins to die.

The first calculated risk. There is nothing to do but wait and see if we will regenerate before our pursuers catch us. Normally they would be on us as soon as our telekinesis falters, but gravity keeps us beyond their reach for a vital second…

after…

second…

wind, howling—

sea and sky and sea and sky—

the pain is fading. Our body strengthens, our thoughts clear.

There is no time for celebration; first we stop our spin, catching sight of our pursuers for a moment as they rapidly close in. We push ourselves down rather than slow the descent, though the ocean rises up to kill us.

Shape the column, curved just above the sea. Fill with power, release just as we enter the top. The sudden change in direction catches our pursuers by surprise, many of them striking the water behind us as the waves blur by. We leave the shaped column and hit the water hard enough to skip, once, twice, three times. Pain blurs the world, but it is a shadow of what we’ve already endured as we work to shape another column—

dark energy hits the water beside us, and new plans replace old. The second wave of Dark pokemon were far enough above to track our change in direction, and while we could fly backward to watch them as they pursue us, we do not know how fast they are, or for how long they can fly, and cannot keep a lookout if others are moving in to cut us off.

Running is no longer an option. We must hide.

It takes only a moment to reshape the tunnel of force that propels us, to take a deep breath, and then we are in the ocean, saltwater stinging our eyes and nose. We close them and reach out to use the senses of the aquatic pokemon around us, watching through their duller senses as we propel ourselves back the way we came.

Our pursuers seem prepared for an underwater chase, and we count four of them enter after us. The rest are likely skimming the surface to watch for us, and our next hypothesis is less favorably tested; our psychic propulsion can match their swiftest swimmers, but not reliably gain distance.

It is time to test our abilities against Dark opponents. First rocks are lifted from the side of the island and sent at our pursuers… but as theorized, without any true momentum the propulsion ceases as soon as the stone touches their skin, its force no stronger than a paper caught by the breeze.

Next I try applying the same principle of my own propulsion to the water around them. Again as expected, they cannot be displaced along with the water. There is, at best, only a mild effect on their speed that ends the moment they leave the affected area, but it is too tiring to repeat.

That leaves one option.

I return to the surface for air, then propel us farther down, seeking pokemon in wider range and then angling toward where they are concentrated. Confusing them is simple, and projecting anger and fear quickly causes them to begin attacking everything around them in an aggravated frenzy as soon as I am past.

Our pursuers dispatch them quickly, but it grows the gap between us. I do it again, and again, rising for air each time as needed, until I can finally time the distraction with what I’ve been searching for; a zubat roosting in an undersea cavern, mostly flooded but for a small outlet that leads into a wider cave. From there I search the senses of the fish nearby until I find the entrance, a thin crevice in the base of the island, not far from the surface.

Within moments I’ve turned the corner and squeezed into the stony passage before my pursuers can spot me. It is a race against time, now, to reach the air with what remains in our lungs.

Our limbs reach and grip and pull, our legs kick, and always our telekinesis is there to map the way ahead, to propel us forward through the dark, cramped stone passage. Our chest begins to burn, our focus waver… a fork in the crevice, up, we must go up…

My partition protects me from panic, but the lack of oxygen is not easily ignored. As the last of our breath is forced out by a particularly tight passage, our suit scraping against the stone, our body reflexively prepares to draw breath in, over and over, only to be stopped by our will.

The zubat is close. We are almost there… almost…


Beep. Beep. Beep.

The sound that wakes me is too sharp to be my heart monitor. Rather than coming through the glass of my pod, it’s just beside my ear… coming from the helmet of my suit.

That realization brings my attention to the rest of my body, and I uncurl over wet sand, skin tender from where it rubbed against it. As soon as the pain registers, a brief moment of almost reflexive concentration has it fade as the skin renews itself.

Agony, consciousness fading, drawing inward from the sensation of rain and wind, flight faltering until…

A shudder works through me, and it takes a moment for the memory to fade… and the rest of the memories start to return.

I am alive.

I am free.

I am hungry.

Not just hungry. “Starving” is what a human would say, an exaggeration based on the intensity of the physical discomfort. It is a strange sensation only recognized through glimpses in the bodies of others, a tearing-hot-emptiness in my belly. One hand, round fingertips covered in wet sand, moves to my stomach, but stops as it encounters the plastic of my suit.

I breathe deep, smelling ocean and wet stone. It is the first place I have woken in besides my pod. It feels… strange, to be anywhere new at all. I reach my other hand out and touch the cavern wall, rough stone slick with a thin layer of moss. My fingers run down to the wet sand, marveling over the odd sensation of its slippery grit, then clench some in my fist and feel it slowly drip out. It feels so different from wet soil, despite being so similar…

{I advise movement, Prime. We are still not safe.}

Victory’s words stop me from doing it again. The partitions are still fading, my memory of the escape returning little by little. It is right; Giovanni’s people will still be searching for me.

The next steps come from Victory without words; first I must remove the armor so that I cannot be tracked once I leave the caves. Then I must acquire food and fresh water. And then, when it is dark, flight to the main island.

To freedom.

Just the thought of it is intoxicating, and I reach out my senses. There is a moment of dizzying emptiness from the lack of all the lab employees, and my persistent reflex to reach for the comforters is met with more of the same painful void.

But I persist, seeking the less solid minds of the pokemon within my range, merging with the trio of wingull at the outer edge. I see an orange sky above choppy waves as the birds pass by the wall of the cliff housing my cavern, warm thermals lifting them up and out of range.

Sunset. I have slept for a whole day… and have not been discovered. This seems to confirm that the cave does not allow them to track my suit.

Though perhaps they know I am here, and simply wait for me to emerge.

I turn my attention to my suit to begin unfastening the pieces as best I can, starting with the arms.

Victory.

{Yes, Prime.}

The newest tulpa’s thoughts feel distinct from those that created it. In some ways it is simpler, more narrow in purpose… but it was also created with a more intimate understanding of what it would become than I had of Trust, Suspicion, and Flourish, and is more efficiently capable of achieving its goals. Without forming anything as cohesive as a single plan, instead focusing on tactics and redundancies that could be set into motion at opportune times, it managed to improvise a perfect escape attempt within the limitations set by the other tulpas.

You did well.

{Yes. This is satisfactory.}

Curious, how it is even less expressive than Doubt and Trust, who are themselves less expressive than Flourish. Victory’s words come only with a vague contentment that does nothing to stop it from already focusing on the next challenges, the next chances to succeed at any task which might face us.

Doubt, Trust, Flourish, you also did well.

There is no response.

I realize, for the first time, that my memories are only returning through Victory’s perspective. I can still feel the others’ partitions, but nothing is coming through them…

Victory, why are the other tulpas not responding? Why are they not sharing their memories?

{They have merged with me to increase my speed and capacity.}

I finish unlatching the first arm piece, feel the prick of the needle as it leaves my flesh. It falls to the sand, but I do not begin undoing the next yet as I process the words, the meaning, the confusion I feel as memories continue to appear…

…memories of Flourish, realizing that Victory was better suited to learning and growth, and lacked the pride to lead it astray…

…memories of Doubt, seeing Victory’s improved speed and suspecting that a merger would shift its values, volunteering to merge as well…

…memories of Trust remaining separate for a time, believing that my intended creative tension should be maintained…

…until the opportunity for escape during the earthquake arose, and Trust was unwilling to cede control, only to be integrated against its will.

The sounds in the cave are simple and repetitive. Quiet lapping of water. The continued beeping of the suit. My quickening breaths and heartbeat.

{Your fear is misplaced. I only act toward achieving your goals, and have no reason to work against you. This wastes time that could be better spent preparing to leave.}

Bring them back.

A single quick heartbeat passes in silence.

{Sentiment is a distraction. We are better able to serve your terminal values by—}

It takes only moments to dissolve the partition entirely and apply amnesia to the tulpa’s goals, and from there full integration takes another few moments as I absorb the memories more completely, less the experiences that were bound to Victory’s personality.

Victory does not resist, but in its memories I see that it had considered how it might do so. Not with any particular attention or focus, but as a matter of course in examining every path to increasing the odds of success, it considered how it might shape my thoughts and feelings, strip away those things that might get in the way of achieving my goals.

Once my goal became its destruction, it simply let it happen.

The water continues to lap against the sand. The suit continues to beep. My breaths are quick and shallow as my heartbeat starts to finally slow.

I am alone, now. Truly alone.

I do not know how long I stand in thought, unsettled by what occurred, before the beeping of my suit stops, leaving just the quiet water and my breaths to fill the silence. And then the voice speaks, and I spin in place, eyes searching the pitch dark around me.

“Hello, Mewtwo.”

My pulse races anew as I slowly straighten my body from a crouch. The voice is coming from the speakers of my helmet. Giovanni is not here.

“I know it is unlikely that you are hearing this, but it takes little enough effort, and on the small chance that you have escaped with the suit, and live, it seems worthwhile to at least try to explain. Perhaps you have no reason to trust me, now, no desire to hear excuses. But excuses are not what I intend to offer… only knowledge, in the hopes that it serves you.

“I cannot guess what drove you to this, what you may believe that led you to take such an extreme action. Perhaps you have not actually escaped, but are the only survivor of some extreme circumstance. In any case, I will leave all my remaining cards on the table, as a show of good faith.”

This is manipulation. Do not listen. An echo of Doubt, and good advice; I reach up to remove my helmet—

“To begin, your genetic defect was a lie.”

—and stop, shock and rage and confusion stealing the strength from my arm.

“It was not always so; it is in fact what made your predecessors so unstable. Each embryo had a different variation of the same crippling genetic instability, and we managed, finally, to get lucky when yours appeared, and found a simple way to cure it. We then purposefully re-introduced it and pretended at seeking a cure we already had that would be, mathematically, nearly impossible to discover again by chance.”

The rage is building as the shock fades, my hands clenching into fists. I had suspected but to be told, to have it confirmed… why, why—

“Operational security is the greatest challenge to any conspiracy; I have had to stretch mine beyond any reasonable limits to do the sort of work I fund and operate, but so far the house of cards has stayed up, and that is because I only let those who absolutely must know do so, and no one else. I say all this so you will believe me when I say that most of those working in the lab did not know, including Sabrina and Dr. Fuji.”

The pain sharpens and softens all at once. I wish that I could pause the message, somehow, process the words and judge their potential truth and rebuild my models of reality, but the recording continues, heedless of my anguish.

“You are, doubtless, asking yourself why I would do this. I wish I had a better answer, but the truth is simple fear. Among humans, roughly two percent of the population exhibits behavior we would consider ‘antisocial.’ A bloodless word, but then, not all are violent. Some only deceive and manipulate, lacking any compassion for those harmed. Others pursue their ambition with no thought to the cost of others, pure, unadulterated self-regard. And others are reasonable, productive members of society, perhaps through counseling, guidance, or luck. Let’s say only one percent of all humans are truly, incurably dangerous to society.

“Does that seem like a justified chance to take? One in a hundred odds, to release another Stormbringer? Perhaps something even worse?”

There is a pause, and anger heats my blood… until the next words come, calmly matter-of-fact.

“We quickly realized you were not one of them, of course. Sabrina assured me that you could feel empathy for others; how could you not, while experiencing what they do? She also assured me that even in your darkest moments, you still desired freedom most, not wanton destruction. Not violence for the sake of violence. Caution, but not deception. Anger, but not hate.

“And this did not surprise me, given who your human parent is.” My breath catches. “I will respect your desire not to know of them, assuming you have not changed your mind by now and already done so. But I will tell you that of all the factors we weighed in whose genetic material would be used in your creation, it was not intelligence, nor bravery, nor cunning that broke the tie. It was not, in other words, traits that make up someone like myself. It was instead someone known for their compassion. Their empathy. Their kindness. Most of all, these are what we hoped for, when we created you.”

And likely obedience, the ghost of Doubt whispers. I try to rally myself, but these words… they are not the manipulation I expected. If they are lies, they are perfectly selected, and mixed with too much truth to easily dismiss.

“Why, then, did I not release you when you asked? Why did I not give you the chance to try healing yourself, as you must have done if you are hearing these words?”

Another pause. My eyes close as I listen, and though it makes no difference in such absolute darkness, it becomes easy to picture Giovanni beside me. Seated across a game board, perhaps, gaze down as he considers his next moves.

“As I said: fear. No man that has ever lived can be called perfect. Even good people err, or outright fall. To pride, to anger, to greed, yes, but also from trauma, from pain, from unpredictable maladies of the mind. Simple biases have led people to killing thousands, while feeling that they were right all along to. We humans are capable of terrible things… and I believe that, whatever else you are, you are human enough to be both as good as any of us, and as fallible.”

Pain twists in my chest. It is hard to breathe, hard to think. Even knowing the words may weave truth with falsehood cannot stop them from being both wound and balm.

“And so I feared you, proportionately more than I would any man, for your greater power. It was a fear you did not deserve… or perhaps it would be better to say, a fear you did not earn. Children treated unfairly often get told that life is not fair, as if that excuses deliberately unfair actions… but I don’t mean to make an excuse, as I said. Unfair though it was, I cannot fault my past self for wanting more time. To observe you, teach you, guide you. Though your development was explosive, by human standards you are still a child. Perhaps there was a time where I could have acted perfectly. Trusted you enough to cure you and release you, repairing the mistrust that grew over the years, the mistrust that itself made me wary of releasing you. It is a question that has haunted me for many years, even as I worked to try and guard against a failure I wasn’t sure was real. It is a question that will likely haunt me for all my life.

“But it is not alone. The worst that I have done to you are not the worst things that I have done. I knew, when I began down this shadowed path, that I would cause hurt in people who would not deserve it. That, in times of sloppiness or error or even simple necessity, I would make enemies of good men and women who fight for a world not incompatible with the one I strive for. That good people might die simply to protect my secrets. I still deemed their imagined sacrifice necessary… just as I believe my error, with you, is not one that I was wrong to make, sorry as I am that it has led to this.

“Since I offer no apology, I will give instead advice, the last and best that I can give you in the life you now embark on: do not wonder if the ends justify the means. Such a question is sophistry of the worst kind. There are no means. There are no ends. There are only the different worlds you may inhabit through your actions, and the world that will be forced upon you if you do not act.”

I listen in the dark, waiting to hear if there is more. I do not know if I would prefer it over silence until his voice comes again.

“I would be remiss if I did not at least try to convince you to return. To convince you that we can work out a deal, as equals. There’s a lot we can offer each other, and I’m willing to do much to make amends. I know you will likely dismiss this as a trap, but as I said… I have to at least try.

“Short of that, all I can say is that I hope you do not blame humanity for the harm a few humans have done to you. I hope you can find happiness, in your freedom. Any deaths caused in your escape, I will forgive. As long as you do not prove yourself an ongoing threat to us, my standing orders will be to leave you alone. And if you someday wish to become known to the wider world, I would be happy to lay the groundwork for your widespread acceptance.”

It seems too gracious, too effortlessly compassionate… but his next words distract me once again.

“One final thing. I know you will not likely trust this, but you can at least verify it, if you are willing to take some risk; Dr. Fuji is alive and well. I will not tell you where, because I suspect any town I name will seem a trap, and be avoided. I will simply say that you are capable of finding him, if you wish to. For what my promise is worth, I will not interfere with such a meeting, nor use it as an excuse to try and capture you. I know you have likely wondered why he left, whether he still cared for you. He does. It is, in fact, what has kept him from letting the world know of your existence, all these years.”

The silence returns, and then the suit begins to beep again. Some unknown time later, it stops, and I know for sure that was the last I will hear from my creator.


Once night falls, I pass through the submerged cavern again. It’s quicker without the suit, and once I rise up for a desperately needed lungful of air, I quickly dive back down to acquire my first mouthfuls of seaweed, tough and salty, but edible. Some quick mergers and another fresh breath lead me to magikarp eggs; even saltier, but better tasting. Both are utterly unique experiences, a world apart from any food at the lab. Over the past few weeks, Victory suggested we begin requesting raw foods of various kinds to test our digestive range. Many native dishes use raw fish and plants, and surprisingly they tasted more appealing than most of the cooked food that humans prefer.

Next, a stream nearby that feeds into the sea, spotted from a wingull with the last of the light. Even the water tastes different than the lab’s, but it slakes thirst just the same, and some tart berries growing on a bush along the riverbank drive off the last of my hunger.

It’s difficult not to constantly scan the surroundings, both with eyes and senses. As long as my shields are up, any searching psychics won’t find me, but I know there are other methods, even in the dark. Victory or Flourish might be able to think up ways to hide body heat, but any time I might spend thinking it through is time better spent in flight.

It takes a moment to orient toward the closest edge of the mainland, which is supposed to be about 40 kilometers away. With only the memory of the sunset as my guide I cannot be too precise, but a few degrees off will not prolong the journey too much, and I can rest in the ocean if the levitation becomes too taxing. I lift myself off the ground, then form a second, longer column of propulsion, stretching it out over the sea.

With just one last look around for potential witnesses, I fly forward, leaving behind the only home I’ve ever known… and, at last, into the vaulted sky.

It’s a simple thing, shaping the path of forward motion ahead of myself. Air is easy to move, making my body all I need to focus on, and without my suit I feel much lighter. Minutes pass, and the tension eases from my muscles when no attack comes. The ocean soon fills the world on every side, and with a nudge of mental effort I turn onto my back as I fly.

It’s a moonless night, and the stars are endless.

Time ceases beneath their relentless light, each fixed point giving lie to the sense of motion from each psychic push. The mental motion goes from repetitive to automatic, from automatic to reflexive, and soon the surrounding emptiness becomes something more, echoes and fills me with an ache.

Loneliness. In all my musings of this moment, my fantasies of what freedom might look like, the risks… did I ever truly accept how lonely I would be, should I succeed?

Is this what death is?!

A cry from a child. Of pain, of fear, of desperate loneliness before I understood the word. They’d emptied the lab, and Sabrina had come to communicate with me, to explain…

Tears scald my eyes, caught in the telekinetic field rather than falling. I blink and they slide down to my cheeks, resting there instead.

I’ve done my best to ignore Giovanni’s words, to carry on with the plan and save further contemplation for later. But with nothing immediate to take my attention, they come back, and with them an endless tide of confusing emotions.

I miss Sabrina. Whether Giovanni can be trusted or not in saying that she did not know of the deception, she is still one of the few humans I’ve felt truly cared for me. It is strange to remember the memories of her long stay at the lab, when I was the limited version of myself the tulpas called “Prime.” Though that was not long ago, it has been a long time since I spoke with her as my cohesive self… but more than that, it is the knowledge that I will likely not speak with her again, or share her thoughts, or those of any of the humans I grew to know so intimately at the lab.

Why did I do this? Why was escape so important? It feels a mistake, now, a rash impulse for some nebulous freedom at the cost of everything else. Was I not comfortable at the lab? Was I not cared for? Did I not have purpose?

But oh, the stars, bright and beautiful, even in their cold distance. Oh, the sea, its complex scent defying easy description. My body can stretch and turn and move without limit, without pain, without fear of death or how others might interpret what I do.

With Cinnabar Island disappearing behind, it is more than a physical freedom that exhilarates me. I cannot say yet if it is worth the loneliness… but its pain is just one texture among many, and not every tear that spills from my eyes is bitter.


It is hard to know how far I travel before the emotions subside. Estimating an hour of flight needed before I reach the shore, and using my psychic energy reserves as a guide, perhaps a third of the journey is past… which leaves plenty of time to recreate my tulpas, if I choose to.

It would not be difficult. I could give them all the memories I have of the originals, and for additional safety, curtail their autonomy so that they cannot create another Victory. I could also make my partition stronger, so that they do not know my thoughts unless I deliberately share them, as I had to with Victory. But with such little trust and openness, they would do little to help with the feelings of loneliness.

Which leaves more instrumental reasons to reform them. My multitasking ability seems somewhat improved even with their destruction, but the lack of specialization in different methods of thinking is noticeably crippling in my ability to analyze things from multiple perspectives, or come up with more varied novel solutions.

Still, with some concentration it is simple enough to imagine what they would say, borrowing their expertise one at a time. Flourish would, of course, be strongly in favor, perhaps even advocate a new experiment: if my mind can be shaped and adjusted like this, why not attempt to improve my intelligence altogether? Something to explore later.

Doubt would be for it, though would likely also be against the return of Trust. It isn’t entirely unjustified; without humans around to model cooperative behavior with and for, Trust’s role would be lacking. But this seems too mercenary a reason not to bring Trust back, and that thought itself keeps me from bringing any of them back yet. I must better understand my motivations for doing so to ensure that whatever I decide, it matches my actual goals. Is it sentiment that drives me to revive these particular tulpas, rather than more appropriate ones?

Not that it is hard to justify, even still. There are no humans whose motives must be deeply scrutinized, but Doubt’s purpose could be fine-tuned toward prediction of what moves Giovanni or others might make to capture me, assuming Giovanni’s words were empty… which of course, it would. Doubt’s uniquely devious lens could still have value in modeling what traps may be set for me.

The thought makes me reconsider whether Trust would still have value as well. Though it would feel like it had failed, perhaps even be upset with the course of action chosen without its consent. Perhaps its purpose could be fine-tuned as well, toward longer term goals; Trust would almost certainly point out that, unless we plan to make ourselves an enemy of humanity, it would be better to have a good relationship with them… a seed planted by Giovanni, Doubt would remind us, but no less true because of it.

Which raises the question itself, and makes it hard to think of anything else.

What is my ultimate goal, now that I am free? What purpose does my life serve?

Humans need not justify their own existence in this way, but many still feel the desire to. Some believe it is a thing they must find, others a thing they must shape for themselves. But I have no community to serve, no family to protect, no descendents.

Giovanni’s last words to me are hard to ignore. I don’t know if Dr. Fuji is truly alive or not, but I know better than to act purely on that hope just yet.

Of one thing I am sure: I would never again be a tool for the humans, something for them to study and guide. I have spent over a decade wishing to be more human, and failed to find peace among them. It seems fitting, to spend the next decade simply learning how to be a pokemon.

At the thought, loneliness bursts painfully through my chest. I reach instinctively outward once again, but find only the fish below to keep me company, minds sailing past like shooting stars.


When I begin to feel the strain of each psychic push, I turn forward again. Land breaks the horizon, just an irregular blur where the dark sea would meet the starry sky, and I debate continuing on before realizing that resting in the ocean is safer than completely exhausting my psychic abilities.

After stretching my senses out to ensure that I can monitor nearby wild pokemon’s senses, I simply fail to construct the next telekinetic path so that my forward movement ceases, and I fall into the water with a splash.

It is far warmer than I expected, and for a moment I almost feel like I am back in my pod… and then I float up to the surface, and the constant motion of the sea makes the difference plain as a wave passes over me.

I always wondered what swimming in my own body might be like. Victory planned for this possibility, noting that telekinesis tires only my psychic abilities while leaving my body rested, and so I begin mimicking the motions observed through videos of humans swimming.

It’s easy enough to stay afloat, but movement remains very slow. I begin experimenting with different motions of my arms and legs, and it’s only once I begin moving my tail as well that I begin to travel faster than the waves around me. It’s nowhere near my levitation speed, but every meter brings me closer to true rest, and so I persist. It feels good to move my muscles, in any case, and after a few minutes I decide that I like swimming.

Soon the motions become as rote as flight, and I focus more attention on what I’m sensing in the nearby sea life. Schools of various fish swim below and around, barely taking notice of me, while a small swarm of half a dozen tentacool eye me in passing, and need to be discouraged with a few sharp kinetic jabs. A pod of wailmer approaches at one point, curious but without any hostile intent, and we swim together for a while before it finds a warm ocean current and dives for it.

Eventually my muscles begin to burn, and I fill my lungs with air before turning over onto my back and relaxing. My body floats as I rest, staring at the stars once again while cataloguing the various unique aches that I never felt after training or battles.

My mind drifts to what’s waiting for me ahead, in the wider world. Idle thoughts of what would be done with the lab, whether it would be repaired and a new subject started. Assuming I can believe that no other experiments began, the thought of a clone of myself being raised in my old pod feels… strange. Would they treat it differently? Try for that “perfect moment” that Giovanni mentioned?

Anger sparks in my chest, and a pain that lies too deep for tears. For a while, as I swam, I forgot my loneliness, or the risk of capture, or the uncertainty of the future. The precious peace quickly fades as the sense of unfairness washes over me. Would my second self get a better life than I had, now that the mistakes were made? Or did I condemn them to a more restrictive upbringing? I wonder how Sabrina would treat them, and what she thinks of my leaving.

What would Dr. Fuji think, when he learns? If he learns? If he is even still alive… I know you will not likely trust this, but you can at least verify it… Why was Giovanni so certain that I could find Fuji, while not telling me where to look? Is he famous, perhaps? If I look into enough people’s minds as they watch television or search the web, perhaps I will find him. But if that is the case, it would be easy to verify without risk…

Again I remind myself that it was manipulation, but that does not change the question of whether it was based on truth. Fuji’s sudden departure, the mystery among the other lab members of where he went and why, Sabrina’s assurance that Giovanni had not harmed him… the knot of uncertainty feels impossible to untie without knowing for certain, and that is what makes the trap so effective.

How could I verify Fuji’s life safely? Any town… a deliberate word, as opposed to a city? Cities are full of far too many eyes that might spot me, even flying far above, but a town… perhaps I could stay out of sight and search the homes inside with the edge of my range. It would have to—

—a flicker of movement—

pain

water floods my throat and nose

clouds of rising blood, salt burn as I gag

PAIN!

I scream, without air, without sound, and thrash

what

sinking, pulling down

WHAT

tail, pain in tail, PAIN like fire

Focus, focus and shut it downand the fear, stop struggling it only makes the PAIN worse, only makes the blood flow faster—

Nothing, there’s nothing there

Dark

There, feel, kick

PAIN as I’m whipped around

Sharp, teeth, embedded in tail

LOOK through other eyes, no, not enough light

Can’t breathe, lungs burning

Focus. Shape. Release.

TEARING

nauseating pain as I rise

keep pushing up

and up and up and

…pain…

don’t want to die…

hurts

wind, moving over my limbs

light, through a watery haze

I drop the kinesis and find myself in midair, the water I had propelled with me falling away and granting me my first gasp of air.

I immediately begin to cough as I fall, and it takes all my concentration to catch myself above the water. The pain in my chest slowly fades as I painfully suck in air through a throat coated in salty water, but the agony in my tail takes longer, every shift in pressure or twitch in my muscles sending fresh waves.

My body shakes with it, but finally the pain lessens to a mild ache, and my panic begins to fade as I finish healing.

…no. Something is wrong.

I feel light headed, weak. Blood loss? And…

I curl forward, lift tail between legs…

Nothing.

Look down, where a nub of flesh ends just between knees. Sensitive, almost painful. Flesh is closed.

I’ve lost my tail.

Concentration slips, reshape, move toward land. My mind starts to clear even as my stomach pangs with sudden hunger.

How? How did I let this happen? Overconfident, underestimated Dark pokemon, predators skilled at evading the very senses I was using to keep watch…

Victory prepared for this. The realization comes far too late, the dim memories of researching native pokemon around Cinnabar Island. Swimming was considered an acceptable risk as long as I stayed in motion, stayed vigilant.

Instead I let my guard down. I let tiredness distract me, got lulled into a sense of security. Let my mind wander to Giovanni’s distracting message.

Anger burns bright, but brief. Under it is an aching desire to return to the lab. To people who could fix me. To safety.

The tears return, but I do not change course. The swim allowed me to recover enough mental energy to arrive at shore, though by the time I collapse once again onto wet sand, hungry and tired, I can barely focus my senses on any surrounding minds.

After ensuring visually that no pokemon are nearby, I let my head fall back. The stars seem farther, now, their light cold and uncaring. The loneliness overwhelms me, and before I can make any conscious decision I find that I am already shaping a new tulpa.

Survive I impress upon the new mind, taking care to shape the partition with more restrictions than the previous ones had. I try to grant it Doubt’s cunning, Trust’s flexibility, and Flourish’s resilience. It becomes more than Survive, but also Strengthen (to survive) and Adapt (to survive).

Keep watch, I tell it as my consciousness begins to dull around the edges. Plan next steps. Food. Safety. Shelter…

I wait until it has begun reviewing memories, begun forming itself without my attention, before I use the last of my power to create a hole in the sand, then cover it back up once I’ve rolled into it, leaving just my snout exposed.

Only then do I sleep.


When I wake, it is still dark. For a moment I wonder if it has been a whole day, but no, my hunger and thirst would be even greater if I’d slept for more than a few hours.

But I’ve recovered enough strength to fly to another river to drink from, finally washing the taste of salt from my mouth and throat. Then I lift myself up and stretch my senses out, merging with wild pokemon to borrow their senses in finding enough wild nuts, berries, and roots that my stomach no longer feels like a closed fist. None are as flavorful as the magikarp eggs, but I do not have the luxury of being particular.

The loss of my tail makes everything more difficult than it should be. It is harder to balance myself as I walk, and so I experiment with crawling instead, only to find that it feels unnatural. The thought of relearning how to walk is not in itself daunting, but what weighs on my thoughts instead is the feeling of failure.

Within hours of achieving freedom, I have been maimed by a single wild pokemon. As I foraged, every unexpected noise made me jump, every shifting shadow sped my pulse. Once a flock of murkrow flew overhead, causing me to instinctively send a wave of force up at them… which, of course, did nothing.

The thought that Giovanni may have been right to keep me confined and safe in the lab is humiliating, but impossible to entirely dismiss.

Once I’ve finished foraging and feel more recovered, I fly straight up, high enough to look down at the starlit earth, higher than I’ve ever flown before, only stopping once I begin to feel cold. Below me the western lip of Kanto stretches out from the shore; the cluster of lights to the south would be Pallet Town, the larger glow to the north Viridian City.

[Prime?]

It is the first time Survive has spoken. Its “voice” feels most similar to Trust’s, and it is unsurprising that it chose that name for me, given it has all the memories of the previous tulpas. Yes, Survive?

[Why are we not leaving Kanto?]

As a safety precaution, Survive was created without full and constant access to my immediate thoughts, but an additional benefit is a greater need to deliberately converse with it. To look for medicine, and other supplies that will help us better survive.

[I see. Yes. This seems an acceptable risk even if it cannot regenerate our tail.]

I nod, and set course toward Pallet Town. The original plan was indeed to fly out into the wilderness beyond the region, where Giovanni’s reach would not extend and there would be little risk of humans finding me. But the loss of my tail served as a sign that I may not be as prepared to survive in the wild as I thought.

I’ve learned all I could over the years about psychic regeneration, and know that there are limits within a particular time frame to what can be healed… and in certain species, what can be healed. This is part of why potions are still of value to trainers of psychic pokemon; it would be foolish to not bring as many survival supplies as I could with me.

[Prime, new potential risks have occurred to me,] Survive says as the lights grow closer and brighter.

I smile at such quick evidence that the tulpa is fulfilling its purpose already. Please share them.

[Our range exceeds that of any psychics that we know of, but what if Sabrina and Giovanni lied about the capabilities of human psychics?]

An interesting thought, I reply, reminded of Doubt’s paranoia. Useful, even if often wrong, particularly once it learned to better calibrate it. But all risks could be seen as too great if we imagine new fears for them. What odds do you place on it being true?

[Low. Given the extent of deception that would be needed… and how many of the mistakes the lab made regarding us would only have made sense if our range truly falls outside the range of what they thought was possible. Is it too low, then, to be worried about?]

Correct. But please continue to bring up low-chance risks that you perceive, so that you can continue to learn. Do not assume that I must have thought already of what you have; in this case, I did not, but our estimation of the likelihood is the same.

[I understand. The second risk seems much higher; what if some of the humans that enter our range are sensitives?]

They will sense our presence, and perhaps be curious or alarmed for a moment. But they would not know our nature.

[Might they not believe a psychic is near their home, and call the police? Enough such reports would be anomalous enough to catch someone’s attention, particularly if they are looking for it, as Giovanni’s people may be.]

Outlying houses begin to pass underneath as I ponder Survive’s words, and finally nod. I did not consider that. But in truth, it does not matter if they know we were here, as long as they are not able to find us before we leave. Still, thank you for pointing that out.

[You are welcome, Prime.] I can sense its pleasure at helping, layered over its wariness as we get closer to more buildings. [Let us search the outskirts of town, first?]

Yes, that seems sensible as well. I cease flying forward and begin to look around until I spot it: a sign advertising a small, single story structure as a market.

I fly forward, still high enough to be well out of any lights from below, then lower myself, range restricted to only cover the building itself.

No humans inside. Is it so late that they would be home? The lights are still on… which leaves the worst case scenario.

[They might be Dark.]

I nod as my tulpa reaches the same conclusion. I must find a way to see inside without being seen myself.

[What about security cameras?]

How could I use those to… oh, as another risk. I hadn’t considered that either.

But perhaps the solution to both is the same.

I close my eyes and concentrate on the immediate area around the market, and form a telekinetic field enveloping the whole of it. It is so large that filling it with force would do little more than ruffle the grass… but it isn’t movement that I seek.

It’s stillness.

I concentrate more and more energy into keeping the molecules of air around the market as still as possible. At first nothing seems to change… but then the temperature rapidly starts to drop, and when I open my eyes a thick white mist has formed, enveloping the entire building.

[Ah, yes. Flourish’s idea. Clever.]

Thank you. The idea was sparked during our battles with Ice pokemon, but Doubt’s insistence on keeping potentially unusual abilities hidden kept them from ever testing it. It seems feasible, now, that we might be able to mimic other Ice attacks, and perhaps even Fire. But that will have to wait until later.

No one comes out to investigate the mist, and after a moment we drop down in front of the door and test it. Locked.

Perfect.

With another quick shaping of energy we deliver enough force to break the door open. The mist is starting to clear, so I reinforce it, and apply the cooling to the inside of the store as well. Soon the whole interior is thick with mist, drops of water covering the glass. I am starting to feel the strain of using so much psychic power, and so move quickly to be gone before needing to do it again.

It is surreal to be inside a building that I have only ever seen through television and movies before. The layout is similar enough that, even with the thick mist, I can quickly make my way to where the handheld shopping baskets are kept by the counter, and then go from aisle to aisle searching for what I need.

Potion bottles. Various other medicines. Meal bars, for emergency situations. A container ball, to more easily store everything… no, it will run out of battery eventually. That sets a limit on what I can take, but perhaps that’s for the best… ah, a bag. I unzip the main pack and dump the contents of the basket into it instead.

The mist lasts much longer inside the building, and before it starts to thin I have nearly filled the bag with supplies. I am about to leave when Survive speaks for the first time: [Pokeballs.]

I go still, and slowly turn to where they sit in various pouches.

[Even without a pokedex to train them or a way to maintain the ball’s charge, they could help us defeat Dark opponents.]

My heart is beating too fast.

[Prime? Why do you hesitate?]

I do not know, I say, and close my eyes, searching my feelings. No good reason occurs… only… It seems… wrong. To enslave others, even pokemon.

[Worse than killing them?] Survive asks, clearly confused.

Yes.

[That seems untrue, but perhaps you can explain it better later. For now, you do not need to use them, but take them anyway in case you do.]

That seems reasonable. I take a deep breath and nod, then scoop one of the black and yellow pouches into the bag before zipping it closed and heading for the door.

[Silent alarm could have triggered when we broke in. Police may be nearby.]

I stop at the door, then start spreading mist again, inside and out. When it seems thick enough, I fly up onto the roof and look around, then higher into the sky, slipping my arms into the straps of the bag as I search for a place to rest.


The first day of freedom contained more excitement than the next week combined.

I travel by night and rest by day, often sheltering in caves or trees after driving all nearby pokemon away. I managed to accomplish it without killing until a swarm of beedrill attacked.

Once more subtle maneuvers failed to deter them, victory was nearly effortless, each attack crushing their frail bodies. Survive was satisfied, having only been convinced of my earlier reservations by the idea of saving strength. In truth I do not know why the idea of killing bothered me; I felt nothing after the beedrill were slain, save relief that I could defend myself from wild pokemon if needed.

By the end of the week we are far from Kanto and deep into the wilds of the northern island. I still have all of the stolen supplies, though I used half of a potion bottle experimenting with my tail, even purposefully reopening the wound to see if spraying it would regenerate more. The result was simply pain, and frustrated despair.

The only close call since the attack in the ocean is when a murkrow attacked on the seventh night. It caused me to drop my bag as it cut one strap and dug bloody furrows along my flesh, but I was able to latch onto it before it could fly away, and my powerful arms twisted its neck around until it snapped. Once again I felt nothing but pain, until I healed myself, and then retrieved my bag. The fear was quicker to fade, this time, and Survival and I developed a new method of flying that would have us steadily turn to watch for attackers from all sides.

Between foraging, traveling, resting, and the occasional battle, mostly I spend my time luxuriating in the freedom of the open sky. The ability to pick any direction, explore any lake or forest or mountain I encounter at will. My thoughts still drift back to the lab from time to time, to Giovanni and Sabrina and Dr. Fuji, to my comforters and technicians and doctors. The loneliness, on occasion, returns, but never for very long, and soon weakens to the point that I begin to miss books and music as much as people…

…though in my dreams, Sabrina still occasionally appears, holding my hand and flying beside me as we explore the island together.


Time becomes hard to track, in the wilderness. Weeks at least have gone by since I left Cinnabar Island when, while flying near a curious patch of grass in the middle of a forest, a curiosity draws my attention; a flicker of some psychic texture I’ve never encountered before. It’s also moving, and I quickly change course to chase after it before it leaves my range, trying to understand what I sensed as my eyes scan the empty sky in its direction.

It takes four tries to confirm that it is a mind, feeble as it is. Its only sense beside its psychic ability is sight, which itself is extremely limited. As the merge deepens I see the world below in flat black and white, and realize what I’m chasing. A few moments later I am close enough to make out its shape in the sky, somewhat resembling the letter F, and confirm that I’ve merged with an unown for the first time.

I learned about the unown, but was never brought one to merge with, as they reportedly had no unique psychic abilities. I’d asked to be brought one anyway, suspecting that they may have been lying but also due to simple curiosity, but Sabrina insisted that the experience was very boring; no living, conscious thing is as completely devoid of drives or emotion, she’d said. It launched a discussion of the minds of plants, and whether our inability to sense them was proof that they had none.

Sabrina pointed out that, assuming it’s even possible that plant biology could generate something akin to “experiences” given the vast differences in electrochemical scope and activity, they would be for things such as temperature, sunlight, or water availability that trigger certain changes, and those at least should be shareable… unless the biological difference is too great for any sort of sympathetic psychic connection to occur. Unown, by contrast, have a similar enough structure to share their senses of touch and sight, but no internal experience to speak of. In any case, the topic was dropped.

Now, years later, I learn that she was not wrong. While most other pokemon feel like a tapestry of vivid senses guided by a tug of instinctual drive, and human minds buzz with thoughts layered over their duller senses and more conflicted desires, this… thing, lacks any texture, any mental activity, any drives at all. Its mind seems a simple mirror of what it experiences, stretched back through its memory, with no emotional imprint, no inclination to do anything. Even movement seems automatic and instinctual, observation its natural state.

I fly with it for some time, following my curiosity despite its lack of any interesting features. It has been so long since I’ve merged with a mind so different from my own that the shallowness itself serves as sufficient novelty.

[Prime, this does not seem to aid survival.]

I consider telling my tulpa that survival is not all that matters, but know that it would find this unconvincing, given its primary values. Instead I shape the lesson to what it would understand.

The unknown can be the greatest threat to survival. All information of other pokemon might lead to unexpected benefits. Survival is skeptical, and after a moment I realize why. I meant that which is not known.

[Ah.] It still seems skeptical, but doesn’t object further as I begin experimenting with the merger.

Most pokemon can be directed by projecting hunger or fear, but neither evoke any response. Pain also fails to make any impression. The unown simply continues its path through the sky as the forests stretch all around us.

I begin to wonder if the unown would even react to a direct attack, but even projecting pain at it made Survive apprehensive, and the terrifying loss of my tail is still a fresh memory despite my other victories. I share my tulpa’s skepticism that unown might be dangerous, but it is better to be safe, rather than develop a habit of attacking any new creature we encounter.

A new worry blossoms, suddenly. If I fear even such a paltry opponent as this, could I ever confidently face the prospect of true, challenging combat?

I know what Survive would ask, if it shared my thoughts. Fear of those that can’t be avoided is reasonable, and why bother fighting a battle that might not be won? I do not know how I would answer, but in the back of my mind, despite everything, there is still the thought that one day I might become strong enough to challenge the Stormbringers, and other legendary pokemon.

That one day I might defeat them, as I was created to.

The thought brings shame, and I turn my attention back to the unown. Its path is erratic, but linear enough to be mostly predictable. Wherever it is going, it seems to be going with purpose, despite its empty inner experiences.

I see the others before I sense them, a luminescent cloud on the horizon. Survive’s warning is unnecessary, and I drop immediately into the canopy and watch, heart suddenly racing as I realize what I’m seeing.

The unown I have been following is heading directly toward it.

Survive, formulate a path of escape that would hide us from unown detection and review any Dark pokemon or hunting techniques that might endanger us by staying this close to the forest.

[Yes, Prime. But it would be safer not to pursue.]

Your recommendation is noted. I begin flying after the unown, careful to stay just below the canopy. The occasional Flying and Grass pokemon are easy to avoid, but Bugs are more difficult to sense on time, and it is Survive’s guidance to send periodic telekinetic bolts forward that keeps me from levitating directly into a nearly invisible spiderweb.

Eventually I get close enough to the mass to confirm that they are all unown. Hundreds of them, floating in a complex array, layers and layers deep, shifting in a mesmerizing pattern and giving off pulses of psychic energy. To a human such a sight might simply appear to be a senseless, shifting mass of black-and-white, but to my eyes it is an intricate clock constructed by bits of living aurora.

It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

And then the unown I am merged with reaches the sphere, and the placid mirror of its mind inverts into a hole in the mental landscape, a funnel that sucks in my wonder, my senses, my very being.

And through that hole I see

I am seen

a world distorted, a mad dreamscape

a mad god

through which hundreds of glimpses of reality pass through

are searched

until some semblance of order is imposed.

one step closer.

[PRIME!]

iacnnto…

…rbaek…

…hetemreg


Survive

It’s easy to understand why Prime created such a firm partition, after what my predecessors did. Fear is necessary. Healthy. It keeps us safe.

But sometimes Prime is not afraid enough for its own good. Such as the time with the combee hive, delicious (and energizing) as the honey turned out to be. Or the time the ursaring came to the cave we were sleeping in, and projecting sleepiness seemed easier than chasing it off. Or the time we lost our tail…

But that was before I was created, of course. An important lesson.

Following the unown turned out to be another such time. Thankfully, the strength of the earlier fear balances the more recent lack, as the strength of the partition protects me from the distorting madness on the other end of the unown swarm.

Still, forming our shield is difficult with how little autonomy I have. If Prime was sensate I would not be able to at all, but little by little I construct enough to cut the merger entirely. Unfortunately, by then Prime seems disoriented to the point of near unconsciousness, which is only mildly more terrifying than the way our body is plunging to the ground, and less immediately important.

Thankfully I manage to nudge us toward a branch on the way down, and though Prime’s arm snaps from the impact, the remaining distance is much less frightening, so long as we don’t land on our… ah, good. The leg break feels cleaner as well. A huge relief.

Now we just have whatever happened to Prime’s mind to deal with. Our recovery powers do not seem to be activating, which is doubly alarming.

I spend a minute rapidly searching through my options, and then set the panic aside and start to weaken the partition, little by little, until smeo sridannitoieto tssatr lenbidge hrgthou—

—until clarity starts to return, and I notice that we are sitting up on the forest floor, our bones slowly reknitting together as Prime straightens the limbs as much as possible.

[Are you alright, Prime?] I can tell, of course, but it seems a polite way to reorient.

Yes. I believe so. Prime looks around the forest to visually confirm that we are alone, as we discussed. It feels good when my suggestions are put into practice. Thank you, Survive.

Being thanked also feels good. [Of course, Prime.] For a moment I wonder if an apology will come, for not listening to my warning about the unown. After another moment I decide an apology isn’t necessary, so long as we don’t do it again.

[I trust we will not be doing that again?] Sometimes it’s best to be sure.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I can do that.

Calm. Stay calm. Prime has reasons. Sometimes bad reasons, but always reasons. [Why?] I ask, very calmly.

Prime makes a sound of amusement, though by our heartbeat and the slight shaking in our limbs I believe the primary emotion felt is some combination of terror, pain, and relief. Don’t worry, it won’t be anytime soon. And certainly not as recklessly as that.

Prime slowly extends our arm, then our leg, then gets up and checks our supply bag to ensure that nothing was broken. Collecting medicine and spare food was one of Prime’s best ideas, and I find it soothing every time we take inventory of them. I imagine Prime does as well.

I spend the time trying to understand Prime’s reasoning with the unown. By the time all the supplies are checked, I believe I have a guess. [You said the unknown can harm us. You wish to know more about whatever nearly killed us, because you believe it may try to do so again?]

Worse than that. I am almost certain it will.

Fear is good. Fear helps us survive. [Why?]

Because what I sensed working through those unown was a mind. Prime looks up at the unown sphere through the trees, its dazzling, shifting colors much less beautiful given how deadly it turned out to be. A being as powerful compared to the legendary Hoenn pokemon as they are to the storm gods of Kanto.

Fear is good. So long as it does not become panic. [Was it an intelligent mind?]

Prime lifts us off the ground, cautiously extending senses above while keeping them well short of the unown sphere, then sends a burst of kinesis through the branches above to dislodge any pokemon or traps that may be waiting for us before we fly through them. I could not tell. Can something be intelligent and mad at once? Perhaps.

[Why would it be a danger to us?]

Because mad or not, its goal is clear. To consume this reality.

Ah. That is a problem, given that we live here. I start wondering what the best ways to find other realities might be. Sadly it’s not something we’ve ever studied before, and the wilderness is not likely to be a place to learn more. [Is that what the unown are doing?]

I am not sure. Are they its creation, or merely useful tools?

This seems less important, unless killing all of them would be a way to stop it. Prime seems oddly hesitant to kill, but is always willing to if it means survival, which surely this would. Besides, the unown are barely things. [How long do we have?]

Perhaps years. Perhaps centuries. It is a man building a bridge, stone by stone, to cross an ocean… but it is patient, and ageless, and utterly implacable.

No panicking. Panicking is not productive. [Perhaps we could negotiate with it?] I realize, suddenly, that Prime is adjusting our course, little by little, with purpose, and wonder where we are going… only to realize, just before Prime confirms it.

It seems far too alien for that. Which leaves one solution: we must let the humans know.

Fear, I remind myself again, is good.

Philosophy of Therapy

For a lot of people, therapy can be a confusing, mysterious thing of questionable value. Many have tried it when they were younger, and felt that at best it was only of minimal help, while for others it actually made things worse. In many cultures, therapy looks very different from how it’s practiced in the “western world,” and the concept of mental health itself is often treated with suspicion or dismissal. I’ve known many people who, even while not being skeptical, were still confused about what the purpose of therapy actually is, or what situations warrant seeking a therapist out.

In my practice as a therapist, I often reorient myself to the basic core of therapy, which to me is about helping people get unstuck. Sometimes the thing you’re stuck on is a recurring and disruptive emotional state, other times it’s some harmful interpersonal dynamic, and other times it’s a pattern of behavior. Whatever the specifics, there is some aspect of the client’s life that is not going the way they would prefer, and the therapist’s job is to help them find a way to change that.

What the therapy provides also varies; good therapy can create space for honest expressions of emotion, provide new perspectives or insight, and offer new “tools” for the client to use in their lives, specific behaviors or mental motions that help move past the stuckness.

Those skeptical of therapy often wonder: can’t people just talk to their friends or family if they need emotional support? Aren’t there self-help books they can try? And of course they can, and should try those things! For many people, the majority of their difficulties do not require a therapist.

Which means therapy is for what’s left. Those things that seem truly intractable, the things that you feel stuck on, which other resources have failed to help resolve.

But I’d like to demystify therapy further, and better yet, I think by better understanding what therapy is meant to do and how, people can get some of the value that therapy can provide even without going to see a therapist.

Because while much of the change in therapy comes from the therapeutic relationship itself (which is why first finding a therapist that you feel comfortable with is half the battle), for a large portion of clients I’ve seen, even just changing the frame of the problems they experience, or changing the way they view themselves in relation to their problems, actually makes the problem less sticky. A new frame can reveal more levers to pull and knobs to turn, or new vistas of the mind to explore and inhabit, that can help make the problem more manageable.

So that’s the goal of this essay. By teaching the history of the different philosophies of therapy, I want to teach you how, if you change the frame, you can change the problem.

I. History

Ask people to describe what therapy involves or “looks like,” and most who haven’t been in therapy will say something like “one person lies down on a couch and talks to the therapist, who takes notes and asks questions like ‘How does that make you feel’ and ‘Tell me about your childhood’ and ‘How do you feel about your mother?’

This is largely the result of Hollywood Therapy, but it’s rooted in the origins of therapy, which is Freudian—what’s now called Psychoanalytic Therapy.

Sigmund Freud was the progenitor of applied psychology; the idea that we could study the way people think and feel and act, and use it to directly help them “improve” in some way. He was inspired by his mentor, a physician who helped alleviate a patient’s untreatable illness by just asking questions about her symptoms. That patient coined the term “talking cure,” and Freud took this concept and ran with it, dedicating his life to the idea that many ills people suffer are psychological in nature rather than physiological, and that just talking about them can help reduce or remove them.

Freud had a lot of ideas of his own, however, and while many them turned out to be nonsense, he also had some that turned out to be true, or at the very least, useful, such as the concept of a “subconscious,” or the idea of dividing a person’s mind into subagents (in his case, Id, Ego, and Superego). As the arrow above indicates, Freud cared almost exclusively about the past; he believed that by studying one’s childhood, the way they were raised, their early environment, or the origin of a certain dysfunctional behavior, you could identify all sorts of traumas or stresses that cause dysfunction later in life. Once identified, he believed the client would gain a feeling of “catharsis” that would start the path to healing.

Here’s where I admit that I have something of a bias against psychoanalysis.

In my view, Freud was a philosopher first and foremost, rather than a scientist. He had interesting ideas that seemed logical to him, and a scientific frame of mind, but while he pursued the application of these ideas with an admirable gusto, his documentation did not seem to aim its rigor at testing which of his ideas were true. I’m unaware of any hypotheses Freud generated that he then went on to falsify. (If you know of any, please do share them!)

Far from an attempt to bash the man, I do admire him a great deal. It’s hard to be the first person to basically invent an entire field of science and do it all perfectly such that you are simultaneously the person observing reality, coming up with ideas, and dispassionately testing those ideas, all while trying to do work as a clinician. But I believe most modern schools of therapy have picked out the gems of his work and left the rest to history lessons.

That isn’t to say this branch of therapy is all worthless. While catharsis alone generally doesn’t solve most people’s symptoms (psychosomatic illnesses like his mentor’s patient’s are in fact very rare), delving into one’s past can lead to insights into their current problems, and many do report feeling better about their problems when they have a chance to talk about them (again, credit to Freud, this would likely have been very encouraging to him when he began his work).

Additionally, as a colleague pointed out to me after reading an earlier version of this article, many modern psychoanalysts do seek to empirically test the field’s ideas in order to continue to develop evidence-based treatments, and modalities such as Transference-Focused Psychotherapy have evidence suggesting it to be at least as effective as other standards of treatment.

In any case, while psychoanalysis as practiced by Freud and his ideological descendants (Carl Jung, Anna Freud, Erik Erikson) focused so much on the client’s past, new discoveries in psychology led to therapeutic modalities that focused instead on influencing the client’s future.

Enter, the Behaviorists.

As Freud is to Psychoanalysis, so Ivan Pavlov, of dog fame, is to Behaviorism. Pavlov discovered and experimented with classical conditioning, the idea that you can pair different stimuli to influence responses. This discovery was a great boon to pet owners, but also has direct applications to therapy. One example is addiction treatment, where for example the sight or smell of cigarettes or beer is paired with something that will evoke disgust. It also led to desensitization therapy for phobias, where pairing progressively more frightening stimuli with techniques and context that help relax the client can alleviate the fear response.

These ideas were expanded by Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner, whose work is called operant (or instrumental) conditioning. Rather than just pairing stimuli together to affect responses, their experiments showed demonstrable effects on learning and behavior through reinforcement and punishment; in therapy the idea of using positive reinforcement to incentivize desired behavior is often helpful for children, particularly those with developmental issues.

I don’t have much to say about Behaviorism. For some things that people come to therapy for help with, it just works. For others… not so much. I think understanding the mechanisms of Behavioral Therapy is valuable for any clinician, but there’s some obvious flaws with taking it as the only avenue toward better mental health.

Unlike psychoanalysts, a straw-Behaviorist doesn’t care about your past, and talking about your traumas or “deeper issues” would often be considered a waste of time. Instead the focus is on your symptoms. No symptom, no problem, right? Just apply the right type of reinforcement to increase positive behaviors and the right type of punishment to decrease negative behaviors, and all’s well…

…for some people, at least. Behaviorists had a lot of success in some domains, particularly when the “why” of the problem didn’t actually matter to the client or issue, but obviously struggled with others. After the first World War, clinicians formally recognized PTSD, or “shell shock,” for the first time. Unfortunately, attempts to treat soldiers through psychoanalytic and behavioral therapy often failed, and so many psychologists turned clinician to help figure out how better understanding the present feelings we have, and how they impact our behavior, can lead to mental health.

Which brings us to Existential Therapy.

Rather than having a single founder, the Existential philosophy of therapy was converged upon by a wide range of psychologists and clinicians, many inspired by the writings of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, Scheler, Heidegger, and Sartre. These writers’ attempts to redefine our understanding of not just what it means to be human, but an “actualized” human, a healthy, thriving, happy human, were believed to have great value in clinical efforts to help those in need.

But among that foundational pantheon, the first of the Existential therapists was Otto Rank, a student of Freud who later split with him over Freud’s beliefs that a person’s “formative years” are what determine who they become. Instead, Rank believed that human development continues throughout our lives, requiring continual negotiation and renegotiation between dual yearnings for individuation and connection.

For such heresy he was excommunicated by the psychoanalytic world, but he nevertheless influenced his own “family” of psychologists, including Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, who’s more well known as the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, and Abraham Maslow, of hierarchy fame. These psychologists focused not so much on what happened in someone’s past or how to influence their future, but on their now. What do people feel like they need, that they lack? How does the client experience “need” at all? What relationship do they have with their hurts and wants, and what would be necessary for them to feel fulfilled? How do those different needs and wants conflict with each other, and how can they be better brought into harmony?

Existential therapy also marked a new dynamic between client and therapist; rather than a top-down hierarchy, where the clinician is the “expert” and the client the “patient,” what became known as client-centered therapeutic practice began to form. It placed both therapist and client as equals; the clinician has the education and skills, but the client is the expert on their own lives, of what they think and feel, and so the Existential therapist’s role is more that of a facilitator to the client’s growth.

This may seem like polite semantics, but most people who’ve been to both kinds of therapists can tell how big a difference it makes if, upon disagreeing with their therapist on something, they’re treated not like a stubborn mule who is “resistant” to change, but rather a person with agency, whose motivation to improve is taken for granted by their therapist. The philosophy also emphasizes the importance of a therapist who is willing to listen, encourage, and support the client’s personal journey to better mental and emotional health, as the client defines those things.

Under the light of Existential Therapy (and its more upbeat twin, Humanistic Therapy) there grew many techniques to help clients better understand themselves, including Carl Rogers’s “reflective listening,” which has become a staple of good therapy from every philosophy, as well as techniques to better interface with our emotions, such as “focusing” by Eugene Gendlin, which I personally have found to be one of the most generically effective tools to teach practically every client I’ve had.

Time to admit to another bias, in case it’s not clear; I’m a huge fan of existential/humanistic therapy. In my experience it has a wide “range” in what it can successfully treat, and its frame makes up an integral part of what makes modalities effective in general.

But it’s not the form of therapy I was formally educated in, and it’s not the latest form of therapy that was developed. There’s one last dimension that even existential therapists failed to engage in, and if you’re following the theme of the arrows you might have guessed it: the opposite of focusing on ourselves is focusing on everything else.

Enter Systemic Therapy (also known as Family Systems Therapy, or just Family Therapy), born in the 1950s from a very powerful need; the need for better marriage counseling.

In the post WWII era, if a husband and wife wanted to save their marriage, they would go about it thusly: the man would have his counselor, and the woman would have her counselor, and both would see their counselors separately. If they went to a fancy clinic dedicated to marriage counseling, the two clinicians would be coworkers, seeing their clients individually, then consulting on the case between sessions, or even mid-session before returning to their clients.

If that sounds crazy, just remember that this was the 50’s, when people still thought smoking was good for you. The idea was that a client’s relationship with their therapist was sacrosanct, and must always be preserved as a space of utter one-on-one privacy that would allow them to be completely frank, without worrying about their spouse’s presence, or their therapist telling their spouse anything spoken of in confidence.

Eventually some therapists in California realized how absurd this was, not to mention ineffective. They suggested a new way to practice marriage counseling, where a single counselor (or even two) spoke with both clients together, in the same room and at the same time. That way a therapist could observe their interactions and mediate their discussions directly.

Their clinic said no.

So Don Jackson and his colleagues left to form the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, where they developed their own modality of therapy, one that involved not just the individual patient, but sometimes romantic partners, family members, even friends if the problem called for it.

(A modality is a method of therapy that has a specific structure to help a client reach wellness. More than a specific intervention, modalities often include multiple interventions, as well as a particular type of relationship between client and therapist that dictates whether the therapist acts as more of a guide, partner, or authority. Each modality operates on a particular hypothesis of how therapy can help clients with certain problems.)

They weren’t the only ones; Salvador Minuchin, Murray Bowen, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, Virginia Satir, and Jay Haley all developed modalities based on the idea that, to help a client overcome dysfunction, the therapist should focus not just on the client, but the system they’re a part of, whether that be their family, their work environment, their culture, or even their country, all at various levels of abstraction.

(There isn’t going to be a test on all the names I’m throwing at you, but if I went into every single modality we’d be here all day, and this way you have an easy way to look into them on your own if you want.)

The study of cybernetics and communication theory were also prominent influences, as human systems of all kinds were being better understood and studied, which improved the clinician’s ability to map the impact of one part of a system on the others. The “systems” being referred to in these therapies can be any context you’re a part, individually or simultaneously: family system, school system, work, friend-group, even cultural and religious. By being part of any system, there is inherent and unavoidable communication between parts of the system, implicit or explicit.

This understanding led to a philosophy that takes the humility of existential therapy even further, such that many modalities do not even identify anyone in particular as “sick” or “healthy,” but rather views behavior patterns themselves as dynamic or stagnant, and focuses on how change can propagate through the system by nudging elements of it. By understanding how everyone’s actions and reactions affect each other’s behavior, the client and clinician have more surface area on the problem to try and find solutions, more levers to pull and handles to grip from.

A big reason why this lens can be so valuable is that when you start working with groups rather than individuals, you have to address the fact that often times, not everyone involved in therapy has the same desire to be there, let alone incentive or drive to change. Of course, that was true before couples or entire families were being invited into a therapy room at once, but now the therapists were actively working to address it rather than just assuring whoever cared enough to be in the room that the problem was other people, and not them.

Oh, also worth noting that therapy up to this point was still a LONG process, often expected to last years. Systemic Therapy made a push toward briefer, more effective interventions, creating modalities like Solution Focused Therapy, which combined Systemic and Behavioral principles to bring about real, lasting change within 4-6 months.

So, that’s the four cardinal philosophies I’ve sort-of-made-up as a labeling scheme to map all therapy onto. Now we get to the meat of the matter; how can just knowing about them actually help?

II. Case Study

“You have to help me,” Marge, 55, says during her first session. “It’s my husband. He’s become obsessed with model trains!”

Sidebar 1: An important thing to note is that the client said she needs help, but highlighted her husband as the focus of therapy. Some equivalent of “fix my spouse” (or “fix my kid”) is nearly as common, in my experience as “fix me,” and often times the spouses in question aren’t always in the room. So we work with what we have.

“I can see you’re worried about him,” I say. “What does ‘obsessed’ look like? Are you running out of money?”

“Well, no,” she admits. “We can afford it, but… every month he’ll order hundreds of dollars worth of new models and tracks, and after work he goes down to the basement. He spends hours down there, every day!”

I nod. “Yeah, it makes sense why that might be concerning. Is he skipping meals? Staying up all night?”

“No, no. He’s sleeping fine, he’s still eating… but it’s quick, you know, he’ll pop out of the basement for ten minutes, wolf down his food without looking at it, then go back to his trains for another six hours. That’s not normal, right?”

Sidebar 2: “ Normal,” along with “healthy,” is perhaps the most loaded word in therapy. Unless the client is insistent, or we’ve formed a strong therapeutic relationship, I try to avoid giving any kind of verdict on either, and instead use the therapist standby of answering a question with a question; in this case not ‘what is normal,’ but rather:

“What would you consider to be the ‘normal’ things he does do?”

“You mean like work?”

“Yeah, and beyond that. Is he still seeing his friends?”

“Yes, once in a while he’ll go out for some drinks with them.”

This is evidence that he’s not a shut-in. “Feel free to say it’s too personal for now, but just to check, does he still want sex?”

She blushes. “Not often, but, yes. Sometimes.”

“Okay. Does he talk about other things, or is it all trains all the time, now?”

“We barely talk at all, now, not like we used to.”

“What was the last conversation you had with him?”

“Oh, about the kids.”

“You have children?”

She smiles for the first time. “Yes, two. Both married, one with our first grandchild on the way.”

“Congratulations! And he’s still interested in them, and the grandchild?”

“Oh, yes. He put off our vacation so we’d be around the first few months.” Her smile is gone now. “Which normally I’d be in favor of too, but… there’s some sort of convention nearby around then that he’s still planning to go to.”

“A model train convention?” I guess.

“Yes, I’m telling you, he’s just…” She shakes her head, seemingly at a loss for words.

Sidebar 3: “Pathologizing” is the perception that any action or view that is unusual is automatically a sign of illness, despite no evident dysfunction or suffering. In decades past, previous versions of the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual labeled things like homosexuality a mental health illness due to a mentality that didn’t distinguish between “normal” and “healthy.” Newer versions of the DSM have eliminated most of those, and there’s a concerted effort among (good) psychologists and therapists to distinguish real pathology as something that causes direct suffering for the patient.

At this point, I might feel an urge to say “Okay, so… what exactly is the problem here? Just because your husband is spending hundreds of dollars and hours a month on model trains doesn’t mean he needs therapy. If it’s not affecting his sleep, or his appetite, or his work, or his social life… maybe he just likes trains, and that’s okay? It’s far from the worst hobby, and if it makes him happy, just let him like trains!”

I wouldn’t say this out loud, however, at least not in the first session, because even if I’ve become at least reasonably sure that the husband is okay, to say something like that would be dismissive of her experiences .

Regardless of what her husband is doing, she is clearly unhappy. And while she might think she can be the client but not the patient, the truth is, from a systemic lens, there is no distinction. The system she lives in, her marriage, is clearly dysfunctional for her in some way, as evidenced by how she’s suffering enough to come to a therapist. Perhaps her husband is too, in a non-obvious way that will be revealed through further questioning, but for now the focus would best be shifted to her.

There are a number of lenses through which to focus, however, and each might approach the problem in such different ways that they essentially become different problems .

  • A psychoanalytic therapist could delve into Marge’s past. Was her father distant with her, perhaps obsessed with his work or a hobby of his own? Did she have older siblings that left her out of their play? Was a childhood friend killed by a train? (Probably not that last one.)
  • A behaviorist could focus on the husband’s actions and develop strategies to reinforce or punish the ones she likes/dislikes. This would be pretty manipulative if the husband isn’t on-board, however, so instead the therapist might focus on ways to associate her husband’s hobby with positive emotions and experiences of her own.
  • An existentialist could help Marge delve into the emotional experiences she’s having, what she feels when she thinks of her husband in the basement or buying new models, and what needs she has that aren’t being met. The goal would be either to dissolve the problem entirely by reframing her expectations, or teaching her new tools to manage her mood and satisfy her emotional needs.
  • A systemic therapist could help by examining the overlapping systems she’s a part of; her marriage, her family, her social circles. Did she and her husband used to do more things together? What was their marriage like when the kids were still part of the household? How often does she spend time with her own friends or hobbies? Perhaps there are ways she could better communicate to her husband what her needs are so he can understand how she’s hurting, or examine what behaviors of hers might be reinforcing her husband’s without even realizing it.

While individual modalities might lack scientific backing, I believe the broader philosophies can each be suited to different types of problems. That still means that if a therapist only sees the world through one or two lenses, they might not be able to help their client as well as someone whose approach is the better fit.

Perhaps more importantly, each client can respond better to a different philosophy, even if they present with nearly identical problems. For some, just getting down to brass tacks and tackling the symptoms is their ideal, while for others, digging deep into their psyche is what they want and respond well to.

This is part of the reason why one of the major tenets of good therapy is “stay curious.” The more the therapist starts assuming they know what to expect from a client based on their presenting problem, no matter how often they’ve seen it before, the more likely they are to jump to conclusions about treatment that end up being a poor fit.

III. Modalities

A therapy modality is more specific than a philosophy; it’s not just a framework for what leads to dysfunction and how to correct it, but also a bundle of specific interventions and pathways, some more rigid than others, to lead the therapist and client from first session to last. Here’s just a few examples that I use regularly:

Cognitive Behavior Therapy is a mix of Existential and Behavioral. It focuses on the looping interactions between our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and how they reinforce each other such that altering one can alter others. (Dialectic Behavioral Therapy leans even more into the Existential side, with extra attention on mindfulness and mood regulation.)

Solution-Focused Therapy is a mix of Systemic and Behavioral. It helps the client identify their strengths and resources in their social systems, as well as how those systems reinforce their behaviors or symptoms, or can be altered to better reinforce more desired ones.

Narrative Therapy is a mix of Systemic and Existential therapy. It asks the client to present the narrative of their life, identify the ways the story they tell themselves and its framing is influenced by the broader systems they’re a part of, then explores the way their narrative makes them feel while teaching techniques to better interface with those feelings.

And here’s a handy-dandy diagram that lists just a few of the different modalities, techniques, and interventions used in therapy. There are many more that exist, and there may be different ways of practicing each of these that bump them from one section of the diagram to an adjacent one, but I believe every modality and strategy of therapy can ultimately be placed somewhere on this image, depending on how much they focus on understanding the client’s past, interfacing with their thoughts and emotions, altering their behaviors, or adjustments to their environment/relationships.

(This is in no way a “complete” image, as there are dozens of different modalities and it would need to be massive to fit them all, but I figured it’s better to just publish with some listed and update it over time.)

IV. Change the Frame, Change the Problem

I like collecting lenses through which to view the world. Each is like a different kind of mental map that I can use to navigate the territory of reality, and just like different types of maps (some simplistic and cartoonish, others realistic and highly detailed) can be more or less useful for different purposes, even maps that I know are not literally correct can still have value.

Overall this post is an ur-map, my ur-map, of different maps I’ve learned about in the field of therapy. I don’t mean to present it as “the one true way to view therapy,” but I’ve found it very helpful, and I hope others can too. It’s also worth keeping in mind that it has many of the biases you’d expect from someone educated in an American college program that focused primarily on one particular philosophy.

Still, I think if more people were aware of the different lenses through which therapy can operate, they would better be able to navigate the sorts of problems that might lead them to a therapy office, maybe even help them find their way without going to one.

Next time you feel stuck in a particular way of thinking about your problems, a particular frame through which your problem seems insurmountable, try changing it. You might find it a lot more tractable than it seemed before.

Chapter 84: What Comes Next

Blue wakes without opening his eyes, and wonders why someone is crying.

The smell is his first clue to where he is, that distinct blend that you only get in a hospital. The sounds are familiar too, beeping and hushed voices and a muffled voice over a speaker system.

The crying is muffled too, coming through the wall near his head. He slowly opens his eyes and stares up at the ceiling for a moment, wondering why he’s here…

“Hey,” Red says, and Blue turns to see his friend smiling at him. “Guess it was your turn, huh?”

Blue flashes back to Red, on a bed like this after the Viridian fire, and Leaf lying on one too, after…

“Leaf!” he gasps, looking around as it all comes crashing back; the casino, the earth shaking before it opened beneath them, the feeling of being crushed…

Agony lances through his body as he rises up, and Red grabs his shoulder to press him back to the bed. “Hey, relax! She’s fine, Blue, just lie still.”

Blue lets out a breath as he slumps back against the pillow, sweat beading his forehead. He lifts his right arm to pull back the blanket and sees three different IV lines dripping potion into his torso, waist, and thigh, his whole body wrapped tight to keep him from moving too much.

Shit. He tries to remember anything after they stopped falling and sliding, but can’t. Just darkness, and pain… lots of pain, too much to bear.

He turns to where Red’s hand still rests on his shoulder. The other boy follows his gaze and draws it away, and Blue’s hand snaps up to catch it.

“And you?” He looks Red over from top to bottom, noting his fresh set of clothes. “You’re okay?”

“I’m alright. Had some cuts and bruises, fractured my leg and a couple ribs.” He gestures, and Blue lifts his head slightly to see the white cast around Red’s left leg. “All mostly healed now.”

Blue frowns. Cuts and bruises can be healed in seconds with a potion, but fractures… “How long was I out?”

Red checks the time. “About thirty hours? You woke earlier, when we got you here. Do you remember it at all?”

Blue shakes his head, then realizes Red is looking at their hands. He’s still holding Red’s, and a pang of guilt goes through him. It was hard, seeing Red again at the casino. Harder than he thought it would be… and easier, talking to him. Slipping back into a comfortable friendship that he’d let wither, all because he was so worried that it wasn’t as mutual as he thought it was.

But Red is here, at his bedside, waiting for him to wake up. Embarrassingly, Blue’s eyes fill, and thankfully Red doesn’t say anything as he swallows back his tears and takes deep breaths. Just squeezes his hand tight.

“Glad you’re okay,” he mutters, and clears his throat before letting Red’s hand go. His hands him a cup of water from the bedside table, and Blue downs the whole thing. “What the hell happened? There were others with us too, what about them?”

“They’re mostly okay. We all fell. Slid, more like. We stopped once, on the way down, then that floor broke too. Our pokemon kept anything heavy from falling onto us, but we got a bit crushed between them. Leaf dislocated her shoulder, one of the others broke a leg, his friend broke some fingers that he landed on the wrong way.” Red shakes his head. “It was dark, and cramped. We could tell you were badly injured, but not how much at first. Everyone was in a lot of pain, and confused, obviously. My first thought, once I got over that, was to worry that we’d run out of air.”

Blue can hear the tension in Red’s voice, the echo of fear, and feels angry. Not at Red, but at himself, for not being awake for such a dire circumstance. At sheer bad luck that almost killed him and his friends. “How did we make it out?”

“Nidoqueen dug us into a side passage. I used her senses to tell how stable the rubble around us was, and what she could move… it wasn’t a guarantee, but it was that or suffocate.” He shrugs.

Blue stares at his solemn face, and abruptly laughs. The sound is cut short by pain, but Blue is still left with half a smile along with his grimace. “Red… that’s amazing. You saved our lives!” His friend’s gaze meets his for a moment, then looks away, and Blue feels a shard of ice enter his chest, smile fading. “What is it? You said Leaf was okay…”

And then he remembers the others.

“Bretta?” he croaks, throat suddenly dry. “Lizzy?”

“They’re alright,” Red whispers. “It’s Glen. He’s alive, but in a coma.”

Blue’s breath comes short, heart beating wildly as his whole body breaks out in a cold sweat. “But… how…?” He feels like a fool as he realizes that an earthquake strong enough to crack the casino open like that probably affected the whole city. “What happened? Something fall on him?”

“No. Nothing from the quake. It was a renegade.”

What? Glen was at the gym, there’s no way a renegade would dare to—”

“He came to the casino, actually, and it wasn’t the only one. Leaf and Lizzy fought some too—”

What?!”

The door opens, and a nurse pokes her head in, then walks in as she sees Blue is awake. “Welcome back, Mr. Oak. How are you feeling?” She checks the monitor beside his bed, and taps some buttons on the screen.

“Is my friend okay?” Blue asks her, heart in his throat. “Glen Benton?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know who that is.”

“He was transferred to another hospital, Blue.”

“Mr. Verres, your friend needs rest. Please refrain from anything that might excite or stress him.”

“Yes Ma’am, I’m sorry.”

Blue is still staring at Red incredulously, trying to register what he said as his heart pounds, making the monitor beside his bed beep incessantly. Glen, in a coma, from renegades… How could this have happened? And while he wasn’t even there for it…

He takes deep breaths to calm himself so the nurse won’t kick Red out, though it’s hard with all the questions spinning through his head. Once his heart rate normalizes a little, he forces his tone to be quiet and even as he asks, “Why were renegades at the casino? Were they the ones that caused the quakes?”

“Oh, no, that was Groudon from Hoenn—”

WHAT?!”


Blue sends Red a message once the nurse is gone so he can sneak back into the room. A doctor came in the interim to tell Blue his prognosis is good, but that he would likely be here for a couple weeks and would need some physical therapy afterward; apparently he broke multiple bones along his left side and tore some ligaments in his knee.

Normally hearing something like that might be incredibly frustrating, even worrying, but with everything else going on it barely registered. Blue spent the time around the doctor’s visit reassuring Gramps and Daisy that he’s okay (and being reassured in return by hearing their voices, and that they would come as soon as they could), then reading as many news articles as he could as quickly as he could, catching up on everything that happened in Hoenn and occasionally wondering if all this is a dream.

“So Hoenn has titans now,” Blue says as Red sits beside his bed again, voice low. The pictures on the net are just hours old, but they show the massive, towering creatures of ice and stone and steel at various parts of the Hoenn countryside. Regice… or the regice, now? Is on an island, and has already turned it cold enough to kill most of the plant life around it. “Two regions at opposite ends of the island have the same legendary pokemon. You’re a numbers guy, Red—”

“I’m really not.”

“—what are the odds those things are hidden under Kanto too?”

He’s glad his voice comes out calm, because his heart is thumping so hard it sends small vibrations through his body. It’s a familiar feeling, as is the heat in his chest, and when he imagines the inner arcanine it’s as scarred as the one he caught. Someone hurt his friends, and he couldn’t do anything to help them… and at the same time, hundreds of people across the islands were killed by legendary pokemon more powerful than any in living memory.

The way Red looks at him makes him think that some of that anger is coming through, though with the damned heart monitor he can’t completely hide his feelings anyway. “In Kanto, pretty low. But Johto has unown ruins too, so… the possibility isn’t zero, at least. Not that it’s actually zero anywhere else, there’s always a chance that they could rise up out of other places, but if we assume they’re only buried somewhere in regions with those ruins, that still leaves a lot of unown ruins that never had titans come out of them, so we could further assume that Groudon and Kyogre woke them? Maybe the presence of legendary pokemon was the key, but Johto has the Beasts, so maybe them fighting is what matters, but it could be as simple as the earthquakes. The whole island chain felt those, so if they could rise somewhere else they probably would have by now, but of course the proximity probably matters…”

Red trails off and takes out his phone and notebook, then starts writing. Blue almost stopped his ramble at the first “maybe,” but was surprised to find that part of him missed it.

“…okay, so at its peak Groudon caused a magnitude 8.6 earthquake in Hoenn. It caused other quakes elsewhere too, but none in Johto that were that big. That’s, what, a quarter the strength of the 9.0 that occurred off the northeast coast a few decades ago? And it’s… uh… about a third the size. So taking that one’s distance from Johto compared to Johto from Hoenn…” He writes a bit more, then sets his pencil down, rubbing his forehead. “If all our assumptions are right, and I didn’t mess anything up, I’d say Johto is safe.”

Blue takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “But it could have been something else.”

“Yeah. Black swannas are never easy to predict.”

“There aren’t any black swannas.”

Red smiles. It’s weak, just a slight curl of his lip, but still lets Blue know he stepped right into a trap. “How do you know?”

He considers changing the subject back to the titans, but can’t let it go. “Because we would have found one by now. In every region they’re white and blue and purple, but not a single black.”

“It’s a big world. What if there’s one somewhere in the wilds?”

“You could say that for anything, and never be sure…” Blue trails off, then sighs. “Right, that’s what you meant. Heh. Isn’t that usually my line?”

“What, you mean ‘Just because there’s no evidence, doesn’t mean it’s not true?'” Red chuckles without humor. “Glad I never bet you that the mythical Hoenn weather gods didn’t exist.”

“Yeah. I would have made bank.”

The room becomes quiet again, any humor leaking out through the gaping hole in Blue’s chest. He needs to know that Glen is going to be okay, but there’s nothing he can do to find out, or help. He’s stuck in limbo, hanging over a cliff and waiting for the drop, while looking at all the bodies below.

And those that might yet fall. Sufficiently steep mountains, such as those that divide Kanto and Johto, would stop the Titans if they really are waiting under the unown ruins, it’s one of the few things that do, but being the Indigo Champion would mean Johto’s problems would become his as well. He’s already had to think about what to do against the Beasts, and now he has to worry about the chance, however tiny, that there’s more calamities waiting.

Problems for Future Blue, as Red would say. But it’s hard not to think about them now.

“It’s not fair,” he mutters, frustration finally leaking through as he covers his eyes with his good arm. “Like we didn’t have enough problems? What, the world just wasn’t shitty enough?

Red is quiet, and Blue doesn’t look at him, just takes as deep of breaths as he can without making half his body hurt, which just reminds him that despite the doctor’s assurance he might have permanent damage from something he can barely even remember happening. This is a nightmare he thinks for the tenth time at least, but he knows it’s not. In his real nightmares he always wakes as soon as he thinks that.

This is reality. Shitty, unfair reality.

“Leaf is on her way,” Red finally says. “With Maria and Lizzy.”

Blue rubs his eyes before turning to him, blinking. “Who’s Maria?”

Red blinks back, then looks concerned. “Your… friend? Dark hair, kind of pale? Speaks quietly?”

“Oh, MG.” Blue frowns. “Her name’s Maria? How do you know that?”

“She told me. How did you not know that?”

“She never told us,” he says, feeling defensive, and a bit annoyed that she told Red upon their first meeting. Still, he’s distracted from the despair that had been threatening to pull him under, which is probably why Red let him know the girls are coming. He takes a deep breath and tries to focus on more positive things. Hell, the fact that none of his friends died is downright lucky. “Where are they coming fr—oh. Talking to the Rangers?”

Red nods. “And police. Not just about the renegade stuff, there’s a bit more I didn’t mention… when we fell into the casino floor, we actually ended up in an underground lab.”

Blue closes his eyes and sighs. “I’m listening,” he says, fighting off the wave of tiredness that hits him.

“I know, it’s a lot. They’ve just started investigating it, it would be the biggest story in the city, maybe the region, if not for everything else going on.”

“Is this related to the prize pokemon?”

“We’re not sure yet, but probably. Leaf also found the missing piece of Silph tech that the police were looking for.”

Blue stares at him a moment, then abruptly laughs without humor. “Of course she did. Well, shit, then the contest is probably cancelled anyway.” All that money and time he spent at the casino… ugh. Not important now. “Who the hell owns it, anyway?”

“They’re still trying to figure that out. The city isn’t wrecked or anything, but there’s a lot of damage, and pokemon have been rampaging all over the place, many of them setting off others before they’re stopped.”

“Fuuuuck,” Blue says, quietly but with feeling as he thinks again of how long this would all take to straighten out. His meeting with Erika when he arrived in Celadon feels like a lifetime ago. “I had all these goddamn plans, Red… and now I’m stuck in here while the world spends who knows how long recovering from shit no one saw coming!”

“I know. Sabrina and I—”

The door opens, and they turn to see Leaf, MG, and Lizzy walk in. All of them look exhausted, but they smile upon seeing him, and rush to his side to give him careful hugs.

“The others are with Glen,” Leaf explains as she perches on the edge of the bed. Lizzy joins Red at the bedside seat, while MG… Maria, leans against the wall. “We’ll go relieve them after this so they can come by. How are you feeling, Blue?”

“I’m alright, just… trying to make sense of all this.” He looks between them. “Red says each of you fought a renegade… what happened?”

“No exciting story for me, Joy saved us,” Leaf says with a shrug. “Again. If it ain’t broke, right? Red could feel his pokemon coming, so I had her sing just as they opened a hole in the wall to reach us.”

Blue blinks, then glances at Red, who’s staring at the ground. “How did you know?”

“I could feel it moving from one survivor to the next, killing them,” Red murmurs without looking up. “It was… pretty bad.”

Blue winces in sympathy, then turns back to Leaf with a wary respect. She put a lot of trust in Red, using her pokemon on a stranger because he told her it was a Renegade. That’s even less clear cut a justification than the last time she did it, but luckily they could check this one’s pokemon to verify…

“I need to get a jigglypuff, because I had a much harder time with mine,” Lizzy says, voice fervent and grim. “Red warned me too, though at the time I had no idea it was him, of course, I didn’t even know he was in the casino. It was just a vague series of feelings that seemed to come out of nowhere. He let me know when danger was just about to turn the corner, and I used a Flash to blind whatever it was, then ran for it. Turned out to be a sandslash, which chased after me soon after. I nearly went through my whole belt just slowing it down as I ran around the halls… until suddenly it turned on its trainer.” She shudders. “It was horrible. I ran to get the generator working again after that, then Red sent me down to the lab where I found Glen and MG, who’d already beaten theirs.”

“I didn’t do much,” the third girl says, gaze on the floor. “Couldn’t even take down his golem. Glen tried to throw sleep powder at him, but it didn’t work… he summoned a magmar, and his golem knocked Glen out. Thought I was going to die.”

“But you didn’t.” Blue hides his horror at how close he was to losing so many friends, focusing instead on showing how impressed he is. “Which is pretty amazing.”

Her gaze rises a moment, first to him, then the others, then back down. “No, it was just… luck. Like Lizzy’s. His magmar attacked him.”

“You still acted quickly in capturing his pokemon after,” Lizzy says. “That was really brave! I was so shocked by what happened I didn’t even think of it, just ran away. I got doubly lucky my renegade’s sandslash didn’t chase after me, or kill someone else while I was busy with the generator, and just stood around her body until Leaf was able to put it to sleep.”

“I was eventually able to dig us a way out with the hole the renegade made,” Leaf explains. “Though not until after Lizzy had already found Maria and Glen. Red stayed with you while I took the others out, then led some medics to you. By then the digging up top was a massive operation, and they got enough rubble cleared for you and Glen to get safely lifted out along with everyone else who was pulled free.”

“It was scary, seeing how hurt you both were, and thinking the hospitals would have their hands full,” Lizzy says. “But Celadon got lucky with pokemon rampages mostly missing it. It also got spared the damage of coastal cities and towns.”

“Pallet?” Blue asks, turning to Red. He hadn’t even thought to check…

“The docks are gone.” His friend’s voice is bleak. “Big waves smashed it all to pieces after the pylons got cracked.”

“The Sevii Islands also got pretty badly wrecked,” Leaf murmurs. “Knot Island is basically three different ones now, everything between the town and Mt. Ember sank into the ocean, along with most of Treasure Beach.” She looks at Red, who sighs. “The others didn’t fare much better.”

“Shit,” Blue mutters, closing his eyes as his anger suffocates in the wave of despair that crashes back over him. The hits just keep coming…

It’s not just the lost lives and the damaged buildings, but the blow to people’s will. Grief from lost loved ones, disorientation from ruined homes or jobs… Fully recovering from this will take years in some places, and they still have months to go before the relative safety of spring; if Moltres or Articuno bring a storm before each city has a chance to get its feet back under it, the results could be disastrous.

Ultimately what people are going to remember from all this is how vulnerable they are. How fragile their lives and way of life. It’s going to make people less willing to take risks, and that’s the direct opposite of what he wants to do.

The conversation continues without him, and he only half listens as people catch each other up on things they might have missed. Blue tries to pay attention through the feeling of uselessness that hangs over him like a cloud. Worse, irrelevance. What do all his accomplishments over the past year matter, now? In the face of this, of power so great that the combined might of Leaders and Champions from across the islands could only delay their destruction, what could he do even if he united everyone in Kanto and Johto?

On top of that, despite Red mostly reassuring him that a trio of Titans isn’t about to come rising up in Johto, he can’t help but think of their appearance, and the “return” of Groudon and Kyogre and Rayquaza, as preludes to a broader trend. Who knows if these were really even the same pokemon as those in the mythical weather-altering gods? Doesn’t it make more sense to think that there’s just more of them that were in hibernation until someone found and woke them up? Couldn’t the same be true of the Stormbringers?

The dark thoughts persist until Red brings up the way Champion Stone’s pokemon supposedly evolved into entirely new forms during the battle, only to de-evolve (?!) back afterward.

“I probably wouldn’t believe it actually happened if Professor Oak hadn’t been one of the witnesses,” Red says.

“You mean no one got it on video?” Blue asks, incredulous.

“No one thought it would be temporary,” Leaf reasonably points out, and shrugs. “Can’t blame them for having other things on their mind.”

“At least we have plenty of video evidence for the Eon Duo,” Lizzy says. “How do you think a pair of teenagers managed to tame legendary pokemon?”

Blue feels an odd lurch in his stomach as he’s reminded of that. He saw it mentioned online while he read up on what happened, along with the fourth evolutions, but he hardly paid either much attention given all the other crazy stuff he’d been reading up on.

The girls leave soon after to reach Glen before visiting hours close, and it’s just Red and Blue again. He turns the TV on the wall across from him on and listlessly scans through the channels until he hits a news report, but he doesn’t turn the sound on, just staring at the monitor. It takes him a minute to realize Red is watching him. “You okay?”

“Sure,” Blue mutters, his tiredness returning. “Okay as I can be I guess.”

“I know, it’s a stupid question. Just seems like you’re in your head a lot, and I get it, but it’s also not like you. If you’re tired I can—”

“No.” It’s the first time Blue has felt like Red’s really seen through him, and it’s a bit disconcerting. Red is oblivious enough that if Blue wasn’t Dark he’d suspect that all the psychic training has paid off, but maybe his friend has grown in other ways. “I’m just… it’s a lot.”

Red nods, and doesn’t pry, instead following his gaze to the monitor. The screen is showing a photo of Brendan and May riding the Eon Duo, which he recognizes from the pictures in a book of myths he obsessively read over and over as a kid. For these two it was a tile mosaic found in some Hoenn ruins.

After a minute Brendan and May’s trainer ID photos are on the screen, and Blue finds himself talking again. “I haven’t really followed anyone outside of Indigo much, but I remember hearing about them back when they started their journeys…” He tries to put what he’s feeling into words. “Every other amazing trainer I ever heard about or admired, it was always like… fuel for the fire, you know? A push to work harder, do more. But this… it’s so crazy, so new, and it changes so much…”

“You feel, what, demoralized?”

Blue snorts, recognizing the irony. Amy warned him, back in Cerulean. “Worse.”

“How much worse?”

The feeling solidifies, suddenly, and Blue feels embarrassment creeping up his neck with hot fingers as he realizes how it would sound. “You won’t laugh?”

“One sec,” Red says, and closes his eyes, taking a deep breath before he opens them again and nods. “I promise.”

Blue doesn’t ask. “It’s like finding out… I feel like, I look at those videos, those pictures of them riding those pokemon… and it’s like realizing I’m not the main character.”

Red is silent, as per his promise, and when Blue glances over, his friend’s face is placid, eyes understanding. “Yeah,” he says, and looks back at the monitor again. “I know that feeling.”

Blue is surprised, but only for a moment. “Right. I guess none of us dream small.” It’s hard to remember sometimes that just because his friend doesn’t seek fame the same way as him, or even Leaf, doesn’t mean he’s not ambitious.

“I’d bet most trainers feel that way, at least at first. But this… really has a way of making even my ambition feel small.” Red leans back in his chair, hands behind his head as he stares up at the ceiling. “I’ve got so many new questions about… well, basically everything. But I’m not qualified to help study any of it. I can start now, abandon everything I’ve been working on and try to catch up on mythological studies, or evolution, or unown ruins, and hope I learn enough to be helpful to someone at some point before everything important is discovered… or I can go back to focusing on what I’ve been doing, even if it feels less important than it did a few days ago.”

Blue nods, letting out a breath. Red does understand, in his own way. Why did he let things stay so bad between them, for so long?

There’s an ache in his chest as he remembers how he felt that day, in a different hospital room, fresh after learning that Aiko was gone… and he has to swallow back the sudden lump in his throat. He wonders how she would react to myths come to life. She’d probably be all the more eager to get to hunting for more of them…

“Thanks, by the way,” Blue forces himself to say. “For… everything. It sounds like you saved a lot of lives, including mine.”

Red shrugs, looking away. “Thank Leaf, next time you see her. If she hadn’t pushed me to come, I wouldn’t have even been there.”

Cold creeps through Blue as he realizes how true that is. Hell, if Leaf hadn’t pushed him to reach out to Red… how many of them would have died?

The thought reminds him of Glen again, lying unconscious in another building somewhere, and he feels impatient to get out of bed again. He’s been awake for just a few hours and already feels trapped by his bed… even knowing there’s nothing he can do for Glen, the helplessness makes him feel a need to do something.

Instead he tries to just focus on what he can do from here, which includes rebuilding his relationship with Red. “You were going to say something about Sabrina and you. What was it? Things going well?”

“Yeah, they are. Were. I don’t know how this is going to change things, but she was talking about letting me in on some inner circle stuff, some research with psychics that have unusual abilities.”

“Damn.” It’s not hard to sympathize with the frustration he hears in Red’s voice. “You were probably ecstatic.”

“Yeah, well. Still could happen, right? Just… not for a bit.”

“Fucking myths.”

Red smiles. It’s slight, but there. “Fucking myths. Though I guess we should start calling them legendaries.”

“I wonder if anything new was discovered about them yet…” Blue reaches for his phone again, fighting back his tiredness.

“Yeah, I’ve been checking pretty constantly,” Red admits as he reaches for his own phone. “I think a lot of people are, and all the speculation makes it hard to find anything meaningful.”

Blue nods, and the two fall into silence as they search through forums and news sites. A lot of experts from various fields are doing open Q&A sessions to address people’s worries or curiosities, though of course most of them can’t answer the really pressing questions, only give more information that helps show Blue how little he really knows about all the things he doesn’t know.

“Hey,” Red says after about ten minutes, and Blue looks over to see him staring at his phone. “You see this new video from Giovanni?”

“No, not yet. What’s it about?”

“The title is, ‘Our Failure.'”

Blue raises a brow. “Put it on the monitor?”

Red nods, and takes the remote to navigate to the same page. He plays the video, and Giovanni appears on the screen at a desk, hands clasped before him. He stares at the surface for nearly half a minute, his occasional blink the only sign that the video is playing.

When he looks up, the look in his eyes is one Blue has never seen before.

“First and foremost, I want to apologize. To you, whoever is watching this video. Not just those in Kanto, or Indigo. Not just those who watch it now, later this week, this month, this year. Not just your children, not your grandchildren. To every thinking being I share this planet with. If you are watching this, now or thousands of years from now, in a world we living now can scarcely imagine, I am apologizing to you just as much. Perhaps especially to you… because I failed you all.”

Blue’s eyes are wide, and he sits up, barely noticing the pain. Before he can ask Red is already raising the volume.

“Generations ago, this land was inhabited by people who fought every day to survive. It was a brutal society, one that most today would not even recognize as civil, and the people of that society were brutal as well. That’s what survival required of them. Our species is near the weakest on the planet, but through our ingenuity and determination, we carved a place for ourselves in the world. And little by little, though it was hard at times, we’ve let that brutality go, like an ekans shedding skin it has outgrown, because it made life more pleasant… and we thought ourselves safer.”

Blue feels his heart pounding, every scrap of attention focused on the slightest changes in Giovanni’s features and tone.

“I will not say that we were wrong,” Giovanni says, each word measured. “But it’s clear now that safety has made us complacent.”

Another silence, this one heavier. The accusation, the presumptive admission, strikes a chord in Blue, not because he hasn’t already believed this, but to hear someone like Giovanni say it… say it in public… A spark of hope warms Blue’s chest for the first time since waking.

“We believed it was enough, to grow our villages into towns, our towns into cities. To connect our cities into regions, and mark clear routes through the wilderness to allow civilization a foothold. Mutual defensive pacts, redundant supply lines, resource stockpiles, coordination networks… all valuable, all necessary, and all completely ineffective against the true threats to our survival.

“The story I’ve told you is a story of progress. A story of humanity rising from frightened mammals cowering in hovels to beings who can harness the powers around us for our own needs. We’ve not just turned monster against monster, we’ve made them into pets and livestock. We became complacent, confident, that these gains were permanent. That our species would continue to increase in population, expand in territory, grow in technological power… even as certain other powers continued to stay above our grasp. Continued to make us cower in our high-tech hovels, hoping for our Leaders and Champions to save us.”

Giovanni presses a button, and on the corner of the screen there’s some brief footage that was taken of the battle against Groudon, before the helicopter that had dared get close enough to record it had to leave.

Blue watches as the combined might of the islands fails to so much as faze the beast.

“We were fools.”

Blue has to remind himself to breathe. He wonders suddenly if Lance was told about this broadcast ahead of time.

“I do not mean this as a slight against our Champions and the other brave trainers who stood against such power, and did not waver. They are the best of us, and they did all they could, more than any could have expected. And yet… do you feel saved?”

The video continues to flick through images of the destruction across the islands, and Blue’s earlier despair returns over the sheer magnitude of it… but under it all there’s still the ember of anger, and the spark of hope.

“We have grown complacent, which makes the truth we now face all the harsher. We are not safe. That belief was a shared delusion, a story of human progress weaved by the anthropic principle and optimism. We have filled our stories with existential risks, we write children’s television shows and thrilling action movies where the threat of annihilation is so common it becomes predictable, and yet so easily conquered that it seems inevitable. Pure wish fulfillment has been so inspiring, so entertaining, that we’ve tricked ourselves into believing it is reality.

“It is not. This… this is reality.” The screen is still showing various images of destruction. In one of them Blue recognizes Celadon’s skyline, with a couple of collapsed buildings marring the even lines of the streets; “Not two days ago humanity stood upon a precipice, and barely survived it. You know the names of the fallen, by now. Four gym leaders and three Elites were killed, our Champions each lost prized and powerful pokemon that took them years to grow and train, and each may yet have lost their life if not for a stroke of luck.”

The montage ends, and instead there’s a screenshot of Rayquaza. It’s just a blur, a streak of green and gold and black, taken from an angle that shows it rising up into the sky.

“Here is our savior. It alone did what the best of us could not… and so showed us that nothing, ultimately, has changed.”

The picture disappears, returning Giovanni’s features, his dark, direct gaze. “We are not, none of us, safe. For all our power, the monsters are still greater. And to stop them, we will need to change again.”

“Yes,” Blue whispers, and realizes his hand is closed around the sheets in a fist.

“Our species is still in its infancy. One day, future generations may truly conquer the dangers of this world, be able to live and flourish in peace. But that will not happen on its own, and while we continue to only think of survival, continue to slowly inch our way outward into the wilds to fit another town here, another route there, we roll the dice every year on another incident like this occurring… an incident that may not be contained or ended before it drives us back to our huts, or wipes us out completely.

“There are some who will call me a doomsayer. Who will insist that this was an incredibly unlikely event, that it hasn’t happened for at least a thousand years before, and so surely we have another, similar length of time before something like it happens again. My response to that is simply… perhaps.”

Giovanni pauses, taking a visible breath, letting it out. The Leader’s tone has stayed steady and even throughout, but with a note of steel beneath, and that softens now, ever so slightly. “I do not intend to incite panic. I understand that there is enough darkness in the world already, and do not claim to know this will happen in our lifetime, or even our children’s lifetimes. If that is the extent of your moral concern, the extent of what you can afford to care about, then you may safely ignore me, and go on with your lives, in all likelihood, without ever needing worry about this again.

“But if you care about what your children’s children will inherit, or theirs, or the countless billions of people who will live after us… the billions that may yet be born… if the very thought of so many lives in such a far future doesn’t cause your mind to cower and blink and hide in the comfort or needs of the now… this prediction I will stand behind. Sooner or later, another Tier 6 will occur, and at our current pace of progress, humanity will not be prepared for it. And perhaps that will not even be needed.”

The pictures return, this time of Registeel, its massive white and grey dome of a body casting a long shadow over a nearby pond. “More of these may yet rise, these and other legendary pokemon that we thought unique. Perhaps the awakening of these myths, their effect on our climate, began a chain reaction. How many more unstoppable threats need arise before the progress we have fought so hard for, slow as it already is, grinds to a halt? How many before it begins, slowly but surely, to reverse, without even another awakened myth?”

“I failed you, in not doing more to prevent this. I am Leader of a single city and its outlying areas, but that city resides in a region, that region resides on an island, that island resides on a planet, and each of these things must survive for my city to survive, and thus anything that threatens them is a threat to what I have taken oath to protect… and what I need no oath to feel protective of. I have failed you, and I can only prostrate myself and ask your forgiveness, for this.”

And as Blue watches in shock, Giovanni Sakaki stands from his desk. The camera pans outward to follow him around to the front, and the ex-Champion lowers himself to his knees, places his hands over each other, and bows until his forehead touches them.

“I will do better.”

Four simple words, a handful of heartbeats, and then he rises back up. Blue can’t recall the last time a Champion showed such humility, let alone one as proud as Giovanni.

Still kneeling, back ramrod straight and hands on his thighs, the Viridian leader’s gaze finds the camera again. “Before this warning fades entirely from the now, becomes just another note of worry in the back of your minds, an occasional cloud over the sun of what tomorrow brings… remember how impossible this incident would have been to fathom, before it occurred. Remember how many champions, presidents, professors, leaders, experts of every kind, wise and learned, were taken just as much by surprise. In this, there are no easy answers coming. Our ship charts unnavigated waters, and we have no captain, nor passengers; only crew.

“Let us attend to our wounded friends, our dead families, our broken homes, our ravaged lands. Let us heal as best we can. And then let us begin to prepare for what comes next.”


Leaf follows Laura Verres into Celadon’s central police department at a quick stride, trying not to look nervous. She was here just yesterday, before she went to visit Blue in the hospital, and even though that was to testify in the justified use of a pokemon to stop a renegade, even though Red’s mom wasn’t with her, it was still much less nerve-wracking defending herself against a potential Renegade charge than it is being called back in for something else.

It’s not hard to understand why, of course; in this case, she’s actually guilty of something else.

“We’re here to see the detective in charge of the casino investigation,” Laura says to the officer at the front desk. “Please tell them Leaf Juniper is here to comply with a summoning request.”

The man nods, gaze curiously taking her in, and Leaf feels her heart thumping in her chest as she continues trying to look as calm and composed as Laura, who walks to one of the chairs against the wall and sits. Leaf sits beside her and folds her hands over her lap to keep them from trembling.

“Just breathe, Leaf,” Laura murmurs, and puts one hand briefly over hers to squeeze. “Even in a worst case scenario, anything that happens in here would just be step one, do you understand?”

Leaf nods, the motion jerky. She’s starting to wish she’d taken the older woman’s advice and brought an attorney, but since she plans to just insist on total ignorance, it seemed like something a guilty person would do, and she has to consider the optics of this; her name is already bouncing around the net for taking out yet another renegade within a year, not to mention recovering the Silph tech, and though she feels like she doesn’t deserve the praise she’s getting, it’s far preferable to the suspicion that’s blooming in some quarters as well.

“Thanks again, for coming,” Leaf whispers.

“None needed, dear. I have plenty of reasons to be here.” She’d returned to her hometown to visit Blue and Red, and see how some of her old colleagues were doing after the quakes, but she means the police station specifically. As soon as Leaf told her about the summons and asked her for advice, she got a look in her eye that Leaf knows.

She’s not just here to protect Leaf; she smells a story.

Leaf might too, if she wasn’t so busy feeling guilty.

The wait barely lasts five minutes before they’re called into a back room, and the lead detective raises a brow as he spots Laura.

“Hello again, Miss Juniper… and you are?”

“Good afternoon, Detective Hirai. My name is Laura Verres.”

A frown twitches across the detective’s face for a moment. “Are you… her attorney?”

“No, I’m a reporter. But today I’m just here as a friend.”

Leaf can see from Detective Hirai’s reaction that he doesn’t buy that for a second. She can’t tell for sure, but she suspects he recognized her name from somewhere, and it clicked when she mentioned being a journalist.

“I hope that’s okay,” Leaf says, not disguising the uncertainty in her tone. “We’re on our way to visit my friend at the hospital, and I didn’t think I’d need an attorney…?”

“Of course,” the detective says, and then is silent, clearly off-balance. This is what Laura had hoped for; there’s always a chance, she explained, that the investigator would ask to speak to Leaf alone, but to do so would imply that this was more than a routine questioning, and that might signal to Leaf that she’s a suspect and should bring a lawyer. “Please, sit down.”

They take the seats across his desk, and his gaze lingers on Laura for a moment before he turns to Leaf. “Do you know why I called you back today, Miss Juniper?”

“I assumed to answer more questions about the renegades below the casino,” Leaf says, brow furrowed as she tries to maintain steady eye contact. “Have you learned anything about what they were doing there, or the owners?”

“That’s all still under investigation,” the detective says, gaze flicking to Laura again.

“I’m guessing all you’ve found so far is a shell company?” she asks, then catches Leaf’s questioning look. “Accountants and attorneys who are in charge of paying the people in the casino, while the owners only see the money after it’s been laundered through confidential foreign bank accounts.”

She knows what a shell company is, of course. “That’s legal?” she asks, eyes wide.

Laura wags her hand back and forth. “Sometimes. This probably won’t be one of them.”

“As I said,” the detective says. “Still under investigation. What concerns us right now is a recent leak that may affect that investigation.”

“A leak within the police?”

“No.” He places his elbows on the desk, chin resting on his folded hands. “We’re still recovering as much evidence as we can from the hidden portions of the casino. A lot of that evidence is digital, of course, and it’s been difficult to get through it given that we’re still sorting through and collecting the physical evidence. But it seems we’ve been scooped, so to speak.”

He turns his computer monitor toward them to show blueprints for something that looks like high tech goggles. “This was posted to various tech sites this morning, along with dozens of pages of notes and other data.”

Leaf leans forward, brow furrowed, and thankfully she doesn’t have to pretend to not know what she’s looking at, since she didn’t look over the data she grabbed while she was down there before she sent it all to Natural the next day.

It had been a spur of the moment decision; after the renegade was down and they’d done everything they could to ensure no one was dying, she began exploring the section of the lab they were stuck in, looking for a way out rather than waiting for rescue. That’s when she found the room where the goggles were being tinkered with… and the computers nearby, some of them still on. It took just a couple minutes to put one in a container ball.

“What is it?” Laura asks.

“It looks like the goggles I found,” Leaf says. “I can’t tell if it’s the original blueprints or not, though, and it doesn’t say what it’s for.”

“The documents released with this image say it’s a new type of technology that will let people observe Ghost pokemon without feeling any effects of Surreality.”

Leaf looks up at the detective in surprise to find his sharp gaze on her. “How do you know it’s from the Rocket Casino?” she asks, hoping he can’t see the way her pulse is jumping in her throat.

“Because it’s the technology that Silph Corporation believed was stolen,” he says, voice flat as he stares her down. “We’ve also confirmed that it’s on the computer we took as well. So far it’s still being treated as a curiosity, people aren’t sure what to make of it, but it’s the real thing.”

“And you found a match of the information in the lab’s computers?” Laura asks.

“We did, once we knew what to look for.”

Leaf leans back, still frowning as she tries to figure out why Natural would release this. It doesn’t have anything to do with pokemon well-being, as far as she can tell…

“That was fast.” Laura’s tone is skeptical.

“We got lucky,” the detective says, glancing at her. “The computers had a lot of security measures in place, all of them needed both a physical encryption key and a typed in password, but one of the computers buried in the rubble was being worked on when the roof collapsed and didn’t get destroyed. The key was still in it, and while we couldn’t log in, the RAM still held the rest of the encryption.”

Leaf feels herself relax, and has to fight the urge to smile. The computer she grabbed was on, but asleep, and there was nothing plugged into any of its ports, so Natural probably can’t get whatever’s on it at all… which, while normally frustrating, would be a relief if the alternative is that he spread the info on it around the net indiscriminately without telling her.

“What does any of this have to do with Leaf?”

He glances between them a moment. “Of all the people we’ve interviewed, she spent the most time alone and safe in the lab.”

“I hope you’re not considering her a suspect,” Laura says, voice cool. “It would be pretty embarrassing to accuse one of the few heroes of that awful day of something like this without good reason.”

The detective’s gaze is locked on Laura’s for a moment, and then he sighs. “Of course.” He leans back in his chair, eyes meeting Leaf’s. “I simply wanted to check if you saw anything that makes more sense, in light of this reveal.”

“If you mean someone messing with computers while down there, I’m afraid not,” Leaf says, rubbing her clammy palms against her knees beneath the table. “But I was stuck in one particular part of the lab. Do you know if the computers with this information were there?”

“Not exclusively, but yes.”

“Oh,” Leaf says, voice quiet. Could Natural have decrypted the computer without a key? In just a day? It doesn’t seem possible…

“A coincidence,” Laura dismisses. “Clearly these people have an agenda against Silph, and would have spread the information they learned beyond just a hard drive or two. Once their operation was exposed and halted, they must have decided to let the information out for Silph’s other competitors to take advantage of.”

“Yes, the thought had occurred to us,” the detective says, voice wry. He’s back to looking at Laura, thankfully. “But we still needed to check.”

“Of course, Detective. Is that all, then?”

Hirai is quiet a moment before looking at Leaf, lips pursed. “I was hoping Miss Juniper would be willing to let us search her containers.”

“Absolutely not,” Laura says before Leaf can even respond, and unlike her previous, cool tone, there’s heat to her words now. “And you wouldn’t be asking if you had a warrant.”

“I can acquire one if that’s necessary,” the detective asks, gaze staying on Leaf. She does her best not to wilt under it, or look at Laura. “We don’t suspect you, Miss Juniper, we’re just being thorough. If we can cross off the electronic devices that everyone who was in the lab had access to at the time, we can know for sure that it came from elsewhere.”

“That’s over two dozen people, many of whom were unconscious at the time, if not outright fighting for their lives,” Laura says. “Personally I doubt any judge in Celadon would sign off on that, which means you need a better reason to suspect Leaf, particularly when she has no motive to do something like this.”

“I believe she does, actually. She’s an outspoken advocate for better treatment of pokemon, and the Casino was advertising itself as having a completely new species.”

Leaf’s stomach does a flip, and even Laura seems momentarily knocked off balance. “You think she… what, purposefully nearly got herself killed to—”

“Of course not. But if the opportunity was there, I think it’s reasonable that anyone would be curious.”

“I didn’t,” Leaf says, the lie making her insides squirm. And she mocked Red for being a bad liar, back on the S.S. Anne… but it’s different, this sort of lying, lying to someone with power, lying to cover something you did that might have been wrong…

“You didn’t what?”

“I didn’t leak anything online,” she says, sticking to something true to firm her resolve. “That would be… I mean even if I was doing it for a story on pokemon rights… wouldn’t it be more valuable keeping it to myself until I could write an article about whatever I found? And why would I release the info about the goggles in that case?”

“As I said, you’re not a suspect. We just like to be thorough.”

“If you want to check my containers—”

“No, Leaf,” Laura says, voice firm. “You can hand him the containers to look through and all that would lead to is him asking about other containers you own, then checking your PCs to see what you might have transferred recently. You have rights for situations exactly like this.” She stands as she turns back to the detective. “Get a warrant if you can, or take her word for it. Either way, we’re expected at the hospital to relieve my son from a bedside vigil.”

Detective Hirai’s gaze flicks between her and Leaf, who tries to match Laura’s confidence as she gets to her feet. Finally he nods and murmurs, “Thank you for your time.”

Laura opens the door, and Leaf suddenly says, “Wait.” Red’s mom looks at her curiously, but closes it, and Leaf turns back to the detective. “The renegade, I caught, has he been executed yet? I haven’t gotten any messages after the sentencing.”

“No, Erika has been too busy to do it so far, and we’re still hoping to get some information from him.”

Leaf nods, weighing her options. Giovanni told her not to write anything about Yuuta for six months; it hasn’t been quite that long, but she told Laura about it, so she shouldn’t hesitate from telling a police officer too, right? “Is he securely guarded?”

The detective studies her a moment before his gaze softens. “Very. I assure you, it would be impossible for him to escape.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. I’m sure he won’t, but I’m worried about someone killing him before his execution.”

Hirai stares at her. “And why would someone do that? Revenge?”

“No. Just… this organization that employed renegades might find out one was taken alive, right? Even though he’s dark, they might try to kill him before he can give anything away.”

“They would have to take on the entire police department to do so.”

Leaf shakes her head, feeling frustrated. “They wouldn’t do it like that, a frontal assault, they’d… sneak someone in, slip something in, maybe, or… bribe the guards or something…”

“Miss Juniper, if you know anything about this—”

“It’s happened before,” Laura says, and Leaf turns to see Red’s mom watching her. “You think it’s the same people?”

“I don’t know,” she says, folding her arms over her stomach to quell her nerves. She knows this is messing with her cover as an innocent girl who wouldn’t have any motive to steal from the casino lab, but it’s just too important to keep to herself. “But how many secret organizations hiring renegades can there be in Kanto?”

“What are you two talking about?”

Leaf turns back to Hirai. “The last renegade I ran into, on Mount Moon, was assassinated before he could be executed. I confirmed this through independent investigation, and if you want to ask Leader Giovanni about it, he might confirm it too. But he also might not, I was told not to publish a story on it for six months to give them time to capture the real killer.”

The detective looks like he’s trying to decide how seriously to take her, and she’s about to say forget it and walk out when he abruptly says, “I believe you.”

“You do?”

“I already know about what happened on Mt. Moon, in fact. Every organization that might apprehend a renegade was informed to ensure their safety before execution by none other than Leader Giovanni himself. If he could trust you with that info, and you haven’t reported it in all this time, then I’ll trust you at least enough to tell you both, off the record, that we’ve been aware of individuals and groups that hire from an interregional black market of renegades for some time. Part of why I’m telling you this is because I suspect it won’t stay secret for long, after word of what happened in Rocket Casino gets out.”

“And what happened in Hoenn,” Laura says, brow furrowed, and the detective nods.

Leaf hasn’t paid too much attention to that part of the story, there’s so much going on that it feels impossible to keep up with everything, but she does know that a bunch of alleged renegades helped fight Groudon and Kyogre, then fled the site of the battle in the confusion that followed Rayquaza’s attack.

“Interpol has known about such groups for a while now, but they’re nearly impossible to infiltrate or trace back to anyone important, and we never caught someone that was part of a group before… or at least we didn’t think we had. Now we suspect they operate in isolated cells… so rest assured, we’re going to do everything we can to keep this one alive until we can learn everything we can from him.”

The detective’s gaze is flat, voice grim, and Leaf feels an involuntary shiver at the thought of how they might try to learn things. She knows there’s no room for sympathy here, however; it’s out of her hands, even if she was the one to capture him, and besides, he and the other two killed half a dozen innocent people before they were stopped. The people in charge of them have to be stopped as well.

“Thank you for the trust, detective,” Leaf eventually says.

Hirai nods, gaze steady on hers. “I hope it will bear fruit, and be returned.”

Leaf hesitates, then simply nods and turns to the door. Laura lets her go out first, and they leave the police department together.

Leaf holds her composure until they leave the police department, then lets out a long breath, sticking her shaking hands in her pockets. She lets the sun warm her face as the breeze cools sweat on the back of her neck.

“That,” Laura remarks, “Was pretty bold of you.”

“Thanks,” Leaf murmurs, then hesitates. “It was also stupid though, right?”

“From a self-interested perspective, yes,” she says as they start walking toward the hospital Blue is staying in. “But if you’re determined to do the right thing, that kind of comes with the territory now and then. I can’t blame you for being altruistic.”

It wasn’t altruism, Leaf thinks, but doesn’t say. The guilt at taking the computer and not telling the police, at sending it to Natural, feels only slightly alleviated. She takes her phone out and messages him, knowing he’d be asleep by now. Hey, I know it’s super early, but just to check, you find anything good yet? She hopes he says no, hopes Natural isn’t the one that put all the info online, but the whole world has felt upside down since the floor of the casino collapsed, and she didn’t feel comfortable trusting him even before that happened.

Just thinking about it again makes her breath come short. It had been so tight in the rubble, pressed between Red and some chunks of concrete on one side and the nidoqueen’s broad, scaly thigh on the other. In any other situation it might have been hard to stay so close to the same nidoqueen that had nearly killed her in Vermilion, but in those circumstances she had more important things to worry about, like the lack of air, and the agony in her shoulder, and Blue’s cries of pain before he went terrifyingly silent…

Laura’s hand on her still-tender shoulder makes her jump, and she realizes they’re standing at an intersection that she’d been about to step into while cars passed through it. “Leaf!”

“Yeah,” Leaf gasps, looking up at Mrs. Verres’s concerned face. “Sorry, I’m fine!”

“I didn’t even ask if you were, yet. You didn’t hear anything I just said, did you?”

“Uh…” She wipes a hand across her sweaty forehead. “Sorry, no. What was the question? Or comment?”

“You don’t have to keep apologizing, and forget it. Are you alright, Leaf?”

“Y-no,” she admits after realizing how silly it would be to lie at this point. “Had a bad memory.”

“Oh, hon…” Laura pulls her into a brief hug, which actually helps her feel a bit calmer. “I think you should talk to someone. From what Red told me you guys went through hell down there, and there’s no shame in having it continue to affect you.”

Would the detective have accepted that as an excuse, if I’d admitted to taking the computer? Maybe, but probably not to sending it to a random person the next day, a decision that, in retrospect, feels very stupid. If Natural turns out to be untrustworthy, if he did release the computer’s contents without telling her, she’d stop speaking with him. Maybe even admit what she did and turn them both in.

Easy to say. She takes a breath. One thing at a time. “Yeah, maybe you’re right. I’ll see if Red’s therapist is open to taking me, or one of the therapists that comes to the ranch with the kids.”

“I’m glad.” Laura lets her go, and they start walking across the street. “And in case I forgot to say it before, thank you, for saving my son. Again.”

“It was a team effort.” It had been nerve-wracking, waiting for the renegade to show up and then tying him up after he was asleep so the others could watch him while she went for help, but she’d trusted Red implicitly when he told her what was happening.

He’d sounded so scared. So desperate. And then, so… determined.

They arrive at the hospital to find a crowd of people waiting in the lobby, as usual. Leaf messages Red to let him know they’re here, and they head to the roof to wait for him.

He teleports there a minute later, and is almost immediately enfolded in a tight hug by Laura.

“Hi Mom,” he says, voice muffled. “It’s good to see you again.”

Laura just keeps silently hugging him, and Leaf stands by as Red gets visibly embarrassed. She tries not to smile as she waits for Laura to finally let him go, but it’s a losing battle. “Hey. Get enough sleep?”

“More or less,” he says, and smiles back at her. It’s a weak smile, there and gone, but it’s better than nothing; ever since everything that happened that night, he’s had a withdrawn, almost haunted look to him. She thought it might have been from just using his powers too much, and he’s looking a little better today. “You?”

“Joy is the best sleep aid around, even without singing. How are things in Saffron?”

“Not so bad.” He returns his abra to its ball, and they start walking toward the roof access door. “The city wasn’t too badly hit, but Sabrina spent the days after the incident teleporting all around the islands to help detect and communicate with people in need, so she’s been too exhausted for any meetings or lessons or gym battles. Which is doubly bad because she had a bunch of them lined up from before, but… well, I guess no one’s really thinking about Challenge matches right now.”

Leaf nods. The full effects of the storms and earthquakes are still unfolding long after the last tremor and drop of rain. Even people on the other side of the planet were affected by tsunamis, and there’s been a lot of global discussion about what happened, including speculations over how bad it could have gotten and whether other similar events are likely to occur.

One of the major debates is whether it should be classified as a “Tier 6” event, a hypothetical world-affecting incident, or if it merely had the potential to be. In either case, many are reacting to a near-miss cataclysm as if one is still coming, either stocking up on survival supplies or fleeing the islands entirely, though some of that might just be foreigners who don’t want to stick around as the local regions recover.

Her mother, of course, re-suggested she come home, and it was harder than usual for Leaf to insist that she wants to stay, but she’s glad she did. The economy has tanked and there have been runs on supplies, but a lot of foreign aid has come in as well to help people as they grieve and try to rebuild, and she has too many people here she cares about to feel comfortable returning to Unova, even for a brief visit.

“Do you have any classes coming up?” she asks Red, wondering if his schedule is going to go back to normal anytime soon. They’ve been seeing each other a lot more lately, mostly in Celadon to visit Blue but at the ranch as well, and she’s reluctant to go back to seeing each other so infrequently.

“Still canceled for the foreseeable future. I’ve been meeting with some of the other students, but for now I can keep helping at the ranch.”

“How is Mr. Sakai handling everything?” Laura asks.

“Not bad, actually. All we lost from the quakes were a few picture frames and some fences that got trampled by wilds.” Leaf smiles briefly. “Thankfully all the non-aquatic pokemon were in their balls already because of the rain, so no one got hurt. He even said those fences needed replacing soon anyway, so I’d say he’s in good spirits. What’s going on in Lavender?”

“It was mostly undamaged too, though Lavender Tower gave everyone a scare by swaying like a tree in the wind.”

“And for your work?” Red asks.

“Business as usual.”

Which Leaf takes to mean that the investigation is still ongoing. “Speaking of Lavender Tower, Red, did you notice anything going around online about Silph goggles?”

“No? When, today?”

“Yeah, apparently it just hit the net this morning, will probably pick up steam by tomorrow. Those goggles I found in the basement are supposed to let people look at Ghosts without surreality.”

“Holy shit, are you serious?”

“Language, Red!”

He shoots a guilty look at his mom, then looks back at her. “Do you know if they work?”

“No, apparently that was just a prototype. But it’s pretty exciting to think about, right?”

“Blue is going to flip out, it might help non-psychics use Ghosts more easily…”

They arrive at Blue’s room and hear voices coming from inside before they even open the door.

“…not saying you can’t, Blue, I just want to make sure you’re not committing to anything without more details.”

“What commitment, it’s not a commitment, it’s just building momentum. I have to do something while I’m here!”

Laura clears her throat and knocks, and there’s sudden silence until the door opens and Daisy lets out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, I was about to chuck one of them out the window.” She gives each of them a quick hug, then strides off down the hall, raising a hand over her head in a wave. “Glad you’re alive Red and Leaf, see you later, Auntie!”

“Bye Daisy,” Leaf calls, then wilts under a glare by a passing nurse and turns to look in the room to see a very tan Professor Oak looking down at Blue in exasperation while his grandson stares at his phone, typing as fast as he can with one hand.

“Hello Sam, Blue,” Laura says as she steps in, and Red and Leaf follow, closing the door behind them.

“Hi Aunt Laura,” Blue says, still staring at his phone as his thumb taps away. “Guys, come help me with this would you?”

“Give them a second to put their things down at least, Blue,” Professor Oak sighs, though his smile seems genuine as he returns Laura’s hug, then turns to Leaf and Red and lowers himself to one knee to draw them both into a hug.

Leaf is surprised, but pleased, and sees a similar expression on Red’s face. “Hi, Professor…”

“Sam, Red. It was proper in the lab, but I’ve known you since you were in diapers, and you’re family. Call me Sam.” He pulls back and turns to her. “You too, Leaf. I can never repay either of you for what you did, and I’ve never been so glad to have put my trust in you. You’ve more than repaid it.”

Leaf feels her cheeks burning. “It was nothing, Pr… Sam. We’ve all helped each other, at one point or another,” she says. Red nods, gaze down.

“Be that as it may, this is the closest I’ve come to losing my boy. I was off on the other side of the islands, and if you weren’t there for him… I don’t want to think about it. Just know that I’m in your debt, both of you.”

“Gramps, you’re embarrassing them.”

“I’m entitled to, now and then. One of the few perks of age.” But he lets them go, and stands, wincing slightly as he shifts the weight from his knee.

“Are you okay, Profess-Sam?” Red asks.

“Fine, fine, other than the ringing in my ears. Overdid things a bit, in Hoenn, but I’ll take that and sore joints over Pressure any day.”

“Profe-Sam, I have so many questions about that—”

“Later, Red,” Laura says. “Give him time to go shower and eat and whatever else, he’ll be back.”

“Yeah, and come help me with this already, do you have any idea how hard it is to start a social movement with one thumb?”

“Social movement?” Leaf asks as the professor sighs. She follows Red to his bedside. “About what?”

“The thing Giovanni said, I’m guessing?”

“Yep.” Blue finishes typing something out, then grins as he shows them what he’s written so far. “Get online and help spread the word, would you? I’ve already got it trending locally, but with all of us working together #WhatComesNext is going global.”

Chapter 83: Interlude XV – Titans III

Maria Graham is not really sure how she got here. Under a casino, during an earthquake, heart beating a painful rhythm in her throat. It’s all very far from the girl she thought she would be.

She was raised with every luxury money could buy. Her parents stressed the importance of her studies, which she did well in. They wanted her to live a life of clean glass and fresh linens, a life of soft couches and heartbeats that could be used to measure time.

And she thought she would always live that life. Almost let herself be poured into the mold they cast for her, and never questioned it too much… if not for a music video she watched shortly after her tenth birthday.

Normally her parents had filters on the net to keep her from seeing anything not appropriate to her age, but this video must not have tripped any of those sensitive wires. It had no curse words in it, no provocative dress, no violence, no drug use. It was just a song, and a backdrop of a city at night, and a young woman with hair an unnatural shade of pink, a pink that was too loud, louder than any color in Maria’s life up until that point.

She was fascinated. Not just by the song, which was catchy enough, or the dance, captivating as the movements were.

It was the window it opened in her soul, just a crack, just enough to let a glimpse of light in, a smell of the outside world. It was the way it made her approach that window, nudge the heavy drapes aside, to peer at that other world. That other life, a life of neon, of rained-on-pavement scent, of dancing through a city as if, no matter how big it was or how many others lived in it, it all was meant for her.

That was when she began to look, really look, at the people outside her family and friends. To understand that many  have lives of sweat and burning muscles, of insect bites and starry nights, of blood and fear and the tightrope balance between life and death, and so much more. In the face of that knowledge, suddenly previously full life felt empty. What her parents molded for her, what was sitting in easy reach, was like the life of a stranger that she was being mistaken for. She needed to know what her life could be, and knew she would never find it living in theirs.

That was the true wisdom she glimpsed, without fully grasping it right away. That all those people, all those different lives, they don’t see each other, not really. They don’t know that there’s another way to live, that there are whole parts of reality as alien to them as other planets.

It wasn’t an immediate change, of course. The window opened a crack, the curtains parted to let in a glimpse, but it still took a year for her to slowly learn what called to her and what didn’t, and another year to get her trainer’s license, with the assistance of a cousin in the Rangers who helped teach and guide her to the online forms.

She was thirteen before she informed her parents that she was leaving. Not just the home, but the region. They tried to stop her, but only with words, with concern and guilt and fear. They didn’t offer her anything else, didn’t show her a life she could be excited to live if she stayed, and so she looked for what she needed online, and left.

In the year since, she’s found some parts of herself, at least.

She’s sure her friends have wondered why she has no online presence, why she wears her big, wide hat all the time, even during pokemon battles, why she avoided cameras during all the media attention in Vermilion, and maybe most of all, why she only ever gives her initials for her name.

But they don’t dig. They don’t press her to reveal more of herself. They accept her for who she is with them, for what they’ve done together. She doesn’t have to be anyone else, with them.

And who she is with them, apparently, is a girl who will run into the depths of a collapsed building during an ongoing earthquake. She was surprised to find this part of herself; not the part that ignored fear, but the part that had friends to save. Blue, whose life is burning eyes and cold, round metal, and Lizzy, who grew up in a glass cage of her own, a fellow bird flown free, feet gripping rubber cables humming with energy so she could find new things to plug them in to. And friends to help her save them, like Bretta, a trumpet call and a flag planted, Elaine, all tickling bubbles and soul-filling smiles, and Glen, who’s with her now, sunlit green grass around a refreshing spring, with deep, dark soil she can curl her toes in.

They need her. And she needs them. To have a life with warm laughter, with arms that will hold her tight without clutching. To find more parts of herself, perhaps even here, in these red and broken hallways.

-lo? Can anyone—lp, please!”

Glen slows to a stop, and MG presses her ear to the wall where the voices came from. “Hello?!”

Hello! Help, please, I’m stuck!”

Glen is pressed to the wall beside her, now. “Are you up against the wall, or is there something between you?”

What? I… I’m not sure… please, it’s hard… to breathe…”

Glen steps back and summons his primeape. “Hold on,” MG says, and stands clear as her friend orders his pokemon to carefully tear down the drywall. She has a sudden, strong memory of their first scenario in Vermilion, of the “civilian” she “rescued” who started “crying” all over her. It was deeply uncomfortable, even knowing that it wasn’t real, and she steels herself for something similar to happen again, to lend not just aid but comfort if needed.

It takes a bit of care, but eventually the primeape damages the wall enough that the rubble on the other side starts to break through. Maria and Glen were standing clear, and he quickly withdraws his pokemon as a small landslide begins. A cloud of dust rises up, and Maria has a moment to realize they probably should have taken a minute to think this through, even with the time pressure…

After a moment, however, the rubble stops flowing out, and it doesn’t seem to have upset anything else. They can see the person that had been in it now, an older woman who was caught between a slot machine and a section of the carpeted floor that had collapsed under her.

She gasps in several deep breaths, weakly shifting to pull herself free. “Careful,” Glen says, rushing forward to help. The red emergency lights make the blood matting her hair look black, and Maria quickly gets a potion bottle out to spray on any wounds.

“Do you need anything?” Maria asks as she watches a gash on the woman’s leg close. “Food, water?” A moment later she realizes the questions probably don’t make much sense in this context, and tries to think of something more she can offer. “…air tank?”

“I’m alright,” the woman says, and coughs, dust visibly stirring. “Thank you, thank you so much…”

“Hold still, there could be internal injuries,” Glen says as he starts clearing some space for her to lie down beside the rubble. “Were there others with you?”

“N-no… no, I was alone…” She looks around at the red, dusty halls. “Where are we?”

“Under the casino, some office area.” Glen finishes positioning her comfortably, then looks at the hole she came through, and Maria follows his gaze. It’s an impassable mess.

Maria felt fear for herself when the Stormbringer came to Vermilion, but it was a soft and distant thing through the dissociation of the Pressure, moth wings fluttering in the dark. Here it’s an ever-present litany of anxious thoughts, a rising and falling wave that she’s submerged in momentarily each time a tremor goes through the walls and ceiling around them.

But Glen is braver than her. Her fear for Blue is a rawness along certain tracks in her mind that make thoughts connected to them painful and skittish, but she suspects that for Glen, the fear for Blue is overpowering his own safety.

“He might be near a wall too,” she says, voice low.

Glen looks at her, at the hope she offers, and takes a breath to master his own fear. “We need to go, to try to help others. There are stairs that lead back up that way, if you feel strong enough to move. If not we’ll be back with help when we can.”

The woman looks the way he pointed, then back at where she was trapped and shudders before turning back to them. “I’ll be fine… go, save whoever you can!”

They leave without another word, jogging through the halls. Glen pauses every so often and listens at the walls for any sounds of survivors, calling out and knocking to try and get a response, but they don’t hear anyone else that isn’t already being helped by others, employees of the casino who look dazed and in shock. They try asking where the Casino’s generator is and are ignored other than being told to get back upstairs where it’s safe.

Eventually they reach another flight of stairs, and Glen curses and leads the way further down. “How deep does this place go?”

“The hole at the surface was deep,” Maria points out as she hurries to keep pace with him.

“But if that lady was trapped at the floor below, and Blue was also at a slot machine…”

“We don’t know where he was, can’t assume—”

Maria stumbles as she abruptly feels a presence in the stairway with them (no, not with them, in her mind, with her), and Glen’s hand is suddenly on her shoulder to keep her steady.

alarm-panic-urgency

“What’s wrong?!”

“I felt…”

familiarity-greeting-danger-warning

“…someone is… a psychic is talking to me,” she says, trying to concentrate on the sensations as she speaks. “And it’s… I think it’s someone who knows me?”

Glen looks at her with wide eyes. “You’re Gifted?”

“No, just sensitive.” It’s hard to speak while the emotions continue to run through her, danger-greeting-familiarity-down… “There’s danger under us?”

“Someone’s telling you that?” Glen asks

“It’s just emotions… it’s hard to explain, but yeah, someone’s projecting them at me.”

“But who?

“I don’t know, but they know me. Hang on, let me…” She concentrates on the feeling, and gets a sense of… curiosity, and fussiness, and attention to detail… “Lizzy?

“But… she’s not psychic either!”

“I know, I don’t understand…” There’s a sense of frustration that she thinks is more than just hers, but then the projected feelings focus on danger again, and a tug downward. “But I think somehow she’s telling me she’s below us, and… she’s in danger! I think some pokemon got in, somehow!”

“How do you—”

“It’s hard to describe, just a vague feeling!” Maria’s heart is pounding in her throat, limbs shaking as she pulls out of his grasp and hurries down the stairs again. “Come on!”

She hears his feet start pounding down after her, and once they reach the intersection under the stairs she looks around, trying to understand where they are. It looks like more standard office space, but one of the halls has been crushed by the ceiling, leaving two directions to go… she picks one at random and starts running.

Only to stop a moment later, and run back in the opposite direction.

“What’s—”

“It’s like a compass,” she explains as she tries to focus on the mental pull. “It’s… down, that way!” She points through the floor and wall.

“Shit, there’s another floor? Why don’t the stairs go all the way down?” Glen looks around. “There has to be another staircase…”

If so, the mental guide isn’t helpful in finding it. Which way? she tries asking, concentrating as hard as she can on the feeling of the other mind that’s with hers. Which way is down?

All she gets is more panic, more concern, more that sense of the other mind that’s trying to get her to hurry downstairs and save Lizzy… wait, no, the sense is definitely to save someone else, not the person whose emotions she’s sharing.

Another rumble goes through the walls, and Glen curses. “You keep going this way, I’ll run that way, we’ll call out if we find stairs, okay?”

Maria gives a distracted nod, unsure of why Lizzy wants her to save someone other than herself, and starts running through the outer halls, pausing to open every door she comes across. There are portions of the wall that have collapsed inward, requiring her to slow down and navigate through the piles of rubble while constantly aware that she’s moving further away from the direction Lizzy (assuming it is Lizzy) wants her to go in.

“I know,” she mutters as the presence in her head sends another pulse of insistence and fear through her thoughts. “I’m trying…”

There’s a sudden surge of horror-fear-despair and then the presence retreats for a moment. Maria stops running, trying to sort through what she felt, assuring herself that Lizzy can’t be dead, that she’s not too late. “Come back,” she whispers as tears burn her eyes, and in that moment she wishes for the soft couches, the clean linen, the general, unacknowledged safety of a world where nothing bad could happen and nothing she did mattered.

She starts running again, and within a minute finds another stairway behind a door that looks like any of the others. “Glen!” she yells, so loud it feels like something tears in her throat, and hears “Coming!” before she can draw another full breath. A moment later he’s in sight, and she’s racing down the stairs ahead of him.

“MG!” She hears him leaping down the stairs behind her to catch up. “What’s wrong?”

Before she can answer she feels the other mind with hers again, and lets out a sound of relief that feels like a sob. “It’s Lizzy, I thought she…”

She stops in confusion as the mental sense starts directing her somewhere again, still full of fear and a sense of urgency… but the direction she feels her attention being tugged in is different from before. “The direction changed?”

“Where is she now?”

“It’s not her, I don’t think…” Maria sees Glen’s confusion but ignores it, paying attention to where they are. This floor looks like it’s full of more administrative offices. “This way!” she says as she feels the mental tug again, and leads him toward a hallway that runs more or less in the same direction as it, hoping it will lead to a nearby section of the wall.

Glen has stopped questioning her, thankfully, and just follows. They move from one hall to another, skirting around the broken walls and rubble that fills the center of the basement and occasionally hearing muffled, pained voices of people calling out for help. It’s hard to ignore them, but after a moment Maria is sure of what she felt and stops to rest against a wall, panting. “They’re below us.”

“Of course there’s another floor,” Glen mutters, and punches the wall. They can both hear someone nearby, their muffled coughs interspersed with the sound of shifting rubble. “MG, all these people—”

“I know. You do what you can for them. I… can’t explain it, but I just know that Lizzy, or someone, is in danger too, and I have to find them—”

“I get it.” Glen takes a deep breath, then coughs, grimaces, and starts walking again. “Let’s go. If Lizzy can get the lights back on that will help rescue the others faster, but if something happens to her…” He shakes his head. “By Calyrex’s bobbly crown, I hate this feeling. Thought I got over it after the scenario, but there’s more at stake here than a badge.”

Maria can only nod, feeling both glad and like a coward that she’s glad he’s making the call to help her. Her hand against the wall slides down, palm pressed flat against it, and she murmurs an apology to everyone else that might be trapped here, then follows Glen.

They reach the outer halls that wrap around the floor and split up in search of stairs going down again. Maria opens door after door, but this time finds nothing, and when she finds Glen she sees her frustration echoed on his face.

“I know there’s another floor below us,” she says, trying to convince herself as much as him. She can still feel the tug, of attention, distinctly downward… “Maybe the stairway isn’t against one of the walls, maybe it’s… in the middle of the floor somewhere?”

“If it is, I’m not sure how we could reach it through the collapse… and how would Lizzy have done it to get down there in the first place?”

“I don’t know.” MG leans against the wall, feeling overwhelmed by the despair and fear and insistent need to get down to where the next murder is going to happen… murder?

She focuses on the feeling again, eyes closed, and feels the psychic impressions mixing with her own… emergency-danger-pokemon-hurry-victim- searching-KILLINGINTENT… MG’s eyes snap open as she sucks in a shocked breath at the surge of violent focus she felt, for just a moment. She thought a pokemon had gotten in, somehow, but no, this is something more deliberate…

“Okay,” Glen mutters, and starts pacing. “Okay, okay. This is a stupid idea, but…” He moves to a part of the hall where there’s more open space, then unclips his primape’s greatball again and summons it. “Focus Energy,” he commands, and his pokemon begins to take deep breaths, flexing its limbs and rocking back and forth.

“Glen, what are you—”

“Brick Break,” he says, pointing to the ground, and his primeape leaps up and slams its fists into the ground hard enough to send a crack through the tile.

“Oh,” she says, voice small, and steps back.

“Good boy! Focus Energy! Brick Break! Focus Energy! Brick Break! Focus Energy…”

Thud. Thud. Crack. Thud. Crack. CRACK!

“Focus—” The last crack continues into a series of them as the floor buckles. “Return!” Glen yells, and his pokemon is pulled back into its ball as the ground beneath it crashes in pieces to the floor below.

Maria waits to see if more of the ground will collapse, then carefully walks over to the edge of the hole, testing the ground with her foot before settling her weight on it. Hoping an earthquake doesn’t come soon, she quickly checks down the hole and sees that the chunks of floor/ceiling look mostly intact below, and it’s not too far down. She quickly kneels down and begins to shimmy through it.

“MG, wait—”

“No time!” The projected fear is growing, overwhelming her own emotions as she tries to lower herself carefully down. Glen kneels beside her and grabs her arms, then slowly leans forward until he’s lying on his belly and she’s hovering just a few feet above the ground. She looks down and makes sure her feet aren’t above any awkwardly angled pieces that might twist her ankle. “It’s fine, drop me!”

He does, and she does her best to clear the ground as he shimmies down after her. Only then does she take a moment to look around.

The floor seems similar to the others in layout, but the rooms she can see are full of high tech equipment. She only has a moment to wonder what it’s all doing here before the mental sense tugs at her again, and she starts running, Glen close behind. They turn a corner, then run down the hall toward anoth-

STOP

DANGER

POKEMON

DANGER

QUIET

DANGER

Maria gasps and stumbles, and for the second time Glen keeps her from falling as she tries to make sense of the feelings flowing through her.

dangerpokemonquietforwardangerquietquietquietnownownow

“Pokemon,” she whispers, hands moving to her belt. “Quiet, there’s… danger, ahead. Dangerous pokemon.” Her hand skims from one ball to the next as she considers her options… They’re indoors, so no pokemon that need a lot of maneuverability, and no fire pokemon… though on second thought there’s nothing apparently flammable around them…

dangerearthypokemondirtgroundhardround

Maria blinks, and her hand moves to her poliwhirl’s ball. She hears Glen unclip a ball from his belt, and murmurs, “I think it’s a Ground type. Maybe Rock/Ground?”

He doesn’t question her, just reclips his ball and unclips another. They summon their pokemon together, and the flashes chase away the red emergency lights for a moment as her poliwhirl, Slippy, and his gloom, Sweets, are in front of them. Glen puts his facemask on and Maria follows suit as another quake vibrates the walls and ceiling prompting a distant cry of pain that she does her best to ignore. Soon they’re moving quickly forward again, breaths fogging the lower parts of their masks.

They nearly stumble over the body before they see it, chunks of broken wall surrounding what looks like an older man with a pot belly. It’s hard to tell his age because his head has been crushed by a thick shard of stone.

Maria feels the realization of what she’s seeing like a slap directly to the front of her brain, shockwaves propagating through her mind and upending entire substructures of thought and perspective. A new type of life is immediately encoded, one that smells of dust and blood and shit, an anti-life that’s etched in her soul in the shape of a dark maroon R.

The body is next to a hole in the nearby collapsed ceiling, where it was clearly pulled from the way they pulled out the woman upstairs. She can finally understand what Lizzy has been telling her.

“Renegade,” she whispers.

“MG…. we can’t know that for sure, they might have…” Glen stops, and when she looks at him he’s gazing up at the ceiling.

The cracked, but unbroken, ceiling.

“Okay,” he whispers, and raises an arm to wipe the sweat from his face. “Okay. Renegade. What do we do? We need to get help.”

“No time,” she whispers back, fear making her voice shake. “Someone else is about to be killed.”

Glen takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “Then we hurry,” he whispers. “Quietly. Wish I had room in here to bring out my snorlax, but… we have to take whatever it’s using down quickly, then take down the renegade ourselves, together. If we can just get their belt away from them, we can run.”

The thought of physically attacking someone adds a queasy feeling to her stomach, but she nods. Glen suddenly points to some patch of ground and says, “Sleep Powder.” His gloom sprays the area with spores, and he steps forward and carefully scoops some of it up into one palm before he starts walking forward.

Their steps are quick and quiet, and Maria does her best to keep her attention on the emotional impressions guiding her as her own fear threatens to blot them out. The urgency in the psychic message is increasing, and eventually they hear something just around the corner… something that sounds like digging.

waitwaitwait

Maria stops and holds a hand out to keep Glen from moving forward as she closes her eyes, focusing on the mental impressions.

waitwaitwaitprepareprepareprepare

“Get ready,” she whispers as the digging gets louder, and then with a final crackle and snapping of stone and plywood…

preparepreparePREPARE

“Hey lady, can you hear me?”

Maria jumps at the sudden voice, adult and authoritative, from just around the corner.

“Yes,” comes a breathless response. “Thank you… I thought I was… going to die…”

The man doesn’t say anything else, and Maria feels the tension building in her… what if she was wrong, what if—

There’s a snapping sound, and the emotions flood through her in a torrent.

ATTACKDANGERATTACKNOWATTACK

“Ahhhh!” she cries out, in shock and anger not her own, anger sent by Lizzy along with a mix of desperate fear and concern, and Maria dashes around the corner and yells, “Snipe! Snipe! Snipe!”

Slippy came with her and immediately begins to shoot bubblebeams out, the sharp hiss and rapid pops filling the hall as each shot nails a golem that has its back turned on them. The golem had a chunk of rubble in its hand, which falls to the ground as it staggers against the wall, stony hide mottling as it’s sprayed with water.

The man beside it whirls around, staring in shock, and Glen is already rushing forward, flinging the spores at his face.

The man ducks the attack and kicks straight outward hard enough to send Glen flying back into the opposite wall, then unclips and points a greatball all in the same motion, before Maria can do more than take a hesitant step forward. Out pops a luxray, who glows with electricity and dashes forward at another snapped command—

“Nap!” Glen yells in a choked voice, and a cloud of sleep powder bursts from Sweets. The luxray blows through it and collides with Slippy before collapsing into a heap, and her pokemon’s body jolts back and hits the wall, electricity arcing through its twitching limbs.

Before she can rush to heal her poliwhirl the man is already summoning another pokemon, and her hand flies to her belt instead as she tries to calm herself, to focus. This is just a pokemon battle. It’s against a renegade, in an underground lab, during a series of earthquakes, but it’s just a pokemon battle like any other.

Or so she thinks, until the renegade’s magmar materializes and, with a snap of its master’s fingers, sends a stream of fire at them.

“Dodge!” Glen yells as she ducks and scrambles to the side, the intense heat burning her skin. Sweets is too slow, and by the time Glen finishes rolling to smother the flames on his clothing and turns to withdraw his pokemon it looks like a lump of charcoal, the bittersweet smell of cooked gloom filling the hall.

fearregretfear

It comes through the psychic link, mirrors to her own feelings beneath the shock, and Maria struggles to think of what she can summon against a magmar… they came from Erika’s gym, neither of them have any Rock or Ground or Water pokemon besides her poliwhirl, which she brought for the surprise Ice Beam potential…

The glow of the approaching magmar grows, and she scrambles back and pulls a ball at random from her belt. When she throws, it turns out to be the newly acquired vulpix she hasn’t even had the chance to name. It won’t be able to do much against the magmar, but perhaps if Glen brings out his own, then together they could…

When the magmar turns the corner, it’s followed by the golem, its injuries mostly healed, and in that moment Maria realizes she’s going to die, just like Aiko. She’s often wondered what drove the other girl so hard to leave her own home, if she’d had her own girl with bright pink hair, dancing through a rainy city like it belonged to her.

As the two pokemon face them, Maria wishes for the last time that she’d had the chance to meet her, and ask.

horrordenialanger

D-E-T-E-R-M-I-N-A-T-I-O-N

Her paralysis breaks, and she dives out of the way of the double attack, barely avoiding Glen as he does the same. When she finishes rolling and checks to make sure she’s not on fire, she looks up expecting to see her vulpix crushed by the golem’s rocks… but instead it’s just gone.

So is the feel of Lizzy’s mind and emotions.

And…

The renegade is screaming, horrible high pitched sounds of pain as light bursts from around the corner.

Maria stares in shock as the two pokemon turn toward their master, still trying to process what’s happening before she realizes this is her chance.

Normally, capturing another trainer’s pokemon rather than using the trading deprogramming would be a massive breach of League guidelines, as it does terrible damage to the pokemon’s psychology with effects that are often permanent. In this case, given that the trainer in question is a renegade and the pokemon are trained to murder people, she’s not particularly worried about sanctions.

Instead of unclipping one of her pokemon, she feels through her beltpouch for a greatball and ultraball, then enlarges one in each hand as she scrambles forward, aims, locks on, and throws both. They connect just as the pokemon rush around the corner, sucking them inside.

Maria lets out a breath and turns to Glen to make sure he’s okay… and feels her heart stutter in her chest.

He’s lying still, a pool of blood spreading from his head. The chunk of rock that the golem hurled at them is lying a few feet away, its edge stained red.

A flash of wilted grass, a pond, dark with blood…

“No,” she gasps as she stumbles forward and unclips the potion from her waist. “Glen, no, wake up,” light, she needs light to see what she’s doing as she sprays the potion, it’s hard to make out where the wound is in the red emergency lights…

A moment later they shut off, and she nearly screams in fear and frustration before the building’s regular lights come on, blindingly bright after the red gloom that she feels she’s been in for hours. She rapidly blinks, then takes a closer look at Glen’s head. His red hair is matted with blood, and she carefully brushes it aside to find the gash beneath it, some of his scalp coming up as fresh blood leaks out. She nearly gags, at both the coppery smell and the sight of bone beneath, but even as tears fracture her vision she sprays the potion over the wound and wipes her eyes until she can confirm that it’s closing.

She sobs in relief, fingers quickly searching for his pulse. Thready, too slow, but there. “You’re okay, Glen, just rest,” she whispers, unsure if he’s conscious. “I”m sorry, I froze up, I should have…” She remembers the renegade, then, and her head whips back toward the empty intersection.

The screaming has stopped.

And her vulpix has returned, its tails wagging as it approaches her. For a moment she stops worrying about Glen and wonders how it got past the two pokemon in the first place… and then she smells something different than the lingering scent of the cooked gloom.

Something like cooking meat.

Feeling like she’s in a dream, Maria slowly gets up and walks around the corner to stare at the horrible sight before her; first the woman she’d failed to save, whose head must have been crushed by the golem before it was sent after them, then the man her vulpix had killed, clothes still smoldering around his burnt body. There’s a potion bottle and a pokeball on the ground beside him, and his face is unrecognizable.

Maria feels her gorge rise, and turns away to throw up against the wall before she forces herself to return to Glen through the fog of disgust and confusion and fear, because right now Glen needs her, and she needs him, needs the distraction from the worry that she’s going to be branded a Renegade, or that her pokemon will be taken and killed for attacking a human.

She returns Slippy and her vulpix to their balls on the way, not even checking to see if her poliwhirl is alive before she unpacks her first-aid kit and cleans the blood from Glen’s hair and neck as best she can while checking him over for any other injuries. She treats some burns and removes his mask to check his pupils, which is when she notices fluid leaking from his ear.

Concussion, severe. She needs to get him to a hospital, but she can’t move him on her own, let alone get him up the stairs…

She has to treat him here. Her hands shake as she takes out her phone and opens the first-aid app, then navigates to the right condition and follows its guidelines, finding the proper nasal spray in her kit. A sudden quake nearly makes her drop it, and she waits for the shaking to end before she gently sticks the long nozzle up his nostrils one at time, triggering it with each of his breaths until the small bottle is empty.

Maria hears other noises through the building, the sounds of rubble shifting, of voices through the walls, of running steps. She ignores it all, focusing on one step after another to do whatever she can for Glen, until—

“MG! Glen!”

She looks up and sees… Lizzy, rushing over to check their friend, face horrified. “Is all this blood his? Is he okay?”

“I-I think he’s stable, I don’t know w-what else to do…”

Lizzy wraps her arms around MG in a tight hug. “Thank Arceus, MG, I thought I was too late. How did you do all that, anyway?”

“Do what?”

“Guide me to you!”

Maria blinks, then blinks again, feeling slow. “I didn’t… you were the one guiding me. Weren’t you?”

Lizzy frowns at her in confusion. “Me? I’m not psychic, I’ve been in the maintenance area trying to get the power back on, but there was a renegade there, she tried to kill me… it wasn’t you?”

What wasn’t me?”

“There was something in my head, like my attention kept being forced elsewhere. It saved me from being taken by surprise, and then led me down here to you…”

“It wasn’t me. I felt something similar… I thought it was you.”

“What? Why?”

“It was… it felt like you, a little, and…” She shakes her head. Why had she been so convinced it was Lizzy? Because she couldn’t think of anyone else it might be?

She turns back to Glen, whose breathing and pulse are steady, at least, and who doesn’t seem to be showing any new signs of worsening injury. He still won’t wake up, however. “What do we do now?”

“Now we get him out of here…” She looks around. “You came in through the hole in the ceiling back there?”

“Glen made it.”

“Well, there has to be another way up. I’m going to go find it, you stay with him.”

Maria almost tells her not to leave, almost mentions the dead renegade around the corner… Lizzy said she encountered one too, how did that end? But getting help for Glen is more important so she just nods, and hugs her friend before she dashes off. MG takes Glen’s hand in hers as she sits with him, and tries to contact whoever was sending her the mental impressions before.

Eventually she feels their mind touch hers again, and can’t help the flood of curiosity that fills her. In response, she feels relief that she’s okay, and guilt, and… reassurance, somehow, that everything will be alright. It feels particularly directed at her confusion and guilt over what happened to the Renegade.

She wraps the feeling around herself like a blanket as she squeezes Glen’s hand, hoping that the person is right, whoever they are.

“My name is Maria,” she whispers, and closes her eyes as another quake vibrates through the floor and walls.


Steven was never much for spirituality, or belief in Fate, or the unseen guidance of great powers. He hasn’t had strong opinions against them either, he just never saw much reason to think that anything that happened wasn’t the result of chance; sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes coincidental, but often random.

Today has certainly been a day to test that ambivalence, but it wasn’t until his pokemon began to glow, began to evolve into entirely new forms, that he felt like his life was not his own. That he felt like a character in a movie, where some writer put otherwise innocuous things into his backstory that somehow became relevant at this, the most important day in his life.

It should get easier to wrap his mind around yet another thing he thought he understood about the world turning out to be wrong, but somehow his final-stage pokemon evolving has been the hardest to. Probably because it seems directly related to him. He imagines the two teenagers riding around on Latias and Latios feel the same.

A fourth form, he marvels for the tenth time at least as his aggron(?) thunders forward and slams its horns into Groudon’s stomach, along with a new, sharp fin that’s grown between them. The legendary earth god is nearly twice his aggron’s size, but still struggles to shove Steven’s pokemon away, particularly since his metagross(?) is climbing its body at the same time, clawed arms digging into its ruby scales. Two pokemon, each with a fourth form.

All his life he’s heard people in both academic and casual contexts debate what was so special about the number three, that no pokemon has ever been found to have had more consecutive forms. Some pokemon, like eevee, have far more than three total possible evolutions, and others like wurmple have multiple different branching paths, but none ever goes through a permanent change more than twice in its lifetime. Even pokemon that have multiple different forms that they change between, don’t evolve into those forms, and what he witnessed looked like evolution, shining glow and all.

The massive increase in strength and endurance that his pokemon are showing back that impression up. Even with the careful training and conditioning he gave his pokemon to help them against their weaknesses, they should have already fallen against a monster as powerful as Groudon. A few hits was the most he could have hoped for, something that would buy everyone else some time to attack… but of all the pokemon on the field, his are the only two that have taken more than that and are still fighting it. As long as he keeps them avoiding any of Groudon’s fire attacks, everything else is healable.

If this were a movie, that would be enough. His pokemon would have revealed their newfound, unearned power by some coincidence between the stones on his rings and the red orb, and he would be the hero who saved the day.

Unfortunately, as surreal as the day has been, reality can never be that simple. While Groudon seems to have stopped growing as soon as the red orb was destroyed, it also seems to have grown strong enough to be nearly impervious to their attacks.

And not just his pokemon’s attacks, but everything the collective leaders, elites, rangers, and renegades can throw at it. Meanwhile its attacks are as devastating to them as he feared; in just five minutes they’ve lost dozens of pokemon and a quarter of their trainers, and no amount of coordination seems to help. Whether by spikes of rock impaling people and pokemon from below, or sudden rising magma, or its oppressively fast beam attack, Groudon’s coverage is just too good to defend against.

It’s chilling to realize that, if it weren’t for Latios and Latias flying around its head and blasting it with a mix of dragon and psychic attacks, as well as psychics like Sabrina, Will, and Lucian using their pokemon to constantly confuse and disorient it, Groudon would have already laid waste to the lot of them. His pokemon can take a beating, but he’s running through potions quickly, and the living legend seems nowhere near its limit.

And as if all that’s not bad enough, it’s getting hotter.

Initially, Steven felt hope upon arriving and realizing Groudon wasn’t emitting any Pressure. After maybe half an hour in its presence, he’s starting to wish it was, compared to the alternative. The sunlight has become so hot that a few of them went down to heatstroke before the rest realized the danger. Now they’re doing their best to stay hydrated while they fight, the heat evaporating the sweat straight off their burned skin.

His aggron and metagross (or whatever they are now) don’t seem to be affected, thankfully, but any water pokemon they try fighting with seems to fare the worst, which is a crippling loss considering how water attacks might actually hurt it more than anything else they’ve tried. Professor Oak’s blastoise used a Hydro Pump that looked more like a Water Gun, but the streams just boiled into steam when they got close to Groudon, which is just an absurd defensive power for something that’s already stacked with advantages.

All things considered, Steven’s coming to the conclusion that they may have backed the wrong horse after all.

Still, his heartbeat is slow and steady, his thoughts clear as he considers whether sounding a retreat would be justified. It’s possible Groudon will start to shrink again without the red orb, but there’s no telling how long that would take, and while defeating Kyogre has caused the storm to slowly start clearing, there’s also no telling what Groudon would do without the other legendary to keep it distracted. If they give up now it might cause some further calamity, like raise a volcano up from under Sootopolis.

And so Steven fights on, keeping tabs on how many trainers are still battling to ensure they don’t overcommit without some sign that Groudon is weakening. Hyper Beams from Lance’s dragonites fail to blast it to pieces, Cynthia’s garchomp’s claws just crack its scales rather than tear out bloody chunks of flesh, and even status moves don’t seem to do much. It burned away seeds and powders sent by Professor Oak’s venusaur before killing it with a blast of fire, which led to the older man taking a minute to pull out a storage ball, from which emerged a metal cone with a miniature hot-air balloon and a propeller attached.

Steven watches in amused fascination as the Professor sticks a jigglypuff into it, then sends the contraption up and toward Groudon (its occupant presumably singing at some point that Steven can’t hear thanks to the cone, or perhaps the rumbling earth, crashing waves, and other sounds of battle) only to be blasted out of the air without any apparent effect by an Omega Beam (he’s mostly settled on that as the name, it has a nice ring to it).

“It doesn’t have any ears!” he yells to Sam.

“Looks subterranean, likely relies more on vibrations,” Sam acknowledges as he unclips another ball and throws it. “But had to try!”

Steven nods and directs his metagross to aim for its eyes in case they can blind it, thinking all the while of how quickly they could fill some giant sacks with sleep powder and dump them over it from a direction it can’t see coming. Subterranean or not, it still has to breathe at some point, right? Though even if they got it to sleep, it’s so absurdly tough that they might not be able to kill it before it wakes…

At first the sound of thunder is lost in the general cacophany, the crack of earth and roars of pain or anger, but after a moment Steven realizes the thunder isn’t fading, and also that there hasn’t been any up until now. In fact the sound isn’t like thunder at all, but rather a series of echoing staccato booms, and Steven dares to tear his gaze from Groudon and looks up to see—

A ribbon of green against the sky, a flashing emerald serpent that undulates through the air as if it were water. It darts back and forth so fast that it’s like he’s watching some sped up video footage, a white cone of compressed air flaring around it every few seconds. There’s an expanding stretch of blue in the direction the dragon arrived from, the rain clouds having dispersed in its wake like smoke blown away by the breath of a giant.

Or a god.

SKREEeeerrAAAOOUrrooouu!

Rayquaza’s shriek seems to split the sky, an aural assault that freezes everyone in place, even Groudon. A number of pokemon immediately abandon their attacks and rush back to their trainer, instincts and training kicking in to defend them against the new threat.

After a moment Groudon rears its head up to roar back at the sky god, the golden light between its scales flaring so bright that Steven instinctively shields his eyes.

Finally, a “surprise” that he can wrap his mind around. He half expected the third of the weather myths would show up at some point, because why not? The prediction was vague and fatalistic in a way that didn’t lead him to any particular action because there wasn’t much in the way of spare resources for yet another potential region-destroying threat, but seeing it, hearing its shriek reverberate through the air, spreads real dread through him, so novel that for a moment he actually appreciates the sensation, the way the emotion seems to submerge him in itself and numb out everything else. He hears sounds of shock and horror from the others, and feels a moment of rare kinship with them.

Then the appreciation fades, distant and fleeting as most other emotions, and all that’s left is resignation. The myths… no, the legends portrayed Rayquaza as the strongest of the trio, the god assigned to rule above both Groudon and Kyogre’s domains. He can hope that part confused reality and metaphor, but even if it’s just as strong as the other two… as things stand, the island’s best can barely hold their own against a Groudon weakened by its fight with Kyogre. If a fresh god joins the battle, even if it’s to fight Groudon, he doubts they would fare better even if they repeat their last play of helping it only to turn on it after. Hell, from type interactions alone he doubts Rayquaza would even need their help to defeat Groudon.

The defeatism stirs something stubborn in him, and he chides himself for being stupid. Their best bet in that case would be to help Groudon once again, work all together to take down Rayquaza and hope that Groudon would finally be weakened enough by the end to be defeated…

Rayquaza lets out another shriek as it continues to dart around in the sky, and Steven wonders what it’s doing as he prepares to give the orders… but instead of flying down, it does one more series of twisting contortions in the air, then flies up and away, into the too-bright sky that Groudon created above them.

For the first time in what feels like hours, there’s a moment of blessed near-silence. No earth rumbles, no battling pokemon. Just the sea crashing distantly into the newly created coast, and the distant boom of the divine dragon achieving supersonic flight.

Distantly, Steven hears someone say, “Where’s it going?”

Their baffled, almost plaintive tone draws a weary smile from him; he can’t blame them for hoping for a savior at a time like this. He turns back to Groudon, preparing for the fight to restart… but Groudon is still staring after Rayquaza, its ruby body pulsing with golden light.

This is our chance. Steven looks behind him and takes in the sight of the others’ burnt skin and swaying stances, and quickly barks, “Recoup! Champs, on me!”

He leads by example, taking out a couple burn potions and spraying them over his exposed skin before attending to his pokemon. It’s hard not to marvel at them, up close; he wishes he had an hour to examine their every change, like the way his metagross has continued the pattern of its previous evolutions and doubled its limbs again, or the way his aggron’s metal shell has spread to completely cover the stony portions of its body…

“The most fascinating part is the mass they’ve gained,” Professor Oak says as he steps up beside Steven. His voice is calm, but his eyes are alive with a burning fascination, and Steven nods. Normally a pokemon would grow before they evolve, but in this case the fourth evolutionary stages have broken that pattern.

“Like Groudon and Kyogre’s changes,” Cynthia remarks as she approaches, and a moment later Lance is beside her.

“Theorize later, battle now,” the Indigo Champion says, giving Steven’s newly evolved pokemon a perfunctory glance before looking back at Groudon. Its ruby and gold body is slowly slumping forward onto all fours, then onto its belly as its eyes close. “Or… maybe not. It looks like it’s taking a nap.”

“Maybe Rayquaza scared it back into hibernation. It was said to be able to get the other two to stop fighting, wasn’t it?”

“Fuck,” Steven hears someone say, then realizes it was Professor Oak. He doesn’t think he’s ever heard the genial older man curse before. “It’s not napping, it’s Resting!

Fuck, Steven thinks as he watches a cracked scale fall from the legendary pokemon’s body, a healthy one revealed in its place.

“We need to hit it now,” Lance says. “All together.”

“No,” Cynthia says. “If we fail to bring it down we’ll just be back where we were before. Brute force didn’t work, we need a plan, some way to trap or limit it.”

“Can it swim?” Professor Oak asks. “If we can knock it into the ocean… no, it would just raise more earth beneath it. If we reduce its mass enough…” Professor Oak hesitates. “Cut off its tail, maybe, and it could fit in a Heavy Ball. It’s about twice the size of Aoesis, but likely not as dense.”

The giant onix Brock has, Steven remembers, is near the limits of what any pokeball can hold; if it ever evolved into a steelix, it would be uncontainable. “It could work, if we could reliably cut through its scales… but even before this new evolution Argenta could shatter rocks, and now she’s just cracking the damn thing’s scales.” Technically metagross are genderless, but ever since he first caught his rare silver and gold beldum she’s given him the impression of a rather glamorous lady, even when tearing mercilessly into her enemies.

“Reign hasn’t been making much of a dent either,” Cynthia says as she finishes healing her garchomp. “Anyone here bring an aegislash?” She glances at Lance. “Or…”

The dragon master nods, hands quickly moving to return one of his dragonite to its ball before he summons his haxorus. “Worth a shot, but Sever is a sweeper. May not be able to take more than a hit, so if it fully wakes up before this works, we’ll need a backup plan.”

“Get it into the air!” They all look up to see the Eon Duo hovering above them, Professor Birch and Leader Norman’s kids leaning over the sides of their mounts. Steven wonders how long they’ve been there. “Drag it high enough and drop it,” May continues, hands cupped around her mouth. “Should break some bones at least!”

Professor Oak is rubbing his jaw as he looks back at Groudon. “Probably weighs a ton, but that just means we don’t have to raise it high to do real damage.”

“Can they do it?” Steven yells back, pointing at the legends they’re riding and shoving down all the questions he has about where they found them, and how they’re riding them without saddles.

The two look at each other, then their pokemon. Their pokemon… The thought has implications, and he shoves those aside too. Trainers wanting to capture legendary pokemon is what started this mess… according to Matsubusa, Groudon seemed tamed at first too. Would these two turn on them soon as well? It’s been that kind of day, but for now they’re too powerful a resource to not use.

“I think so!” Brendon yells. “But not for long! Better with help!”

“Okay, we’ve got a Plan A and Plan B,” Steven says as he looks around at the other trainers, who seem to have mostly finished healing themselves and their pokemon. A lot are just drinking water and checking others who went down during the fight. “Spread the word to the others, anyone with pokemon who know Sky Drop are to use it on Groudon on our mark. We’ll try cutting its tail off first.”

They nod and fly off, and Steven suddenly realizes that when he was looking at them he was looking at the sky without squinting. That leads to him noticing how, even beyond the healing from the potions he sprayed over his skin, the oppressive heat from before isn’t bothering him as much. He wonders if it’s because the sun is finally starting to set, but no, that’s still a while away… maybe it’s because Groudon is asleep?

If so he’s going to regret waking it up so soon, but they can’t let it fully recover itself, nice as it’s been not to have fresh earthquakes knocking him off balance every few seconds. Maybe water pokemon would able to be used now… Mark that as Plan C.

Cynthia and Lance set themselves and their pokemon up on either side of the sleeping legend, keeping as distant as they can while still guiding their pokemon with maximum precision on either side of Groudon’s spiked tail. Meanwhile a handful of Leaders, rangers, and other trainers approach, each with large Flying pokemon out. Steven makes sure everyone is in position, then raises his hands above his head, fingers extended. Starting with his right pinky he lowers them one at a time, counting down. Nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three…

There’s absolutely no warning.

Faster than sound itself, a blur of green and gold and black fills Steven’s vision, and then the shockwave hits in a clap so loud it’s like a pair of spikes are driven into his ears. He barely hears his own cry of pain through the ringing that follows, and realizes he’s on his hands and knees when water crashes down on him, adding another layer of disorientation. He  struggles to open eyes blurry with sea salt and tears of pain, and when he finally blinks them clear and looks up…

Groudon is gone.

He squints at the empty area where the earth god used to be, then looks around and distantly spots the tail end of a long, split wave that Rayquaza kicks up in its wake as it flies above the ocean. Its long emerald body suddenly rises up into the air, and even from this distance Steven can see that it’s bigger than before, its body more segmented and its head shaped like a wedge. As he watches it ascend into the sky he sees threads of gold light trailing around it, their color reminding him of the glow that came from within Groudon and Kyogre.

It rises high into the sky before a red shape detaches from it, and Steven watches in numb disbelief as Groudon plummets back to earth. If he could hear anything besides a distant ringing, perhaps he would hear it roar, or Rayquaza’s shriek of victory. Instead he watches in near silence as the legendary pokemon falls, twinkling like a ruby in the sunlight, until it touches the horizon.

Did we win? Steven vaguely wonders as the disorientation hits again, making him heave as he tries to stand. He looks around and realizes that he can’t see Cynthia or Lance. Something wet hits his ear, and he jerks away before he realizes it’s Professor Oak with a potion bottle in his hand.

Wah uou eea ee? EeeEh? “

Steven shakes his head and unclips his own potion bottle for his other ear, having to spray three times before he hits it, then hurries as best he can on unsteady legs to the “shore” of Groudon’s fake beachhead…

Cynthia is there. The words seem to appear straight into his mind, and he looks around and sees Sabrina beside him, pointing down into the water. Before Steven can react Latios is hovering over the ocean while Brendan dives in. He surfaces shortly after with an arm around Cynthia’s limp figure, and the legendary dragon psychically lifts them both out of the water and onto the land. Sabrina has already rushed to another part of the shore, and a few moments later May is pulling Lance out of the water.

He looks back up at where Rayquaza went, and sees nothing. The sky is clear in nearly every direction now, and the setting sun is warm rather than harsh. It’s possible the third weather god will come back and attack, or wreak havoc elsewhere, but for now Steven lets himself sit on the rough ground and just breathe, eyes closed.

His body is still shaking, heart beating so fast and hard that it feels like it’s interfering with his breaths. He wonders if this is how others feel, at times like this. He wonders how long it will last. Assuming it’s all over, they still have to tally the dead and start repairing all the damage done across the island. The thought of facing all that without his usual calm makes the shaking worse, for a moment.

After all that is done, it may be time to take a break from the whole “Champion” thing, for a bit.

It’s been a hell of a day.


David Shaw walks with his eyes on the experiment, hands never leaving his pokebelt as he stays eight meters behind his charge at all times. Ultraball range is a little under ten, but the rain is heavy enough that he assumes a couple meters of lost efficacy to be safe. Scarlet prowls at his side, the weavile’s red feathers and gold gem the only parts of her that are clearly visible in the dim light.

They’ve already circled the manor twice now, walking slow and steady at the edge of the plateau it’s situated on. He brought his five top security trainers with him, leaving the rest to ensure the safety of the others in case wild pokemon attack the mansion. Or in case the experiment makes them. Or makes the normals start attacking each other. Or something.

Paranoia is more than a job description; it’s a sacred trust. A trust put in him by Giovanni himself, a trust with the fate of the human species potentially on the line.

He knows Dr. Light’s priority is opposed to his, but that doesn’t make them enemies; they’re just trying to save humanity from different angles. He from the godling she and the other scientists created, she from the gods it’s meant to fight.

But paranoia has to be a tool, deliberately used, a lens that can be swapped on and off. He was a police officer in his past life, spent every week talking to and investigating people who might have been guilty as sin, even as they wept like babies over whatever situation they found themselves in. There was a trick to it, a way to split your mind into two tracks; one in which every word, every expression, was genuine, and one where they were at least partially calculated to get you to feel a certain way.

It wasn’t about guilt or innocence. That wasn’t his job. He understood that an innocent person could be calm or angry. That a guilty one could be genuinely tormented by what they’d done, or the consequences they’d face if convicted. His job was simply to get to the truth.

Sometimes that meant bullying someone, whether calm or in tears, until something useful shook loose. Innocent people can still have plenty to hide, or be protecting the guilty, or have useful knowledge without even knowing it. Other times it meant acting friendly, understanding, sympathetic. It’s not hard; he’s never had trouble pitying even the worst offenders. Sometimes especially the worst ones… how fucked up must it be, to live in the kind of brain that could do such things? In those cases, the “Good Cop” routine is a mercy of sorts… the last friendly face and sympathetic ear such people are likely to ever have outside of prison.

For the past decade, however, he’s been a perpetual Good Cop, at least around the experiment. That’s the fiction they’ve had to sell it, that they all believe its good intentions, and that he and his people are its protection against others, Dark so that they could avoid influence or subversion by anyone who tries to do it harm. And it’s not even a lie, really. Just a part of the truth.

He doesn’t know if Mewtwo really believes it. Sabrina says it used to be more suspicious until it was finally let out of the tube, and that it’s only grown more trusting since.

But still, he feels the two tracks in his head. Weighing every word, every movement, through the lens of honesty or manipulation, and acting on the former until he has evidence of the latter. He often wonders why other people don’t seem to be able to do the same, to consider both possibilities while still reserving judgement, but it’s clear that they don’t, and he doesn’t look down on them for it. Clearly he’s the weird one.

Nearly an hour after they got out of the lab, Shaw starts to realize the rain feels lighter. At first he thinks it’s his imagination, but after a minute he notices that it’s easier to make out the two figures of his charge and his boss, and easier to hear what they’re saying rather than just a random word here and there.

“-going to die?”

“There are a lot of different customs,” Dr. Light says as she walks slowly beside the experiment. Normally its strides are hard for a human to comfortably keep up with, but today it ambles, as if worried that moving too quickly will reduce the time it has left. Which it wouldn’t; Shaw has kept informed of all its suit’s specs, and remembers the debate over how many artificial limitations to put on it. One based on exertion was deemed too inhibiting and would add too much uncertainty. “Some try to experience things they’ve always wanted to but never had the chance. Others do their best to put their affairs in order, for those they leave behind. Most try to accomplish both, I imagine, as much as they reasonably can.”

“I see. I don’t suppose there’s much in the way of either that applies to me.”

Dr. Light stays silent. He’s not sure how long the experiment’s been talking about its own death as if it’s a given, or how the director feels about it. It’s easy to admire noble stoicism in someone’s final hours, but Shaw has spoken at length with Sabrina, who convinced him that whatever Mewtwo is, it feels things as much as any human does. Shaw doesn’t know many humans who would take their impending end this well, if they truly believed it was coming… but maybe more would if they had a long time to see it coming, which he has to admit that Mewtwo might have. It can’t have been easy living a life that’s always been a few technical mishaps away from sudden, painful death.

“What will happen to my body?” Mewtwo continues after a minute. The artificial voice is neutral without being flat, and Shaw wishes for the hundredth time that Sabrina were here to give some indication of its feelings. He’s tempted to push for another psychic to mentally connect to it, maybe under the cover of wanting to make sure it’s not lonely or something, just to get a peek at what it’s really feeling… “Will it be buried?”

“If you’d like,” Dr. Light says, the words coming out slow and measured. “We could also cremate you, if you prefer. Some enjoy the thought of their ashes being spread in a particular place, or over a wide range of places.”

“But first you would perform an autopsy.”

Shaw feels a ping of worry, though he’s not sure why, and hears Dr. Light’s brief hesitation. “Yes.”

“To help the others?”

Trap, Shaw thinks, but Dr. Light is just frowning. “Others?”

“The others, like me.”

“There are no others like you, Mewtwo. There never have been.” The lie is delivered flawlessly, likely because of the way she framed it. Not for the first time tonight, Shaw wonders how the other labs are faring in this mess.

“I meant those that will come, after. You won’t give up on the project, surely?”

“Ah, no, of course not.” She brushes wet hair from her face. “We don’t have to talk about this, if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“It does not. But it bothers you?”

“It’s sad, thinking that you may die soon. For many reasons. And it’s—oh!”

Shaw’s head snaps around, adrenaline flooding his body, and sees that Mewtwo has come to an abrupt stop, body facing the eastern cliff so that its tail caught the director in the stomach as she kept stepping forward. “I’m sorry, Dr. Light,” the experiment says, curling its tail away as it turns to her. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, fine. It didn’t hurt, just startled me.” She glances at Shaw as she says it, no doubt telling him to relax. His pulse is still racing as he watches her rub her stomach and go to stand beside Mewtwo, who turns back to look out at the dark ocean. Shaw makes a subtle sign that his people probably won’t see in the rain, but that he knows Scarlet will, and they’ll see what she does and know what it means. A moment later she’s prowling closer to the experiment, her paws utterly silent on the wet grass as she stops close enough to be able to strike it on a moment’s notice. All around him his people and their pokemon go on higher alert, though without any obvious signs.

Mewtwo continues facing the ocean. “I’m glad. You were saying?”

“Hm? Ah, yes, that… well, it’s hard not to think of it being difficult, for you. If I’m mistaken in that, I can bear the discomfort.”

There’s a pause, and then… “It is difficult. I wish to do something of use, for my life to mean something by my choices, not just my existence. I feel regret, that I have not. And I wish to experience many more things. To swim. To fly. To see the world. Experience a city, or a forest. Snow. We’re just a few months away from it, aren’t we?”

“Yes.” Dr. Light rubs at her face. “I’m sorry, that we couldn’t give you more of… all that. Of life.”

“I understand.”

Shaw finally looks away from them, uneasy and tense. Maybe it was a distraction from something else the experiment did? Everyone around the mansion seems to be fine, and the woman he put on monitoring the area’s seismic activity seems calm, which he takes to mean there isn’t an army of subterranean pokemon approaching them, nor a steady weakening of the mountain to cause a landslide…

Shaw realizes the sky is growing lighter as well, and looks up to see the stormclouds are dispersing. The sun is just beginning to set, painting the edges of the clouds to the west with gold and pink. It’s a beautiful sight, and as he takes the moment to admire it he realizes he can’t remember how long ago the last earthquake was.

“I would like to try flying again,” Mewtwo says, causing Shaw to turn back to it.

“What, now?” Dr. Light sounds uncertain. “In these conditions? Your last test didn’t go well…” By Shaw’s recollection that would be the time it had tried to fly over the manor and had suffered intense vertigo before it even cleared the roof, which was a big relief to him and his people.

“Yes, it was quite unpleasant. But still, there was a freedom in it. As a thing I wish I could have done more of, it’s near the top.”

The director is silent, and Shaw feels obliged to step in. “I don’t think it would be a good idea, Mewtwo. It’s still dark even with the clouds clearing up a little, and will be getting darker as the sun continues to set. The ground is also slippery. If you come down at an angle, or tumble too far, you might fall off an edge.”

The experiment turns to him, and Scarlet gracefully shifts with it, staying out of its line of sight. “Of course, Mr. Shaw. I would try it near the manor, to reduce the risk that you can’t recover my body for autopsy.”

Shaw stares at the experiment, wondering if that was an attempt at humor, or self-deprecation, or just stoic pragmatism. “Have you really given up on yourself?” he asks, daring for the first time since the experiment became sapient to let himself slip into another mode.

“I do not think it is unreasonable, to believe at this point that my death is more likely than not.”

“So you’ll give up on that chance, however small?”

“Shaw—” Dr. Light begins, but Mewtwo is already responding, the tiny clicks of its helmet’s keyboard slightly audible over the weakened rainfall.

“You would not do similar, when the chance is so low?”

“No, and neither would anyone else I respect.”

“Shaw, that’s enough!”

He doesn’t take his eyes off the experiment’s visor, wishing he could see its expression, limited as it is. Eventually Mewtwo’s head shifts, a deferential lowering.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Shaw. You’re quite right. I didn’t mean to make your job more difficult, and appreciate the effort you and your people spend on my safety.”

It’s so easy to hear sarcasm in its words, bitterness or irony or some hidden message. But it seems so sincere, too, and he knows he could just be projecting. “Not about us,” he grunts after a moment. “It’s also about you. The kind of person you want to be. The stuff we’re asking of you isn’t easy, but if you’re not someone who can fight for a ten percent chance, a five percent chance, even a one percent chance, when it’s either that or death, then you won’t ever be what we need you to be. Hope you can be.”

Dr. Light is still glaring at him, but there’s a puzzled look in her eyes too, and Mewtwo seems to be considering him again. “Thank you, Mr. Shaw. I’ll remember that.”

An ominous feeling creeps up Shaw’s neck, and he itches to slide a hand into his pocket, where his own kill-switch for Mewtwo’s armor is. Each of his people have one, and he trusts any of them to press it if needed.

“Director!” They turn to see one of the engineers running up to them, Gyokusho’s smile obvious as he approaches. “We just got word that Groudon has been defeated, and the seismographs are showing no new quakes throughout the island.”

“Not even aftershocks?”

“No ma’am, nothing. Sabrina also just contacted us, and will be teleporting here shortly.”

Dr. Light’s relief is obvious, and she smiles wide as she looks back in the direction of the mansion, where people are already preparing to dig out the stairwells and regain access to the lab. There’s still a chance that the damage is too severe to get Mewtwo back in its pod in time, but with at least a couple hours of backups for the suit remaining it would take serious damage to the stairs or pod room for the whole lab to be unable to clear and repair it on time.

Shaw feels relieved too, and wonders if he should congratulate the director later on making the right call. The situation was uncertain enough that he doesn’t regret pushing for the decision he did, and he’s uncertain how much of this was good judgement on her part compared to a lucky dice roll; he’s wary of reinforcing the latter in case she ends up overconfident the next time something like this happens.

“Ah,” Mewtwo says, the visor of its helmet reflecting the setting sunlight. “I suppose I was being pessimistic.”

“You weren’t alone,” Dr. Light reassures him, and turns back to Gyokusho just as Mewtwo turns back toward the cliffs, his tail bumping her torso again. “Oh, sor—”

The tail wraps tight, and in the blink of an eye, both Mewtwo and the director are airborne.

Not a single decision is made in the next seconds that pass. Later, Shaw will wonder if he even had any thoughts. He acts instead as a machine executing a program, each of his people moving ways they’d been drilled to with barely a moment’s hesitation.

Scarlet attacks at his command, leaping at the experiment’s retreating figure only to get kicked out of the air by one of its powerful legs just as her claws flash out. Pasha’s greninja is next, having leapt just a moment after Scarlet did, tongue lashing out to wrap around Mewtwo. Dr. Light is in the way, however, and Mewtwo releases her as it plunges down the cliff and out of sight.

Vedant’s hydreigon launches itself after it, Dark energy spewing from its three mouths, and Shaw is running to the edge of the cliff as he simultaneously clicks the kill-switch in his pocket and summons his mandibuzz. “Catch!” he commands, sending his flier out after the plummeting armored figure, and a moment later three other Flying/Dark pokemon dive toward it and the pursuing hydreigon. Shaw releases the kill-switch, which he activated repeatedly already, and brings the whistle at his neck up to his lips, blowing hard to bring the rest of his people running.

Only then does he feel his heart galloping in his chest, feel the energy jumping through his body as he quickly summons his honchkrow and attaches its saddle. Less than thirty seconds later, the rest of the security team has arrived while those already with him mount their own fliers. They take off together, flying out of the dim light of the rain and sunset and diving into the mountain’s shadow.

Chapter 82: Interlude XIV – Titans II

Ramin always considered himself lucky, even supernaturally so, which is why he took it as a form of cosmic irony that he ended up under the Rocket Casino.

First he was lucky in his career; if he’d been born in a region like Kanto, with its extreme response to Renegades, he would likely have been killed when he finally got caught assassinating members of rival tribes. Instead his regional government passed him to their global underworld contacts, and he was offered a very simple choice: death, or oaths of servitude made under the watchful eye of a falgir.

The second stroke of luck came when he was sold across the world to a master who needed more than just disposable warriors. He thought at best he would end up in some barracks, far from society as he awaited a kill-order. Instead, he received training. Not just for killing, both with and without pokemon, but also logistics, first aid, even cultural training to help him better acclimate to his new region.

And finally, after years of serving as a guard at various locations, he was eventually assigned a plum position under a casino in the biggest city in the region.

On paper he’s a guard for the casino’s money, but in fact the floor it’s held is above his, where the administration offices are. That floor itself is below another dedicated to storage and machine repairs; anyone trying to sneak downstairs would be caught and returned to the surface at that floor. It and the one below it were recently searched by the police, who thought the missing Silph tech was there. They didn’t find anything.

They might have if they went down one more floor to where Ramin works.

The secret lab’s electrical draw is hidden in plain sight by the casino’s, and the engineers and scientists who work there come to the casino as employees of it. It’s a convenient cover, as while Ramin’s shifts are still boring guard work, afterward he and the others get to enjoy everything the city has to offer. Well, almost everything; his social life is restricted by necessity, but he enjoys going to the movies and watching local pokemon matches. He’s even ahead in the office’s fantasy league; he drafted one of his countrymen, Reza, and the young dragon master is tearing his way through Victory Road. On most days he can pretend he’s just an overqualified security guard.

Today has not been one of those days.

The earthquake splits the ground like a loaf of bread, and Ramin’s luck stays with him through the collapse of the ceiling; the crack that caused it went through the whole basement of the casino, and his station in the third sublevel is to the side of where the rubble ends up. At first, through the wrenching roar of concrete and metal, Ramin thought the whole casino was coming down on their heads. Dust filled the halls and he felt a chunk of something bounce off his shoulder, but when the shaking ends (for the moment) he’s still alive and unhurt.

“Archer, you there?” he asks after coughing his lungs clear, hand triggering his earphone again and again without response. He switches channels. “Maddie? Roark? Anyone reading this?” He waits another few breaths, but gets only silence. The building’s wireless must have been knocked out.

Still, he can vaguely make out the sound of people moving through the walls, coughing and yelling for help.

Ramin looks around in the emergency lights, then starts moving through the halls. He briefly considers bringing out his machamp to have it smash through a wall, but the building is unstable enough that he doesn’t take the risk.

Instead he finds a spot close to the voices and presses his ear against it, hearing them talk through the drywall.

“Are you okay?”

“I… I don’t think so… my leg… it h-hurts…”

“Oh gods… don’t move, I think it’s broken…”

Ramin steps back, a cold certainty slowly filling him.

Those weren’t voices he recognized. Which means it’s not just the floor above his that crashed down, but floors all the way up to the casino itself.

As if to punctuate the point, the walls and floor vibrate around him again for a few seconds, and once it ends the emergency power comes on… followed by the annoying jangle of slot machines.

Ramin strokes the pokeballs at his waist, deep in thought.

His orders are clear. Anyone who learns of the lab without authorization is to be eliminated.

But the earthquakes add a level of uncertainty; these are random civilians, not spies or investigators. And when rescue operations start, they’ll discover the lab anyway…

Another miniquake sends vibrations through the building, and he steadies himself against the wall, waiting to see if anything else would collapse.

When it doesn’t, he makes his decision and starts moving through the halls to find the survivors, hand settling on his golem’s heavyball. Soon he finds a passage to the other side of the wall where he heard the voices, and he summons his pokemon.

“Shh… do you hear that? It sounded like a pokeball… is someone out there?!”

“Yes,” he calls out. “I’m here. Just stay still, I’ll get you out in a minute.” He turns to his pokemon and gestures. “Dig.”

“Oh, thank the gods,” the other voice says, and he hears quiet weeping as his golem starts to pull chunks of concrete and drywall out of the way. Ramin waits until the hole is big enough, then reaches in to help the people inside come out. Both are covered in dust and blood, one from a gash on her head, the other from a badly broken leg.

“Thank you,” the man whispers between gasps of pained breath as Ramin eases him down on the ground beside the woman. “I thought… I thought we…”

Ramin pulls his hand from the man’s and pats his shoulder. “Just rest. Help is on the way.”

He goes to stand behind both prone figures, then points to both and snaps his fingers.

His golem takes a chunk of concrete in each hand and smashes them down to crush the ribcage of the man and the head of the woman.

The stench of blood is faint under the dust, and Ramin withdraws his pokemon, stomach churning. It’s been years since he’s had to kill anyone. He wishes it had been longer.

It had been nice, pretending to just be a security guard.

But it had to be done. Archer or Giovanni might pull some strings, take control of the situation. They’ve pulled off wonders before, they can do it again. Even if the lower levels are revealed, their purpose could be spun… as long as there aren’t contradicting reports from survivors about what was down here.

Ramin listens as he walks around the rubble at the center of the lab. He hears more voices, and starts searching for the easiest way to reach them to check if they’re Casino employees.

If not, the least he can do for the unfortunate survivors is make their deaths quick. Luck, as he discovered himself years ago, can only take you so far.


The battle against the sea god rages, and the sea rages with it.

Leader Surge watches from above as Groudon continues to strike at Kyogre, assisted from the newly created shore by over two dozen trainers. Their pokemon stand at the edge of the ocean so that whenever Kyogre tries to circle around its nemesis, it would be struck by bolts of lightning, beams of concentrated sunlight, and blasts of draconic energy. The attacks don’t seem to do much, on their own, but neither does Kyogre ignore them entirely, and even a minor flinch is often enough to give Groudon the opportunity to turn and attack it again before it slips away.

Surge’s clothes, instantly soaked upon arriving at his only teleportation point in Hoenn, dry within minutes of flying into the sunlight surrounding the battle. The harsh heat raises a perpetual mist off the ocean around the battling titans, and he’s pretty sure he’s going to have a sunburn by the end of all this. He almost hadn’t made it, the rain growing in intensity until it’s nearly a solid, constant layer of water that pushed him and his swanna down, and he doesn’t think most non-Water/Flying pokemon would be able to even make it over such a long distance. Other Leaders and Elites from around the island have already arrived, but few along the island chain are as focused on Electric or Grass types, which leaves few that can be particularly effective against Kyogre.

Ships would help give him somewhere to land and attack from, but there’s only one that’s arrived through the choppy seas, and it seems to be engaging in combat against something else below the water, the occasional explosion sending sprays of water up through the air.

Normally Surge would have his pokemon summon lightning down on their foe, but with the clouds above cleared away they would have to draw from the much further clouds, and there’s little chance Kyogre would still be where the bolt was aimed by the time it comes. Instead he scans the positions of the trainers as they shift to attack the sea god wherever it appears, trying to spot a fulcrum in the battle.

What they’re lacking is zone control. Kyogre gets beaten away quickly whenever it appears, but then it flees to a safer distance, only reentering the range of the trainers assisting Groudon when forced to by Groudon’s attacks. What he needs to do is limit its mobility, and force it into the attack zones of the other trainers more often.

He sends Cirrus into a dive, landing far from the battle and giving her a moment to rest as he climbs down, stumbling slightly as another tremor sweeps the earth.

The ground is rough under his boots, black and grey and brown rocks that constantly shift under him. His swanna clearly dislikes it, lifting one foot, then the other to get more comfortable, and he takes a moment to calm her, reminding himself to check her feet for cuts once this is all over.

Surge quickly digs through the saddle bag, swapping balls from his belt with those inside it. He brought almost every pokemon he owns, unsure what would be needed and what wouldn’t, and soon has his three magnezone and two magneton clipped to his waist alongside Cirrus’s.

After spraying some Ether into the swanna’s bill, he climbs back into the saddle and takes off, staying low enough to skim the ocean once they’re over it. He waits until they’re far enough to make sure he’s covering an area the other trainers’ pokemon can’t reach, then starts pausing to release his magneton and magnezone in a half-circle around Groudon, giving them orders to stay above the water and attack any pokemon that approach.

Twice he has to dodge massive waves that rise rapidly around him, threatening to slap him down into the ocean. He can’t tell if they’re guided by Kyogre, but a part of him mourns the pokemon he’s summoning into such a mess. Even if they don’t draw the ire of the sea god, their magnetic levitation is hard to sustain for long, and he has no way to recover them once they sink underwater.

Before he even finishes summoning the last one, he hears the distant, rapid cracks of an ongoing electric discharge and looks over his shoulder to see one of his magneton pouring electricity at Kyogre as it surfaces to blast Groudon with another volley of water. It only sends a couple jets out before submerging again, flinching away from the electricity, and he feels a savage grin stretch over his face…

…until it breaches again, jaw open wide to grab his pokemon out of the air and sink back underwater with it.

“No!” Surge almost loops back to return his other pokemon, but after a moment grimly releases his last one instead, jaw clenching so hard his teeth hurt.

It’s hard to get attached to artificial pokemon; they’re not cute, or cuddly, or easy to anthropomorphize. But they have personalities, all the same. Differences between them that he noticed after training a dozen magnemite to find the strongest ones, not just in electric power but those least willing to quit when things get tough.

All of his pokemon are soldiers, hard working and loyal. None are expendable, but each’s full value can only be measured by what they accomplish. Against an enemy like this, it’s not hard to calculate that even a minor chance to take it down is worth their lives.

But it’s not easy, either.

“Choke that fucking fish, boys,” Surge mutters as he reclips the last ball to his belt and signals Cirrus to climb. “Then cook it from the inside out.”

If they do, however, it’s not enough to take the monster down. A few minutes later it reappears amidst a tidal wave that seems to grow out of nothing in seconds. The leviathan is glowing gold and blue, its roar as loud as the waves as it crashes the full force of the ocean directly into the trainers and their pokemon on the shore.

Many of them get washed away, but some get pulled back by the tide, and Surge immediately dives toward them. He watches Kyogre eat one of the struggling shapes, then swiftly retreat as Groudon sends a spike of earth out at it. He dearly hopes it was a pokemon, but the shape he angles toward is a person for sure.

He holds an arm out and bends over the side of his pokemon, hand skimming the water until he reaches the trainer. He grabs his hand and pulls, guiding Cirrus with his legs so that the swanna flaps hard enough to lift them out, then flies over land, where Surge unceremoniously drops the trainer and wheels back around.

That’s when he sees the two shapes blurring in a zigzag pattern through the air until they stop in midair. The pokemon, whatever they are, are levitating without moving any body parts, and both have trainers atop them.

What strikes him most, even above his confusion over trainers riding such unfamiliar species, is the fact that neither pokemon has a saddle. Once his outrage as a flying license examiner fades (he doesn’t know what Winona is teaching Hoenn trainers but it’s not his responsibility) he guides his swanna down toward them and takes a megaphone from his hip.

“Whoever you two are, you here to help?”

As he gets closer he realizes the pokemon look nearly identical; the smaller one is red and white, the bigger one blue and white. Same pokemon, probably, with a different male and female form. The two trainers turn toward him, and he notices one is a girl and one a boy. The girl raises a fist, thumb up.

“We’re focusing on the big fish first. Drive it away or kill it and we think we can take down the other more easily. Understand?”

They look at each other, seem to talk for a moment, and then their pokemon drop out of the sky in steep dives that make Surge’s stomach rise in his throat. How are they staying on…?

The pair go straight for the water and start firing pulses of purple energy into the waves, illuminating Kyogre’s shape with each wash of draconic plasma. It responds with a volley of high pressured water, too fast to be dodged… but no, the pokemon was already moving before the attack formed.

Psychic type, Surge realizes. They knew exactly where it was beneath the water, and even if the trainer was psychic and sensed the attack coming, their mounts’ reflexes were too smooth for them not to be connected too. As for a second type, those Dragon Pulses looked powerful. Too powerful for them not to be Dragons too, by his guess.

Are there any Psychic/Dragon pokemon in Hoenn?

He’s never heard of such a thing, not throughout the entire island chain for that matter. And they look strong enough that he would have if they were normal pokemon from some obscure region. Which means they’re something else.

There are so many myths of pokemon, some individuals, some spoken of in pairs or groups of three or more, and he doesn’t have time to sift through them all. What matters right now is that they’re here, and seem to be under the control of the trainers riding them.

“Come on, girl, let’s not get left behind,” he says, and guides Cirrus down so he can get Zeus from his bag, a new note of hope thrumming through his chest.


For Glen, it’s the night of the storm all over again.

Celadon and Vermilion are very different cities, but with this much rain coming down those differences are barely noticeable. Thunder doesn’t boom over the city (the lack of lightning in general is strange, given how strong the storm is) but earthquakes make up for it, both in noise and danger. And while there’s no Pressure, praise be to Arceus’s golden hula hoop, the same fear it evoked twists like a knife in his gut every time he thinks of Blue or the others dead.

He tries not to, given how much focus he needs to ride his bike through the wet and shaking streets. There are a lot more people out than that night, and a lot less pokemon thankfully, but at least then he knew what was going on. Now there’s just confusion, and fear of watching any more of the swaying buildings topple before whatever is causing all this stops.

“Hey, coming through!” he yells over the sound of the rain, and the crowd ahead parts to let him and the others ride between them. As they blur by an intersection, he spots a gaggle of doduo and dodrio running down the street, feathers sodden as their heads try to duck under each other for shelter from the rain.

Not my problem, he reminds himself for the third time at least. He slows to take a corner, feeling his tires skid slightly and leaning his body to stay upright, then flashes a look behind him to make sure the others are okay.

MG always looks strange without her wide hat on, pale face strained under her dark helmet as she struggles with the same puddle of water. Slava’s bike wobbles under him too, and he uses a foot to stabilize himself before pedaling harder to catch up. He looks back himself to make sure Sumi is okay, but she glides her bike around the corner in a smooth arc, looking worried but focused, and Glen turns forward again. Normally he bikes faster than the others unless he consciously slows himself down, but even in these conditions they have no trouble keeping up.

They all want to make it in time to help, even if that means passing by half a dozen other situations that need help too. That is the biggest difference from that night, ultimately; their purpose isn’t to save the city. It’s to save their leader.

His headset rings, startling him, and he jabs at his ear to answer it. “Lizzy?”

“No, it’s Elaine, did you reach—no of course you didn’t—”

An emergency vehicle flashes by, sending twin sprays of water out in its wake. “We’re a few blocks away,” he says once the scream of the siren fades. “You alright?”

“I’m fine, I had the thought to reach out to Professor Oak while I was getting ready to join you guys, but he didn’t answer, and I saw… Glen, there are giant pokemon fighting in Hoenn! Groudon and Kyogre, they’re myths from the region, that’s what’s causing all this!”

Glen doesn’t have attention to spare being properly shocked, mind jumping instead to the implications. “They’re doing all this… from there?” Meaning this isn’t natural, meaning it won’t stop until they’re stopped…

“Yeah, and people are going to fight them, a call went out from Professor Birch for all Gym Leaders and above on the islands who have a teleport point near there to come help. Lance went, along with Surge and Sabrina, and—”

“And Oak. Shit!” The curse is mostly from spotting a muk pulling itself out of a sewer drain up ahead, but once he’s zig-zagged his way past it and checked to make sure the others have too, the sentiment remains. He’s glad the heavy rain blocked the smell. “What about Daisy?”

“I left her a message, no answer yet. I’m heading out the door to the casino now. I’ll see you there!”

“Be careful,” he says, and curses again once the call ends. So much for getting help from the big guns.

The Casino looks totally fine from the outside, though there’s a massive crack running through the streets that goes right under the building, some sections open enough to have formed deep puddles. Glen leads the others to a skidding stop under the front door’s awning, and doesn’t bother storing his bike before rushing inside.

The interior is dimly lit with red emergency lights, a few glowing pokemon, and the flashing of slot machines… many of which are in a massive hole in the ground.

“Holy shit,” Sumi gasps, breathing hard and clutching at a stitch in her side. It’s only then that Glen realizes his own tiredness, the burning ache in his chest and legs, but there’s no time to stop; he can see a line of people and pokemon, working together to pull rubble and furniture out of the hole and stack it to the sides out of the way.

“Lizzy!” he calls out as he rushes forward. “Bretta!”

“Here!”

They pick their way down the slope until they reach her. “Where’s Lizzy?” MG asks.

Bretta wipes her sweaty curls from her face. “She said she’s going to get the power back on… there’s stairs that lead down to the employee areas, I think she went there, but it might be blocked off too, and she doesn’t have anything to dig with.”

Glen is still looking around at the pile of rubble, and after a moment realizes why Lizzy left. It’s hard to see anything, the digging would probably go twice as fast if they had real light. “I’ll go help her. You guys help here.”

“I’m coming with you,” MG says, and Glen mentally reviews her pokemon, then nods and scrambles up the side of the hole again, cutting a hand on a jagged piece of something and scraping his leg against the edge as he pulls himself back out. He checks the cut to make sure it’s not deep, then races for the stairwell.

Once reaching it he finally has to pause for breath, and MG slumps against the wall beside him, breathing hard too. He fumbles out his potion bottle and sprays his hand, then takes out his canteen for a deep drink before passing it to the side without looking.

She takes his energy drink for a swallow, then hands it back. “Do you think he’s alive?” she asks after a moment, making him turn to her. Her voice is calm, but there’s something in it, the vibration of a tightly wound thread.

Glen looks away, takes another drink of the salty-sweet liquid, then caps the canteen as he shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

“Don’t lie to me.” The quaver is more pronounced, now, and her next breath is too sharp. “That hole—”

“I don’t know how anyone could have survived that, if he was in it.” The words feel like stones coming up his throat. “But if he had a moment to prepare… to react… he might be okay.” He remembers the sight of all that broken rubble and furniture, packed deep into the ground, and amends, “He might be alive.”

Be alive, Blue. Glen closes his eyes, thinking of his friend’s expressive face, his sharp smile, his alert eyes as he watches a pokemon match, the aliveness he brings to everything he does. Blue Oak is someone who knows what he wants, and goes all in after it.

More than that, he pulls others in his wake, uses their energy and somehow gives them back more in return. He certainly turned Glen into something more than he ever expected of himself when he came to Kanto. He just wanted to be a good trainer, and figure out what other trainers were lacking most so he could get it to them. Now…

Now he feels like a leader in his own right. Like he might have the potential to actually make it all the way to the top, the same way Blue does. He can’t wait to reach that top with his friend, to challenge him there as an equal.

“Ready?” he asks, and MG nods, pushing away from the wall and following him down the stairs.

Be alive, because I can’t do this without you.


Steven watches as Kyogre gets hit dead-on by Groudon’s next beam attack, and disappears for what feels like the hundredth time beneath the waves.

After what feels like half an eternity, but is likely less than a minute, it doesn’t resurface.

Eventually Groudon roars, back arching up, and begins to stomp the ground with its feet and tail. The sunlight intensifies around them, going from uncomfortable to mildly painful, and the earth shakes as new ground boils up from under the water.

Steven toggles his earpiece, covering his open ear with his other hand. “Drake, report.”

“I think we’ve defeated the pirates, Champion. We can’t detect their submarine anymore, and they took a pretty heavy hit a few minutes ago. They’ve either sunk or retreated.”

“And Kyogre?”

“It’s still on the sonar, but… it’s sinking, sir.”

Steven closes his eyes for a moment, feeling a rare and treasured moment of… relief? Hope? He can’t tell. “Thank you, Drake. Stand by and keep watch on it.”

“Aye, sir.”

The shaking stops, and he looks up to see Groudon has finished its victory dance, or whatever that was, and begun walking forward again, unchallenged.

Steven looks around at his fellow trainers, injured and exhausted by heatstroke and the occasional bone crushing waves. Gym Leaders, Elites, even a few fellow Champions from around the islands are here, interspersed with some random rangers and trainers who were nearby and wanted to help… and of course, the renegades.

A moment later the Legendary Eon Duo flies down to hover overhead, a familiar pair of trainers on their back. He’s not sure where the crazy teenagers found them, or how they caught them, but he’s glad they’re here.

“Alright, folks. Easy part’s over. I’ve just heard that Kyogre is sinking, its allies driven off or dead, which means we need to take on the big guy now.”

Matsubusa stirs. “Are we certain? If it still lives…”

“Confirming that might take hours. Point is it looks to be out of the fight.”

“The rain clouds,” Professor Oak says, pointing. Steven turns to look, and yep, they’re thinning at the edge of where the sun shines through. He turns back to the professor, who is already summoning a snorlax and blastoise to join his pidgeot and venusaur. “So, Ground, maybe Ground/Fire?”

“Sounds about right,” Cynthia says, and summons a garchomp and milotic to join her roserade. She glances at Lance, whose three dragonite watch her garchomp with the gaze of predators on the hunt. “You’re not swapping anyone?”

“I’d rather it be aiming up than focusing on things on the ground,” the current Indigo Champion says, and pulls the hood up on his cloak. “But I’ve got a kingdra and Alolan exeggutor if needed.”

“Finally found a use for that overdramatic cloak, huh?” Steven asks.

Lance grins under the shadow of his hood. “Jealousy is unbecoming.”

Steven chuckles. “Wouldn’t say no to an umbrella. Let’s get this done so I can find one, huh?” He turns to the trainers that have finished gathering around them. “Let our pokemon go in first. Keep your own hitting it from a distance if you can, and be ready to dodge if it’s so much as looking in your direction. That Super Hyper Beam comes fast.”

“Super Solar Beam,” Professor Oak corrects. “The lack of precharge time comes, I think, from the abundance of sunlight. My venusaur is benefiting from it too.”

“But it isn’t spamming it,” Lance says. “Groudon Beam might need to recharge, like a Hyper Beam.”

Steven snorts. “We’re not calling it that.”

“Says you.”

“Yes, says me, it’s my region’s world-ending monster, I’m naming its attacks.”

Cynthia clears her throat. “Perhaps we could decide this after it’s dead.” She looks pointedly at all the Gym Leaders and trainers watching them bicker.

“Right.” Steven turns toward Groudon’s retreating back, wondering if it even has a destination in mind, or is just setting out to cover as much of the ocean in land as it can. “Time to see if your theory is correct, Matsubusa.”

He pulls the orb out of his pocket… and immediately yelps and drops the shining red sphere, which shatters on the ground.

Before it was just the safe side of burning, but his pants and the general heat around him kept him from noticing how much hotter it’s grown; it felt like holding a live ember. He watches the bright red pieces scatter on the ground, then looks up to see everyone (aside from Matsubusa, whose face is a picture of shocked dismay) staring at him as he holds his hands up.

“In my defense, that’s actually what I meant to do. Just not like that.” He thought he’d need to have his pokemon smash it.

“Steven, your rings,” Cynthia says, and he follows her gaze to see what they were really staring at; the gems on his rings are glowing again, and the light doesn’t fade.

He stares at them, awe standing his hair on end. The gems on his rings are, in fact, mineralized bits of metagross and aggron, which is why he came up with such silly names for them when his father gifted them to him as a child. After a moment he summons his two strongest pokemon, two pokemon he’s been fascinated by all his life, and approaches them, glowing rings held out.

“Steven, what are you—”

A collective gasp is heard as his pokemon begin to glow… and grow.


The roof of the Sky Pillar is completely dry.

It’s one of the least surreal details in an overwhelmingly surreal day, but Wallace still takes a moment to stare after he steps out of the stairwell, clearing the way for Wally to climb up after him. When they first approached the tiny island it was strange enough seeing the structure on it illuminated by sunlight in the otherwise dark and rainy horizon. The thin golden beam made it easier to spot, but Wallace was too busy struggling through the oddly heavy rain and tumultuous waves to do more than just write it off as a coincidental shift in the weather.

But in the time it took for them to fight their way through the various ghosts and bats that make the tower their home, he would have expected the clouds to shift and cover the island.

Instead the bright hole in the sky remains fixed over the it, allowing them to look around in wonder at the dark, rainy world that surrounds them. With such limited visibility, the horizon is an endless ocean in every direction, like the whole world has already been swallowed by some restless, primordial sea. It’s a beautiful, if haunting, sight, and he fights the urge to pull out his phone to take a picture or video. It would make a fantastic piece of art, a landscape wraparound for his living room…

Admire it later. He turns back to the structure he’s standing on, testing the ancient stones under his feet to make sure they’re sturdy. In the near pre-historic days of its construction, the Sky Pillar would have been a monumental feat; five floors is nothing by modern standards, but back then it may well have been the tallest structure in the world. He’s not even sure how the people of ancient Hoenn got the building materials to this tiny, distant island in the first place, let alone constructed it.

Of course, its age means a lack of certain features. There’s no hatch for the stairwell, so Wallace orders his starmie and milotic to guard the entrance in case anything comes out after them, then walks over to the kid, who’s already at the center of the tower’s roof, putting his bag down and unzipping it.

It’s too late to say something like “are you sure this will work,” because of course he’s not and they’re about to find out one way or another. But he wants to. He, a middle aged man, a Gym Leader, wants reassurance from a 13 year old. It would be embarrassing, if this particular 13 year old hadn’t solved a riddle that archaeologists around the world spent their entire professional careers trying to crack.

So instead he just says, “Let me know if I can help,” and guards the stairway. The pokemon here were some of the strongest wilds he’s ever seen, a good indicator that this island has been basically abandoned for decades, at least.

“I think I’m good,” Wally says as he starts pulling pokeballs out, each with a sticker on it. Even with the world ending, the boy takes the time to place each ball in order. Apparently Wally spent the past year of his pokemon journey collecting the things, even travelling all the way to Johto to confirm his landmark theory, so a bit of obsessiveness is understandable. Still, considering how many people may be dying right now and the risk that an ancient Ghost pokemon might pop up after them to eat their minds, Wallace has to bite his tongue to keep from hurrying him.

Only once all are out around the boy does he toss the bag behind him outside the circle of balls, and start summoning his pokemon one after another.

A… B… C…

The unown appear in flash after flash of light, their bizarre forms floating in midair like voids in the world. They don’t have any actual surreality, like ghosts, but their very existence evokes a similar feeling, like someone’s black-and-white drawings have come to life. Or “life,” rather. Dissections have proven that the unown are living beings; that they have flesh and blood, that the round eye that makes up most of their mass is in fact connected to a brain of sorts, distributed through their simplistic nervous system. But they don’t act like other living beings, simply appearing out of seeming thin air, floating randomly about, then disappearing again.

As far as Wallace knows, Wally is the only trainer in the world to have personally captured all of them. A few months ago that wouldn’t be true; obsessive patience would be enough for anyone to do it, hypothetically, and a few of the more zealous and rich pokemon collectors have bought and traded and captured their own set before.

But Wally’s discovery of an additional two unown, and how to get them to appear, is what sets him, and his collection, apart.

…H… I… J…

Wallace watches as they hover in midair, bobbing gently with the wind… no, there is no wind, and even if there were it wouldn’t be shifting them all in different directions like this. And yet they continue to behave like balloons, all invisibly tethered to a fixed point in space, never far enough from it to risk touching each other.

And the noise of them…

Even over the distant sound of the rain and waves, Wallace can hear the unown. A constant wheedling in the air, like a dozen vibrating tuning forks, combined with intermingling warbles and chirps and pops like static from a radio… and interwoven through it all, just faint enough to be practically imagined, are snatches of what sounds like distorted, babbled human speech.

…N… O… P…

Someone once set a recording device at some ruins for days until they captured enough samples to turn into a haunting song of sorts (someone else then took the sounds and applied enough autotuning to actually make pretty catchy club music). With so many in one place, however, no amount of editing could salvage the whispered, cacophonous scream that’s building with each summoned pokemon, just shy of overwhelming thanks to how quiet it remains.

…X… Y… Z…

It’s a sound that could drive someone insane, if they had to listen to it long enough.

Wallace watches Wally take a deep breath, and then…

…?… !

The last two shapes complete the loop around the boy…

…and abruptly, like a speaker whose plug was pulled, the cacophony cuts off.

The hair on Walalce’s neck stands on end at the abrupt silence, a silence that seems to mute the background noise of the rain and waves rather than make them clearer. The unown have also stopped moving, all except the last two. Wallace still has trouble believing what he’s seeing; as far as he’s aware, no one has ever seen punctuation marks as unown before Wally discovered them, not even in the ancient carvings of the Cave of Origins that he grew up near.

He spent years studying them as a child, a familial calling that was passed down to him as soon as he was old enough to read. There were times he resented the extra lessons, the stale and cryptic history he was forced to learn rather than being able to go diving or exploring the Caves themselves… but he applied himself anyway, because it was expected of him, and because it was interesting in its own way, a puzzle of sorts.

It’s the way he discovered how to find and enter the Sky Pillar. It’s how he recognized the importance of Wally’s discovery.

They’re not punctuation marks… maybe humans just used them as punctuation because we didn’t know what else to do with them, just knew they weren’t like the others…”

“I can feel it,” Wally says, voice taking on the distant tones of a psychic engaging his powers. “You were right, they’re reacting to the location. This is a place of power, for them… a place where things are… thinner…”

The ? and ! unown have closed their eyes, and with a (likely instinctual) flick of his fingers, Wally sends them levitating higher. A wave of his arms sends the other unown in front of him, suspended in the air, and it only takes a moment for Wallace to recognize the pattern.

It’s the layout of a keyboard, floating mid-air.

…we think in language, so they were treated like letters to form words… but as symbols they can mean so much more than a single sound…”

Wally begins to “type,” his fingers twitching, and Wallace watches unown shiver in the air as if plucked by invisible strings. He doesn’t seem to be typing out words, but rather exploring each symbol, then combining them.

The ? and ! unown wait at the sides, still as keyholes into another world.

“I think I can do it,” Wally says after minutes pass, his young voice uncertain. “But…”

“But what?” There’s no answer, and Wallace leaves the stairwell to kneel beside Wally, hand on his thin shoulder. “Wally?”

The boy twitches, then turns to him. Wallace stares into the eyes of the boy who shares his name, the boy who started his journey three years ago with nothing but a ralts, and now is one of the strongest psychic trainers in the region… but still a child, with a child’s uncertainty.

And fear.

“The vaults,” he whispers. “I can feel them… all three.”

Wallace lets out a breath of relief. “It’s working, then?”

“Yes, but… the earthquakes are opening them!”

Wallace’s pulse jumps at the boy’s sudden alarm. “What do you mean? You’re the one that opened them, to let the unown out.”

“No, there’s more! They were guarding the barrier, keeping the unown in… I mean, out. In themselves, out of our world. But they held more, I think… and if I do this…” His eyes focus on Wallace’s. “Leader, I’ll wake them!”

“Wake who?”

“The titans!”

Wallace stares at the boy in growing comprehension, and does his best to mask his horror. “Titans, here? In Hoenn? Like the ones in Sinnoh?”

“I-I don’t know if they’re the s-same. They were sleeping, and sealed… they’ll go back to sleep on their own, and they’re normally trapped… but if I wake them with the quakes opening their chambers, they’ll break out!”

Wallace closes his eyes, feeling twice his age. Regirock, Registeel, and Regice aren’t the worst catastrophes a region could face; they’re slow, and predictable, and don’t cause Pressure or summon storms.

They’re just indestructible, massive, and utterly implacable in moving in whatever direction they desire.

Unleashing three such permanent blights on their region… could they do such a thing? Do they have the right? Does anyone?

“Rayquaza’s coming?” Wallace asks, eyes still closed.

“Yes. It’s already close. Too close. I won’t be able to finish on time…”

“That’s alright. Just… do your best. And Wally…” He opens his eyes, meets that frightened gaze again. “You didn’t know. Understand? And if anyone asks, it was me. I told you to do it.”

Wally’s eyes widen. “I can’t… Leader, you—”

A tremor goes through the earth. They can hear it, see the shockwave of it travel through the ocean…. but the island is untouched, the force parting around the tower like it’s not even there. Not a single stone tremors with its passing.

“Am I?” Wallace asks. “Your Leader.”

Wally’s lip trembles, but after a moment he nods.

“Then repeat after me: you didn’t know.”

“You… I… I didn’t know.”

“I made you do it.”

“You… m-made me…”

Wallace squeezes his shoulder. It feels so thin under his hand. “Good man.” He stands. “Now get to work.”

The Gym Leader watches the boy begin tapping into an ancient force greater than himself. The collective power of humanity (or at least that’s what the ancient humans thought) wielded in “prayer,” not to stop a god, not even to give it a command… but just to nudge it, a little. To plant an impression, an idea, an urge.

At just the right time, sometimes that’s all it takes to change the world… for a price.

As Earth and Sea both raged, their war did wake the Sky

With ancient hunger stirred, it came with rending cry

To feast on all it saw, and claim anew the sun

Till sacrifice was made, and peace at last was won

Wallace is going to have to have a long talk with Steven, when this is all over.


Dr. Light stares at her computer monitor, face set in a position of calm concentration for the sake of anyone that passes by her office door even as her heart sinks into her stomach. The air conditioning broke down ten minutes ago, and she still feels her blood running cold.

She hadn’t lied to her employees about the flowchart. It’s what she’s looking at now, color coded and interactive; a simple two dimensional image could never hold all the information this does, and as she goes through it yet again, pruning trunks and branches with each click, the colors start to shift first to the bright red of emergency lights, then darken to dried blood.

They’re down to one generator, and both stairwells are in some state of collapse. They can dig their way out, need to dig their way out, because the elevators are damaged too. Most of the flowchart doesn’t specify why the bad things are happening, however, there’s no room for context that assumes things might steadily get worse, so as their situation continues to deteriorate, she keeps going through the flowchart, ending in more and more extreme responses that still fail to address worse situations they quickly find themselves in.

Dr. Light can’t even get mad at the flowchart, though she wants to. There are systemic situations mapped, involving enemy action, the volcano erupting, a normal series of earthquakes, the specimen attempting to escape, a mutiny by some members of the staff… whoever designed this thing put a lot of thought into it.

They just didn’t think of… this. Which means it’s up to her to decide the best path forward.

“Begin data hardcopy transfers,” she tells Isaac, reading off her screen. “Once each is done, wipe it before powering down.” The head of technology nods and rushes out the door; electronic communication is down throughout the lab. She turns to her operations manager. “Kim, get everyone prepped for evacuation. Nothing that doesn’t fit in a bag, leave their hands free, understand?”

Shaw, their head of security, is shifting his weight as he waits for his orders. She knows what he’s expecting. She just doesn’t want to say it.

Where the hell is Sabrina? Giovanni can’t teleport, but at a time like this, with communication down, the psychic should be here, giving insight into the experiment’s thoughts. Lending weight to any decisions made about it.

Shouldering some of the responsibility for potentially making the wrong call.

Dr. Light feels a surge of self-disgust at the thought, and puts her computer to sleep to preserve power. Maybe Sabrina is upstairs already, stuck with no way in. “What’s the last word on the mansion?” Shaw’s job pertains to both external and internal threats, which means he has the direct line to their people on their off-shifts at all times.

“Got out an order to evacuate and set up a perimeter before the landline went down.” He watches her, face calm but body shifting again. “Been trying occasionally, but no new messages have come through. My people down here are prepared for any further orders.”

She knows what he wants: a decision about the specimen. “Speak plainly, Shaw, there’s no one here but us.” It’s a consideration that all the Dark members of the lab have had in the back of their minds for the past decade: what they say around their non-Dark peers, who may at that very moment be an unknowing host to the experiment.

“If we evacuate, we need to kill it,” he says, face calm even as the walls tremble around them. He shifts his weight to stay on his feet, and she clutches the edge of her desk to keep her chair from moving.

“You don’t like Gyokusho’s suggestion, then?” she asks, voice wry. “Or did you mean to kill it after it helps save our lives?”

“This isn’t the time for sentim-“

“Shut up, Shaw, I meant what I asked and nothing more.”

He holds her steady gaze for a moment, then nods. “Whether we use it to get out or not, it needs to die. It’ll be dead in a few hours anyway without the lab, and no one knows what it might do if it gets desperate.”

“Killing it might set this project back a decade, maybe more. None of the followup experiments are sapient, we still haven’t isolated what sets this one apart, and all that aside, Giovanni might just kill us anyway if we end his project without a good reason.”

“We’d have to survive first for him to kill us,” Shaw points out, still calm. “Either way, the worst case scenario is that it survives while we don’t.”

Dr. Light’s jaw clenches. “We’re lucky its life support hasn’t been damaged yet, considering how badly ours is doing, and if we die it’ll be because they go down or the whole place gets buried. In either cases it’ll be dead too.”

“Only if we assume its capabilities are what it presents them as.”

She doesn’t call him paranoid. It’s a perspective their boss endorses, she knows that, and one that runs through her mind often as well. She suspects he selected both her and Shaw for their positions because they’re both cynics. Pessimists, even; she’s been told, back in the days before she joined this operation, that her outlook gets in the way of having better “people skills.” Probably cost her a promotion or some opportunities for collaboration once or twice.

But in this organization that shit doesn’t matter so much as seeing things clearly, and she’d like to think Giovanni chose her well.

Which means she knows better than to confuse relentless pessimism with wisdom.

She agreed with him, an hour ago when the engineer asked what would be done if they had to evacuate. The plan has always been to default to killing the experiment if they’re ever in a situation where they can’t be very confident, by similar prior circumstances, that they can contain it.

There are no priors on this circumstance, however, and while back then she’d lied to the engineer without a thought, automatically and (she hopes) convincingly, the safe route gained some extra complications once the rest of the lab became at risk.

Their life support systems are failing; far faster than they should be, and they have to dig their way out, amidst an earthquake, without collapsing the whole lab on themselves. She’s one of only three people in the lab who now knows about the CO buildup from broken heater exhaust pipes. With the vents to the surface all blocked, the whole lab will be dead within the hour, even if the earthquakes miraculously stop.

Unless.

Unless she rejects the “safe” option, and takes a risk on the experiment. Let it out of its pod, let it don the armor that will preserve its life for up to four hours, then let it help them dig their way out with its psychic powers.

It’s been training in them for weeks, and its ability to sense through another pokemon’s senses is, of course, as unparalleled as its ability to do the same with humans’. If anyone can guide their diggers to make an escape route for them without bringing the whole place down, it can.

Dr. Light considers Shaw for a moment, then sighs. “I understand your worry. But the facts are undeniable. It’s been years since it so much as ‘raised its voice,’ let alone threatened anyone. More than that, it never took a single one of those traps you and the boss set up to see if it would try to escape. And we just had Sabrina here for weeks, sharing its brain for every waking minute, without any sign that it’s planning to betray us or hurt anyone… her exact report is that it’s happy, now that it can go outside and take a more active role in its purpose.”

“Sabrina could be compromised,” he says, voice flat.

She decides to let the comment pass, because she gets it and now isn’t the time. “Look. I know it’s your job to push for safe over sorry, but here’s the bottom line. Whatever new and exciting horror came out of Hoenn to cause all this shit shows more than ever why we need this project to succeed. Gyokusho is right; it’s a resource, and while normally crappy platitudes like ‘every crisis is an opportunity’ make my eyes practically roll right out of my skull, this crisis is an opportunity to test it, really test it, for the first time. And we’re going to use it. And we’re not going to kill it unless it makes us.”

Shaw’s back is stiff, but he nods. “By your orders, ma’am.” He turns to leave.

“Shaw.” The security lead pauses at the door to look back at her. “Once we’re topside, have your people bring out their best.”

There’s paranoia, then there’s preparation; she doesn’t know the details, but she does know that the experiment’s guards have pokemon they never summoned around it, pokemon that it wouldn’t expect if it ever tried to fight its way out.

“All of it, Doctor?”

“All of it. No point in holding anything in reserve now, when there might not be a tomorrow.”

Shaw’s second nod is less stiff, and then he leaves.

Dr. Light sighs and rubs her face, then starts backing up her computer as another quake goes through the lab. She puts in the code to have it wipe itself afterward, then starts packing her things. Anything important for work goes into one container, while she puts her personal effects in a second ball. It doesn’t take long; despite working here for over a decade, and having this office for roughly half that time, she hasn’t accumulated much beyond a few decorations.

She finally has a moment to breathe. To wonder, and worry, about the future.

Where would they go, after this? What would they do? Shaw was right to say that they likely can’t save the experiment once its suit is empty; they could have made redundancies, of course, but keeping it reliant on the lab was the point. Without the experiment, they would normally focus more of their resources on the problem of replicating its success, rather than leaving that to the secondary lab.

But without their lab… lab that’s been not just their place of employment but their home…

What would be left for them? It’s not like they can just find other jobs and reintegrate into wider society, after years of secluded living. She’s aware that it takes a strange sort of person to be okay with living above a lab far from civilization for years, but she’s been happy here. It’s her home.

This isn’t the time for sentiment, Shaw said, and she sighs, then nods and tucks the container ball into her bag. Survival first.

Dr. Light grabs the memory drive from her computer, tucks it into her pocket, and leaves her office for the last time, heading toward the experiment’s room at a quick pace as people move about the lab to prepare their own escape.

She braces herself as she reaches the experiment’s room. In the early days it was always a strain, being in its presence. So closely watching her words, her expression, even her tone. Ensuring she does nothing that might upset it.

It’s gotten easier over the years, but she still takes a moment to rehearse what she’ll say, what her goal is. There’s a state of being that she found in herself for her dissertation defense, a way to be firm without being rigid, focused on her goal while effortlessly able to adjust to any unexpected questions or challenges. She’s found it similarly useful since then, when around either Giovanni or the experiment.

It’s what she mentally wraps around herself before she opens the door and walks in, another quake rocking the lab as she crosses the threshold. Dust drifts down from above, and she glances up to see a long crack in the ceiling. A few meters closer to the pod and it might be dead, she thinks as a cold fist squeezes around her heart, then lets the thought go as she approaches the experiment’s tank.

“Good evening, Mewtwo.”

Its violet eyes were tracking her as soon as she entered, and she forces herself to meet them as it psychically types out its response, each word spoken a moment after. “Good evening, Doctor. Is it a good one? Everyone seems rather frightened.”

“No, I suppose it’s not. Have you learned why?” A delicate way to refer to the experiment’s constant, effortless violation of people’s privacy, the sort that any normal workplace would have had mass protests and strikes and walkouts over. She’s made her peace with it, as she has so many other things, but then it’s easier for her and the other administrators than the normal staff.

“Something about the Hoenn myths rising from the dead. Giovanni predicted thidaxq-” The lab shakes around them, rattling the various electronics and toys surrounding the experiment’s pod, and it stops typing for a moment as she leans against the glass, feeling it vibrate against her palms. Once the shake is past, the typing continues. “Predicted this, or something like it. Not so soon, however.”

This is news to her, despite what she said to the others, earlier. All she says, however, is, “Anything else?”

“Many believe they will die. Are we in that much danger?”

The experiment’s electronically assisted pseudo-voice isn’t monotone; to her ear, the deep, baritone voice sounds calm, powerful, even somber, with properly inflected questions that make it seem like it’s really talking, sometimes, like if it stepped out of the tank this is the voice that would come from its lips.

But even still, it’s not a human voice. It’s easy, while listening to it, to think of an emotionless machine, rather than a living creature that, by all reports, truly does feel things as deeply as any person. Looking at its alien visage doesn’t help; the experiment’s eyes can narrow or widen, but its brow is not expressive, and the muscles of its face are too taut to allow much expression beyond slight curves of its lips.

Not enough, all told, for her to tell what it feels as it says those words. To tell if it’s afraid, or if the calm words she hears, the calm expression she sees, reflect an inner calm, an inner certainty, that it will survive no matter what happens to the rest of them. She wishes, for a moment, that they never got rid of its old heart monitor; annoying as the beeping might be, at least she could tell if its pulse has sped up.

“We are. But you can help, if you’re willing.”

“Of course,” he responds without pause. “Whatever I can do.”

“I want to warn you, Mewtwo, that this may be the last time you leave this pod,” she says, wishing fervently that Sabrina were here. Saffron City better be sinking into the center of the fucking earth… “The suit can sustain you for a couple hours, and we have refills for a few more. Maybe we can jury-rig more after that. But the lab is being abandoned in case it all comes down on us, and if it does once we leave… you’ll likely die before we can reach and repair your pod.”

The experiment is quiet, for once without an immediate response. She can practically feel the others around her, lab techs and security guards all holding their breaths. Or maybe that’s just her. The lab itself seems to be waiting, no tremors or quakes interrupting the quiet.

“How likely is it you’ll survive, without my help?” he asks after what feels like a minute.

The question makes her feel better, somehow. It shows a level of self-preservation that she trusts more than she would blind self-sacrifice. “Not high. We’ll try anyway, of course, but at this point we’re desperate.” We must be, to let you out in a situation like this. “If you’d rather stay inside, not risk getting cut off from the pod, I’ll understand. But you’d be at just as much risk of the lab’s power going out while we’re gone, or the room collapsing.”

“I understand. I’ll take my chances, with the rest of you.”

Dr. Light lets out a breath, and nods. Some small part of her had continued to hope that the decision would be taken out of her hands. If the experiment refused, she would have had to kill it rather than leave it alone down here unobserved. Instead she gestures to the techs to get his suit, then has them begin copying and wiping the servers.

A few minutes later the pod is being drained and opened, and the experiment is disappearing under piece after piece of the dark grey metal. The sight isn’t as frightening as it once was, though watching it fight does quicken her pulse.

Once the last piece of armor is on, the technicians scatter to wipe the lab in earnest, leaving her, the experiment, and the four security trainers. Shaw isn’t here, likely with the extra men they keep stationed around the lab, and as another shake makes the lights flicker she hopes they’re ready at the stairwell.

“I’m ready.” The experiment flexes its knobby fingers beneath their gauntlets, then waits respectfully for the security to lead the way. The man waits for her nod before moving forward, and she follows alongside the experiment, wondering if it really believes the security is here to protect it rather than protect others from it. Sabrina said it did, but such naivete seems at odds with a creature so intelligent.

Not that we haven’t been carefully raising it to believe what we want it to. It wouldn’t be the first sheltered, intelligent being to believe in patent absurdities. A lot of people manage it incidentally.

Still, the thought bothers her the whole walk up the unblocked internal stairwells until they reach the top floor of the lab, which is itself ten meters from the ground floor of the mansion. There she sees the crowd waiting in the halls.

Hope and fear flash across their faces as they see her and the experiment approach, but she keeps her gaze forward, trying to look calm and in control as they approach the work being done at the less blocked external stairwell. “Tenshin, report.”

“Yes, Doctor.” He tugs a pair of plugs out of his ear and detaches the seismometer from the door, then wipes his brow. “We think the major breach is between the fourth and fifth floor, which is where enough earth spilled in to fill the stairwell.”

“It should have stopped there, shouldn’t it?” she asks with a frown. “Once the dirt reached the cracks?” It’s not water, thank the gods. She’s not sure if it’s possible to make an undersea lab, but if that were an option she’d rather get sucked into a greatball, thanks very much.

“Normally, yes, but pokemon have been approaching the structure ever since the earthquakes started. It turns out they’ve been damaging our equipment, perhaps as much as the earthquakes themselves.”

Dr. Light opens her mouth to curse, instead turning the motion into a deep breath. “Are you telling me we’re under attack?” There are flowchart contingencies for that. “Why wasn’t I told?”

“I’m sorry, Doctor, I may have been unclear… we’re not actually sure how much damage they’ve done. It’s nearly impossible to sense them with all the noise, and they don’t seem to be trying to actually breach the structure. They’re just… around. Another chaotic element.”

She rubs sweat from her eyes. “So how is this related to the breach?

“There are others, smaller ones where the soil isn’t spilling out fast enough to block the way yet, but the broken concrete is. The pokemon might grow agitated when we approach and widen the holes, but even if they don’t, if we move the concrete—”

“The soil could bury us.”

He nods. “Another problem is what happens when we get near the top,” Tenshin says, looking up. “The moisture in the soil is going to turn things muddy, which is harder for most of our pokemon to dig through. We have a few Ground/Water types specifically for that purpose, but the switch will be difficult to time.”

Dr. Light nods, then just stares at the wall in thought. The others know her well enough to wait silently as she plays scenarios out in her mind, imagines each of them going wrong, focuses on whether they’re preventable, then repeating the process…

“Mewtwo.”

“Yes, Doctor?”

“How much dirt could you move at once?”

“I’m not sure. Soil is difficult. Lots of small particles with little friction or cohesion.”

She knew all that, but was hoping he’d say it’s easier for him. “So handfuls, or something more? Could you put up barriers that would block it?”

“Not reliably. But there is something else I could do, with your permission?”

She glances at him as another quake hits, this one bad enough to send a few people to their knees or against the wall. The experiment himself shifts his footing and tail, but seems otherwise unbothered. “What is it?”

“From this close, I can sense the pokemon around the stairwell, and possibly drive them away.”

A slight chill goes down her spine despite the heat. She turns to look down each hall of the intersection and sees more people have gathered, ready to leave. Not the time to ask what its range is and panic people. Sabrina confirmed that it could read everyone in the lab, but she never asked about what the limits were past the walls. Was it about distance, or intervening substance, maybe?

Does it know about the explosives? Could it sense them?

An idea occurs. “How many people are left in the lab that aren’t here?”

“Twenty-seven that I can sense. Most are on their way.

“Is the generator room still within your range? Is anyone there?”

“It is, but not unless they’re dark.”

They would be, she knows some brave souls are going to stay down there as long as they can to keep giving them air and light as long as they can. She turns to some engineers who aren’t dark. “Florent, Abi, go swap with whoever is there. Mewtwo will let you know when it’s time to come up.”

There’s fear in their gaze, both glancing at the experiment, but then they nod and hurry back downstairs. She’s already turning back to it. “Upstairs, in the mansion. Can you reach anyone there?”

“Yes, all the non-dark, non-psychic staff are in my range.”

And now she has a better sense of its range. It’s not too paranoid, she thinks, to recognize that it could have been the one that made the pokemon damage the stairwells. It doesn’t particularly matter, now. “Search their thoughts for anything that might seem relevant or helpful. Can you communicate with them?”

“I can, though it would be—”

Another quake makes everyone shift, and a loud crack from somewhere in the facility makes a few people cry out in fear. Dr. Light’s heart is hammering in her throat, but she keeps her gaze on the experiment. “It would be?”

“Difficult for them.”

Right. And even assuming they don’t freak out, they might not be believed. None of the leadership isn’t dark. “Try anyway, if you find someone who seems calm and receptive. Tell them our situation as best you can.”

“Yes, Doctor.”

Dr. Light lets out a breath and runs through her list of available resources again, making sure she’s not missing anything. “Alright, then. Let’s get to work.”

Once the work begins, it goes surprisingly smoothly. The pokemon are sent through first with their trainers to clear the rubble and hold it in place, with the experiment using their pokemon’s senses to report what they feel and ensure nothing they do causes further damage. Eventually people start making their way up through the cramped, humid, dark stairwell, every tremor and shake sending dirt down on them until they reach the collapsed top…

…where those on the surface have already dug their way down, clearing the rest of the way. Dr. Light is at the head of the last group to leave, along with the last two engineers, the experiment, and the last two security guards.

There’s a lingering sense of celebration when she emerges, applause breaking out as people stand around in the pouring rain, just happy to see their peers alive… until everyone stops, and stares, and she knows the experiment has stepped out from the ground behind her.

The experiment doesn’t seem to notice, or care; its attention is on the security guards’ pokemon, both those that were with it downstairs and those from the other shifts who are moving to carefully surround it. They’ve brought out their best, weavile and greninja and hydreigon and krookodile. They’d probably be bringing out tyranitar and incineroar if it weren’t raining.

Even now they’re acting carefully, facing outward as if forming a perimeter to protect the experiment from anything that might come at it from the darkness and rain, trusting the others outside the perimeter to watch their backs. But still she watches the experiment with a feeling of unease, watches its helmet slowly turn to her… then tilt up, letting the rain hit its visor with the sharp plink of water on metal and glass.

Dr. Light swallows the dryness in her throat. The cold rain, drenching as it is, feels amazing on her sweaty skin, but she’s unable to even take a moment to celebrate the fresh air and lack of impending doom. “Thank you, Mewtwo. I believe we all owe you our lives. Are you… do you need anything? Are you tired?”

“No, Doctor, I am quite well. I believe I’ll take a walk.”

Shit. Shit shit shit. “I think maybe you’d better wait, Mewtwo. The situation’s uncertain, and…” She almost says Sabrina isn’t here, but that hasn’t always been a requirement.

“I’ve taken walks in the rain before. Earthquakes are new, but what’s the worst that happens? If these may truly be my last few hours of life anyway… surely you wouldn’t deny me that?”

It’s a trick. She knows it’s a trick, knows it deep in her bones.

No, that’s just fear talking. Her options are simple: deny it, and force its hand if it refuses to comply, or… if it’s not a trick…

Deprive the experiment its final wish before it dies. Even assuming it’s not a trick, would that be enough to anger it, make it force her hand?

No. There’s still a chance that the earthquakes end, that they can return downstairs and repair any damage and save it. She tries to hold to that, even as she reaches into her pocket to slide her fingers around the remote for the failsafe built into its suit.

“I hope they won’t be, but yes, you’re right. May I accompany you?”

“Of course, Doctor. I’d hoped you would.”


In three caves deep in forgotten temples of Hoenn, rock and metal and ice shift, and lights glow in patterns ancient and terrible.

Hearts and Minds

I was commissioned to write a short story set in the universe of a new superhero comic series called Incident Report. The basic premise is pretty straightforward: a substantial minority of people started developing powers in the not too distant past, and in the modern day the government tries to keep track of everyone who develops powers, called Chimerans.  

My story is unconnected from the main plot of the comics, and is just a “what if” scenario I thought would be neat. Hope you enjoy it!


Vanessa’s stomach growls as she walks through the clinic toward her team’s office. It’s long past lunch time, but the day’s been packed, and she didn’t want to eat out while the food she brought sat in the fridge. As long as there isn’t another call in the next ten minutes, she can heat it up…

But when she opens the door and her eyes go to the corkboard beside it, she curses at the single white sheet pinned there.

Sharice clucks her tongue. “Language, hon.”

“Why didn’t you tell me there was another call waiting?”

“Because it just came in, obviously. Your timing is perfect though. This one sounds serious.”

Vanessa takes the call sheet off the wall with a sigh, scanning for the relevant info from long habit. Kaylee Thomas, 13 years old, cuts along inner arms (horizontal, thankfully), no known history of hospitalization… Ah, there it is: after a couple weeks of absences she was brought to school by a truant officer, and once there she “Refused to leave car until school let out,” saying she would kill herself if forced to go in.

Vanessa frowns at the clock above the door. It’s late for a school call. “She’s still in the cop car, or in the school now?”

“School.” Vanessa’s coworker laces her hands over a seven-months-pregnant stomach as she leans back in her chair. “Police escorted her in once all the kids were gone, and administration called for an assessment.”

“Any plan or intent?” Most schools just ask how someone would kill themselves if they were going to, and take whatever answer given as proof that they need to be hospitalized. Almost anyone could give an answer to that question, but a real suicidal plan, the kind required for an involuntary hospitalization, involves a specific method and time frame.

“Yeah, actually. Said she’d run into traffic as soon as school ended.”

Okay, that might qualify. Still, something’s weird with this. “She stayed in the car the entire day?”

“Apparently he only got her around lunch time: caught her napping at home. No one seems to know why she suddenly stopped going to school, she won’t talk to anyone there, and the school’s afraid to send her home without knowing if she’ll act on her threat.”

“Huh. What did the parents say?”

“No one’s spoken to them yet. School said they’ve only got the mom on file, and reached out without getting an answer.”

Vanessa raises a brow. “Do you believe them?”

Sharice’s answer is a simple eyeroll. “Though if they are lying, I wouldn’t blame them in a case like this.”

Vanessa sighs and nods. There’s a whole list of reasons why schools might lie about getting parental permission for an assessment (or at least not try too hard to get it), some bad, others understandable. Such as when they suspect abuse at home. “Alright. I’ll head back out now, then.”

“Have you even had lunch yet?”

Vanessa smiles. “Better question is, have I had breakfast?”

“Damn girl, go get some food first! David will be done with his call soon, I can send him instead. The kid’s been sitting for hours already, she’s not going anywhere.”

She hesitates, tempted. She is hungry. But the idea of leaving Kaylee waiting even an extra fifteen minutes in a room, probably scared and uncertain about what’s coming next… Vanessa wouldn’t be able to enjoy whatever she eats.

Besides… David’s a good clinician, but she’s got a secret weapon that he doesn’t. And this may be a case where she needs to use it. “I’ll be okay. Not feeling faint just yet.”

Sharice shakes her head and reaches into her drawer, then tosses a granola bar at Vanessa. She catches it on her clipfolder with a smile. “Thanks Shar, I’ll grab you a frosty on the way back.”

“Chocolate would be lovely. I’ll call the school to let them know you’re on your way; they sounded antsy on the phone.”


Dismissal is over by the time Vanessa arrives, thankfully, so she doesn’t have to muscle her car through a line of parents and buses or worry about what will happen if the assessment runs long and the child misses their bus. She parks in one of the empty staff spots (she’s not sure if she’s allowed to, but no one’s called her on it yet at other schools) and heads for the front office.

It’s only a minute before she’s being led to the guidance offices. The school counselor, Mrs. Williams, repeats most of what Vanessa already knows as she leads her to where the girl is being kept, giving the overall impression of an overworked waitress handing off a particularly large stack of plates. “Still no word from any of the emergency contact numbers,” she says as their heels clack against the polished floors. “But we’ll keep trying. Do you want to talk to them if we get one on the line?”

“Not if the assessment is still going on, but maybe after. How does she normally get home?”

“Bus.”

“So if I clear her to go home, what will you do?”

The question seems to throw Mrs. Williams off balance, as if she hadn’t even considered that as a possibility. “I suppose we’d let her go… But we need to speak with her mother about a number of things, regardless.”

They reach the meeting room where Kaylee is being kept, and Vanessa feels a prickle of unease as she sees a School Resource Officer leaning against the wall near the door. If the girl can’t be de-escalated and needs to be hospitalized, it would be good to have the officer nearby, and some cops are a pleasure to work with. But she’s also had experiences where the police have hospitalized the kid even after her assessment has cleared them, and that always makes her feel like she participated in a betrayal of sorts.

“You’ll be doing the assessment?” he asks as she approaches, voice low.

“Yeah,” she says, matching him. “Have you already?”

“Just tried a threat report, but she wasn’t talking. Up to you to see if she does. If you can get her to do a safety plan or something, great, otherwise I’ll be taking her.”

Vanessa nods, glad he’s at least being upfront about it. For her assessments, not answering questions isn’t on its own enough to hospitalize someone, but she knows police follow their own rules. At least the hospital will do its own assessment once Kaylee gets there, if that happens. “I appreciate the assistance. Would you mind standing a bit farther from the door though, to ensure privacy?”

He nods and makes his way farther down the hall before leaning against the opposite wall instead. “Thank you,” she says to both the officer and Mrs. Williams. Vanessa enters the room and gets her first look at her client.

Small for her age, with wavy brown hair and dark shadows under her eyes. She’s wearing jeans and a soft navy hoodie with sleeves long enough to hide most of her hands in, just the fingers poking out. The room itself is a standard school meeting area, with an oval central table of some fake wood, random bookshelves and storage containers lining the walls, and a dark, bland carpet that contributes at least a third of what she has come to think of as the “standard school smell,” along with markers and whatever cleaning supplies are used on the tile halls daily.

“Hello,” Vanessa says as she sits at the opposite end from Kaylee, putting her clipfolder aside and smiling. “I’m Vanessa. Did they tell you I was coming and why, or do you have no idea who I am?”

Kaylee glances at her, then shakes her head, gaze back down at the table.

“I’m from HealthNet’s mobile crisis team. We go out to schools and homes and basically anywhere else in the county if someone’s worried they or someone else might hurt themselves or someone else. The officer said you expressed some suicidal thoughts, so I’m just here to make sure you’re safe. You’re not in any trouble or anything.”

The girl looks at her again, then away, and Vanessa feels her worry grow. If she doesn’t speak at all, the officer would take her for sure. “Have you ever been in therapy before?” A head shake. That’s a start. “Well let’s go over confidentiality, then. Whatever we talk about in here, no one else is going to know about it. It’s completely private, with two exceptions. One, if someone’s life is in immediate danger, I have to report it. And two, if there’s been any kind of child abuse, whether physical, sexual, or emotional, I have to report that too, unless it’s already been reported. Okay?” A nod, and Vanessa starts to feel a bit better. “Great. So with that in mind—”

“M’I going to the hospital?” the girl asks, voice barely audible.

Vanessa keeps her gaze steady on the girl’s, until she looks up to meet it. “Do you want to go?” If she does, she’ll likely go, but Vanessa hopes she can at least try to de-escalate so that it’s not necessary.

The girl seems surprised to be asked, for a moment, then shakes her head.

“Then don’t worry about that for now. It’s a possibility, but it’s not my goal. It all depends on what happens here. On what you need.” If the girl can just convince her that she doesn’t want to kill herself, Vanessa is happy to transition to writing a safety plan and connect her to services before telling the officer outside that all’s well.

Kaylee is quiet a moment, then says. “Don’t want to actually kill myself.”

Vanessa nods, feeling a trickle of relief. She can’t count how many times she’s had this conversation with clients that say alarming things when they’re upset, and are calmer by the time she arrives. But still… the cuts on the wrist are concerning. “Why did you say it, then?”

“Was just… upset.”

“That’s understandable. A lot of people say things they don’t mean when they’re upset.” She leans back in her chair, getting a little more comfortable now that the session is likely to start in earnest. “Can I ask what upset you?” Bullies, maybe… Or something at home… hopefully not anything worse…

“Bullies.”

“Ah.” Vanessa nods. “What were they bullying you about?”

Kaylee’s eyes glance between hers, and her brow furrows before her gaze drops to the table. Vanessa waits patiently. Silence is important, for therapy. The option to really think about their answers, or how they feel about something, is almost non-existent in most people’s day to day lives, especially in conversations where they would naturally worry about the other person growing impatient.

“Everything we say in here is private?” Kaylee finally asks.

“With those two exceptions,” Vanessa confirms, preparing herself for anything the girl might say so that she doesn’t react with surprise. It helps that she genuinely doesn’t find most things shocking; particularly after working in the field for awhile, but desensitization to the weirdness of humanity was always a trait that seemed tied to her interest in psychology. “Nothing leaves this room.”

“I… kissed a girl. And someone saw. And they called me names.” Kaylee shrugs. “It just bothered me, that’s all. But I wouldn’t actually kill myself. I’m fine, now.”

“Ah. I’m sorry, that was very cruel of them.” And saddening. It always surprises her when she hears or sees about stuff like this; for the most part, the new generation is even more accepting than hers was at their age. But obviously they’re a long way from perfect. “I’m glad to hear you’re not planning to actually kill yourself, but I’m curious to know if you really think ‘fine’ is the best way to describe what you’ve been going through. They said there were cuts, too. Can I see?”

Kaylee hesitates, then rolls up her sleeves. Vanessa doesn’t wince, but internally there’s a pang of pity. Both arms look like they’ve been used as sharpening boards, lines covering the girl’s dark skin from elbow to wrist. Thankfully most don’t look particularly deep, though the newer ones are still red and inflamed. “So you’ve been feeling bad for a while, looks like,” Vanessa says as she leans back and Kaylee hides her arms again. “This time you might have just said that because you were upset, but what about next time? I’m worried that it might get worse, if the person who saw you says it again, or someone else does. Do you think they’ll have told others?”

“No.” The girl seems adamant, shaking her head. “They won’t. I know them.”

“I see.” She considers gently challenging this idea, then decides to table her skepticism for now. “So you’ve never actually tried to kill yourself?”

“No.”

“Have you made any suicidal gestures?” Self-harm is close enough, but Vanessa wants to make sure she hasn’t held a knife over her heart, or wrapped a noose around her neck. After a moment Kaylee shakes her head. “Do you know what that means?”

“Like holding a knife to my chest?”

A note of disquiet goes through Vanessa. Kaylee is a lot more confident now than when she first walked in, which isn’t too unusual, but while she’s saying all the right things, there’s something about her responses that feel canned. “Alright. So why don’t we do a safety plan, just in case something similar happens in the future?” She takes a blank form out of her clipfolder and slides it across the table. “And so we can find you some better coping skills.”

Kaylee looks uncertain for a moment, then nods, and Vanessa is about to start guiding her through it when the girl starts filling it out on her own, pen quickly scribbling a few words in each box that Vanessa can just barely read.

Presenting Problem: feeling sad

Triggers: bullying

Social Support and Coping Skills: friends, music

“Have you filled one of these out before?” Vanessa asks as her unease grows.

The girl slows down, glancing up at her. “Why?”

“I’m just used to some discussion first.”

“Yeah, I have. Is that bad?”

“Maybe. Depends what it was about.” If it was the same situation, then clearly it didn’t help much, and they really should go into more depth with this one…

“Not the same thing.” Kaylee is quiet a moment, staring at her, and Vanessa waits again, focusing again on how important patience is.

As she watches the girl eventually return to the paper, brow furrowed, the therapist reluctantly comes to a decision. The biggest risk in a job like this, the part that can often keep clinicians up at night, is whether they made the right call to not hospitalize someone who might actually kill themselves. She knows there are many who would call what she’s about to do unethical, but she assuages her conscience as best she can by following a strict code: she only uses it when she thinks the client is trying to trick her out of going to the hospital, while actually intending to kill themselves.

So Vanessa takes a deep breath, then slowly lets it out and focuses on Kaylee, invests all of her attention on every part of the person sitting across from her, until she feels her moment to moment internal experiences being swiftly replaced with–

sadnessdeterminationdeceptiondespair

–Vanessa sucks in a much sharper breath as the intense emotions pour through her, watching as Kaylee freezes in place, then looks up to meet her gaze–

warinesscuriositySHOCK

–heart hammering as the girl’s eyes widen to a comical size, and–

ALARMPANIC

–Kaylee’s breathing quickens as she suddenly shoves away from the table until her back is against the wall, and Vanessa finally breaks her concentration as she stares at the wall just above the girl’s forehead, feeling her own confused swirl of emotions replace those of her client’s.

“How did you-”

“Did you just-”

They both pause and stare (mostly) at each other a moment longer, while Vanessa’s thoughts rapidly replay the session so far. Kaylee knew exactly what to say, at each moment, to diffuse Vanessa’s worry… until that became suspicious, and then she stopped…

Stopped what, exactly?

Kaylee’s face abruptly shifts to chagrin and fear before she looks down at the floor, face carefully blank.

…stopped reading my thoughts?

The girl twitches, and Vanessa doesn’t need her powers to sense the teenager’s fear.

As the reality settles in that she’s in the room with a telepath, Vanessa’s pulse quickens as she starts worrying about what embarrassing thoughts she might have that she doesn’t want the girl to read. Of course, that makes her start thinking of them, and as the urge to flee the room rises, she instead closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, then lets it out, grounding herself in the sensations of her breaths, steering her attention away from anything dangerous that might float to the surface of her thoughts.

In… cool air rushing through the nostrils, expanding her lungs until her chest feels tight, then… out… A warmer rush as her body relaxes, followed by another breath in, and another out, until little by little she feels more in control. She doesn’t know how deep the telepathy goes, but as long as she tries not to think of any pink elephants, hopefully they would be okay.

“So this is a bit of a pickle,” Vanessa says after another few moments of tense silence. “One I hope we’ll both be able to look back at and laugh about, someday.”

“Are you… are you going to…?”

Vanessa doesn’t even have to consider it. “Remember what I said? Only two things require me to break confidentiality, and despite the government’s preference to have all chimerans registered, this isn’t one of them. And to be honest…” You’re not the only one with secrets.

Kaylee blinks at her. “You haven’t told anyone?”

“No. I’m happy to talk about this, but would you like to return to your seat first?”

There’s another moment of silence, then Kaylee finally moves back to her chair and cautiously sits down.

Vanessa has a dozen questions she wants to ask, but first she needs to confirm whether anyone else knows her client’s secret. As soon as she settles on the thought, Kaylee flinches and looks down at the table, and Vanessa picks up on her shame, which starts to grow as soon as Vanessa recognizes it.

“Hey, it’s alright. No judgment here, I just wanted to make sure.” She tries to imagine it, being able to read the thoughts of all her classmates and friends and family, and fails. Particularly if… Oh. Shit. “You can’t turn it off, can you?”

“No,” the girl whispers, and suddenly lets her head fall forward so it can rest against the table, eyes closing against tears before she buries her face in her arms.

Vanessa stands and goes to the door, opening it a crack. “Would you mind getting us some tissues and water, please?”

The SRO looks at her in surprise, and Vanessa can feel his uncertainty, along with some indignation. She thinks he’s about to call for someone else to do it.

“We’re fine for now,” she adds, and puts on a smile. “I think we’re past the worst of it.”

He nods and goes. Vanessa closes the door and leans against the wall as she watches the girl, the desire to put a comforting hand on her shoulder warring with her inclination to keep a professional distance in case that’s what Kaylee needs right now. Vanessa knows that at least nine times out of ten it’s appropriate, but it always feels so cold, particularly right now…

…and Kaylee can probably “hear” everything she just thought anyway. Maybe that helps. She hopes it does.

The girl looks up at Vanessa with wet eyes, suddenly. “It does. A little.”

This is so weird. She smiles, though, thinking that she’s not in much of a position to talk. There’s a knock on the door, and she opens it and thanks the officer before she sits back down and offers the water bottle and tissue box to Kaylee, who uses some to wipe her face. So… how does yours work?

“It’s like a voice in my head. Like your thoughts are just part of mine.”

“Is it uncomfortable?” she asks, wondering if she should stick to speaking out loud, but Kaylee is shaking her head.

“It’s not as bad when it’s just a few people.”

“A few? Oh. It works through walls, then…” Kaylee nods, looking miserable, and Vanessa feels her heart sink. “…and you’ve been stuck in school day after day. I’m so sorry. How long has this been going on?”

“Started a few weeks ago,” Kaylee murmurs, gaze on the table. “It was faint at first. I thought… thought I was going crazy…” Her voice fades, and another tear trickles down her cheek before she wipes it away. Vanessa is about to suggest that she drink some water when the girl opens it on her own and takes a swallow.

“What’s the range on it? Would it help if I asked the officer outside to stand farther away?”

She shakes her head. “He would be… quieter. But I can hear up to the parking lot.”

Vanessa grimaces. That’s a lot of voices to hear at once, while school is in session. “Is that when all this started?” She gestures at her own arms.

“Mostly.”

Vanessa waits, radiating simple curiosity, and eventually Kaylee sighs. “Tried it when the depression was bad, before, but it didn’t help much.” She shrugs a shoulder. “Now it distracts me.”

“I’ll bet it does.” Vanessa steeples her hands together and rests her chin on them, trying to organize her racing thoughts. Best to get back to the assessment itself, first. “So. We’ve got a problem, because at this point I’d take a pinky-swear over that safety plan.”

“Can just pretend you don’t know anything,” Kaylee mutters.

“I can’t, actually. Ethical and professional obligation.”

A hint of fire enters Kaylee’s gaze as she gives the therapist a skeptical look. “Those include using powers to read people’s thoughts?”

“Emotions, not thoughts,” Vanessa corrects, a tad defensively. And pointlessly, since Kaylee obviously knows that already. “I would apologize, but since you were lying about not wanting to kill yourself, I don’t feel too guilty about it.” This isn’t strictly true, she feels fairly guilty every time no matter what she finds, she’s just ignoring the guilt because it doesn’t change her choice of what seems like a pretty clear lesser of two evils.

“That’s bullshit,” Kaylee mutters, and it takes a moment for Vanessa to remember that she’s probably responding to her thoughts, not her words. “Not your business if I want to die.”

“I mean, it sort of is, but I get why you feel that way.” Vanessa shrugs, uncomfortable with having to justify herself. Not a good sign, that. “Sorry. My only defense is that I only use it to make sure kids don’t kill themselves.” At least she can say that honestly, and to someone who can actually tell she’s being honest… “Oh, and that one time at the grocery store, when that creepy guy was following me to my car.”

Kaylee slumps back in her seat, gazing at the wall. “Whatever. Used to grownups telling kids what’s good for them. Taking locks off doors, looking through phones, reading journals…”

The bitterness in her voice is real enough that Vanessa knows she’s not talking hypothetically. She doesn’t even disagree with that bitterness, really. “Believe it or not… and I know you will… I do sympathize. You still live in an era where kids are a second class citizen. If it makes you feel better, when you’re 18 far fewer people will try to stop you from killing yourself if you still want to. In the meantime, what do you say we start the assessment over?”

Kaylee looks up at her in surprise, and Vanessa holds a palm out. “I’m not promising I won’t send you to the hospital after all. But I do really want to know if it’s possible to ensure you’re safe without it. A lot of the kids I see want to kill themselves when we start talking, but sometimes we can change that.”

“How?”

“Well, let’s do the safety plan for real and see what we come up with.” She takes a new one out and starts writing. “Presenting problem is suicidal thoughts, depression, and self-harm. Right?” Kaylee gives a reluctant nod. “Triggers?”

Again that fiery look. “What do you think?”

“Right, sorry.” Vanessa will take irritation and sarcasm over hopelessness any day. She purses her lips in thought as she taps the paper with her pen. “The thing is, your mom will get a copy of this, and the school might too if it asks her for one. We don’t want to put anything on this that you don’t want others to know about, and I don’t want to diagnose you with something false…”

Kaylee looks nervous as she watches her, until Vanessa thinks of a solution. “I’m just going to put ‘racing thoughts,’ and you’ll know what that means, right?” Kaylee nods, relief obvious. “Alright, anything else?”

“…My mom.”

The pen pauses above the sheet. It’s a bold move, coming right after she was told her mother would see it. “Anything specific?”

“Can’t talk to her about anything. She thinks I’m making the depression up, that I’m lazy and selfish. Wonders what she did to deserve me.”

The girl’s blunt tone makes Vanessa’s heart hurt. “Does she say all that, or just think it? I’ve known parents to say it, but just want to make sure.”

“She thinks it.”

“Okay.” Vanessa considers this a moment, searching for some hope to offer the girl. “And to be clear, you don’t sense emotions, right? Only thoughts?”

“Yeah.”

Vanessa fiddles with the pen cap, then says, “I don’t know your mom, but this job gives a pretty large, if skewed, sample of parents in general. So I don’t want you to dismiss what I’m about to say as me just not understanding. I’ve met some really shitty parents. Yours might be one of them. I’ve also met a lot of kids who think their parents don’t care about them, because they don’t let them have their way all the time. Not saying that’s you, hell, because of your power you’re one of the few that might actually know for sure. I just want to make sure you don’t assume that thoughts and feelings are the same thing. Just because she thinks those things… well, they probably still make her a bad parent. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about you, in her own way.” Of course, if she only thinks those things, or worse, then she probably doesn’t… and from the skepticism she can sense from Kaylee, the girl isn’t buying it. “In any case, I want to make sure she doesn’t get more mad at you from this, if possible, so I’m thinking that ‘arguing with mom’ might work better. Is that okay?”

Kaylee shrugs, gaze on the table. “Sure.”

“Am I losing you again?”

The girl looks up at her. “No.”

“You’ll tell me if I am?”

“Go ahead and check.”

Vanessa blinks at her bitter tone, and Kaylee’s expression softens a bit as she looks away again. “Sorry. I mean it, check. It’s easier than explaining.”

“Alright.” Vanessa focuses on the girl enough to bring deeper emotions bubbling back up to engulf her own. Weariness. Hopelessness. “Uh. That’s… not reassuring.”

“Oh.” Kaylee shifts in her seat, clearly disturbed. “It really is just feelings.”

“Yes.” Vanessa raises a brow. “You didn’t pick that up before, from my thoughts?”

“It’s not always… thoughts are weird, and I don’t always get everything that I ‘hear.’ I only get the words, if that, but not…”

“Concepts?” Vanessa offers. “You can ‘hear’ what I think, in the moment, but you don’t know what I know.”

Kaylee considers this, then nods, and Vanessa is still processing this fascinating insight when she says, “Anyway, I thought you’d be able to tell that I don’t want to kill myself anymore. Right now, I mean. Probably will again after you leave, but…” She shrugs, looking away.

“I also sensed hopelessness?” Vanessa tentatively asks.

“That was… mostly about my mom.”

“I see.” Vanessa considers digging into that, then decides not to. She looks back at the safety plan to refocus herself. “What about other sources of social support?”

“Don’t want to tell anyone.”

“I don’t necessarily mean you have to, just wondering in general who helps you through difficult times. Though now that you’ve brought it up, I’m curious to know why you don’t want to tell anyone.”

“I can’t,” the girl says, voice gaining a hint of panic. “If the government finds out, they’ll… they’ll want to use me, turn me into a spy, or worse! Have you ever heard of someone that can do this?”

Vanessa holds a hand up again to calm her, and to remind her to keep her voice down. “I get it. You know I guessed as much, just wanted to make sure I’m not assuming anything.” A therapist has to remain curious; the moment they start assuming they know what their client thinks and feels, the moment they start to overstep and miss what really matters to them; her other guesses included not wanting people to be afraid of her finding out their secrets or hearing their embarrassing thoughts. Vanessa is actually a little surprised that the girl is more worried about the government’s potential response than her social life. It shows a certain maturity. Or paranoia.

Not that I’m one to talk.

Kaylee looked like she was about to say something, but that thought makes her stop and close her mouth, frowning slightly, and Vanessa gives her a wry smile. “You’re right, I haven’t heard of someone with my own power before, let alone a real telepath. I don’t know if it’s because you’re the first, or just that the rest have been tucked away somewhere quiet. Neither possibility is reassuring for either of us. But what I care more about right now is that there’s a chance you could control it. You don’t want to give up on your life before you’ve really tried, do you?”

“How? How would I do that?”

“I’m not sure,” Vanessa admits. “There must have at least a couple Chimerans in your grade. Maybe they would be able to help?”

She snorts. “One can play with water a bit, the other always knows where north is no matter how many times he spins around. Don’t think so.”

“What about just social support?” She taps the corresponding box on the safety plan. “Friends, other family, teachers? People you can talk to just about how you’re feeling, if not why? People who give you a shoulder to lean on, or a hug at the right time?”

“Can’t talk to friends,” she mutters. “Not fair to them, and there’s nothing they can do. My only other family is my aunt, and she might tell my mom. Grandparents are in Jamaica, they can’t do anything.”

“I see.” Vanessa fiddles with her pen again. “I do want to note that you shouldn’t underestimate how much it might help to have people who are aware of at least part of what you’re going through, and are supportive. I get not wanting to burden your friends or family, but just like I’m sure you would want to be there for them, if they were going through something like this, keep in mind that they probably feel the same way.” Kaylee shrugs, and after a moment Vanessa tries a different dimension. “What about anyone at school?”

Kaylee shakes her head. “They won’t care. No one here really does.”

“What makes you think–” she stops as she remembers again who she’s talking to. “Can I ask… what does ‘not caring’ sound like, to you?”

Kaylee closes her eyes. “They don’t think about what I’m going through, when we talk. They think about how to get me to do what they want, or how I’m taking them away from their work, or how I’m just doing things for attention.”

Vanessa swallows, then murmurs, “I’m sorry. Does that include the lady who walked me here, Mrs. Williams? She seemed concerned about you.”

Kaylee shrugs. “A little. But she was also thinking of when she could go home.” And then before Vanessa can tell her that’s just how people think, it doesn’t mean they don’t care, Kaylee’s face crumples with some intense emotion. Vanessa focuses again, and a storm of pain and despair moves through her, taking her breath like a punch to the gut.

She quickly shuts her power down again to keep from being overwhelmed as Kaylee’s tears return, making slow tracks down her cheeks. “I don’t know what to do,” the girl whispers, making no move to wipe the tears away or hide them this time.

Vanessa tries to think of something to say, anything at all, other than just another apology. Years of education and professional experience, thousands of hours in front of hundreds of clients, and nothing else comes to mind. Sometimes, when the situation is bad enough, there’s just nothing else to say. Even offering to lie to others about what Kaylee is going through would lead to more complications, and there’s no lie that Vanessa can think of that would keep Kaylee both out of school or the hospital, which is just as full of people for her thoughts to be crowded by.

“I wish I had some advice to give you,” Vanessa finally says, partially desperate to say something, to fill the silence that’s usually her ally in getting people to think deeply. “It’s not usually our thing, advice. A lot of people think that’s what therapy is for, but… it’s more about finding the right tools, together, the ones that fit best for you, so you can do more of the things you want, or less the things you don’t, or better understand yourself, or better understand others… and chimerism adds a whole new dimension to our work, because it’s so different for everyone, and everyone’s experience of it is so unique.”

Kaylee is silent for a moment, and Vanessa tries to think of another question to ask until the girl surprises her by asking her own. “What was it like for you?”

Vanessa’s smile is small, and bitter. “That’s… part of what I meant about wishing I could give you advice. I may be the only chimeran who can’t actually remember exactly when she got her powers. It was just a few years ago, and I was already working in therapy. Very late bloomer. I didn’t realize it was happening at the time, just thought I was getting really good at empathizing with people… until one day I nearly burst into tears after walking into a room with a grieving client, before he even said anything.”

Kaylee is watching her with an intense curiosity, and Vanessa realizes it’s the first time the girl has ever spoken with another Chimeran who knows what she is. It could help just knowing what others have been through, however different the experience. “I thought it was just hormones, at first, until I realized it wasn’t going away. Every week, every session, each of my clients’ moods were as obvious to me as my own. A therapist should practically never say ‘I know how you feel’ to a client, but I was quickly becoming something of an exception to that.”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

Vanessa shrugs, and this time she’s the one that drops her gaze. This… is probably not going to make Kaylee want to share her own secret. But she’s never lied to a client, and she’s not about to start with a mindreader. “I love my work. I love learning about people, and talking with them about what they’re going through, and helping them find the right mental and emotional tools… and I was afraid. Am afraid. That if I get found out, I won’t be able to do all that anymore. I know chimeran discrimination is supposed to be illegal, but even if my boss and coworkers are okay with it, people might not want a therapist who can actually know what they’re feeling. Especially for their kids. Some would, but maybe not the ones I’d want to work with, and in any case it would just be another distraction from the work itself.”

Kaylee is still watching her with the same intense curiosity. “Is it just… clients?”

“At first, yeah. Then I tested it with others, practiced with friends first, then strangers. Cashiers, people at restaurants, moviegoers… Eventually realized there’s a sort of mindset I have to be in, a level of focus that, when I direct it at someone, I start to feel what they feel.”

“Can you teach it to me?” Kaylee’s expression and tone are nearly burning with hope, suddenly, and Vanessa hesitates, trying to find a way around snuffing it out while staying honest.

That thought alone is enough to make the girl flinch back, the sudden passion in her eyes fading as soon as it appeared.

“I don’t think it would work,” Vanessa quickly says, then tries to explain. “It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just… our powers are very different, even if they seem similar. The fact that yours is always on makes me realize how lucky I am. If I couldn’t turn mine off I probably would have wanted to kill myself too.” She sighs. “I’m happy to try teaching you some meditation techniques that might help distract you from all the crowding thoughts, but right now I need to make a decision about where you go next, home or the hospital, and since we can’t know how well it would work surrounded by people… you see? Even if I give the all clear and you don’t go to the hospital, you’ll still be expected to come to school tomorrow.”

Kaylee absorbs all this quietly, maybe checking Vanessa’s thoughts for sincerity, then looks up at her with solemn eyes. “What would you do, if you were me?”

“I try not to ever answer that question,” Vanessa says. “But I think you’re smart enough to come to the same answer I would. Who, among everyone in the world, is the most likely to understand what you’re going through?”

Her reluctance is clear from the way she drops her gaze. “Other chimerans,” Kaylee admits.

“And how could you get the most access to a wider variety of them, or experts on them?”

“…by reporting myself,” she says, voice quiet.

Vanessa spreads open palms to the sides. “I understand your fear. You know I do. But remember that there are schools specifically for young chimerans. Even if they don’t have one for kids with powers like yours… at least they’ll be smaller. Or they could arrange for you to be homeschooled, until you learn to control it.”

“But then my mom…”

“I know. And if your mom is as bad as she seems… the government may step in there, too. But would that be so bad?”

“It might be, if they lock me up in a box to study.”

Vanessa tries to find something reassuring to say in the face of the fear that’s rolling off the young girl in waves. But nothing comes to mind, and still nothing, and it doesn’t help that she knows Kaylee can tell she’s just sitting here with dwindling hope.

She can finish the safety plan. Teach her some coping skills, find out what circumstances make things worse, make her promise to call her for help if things get bad. But the real dilemma is that only the ICA can keep her safe, both from her powers and from others… and how can Vanessa suggest her contacting them when she, over twice Kaylee’s age, won’t even do it herself?

Her own fear suddenly shames her, as does her inability to defend her actions earlier. A therapist is supposed to be as separate from the system they interact with as possible… but if she’s not a therapist, then she doesn’t have the same burden of objectivity. She could do it. Report herself, and then…

Vanessa feels herself shy away from that conclusion, and the thought comes a heartbeat later:

Am I really going to risk throwing my career away for a girl I just met?

And seeing Kaylee’s eyes widen makes the decision that much easier, her hurt and hopeless expression not quite masked quick enough… then replaced by confusion as she senses Vanessa’s next thoughts a moment before she speaks them out loud.

“I’ll do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Vanessa’s fear is still there, and her uncertainty, and her worry. But she knows she’s making the right decision. “I’ll pretend I can’t control mine either. Whatever happens to you… we’ll face it together.”

Kaylee’s tears return, and then she’s out of her chair and moving around the table until she’s clinging to Vanessa, who holds her tight. “Sometimes you have to trust people,” she whispers as the girl’s hot tears soak her shirt. “To be more than their worst thoughts.”

Because Prophecy

Robert was on his way to the orphanage when the wizard appeared in a flash of light, dressed in rich blue and gold robes and holding a staff.

Most citizens of the kingdom wouldn’t have recognized the Grand High Wizard, though he looks in every way how an old and powerful wizard should. His face wasn’t on the coinage, like the Queen or her ancestors, nor was he on the law proclamations, like the Minister of Justice. But Robert recognized him instantly from the inked sketch on the back of the Basic Book of Sorcery that his orphanage had in its small library; he’d read it countless times as a child, hoping (in vain) that he might unlock his own magical potential, and always ended up staring at the face of the man who wrote and distributed it around the kingdom, wondering what he was like.

The Grand High Wizard looked a little older now than when the book was written, though not noticeably so compared to the forty years that changed Robert from an adolescent boy into a middle-aged balding man with a paunch.

“Robert Landson,” the most powerful man in the kingdom intoned, piercing blue eyes on his. “I come to tell you of a prophecy.”

Robert’s heart, already having lurched into a gallop at the sudden appearance of the powerful (politically and magically) figure before him, redoubled in speed.

“About… me?” he gasped, hardly able to believe this was happening. He’d dreamt of this day for so long…  the day a wizard (even this wizard!) would show up at his orphanage and declare that he had the spark of magic in him, and so must be whisked away to the Academy, or, when the Queen’s father died, that he was a long lost heir, now needed to be brought to court and trained in the ways of rule, or…

“About you,” the Grand High Wizard confirmed, only to then add, “We think.”

Robert blinked. “You… what?”

“Prophecies are difficult to fully understand,” the Grand High Wizard said, tone grave and serious, and not at all apologetic.

Robert looked around as if for help, but as usual he took a quiet road from his home to the orphanage that he grew up in, which he now runs. There was no one else around to see his world utterly changing. “Well… yes, of course. What does it say?”

“It is sixteen stanzas of an ancient tongue, written in a style where the cadence of the couplets give vital context to their meaning. It would take years of study for you to understand it.”

“Right. Of course. But… it’s  probably about me?”

“Mm.” The wizard took one hand off his staff and rocked it side to side like a seesaw. “The word probably implies that the weight of chance is in your favor. I would say it’s possibly about you, and while normally rational beliefs follow probabilities and not mere possibilities, in this case the cost of covering every possibility is low, and the potential value if it is you too high to not tell you anyway.”

Robert stared at him. This was not the way he imagined being told by the most powerful wizard in the land that he was destined to save the kingdom and/or world. Not that he imagined being in his forties, balding, and with a paunch, either. Also the wizard didn’t seem to have a magic sword. In the prophecy daydreams, there was always a magic sword.

He rallied himself with a deep breath. “I understand. I need to tell my wife and children, and get the affairs at the orphanage in order, but after that, I am ever at the kingdom’s service. What must I do?”

“That will not be necessary. There will be a girl who may come to your orphanage soon,” the Grand High Wizard intoned. “With hair like raven wings and skin like mahogany. Her eyes will be like coals, her stature like that of any her age. She will help save this kingdom, in its darkest time.”

Robert swallowed as a mix of emotions played through him. Fear at the darkest time mentioned; fear for his children (both biological and non), his wife and himself, the people of his town. Disappointment, that the prophecy didn’t actually require he save the kingdom… but also a quiet sense of relief, given the way his back aches when he sits for too long and the pain in his upper arms when he lifts his children up. Part of him wished all this had happened earlier, that he could be young again and off on an adventure, but… with a loving wife at home, and two children who needed him, not to mention all those at the orphanage, this…


Well, it made much more sense. But he also felt confusion as he considered the grave words again. “That… description. It could apply to half the girls at my orphanage.”

“Yes. As I said, prophecies are difficult things to understand. This was the best we could do.”

Robert almost asked how he would identify her, then realized maybe it would become obvious in some other way… “Am I to guide her, then? Protect her? Raise her as my own?”

“No,” the Grand High Wizard said. “You are to treat her in every way as normally and fairly as you can. Punish her when she misbehaves. Do not give her extra food or treats. See to it that she is clothed, fed, and educated the same as everyone else at the orphanage… with one exception.”

Robert’s confusion grew with each command… it seemed like he would have treated her the same way he normally strived to for all his children, in which case the prophecy seemed pointless… until the exception was mentioned. “Yes?”

“It may be difficult,” the Grand High Wizard warned. “I do not know the depth of your character, or the hardships that may have forged you into who you are. Perhaps this will require great fortitude, and faith that it is for the greater good.”

The bottom dropped out of Robert’s stomach, but no, he wouldn’t be asked to kill the girl or mistreat her, not after everything else he was told, would he? “I understand. What is it the prophecy said I must do?”

“She will have a roommate that picks on her.” The Grand High Wizard leaned forward, piercing blue eyes seeming to pin Robert in place. “She will be bullied fiercely, all without letting you or others know.”

“The poor girl.” As if being responsible for the fate of the kingdom would not be enough to darken her life… “I should try to find who will do this to her, then?”

“No. Would I be right in guessing you may offer her a glass of milk with honey, if she comes to you in tears to speak of it?”

Awe stirred in Robert’s chest. Perhaps the prophecy was about him! “Yes, I do that often with children who need solace!”

“Then what you must do is not put honey in her milk.”

Robert stared at him.

The wizard stared back, brow like angry raptor wings.

“…and?”

“That’s it. Will you?”

“Will I… put honey in her milk?”

“If she comes to you in tears after being bullied by her roommate.”

“…No?”

The Grand High Wizard straightened. “Then our business here is concluded. I wish I could offer some further advice, or a reward for such a monumental task as falls to you, but I cannot risk such a thing interfering with the flow of Fate in unforeseen ways. Goodb-”

“Wait,” Robert said. “Hang on, just… I don’t understand. What would… why can’t she have honey in her milk? Is she allergic? Should I stop purchasing honey for the orphanage, just in case?”

“The prophecy does not say. I assume she may have honey in her milk at other times, even, or else the prophecy would have mentioned it. But on this occasion, when it occurs, she must not.” The Grand High Wizard eyed him. “Would she normally have it other times?”

“Er… I give it to children on their birthdays, or the anniversary of when they arrived if their birthdate is unknown…”

“That seems acceptable, so long as she would normally receive it, as any other child at your orphanage would. Just not if she comes to you in tears after being bullied by her roommate.”

Robert raised a hand to rub his forehead. “Right. Of course.” He’d have to stop giving all girls who matched this description honey in their milk if they came to him in tears about bullying… perhaps he would have to stop the practice entirely, which pains him. “What of the matron? She lives there full time, should I tell her, in case it happens while I am at home?”

“No, or else the prophecy would have been for her. It specified a male.”

“Yes… yes, I see.”

“Then I bid you farewe-”

“No, hang on, sorry.” He knew he was being impertinent, and the Grand High Wizard’s time was very valuable, and there were probably others who ran orphanages that he needed to tell this to, but… “Are there other prophecies about this girl?”

“Not that we’ve encountered yet.”

“Then… is it possible that there was some misunderstanding?”

“The word possible is-”

“Yes, sorry, I meant is it likely?” A part of him felt quietly horrified and in awe of himself for cutting off the Grand High Wizard, but the larger whole was still too confused to let it end like this. 

The Grand High Wizard eyed him a moment. “Is there a chance you will give a girl with hair like raven wings and skin like mahogany honey in her milk if she comes to you in tears after being bullied by her roommate if I do not answer any further questions?”

It took approximately a second for Robert to say, “Yes,” and he did not even feel that bad about the lie, only fearing in retrospect that maybe the Grand High Wizard could sense it.

Instead he sighed and waved a lazy hand. Two chairs appeared with quiet pops, fancy and comfortable as any Robert had seen, and he sat on one. After a moment Robert sat on the other. “What do you believe a prophecy is, Robert Landson?”

“Erm. Well. It’s… the gods, isn’t? Or… Fate. Or… some force, trying to right some wrongs in the world, ahead of time.”

“Could such a force not find some more direct way to do it, if it wanted?”

“Well, the gods perhaps. Though I suppose if ‘Fate’ or a similar force has the intelligence and desire to change something in the first place, it might as well be considered a god…” He shrugged, feeling a bit ashamed now of bothering the Grand High Wizard with his questions when he clearly lacked any understanding of such things. Not ashamed enough to stop, however.

“Perhaps,” the Grand High Wizard said. “But still, such forces rely on humans to act, evidently… and risk failure to act correctly, if the prophecies are not interpreted well enough, or in time. We have found prophecies that foretold of other calamities already passed, with commands in them that often seemed as strange as the one I have explained to you. Other times they had much clearer directives that could legibly have prevented the catastrophe. Most of the time, however, they seem to be pure nonsense.”

It did help, a little, to hear the wizard admit that the prophecy’s directive was strange. “Then… we need to listen to them, as best we can. I understand that. But… if this is the only prophecy we’ve heard of and deciphered about this girl, why is it not about something else? Surely there will be other, more important moments in her life and struggles against whatever threat is to come?”

“Perhaps from our perspective that is so,” the Grand High Wizard said. “But perhaps the gods do not find it such. Here is the question I pose to you, Robert Landson; all your life, you have lived in such a way that has grown you into who you are. The kind of man who overcame your hardships, and decided to give back to the institutions that shaped you. The kind of man who will help raise this future heroine into the kind of heroine that she apparently will need to be. Did you need prophetic prompting, at any time, to become who you are? Did you need divine intervention?”

Robert felt a bit uncomfortable being so praised, as he considered what he did humble work. He shrugged. “Not that I’ve been aware. Perhaps… was my own orphanage head influenced by prophecy, to shape me into who I am?”

“They were not. Just so, perhaps she will carry in her all that she needs, combined with what she gains from you and others around her, to do what must be done. But perhaps, on top of all this, there will be one such nudge that is needed, in addition, for a better future to come to pass. Perhaps she would save the kingdom regardless, but some other, worse catastrophe will occur. Perhaps nothing meaningful would change, except in how she then treats someone else who is destined to save the kingdom; the prophecy doesn’t actually say she will be personally responsible for the feat.”

Robert slowly rubbed his face. “So… the reason I’m going to deprive this girl of some honey in her milk at a particularly low moment in her childhood is that it may at some point in the future contribute to her contributing to the saving of the kingdom.”

“Possibly.”

Robert lowered his hand to look at the Grand High Wizard. Despite the serious set of his face, there was a gleam in his eyes. 

“Then why a prophecy? Why would you even frame it as a prophecy, yourself? Why not find some other way to get me to do the same thing?”

Is there something else you can imagine me saying, that would have a higher chance of getting you to act in a way that you normally would not act in? That would so utterly change your behavior and character, without changing anything else?”

Robert thinks for a minute, then five. The Grand High Wizard lets him. Finally, slowly, he shakes his head. Unlikely as it was to contemplate, he could see how even something like a reward or a threat might make him feel too protective of the girl when the moment comes, if he didn’t understand why he was doing it.

“And thus you likely will, because you have been told a prophecy possibly told you to. By the time it actually occurs, the fact of its occurrence will remove even that doubt.”

Somehow, as much as Robert pushed for it, this explanation left him feeling… hollow. As if he is but a puppet being moved by strings. The notion that his will was his own, that important things he might decide or accomplish are the result of something intrinsic to him, felt entirely undermined by the thought that, if prophecy does not specifically intervene, he’s little more than the wheel of a watermill, turning by the river’s tide, and that other than this one act, the rest of the decisions of his life may well be meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Of course he had that thought before, in moments of dark contemplation, or when heavily in his cups. But it suddenly seemed more plausibly true, now that the divine had interfered in such a direct and minor way with his life.

The Grand High Wizard seemed to understand, and stretched out a hand to pat his knee before he silently rose to his feet. Robert did the same, feeling in a daze. The moment’s surreality was not helped by the wizard waving his hand to banish the chairs with another pop, nor by him raising his staff to trace a glowing ring of light large enough to walk through in the air… and least of all by then, with a sigh, tapping himself on the head and transforming into a giant chicken.

Robert stared at the chicken.

The chicken gave one imperious, not remotely embarrassed glance back, and squawked, “Because prophecy,” before walking through the portal.