All posts by Damon Sasi

Disgust and Politics

So, I don’t particularly believe or disbelieve the latest scandalous Trump story about his ties to Russia. I’m waiting on more evidence.

But I find it morbidly amusing that people seem to think some of the weirder details of the report are so important, like him supposedly paying prostitutes to pee on the mattress that Obama would sleep on.

Even for Trump that seems ridiculously pointless and petty, but the thing is, I don’t think any appreciable amount of his supporters would care even if it were true. This is a potential “scandal” in the sense that it would “scandalize” those who already dislike him, while those who voted for him would, at worst, cheer on such behavior, and at best, wrinkle their nose and say “How distasteful, but really, we need to better control our border.”

If the actual ties to Russia are substantiated maybe it would provide Republicans in congress enough cover to start an impeachment process so they could get the ultra-conservative Mike Pence that they really want. But other than that, in terms of how his supporters feel about him, I don’t see it really mattering even if true, given all the other things that have already come out about him.

I recently saw a post on facebook about a line from the great book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“The psychologist, Paul Rozin, an expert on disgust, observed that a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches.”

A lot’s happened since I first read that paragraph in the book itself, and upon rereading it, my mind reached for an analogy to politics. What it grasped was mostly shapeless, just vague ideas. After thinking about it more since, I don’t think that initial reaching was justified. Politics is nothing like a bowl of cherries with a cockroach in it. Or maybe it is, but the above quote doesn’t apply as cleanly.

To millions of American, the analogy might fit in that there are certain beliefs that are “cockroaches” which poison any given person’s bowl of cherries. Liberals might think a conservative politician is wrong, greedy, ignorant, whatever, but still not consider them “unfit for office” even if they want to dismantle social security. However, if the politician has said anything remotely racist or sexist, to liberals this seems to be a cockroach that should bar them from office, and liberals will often be the loudest to express shock and disgust at conservatives for not feeling similarly. Of course, many conservatives do, but the tolerance point is clearly set at a different place. Many conservatives agree that such views are “clearly wrong,” but they like the politician’s views on on taxes or abortion, so what’s a few cockroaches here and there?

On the other side, (traditionally, recent times seem to have changed things) conservatives might think a liberal politician is stupid, naive, soft, whatever, but really only raise a howl if there’s some type of sex scandal or infidelity, and express shock and disgust that liberals don’t seem to care as much as they do. Again, some liberals do, but again, the tolerance point appears to be set differently, in general. I’ve seen many liberals bemoan the “sex obsessed” culture of politics in the US, and wish for less Puritan views, like those of much of Europe, where presidents can be bachelors, or have mistresses without being demonized. Sure, Bill Clinton may have cheated on his wife with an intern (after all, maybe the two have “an arrangement”), but the economy was great, and we didn’t invade any countries! Aren’t those cherries juicy?

But beyond vague ideas like that, the analogy falls apart. There are too many examples of people who are happy to vote for a bowl of cockroaches, even if only for a single, juicy enough cherry. And since politics in the US often comes down to a choice between two imperfect options, I can understand that. If I had to eat either a bowl of 6 cockroaches and 4 cherries or a bowl of 8 cockroaches and 2 cherries, well, that’s life sometimes.

The only really concerning part is when tribalism rears its ugly head, and cockroaches are called cherries to avoid admitting flaws, or quietly ignored so as to avoid that feeling of dissonance. “What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.” I feel like if we were all more honest and upfront about where our lines in the dirt are and aren’t, it would help clear up a lot of the conversations and arguments about who we vote for and why.

Then again, that requires us to actually spend time thinking about what we’re really willing to tolerate and why, and that’s a hard thing to do until reality forces particularly strange or distasteful truths and choices upon you.

Chapter 39: Hearsay

Leaf gets off the bus, and finds herself in the shadow of Mt. Moon as it blots out the sky. She and the most of the other disembarking passengers make their way to the pokemon center at the foot of the mountain, a bastion of peace and comfort for travelers on their way up or down its slopes. The majority of the crowd heads for the front desk, but Leaf finds the cafe and looks around until she spots a familiar face at one of the tables.

“Hey Ryback.” She slides into the chair across from him.

“Hi, Leaf. Good to see you again.” The paleontologist tucks his phone away and lifts his coffee cup. “Get you something?”

“I’m okay.” She takes out her notebook and puts her phone on the table in case she needs to start recording. “Thanks for coming.”

“No problem at all. We owe you guys a lot. I saw that interview you did, very modest.”

She opens her mouth, then closes it when she realizes she’s about to say something modest again. “Well, I won’t pretend I’m not here to bank on that gratitude a bit.”

“Figured as much. You said this was about a story you want to write, but did you need to come halfway up the mountain to talk about it in person?”

“I’m hoping I can convince you to take me farther up the mountain, actually, if the conversation goes well.”

He raises his brow. “I’m listening.”

“First things first. Would you mind telling me everything that happened when you left us at the Outpost that night? Off the record. I just want to get a sense of things.”

Ryback shrugs. “Sure. Let’s see, was dark by the time I got back up to camp, and I missed the meeting with all the bigwigs. Went to check with the cleanup detail, then helped Rob look over the damage at a couple of the digs as best I could with just the lamplights. When the meeting ended I spoke with the site leader-”

“Dr. Zapata, right?”

“Right. Told her you guys were safe and asked how the meeting went. Got a summary, helped her with some new security protocols that were decided on. That took up the rest of the night, I think, and I went to bed after updating our logs.”

Leaf watches the older man’s face the whole time he speaks, listens to his voice. She doesn’t know if it’s her imagination, but he sounded… too bland. Not rote, exactly, just emotionless. Consciously emotionless.

“Can you give me some timestamps for all that?” she asks when he’s done.

“Sure. Got there around 8:20, met with Dr. Zapata about an hour later. Coordinating the new security was finished around 10:30, was in bed by 11.”

“So about two hours, all told.”

“Yep. Is that important?”

“Just getting a rough sense of things.” Leaf finishes scribbling the numbers down on her timeline, and glances at the note she made back in Cerulean. Red got his notification about Yuuta’s execution at 11:17PM. Assuming Leader Misty began the execution proceedings after leaving the meeting around 9:30, two hours would be almost four times longer than the average she looked up beforehand.

Zoey was right: there’s something off about this.

“Do you know what the Leaders did after the meeting?”

“Giovanni stuck around to talk to people, but I believe Brock left shortly after.” Ryback’s face darkens. “Misty stayed to oversee Yuuta’s execution. I stayed away from that. Didn’t know him that well, but a year of working together… it’s still hard to think about.”

“Yeah, I get it. Do you know if she did anything before that though, or is that all she stayed for?”

“I think that was it. But I wasn’t involved, like I said.”

Leaf nods. “Do you know who was involved, that I could talk to? Ranger Sasaki, maybe Paul?”

“Yeah, probably them,” Ryback says. He doesn’t look quite so distant now that her questions are narrowing in, and she catches him looking at her speculatively before he takes another sip. “Sasaki’s not at the site now though, you’d have to go to her outpost. I don’t mind giving you a lift to talk to Paul, but he won’t be off duty for another few hours. You really want to go all the way up the mountain just for that?”

“If he doesn’t have the information I need, then I’d like to be able to ask others.”

“And what information is that, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I do, actually,” she says. Ryback’s eyebrows rise, and she smiles. “Sorry Ryback, but I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

The paleontologist turns his cup in his hands. “That bad, is it?” he asks eventually.

Leaf is quiet a moment. Zoey Palmer made one thing clear about the story leads she shared: they’re not gifts, where Leaf has exclusive rights to publish on them and Zoey has to ignore them. She gave Leaf a helping hand, pointed her in directions to investigate, but ultimately if Zoey felt she had a story to publish, she would publish it. Leaf is on a timer.

A headline flashes in Leaf’s mind, one of Zoey’s more famous pieces. It revealed corruption in one of the League’s safety boards, but rather than just singling out the corrupt overseers and asking for better oversight, it insinuated widespread corruption that just didn’t seem founded by the facts at hand. Nevertheless, it fed into a lot of anti-League sentiment and increased her readership immensely.

She can’t even accuse Zoey of impure motives. She seems to believe what she writes, and just happens to focus on the stories that fit her ideology. Which means that great reporter though she is, Leaf is worried about the same thing happening here. She doesn’t want people like Ryback and the others at the dig site, the mission of the site itself, to be smeared by whatever a bad actor or two were doing.

“I don’t know how bad it is, actually,” she says at last. “But I think from what I suspect, it’s the kind of thing you couldn’t have missed if you knew enough to help me. Which means either you don’t, or you purposefully left it out of your summary of the night, probably because you were told to. So if I do end up piecing the information together, I don’t want you to be involved unless you choose to volunteer it, which you didn’t. So, the less you know the better.”

Ryback chuckles. “Thanks for the consideration, Leaf, but assuming there is some conspiracy going on, if I fly you up there and you start asking around about whatever you want to know, wouldn’t the people think I’m involved anyway?”

Leaf smiles.


“An article on the dig site?” Dr. Zapata asks. Leaf can hear her frown over the phone. “Didn’t the interview you did recently already cover everything?”

“I don’t mean the incident,” Leaf says. She’s standing outside the Center, watching Ryback smoke a cigarette by the edge of the mountain. “I want to do a piece on the site itself, the people who work here. I think it’s a good opportunity to talk about the importance of projects like this, and it ties into my article on the Pewter museum.”

Leaf holds her breath as the director silently considers. “Alright, I have no problem with it,” Dr. Zapata finally says. “As long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone’s duties, you have my permission to ask around and interview whoever consents.”

“Thank you! I’ll try and stay out of anyone’s way, but I have one more favor to ask.”

“Yes?”

“Is there a room I can rent, by chance? It would save me a lot of time if I can spend a few nights there.”

“Hmm. I think that can be arranged. We’ve replaced the damaged buildings and added another two to house some extra staff, but they won’t all be here until the end of the week. You can take one of those until Friday: no need to pay for the bed as long as you keep the room in good order, but any meals you take in the cafeteria will cost you.”

“That’s fine, thank you! I’m on my way up.”

“Safe travels.”

Leaf closes the call and waves to Ryback, who begins walking back toward her. Twilight is beginning to fall around them, and she feels a chill coming on the air as the sun starts to set behind Mount Silver in the distance.

Ryback flicks the smoldering butt into a trash bin. “So?”

“She said it’s okay.”

“Well, alright then. Anything you need to do before we’re off?”

She tightens her backpack straps. “Ready when you are.”

The flight up the mountain is exhilarating, and only mildly terrifying. Leaf has only ever flown on a pokemon once before, and it was a fairly tame, straight shot between cities. She clutches the pommel of the pidgeot’s rear saddle as the wind whips her hair and clothes around, even shielded from the front by Ryback’s body. The pommel grip is more for comfort than anything, since the straps around her waist and legs do most of the work of keeping her secure.

Eventually she feels safe enough to look around without getting vertigo. Her coat keeps the worst of the air’s chill away, and her goggles keep her eyes safe as she marvels at the sweep of the land beneath them, sloping down from the mountain. She cranes her neck to see the distant gleam of Cerulean City, and the bay beyond it.

They climb in sweeps and fits, gliding between updrafts and only flapping to get through dead air. When they finally reach the dig site, Leaf closes her eyes and braces herself as the pidgeot brings them down. The landing is surprisingly soft however, just a couple hops and a few flaps of its wide, long wings.

It takes her a few minutes to get her land legs back, during which she thanks Ryback and asks him if he wants to give her an interview for the article.

“Sure, I guess so,” he says as he strokes his pidgeot. “I figure you’ll slip whatever questions you really want to know in with all the other stuff, but if others decide to do it too, no harm in that. Let me know when you get four or five of them already.” After another minute of grooming and feeding, he seems to know when his pokemon has gotten enough rest, because he steps away and withdraws it in one smooth motion. “Come on, I’ll show you around… again.” He smiles. “The buildings this time, ‘stead of the dig. Our last tour got a bit interrupted, anyway.”


Leaf starts interviewing people that very night, just taking the time to find her room and put her stuff away before wandering around the break rooms and introducing herself. Some of the people recognize her from the incident or Zoey’s interview, and a few express interest.

“Security is pretty standard,” an ACE trainer says, scratching his neck. “Talking about it shouldn’t be an issue, though I’ll have to get it cleared.”

“Sure! I read your Pewter piece, after I saw your interview about the attack.” The geologist smiles. “I’d be happy to talk about the kinds of fossils we’re finding here!”

“Oh, yes, worked plenty of digs like this in my time,” says an older man who introduced himself as Albert. “This one’s run better than most, for sure. That night was tragic, but don’t let it give you the wrong impression. Zapata runs a tight ship compared to some of the idiots I’ve worked for.”

Leaf smiles and nods and writes down names and availability times, then moves on to the next building, then the next, until she has over a dozen volunteers ranging over every aspect of the dig.

Well, every aspect but one. The new security from Viridian, specifically tasked with guarding the dug up fossils, don’t seem keen on the idea. They’re friendly enough, some mingled with the other site staff, but most kept each other’s company. There’s a definite air of separation to them that probably comes from only being on-site for a couple weeks, and not knowing anyone else that well.

Since they weren’t on-site the night of the incident anyway, Leaf isn’t particularly interested in them, but it might seem strange if she doesn’t ask them too. She’s a bit relieved that they all say no, since it frees her up to pursue others. She’s serious about the dig site article and plans to write it as well as she can, but her “real” story is looking more and more substantial as the night goes on.

Buried in the general questions she asks are a few that help her narrow down who’s in a position to know if something unusual happened with the renegade’s execution. Ranger Sasaki isn’t on site, as Ryback said, but she’ll be the last person Leaf speaks to, once she has a better idea of what to ask.

She checks in with Laura as she prepares for bed, summarizing everything she learned and listening as her mentor lists out all the possibilities.

“The most important thing to clarify is whether Yuuta is actually dead,” Laura says. “That’s the primary fact that shapes the story. In all likelihood he is, and maybe there was some other problem. But if he’s alive…”

“You think he escaped? That they’re trying to save face?”

“Or he turned out to be someone important, politically.”

“That would be…” Leaf tries to find the words and fails. “I don’t know, ‘irresponsible’ doesn’t seem to cover it. If it were just one person who had to keep the secret, maybe, but this many?”

“How many is ‘this many?’ Remember not to jump ahead of what you know. At the very least, who needs to be in on this?”

“Misty. Ranger Sasaki. Maybe a couple ACE? They might have been intimidated, had their jobs threatened…”

“Right. So it’s possible he’s alive, one way or another. But more likely he’s dead, and there’s something else that caused the delay.”

“Or the same things caused it. He tried to escape, or there was some last minute intervention attempted by someone high up, both of which failed.”

“Sure. What else could have taken up the time?”

Leaf slips under the covers, cold feet grateful for their warmth as she fluffs the pillow behind her head and lies back with a sigh. “Umm. An interrogation? Some questions they wanted to ask him about his plan or conspirators?”

“If there was more than one person working the job, that could be worth hiding. Especially if it was someone from ACE. Make sure you check the staff roster just to make sure no one was quietly taken off it since the incident.”

“Will do.” Leaf yawns. “What about Yuuta? Should I look into him myself too?”

Laura chuckles. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow. You should get some sleep.”

Leaf is about to argue, then realizes how tired she is. “Alright. Have a good night.”

“You too, hon.”

Leaf closes the call and tries to sleep. Her thoughts are too busy racing from one topic to the next to settle down however, and eventually she pulls her phone back out and opens it to browse the web and distract herself from her story.

At first she stays on the lighter stuff, happy to to be entertained by amusing pictures and videos. But eventually she starts checking more serious topics, and before long her sleepiness is gone as she reads about a scandal with some Silph Co. executive in Fuschia, a Zapdos sighting north of Pewter, and…

She sits up, pulse spiking. There’s a Tier 1 occurring in Celadon, right now. She taps the headline and scrolls up as the live thread continues to update with pictures, public messages, and a running tally of suspected casualties.

She watches a short video clip, shaky and far off, of someone recording a living wave of sludge pouring over a street below their apartment. A flood of grimer and muk, rising out of the city’s canals and sewers, covering the streets with poisonous waste as they spread outward.

Leaf quickly calls Laura back, heart in her throat. “Laura! Are you okay? I just saw-”

“I’m fine, Leaf, I’m safe. It’s on the other side of the city from me.” Laura’s voice sounds breathy, and Leaf hears the sound of feet on stairs. “Thanks for calling hon, but I’ve got to go.”

“Go, go where? Are you evacuating?”

“No, I’m heading to the roof to get a better view!” Laura says.

“You’re what?

“I’ll be perfectly safe, don’t worry, I just want to see it myself if it does get this far, in case I end up writing about it!”

“But-”

The sound of a door being slammed open. “I’m here. Go to bed Leaf! Don’t tell Red, he’ll just worry! Goodnight!”

The call ends, leaving Leaf frozen for a moment before she pulls up her internet and checks a map of Celadon. It’s the largest city in Kanto, so it’s hard to guess where Laura might be, but the hazard zone that’s currently marked on the map only takes up about a tenth of the city in red, with a quarter in varying shades of yellow and orange. She could be anywhere in the other three-fourths of the city… hopefully that’s what she meant by the “other side of the city.”

Leaf gets out of bed and starts pacing, eyes glued to the live update feed. She wants to call Red, but his mom asked her not to… she doesn’t know if he’s asleep or not, but she’s sure his work training all the abra to prepare them for his experiment is exhausting, and she really shouldn’t worry him and make him lose sleep over nothing…

She should sleep too, she knows that. But… how can she, knowing what’s going on there?

Memories flood her mind, first of the attack on the mountain, then the forest fire. There are trainers and civilians and pokemon in Celadon right now, fighting and dying, and there’s nothing she can do about any of it.

Not that there ever was in other pokemon attacks she heard about, of course. She even had people she cared about caught up in them. She worried then and she’s worried now, but that’s not what has her pacing around the room. It’s a sense of frustration, a desire to do something that she never felt before becoming a trainer.

After being in emergencies herself, and gaining some measure of power… it feels wrong, somehow, to not be part of one. To not be helping.

She thinks of Red and Blue’s promise to each other, to go and help if any of the Storm Birds attack a nearby town or city. Before she thought they were a bit crazy, and just hoped they could find some other way to help out while avoiding any danger.

Now, though, she knows she’ll be right there with them, running straight into harm’s way.

Leaf is exhausted, but she can’t force herself to sleep. She wishes she could have Joy sing to her, but the noise would travel through the walls, and anyway she wouldn’t be able to get her back in the ball afterward.

But maybe Joy can help another way. Leaf summons her wigglytuff, and wraps her in a hug, closing her eyes and sighing as her pokemon cuddles back against her. Its fur is so soft and warm that Leaf feels the knot of worry inside her relaxing slightly.

When she was young, after dad left, she took to sleeping cuddled up with Wilby, the family’s herdier, to keep the bad dreams away. Her mom had complained about Wilby getting hair all over Leaf’s bedsheets, but relented when she saw how much more well rested Leaf was afterward.

Wilby may be back in Unova, but Leaf has her own pokemon now. “Okay, Joy,” she says, returning to bed with her pokemon and tucking them both in. “Just rest here with me a bit.” Her pokemon seems happy to cuddle up under the blankets, and after a moment of shifting around to get comfortable, deflates her body into a soft, malleable pile of fuzz.

Before long Joy’s wide eyes slip closed, and Leaf feels herself drowsing beside her. The occasional worry continues to shoot across her thoughts. Is the rampage over now? Did it spread to other parts of the city?

She reaches for her phone on the nightstand, but her hand drops to her chest as she’s finally pulled down into a warm, comfortable sleep.


“So you switch off with two others?” Leaf asks a paleontologist the next morning.

“Yep.”

“Is there a time slot you each have?”

“Yeah, normally Fara takes sunrise to lunch, I’m the afternoon guy, and Will has nights.”

She scribbles this down. “Got it. So, what do you usually do on your time off?”

Later, with an ACE on security: “Do you all run drills if something goes wrong?”

“Of course, once a week,” the woman says. “That’s why the response was so quick during the attack. We specifically had a plan in place in case pokemon burrowed up from under us.”

“Of every kind?”

“No, just those that could dig. We didn’t foresee a paras colony driving some pokemon that could dig in front of them to the surface. Obviously a mistake, in retrospect, but we’re better prepared now.”

Leaf smiles. “Well, you all did fantastically regardless. So what’s the chain of command up here?”

Later still, with a geologist: “How do you guys decide where the fossils go?”

“Oh, that’s all done by the funders once we report what we’ve found. They hash it out among themselves, then pass down the orders.”

“Do they ever ask for advice, or suggestions?”

He laughs. “No, not really. We give some anyway, and they actually do listen once in awhile. They’re paying us for our expertise, after all.”

Leaf nods and scribbles, then moves onto another topic, another interview, where she can scribble and nod some more. Hour after hour, with whoever’s on a break or off the clock for the day.

She’s a bit tired from last night, but luckily she didn’t lose the habit of waking up early while in Cerulean, since the dig site is up and working by the crack of dawn. Leaf rose to find her wigglytuff fast asleep beside her, and woke Joy up for some breakfast before withdrawing her and calling Laura, who assured her she was fine. Leaf checked the news of the incident, a bit relieved that the casualty list wasn’t bigger, then prepared for her day of interviewing the site staff.

Schedules. Routines. Duties. Again and again, Leaf asks who does what, where, and when. She builds her picture of the dig site piece by piece, until she has a good idea of what the site should look like on any typical day.

The problem, of course, is that the one she cares about most was anything but typical. She slips questions in here and there to probe what each person she talks to was doing on the night of the attack, who they were with and when. The more she knows, the easier it’ll be to reconstruct what happened.

In terms of her major questions, her first real clue came from Albert. He was in the meeting with the Leaders, and confirms that Misty went to see Yuuta right after, which in turn confirms Leaf’s timeline.

“Do you know who went with her?” Leaf asks, barely able to contain her excitement.

“Well, the Ranger went, but other than that, don’t think anyone else from the meeting did.”

So it’s down to Misty and the Ranger… and whichever ACE was in charge of watching Yuuta.

But when she tries to get that info, however subtly, there’s nothing. She pokes and prods a bit more than she intended, but it isn’t until she asks to see the staff roster that Dr. Zapata sends a message asking to see her.

Leaf goes to her office with some trepidation, knocking on the door and entering when prompted. “Hello, Director. Is something wrong?” Leaf asks as she slides into the chair across from her desk.

The older woman finishes typing something on her computer, then turns to Leaf and adjusts her glasses, leaning back a bit. “To be honest, Leaf, I’m not sure. How has your stay been so far?”

“Good. Informative. I’ve been learning a lot about the site, the people who work here, the mission. Did I bother someone or interfere with their job?”

“No, no complaints. I’m glad you’ve been finding your stay productive. I do have some concerns, however.”

Leaf folds her hands in her lap. “Yes?”

“I asked a few of the people you spoke with what you talked about. I hope you don’t mind, but I was curious. At first it all seemed fine, but then one or two people came forward themselves, either people you interviewed or those nearby who overheard. Can you tell me why you asked Mr. Pao about our site’s recruitment practices?”

“Oh, sure.” Leaf relaxes a little. This was far off from what Leaf feared. “I was curious to know what it takes to be hired here, the kinds of qualifications that are needed.”

“And this is important to the article?”

“Probably not. I actually don’t know if most of the stuff I’ve been asking about will be in it yet, but I want to get as complete a picture as I can before I start writing.”

“I see.” The director is quiet for a moment. “And the questions on our ‘chain of command?’ It sounds like you were quite extensive.”

Hm. That question was a bit harder to answer. “I’m sorry Director, I don’t understand. What’s this about?”

“When you asked for permission for this project, it sounded like you were interested in a day-in-the-life sort of article, or a general kind of human interest story with the dig site set as the focus. I agreed because I didn’t see the harm in it, and because you helped us during the attack. But ultimately, you’re a stranger to me.” The director’s gaze is intense, and Leaf struggles not to blink or look away. “And if a stranger came to the site and asked the sorts of questions you’ve been asking, I would assume something much different about their intentions than a simple article on paleontological digs.”

Leaf’s throat is dry. “What would you assume they were writing about instead?”

“Do you know what corporate espionage is?”

Oh. Relief makes Leaf struggle not to smile. “I do, yeah. But I don’t have any ties to anyone that might be interested in that sort of thing. I wouldn’t even know who was interested in the kind of information I’ve been asking about.”

“And the monthly personnel files you requested, from the first day of the dig? This expedition is partially funded by Pewter. Why not check the-”

“-public records, I did, but they’re not recent or organized, and it’s just a lot less convenient.”

Dr. Zapata taps her fingers on her desk. “Whatever we give you would be stripped of all but the basics, to protect privacy. Just names and dates.”

“That’s totally fine. Does that mean you can do it?”

“What I want to know first is what you want to do with the info.”

“I just want to know who might have left, maybe contact them too. See where they are now, what they’re doing. Kind of draw connections between other, similar projects.” Leaf feels she’s close to babbling and shuts up.

“So you’re not headhunting?”

“No, it’s nothing like that.”

“Alright. I’ll send the files over by tomorrow.”

Leaf’s brow rises. “Thank you.”

Dr. Zapata smiles briefly. “I think you’re probably on the level, but I had to at least ask you myself. I was a trainer once, long ago. I know not to underestimate kids who go on their journey as young as you and your friends.”

Leaf flushes, both from the praise and a bit of shame. She doesn’t want to deceive the director, but… she’s not actually lying. And besides, if the story’s going to come out either way, she’d rather be the one to break it than risk Zoey’s broad strokes. “Is that all?”

“One last thing. Can you promise me that you really will be publishing an article on the dig site? I don’t care if it’s flattering or not, I can take a bit of disappointment. I just want your assurance that you’re not compromising the integrity of the site.”

Leaf manages a smile. “I promise.”

“Then you can go. Thank you for your time.”

“No problem. Night.”

Leaf closes the door behind her, thoughts racing. She’s relieved the director is so far off the mark with her suspicions, but it’s clear that Leaf will have to be as careful as she can moving forward.


“Usually I go through the day’s discoveries and catalogue them, cross check the request lists we have from our various funders. Once that’s sorted, there’s some quality assurance to do, in case someone gets clumsy between removal and storage.”

Leaf nods and scribbles. “Does that happen often?” she asks Rob.

“Oh, not particularly.” The Unovan paleontologist smiles and takes a sip of his beer. He has a full head of grey hair and a goatee that reminds her of her grandpa. They spent some time talking about cities they lived in back home before getting into the interview, sitting on fold-out chairs in front of his residence quarters as they watch the dig site wind down for the night. “Most of the fossils take a day or two to get fully up out of the ground though, so accidents do happen.”

“Gotcha. Wow, it must have been rough for you the day of the incident then, huh?”

He grimaces. “‘Rough,’ hell, that’s one way to put it. Not that it was the worst thing that happened that day, not nearly, but the damage to some of the digs was a huge headache. Took me most of the week to get a handle on it, and we lost a couple weeks of work, all told.”

“Ouch. When did you start damage control?”

“That very night! While everyone was cleaning up from the battle, me and a couple others were securing the digs. Most were okay, thankfully, but a couple were hit by the wave of paras, and of course the one at ground zero was completely destroyed. I had to get Zapata’s permission to go down into the mountain and look for anything salvageable before they plugged the hole up.”

“And did she give it?”

“Yeah, once she was out of her meeting. Just said I had to bring some ACE with me, but that was a chore and a half in itself.”

Leaf manages not to visibly perk up, pencil only pausing for a moment before she says, “How come?”

“Well, I had to wait for them to finish whatever they were doing. Their own meeting, looked like. Went to them right away, but Leader Misty and the ranger had them all holed up in a building, talking about something.”

“Huh. I wonder what it was.”

Rob shrugs, drinking again from his bottle. “No clue. I just hung around until they were done, then talked to Paul about going down in the hole. He said okay, and a few of us did some prep and went down.”

“How did he seem?” Leaf asks.

“Who?”

“Paul. How did he seem, after the meeting?”

“Distracted. Upset. We were all high strung that night.”

Leaf nods, gaze unfocused as she watches a machoke roll a boulder out of a hole. “I remember.”

He chuckles. “You kids went through a lot too, stopping Yuuta like that…” His smile fades, and after a moment he lets out a heavy breath, taking another swallow. “Ahh, let’s not talk about that. Bad business.”

“Yeah, no problem. Would you mind telling me who was at the meeting with Leader Misty though? I’m curious about it, want to know who I can talk to later.”

“Oh, sure, sure. Let’s see, ah, there was Paul of course, Kenny, Mei…” He goes on to list over a dozen names before he trails off. “Probably some others, but I didn’t really pay attention at the time.”

“That’s plenty, thanks. Do you mind if I ask you about it later, check some names with you?”

“Alright, but you could just ask them, couldn’t you? I’m sure they’d remember better.”

“I will! But I won’t be meeting them until tomorrow, and I have the list in my room. I can just text you some names to check, if that’s okay.” Leaf smiles. “So, what happened once you went down into the hole?”

He smiles back. “Ah, that was rough, let me tell you. The smell! Burnt fungus and dead bugs everywhere…”


“Hey there,” Leaf says to the group of ACE Trainers. “Mind if I join you?”

The four security staff look at her in surprise, then shrug or nod as Leaf approaches. They’re set up away from the dig site, three guys and a woman of various ages, all standing across from practice dolls as they train their pokemon in the morning sun.

“Thanks,” she says, and takes out her own pokedoll. “Go, Ruby!”

Her new venonat appears, fresh from its virtual conditioning. She begins to run Ruby through her paces, giving her treats often and restraining the urge to pet her fuzzy body. Not because it’s uncomfortable, though some dislike the texture, but she read that bug pokemon don’t often like the feel of being stroked when they’re still new to their trainers. Instead Leaf uses lots of verbal praise, especially when Ruby finally manages to link two commands in quick succession.

Leaf takes a moment to look around as her venonat eats its pokepuff. Two of the ACE are coordinating their growlithe and magmar together, while the other two train their butterfree and weepinbell separately.

She recognizes the woman as one of the ACE who helped with Yuuta. Leaf watches her train her magmar, but doesn’t approach or speak with her. After Ruby finishes properly following every order twice in a row, Leaf withdraws her and sends out Ledyba. She puts her venonat’s ball in her bag instead of her belt, since her recent captures put her over the belt’s limit of six.

At first she was irritated with the arbitrary limit, seemingly modeled after the standard League maximum that would never have any impact on her. Now she has to admit that the space between the balls on her belt are just wide enough to avoid any fumbling, and that adding extra slots, as some belts do, would come with drawbacks, such as being unable to sit in a chair without removing it. For now carrying the extras in her bag works okay, but it would eventually become unwieldy, and she’s not sure if she’ll turn to alternate solutions or just keep her active team limited to what she can carry with her. Blue, who is already approaching two dozen pokemon, has already deposited the ones he doesn’t plan on using for his match against Misty.

Leaf begins practicing some aerial maneuvers with her ocarina. Part of her hopes the noise doesn’t bother the other trainers, but she would welcome the excuse to begin conversing with them if someone brings it up. None do however, and she keeps to herself, merely waving goodbye when everyone begins to pack up and head back to the site. A couple wave back, including the woman.

She goes again the next day, hoping the same people are there. She’s happy to see they are, with one new addition. Leaf once again asks permission to join them. They agree, and she begins training with her pokemon again, intent on practicing some more complicated attacks that she knows her pokemon will struggle with.

For example, venonat only naturally use Stun Spore when facing down threats they want to escape from, which makes it hard to train them to do it on command. Leaf manages to get hers to use it on the mannequin by attaching a rope around the doll’s middle and dragging it toward her pokemon as Ruby keeps retreating, but Sleep Powder is a bit tricker. Venonat tend to use it on pokemon they want to feed on. Apparently the mannequin isn’t particularly appetizing.

“Sleep Powder!” Leaf commands again, brushing some hair out of her eyes as the wind blows from behind her. Ruby just shifts in place, antennae swaying as she tries to find some succulent morsel to incapacitate and suck the life from. “Ruby, Sleep Powder! Come on, I’ve got berries right here, but you need to put it to sleep first. Sleep Powder!”

Five minutes of this and Leaf doesn’t have to pretend to be frustrated. Eventually one of the ACE trainers notices. Not the one Leaf recognizes, which would be ideal, but the butterfree trainer. He watches Leaf and Ruby, then steps forward with his hand out.

“May I?”

“Oh, sure!” Leaf hands him the berries. “Thanks. I’m not sure what to do, the ‘dex says not to feed them and just keep the berries nearby so they get hungry, but…”

“Well, the quickest way to train them is to find some natural prey to offer,” he says. “The berries work okay, but since they don’t need to put them to sleep, you gotta really make them hungry to prime them.” He begins to mash up the berries with his fingers, then steps toward the pokedoll and spread the sweet innards all over the foamy exterior. He wipes his hands clean on its head, then steps back. “Okay, now try.”

Leaf sees Ruby’s attention focused on the pokedoll and waits. Maybe she’ll do it on her own… but after a few moments pass, Leaf says, “Ruby, Sleep Powder,” and the venonat hops forward, shimmying out a cloud of spores.

“Good job, Ruby! Good girl!” Leaf quickly throws a handful of berries in front of her pokemon before she decides to jump on the pokedoll and be disappointed. “Thank you,” she says to the ACE.

“No problem. Let me know if you need any more help.” He returns to his own training. Leaf does the same, but when everyone begins wrapping up for the day, instead of trailing behind like she did yesterday, Leaf approaches them and keeps pace.

“Hey, thanks again for the help. I’m Leaf.” She extends her hand.

He takes it. “Nice to meet you. I’m Omar, this is Mei, Alex, Nora and Jean.”

All people who were in the mysterious meeting, according to Rob. “I think I remember you,” Leaf says, waving to Nora, who nods.

“Yeah, she told us you were the one that stopped Yuuta,” Alex says.

Leaf smiles. “I had some help.”

“The thing you’re writing, is it why you were here that day?” Nora asks.

“No, my friends and I were just passing through. Curious about the fossils, but the idea for the article came after.”

“Well, you saved us all a lot of grief. You’re welcome to join our training anytime, after what you did,” Nora says.

Leaf flushes slightly as the others agree. She counted on Dr. Zapata feeling grateful to allow her up here in the first place, but hadn’t realized how much more that counted toward the site’s security. Maybe she can use that, be a bit more direct when questioning them.

“Do you usually train daily?” Omar asks.

Leaf smiles. “I try to, though sometimes it turns into more of a play day.” A couple of them chuckle. “I didn’t plan on it while I was up here, but after the Tier 1 in Celadon…”

The group nods, faces grim. “And we thought the cleanup here was bad,” Jean mutters. “Whole city probably stinks. Fuckin’ mess, that’ll be.” He catches dirty looks from a couple of his peers. “What?”

“It’s okay,” Leaf says, grinning. “I’ve heard the word before. My grandfather cursed like a Ranger recruit, and I spent most of my life with him. Mom wasn’t pleased when I picked it up.”

“Well, if you hang out with ACE grads long enough, we give the Rangers a run for the cursing.”

Leaf chuckles along with the others. “Sounds fun. Speaking of which, do any of you know Daniel? I was hoping to see him again, but he doesn’t seem to be on site. Is he okay?”

Everyone is quiet for a moment, and Leaf keeps her face innocently curious. Daniel was the only ACE Trainer that was listed as a staff member before the incident and not afterward who wasn’t on the casualty list. Maybe coincidence, or maybe something more. He also wasn’t at the meeting, as far as Rob could remember. Leaf never met him, but there’s no reason any of them would know that.

“He’s on break, I think,” Jean says at last. “Took some time off.”

“Oh, alright. Any of you have his email? It’s not important enough for a text, just wanted to say hi.”

The silence is longer this time. Leaf watches them out of the corner of her eyes, seeing people glance at each other. As if everyone’s waiting for someone else to answer.

“Yeah, I think I can find it,” Nora says. “I’ll get it to you later.”

“Thanks. Here’s my number.” She extends her phone toward Nora, who does the same, and they tap their screens to swap info as they approach the outer buildings at the site. “See you guys tomorrow!”

Leaf walks back to her room, gaze distant as she keeps replaying the expressions of the others in her head. It might just be her imagination, but those pauses were a bit too long, their expressions too emotive, for someone asking about a coworker who simply took some time off. She just wishes she knew what they were thinking and feeling.

Leaf has never felt any particular envy of psychics before, outside of wanting to bond with pokemon better. But now she has to admit that it would be a valuable ability for a reporter to have. She wonders if Zoey is one, keeping it secret so as not to tip off people she talks to and interviews. Laura might even be an untrained, low level psychic, if Red went so long without realizing he was one. Isn’t it a maternal trait?

In any case, not every good investigator has had psychic powers, however much it would help, and she’ll just have to confirm her hunches the regular way: corroboration of facts.

It seems strange that someone would be removed from a staff listing just because they took some time off work. The list of site staff must include others who took time off, even from the security staff. If she can find someone else and see if they were removed for the time they were gone, that would help.

As for why they would lie… Leaf can’t outrule the possibility that Daniel Levi was somehow involved with Yuuta. Wasn’t there talk of him not being a sole actor? If Daniel and Yuuta worked together, maybe he ran after the execution, afraid he would be found out. Or maybe he helped Yuuta escape.

Leaf has been asking around as subtly as she could, and she can’t figure out who was watching Yuuta during the meeting on the night of his execution. Paul was the last person she knows was with him, unless he lied to her when he recounted his night. But he never named who took his place, and Leaf didn’t want to press the point at the time, still wary of asking questions that would get back to Director Zapata.

It’s possible she’ll have to now. Maybe whoever replaced him was the last person with Yuuta before Misty and Sasaki saw him. Maybe there was another exchange of the watch. Either way, Leaf is willing to bet her hat that the meeting with the ACE Trainers had to do with Yuuta. Maybe Daniel was missing because he was still watching him, or maybe not. Finding out what happened to him, where he is now, is the most important step.


“I mean, seriously, where does she get off, always telling me to be careful?” Red asks. “She’s not even a trainer, and she’s running around a Tier 1 for a story?”

“Mmhm.” Leaf shifts her phone to the other shoulder, reminding herself to buy some new earphones. She sits on her bed, gaze on her laptop screen as she reviews her timeline for the night of the paras attack. She has a chain of supervision written out for who was watching Yuuta, trying to narrow down potential possibilities. “I think she just stayed on the roof, though. It was probably safe up there.”

“Yeah, right, until the grimer start climbing up the walls.”

Leaf grins. “Really? That’s what you’re worried about?”

“Hey, it happens!”

“I think you’re being a bit overprotective of your mom, which is, you know, totally understandable, but her building is like twenty stories up, and I’ve never heard of them going that high.”

“They can go through windows on the second or third floor and then take the stairs.”

“Right.” She plugs in an alibi corroboration from her notes with one of the ACE Trainers, putting him and another away from Yuuta at the relevant time. “In which case staying in her room would probably have been worse.”

Red grumbles something. “So how’s the research going?”

“Okay,” she says, and gives him a summary of what she’s learned so far. “I’m starting to appreciate how hard it is to figure things out by eye testimony. Some people who claim to have been at the same place at the same time are giving me very different reports of who they saw, or when they did things.”

“Yeah, hearsay is the least reliable form of evidence in court for a reason. I’m glad I rarely have to consider it for the things I’m working on.”

“Mmhm.” Leaf frowns at a pair of notes that put the same person on opposite sides of the dig. Are there two Michaels on site? She pulls up the staff roster. “How are our abra, anyway?”

Red sighs. “They’re fine, but figuring out a way to test their psychic strength is proving difficult. All they can do is teleport! I’m starting to think I’ll have to buy a TM to teach them some kind of attack. It’s not a bad investment, in any case. Think I should ask Bill if he has one lying around?”

Leaf barely hears him, distracted by a notification. It’s an email from Nora. “Hey Red, mind if I call you later?”

“Uh, yeah, no prob.”

“Thanks, bye.” She ends the call and stares at the message, which just contains an email address. Ostensibly Daniel’s.

Leaf lowers her phone and looks at her timeline again. She goes back to the beginning, checking through the whole thing again as one hand goes out to stroke Bulbasaur, who’s sleeping in his potted plant beside her bed.

Even if one or two people misremembered things… there are three facts she can clearly put together.

One, Daniel was the one watching Yuuta. Near certainty: there’s no one else it could be, unless multiple people all gave her bad info, accidentally or otherwise.

Two, Daniel disappeared afterward. No one, not any of the ACE Trainers, not any of the other dig employees, reports seeing Daniel all night. She’s less certain about this one: there’s a chance he didn’t disappear, but was for some reason detained, and those that detained him kept it secret or made everyone else keep it secret.

Three, Yuuta is dead… and was before Misty even got to him.

This one she’s the least sure about: maybe 70% at most. From the time that passed between the two meetings, it seems clear there wasn’t nearly enough for a full interrogation by the psychic Leader. Leaf still doesn’t know what she met with the site security about, but if Yuuta had escaped, the more likely outcome would have been an immediate manhunt.

Of course, there are other possibilities. Maybe Misty quickly sensed that Yuuta collaborated with one of the security, and called the meeting to find out which one. But there’s no account of returning to Yuuta after, and it still begs the question of where Daniel was. Maybe he stayed with Yuuta, but in that case what happened to him afterward? No, it seems more likely that he was involved somehow. Maybe Daniel ran and left Yuuta alone in the room, but then who was left to watch him during the meeting?

So. Daniel was likely gone by then. And Yuuta was likely dead, and thus not in need of supervision.

It seems solid. But Leaf knows she has to account for unknown unknowns, and drops her confidence down. Maybe 60%. Maybe 55%. She could be wrong in ways she hasn’t even considered.

Speaking of which… she opens Nora’s message and considers Daniel’s email address. Part of her was expecting the email not to arrive, for Nora to just conveniently forget to send it. Now that she has it, she’s wondering if she really is way off. Nora wouldn’t share it if something serious happened with Daniel, would she?

Then Leaf realizes she’s being silly, since just having the address is meaningless if Daniel isn’t in a position to respond. Leaf still has to follow through.

She types up a quick message, glossing over how she knows him and hoping that if she claims to remember meeting him briefly, he’ll just think he forgot in all the chaos that day. With such a thinner relationship however, instead of trying to check in on him she instead informs him of the article she’s writing and asks if he’s free to answer some questions for her.

Leaf reviews the letter twice to make sure it’s vague and innocent enough. She knows she’s being paranoid, but she can’t help but wonder who else might actually read the email besides Daniel.

Finally she sends it and gets back to the alibis. There are a lot of ACE trainers who she never managed to talk to, and she tries to figure out a way to get the info out of them to corroborate her theory.

She’s still thinking it over when an email notification interrupts her. Leaf stares at the screen, then slowly clicks the icon.

It’s from Daniel. Less than three minutes since she sent her own email, a little over five since Nora sent her the email address at all, and she already has a response.

It’s not paranoia if there really is a conspiracy, right? She knows she’s being silly. It’s a little past nine in the evening, plenty of people are up and have their phone at hand. Besides, Nora probably sent it after getting an “okay” from him in the first place, so he was up and not busy and expecting Leaf’s email. And the reason the others were so odd when talking about him wasn’t that they’re all in on some conspiracy: they’re likely just as in the dark as Leaf is, but know something weird happened with him.

The message, distilled to basics, is simple: “Hello, all’s well, a bit busy for any questions at the moment, thanks anyway.” It leaves nothing to really follow up with, and after reading it a few times, Leaf closes the email and goes back to stroking Bulbasaur. Her leg begins to bounce in place, and eventually she frowns, stretches, and starts to pace.

Let’s assume that was really Daniel and he’s fine and not on the run or anything. How does that fit into what’s probably true? Maybe Daniel didn’t actually work with Yuuta. Maybe he was dismissed for something else.

She looks back at her timeline. It starts as a single line, but branches off into multiple smaller ones after a major division splits it in two… the point at which Yuuta is either executed, or not, whichever the case may be. There are facts she’s still gathering to confirm which path is the right one, but until she finishes getting all the answers at the dig site, she didn’t dare risk contacting Ranger Sasaki to check about things like the execution itself or the transportation of Yuuta’s body.

Now, however, it seems she has few other options. Leaf believes she has the right cards: it’s time to play her hand, and see what a bit of bluffing can get her.


“Thank you for meeting with me, Ranger,” Leaf says as she enters Sasaki’s office the next morning. It took her about an hour to make her way down the mountain to the outpost. A can of repel, and Bulbasaur walking along beside her, kept away any wild pokemon, though she did have to send Crimson out to chase away some spearow that were circling them.

“Of course, though I only have a few minutes.” The Ranger offers her a seat in front of her desk.

“I’ll get right to it then. I just need to corroborate some facts for an article I’m writing on the dig site.”

“Alright.” Sasaki sits down, her serious eyes lightened by a smile. “What can I help you with?”

Leaf takes a deep breath. Calm. Resolute. “First, I should say I know about Yuuta.”

Sasaki blinks. “I’m sorry?”

“I know about Yuuta. And Daniel Levi. I just want to confirm whether you have any leads, or if you have any comment you’d like to make before I publish the story.”

The two stare at each other, Leaf’s heart pounding in her chest. Don’t break eye contact, don’t look unsure.

“I’m sorry,” Sasaki repeats, slowly this time. “I don’t know what you’re referring to.” There’s no confusion on her face however: all hint of a smile is gone, and there’s nothing but resolute blankness before Leaf.

“I want you to know that I’m not here to embarrass anyone,” Leaf says, and has to take a breath to make sure her voice remains steady. “I first heard about this from others who were intending to look into it. I thought if I got the facts first, I could publish a story that just stuck to what’s true, and won’t unfairly implicate others who had nothing to do with it.”

Leaf meets Sasaki’s stare as best she can, wondering if the Ranger understands. If she had any part in the cover up, she would be implicating herself… but saving those who weren’t involved.

“Alternatively,” Leaf says. “If there’s a good reason for what occurred… something that would make publishing a story on it a bad idea… that’s something I’d like to know too. Can you confirm for me first that Leader Misty did execute Yuuta, as reported?”

“Miss Juniper.” Ranger Sasaki pauses, opens her mouth, then closes it and takes a moment before speaking again. “I really don’t understand what you’re talking about. If you have some accusation to make, or believe something improper was done, I would urge you to report it to the authorities, along with any evidence you may have.” She checks the time. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other matters to attend to.”

Frustration pins Leaf to her seat, trying to find something else to say. Eventually she stands and bows. “Thank you for your time.”


The walk back to the dig site is uneventful, giving Leaf plenty of time to ruminate on her disappointment. She wants to mope about it to Laura, but her phone goes to message, so Leaf just plays the brief conversation back over and over and wonders what else she should have done or said.

When she reaches her residence building, a man in a dark suit and tie is sitting in a fold-out chair beside the door. He stands as she gets closer, and she recognizes him from pictures online: Leader Giovanni.

“Um,” she says.

“Good evening, Miss Juniper. If you have a minute, I believe it’s time we spoke.”

Leaf stares. Her mind is drawing a blank on what an appropriate reaction to this should be, which leaves her with the most honest one: utter bafflement.

How long is a flight to here from Viridian? some part of her wonders. Or was he just in the area when Sasaki messaged him?

No one who passes by is rude enough to stop and stare, but Leaf notes that their strides slow, their heads turning constantly as they catch sight of the legendary trainer. “Shall we go inside?” Giovanni says after another few moments, and Leaf flushes, nodding and leading the way to her room.

She sits on her bed, leaving the one chair for him. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting you,” she says. Obviously. She casts about for something to say, still trying to get her bearings. “Were you in the area, or…?”

Giovanni sits in the spindly desk chair as if it’s a comfortable recliner, one leg crossed on the other knee, hands folded over them. His eyes are dark and piercing, and Leaf finds herself staring at his nose instead of meeting his gaze. “In a sense. I was passing through Pewter to discuss the recent Zapdos sighting when Ranger Sasaki messaged me.” He takes a phone out of the pocket of his suit, shifting it enough for her to get a peek at the lid of one of the balls on his belt. It’s unlike any she’s seen before, chrome grey with a circle of yellow around the top.

Leaf’s pulse quickens at his words. “Am I in some kind of trouble?”

He places the phone against his knee, screen facing him, and his gaze moves down to it. He occasionally taps, but doesn’t seem distracted from their conversation. “No, not at all. The ranger is under the impression that you have reason to believe something improper was done regarding the renegade you helped capture.”

Leaf takes a deep breath. Now is her chance to get some answers. She wishes it was Misty she could confront instead of Giovanni, but then, the Cerulean Leader is a psychic, so maybe this is for the best. Plus, she’s not sure if Giovanni actually knows anything or is involved, and if not he could be an ally.

She decides to start with the safest assumption. “I have reason to believe that Yuuta wasn’t executed by Leader Misty.”

Giovanni is quiet a moment, staring at his phone. Without looking away from it, he says, “Who do you believe executed him?”

“I don’t think he was.”

Now Giovanni looks up, briefly meeting her gaze. “Then what do you think happened to him?”

“My best guess is that he was already dead by the time she reached him. I think one of the site security, Daniel, was involved somehow. There’s also a chance that he escaped, but I don’t think that’s as likely.”

Giovanni is back to looking at his phone, fingers moving as he asks, “Why not?”

“Because the danger of a loose renegade is too big a thing to keep covered up. And I don’t think Leader Misty would do that, just to save face.” Leaf pauses, considering her words. “I hope not, anyway. But if you’re interested, maybe we can get to the bottom of things. You have a lot more power and influence, you could… ask around…” Leaf trails off as Giovanni continues to watch his phone. His inattention is starting to make her feel slighted, but also embarrassed for feeling as if her suspicions are worth the undivided attention of a Gym Leader.

No, these are more than suspicions. Don’t waver. “If not, I may just write up my article with the questions unanswered. I’d rather not, though.”

Giovanni looks thoughtful, as if weighing her words. Or maybe just reading an email. Eventually he looks up again, catching Leaf by surprise and holding her gaze. “Tell me honestly, Miss Juniper, do you care about the truth, or getting a story published?”

“I… are those two mutually exclusive? I care about the truth, obviously. But unless there’s a really good reason to keep it hidden, the truth only has value if others know about it.”

Giovanni watches her another moment, then looks back to his phone. Leaf feels herself relax a bit, but most of her body is still tense. She knows he’s not a psychic, Blue mentioned that he was Dark when discussing ways he looked up to him, but she still feels as though he can look right into her.

“I couldn’t convince you not to publish such an article?”

“I’d have to know why first.” Shit. It seems Giovanni is in on things, meaning he’s not a potential ally after all. Her stomach floods with acid as she remembers Laura’s warning about getting into political topics with her articles. This is a man who could make her life very unpleasant if he chooses to: losing access to the dig site is  suddenly the least of her worries.

“Telling you in and of itself is part of the problem,” he says. “If you deem the reason insufficient, it would be worse than telling you nothing and letting you publish your article of half-truths. Would you be willing to take my word that there is a good reason to keep silent for at least a period of six months? I can offer some compensation for the time you’ve spent investigating, if so. Perhaps even purchase your investigation data, as it may contain things useful to us.” He’s still staring at his screen, even as he offers to bribe her into silence. Leaf is too distracted by the sudden rush of conflicting emotions to fit any sense of annoyance into things.

Does she trust his word? A part of her balks at the idea of expressing any lack of faith in him, but she pushes past that sentiment. The whole point of journalism, if it’s to have any civic value, is to make things so that people don’t have to just trust their leaders.

The problem is she does trust him. Mostly. At least, she believes that he has good intentions, and that he believes there’s a good reason not to publish the article. She knows that him offering to pay her is supposed to be sinister, if this were a cartoon or movie or book, but really, if his intentions are good, he’s just being considerate. It’s a token of respect, for her time and effort.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and means it. “I would love to take your word for it, even without any payment. But I can’t if there’s any chance I’d look back and regret the decision. And… there’s one more thing I have to be honest about. There are others who are looking into this story. I don’t think even if I stay silent, they would, which would make the whole agreement pointless for you.”

“You can tell me who they are, and I can make the same offer to them. Is it Shunichi Morri? Mara Hawthorne? Zoey Palmer? Jon Urich?” He pauses between each name, still staring down at his phone.

Leaf steels herself. “I’m sorry, I won’t confirm or deny anyone. I learned of it in confidence.”

Leader Giovanni is silent for a long time, gaze down, fingers occasionally typing. Leaf swallows, hands folded together in her lap to keep them from moving restlessly about.

“Thank you for your honesty,” he says at last. “And I respect your convictions. I believe I’ll take a gamble, and tell you some of what is going on, in the hopes that you find our reasoning sufficient.”

Leaf hardly dares breathe. She reminds herself that she can’t automatically trust what he tells her.

Giovanni’s gaze is still on his phone, but his speech is clear and sure. “Renegade Yuuta is dead. Leader Misty didn’t have the chance to execute him, or even interrogate him: as you said, he was already killed when she arrived. The suspect is still at large. Mr. Levi is still being investigated, and is under house arrest. He was in charge of watching Yuuta at the time, and claims he was distracted by a false message asking him to report to his superior, Paul Newcomb. There was in fact such a message on his phone, but it came from a number that wasn’t Mr. Newcomb’s, programmed in as a second line. Both claim it was without their knowledge.”

Leaf gives herself a moment to process it all, repeating it to herself to commit it to memory. Now that she knows she was right (assuming he didn’t lie), her mind explodes with questions on the killer. What motive would someone have to kill a dead man? To prevent them from giving information away, of course. But the timing was too perfect, it had to be someone on site, right? “Any other current suspects?”

“None that I’m willing to share. But you understand why we do not want this information to come out during an ongoing investigation, I trust.”

Leaf frowns. If someone else still working around here is under investigation… “If the idea is to keep the investigation secret, why not make it public, charge Daniel, and make the murderer believe they got away with it?”

“That was suggested. Leader Misty was against the idea. She questioned him herself, and for now believes him innocent. She doesn’t wish to tarnish his name with a formal charge, even if it’s later recanted. Instead he has been removed from employment, and any investigations will reveal that he was lax in his duties. As in truth he was, to some extent.” Giovanni is still looking at his phone, tapping something into it.

Leaf’s thoughts keep racing, unable to help herself from trying to figure out which of the people she spoke with or saw around site might be it. She thinks of the new security at first, the ones who all refused to talk to her, then reminds herself that they weren’t here at the time. “Not to mention that there are also financial interests, including from your cities, that would be hurt if the whole site fell under suspicion, right?”

Giovanni’s gaze flicks up from his phone to meet hers. There’s a hint of a smile there, warming his strong, stark features for a moment. “Perhaps. I should say that Leader Misty is rather irritated with you, believing from your actions here and the impression you left on Leader Brock that you’re something of a trouble maker. I, however, believe that Professor Oak chooses his trainers more carefully than that.”

“I’m the daughter and granddaughter of Professors too, you know,” Leaf says, feeling slighted again. “Neither of them raised me to be reckless.”

“As you say. Indeed, I am counting on it. Now I must ask again for you to be honest with me, Miss Juniper. Does this satisfy your curiosity and ethical misgivings? Will you publish, knowing what you know?”

Leaf still isn’t sure, really. It sounds reasonable, but even if Yuuta is dead, letting a co-conspirator stay at large is almost as bad as letting a renegade run free without telling the public. He might well be another renegade! Certainly he’s a murderer, and a skilled one.

“I’m sorry, I’m still not sure I agree. There’s still someone dangerous out there, possibly at this very dig site. The people here deserve to know.”

Giovanni is silent again. Leaf waits, watching him watch his phone screen for a moment, then look up at her. She’s getting better at meeting his gaze.

“I understand your concern,” he says. “So here is another bit of truth that I hope will change your mind. I do not believe Yuuta’s murderer was working with him.”

Leaf’s eyes widen. “What? Why not? If he wasn’t worried about what Yuuta would say, or what Misty would sense when interrogating him, why bother?”

“Because their goal was exactly as you said earlier: to throw a wrench into the plans of those with interest in this endeavor. To cause a scandal, call for investigations, and embarrass the Leaders who are invested in this. To admit that this occurred at all would be giving them exactly what they seek.”

Leaf feels the pieces fall into place. “Your people! The ones in charge of fossil security, that’s not all they’re here for, they’re investigating the others too, aren’t they?” She wishes this was all on the record! The plot just keeps thickening, but Leaf feels her skepticism rising again too. “This person, he or she took an enormous risk just to sabotage the dig. They must have known that an opportunity like Yuuta would come up, too. How are you so sure that they weren’t actually working together? It seems much more probable that they were working with him and just wanted to tie up a loose end.”

Leader Giovanni smiles. This one is less brief, but it doesn’t touch his eyes, and leaves his face hard and cold. “When you live a life such as I have, Miss Juniper, you learn to recognize the actions of an enemy. And those such as myself have plenty of enemies. Now, I’ve shared quite a lot with you, as a token of trust. I ask a third time for your honesty.” His eyes seem to be boring into hers. “Will you publish, knowing what you know?”

Leaf meets his gaze, just barely, but inside she feels the shift. There are too many reasons not to now, she can’t in good conscience do something that might cause harm or mess up an investigation.

But maybe she doesn’t have to admit that just yet. She won’t publish, but she can keep fishing for info. “I still want to know more about how you can be so sure of their motives. Has something like this happened before?”

Giovanni is no longer looking at her, however. His gaze is back on his phone, silently reading whatever is on it. Leaf realizes suddenly that for all his activity on it, the phone hasn’t vibrated or made any sound since they entered the room.

The Gym Leader finally slips his phone in his jacket pocket, and he looks… satisfied. “I’m afraid that’s all the time I have, and there are other matters that need my attention. Thank you for speaking with me, Miss Juniper.” Before she can respond, he’s standing and headed for the door.  “Leader Misty will be pleased to know she was wrong about you, and I trust I can count on your discretion in this matter. It would not go unrewarded.”

“What?” She’s on her feet too, taken off guard as he opens the door. “But I-” It closes behind him, cutting her off mid-sentence.

Leaf is left standing in her room, staring after him and feeling as though she missed something.


I was super tempted to end the chapter at the second line of dialogue in the final section, “I believe it’s time we spoke.” Not just because of all the busyness of the holidays, but for the sheer cliffhanger value. Consider me finishing the section here rather than another chapter my new year’s gift to all of you 🙂 Happy 2017!

Chapter 38: Learning from Failure

The wind sends rippling waves through the field of grass around Leaf, tossing her hair back over her shoulders. She instinctively raises a hand to keep her hat from blowing off before remembering that she put it away.

Joy, Leaf’s freshly named wigglytuff, stands mute and waiting, its wide, beautiful blue eyes peering cheerfully around. Leaf walks a slow circle around her pokemon, staying just within range to return her if needed. Meanwhile, her eyes scan rippling fields of grass.

Her phone vibrates, and she checks Blue’s message:

4th speaker set

That was the last one for him. Now Red just has to get his fourth in position, and they’ll start.

It took them over an hour to meticulously comb through the central circle where they plan to drive the abra. There were a few pokemon that fled from them, but Blue did manage to catch a venonat, which he traded to Leaf after she and Red caught a pair of bellsprouts. She knew Grass types are going to be especially useful to him in the next two Gym battles, and some quick research showed her that venonat and its evolution venomoth have a lot more non-lethal attacks than the bellsprout family.

Now the field is as empty as they can make it to ensure there aren’t any pokemon around that might resist Joy’s singing.

Leaf checks her phone as it buzzes again. Fourth speaker ready.

Ready when you guys are, she texts back, pulse picking up. She puts her phone away, sets a vibrating alarm on her new watch, and sticks her earplugs in. “Joy,” she says, voice muffled and distorted in her head. “Sing!”

Her wigglytuff bounces and twirls happily, then opens its mouth wide and fills the air with its haunting melody. Muted through her earplugs, just barely audible enough for Leaf to know if it’s still going.

Somewhere, Red and Blue are returning to the inside of Joy’s singing radius, after which they’ll activate the speakers to begin transmitting various sounds of one of abra’s natural predators: an umbreon.

It wasn’t a perfect choice, Red admitted. Ideally they would want one that would neither scare off or attract the plant and bug pokemon in the area. But they had limited options when it came to local pokemon that wild abra might encounter and be wary of, and umbreon was the most neutral of those.

Leaf doesn’t know when it’ll start working, if it even does. But after about two minutes, once she’s gotten a pair of vibrations indicating the activation of the speakers, she enlarges a pokeball in either hand, then begins turning in a slow circle, taking deep breaths as she scans the fields around her. The tall grass rustles silently as she passes through it, as high as her knees. Hopefully any pokemon lurking in it that weren’t scared off by her approach are asleep now.

Remember,” Red said in the taxi ride over. “Since there’s no guarantee they’ll fall asleep right away, there might be a few moments where they sense our minds. Blue is safe from that, but the two of us need to be focusing on projecting feelings of calm and safety and peace as much as we can, or we’ll spook them into teleporting again before they get knocked out.”

What about you?” Leaf asked. “Isn’t it hard for you to engage a psychic mind?”

Red smiled. “As long as it’s only for a few seconds at a time, I’ll be fine.”

He sounded confident at the time, and Leaf let it go.

Now that they’re here, doing it and waiting for the first abra to show up, her mind has nothing better to do but feed her all sorts of worst case what-ifs, and one she keeps coming back to is Red’s exposure to the abra being too much for him to handle, maybe even causing him to pass out.

A drop of sweat slides down Leaf’s back. The risk for Red seems too big, suddenly, he should have stayed out, he should have-

Stop! Your mind is supposed to be calm. An abra might show up at any second, so get to soothing!

Leaf takes a deep breath, then focuses all of her thoughts on things that comfort her. A warm bedroll to keep out the morning chill. The sound of rain on a roof, far off thunder. The smell of grandpa’s travel bag. Mom’s voice, singing to herself as she worked.

It feels a bit forced, but hopefully it’s better than nothing.

The wind lifts Leaf’s hair again as she continues her slow spin, smelling acres of grass as she breathes in, then out. In the corner of her eye she sees a minute pass on her watch, then another, and imagines what might be happening elsewhere: abra, teleporting around the field as they go from one area with the umbreon cries to another. Surely some will teleport into their middle circle, rather than out of it… and of those, at least one or two should be near the center where she and Joy-

A flash of yellow, and Leaf’s heart leaps into her throat. Her body reacts automatically, running in its direction as she quickly scans the area around her to see if the area is safe for her to leave Joy alone. The spot of yellow in the thick grass resolves itself into the top of a head, and Leaf grins as she recognizes it as an abra.

She quickly focuses on projecting calm thoughts again, but it doesn’t seem to matter: the abra is completely still as she approaches, and with a wide grin she points the ball at it and, after counting down a few seconds to ensure it locks, lobs it gently underhand.

There’s a flash of light as the ball bounces off the abra’s head, and by the time it begins to fall, the pokemon is gone. Leaf quickly grabs the ball out of the grass and tucks it into her backpack, then dashes back toward Joy, practically skipping. It works! IT WORKS!

She keeps her vision moving to try and catch any new abra that appear as she returns to Joy and begins circling around her again. Red and Blue should be moving in a slow circle from opposite ends of the singing zone to catch any abra that teleported in and are dozing in the grass. When her watch vibrates, she resets the countdown on it and dashes over to her wigglytuff.

“Joy, stop!” she yells once she’s close.

The pokemon’s muffled song fades away. Leaf rubs Joy’s soft fur and feeds her a berry, eyes on her watch. When 30 seconds have counted down, she says “Sing!” and backs up again, returning to her position of slowly circling Joy as she watches the surrounding field.

In their last test, Joy maintained a song for nine minutes and fourteen seconds without pause. It left her breathless and tired, and she needed over twice as long to rest before she could do it for anywhere near the same length again.

But, when they tried giving her a breather every few minutes, she was able to sing for an an hour and a half. They realized they could probably stretch it longer, but that was about when they lost patience with the test. They were aiming for as little downtime as possible in any case.

Leaf keeps cycling Joy through quick moments of rest as she patrols the area, waiting for the next abra to appear. We should have cut the grass around here, she thinks as she tries to spot another glimpse of yellow in the rustling green stalks.

She’s just starting to wonder if she should message the others and see if something’s gone wrong when the second abra pops into sight, close enough for her to actually see it displace the grass around it as it appears.

Leaf raises her pokeball, careful not to make any sound, but stops cold as it vanishes.

She stares, wondering for a brief moment if she imagined it, then lets out a muffled cry of frustration. She forgot to maintain the calming thoughts! Even a couple seconds of wakefulness before the singing puts them to sleep is enough to let the abra escape, and if it’s particularly resistant and takes a few seconds…

Leaf closes her eyes, not caring that she might miss another abra showing up. She needs to exude comfort and calm, or the only abra she’ll catch are the ones that fall asleep quickly or are too far to sense her before they’re affected.

Warm blankets. Hugging gramps. Rain on the roof.

She focuses on each memory until she feels calmer, then opens her eyes and tries to walk around again. The note of discord in the back of her mind is still there however, and when the next abra appears and disappears again within seconds, her calm shatters.

A wave of panic threatens to crush Leaf as she feels her breathing become quick and shallow. She can’t mess this up for everyone. Hopefully the next abra appears far enough from her to fall asleep before it senses her mind, but how many more will she lose because she can’t keep herself from stressing out?

Leaf gives Joy another quick break, then walks in growing circles around her pokemon to try and find abra that appeared without her noticing and are napping in the tall grass.

As she continues to turn in a slow circle, she checks her watch through the corner of her eye. 2:17. Red timed the whole operation around a nearby Ranger Outpost sending a patrol out that would pass by the outskirt of the speakers’ radius. A final safety measure, ensuring that Rangers will be nearby if something goes wrong and they need to call for help. But the window of time left to have them nearby if something goes wrong is shrinking.

If she’s going to do something risky, now’s the best time.

Leaf breaks into a run. Grass whips by her knees as she keeps turning her head left and right, covering almost every angle of sight to ensure that she’s not missing any. The wind whips her hair into her face as she keeps turning in her slow revolution, and one hand dips into her pocket before tying her hair back into a ponytail. She starts to leap into the air to get a better view, and on the third jump she spots a flash of yellow to her left.

She takes a quick second to reorient herself relative to Joy, then dashes for the yellow. Seconds later she sees it: a sleeping abra almost completely hidden by the grass. A quick scan and capture, and she’s running back toward her wigglytuff to give her another rest, heart pounding as she catches her breath along with her pokemon.

Okay. Two captures isn’t bad. Still, how many more is she missing out on?

Leaf wonders if Red is having better luck. She knows his idea for calming them down was never a sure thing, but if it’s not possible then they’re going to lose out on a lot of potential captures.

She has to resolve the problem. If she accepts the premise that the abra are reading her thoughts on a surface level and reacting to what they find, what can she be focusing on that might slow them from teleporting away for at least another second or two, to give Joy’s song a better chance to put them under?

Maybe a sense of safety instead.

She tells Joy to resume singing and takes off again, running through the grass and focusing on memories and sensations of being safe. She tries to dismiss all the thoughts and worries about her circumstances, making herself feel as safe and carefree as she can while running, turning, and leaping around the field.

Another flash of yellow, this time far off to the right of Joy. She wonders if she should leave it: it might be close enough to be in Blue’s path. She turns toward it anyway, knowing that every potential catch is worth pursuing over more fruitless searching.

She’s panting hard by the time she arrives at the slumbering abra, and wipes sweat out of her eyes with one hand as the other aims a pokeball and tosses it. She tucks the third abra away, slightly more at ease and focusing hard on feeling safe and carefree as she makes her way back toward Joy.

When the next abra appears a stone’s throw away she’s ready for it, holding still and maintaining her sense of confident safety. Barely a second passes however before it vanishes.

Dammit,” she yells she jogs back toward Joy with a scowl. What’s she doing wrong? Maybe nothing, maybe it’s just the presence of a nearby human that’s enough to send them off, but admitting that would mean there’s nothing she can do about it, and she’s not about to give up.

All of these emotions aren’t genuine. I need something I really feel, something effortless.

Leaf reaches Joy and gives the wigglytuff another quick break, spraying a bit of ether into her mouth to make up for the longer singing period. What do I want right now? Why am I doing this?

Not just for the money. Not just because Red needs help with it. Deeper. Why do I want to be a trainer at all? She could be a groomer or breeder if she just likes spending time with pokemon.

Leaf commands Joy to start singing again and resumes her spiraling outward walk. What are her priorities? Too many. Focus. Simplify. Find the inverse. What would have to be true for me not to want to be a trainer anymore?

Put like that the answer is obvious. If she knows, for sure, that being a trainer is worse for pokemon than not being a trainer… not just pokemon in general, but her pokemon… she wouldn’t be able to do it. She loves her pokemon, and even when she’s training them or using them to defend her from wild pokemon, their well-being is at an equal priority with her own. Staying alive and becoming a better trainer means continuing to help them live longer, safer, happier lives.

Leaf feels something loosen inside herself, and smiles. This she could do effortlessly, and with all her heart. Loving pokemon is her default emotion at any given time: she just has to bring it out.

She begins to jog again, thinking over all the adorable and fun and fascinating pokemon she’s cuddled and played with and learned about. Pokemon are awesome, pokemon are fun, and she can’t wait to make more pokemon friends today to save them from a dangerous wilderness full of predators and other trainers that might be less interested in their well-being.

It takes two revolutions for her to find another abra, far off to her left. This one’s already fast asleep too, as is the next one she encounters. It makes sense: the longer the trial goes on, the more likely the abra are to bounce around into the song’s area of influence. She might not have the chance to test her new mood on a conscious abra, but is too thrilled at the double capture to care, and keeps maintaining it anyway.

Leaf dashes back to give Joy another quick rest, then checks the time. 2:41. The Rangers should be heading past the edge of their outermost circle now. No more running around: time to play it safe.

She begins walking again once she finishes catching her breath. She finds her sixth abra after starting some controlled hop-spins to get a better view of her surroundings, and her seventh after she gets dizzy and goes back to simple patrolling.

It isn’t until she gives Joy another rest and begins patrolling again that the next abra appears near her. Leaf reinforces her feelings of love and caring, mentally throwing her arms wide and letting them thunder through her whole being as she stands completely still and waits.

A heartbeat later, the abra is still there.

Two heartbeats later. Three.

Its head dips beneath the grass, yellow ears the only thing visible.

Chest bursting with gratitude and happiness, Leaf finally steps forward and captures the abra, smiling down at its ball before carefully putting it in a separate pocket from the others. Maybe it was a fluke and her emotions had nothing to do with it staying, but this abra she would keep for herself.

Leaf keeps walking through her spiraling route, beaming out love for all to feel.


“Dad… Come back, dad… please…”

Red’s fingers curl in the grass, forehead pressed to the ground. His mind feels wobbly, like a mound of gelatin on a plate just a bit too small for it. Tears drip from his nose and chin as he tries to even out his breathing.

Ten abra-filled pokeballs are in his bag, a source of distant, hollow joy compared to the soaring triumph that filled him from his first capture. He rode that feeling all the way through the next two captures, until the first abra popped into existence near him, and the connection of its mind took his breath away.

It teleported away a couple seconds later, but he stood rooted, gasping at the sudden, crushing sense of despair. The next few abra he caught helped renew his spirits, until the second awake encounter left him quietly weeping, unable to stop himself even through his next captures. The third one drove him to his knees, chest heaving with sobs that felt like they would break him in two. It took him almost three minutes to force himself back to his feet, trembling and scared of what the next encounter would bring.

At first he thought the abra were actually attacking him, using a Confusion attack or something. But each only stayed for a couple heartbeats before they teleport away, and besides, these were nothing like his spinarak’s Night Shade, where he was forced to feel memories he couldn’t identify, and actively remembering the encounter caused echoed effects.

He knows exactly what’s happening, for once. He might be glad for that, if it wasn’t so terrifying: his partition is being rapidly eroded by the abra’s coupling. Where Psychic Ayane’s mind approached his like a ship docking at harbor, throwing out ropes one by one before sidling alongside the pier, the abra minds couple with his in binary states: one second absent, the next second fully there.

Whether it’s the strength of the connection or the sudden speed, his psychic abilities seem unable to balance their work. All the memories and emotions behind his partition come pouring out every time, a flood that fills him for the second or two the abra is around, then vanishes as they do.

Leaving a backwash of loneliness. Shock. Despair.

Grief.

He was able to catch three more sleeping abra before the fourth awake one leaves him a sobbing heap on the ground.

“Please, dad, you promised! Please… I miss you so much…”

Red doesn’t know how many minutes pass, but eventually the sobs grow weaker, then fade. He raises his head and wipes at his face with one hand as his other picks up his hat from where it fell. His hands knead the bill rather than put it back on, and he pulls in a trembling breath. When no new burst of sobs come out with it, he relaxes a little.

Red lets his head hang back, wind blowing his hair and fresh tears streaming down his face as he watches the clouds drift across the pale blue sky.

This was a mistake.

Psychic Duran was right. Red’s partition is essentially a type of selective amnesia that leaves him with the memories of his father’s passing, but just a shadow of the emotions.

No wonder he still can’t think about it for too long without having to shift his thoughts away. He hasn’t been able to for years, but this is different. It’s not a memory or an echo: he feels almost exactly the same way he did right after his dad died.

Fragile?” his therapist asked. She stared at him with gentle but intent eyes, her tone curious. “In what way?”

Like I’m made of glass.” Red sat hunched in the chair, gaze down. He barely saw the office around him, barely took note of anything for longer than a moment. It was his third session, and he was just beginning to respond in more than single words, when he responded at all.

Your mom says you don’t react to hugs anymore. That you go stiff. Is that why? Because you think you’ll break?”

Red shook his head. “Already broken.” His voice sounded rusty to his own ears, hollow from so being so long unused. “Full of cracks. Ready to… fall to pieces. Shatter, if the wind blows too hard. Or someone touches me.”

Her eyes were full of too many things: detached calm, gentle compassion, clinical interest. Red kept his gaze down. He just wanted to make her understand, so she and his mom would leave him alone.

Wow. That sounds pretty shitty.”

Red felt something at that. It wasn’t much: just a flicker of surprise, deep down. But it was more than he felt of anything besides anger or sadness or emptiness in awhile.

Unable to muster the energy for a response, he just shrugged.

It also sounds like you need time, Red. Nothing wrong with wanting breathing room to let the pieces settle. “

Red lets out a shaking breath. “Let the pieces settle.” That’s what he thought happened, over the years. Apparently not as well as he thought.

Red’s phone vibrates in his pocket. He takes it out and stares blankly at the message from Blue until a thread of alarm finally penetrates the fog around his mind.

3rd speaker offline. dunno if glitched or some wild got it.

Red wipes his face again, then slowly gets to his feet and begins walking, one arm wrapped around his stomach as if it’ll help hold himself together. Tears continue to track down his cheeks as he makes his way across the grassy field, intent to keep sweeping his path of the abra landing zone. If he holds still too long Blue will finish looping around and come up behind him.

He has to catch as many as he can. The longer the speakers are in effect, the more abra should be already in the middle zone and asleep, rather than popping in. If he’s lucky, he won’t encounter any more awake ones.

But he needs to be ready in case he does.

At first Red tried to prepare his mind for abra contact the same way he prepared for Ayane’s: by mimicking the state of mental connection enough that he could get used to it, and keep his mental footing when she linked with him.

Now that he knows that’s not going to work, what’s left?

Red spots another pair of abra ears sticking out of the tall grass and walks over to capture it. His arm trembles as he holds the pokeball toward it, and fresh tears slide down his cheeks as he remembers standing with his dad in their backyard and mimicking his ball-throwing motion.

Red’s ball pings its lock, and he gets closer before tossing it underhanded to ensure it doesn’t miss. After he tucks the new capture away, Red checks the time. 2:31. An hour left. He doesn’t know if he can make it that long.

He tries refocusing on the basics as he walks. The air rushing into his lungs, the beat of his heart, both seeming louder than usual thanks to his plugged ears. His attention shifts to the feel of the wind on his skin, pressing his shirt to his body… then to the hollow pit in his chest, sucking inward, a constant, aching pain that completely breaks his concentration.

Red scowled and opened his eyes. “I can’t do it,” he said, voice sullen even to his own ears. He pushed himself off the floor anyway, returning to the comfy chair as his therapist stayed on the floor with her legs crossed. “I can’t concentrate, I keep thinking of… other things.”

She nodded. “That’s understandable. As I said, it takes time and practice. It’s okay to be distracted when you first try.”

It’s not okay! Easy for you to say to ‘let it go,’ it’s not something stupid like thinking of a math test that’s distracting me!” Red realized he was shouting and forced himself to stop, fuming silently in his seat. It was only his sixth session with the therapist, but suddenly the whole thing felt like a waste of time.

What is it that’s distracting you, then?” she asked, still serene.

You know what it is,” he snapped, but he could already feel his anger leaving him. It took too much effort to hold onto emotion, even anger. Everything got sucked down the empty void in his chest eventually. “The point is I’m trying to stop feeling this way, having these thoughts. It’s totally stupid to say it’s okay to be distracted by them while trying to stop being distracted by them.”

She raised an eyebrow then surprised him for the second time in their sessions together by nodding and getting up. “I think you’re right, meditation probably isn’t the answer right now.” She returned to her chair. “So, let’s see what else we can try.”

Red takes a deep breath, not breaking stride as he tries to ignore the pain. If it’s one thing he learned in those sessions, it was not to give up on searching for answers. To not get stuck on one solution just because it worked before, or angst about how hopeless everything is. His therapist never let him dwell on his failures, or her own. She just kept engaging him, pushing them both to try new things, until something helps, even a little… and then to keep finding new things to build on the successes. A sort of inverse of the “death by a thousand cuts” concept.

A thousand small braces and splints and bits of glue tacked onto every part of him, so he could keep moving, keep walking forward, into the wind, without it blowing him to pieces.

He draws on those memories again now, the ones he could apply in the moment. Comfort foods are out, even in moderation. Same with music, since he has his earplugs in. He’s already being physically active, but maybe he can step it up.

Red forces himself into a jog, trying to kick some adrenaline into his system to help chase the depression away by brute force. It doesn’t feel like it’s helping, but he keeps at it anyway. If nothing else it’ll help him cover more ground.

In the meantime he still needs a mental defense in case he encounters another abra. How else can he use his powers to help him?

Red feels frustration welling up, a frustration that hides a familiar hopeless apathy at its core. He doesn’t know enough about how his powers work to fashion a solution. He only knows a couple tricks, one trick, really, just copying mental states. If he had any experience utilizing his powers from the ground up-

Stop focusing on problems. Focus on solutions.

Mimicking mental states. His first, balancing-on-a-tightwire, didn’t work, but he also copied a weak form of Ayane’s ability to block physical pain. Could he use many-mirrors-and-a-dim-room to ignore emotional pain too?

Now wouldn’t be a great time to get nauseous and throw up again, but it’s worth trying, even for a moment.

Red focuses on the sadness and loss that reverberate through his chest. He pictures the black hole centered there, just below his heart, scraping everything inside him raw as it pulled and tugged in pulsing aches.

It’s surprisingly easy, maybe too easy. The sensation seems to amplify, his focus and attention making the feelings more pronounced, and Red slows to a stop, breathing hard as his lip trembles, eyes welling with tears.

Some distant part of him cries out in alarm, worried that he’s actually feeding the sadness with his psychic powers. It doesn’t matter, though. None of it matters. His dad’s dead, he’s gone and never coming back, even if Bill’s right and people eventually cure death, his dad will be forever in the past, his mom probably will too, and…

And me… one day, I’ll die too, and there’ll be nothing, just blank absence of everything I am…

Red sees his dad a dozen times a second, in the kitchen with his mom in the morning, training with his pokemon, coming home for the weekend, carrying Red on his shoulders, leading him through the forest…

Red falls to his knees, pokeball dropping from his hand as he rests his palms on the grass, catching himself as he begins to weep again.

If you’re going to put yourself through this, at least let it be worth something. Try the experiment, just so you know if it works.

Red sucks in a long, shuddering breath, then closes his eyes, concentrating on the gaping black hole inside him. He pictures his psychic powers like vibrant colored lines around it, streaks of gleaming light that connect in a hexagon, keeping the effects of the hole from reaching past to the rest of him.

Red winces as the ache continues, and the image falls apart. Ayane’s skepticism comes back to him: “It’s not enough to simply imagine yourself doing something with your powers, or a psychic’s life would be far easier.” She’s right: it’s one thing to mimic a state of mind he felt and come up with a metaphor afterward: doing it in reverse would be pure wish fulfillment.

NO! That’s loser talk!

Red blinks, tears trembling on his lashes. That mental voice sounded oddly like Blue. He wonders if he’s starting to crack up.

You’re not concentrating. You lost the mental state when you imagined the black hole, before you even started with the lines. Try again, something easier.

Red feels a gust of wind blow his hair against his wet face, and tugs his hat down lower to keep it from blowing off. Ok. Something easier. He can do this.

The black hole is there, he doesn’t have to imagine it any clearer. Instead he focuses on his heart: a glowing source of warmth in his chest, being worn away by the sucking, empty void. Red imagines the blocking lines around his heart instead, and at the same time shifts his thoughts to all the memorized points of many-mirrors-and-a-dim-room, then-

wait what if that takes away all feeling-

-inverts-

who cares that’s better than this-

-it into a single island of light inside him, everything else going dark as he gives them over to the void.

Red’s trembling stops. He breathes deep a few times, surprised at how… quiet isn’t the right word, with his earplugs in everything’s quiet, but still his emotional state feels.

The depression is there, the sucking ache in his chest is there, and, yes, the nausea is there. It’s just all… distant. Dim, like the pain in his arm was.

Red smiles. It feels strange on his face, strained and oddly disconnected from his inner self, like the muscles of his face are reacting independently. But he finds he can’t stop.

He figured something else out with his powers. Neat.

Red gets back up, and picks up the pokeball he dropped. He starts walking again.

Things feel strange. Not just emotions, but things. The feel of his clothing on his body, the wind on his skin, the sunlight. It’s all muted.

Why isn’t he moving?

Oh right. He stopped walking.

Red looks around. Nothing of particular interest is going on.

What’s he doing again? He knows what he’s doing, obviously, but what’s the point?

Shit. This is what it’s like to not feel anything, isn’t it?

But that’s ridiculous, he clearly still wants things. He doesn’t want to get hurt, for example. Dropping shining-mirror-in-a-dim-house would make the hurting feelings come back.

He had a purpose in doing that though. To keep catching abra unimpeded. It would all be rather useless if he didn’t keep catching abra, right?

Red keeps walking. Eventually he finds more abra and catches them. He doesn’t know how long he walks, but nothing exciting or interesting happens. He just keeps walking and catching abra. Eventually his phone vibrates, though he barely feels it.

It’s probably not important.


Blue stares down at the broken speakers with a frown. He hoped it was something he could fix, but this thing is utterly trashed. Looks like something really heavy smashed it over and over again.

Blue looks around. Nothing but grassy fields. Whatever pokemon did it is long gone.

He sighs and jogs back toward the abra landing zone. The gap in their circle of speakers will make it easier for abra to slip free, but they only have about 30 minutes left before Joy gets tired anyway.

His bag jostles with over a dozen expanded pokeballs in it, most of them filled with abra. There was another bellsprout that wandered into range of Joy’s singing after it had started, and now that he has two he feels much more prepared for his battle with Misty.

He keeps an eye on his GPS as he moves, and relaxes when he reaches the landing zone again. It’s a nice feeling, being able to walk through fields of empty grass and not worry about pokemon jumping out and attacking. Relaxing, even.

Most of the abra he encountered were already asleep, but a few popped into existence within his line of sight. He just stood completely still for a few seconds until it was clear they were out of it, then caught them too. He hopes whatever Red and Leaf figured out works too, because if they’ve caught as many as he has…

Blue grins. They’re going to make so much money off of this.

He spots another pair of yellow ears sticking out of the grass and changes course to catch it, cheerfully lobbing the pokeball underhand after giving it a moment to lock. He really has to hand it to Red, he really struck gold with this idea. They’ll be able to control the market on abra for a bit before it gets flooded, and combined with the cash from their clefairy trades, make enough money to not have to worry about their allowance restrictions for months.

He’s already thinking of all the TMs and training tools he’ll buy, along with maybe a competitive pokemon or two. He probably won’t be able to afford a larvitar or anything crazy like that, but with his eye on the next couple gyms, he could use a solid Ground or Fire type.

Blue reels himself in before he goes too far down that imaginary road. He already comes from enough of a privileged position, with the Oak name and connection and resources at his back. Beginning his journey with a premium starter, instead of a rattata or meowth or whatever most people could get, is usually grudgingly accepted by the less fortunate masses, but only as long as skill is still shown. No one cares that Lance started his journey with one of his clan’s dratini, because he raised it himself, without even using a pokeball. As long as Blue doesn’t throw money around enough to seem like a “spoiled rich kid,” he could use it for a number of helpful boosts.

Blue checks his supply of pokeballs. He has nineteen left before he has to start using the more expensive balls. He doesn’t think he’ll need them all, but it would be nice to cap out.

The next few minutes are spent continuing his circuit, occasionally spotting an abra and detouring to catch it. He finds a rare hill, really just a small elevation in the grassy field, and stands at the top as he takes out his binoculars and looks around.

Hmm. One abra there, another about a 120 degrees from it. He’ll pick up the farther one first, since the closer is on his way forward.

He catches both and keeps walking, wondering how far ahead or behind Red is. Hopefully they kept about the same pace with each other, but his detour to see the speaker might have closed the area of their search a bit.

Blue finds Red’s GPS position and sees it’s not far in front of him. Huh. Guess he got delayed by something too.

Better slow down a bit. Blue looks for another hill to spot from, and a few minutes later he finds one, taller than the last. He runs to the top and lifts his binoculars again, looking around. There’s an abra, aaaand another… and…

Blue lowers his binoculars, then lifts them back up. Shit. He checks his GPS. “Shit!”

He lifts his binoculars again, pulse quickening as he watches the loudred walking steadily toward the center of the field, a small group of whismur following it. They’re not heading directly toward Joy and Leaf, but they’re moving in their general direction.

There are only two pokemon families in the area that might be completely immune to Joy’s singing: hoothoot/noctowl, some of which don’t sleep, and whismur/loudred/exploud, who are immune to sound-based attacks. The former rarely travel during the day, and the latter mostly stick to the caves that dot the surrounding mountains, only occasionally migrating. Still, knowing that they’re attracted to loud sounds, Red and Leaf planned for this.

Blue takes out his phone and sends them a warning.

Got it. Leaf sends back. Heading back to Joy to move us. Let me know when you guys are ready for the song to end.

might not have time for that if they get close enough to fight. maybe we cancel the song and hit them together?

Let’s avoid battling a group please, especially since we have no Fight/Rock/Steel pokemon.

we can put them to sleep another way, bulbasaur and zephyr with sleep powder?

Maybe. What do you think Red?

Blue taps his foot as he waits for Red to respond, and looks around. Should he rush over to the abra he saw and catch them? He picks up the binoculars and tracks the loudred’s progress until it’s out of sight.

careful leaf it’s close

red you there?

shit

RED

Have you talked to him recently?

no

he’s close though gonna find him

Blue takes off, nearby abra forgotten. Come on man, answer. He keeps checking his GPS as he runs to see if Red is moving. Finally his phone buzzes again.

I’m here.

Blue slows to a stop, breathing hard. the hell man?

Are you okay Red? Leaf asks.

Fine. Stop the song, relocate somewhere safe until they pass through.

you’re not going to use charmander’s smokescreen?

Red takes his sweet time responding again. Blue wonders if he’s actually hurt after all, and is about to send another message when Red says No need. It probably broke speaker. Without singing it’ll go for another.

Blue frowns. we can take them, if the three of us are together.

Sound based attacks. Too risky. Stick to abra catching.

Shit, he left two of them back there. Rather than argue, he turns and rushes back in the direction one of them was, knowing he won’t make it to both on time before Leaf stops the song.

Red better have a good explanation for what’s going on with him.


Red stands in front of the sleeping abra, and waits.

The phone’s continued vibrations grew annoying eventually, and he took it out of his pocket to turn it off. Seeing the screen made him hesitate, and some part of him reacted with enough horror to what he almost did to snap him out of the mental state.

Returning from it was like getting a bucket of cold water dumped on his head. He trembled as the aching sadness filled him again, and in fear of how far he almost sank into total apathy.

Still, he knew he had to return to it. He has to test if it works on awake abra.

So he ran until he found one. He holds a pokeball pointed at it, already locked on by now. He knows he’s risking throwing away a capture, and wants to at least try to get it if he can.

The seconds crawl by as he waits for Leaf to end Joy’s song, and as he does he sinks back into the apathetic state, trying to remain focused on his singular goal: catch the abra after it wakes.

Catch the abra after it wakes.

Catch the abra. After it wakes.

Catch the ab-

Its mind is suddenly there, sleepy at first, but alert within a second. Red groans as despair floods him, pushing past the numbness and breaking his concentration. He throws the pokeball as he doubles over and clutches his torso with both arms, but the abra vanishes before the ball reaches it.

Red sobs in a mix of grief and frustration. Not enough. All that effort and risk for nothing. He can blunt his feelings, but they’re still just a portion of what’s behind his partition when it comes down.

Somehow he manages to keep his feet as the storm of sobs wrack him, but when they pass he feels utterly hopeless. If coming up with a whole new mental state wasn’t enough, then he’s out of tricks. He tried, and he failed.

Why do you think of that as failure?” His therapist seemed genuinely curious, the way she always did when asking questions no matter how obvious or pointed the question might be.

What do you mean, why? It’s the definition of the word.” She stayed quiet, waiting, and eventually Red searched for something else to say. “If I passed the class, I would have succeeded. I didn’t, so I failed. It’s not complicated.”

But why do you think of that as failure?”

Red frowned. “You can’t just emphasize a word and repeat the question as if that changes the answer.”

Doesn’t it?”

No,” he said, ignoring the dissonance he felt. “I think of that as failure because that’s what failure is, to everyone.”

I see. So if a scientist tests an idea and doesn’t get the result they want, did they fail?”

Obviously.”

What if they learned something from it?”

Well, good for them, I guess, but they still failed.”

Do you think they could ever be happy they failed, if the thing they learned ended up being more important?”

Red sensed the trap, but he couldn’t ignore his inner agreement this time. “Sure, I guess. So what did I learn from failing a class? Since, you know, failing a class comes from not learning?”

“I thought you failed because you didn’t do the work,” his therapist said, but continued on before he could answer. “But if you failed because you didn’t learn the subject, then at the very least, you learned what doesn’t work for you, right?”

Red rolled his eyes. “Right, I learned that staying in bed all day and not doing the homework won’t pass the class. I’m a genius, now.”

She leaned forward, resting her chin on one fist. “What if you also learned that you can’t force yourself to be productive when you’re feeling shitty? That maybe you have to focus on feeling better first?”

Sounds like an excuse to not even go to class next quarter. I’ll take it, thanks.”

Maybe you shouldn’t. Do you want me to call your teachers?”

Red’s eyes widened. “Uh. No, that’s okay.”

“Are you saying that because you think you’ll get in trouble? Because I promise you won’t. I’ll speak to your mother about it too if you want.”

Red fidgeted in his chair. “I can’t just miss a whole quarter.”

“Why not? You’re not going to pass it anyway.”

Red felt like arguing, but caught himself. Why was he trying so hard to stay in school? But the implication that he wouldn’t pass… it bothered him, even though he didn’t care a moment ago. “What are you trying to do, here? Get me to skip a quarter, or push me into trying to pass it?”

His therapist cocked her head to the side. “What do you think I’m trying to do?”

Red stifles a sob before it can escape his lips, and breathes deep, smelling the fresh green grass all around him. Change a failure into a learning opportunity.

So. What did he learn?

He learned that the loss of the partition is more impactful than a change to his mood. So what he needs to do is keep his partition from mattering.

Start at the beginning. What are his tools? What can he do?

He can mimic mental states influenced by psychic powers. He can mimic his own from specific stimuli, and others’. What does that leave him with?

Red keeps breathing in and out, focusing on the thought. What other psychically influenced mental state can he mimic? If only Ayane had used her power in a way to make her mind “healthy” or “stable” or-

Red’s eyes open as his breath catches. I don’t need Ayane’s mind in that format: my default state is a psychically sculpted stable one!

He doesn’t waste time wondering if it could work. Red drops into the lotus position, evening out his breaths as best he can. One arm rises to impatiently rub his face dry, then again as fresh tears appear at the ache of sadness that goes through him. Nevermind. Let it go. He waits until his awareness is mostly drawn inward, then begins shifting his attention to different parts of his mental state. He’s emotionally sad, but his thoughts aren’t being overwhelmed with negative associations like when the partition is down.

For a glimmering second, Red almost grasps what Elite Agatha meant when she insisted to Professor Oak that there’s a distinction between mental and emotional pokemon attacks.

Then it passes, but he’s still able to reach far enough to work with the distinction.

No set of words seem fit to describe it, however. How would you describe your default mental state? It’s just “existing normally.” But that still has markers, anchors, a framework he can remember and nail into place.

It doesn’t feel like anything has changed. He hasn’t made the partition stronger, and he isn’t using his powers to do anything. He’s just… focusing on keeping everything as it is.

He stays that way until his phone vibrates again. He checks it and sees that the first speaker he put down is offline. The loudred got another one, he sends. We should be clear.

Okay, Leaf says. Summoning Joy. Earplugs back in, if you took them out.

Red puts his phone away and focuses on the mental state again, waiting until it feels stable before he gets to his feet and resumes walking. Every so often he feels as though he’s lost it: trying to consciously hold onto a “default” feels like trying to cup water in his hands, but he keeps reinforcing it every so often, retracing his mental path around the touchstones of how he thinks, around the gap between what he feels and his memories of his dad’s death.

He eventually spots a sleeping abra and catches it. A few minutes later he finds another. Part of him is glad the system’s still working with two speakers down, but he begins to grow impatient as he walks, checking the time occasionally. He needs to find another awake one. He needs to know if this works.

When there’s just fifteen minutes of singing left, Red starts to seriously consider sending one of his captured abra back out and waking it up himself. He’s still talking himself out of it when he feels an abra pop into existence nearby, its mind suddenly “next to” his.

He freezes, eyes flicking around. He can’t see it, it must be behind him… but-

Red’s mind wobbles, a mass of gelatin on a small plate again as the abra… tries to reconnect. It’s almost like the mind bounced off, then came back again. He focuses on his mental state, keeping all the anchors in place, all the parts of his mind that make up just-being-normal-Red…

And a few heartbeats later, suddenly as it started, the sensation is gone.

Red waits a few more seconds, pulse pounding in his ears, and finally, slowly, looks around. He spots the abra a few paces behind him and to the left, practically in arm’s reach.

Red slowly extends his pokeball turning it so the lens aligns with the abra. He counts to three. He throws.

The ball flashes, snaps shut, and rolls onto the grass.

Red falls to his knees once again.

The ache is there. The grief. The pain. The loneliness. The despair. The wind blows, feeling extra cold on the tear tracks on his face.

But still, for a moment, he smiles.


“Are you kidding me?” Red asks. “You got them to stay with the power of love?”

“It’s not that simple.” Leaf pauses, then smiles. “Okay I guess it is that simple, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. It took a few tries to actually figure it out.”

Red grumbles. “Well, it probably wouldn’t work for me anyway. And I figured out my own solution, eventually.”

“Good, because when we do this again I expect you guys to get on my level,” Blue says as he cheerfully fills his corner of the table with pokeballs almost twice as fast as them. He can already tell he got a lot more than they did.

They sit in one of Bill’s living rooms, placing a growing collection of balls on the table after registering each pokemon in their dex. There’s a fruit bowl in the middle that Blue quickly has to move elsewhere to make more room. His stomach grumbles, and he picks out an apple before resuming work one-handed.

Once they finish emptying their bags, the three put aside the other pokemon they caught until just the abra are left, then start counting. Blue glances at Red every so often, noting the tautness of his features. When Red explained what happened to him, he made it seem like his experimental mental states were temporary. But there’s something distant and off about his friend’s gaze, and Blue wonders if Red understated how strong the renewed emotions are, or how he’s managing them.

The final tally is 19 for Red, 24 for Leaf, and 31 for Blue, a few of them temporarily in greatballs.

“I got one more.” Leaf holds the ball up. “But I’m keeping it.”

“Yeah,” Red says. “I’ll keep one too, once we finish analyzing them all.”

“How long do you think your study will take?”

Red shrugs. “A week, maybe? The only reason the last one took so long is because I had to wait for people with spinarak to come to me. Now I have a big sample ready to be tested.”

Blue studies Red’s face again. He sounds almost… uninterested. “Well, it’ll take at least that long to study the market and come up with a good plan to sell them,” Blue says. “So no rush on that.”

“I’d like to vet my buyers personally anyway,” Leaf says.

They look at her in surprise. “What, you’re going to meet each one?” Blue asks.

“Maybe not meet in person, obviously, but at least check them out online, maybe give them a call. I want to at least try and make sure the people who buy mine are going to take good care of them.”

Blue shrugs. “As long as we agree on how we price and list them, then your pokemon, your rules.”

His hands move out among his collected pokeballs, straightening each one into a uniform pattern, enjoying the sight of all of them. It’s a bit hard to believe how many he got. Hearing the other two talk about their struggles to catch the awake abra showed how being Dark has its advantages, but now that the catching is over and he listens to the other two discuss how they’ll train their abra, all the great uses they’ll have for them, Blue feels the warm glow of contentment fading away. He always wanted an abra when he was younger. The idea of being able to teleport, or share the thoughts of one of his pokemon, always seemed so cool.

But he’ll never have that, no matter how many abra he catches.

Blue’s jaw sets as he picks one of his abra’s balls up. Leaf has gone around to get the bowl of fruit, and is sharing it with Red. Blue waits until they’ve picked something out, then says, “I’m going to keep one too.”

Red and Leaf look at him in surprise. Dark trainers don’t use Psychic pokemon. It’s just not done: without the ability for their pokemon to sense them, they would be incredibly hard to interact with, let alone train.

Blue meets their gazes, waiting for their skepticism and questions.

“Wouldn’t the time be better spent training others, though?” Red asks. He holds a palm up to stop Blue’s response. “I’m just curious. I don’t doubt you can do it. You’re the most determined person I know, and a great trainer. I’m asking from an efficiency perspective.”

Blue relaxes slightly, and smiles. It means a lot, hearing Red say that. Not that Blue would ever admit it out loud. “It won’t be efficient, no,” he says. “I don’t fully know how I’ll do it yet. Maybe in the time it takes I could train two other pokemon instead. But I’m going to do it anyway.”

“Strategic advantage?” Red asks. “Having a psychic will surprise people who know you’re Dark.”

“Optics,” Leaf suggests instead, munching on a strawberry she liberated from the bowl. “A Dark trainer with a powerful, well trained Psychic pokemon… I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone like that. It’ll really make you stand out.”

Blue nods. “You’re both right. But most of all, it’s-”

“To prove you can,” Red says.

Leaf smiles and adds, “To yourself as much as anyone.”

Blue grins back. “You guys know me so well. Can I count on your help?”

Red extends a fist, and Blue bumps it, glad to see the gesture. Blue then extends his other fist toward Leaf. She grins and taps her knuckles to his, and Red and her extend their other hands at the same time to complete the triangle. Blue feels a bit better seeing Red smile, even though it fades a second later.

“Today was… a good day,” Red says, keeping his fists out.

Leaf nods. “To Red, for his great idea.”

“Hear, hear!” Blue says.

His friend flushes. “To Bill,” Red says. “For letting us use his land.”

“Hear, hear!” the other two repeat.

“Welcome,” the speakers above them says, making them all jump and lower their arms at last.

“And to me,” Blue says with a smile, “For catching Joy and making it all possible.” He ducks as the others toss fruit at him. “No need for thanks, folks, my bigger catch is thanks enough. And next time, I’m going to be bringing more pokeballs.”

I Notice That I Am Upset

In Chapter 20 of The Origin of Species, Red uses a mental flowchart to identify why he’s so upset at something Psychic Narud said to him.  People have asked what it’s from, so here is a rough draft of that flowchart in its entirety.  I came up with it as a way to help clients improve awareness of what upsets them and work through why, and you’re welcome to use it as you will.

upset-flowchart

Chapter 37: Resolve

Blue looks exhausted when Red and Leaf find him at the Trainer House in Cerulean North, but he still exudes a self-satisfied pride, even sprawled on a couch.

“You did it, then?” Leaf asks as she and Red sit in the nearby chairs. “Finished the screening matches?”

“Hit the top. Misty’s Second wasn’t in town, still gotta schedule a match with her, but then I can go for the badge. I think I’ll be ready in a couple weeks.”

“Congrats!”

“Tougher than Pewter, huh?” Red asks.

“Yeah. A lot of that was just testing me to make sure I wasn’t some scrub with a pidgey wasting everyone’s time. These people went hard. Very first match was against Amy.”

Red smiles. “Our Amy? From Viridian? Cool, how’s she doing?”

“Good. She got her badge already, staying on at the Gym for a bit. Sends her regards.” His eyelids are drooping down.

“You should head to bed,” Leaf says as Red checks the time. Only nine, but they’re still on a traveling sleep cycle, getting up and bedding down with the sun. “We can talk tomorrow.”

“No, I want to hear what you guys did first. What did Bill want?”

Red and Leaf exchange a look. “Uh. A soda, basically.”

Blue stares.

“Also maybe something else,” Leaf says. “He forgot. But he showed us around a couple of the labs and we talked about a bunch of stuff.”

“But he approved the plan,” Red says. “Said we have a week to practice before we try for real. There’s something else I want to talk to you guys about, though…” He leans toward Blue. “You know how your sister is competing in the Pokemon Coordinator Contest next week?”


August 1st

It takes most of the morning for Red to search the local advertisements and find a psychic who matches his budget. With the coming windfall, he can afford to spend some now if it’ll give him a leg up. As he waits for a response, he tries meditating again. His ability to focus isn’t much better than the first time, but he keeps practicing throughout the day, determined to make some measurable progress from one day to the next.

He also looks over the map of Bill’s property the inventor sent him. After calculating how far the sound of the wigglytuff’s singing will travel, he scrolls through the map from one corner to the next, trying to find a location with the ideal conditions: the right amount of empty space surrounded by naturally obstructing hills or trees, but with more open space beyond that for the ring of sound. He wants to do it as close to the Ranger Outpost or Bill’s house as he can, and quickly narrows his options down to three possibilities.

He takes a quick break for lunch, where he meets Blue and Leaf at a nearby cafe to show them his notes and hear about their respective days training at the gym and reading the local news. They also check the clefairy markets together, carefully marking the ones they want to buy and timing who will buy which of them when, spacing out the purchases. Afterward it’s right back to the Trainer House for more meditation practice. He picks his clefairy up from the transfer PC in the lobby, putting it immediately into storage. Much as he’d like to meet his new pokemon, he reminds himself not to get attached.

That night he finds a private workroom in the Trainer House and stares at his phone, working up his courage. This will be painful, and manipulative. But he has to tell her sooner or later, and this is when he can make the most good come of it.

Red takes his hat off and runs his hands through his hair, gripping it for a moment between his fingers. Then he drops his arms, picks up his phone, and dials his mom.

The pleasantries go by quickly, and soon he finds himself stumbling over his words.

“What is it, hon? Spit it out.”

Red takes a deep breath, and explains what he learned from Narud, including how the “psychic partition” that might be keeping him from fully getting over his dad’s death.

“Oh, Red… hon, I’m so sorry… I know you must be thrilled that you’re a psychic. After you were so excited from learning grandma was one… I remember how disappointed you were. But…” He can hear the tearful breath she takes, and feels a stab of guilt. “This thing with your father…”

“I know. It’s… a lot to take in. I didn’t want to believe it at first, but there’s definitely something stopping my powers from manifesting, and the feeling of that Night Shade… I’m scared, mom. I don’t want to face something like that again, or worse… have the partition break down like Narud said, and… relive losing dad again…” Red wipes a tear away, voice hoarse as pain and loneliness wells up inside him. In a way, it’s a relief to know that he’s not lying to her. He shoves the feelings down, waiting until he has control of himself again before he continues. “I really think I need to get a handle on this now.”

“Of course, sweetheart. Of course. What can I do?”

“I need lessons. I need to start learning how to use my powers. It’s expensive, though.”

“How much is each lesson? I can pay for them-”

“No! Thank you, but… I just need access to my account.”

“Oh no, Red, not your savings. I’ll be okay hon, I have some extra saved up. Let me help you with this. Just tell me how much you need and I’ll send it to you.”

Dammit. If she pays for the lessons directly, he can’t get the clefairy. He was hoping to get another two before the contest, but it would totally empty his account, and take a bit of borrowing from Blue or Leaf: he has almost exactly $1,800 to his name. Not enough for two clefairy and psychic lessons… It would be better to wait on the lessons until after he sells the clefairy. But he can’t empty his account without showing a bill to his mom, and he did want to start the lessons as soon as possible.

Well, buying one extra clefairy is better than none. “I’m still looking for the best deal, and some of them give bulk rates if I schedule more than one session at a time. Other lessons may be cheaper if I buy them on short notice, when they have a sudden opening from a cancellation. I did a lot of negotiating with psychics in Pewter for my paper, and I have to be careful to make every dollar count to get as many lessons as I can.”

“I still want to help, Red. I can’t let you pay it all yourself, you might need that money for your travels!”

Red sighs. “Okay, how about we go a half and half then? Let me use my savings while I’m in Cerulean, and I’ll send you the bill afterward, so you can put half back in my account whenever you have a chance.”

“You’re such a sweetheart. Alright, if that makes you happy. I love you, Red.”

Red runs his fingers through his hair as he rests his forehead on his palm, eyes closed. “Thanks, mom. I love you too.”

He spends the rest of the night reading local CoRRNet reports to brush up on wild pokemon in the area, and falls asleep with herd movement patterns floating behind closed eyelids.


August 2nd

Psychic Ayane is dressed very casually compared to Duran or Ranna. Her purple hair is cut short around her ears, her navy top is a simple shirt that bares a bit of her midriff, and her matching navy pants end just below her knees. She looks ready to go for a jog or have a pokemon battle rather than sit cross-legged and meditate, and yet that’s exactly what she does once Red signs the consent form.

“Our first lesson will involve Reception,” she says once they’re both seated across from each other in lotus position. Red finds it less uncomfortable than he did the first time, and wriggles his toes as he lets the tenseness out of them, hands facing upward briefly before he flips them over to mirror Ayane’s. “I don’t know how your ‘block’ operates, but it shouldn’t interfere at all with this aspect, if you were able to feel a psychic mind touch yours before.”

“I did, but it… wasn’t a pleasant experience,” Red says, taking measured breaths to prepare himself and slow his racing heart.

“I’ll attempt to be as gentle as possible,” she assures him, and closes her eyes. He does the same. “Are you ready?”

“Uh… give me a second.” Inhale… two… three… four… exhale… two… three… four… inhale… “Ready…”

“First, I want you to understand what I’m doing. My mind is aware of others who pass nearby me, but that awareness is not connection. It’s the difference between seeing someone in your periphery vision and locking eyes with them. By focusing on one of the minds I sense, I can project toward it. Beginning… now.”

Even braced for it, Red feels his skin break out in bumps as the “second mind” appears next to his own, almost entangled with it. He tries to focus on his breathing past the vertigo. After a few seconds pass, the sensation isn’t any better, but it stops growing worse. He feels like he’s balancing on a tightrope with one foot in the air.

“Are you able to continue, Mr. Verres?”

“Yes,” Red says between breaths. He keeps his voice quiet, his eyes closed. Sweat lines his brow and drips down the back of his neck. Every thought he has feels like it echoes, rebounding off the second mind beside his own, transferred along gossamer strands that connect them. “Is this… normal…?”

“No. Whoever told you about your partition was correct. Virtually all of your powers are being used to simply maintain it, and drawing them away to other tasks, even automatic ones like forming a connection, is taxing you beyond your endurance.”

“Should… we stop…?” Red asks, breath hitching between the words as a his stomach cramps. He expects a flashback to the spinarak’s attack to come at any moment, but it seems like the aftereffect really has faded. Maybe he should start training it now and make sure.

“Not unless you want to.”

“No.”

“Alright. I’m going to send across a feeling. I want you to tell me what it is.”

Red tries to prepare himself as he continues to focus on his breathing. He’s proud of himself for not quitting despite the strain. This isn’t so bad, actually, and now that he has the hang of it and knows what to expect, he’s sure he can handle more. In fact, this whole ‘partition’ thing probably isn’t a big deal either, with a few weeks of training he’ll be able to get rid of it and-

Oh.

“Optimism,” Red says, breathing out, then in again. “Confidence?”

“Hope,” Ayane says. “Good. Next.”

Red breathes out, wondering if he’ll notice his thoughts changing as they’re not influenced anymore. He’s vaguely worried about the notion that his emotions are being manipulated by an outside force: as if having biases isn’t bad enough, his unrealistic expectations of fixing his mental block in just weeks seem silly in retrospect, Narud implied it would be much harder… wait, is she projecting the opposite of hope now? Despair? Or is he just returning to his baseline? It’s so frustrating not knowing if his emotions are his own, if he could just think clearly for a moment he’d be able to-

His breathing is too fast, he’s not focusing on it anymore. He can’t slow it down though, a hot flush going up his neck. “Frustration?”

“Anger. Very good. Next.” Her words are clipped, and he opens his eyes to see her expression is cold. As he watches her however, her face relaxes into a more calm expression. He closes his eyes again so he doesn’t cheat by observing her.

He’ll have to write about all this, a journal, to keep the experience of cycling through emotions from outside influence fresh. It would be amazingly useful for awareness therapy and techniques, he’s surprised more psychics don’t go into therapy, though if they’re a standard subsample of the population there’s no reason to think any more of them would be interested or qualified for the job than non-psychics, proportionally. Still, it’s got to be easier for them, right? He wonders if a psychic therapist would have helped him more when he was young. He liked his therapist, but he would have discovered he was a psychic much earlier if one had tried something like this with him…

Breathing slowly in and out isn’t so difficult now. His shirt is sticking to his back with sweat and his stomach is still fluttering with nerves, but Red barely notices as he thinks about various applications of psychic powers in exploring the mind. Eventually he remembers he’s supposed to be trying to think of what emotion he is experiencing, but honestly he doesn’t feel anything unusual. He wonders if this is a “control” test, if she’s not projecting anything to see how he reacts. Should he peek? How long would she wait before he doesn’t get it? Maybe he just has to admit it himself.

“Don’t feel anything,” Red says between breaths. “Supposed to?”

“Yes.”

Red frowns, trying to focus harder. What is it? What’s he missing? He should list his emotions.

I’m uncomfortable, physically. I’m nervous and anxious, but that’s the partition thing, I don’t think it’s changed. I’m a little frustrated, but not a lot, yet. Am I less frustrated than I would otherwise be? Is she projecting calm? Is calm even an emotion? It’s just the absence of other emotions, isn’t it? Can you project null-emotions?

His thoughts run along those lines for another dozen breaths, and he finally shakes his head. “I give up.”

“Curiosity.”

Red opens his eyes to see her smiling slightly. “Curiosity is… an emotion? Nevermind… ‘course it is. I feel silly… but in my… defense…” He takes a deep breath to get the next part out all at once. “I’m pretty naturally curious all the… time,” he gasps, one trembling hand rising to wipe sweat from his forehead before he returns it to his knee.

“I sensed that, yes. That’s why I tried it. Remember, projections are stronger, more naturally communicated, if you build upon what is already there.”

“Noted.” The feeling of balancing on a high wire becomes more pronounced as he feels his mind wobbling, trying to shy away from the second consciousness. It’s so strange having the feeling of two minds without actually getting input from the second one at all… just echoes and undetectable projections. “So… next?”

“Are you able to continue?” He gives a jerky nod. “Alright then.”

They run through another few emotions before Red feels his whole body start to shiver uncontrollably, at which point Ayane withdraws her mind and he sags, breathing hard. His muscles feel loose and watery, his mind like it’s in a soft shelled egg.

“Well done,” his instructor says. “I didn’t expect the lesson to be so taxing on you, but you were still able to recognize most of them. Improving awareness is the first step: when you’re training your abra, being able to recognize when the emotions you feel are your own and when they’re your pokemon’s is vital.”

“Is the connection necessary?” Red asks as he slowly regains his composure. “If my partition is stopping me from passively sensing other minds around me, does that also stop me from receiving emotions from my pokemon?”

“No. Your pokemon will attempt to merge its mind with you regardless. It’s instinctual, a part of how they communicate and interact with others. Now at least you will know what to expect.”

Red grimaces and lifts one hand to his collar to peel his shirt away from his sweaty back. “If it feels like this, I’m not going to be able to train my abra at all. It was hard enough just sitting still. Are my powers like undeveloped muscles? Can I overcome this with practice?”

Ayane’s fingers drum on one knee. “Your ‘psychic muscles’ are not weak. They are constantly contracted, like a fist that has been closed around a ball for years. It has become stuck in position, any movement painful. In time it will become easier.”

“But too much relaxation and I’ll drop the ball?”

“Yes. You must learn to either juggle, or put the ball down.” She purses her lips. “That analogy doesn’t quite work anymore.”

Red smiles. “Yeah, it’s coming apart a bit. I think I get it though. The ball is fragile. Dropping it is bad, putting it down is safer. Any idea how to do it?”

“The simplest way is to learn how to manipulate your own memories, and simply clean out whatever is behind the partition. But that can take years to learn well. You can pay someone else to do it for you, if you trust them and are not averse to side effects. I would advise against this option unless your need is desperate. The safest route is to relax it little by little, adapt, repeat.”

“And how long would that…?”

Ayane spreads her hands. “As long as it takes.”

Red nods wearily. “Well, better get started then.” He straightens and puts his hands back on his knees, taking a deep breath. “Ready when you are.”


August 3rd

“Time!”

Blue presses the button on his aquascope, signalling Maturin to swim back to the surface. His squirtle rockets back up with a powerful kick of her legs and swish of her tail. Blue raises his eyes from the goggles in the scope, losing sight of her beneath the water just in time to see her round blue head breaking the surface of the pool. She opens her mouth wide, panting for breath.

“One minute rest, then back down. Set your own mark.”

Blue sets the timer on the aquascope, then tosses his pokemon a berry, which she quickly snaps out of the air. As she rests, Blue looks around to see how the others are doing.

The training room is filled with a series of isolated pools, each with a trainer standing beside them, aquascope in hand. Their pokemon bob at the surface of their pools, catching their breath from being submerged during their underwater exercises. Among the numerous classes designed for teaching them how to train their pokemon underwater, this one is particularly for amphibian pokemon, who also need practice staying under for extended periods of time.

Blue was having trouble getting Maturin to stay underwater for long enough to be a reasonable threat to water-breathing pokemon. This class is supposed to help him ease the squirtle into staying down longer and longer, but he finds the pace frustrating. He used a simulation program to try and train Maturin to stay underwater longer, but it only helped a little.

When the timer hits 0, Blue sends his pokemon back down along with the other trainers. He gives Maturin various commands to practice while she’s submerged, and keeps his eye on the timer that’s counting up now, waiting for the five minute mark. Squirtle can stay underwater for much longer if they don’t move much, but to fight down there, she needs to be able to stay submerged for as long as possible.

Blue presses his eyes to the scope to see Maturin swimming through the series of hoops spread out in the narrow, but deep, pool. He uses various buttons on the handle to send clicks through the water, directing his pokemon down one hoop, then up through another two.

“Time!”

Blue pulls his head up in irritation to check the timer. Only five minutes. He’s sure Maturin can stay down longer.

As the other pokemon begin appearing on the surface however, he can see the instructor looking at him, and presses the button to recall Maturin back up. His pokemon takes deep breaths and snatches more berries out of the air, then lies on its back and gurgles as it swims in lazy circles.

“Another one minute break!” The instructor yells out to the room, then walks toward Blue. He’s an older man, trimmed beard going grey.  Only one arm comes out of his shirt sleeves, the other sleeve folded and pinned around a stump. “Trainer Blue, was it?” he asks when he gets close enough, voice low so as not to carry to the closer trainers.

“That’s me.”

“You didn’t bring your pokemon back up right away. First time here, right?”

“Yeah. She seemed fine.”

“Seemed fine, sure. Pokemon worth a damn follow orders, even if it’s painful or dangerous. What do you want, your squirtle to come up without you telling it to? Not going to get it to learn that way. Worse, it might stay down. Get itself hurt trying to please you.”

Blue frowns at Maturin, who ducks her head into the water and kicks her legs to do a quick dive before coming back up. “She’s smart enough not to do that.”

“Hey, it’s your pokemon. I guess you’d know.” The instructor’s voice doesn’t change tone, and Blue fights down his defensiveness.

“When do we do practice matches?” he asks.

“Aquatic combat is lesson seven. In this gym we do things in the right order. Relax, you’ll be there by the end of the week.” He claps Blue on the shoulder and heads up the aisle to inspect and speak with the others.

Blue looks at Maturin again to make sure she’s okay, and snorts as she spits a harmless spray of mist up at him. He chucks her another berry and tries to fight down his impatience as the timer hits 0 and he tells her to go down again.

He’s committed to putting in the time at this gym and training his pokemon right: a first time win against Misty is the only way to make up for his loss against Brock. The new narrative he would shape about learning from his mistakes wouldn’t work if he commits too early and loses against Misty again.

But he can’t afford to spend too much time taking the safe route that he loses momentum either.

In Pewter he learned a bit from the lessons, but the most progress was made by finding good training partners. Blue examines his neighbors. One is a guy about his age, a serious look on his face as he trains a seel. The other is an older girl with a totodile that looks nearly as bored as he does. He waits till after the lesson is finished, then withdraws Maturin and approaches her.

“Hey. I’m Blue.”

She turns to him in surprise. “Hi. Mary.”

“This is my first time at one of these. Do you know if the pace picks up eventually? I think my pokemon can handle more.”

“No, this is my first one too,” she says as she withdraws her pokemon. “I know how you feel though, this is a lot more basic than I thought it would be.”

“I guess they have to make sure everyone has the fundamentals first,” Blue says. “I like learning from battles, personally.”

She hesitates. “I’ve never done a water battle before. But I guess neither have you, if you’re here?”

“Yeah, we’ll both be rookies, so it should be okay.” He gives her a moment to think about it, but she still seems reluctant. Blue smiles. “Nah, you’re right. Maybe later.” He turns away, looking for someone else to approach.

“Hey, wait.” He looks to see her smiling back. “You’re on.”


August 4th, Morning

Leaf throws the ball at her pokemon as hard as she can. “Bulbasaur, catch!”

Bulbasaur wraps a vine around the ball mid-air as it sails overhead, slinging it back and around to reduce its momentum without letting it go. Leaf opens her left palm wide, leather glove stretching the mesh between her fingers, and raises her bare right hand. She snaps her fingers, then points at her glove. “Throw!”

Her pokemon whips the ball at her hard enough to make her palms sting through the protective leather, and she grins. “Good boy!” She laughs as her pokemon gambols around a bit, rear feet kicking at the air. She waits until he calms down, then throws the ball back with another “Catch!”

The sky is bright and blue above the park, acres of grass and trees acting as an island of nature in the heart of the city. The past few days of reading made Leaf a bit stir-crazy, and she decided to take the day off to stretch her muscles and train her pokemon.

Of course, the best training is more like playing.

After another half hour of catch, she goes for a jog with Scamp running at her heels and Crimson looping around overhead as she tosses berries to each. Her phone occasionally buzzes, and she checks her messages to see if anyone important enough has messaged her.

Her current problem is simple. She wants to write another article, something with enough depth and importance to shift attention away from the ongoing situation in Pewter. But she has no leads beyond what she can pick up from news stories that are already published. The obvious solution is to get some from the local reporters, but they’d expect something in return.

Luckily, she happens to have something to trade. She just needs a good offer first.

By noon she’s hungry and exhausted. She brings all her pokemon out to rest for a bit, then heads back to the Trainer House. Her mind is on the shower waiting for her upstairs when a woman stands up from one of the couches in the entrance hall and approaches her.

“Hello Miss Juniper. My name is Zoey P-”

“Palmer, yeah, I know who you are,” Leaf says, smiling. It seems today might be her lucky day. “I’ve been reading your articles since I got to town. It’s good to meet you.”

The reporter raises an eyebrow. “I’m flattered. Assuming you liked them?”

“Yeah, they were great.” Leaf expected an email or phone call like all the other reporters used, but clearly Miss Palmer prefers the more personal touch. “Were you waiting for me?”

“I was. Do you have a minute to talk? Maybe have coffee or lunch? My treat.”

“I’d love to. I’m sorry, I don’t know how long you’ve been waiting, but could you give me another twenty minutes? I was just on my way up to shower and change my clothes.”

The reporter checks her phone, then says, “Of course. If you don’t mind, I’ll send you the address of a nearby cafe, and you can meet me there when you’re ready.”

“Sure. See you there.”

Leaf gets the address and rushes through showering and drying off, sitting on her bed in her towel and looking through her notes. She’s been hoping for something like this to happen all week, and wants to make sure she doesn’t mess it up. She was planning on going over the maps Red sent her for the abra hunting, but she’d have to do it after the meeting.

Ten minutes later she finds the reporter sitting outside the cafe. Leaf sits across from her, reminded of the immersive hologram at Bill’s house. “Hi. Sorry for the wait.”

“No problem. I ordered us some tea.”

“Thank you.” Leaf takes a sip from the mug in front of her, happy to discover that it’s chilled. She takes a moment to study the older woman. Miss Palmer wears thin and stylish sunglasses, and is dressed in a grey blazer that makes her look very professional and casual at the same time as she leans back in her chair, tea cradled in both hands on her lap. Leaf tries to mimic her casual posture, and wonders if she’s sitting too straight. She ends up staying mostly the way she is rather than fidget too much.

“I’ll let you find something to order, and then we can talk. I’m sure you’re curious to know why I asked you here.”

“I think I have an idea, actually. And I’m ready to order whenever the waiter arrives.” Leaf gives the menu a perfunctory look through, then puts it aside. She’s glad she can get a good salad fairly easily in most places in the city, but today she’s in the mood for something else. Especially since the reporter offered to pay.

Miss Palmer smiles. “I see. Were you expecting me?”

“Not you specifically, though I hoped for someone of your caliber. I have a friend, kind of a mentor, and your name was one of the names she suggested.”

“Why didn’t you reach out to me directly, then?”

“I figured it’s better not to be the one to ask.”

“You figured right.” She sips her tea, then returns it to her lap. “Well, this does put a different spin on things. When I realized that no one managed to get an interview out of you yet I figured you were just oblivious, but you were filtering, weren’t you? And the Oak kid not giving interviews either, is that related?”

“We have an agreement,” Leaf says. “Besides, he’s been busy.”

“Of course. Well, I guess I’ll cut to the chase then. What are your conditions?”

“I want leads.”

“Ah. That’s not a small thing to ask of a reporter, as I’m sure you know.”

Leaf remains silent, tasting her drink, then adds some sugar and puts the rest away. The waiter arrives, and Leaf orders some avocado and cucumber rolls.

After Miss Palmer orders and the waiter leaves, the reporter pours herself some more tea, taking her time. Leaf doesn’t rush her, and finally, after putting the kettle back, she speaks. “First, tell me something. Are you here to stir up trouble in my city, too?”

Leaf remembers what Laura said about getting a feel for a journalist by their work. What kind of person is Zoey Palmer? Leaf thinks back over what she read, the articles and interviews, the passion in some of Zoey’s work that’s not there for most of it. It’s like she thinks the only story worth putting real effort into is the kind that pisses someone in power off.

“If trouble needs to be stirred,” Leaf says at last.

Miss Palmer smiles and takes her sunglasses off, folding them and placing them on the table, piercing blue eyes meeting hers. “Good answer.”


August 4th, Evening

The House common rooms is packed on Saturday night, with trainers of all ages gathering around the wide TV screens as the Pokemon Coordinator Contest gets underway. Some of them cheer on their favorites, while others exchange bets or just watch and chat. The trio managed to arrive early, and claimed seats in the middle of a couch directly in front of a screen. As more and more people crowd in around them, Red and Blue keep the encroaching bodies on either side from further squishing them together as Leaf sits between them with a bowl of popcorn in her lap.

Red enjoys the opportunity to relax with his friends, but even as he applauds and cheers for the various performances along with everyone else, a part of him is impatient to see how well their investment is going to pay off. He takes popcorn with his right hand as his left keeps his phone out, watching as the prices of various pokemon fluctuate after each performance. Most only get a mild bump: the highest so far was a 7% bump for ninetales after a trainer sent hers jumping through self-made spinning wheels of fire mid-air, and about a 10% jump for magneton, electabuzz, and raichu after a trainer used his to put on a laser-light show with eerily accurate electric bolts to pre-arranged equipment around the stage, accompanied by music and coordinated with a conductor’s baton.

By the time Daisy and Moonlight are next, the crowd is eager to see what could top that. Contest workers completely clear the stage to open up as much room as possible, then unpack some containers and assemble six large, colorful pinwheels in a circle around the middle.

Red and Blue clap along with the audience as his sister takes the stage, and the conversations of the girls around them suddenly shift to Daisy’s dress: a slim but complex, layered gown in various shades of pink that makes her look like a fairy princess. “Ooo, she looks gorgeous!” Leaf says, leaning forward. Red is similarly entranced. She’s done something with her hair, looping it back behind her head in the outline of wings. Red feels a warm glow in his chest as the remaining spark of his crush briefly rekindles.

The judges introduce her, then signal for her to begin. She releases Moonlight with a flourish, sending the ball straight up into the air so precisely that it smacks back into her open palm a moment later, arm staying straight up until her clefairy flutters to the stage from mid-air with its small wings.

The crowd is absolutely silent as trainer and pokemon turn to face each other. The camera focuses on Daisy’s face as she closes her eyes, tilts her head back, and begins to sing.

There’s no amplification in the exhibition center. Instead her microphone transmits directly to the earpieces of the thousands of viewers in the contest hall, and directly to the live feed. For Daisy and Moonlight, there’s just the strength of her own voice, and shortly after, Moonlight’s, her own microphone attached around her neck.

Red tunes out the occasional murmurs of everyone around them as he lets himself get drawn into the trainer and pokemon’s haunting song and perfectly choreographed (if silly looking) dance. It quickly becomes clear as she and Moonlight hop around in a circle that Daisy’s dress, frilly though it is, has been tailored to avoid impeding her movement at all.

“Met-ro-nome,” Daisy says, and points, and a moment later a gust of wind from Moonlight sets one of the pinwheels spinning. As it does, gleaming sparkles of every color are flung out into the air, falling slowly in a rainbow haze.

“Met-ro-nome,” Daisy says again a few moments later, in the exact same pitch and tone, and a second pinwheel is blasted with wind.

Red feels his excitement and awe growing as a third gust is sent out, then a fourth. If the metronome ability is dictated by the way the word is said, then Red expected a few mess ups along the way, like his mom reported from seeing Daisy practice. Six pinwheels, for six gusts of wind… but in a row? Yes, there’s the fourth…. Then the fifth…

Murmurs of surprise and disbelief are growing around the room as the trainers all watch Daisy instruct her pokemon to use the notoriously random and unpredictable Metronome ability with consistent, pre-planned results. Red grins wide as the sixth pinwheel is hit, sending its own shimmering lights into the air. The first pinwheel is still spinning, though it’s slowing down, and there’s a period of about ten seconds where the trainer and pokemon dance and sing in the middle of a dazzling cloud of multi-colored sparkles.

As the pinwheels slow to a stop one by one, Daisy and Moonlight’s song quiets before finally reaching an end, and there’s a moment of silence and stillness as the last of the glimmering sparkles fade away.

Then the Trainer House and contest hall explode in applause and cheers at the same time. Blue sticks two fingers in his mouth and whistles, and a buzz of conversation quickly breaks out as people discuss what they just saw. The panning cameras in the contest hall show faces that aren’t just dazzled but shocked, and Red can hear the wonder in the voices around him.

“-six times, can’t believe-”

“-trick maybe? New TM?”

“-obviously chose a safe move to demonstrate, but what else can she-”

“-can’t wait to try it-”

Red grins at his phone’s screen as the prices of clefairy quickly jump beyond the small increase they got just from Daisy’s reveal of what pokemon she was using. He tracks the cheapest offers and watches the prices going up as some of the lowest ones get quickly bought out and others are taken down and relisted. $983… $1,022… $1,127… $1,232…

Leaf leans over to watch, still applauding. “How’re we doi-woah.”

“Yeah,” Red says as he puts his phone away and finally relaxes, a giddy feeling in his stomach as he grabs some popcorn. “That’ll do.”

The last price he saw at the bottom of the listings was $1,312, and the highest were over $3,000. Blue bought four clefairy, Leaf three, and Red used his savings and borrowed whatever leftover cash the other two had to get himself two, giving him a total of three. Three clefairy that he could sell for at least $4,000.

“That’ll do just fine.”


August 5th

“You’ve been practicing,” Psychic Ayane says as soon as he opens the door to let her in.

Red smiles, breath trembling slightly as he exhales. As far as greetings go, it’s gratifying that she noticed right away. “Wasn’t easy.”

“No, I don’t imagine so.” She follows him into the room and sits, folding her legs beneath her. Red does the same, carefully. His body isn’t weaker when he’s like this, but it’s harder to control appropriately, as if the signals from his brain are being occasionally scrambled on the way. “I commend your progress, but is it wise to tire yourself just before our lesson?”

Red shakes his head. “I didn’t just start. I’ve been like this all morning.” He breathes in deep as he settles into place.

Her eyes widen. “Explain. And calm yourself before you do, please.”

Red grins and does so, breath coming out in a whoosh as his mind and body relax. “It was simple enough, once I put the hours in,” he says.

When her mind was entangling itself with his to project onto him, it weakened his partition automatically as it drew his psychic ability away. After their second session, when she taught him about how the state of one’s mind could be influenced by the perception or memory it experienced, he saw the connection with his experience of his spinarak’s attack, and how just thinking about the effects made a weaker form of them trigger.

“You called it an ‘impression,’ but I felt like that wasn’t giving it enough credit,” Red says. “When we think of something sour, like biting into a lemon, our jaw doesn’t ache because of a memory. We’re actually re-experiencing it. There’s a physical response from a physical change in our brains. So I figured that if thinking about the Night Shade was enough to mimic the feeling, it must also have mimicked the mental state of whatever it did to my psyche. Why not apply the same thing here and imagine entangling our minds, even while you were gone?”

“That shouldn’t work,” Ayane says, brow furrowed. “It’s not enough to simply imagine yourself doing something with your powers, or a psychic’s life would be far easier.”

“Well, a couple things. First, maybe this was easier than other things would be because, like you said, I’m not actually using my powers, I’m just relaxing them. Second, I didn’t just ‘imagine’ it. It took me the better part of the past two days, hours of concentrating, to really immerse myself in each individual feeling I had, all of which I could vividly remember.”

“I… see. I suppose it is not so unusual compared to the other feats I have seen those with the Gift accomplish. My surprise is mostly to see it from a novice who is new to even basic meditation.”

Red shrugs a shoulder. “I actually found it a lot easier than meditating, honestly, because I had a clear goal. I know theoretically what the end state of meditation is supposed to be like, but I can’t just force myself to think that way because I haven’t before. This, on the other hand, I have, so it wasn’t hard to alter my perspective.”

“Is altering your mental state something you do often, in other contexts?”

“I guess you could say that. Modelling different thoughts and feelings is an important part of being a rationalist.” Red smiles. “And I’ve always had a good imagination.”

Ayane’s lips quirk. “Perhaps it is a ‘gift’ of your own, then, that you bring separately into the wider expression of your Gift. In any case, it is good to see such progress. Have you noticed any improved stamina for maintaining the relaxation?”

Red’s smile fades. “Not really? It’s hard to tell. I got used to maintaining it for longer, but the effects feel about the same, and I have to take breaks when it gets bad.”

“Ah. Is it possible then that rather than manually weakening your partition, you simply trained yourself to mimic the physical symptoms?”

Ice floods Red’s stomach. “I… didn’t think of that. I don’t think that’s the case though, it really does feel like…” He realizes how silly he sounds. “Can you check?”

“Certainly. Enter the state again, and I’ll begin.”

Red nods and closes his eyes. He focuses on his breathing, then begins to shift his consciousness into what he’s been calling “balancing on a tightwire.” He goes down the mental checklist that he wrote out in his notebook after his first lesson and memorized after his second when Ayane told him about impressions and he decided to try inducing it himself.

First the sensation of the second mind approaching his, taking up residence in his own, separate and alien. A thrill of nerves goes up his spine as he imagines it there, in his head, watching, waiting…

Then the feeling of it echoing him, muted reflections of what he thinks and feels over threads like fiberglass wires…

Red’s breath stutters in his throat as he finally feels his mind tilt and his skin horripilate. He focuses on his breathing and waits until he feels stable, then says, “Ready.”

The pseudo-mind he imagined is almost immediately replaced by a real one, twisting in his thoughts as he lets out a shuddering breath. So, I can still tell when a real psychic mind is connecting to mine. Good.

“Is there any additional strain?”

“No, it’s fine,” Red says between breaths as he opens his eyes. “Same as usual.”

“Excellent. And your thoughts do not seem as distracted or unstable.”

“Really?”

“Haven’t you noticed that your speech isn’t as impaired?”

He blinks. “I haven’t really been talking while trying it before. Huh. I guess it really has been helping. This is great!”

She nods. “It’s quite encouraging. Now, let us continue our lesson… oh? You have something else in mind?”

Red feels chagrin at the reminder that she can sense the surface of his thoughts. “If you don’t mind… now that I know I’ve successfully mimicked a brain state, would you mind if I try some others to see if I can do the same for them?” He takes out his notepad and pencil. “I want to try and collect as many as I can to practice them between lessons.”

“Hmm. These ‘brain states’ are the result of your mind exercising its powers in a different way. I would have to draw them into another configuration for you to experience a new one.”

“Is that bad?”

“There are very few positive ones I could invoke in you, and even fewer I could teach without you first mastering your own powers. Of those remaining, all are much more taxing, and would likely result in your partition breaking.”

“Well, why not just teach me enough reception to project your own mind in another state, so I can copy that?”

Psychic Ayane’s fingers tap her knees. “I believe there are one or two, yes. But improving your active reception enough to receive thoughts in more fidelity is an advanced technique, and might also require your powers to be taxed too heavily. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather continue learning to strengthen your passive reception awareness first? It’s a vital foundation for any psychic’s ability to interact with their pokemon, or other psychics.”

Red hesitates, then nods. “Okay, I guess you’d know best. But maybe at the end of the lesson we could try one?”

Ayane smiles. “As you wish. I believe I can think of one that might be interesting to you.”


August 6th

“Go, Maturin!”

Blue’s squirtle materializes next to the pool and burbles in excitement upon seeing it.

“Looks like we had the same thought,” Mary asks with a smile from the other side of the training room. She takes out a dive ball and summons her totodile from it.

Blue reclips his new dive ball to his belt. “Yeah. I was planning to upgrade her ball to one eventually anyway, and I’m coming into some money soon, so this was a good excuse to do it.”

“Did you just pick it up? I thought you’d be here earlier.”

“Sorry about that, I was running an errand for a friend.” Red had him and Leaf doing drills in preparation for the abra catching. Three trainers running around Cerulean Park with earplugs in as they made hand signs at each other and their pokemon had certainly drawn a lot of stares. “Ready?”

“Yep. Third hit again?”

“What do you say we make it first blood?”

She glances at him in surprise as she puts her bag on the ground and kicks off her sandals. “Trying a new attack?”

“No, just want to get her used to more dangerous fights.”

“Sure, I guess.”

Blue smiles. The two of them have jumped leagues ahead of the other newbies at the Gym, even with some some mistakes early on. He empties his pockets and shucks off his shirt and sandals too, then puts his goggles on and bites down on the mouthpiece of his oxygen tube. After giving her a thumbs up, he jumps into the water feet first.

The water is cool without being cold. Blue breathes out through his nose, bubbles rising to the surface as he sinks lower. He looks up and sees Mary adjust her own oxygen mask, then dive in across from him and kick down to the floor. Once she’s there, she flashes him a thumbs up.

Blue returns it, then lifts the clicker from his necklace where it sits next to his flute. Their pokemon swim about on the surface until he brings Maturin down with a few quick clicks. Mary uses a copper tube that rattles when she shakes it. Over the past few days he’s seen her become more and more adept with it, spinning it through her fingers like a baton to send particular commands.

Once both pokemon are in battle positions in front of them, Blue presses a button on his mask and starts the timer for Maturin, then presses another one for his own. He flashes Mary another thumbs up, and when she returns it, the battle begins.

Three quick clicks, and Maturin thrusts forward headfirst. Mary swipes her tube to the left, and her totodile dodges to the left as Maturin sails by. A quick forward shake of the tube and he goes after her, mouth wide.

Blue nudges the button on his clicker to change its pitch and presses it down, prompting Maturin to duck into her shell. Blue swims forward and up to get a better look as the totodile tries to snap at Maturin’s underbelly. With a click from Blue, Maturin swipes a leg out to nudge her out of harm’s way.

Blue’s pulse is steady as he breathes in through his mask and out through his nose, watching, waiting. They’re approaching a wall of the pool, and Blue knows he can’t let it limit Maturin’s mobility. He waits through another two bites, looking for the perfect opportunity…

There. Maturin’s head has rotated toward the totodile just as he goes in for another bite, and Blue clicks to direct her into a tackle.

Mary is ready with a shake, and her totodile shoots straight up and over Maturin. His bite is a bit too slow to catch the squirtle’s tail, but he immediately follows her, and Blue is forced into another Withdraw. At least he got away from the wall.

The timers continue to count up past the two minute mark, an eventual cap on the duration of the match: if either pokemon has to go up for air, they lose… but ending it before it gets to that point is the safest way to ensure neither trainer feels pressured into keeping their pokemon down for too long.

Blue continues to avoid and defend, playing to his pokemon’s strength to counteract the more offensive totodile’s. If he felt sure of his pokemon’s lung capacity, he’d have the advantage… but he’s not, and in their last match he was forced to send Maturin up before Mary sent her totodile.

The next snap of the totodile’s jaws almost catches Maturin’s foot as it kicks out to spin her away from him, and Blue realizes he’s still playing as if it’s a contact match. He needs to risk a hit to get first blood, but he can’t do it on Mary’s terms.

Blue’s next clicks send Maturin into a dive, barely dodging the totodile as it snaps forward. Blue changes the pitch and clicks twice, and Maturin’s mouth opens wide to expel a cloud of bubbles that slowly rise.

Mary swipes her rod to the right. Her pokemon tries to abort his dive by swerving to the right as well, but two of the bubbles pop as they catch him on the foot and thigh. The force of them sends him tumbling off course in a spin, and Blue quickly clicks to send Maturin after him.

The totodile twists around and snaps at Maturin, catching her on the shell over her foreleg, while Maturin bites his arm. The two get into a quick and vicious tussle that sends air bubbles up as Blue and Mary immediately signal their pokemon to disengage. Instead the two continue to struggle against each other, and a trickle of red begins to diffuse into the water around them. After they ignore a few more orders, Blue tells Maturin to Withdraw, and the squirtle immediately pops her head and limbs back into her shell. Mary’s totodile disengages after that, and swims back to her, trailing blood from its arm. Mary quickly returns her pokemon to its ball, then heads for the surface.

Blue examines Maturin to make sure she’s not hurt, then lets his breath out all the way and starts swimming up, signalling Maturin to follow.

After he pulls himself up the ladder, he takes out his mask and lifts his goggles, wiping his wet hair away from his eyes. “Good girl,” he tells Maturin, and snaps for her to come out of the water. She leaps out onto all fours, and he feeds her a berry before withdrawing her. “He okay?” Blue asks as he turns to Mary, and his eyes widen as he sees her glaring at him.

“What’s wrong with your pokemon?” she asks, crouched beside her totodile as she sprays potion on his arm.

“Hey, woah, what are you talking about? It wasn’t her fault!”

“His arm’s broken! We said first blood!”

“Yeah, and I told her to come back, same as you did with him. Their blood was up, it happens.”

“You had to get her to Withdraw before she would listen. He had no trouble pulling away once his arm wasn’t trapped in her beak.”

Blue feels confusion turn to anger, almost baring his teeth as the heat sears through his chest, hands balling into fists. He almost hears an arcanine’s growl, and for a moment thinks he might have actually made the sound.

Calm down. Don’t make an enemy here. Mary’s been a good training partner up until now, and he doesn’t want to spoil that. More, he doesn’t want her to leave thinking he can’t control his pokemon, maybe even telling others not to train with him. He takes a deep breath, and lets it out in a searing wave. “Look… I’m sorry. It’s the first time something like that happened. Let’s get him to a pokemon center, okay?”

Mary looks away from him and finishes examining his wound. The mark of Maturin’s beak on his arm is still visible, but it’s mostly healed, and continues to fade as they watch. The totodile still holds its arm out awkwardly however, and Mary kisses its snout before standing and returning it to its ball. “You don’t have to come,” she says, voice curt as she gathers her things.

You agreed to first blood, you shouldn’t have if you weren’t ready for your pokemon to get hurt. “I want to.” Waste of time… He takes another deep breath. “Please.”

Mary glances at him as she slings her bag over her shoulder. “Fine,” she mutters, and heads for the door, sandals squeaking on the wet tiles.

Blue quickly grabs his things, breathing out again as the prowling arcanine in his chest lies back down. His lip twitches as he follows her out. At least we won.


August 7th, Morning

Leaf sits across from Zoey at another restaurant, inside at a booth this time, reading the article the reporter wrote about Leaf’s account of the Renegade incident. Leaf’s pulse speeds up as she reaches the narrow miss of the graveler’s explosion, and feels again her dread and helplessness as she waited for help to arrive while the Renegade was asleep, constantly looking over her shoulder. The recount of the witnessing even brings back the sickness in her gut and claustrophobia, and she has to force her shoulders to relax as she finally passes the tablet back to the reporter.

“It’s good,” Leaf says.

“I know that.” Zoey spreads butter on her toast. “Is it acceptable?”

“Yes, I meant that in both senses,” Leaf says.

“Fantastic. Then on to my part of the bargain.” Despite her general brusqueness, Zoey turned out to be a warm interviewer, guiding Leaf through the events at her own pace, asking for detail on points that she felt were too detached even when she ended up cutting down to the basics where Leaf meandered a bit. Leaf learned a lot from being on the other side of the notepad this time… though she did have her own out too, which the reporter had smiled at but not commented on.

Leaf eats from her fruit bowl as she considers the questions on her mind. Their agreement had included more oversight from Leaf over the final article than Zoey had wanted, and in return she was allowed only two leads, and not even exclusive rights to them.

It wasn’t greed, Zoey insisted, that kept reporters and journalists from sharing details of stories they’re working on. Or not entirely greed, anyway. There’s obvious rivalry and desire to get rewarded and recognized for one’s hard work, but there’s also professional integrity: when she works on stories that matter, Zoey said, she wants them done right, not botched by someone looking to make a quick headline with some sparks rather than taking the time to ensure it starts a blaze.

So if Leaf wants to get solid leads with lots of info on them, she’ll have to prove that she’s not going to just grab a scrap of info and run with it. And doing her own research in preparation for what sorts of questions she’d ask is part of that.

“So there are four stories that I think are important and potentially worth digging into,” Leaf says, taking a folder out of her bag and placing it on the table. “I have their notes in here. If we talk about a story and you mention something that’s already in here, I’m not going to count it toward my two.”

Zoey bites into her toast, hard to read behind her sunglasses. She took them off during the interview, but apparently prefers them even while indoors. “Sounds like you’re ready to fish for info at no cost.”

Leaf smiles. “I just want to make sure I get something I can use. You’re welcome to check them over to make sure I’m not over reaching.” Zoey offers her palm, and Leaf tips the folder back up. “After you’ve told me something about one of the stories.”

Zoey smiles back. “Deal. What’s the first story you want to hear about?”

Leaf considers her options a moment. “What’s the deal with the Silph and Cerulean General merger that so many people are concerned about? From what I read it seems like there’s some corruption going on behind the scenes, but I didn’t dive into the legalese. I don’t want to commit more time to it unless I know something important is going on.”

“That one’s a bit dense, yes. Silph’s market share is already growing dangerously close to monopoly status, and even if it brings lower prices in the short term, people are concerned at how easy they seem to find it to get laws changed to their benefit.”

“There’s no actual proof of backroom dealing, though?”

“Some hints, but not enough for anyone to take action.”

“What about the Harton scandal? The timing was convenient.” Harton was a member of the regulatory board who had emails leaked showing him attending illegal pokemon fighting rings.

Zoey lifts her cup of juice and takes a sip. “You put that together?”

“It wasn’t hard. I just made a list of all the people in positions of power and checked if anything happened to them or their families. I was thinking of blackmail being followed up on, but that one seemed more direct.”

Zoey nods. “Yes, it’s suspicious. Harton won’t talk though. If he was brought down for getting in their way, there must be something more they have on him that he’s worried about.”

Leaf sighs. “That’s about what I had on that. You can check if you want.”

Zoey flicks her hand to the side. “I gave you nothing even if you didn’t have anything. Not a bad story to pursue, but I’ve got nothing on it, or I’d be doing it myself.”

“Well, I’ll probably still do some digging just in case. Let’s see, what else…” She taps her foot against her chair leg as she spears some honeydew on her fork and bites into it.

“I was expecting something a bit more high profile, especially if you’ve been paying attention to my stories and recent activity. Like the Leader’s disappearance on the day of your adventure.”

“What, the rumors of a dangerous pokemon sighting?” Leaf shakes her head. “I’m not really interested in that.”

“Misty and her Second go off the radar for hours just as a Tier 1 event takes place on Mt. Moon, and you’re not interested?”

“Not really, no. I don’t know what they were doing, but I’m sure Misty had good reasons.”

“And good reasons not to tell the public?”

Leaf frowns. “She’s your Leader. If you don’t trust her to have the best interest of your city at heart… I mean, who can you trust?”

Zoey laughs, an oddly merry sound considering her normal tone. “Ah, youth. Here I had you pegged as a proper cynic. You’ve still got a ways to go it seems.”

“Hey, I’m not saying they’re perfect or anything. But really, what are you expecting? Do you actually have any evidence that she was doing something shady? Because if so, then yeah, I’m interested.”

Zoey shakes her head, voice lowering slightly. “Nothing on that, yet. But our dear Leader isn’t as guileless as you might think.”

Leaf leans forward, voice lowering slightly to match hers. “Okay, that sounds like a story. What do you mean?”

Zoey spreads butter and jam on another piece of toast, taking her time. Leaf fights down her impatience, seeing the thoughtful expression on the woman’s face. Rushing her wouldn’t help anything.

“I wasn’t going to bring this up,” Zoey says at last. “Not unless you asked about it specifically, though I admit I would be very shocked if you did. This is not only private knowledge, it’s from a proper private source whose career is at risk if it gets out.”

Leaf takes out her notepad and flips it open. “You have my interest.”

“I don’t know if I should bring you in on it. It’s rather close to you.”

Leaf’s pulse picks up. What could she possibly mean by that? “No need to draw it out, okay? I admit to intrigue. You’ve built suspense up properly. Now what is it?”

Zoey is quiet again, chewing on her toast. Leaf feels her impatience growing again, and just as she feels like she won’t be able to keep quiet a moment longer, Zoey says, “The Renegade’s execution. Do you have the notice?”

“No, my friend Red received it. He was one of the witnesses.”

“Check the time on the alert. Then find out what time the meeting that Misty attended on the mountain ended. You’ll find your answer there.”

Leaf’s heart is pounding. Is the reporter saying that the notice was sent early? Late? “Why not just tell me?”

“Like I said, I got this information from a source who risked a lot to tell me. I can’t jeopardize that.”

“But you’re saying something was off about the execution. Okay. That’s ominous and all, but I don’t know if it’s a story or not.”

“It’s a story,” Zoey says, tipping her head forward so she can peer over her sunglasses. “Trust me. A hell of a story. Now, what else do you want to ask about?”


August 7th, Evening

Red’s sits in lotus position with his eyes closed on the floor of the workroom he used with Psychic Ayane, and goes down the mental list.

First identify the pain.

He’d nicked his arm with a small cut, just small enough to sting without bleeding.

Then identify the “path” the pain is travelling.

Ayane had described this as a glowing yellow light in her mind’s conception of her body, but to Red it’s more of a pulsing, jangling vibration of a long, imaginary nerve connecting the cut to his brain, even though he knows that isn’t how nerves work.

Picture the path. Ease the discordance. Feel it fade.

Red doesn’t actually follow that step, though. Instead of feeling his pain fade, he remembers the sensation of feeling Ayane’s pain fade, and what her mind was doing as she did. The way her mind seemed to split itself, the way her stream of thought, far too faint and swift for Red to pick up on, bent around a sudden dark spot in the sparking, twisting thundercloud of her mind.

Red smiles at the memory, sweat dripping down his face. Being able to sense another mind is so cool. Even if it makes him nauseated. And feel a lurking emptiness in his mind that threatens to boil over at any moment. And even if he often feels like he’s just imagining everything he perceives.

Why does that matter?” Ayane said. “You think in metaphors all the time. Is it so strange your powers would manifest in them?”

No,” Red admitted. “But I was kind of hoping for a peek into some objective truth with them.”

Ayane merely smiled and said, “Then perhaps it is seeing the two as incompatible which is at the heart of your difficulty.

Which was a fancy way of saying not much at all, other than maybe there is no objective reality, and screw that mystic nonsense, thanks very much.

But either way, when he felt her mind shift into its new arrangement, the pain from the pinching hairclip on her finger did indeed fade away to nothing.

Red mimics that mental state now, mind teetering into what he dubbed “many mirrors and a dim room.” That last part was the important one, and he feels it when he separates the part of himself feeling the pain from the rest of his mind, and dims it, until suddenly the stinging pain is gone.

Ha! Red grins wide even as his mind slips past some tipping point and he snaps back to himself, the stinging back in his arm and an empty, cold void rising up in his mind.

He leans forward and throws up into the bucket he placed in front of him.

Head and heart pounding, he slumps onto his side, still smiling as he breathes deep and waits for his pulse to slow. He did it. He used his powers to change something in the world, even if it was just his perception of his own body. “Mind over matter” is more than just a motivational phrase to him, now.

His elated giggles are interrupted by a knock on the door, followed by Blue and Leaf walking in. They both immediately rush over, making noises of alarm that makes his head hurt.

“Shh, shh, it’s okay, ow,” Red says as Blue lifts him into a sitting position. “Oh, that does help, actually, thanks.”

“Red!” Leaf cries out. “You said you’d be careful!”

“I was! I put the bucket here, didn’t I?”

Blue snorts and shakes his head. “Idiot. Is that why you had us meet you here, in case you made yourself too sick to move?” He puts the nearby lid on the bucket and nudges it to the corner of the room with his foot.

“No, I just wanted to use whatever time I had before we met.” Red reaches to the side and unscrews the top of a water bottle, drinking once to wash the taste out of his mouth and a second time for his thirst. He feels clammy with sweat, but more mentally stable, now.

“Do you want to postpone this?” Leaf asks as she sits in one of the chairs.

“No.” Red struggles to his feet and sinks into another chair, while Blue finds his own between them and turns it backward, tilting it against the edge of the table. “We’re ready.” Red takes the sheets of paper out of his bag on the table and spreads them out in front of his friends. “We have our location, our pokemon picked out, and our backup on board. Tomorrow afternoon, Operation: Abra is a go.”

“Safe Spaces” for the Right and Left.

Apparently, Texas students stormed out of a class wherein the professor asserted that humans all descended from Africans.

Texan students storm out after professor says we’re all of African descent

My brain feels wobbly around this, which tells me there’s something more to it that I’m not grasping right.

I’ve always thought of trigger warnings and safe spaces in college campuses as obviously important-if-done-properly, but widely blown out of context and misunderstood and exaggerated by detractors in order to talk down to millennials or find a new avenue to attack “PC culture.” I haven’t been in school for about five years, so it’s never really affected me, but my sympathies have always been vaguely with the people asking for what I consider to be justified uses for triggers (to prepare students for traumatic content in lessons) and safe spaces (to allow discussion of voices that normally self-censor due to fear or anxiety).

This event seems to fit into neither of those. It’s a professor, apparently innocently, relaying facts, and people getting upset and leaving the class as a result of their own political beliefs (as opposed to walking out because the environment was not “safe,” since presumably, no one was heckling people for walking out until they started to do so).

What makes this interesting of course is that the politics of it are flipped around from the stereotypes. So presumably, “PC” liberals would be hypocritical to mock the people walking out, but only if they don’t view trigger warnings and safe spaces as applying the way I described: if they do only consider them as meant for traumatic material or oppressed minorities, then they’re not being hypocritical in mocking people for reacting in a way that they themselves are often mocked for supposedly condoning, since they would consider that mockery to be aimed at a strawman that they are watching occur in real-time, but from the “opposition.” In other words, gleeful mockery at seeing people who normally might make fun of them for doing the exact thing the people leaving the rooms are doing is kind of understandable. Kind of like seeing a bully run home crying to their mother after the bully has repeatedly used the “crybaby” insult on them.

(Whether they’re being rude, or whether it’s the best reaction to have, is a different matter, of course.)

On the flip side of this, there are potentially conservatives who are NOT okay with trigger warnings of any kind, and NOT okay with safe spaces of any kind. Hopefully none of those people are making excuses for the people who walked out (in the interests of not being hypocritical), but if they’re attacking them for being representative of how “PC” and “pampered” college kids are these days, then they’re still strawmanning, because again, the usually proposed uses of trigger warnings and safe spaces would not apply to this circumstance. So once again, I find my sympathies aligning with the liberals ever-so-slightly more than I do the conservatives, assuming no one is being hypocritical (for the hypocrites, obviously, my sympathy is minimal).

Now, maybe I’m misunderstanding what the real use of safe spaces and trigger warnings have been about. Maybe I believe in the “ideals,” but in the trenches of the war these ideas are fighting in, people are pushing for safe spaces for ANY topic, or trigger warnings for ANY topic, that might offend anyone and, as the detractors insist, simply serve as an excuse to further distance themselves from ideas they dislike, and entrench themselves in intellectual bubbles.

I don’t doubt that some people might in fact want that, but I tend to view those who do as in the extremes: maybe that’s a mistake. Since I’m not in the trenches, I don’t know.

But for now, I’m going to hold onto the ideal, and examine this circumstance (at last) through the lens of what I hope might do the most possible good:

Do the people who walked out of this class deserve a “safe space?”

The uncharitable view, of course, is that they simply walked out because they didn’t want to listen to someone talk about things they considered “obviously wrong” or “offensive” to their notions of what humans were, where they came from, and how their religious beliefs and racial identity tied into their ego and sense of self.

So assuming the professor acted professionally, which seems to be the case just from the article, most people I think would say no, on both sides of the aisle. This is, as I said, the classic strawman of this position, made all the more contentious because it’s being actualized by the political culture that tends to most often be against “PC” culture.

But from the perspective of the kids who left, do THEY feel like they had to leave because they were unable to speak their mind free of ridicule or peer pressure?
 
And that, I don’t know. But it’s possible. On most college campuses, even in Texas, conservatives can in fact be a minority that feels “unsafe” airing their political or religious views for fear of the ridicule it’ll bring.

So if I’m being charitable, which I’d like to be, maybe these students really do need a safe space to talk about their beliefs about the origin of mankind without being mocked or feeling pressured into accepting the views of those around them, so they can really articulate what they believe and why, and maybe be more open to having their views challenged and changed.

And of course maybe there was a mix of both such students who walked out of the class. Apparently some stayed behind to argue, in any case.

Ok, the wobblyness has mostly faded, now that I’ve written all that out and feel a bit more secure in what I think and why. If anyone wants to let me know if I’ve missed something, please do.

I Hate Prophecies (and So Should You!)

There is no form of artificial plot advancement, no unnecessary McGuffin so odious and unimaginative as “The Prophecy.” Almost every single story that has a prophecy or any kind of “precognition” in it could remain exactly the same, or be improved, by the clean removal of them.

Need a reason to make this uninteresting character The Hero? Try a prophecy that forces them into the center of existence!

Need motivation for someone to do something they normally wouldn’t do? Have YOU tried PROPHECY today? Guaranteed to utterly circumvent any sense of organic agency your characters might have!

Hey, how about those pesky worries that your characters or plot aren’t engaging enough? Not to worry friend, we’ve all been there, and with just a little bit of PROPHECY thrown in, your readers will be HOOKED!

And that’s not all! PROPHECY comes in many DISTINCT FLAVORS!

The Vague Prophecy: Excellent for keeping your audience guessing as they try to decipher your cryptic, shitty poetry! This way you can either fulfill it or not, and still make it seem mystically wise in retrospect!

Example: “The White Queen will see red, when by dark hearts she’s led.” Is it her dark heart? Someone else she trusts? What does see red mean? Who knows?! Does the prophecy even matter? Not really!

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Want to write an utterly predictable story no one can relate to? Just dress it up with some “deep” existential questions about free will that ultimately have no impact or moral wisdom beyond the scope of the by-the-numbers plot!

Example: The Dark Lord will be defeated by the child! But how!? Simple! Upon hearing the prophecy, they will attempt to undermine it, and somehow be hoist by their own petard! Everyone loves a Deus ex Prophecy!

The Incomplete Prophecy: Want to keep some artificial tension? Make your prophecy completely understandable and straightforward so that it ensures a lot of angst over a foretold tragic event, but have it leave out vital bits of information that renders it utterly meaningless!

Example: “You will kill your father.” (But they end up dying from a painful disease or wound, and ask for a mercy killing! Hooray!)

The Spoiler Prophecy: One of the favorites, who doesn’t love a good SPOILER right in the middle of the story? Now we know what you’re thinking, aren’t all prophecies spoilers in some regard? Not as much as this one, which serves NO PURPOSE other than to inform the readers, while keeping the characters ignorant! The trick is to make sure the prophecies have NOTHING to do with the character who hears/sees it, and they can’t ALTER the outcome in any way! So not only is it utterly meaningless except to break the fourth wall, you don’t even have to change anything in your story to fit it in! It’s like it means nothing at all! nothingatall! nothingatall!

Example: A bunch of dead people at a feast, their leader with a wolf for a head! What could it mean?! Nothing to the person seeing it, but ho ho, what a shocker it’ll be for the readers once they get far enough in the story and come back to it! You clever writer you, dropping such discrete hints of the future plans you alone know and control!

That’s right, with the power of PROPHECY, you too can elevate your subpar, generic fantasy and science-fiction into the over-used-tropesphere!

(Note: Any apparent reference to specific stories is almost completely coincidental, and not a remark on the overall quality of that story, prophecy notwithstanding. On top of which, fanfiction works are somewhat exempt from this criticism, as they usually have a source material that includes prophecies to abide by.)

Chapter 36: The Shape of Things to Come

Red watches the clefairy walk away, mind stuttering and restarting between thoughts.

I notice…

No seriously what-

IT’S A TALKING CLEFAIRY

…that I…

-is that a talking pokemon I didn’t see its mouth move-

CATCH IT NO WAIT BRAIN DAMAGE(?!)

-but the sound definitely came from it or maybe the house behind it-

…am confused.

And then the clefairy reaches the front door and vanishes.

“The fuck,” Leaf finishes in a deadpan voice, just as Red’s brain processes this final bit of information and snaps it all into place.

“Hologram!” Red shouts, pointing at the door.

“Oh!” Leaf’s face clears. “Of course.”

“It’s a hologram!”

“Yeah, has to be.”

“Holog-”

“Red!”

Red lets out a breath and gives his head a shake. “Sorry. I’m okay.” He bends down to pick his hat up, heart thumping in his chest. “That was… weird.”

“It still is. Why does he have a clefairy hologram outside his house?”

They both jump as an arbok suddenly appears in front of them, swaying from side to side with its hood flared. “Would you have preferred something like this?” the voice says. “The point was to bring you this way without making you feel threatened.”

“W-why wouldn’t you just use the speakers instead?” Red asks, pulse once again dashing frantically at the sudden appearance of the arbok. Red can definitely tell the voice is coming from the direction of the door now.

“The answer will be obvious once you step inside. Which you still haven’t done. Now hurry up.” The arbok vanishes.

Red and Leaf exchange a look, then step toward the door, which automatically opens to reveal a straight, bare hallway.

The temperature inside is cool, the lights dim but steady. At the end of the hallway the clefairy waits for them, and in the dimmer light it’s easier to see the latticework of thin colored beams coming down from dots on the ceiling to make the image. As they approach, it takes the left hand path, leading them through a living room. There’s an attached kitchen, and the clefairy stops outside it.

Red and Leaf stare at it a moment, and then Bill’s voice makes them both jump. It’s loud, coming from all around them. “Grab me a soda, would you? Feel free to help yourselves too.” He sounds distracted, and Red hears the hum of an open mic for a moment before it cuts.

The two exchange glances, then Leaf slowly steps forward and opens the fridge. “Um. Preference?”

“Uh, anything’s fine.” Red takes the can and looks around. He spies a bathroom through an open door, and a bedroom in yet another. All of the rooms are barely furnished with bare walls. “Should we wait here?”

“This way.”

The clefairy walks toward a stairway in the corner, and disappears. Red wonders if it would reappear at the bottom, but when he and Leaf descend, they find themselves facing a door made of some strange, opaque glass. A red beam quickly scans them from head to toe, causing both to recoil and wince, and then the door begins to make pneumatic noises as it unlocks, shifts in place a bit, then slides open.

The first thing that Red notices is the music, a light and quick instrumental song, mostly composed of the violin and piano. It’s loud enough that Red is surprised he didn’t hear even a bit of it before the door opened.

Red and Leaf stare at the laboratory beyond the doorway. Rows and rows of work tables, stocked with every kind of biochemical equipment known to man… and quite a few that look completely alien to Red.

The rows of different microscopes are easy to identify, but next to them is something that looks like a cross between a fridge, an incubator and a thermocycler. Meanwhile, the actual thermocyclers are on their own table next to some vortexers.

The most extraordinary sight, however, is the sheer movement of the lab.

Centrifuges are spinning, racks of stoppered vials shift up or down, contents plucked by robotic arms and placed in temperature controlled containers or other equipment.

The music cuts off, and Bill’s voice fills the room. “Well? Come in.”

The two step over the threshold together, and the door closes behind them in a way that Red can’t help but find ominous. All the strangeness is starting to worry him. How much does anyone really know about Bill, anyway? The guy is notorious for being secretive, yet he invites two strangers into his lab without apparent reason? Professor Oak wouldn’t send us here if Bill was some crazy hermit…

Unless Bill went crazy recently.

“Uh. Hi, Mr. Sonezaki,” he says. “Are you here?”

The clefairy appears ahead of them, floating over a round indentation in the floor and ceiling. It doesn’t move, but merely points an arm. Apparently the hologram network isn’t as extensive here. Red studies the indent in the floor as they pass it, but can’t see anything that explains its purpose.

They pass rows of freezers and other chemical storage containers, all labeled with a dizzying amount of materials. Electrophoresis boxes, fume hoods… is that a hazchem suit draped over the back of that chair?

“Just one person works here?” Leaf asks as they pass some NMR and chromatography work tables, with enough spectrophotometers to take up their own wide table.

Red stops moving for a moment to study a series of 3D printers set against one wall. “I don’t think even Pallet Labs has this much equipment.” He keeps walking, then has to resist the urge to stop again and study what look like automated DNA extractors. “I knew he was rich, but the amount of money he could make renting this place out…”

“I think I have a new definition of the word,” Leaf murmurs as they pass from one section of the lab to another. Another holopad appears every so often, with floating clefairy pointing them first one way, then another as the lab continues to expand in different directions. One finally points them to a man, sitting in front of over a dozen glass boxes.

“Give me a minute,” the man says, back to them. “You can pour the soda in here.” He tilts his head to the side to indicate an empty cup with a straw in it.

Leaf and Red approach to look over Bill’s shoulders at his work station. Screens show each box containing a large petri dish with small, thin teal vines, all roughly the same size. As they watch, a drop of purple liquid falls onto each from small droppers suspended over them. Another drop falls, then another, then another, every few seconds.

“What are you doing?” Leaf whispers, both cans of soda still in her hand.

“Testing…” Drip. “The regenerative power…” Drip. “Of tangela cells.” Drip.

Red leans closer. “What’s in the-oh.” Red watches on one of the screens as a drop of the liquid hits a vine and makes a part of it wither, the vibrant teal turning brown… for a moment at least, until it suddenly fills out and regains its color again. Red watches the liquid etch a scar down either side of the vine to collect in the edges of what he originally took to be a petri dish: instead it’s a plastic lid over some kind of drain.

“Roserade acid,” he says, typing with one hand and reaching for his cup with the other. “They look like they’re fully recovering, but they weren’t always this small. Biomass decrease has been mostly linear. We should be near the end soon… Hey, the soda?”

“Oh!” Leaf says. “Right.” She opens a can and pours it into the cup, slowing as the foam builds up.

“Thanks.” He immediately turns his head a bit and begins drinking from the straw.

Red watches him, feeling a bit surreal. Whenever he imagined someday meeting Bill Sonezaki, it was never like this. Up close, the legendary inventor appears older than in videos and pictures. Though still in his mid thirties, there are already silver streaks in his hair, and deep lines around his eyes. He has a few days worth of scruff on his cheeks, and there’s an odd device around one of his ears, attached to a small screen in front of his right eye. It looks familiar to Red, and after a moment he realized it reminds him of an anime where people had devices that would “scan” a pokemon’s “power level.” He can see data on the lens, though he can’t read it, and watches Bill’s eyes as they alternate between watching the camera feeds on the monitors and going out of focus to read the smaller, closer screen.

“So, uh. You said you needed help with something? Is it this?” Red leans down to get a closer look at the thin vine.

Bill sucks the last of the soda from the cup, and straightens. “Ahhh. Nope, just wanted a soda. Thanks.” He belches. “‘Scuse me.”

Red stares. “A soda.”

“Yeah, I didn’t want to leave in the middle of the trial.”

“But… Professor Oak called me over an hour ago,” Red says, speaking slowly. “You’ve been sitting here that long?”

“Oh, hell no.”

“Ah, then what-”

“I’ve been here about… how long is it now, Eva?”

A woman’s voice speaks all around them, causing Leaf and Red to jump. “Three hours, seventeen minutes and thirty seven seconds.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right. This latest sample blew past my expectations, or I would have brought more to drink.” Drip… drip… drip… “Looks like they need a refill.” He gets up and goes to each container, refilling their drippers with wide vials of bright purple acid.

I thought Bill lived here alone? Red’s about to ask about it, when Leaf speaks up. “Um. Mr. Sonez-”

“Just Bill is fine.”

“Bill, okay. So, um, why did you invite us here?”

“Hmm.” Bill continues to drip the acid with one hand as the other changes the magnification. “You know, I can’t remember. There was something I wanted you to do for me, but I was a bit preoccupied with this when Oak called. And thirsty.”

“Was it about the abra?” Red asks. “I want to use your land, to catch some. I have an idea to-”

“No,” Bill says, frowning. “I don’t think that was it.”

Red’s stomach turns to lead, and he exchanges a look with Leaf, who gives a helpless shrug. “Are you sure? The Professor said-”

“Right, right,” Bill says, gaze still on the screens.

Red blinks, waiting for more. He wonders for a moment if Bill is carrying on two conversations at once, through his earpiece. “So… was that a yes? On the abra thing?”

“Acoustic displacement, right? Herding them into a hazard zone? Yeah, sounds fun.”

Relief floods through Red, and he sees Leaf hesitate before saying, “Sooo… the thing you asked us here to do for you… Could it have just been to bring you a soda, then?”

“No, no.” Bill slowly refills the acid in one of the drippers, one hand leaving the beaker for a moment to scratch his hair. “Maybe.”

They stare at him.

“A bit. I’m sure there was something else too though.” Bill checks the amount in the dripper feed, then moves on to the next box. “Eva, did I set a memo?”

“No, sir,” the voice says.

“Damn. Memo, Eva: ‘Make more memos. Especially after phone calls.’ Maybe if I listen to a recording of the call I’ll remember.” He continues his work silently for a moment, then shakes his head. “Nope, didn’t help.”

“I can start naming things?” Red asks. “Free association?”

“Go for it.”

“Something to do with pokemon. Something to do with catching them. Catching abra. Psychics Types. Something to do with us. Leaf Juniper? Red Verres? Um.”

“People, places, things,” Leaf says. “Pallet Town, Vermillion City? Maybe about what happened with us at Mt. Moon?”

Bill stops shaking his head, brow raised as he lifts the acid container and looks at them. “Wait, what happened at Mt. Moon?”

“You didn’t hear?”

“I don’t really follow the news. And by really I mean pretty much ever.”

“Um. Well it probably wasn’t that then.”

“Was it an activity you wanted to do?” Red asks. “Talk to us about something? Our journey? The new pokedexes?”

“You know, I’m starting to think it might have been the soda,” Bill says, voice thoughtful as he finishes with the last container.

“You didn’t invite us all the way out here just to give you a soda,” Red says. He’s not sure if he’s trying to convince Bill or himself. “Inviting strangers into your house, just for that? Aren’t you a really private person?”

“Ha. The media just say that because I won’t let them step foot on my property. Or grant interviews.” He returns to his desk and types something out that brings up a bunch of graphs, displays of the weight of each sample over time. “Also might be because I don’t go anywhere. People tend to irritate me. Well, I’ll figure it out. You guys are welcome to hang around while I finish this.”

“Is this… something you do often?” Leaf asks as she circles a container, then kneels a bit to look under the dish. Red wonders how she feels about watching a piece of a pokemon get experimented on. Maybe it’s not so bad since it’s just a vine, and tangela lose bits of them all the time… though Red has to wonder how big this one was when it started.

“Yes, but normally it doesn’t take so long. This new strain is definitely going to shift priorities around. Hopefully I can get this all fully automated by the end of the week, so I can start the next trials soon.”

Red blinks. “New strain? You made this vine?”

“Tweaked it. Tangela cells are pretty efficient at regeneration, and occasionally you’ll find one in the wild that heals at ridiculous rates. I just had to find out which genetic markers were different between them and the others, and see if I could improve it further.”

“That’s amazing,” Leaf says as she watches a vine regenerate over and over again. “Are you trying to design a better potion formula?”

“Nah, I’ll leave that to Devon. I’d rather just give people these abilities instead.”

The lab is silent but for the movement of machinery, and Bill’s fingers moving over his keyboard. Red and Leaf both stare at him, then look at each other. “Is that… possible?” Red asks at last.

“Possible? Sure, why not. Probable? Dunno. But regenerating cells is something our body knows how to do already, and if we can make them better at it, the payoff would be huge. Rapid healing, disease resistance, limb regeneration, and if we’re lucky, even stop the effects of aging. Maybe eliminate them altogether.”

Red tries to wrap his mind around humans having such powers. It would be… amazing. Just one of those would make people so much safer, reduce so much suffering. But all of them, together? It’s like something out of science fiction. He can’t help but be skeptical, but if Bill Sonezaki thinks it can be done, is committing his time and energy to doing it…

“And pokemon?” Leaf asks. “Are you trying to give them these abilities too?”

“Naturally.” Bill frowns at a screen, then brings up a code editing window and examines it. “I’ve spent half my life writing TMs to give pokemon new abilities. Mostly for combat, because that’s what the market wanted. But this has combat value too. The next steps are to try and spread this regeneration to other plant pokemon, then non-plant pokemon, particularly mamm-Ooh, yes, that’s it.” He sits forward, eyes on a new window that popped up on his screen.

Leaf raises her head from the box she was examining. “What-”

“Shut up, I need to concentrate.”

Leaf’s mouth drops open, eyes wide. “I… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

“Shhh, shshshsh…”

Red feels anger boiling up in his chest. Don’t upset him, we’re guests, he might kick us out, the abra- “Hey! There’s no reason to be so rude after she came all this way to bring you a soda!”

Leaf rapidly shakes her head at him while Bill frowns, gaze still on the screen. “Okay, sure. Please shut up, would you? Go explore the lab for a bit. Don’t touch anything.”

Leaf is already moving toward Red before Bill finishes speaking. She takes his arm and drags him away before he can say anything else. “It’s okay, really,” she whispers. “I don’t think he means to be rude.”

“That’s not really an excuse,” Red whispers back as they leave Bill behind. “Who goes from a normal conversation to telling people to shut up without warning?”

“Someone without people skills. Maybe something important came up. Come on, let’s look around.”

He and Leaf make their way back through the lab, and before long the music comes back on through the speakers all around them. They drink their soda and find some more automated equipment to study, watching on monitors as data is gathered and recorded throughout dozens of trials. The sheer scope of the research Bill is getting done here makes Red envious.

“And this is just one building,” Leaf says. “We haven’t crossed over into one of the others underground, have we?”

“No, I think they’re all something different.” Red looks at some transfer slots, silver container balls resting in their docks. He can imagine Bill ordering the equipment he needs into them for easy distribution around the lab. “All this stuff has been just for biochem.”

It takes almost half an hour for Bill join them, and they still don’t manage to see everything in the lab. He walks toward them with a purposeful stride, then passes right by. “Walk with me. There were other things I planned to do today before that took up my whole morning. Luckily none of it is time sensitive.”

They follow him through the lab as he checks on equipment and the results of certain trials, occasionally muttering to himself. Red realizes he’s probably talking to the woman, Eva, whoever that is. During one of the silent stretches, Red summons the courage to ask, “So, is it okay if we speak now?”

“Speak about what?”

“I mean ask questions. Talk.”

“Sure, why wouldn’t it be?”

Red sighs. When he imagined meeting Bill, he always expected someone a bit more like Professor Oak than Blue. “So, that clefairy hologram. Why, exactly?”

“The external holograms are useful in general for scaring off pokemon that get too close to the buildings. The clefairy is just the least threatening one I have, so I use it to interact with people without having to go up.”

“Right, but why not use yourself instead of a clefairy?” Leaf asks.

“They’re modeled after the pokemon that have been rendered for sims. I never bothered to digitize myself.”

They reach a door like the one they entered. Red’s pretty sure it’s not where they came in, and sure enough when it opens they face a completely different type of lab from the first one.

Instead of chemistry equipment, this area seems to be full of computers and robotics. There’s a lot less movement of ongoing experiments, but a lot more visibly identifiable projects. One desk is cluttered with parts for what looks like a new pokedex prototype, while another has a dissected pokenav. Each table has mechanical arms situated around them, most of them motionless.

As they enter, the music around them changes, this time to some electronic song with an industrial sound and heavy beats. After a moment Bill mutters something, and its volume drops to a background whisper.

“Is this where you work on storage?” Red asks. Bill’s development of the interregional storage system is what he’s most famous for, but Red doesn’t see anything that looks like it would be related.

“No, storage and transmutation tech is in the physics lab. This is where I study machine learning, particularly improving narrow AI and solving alignment problems.”

“Narrow AI?”

“Weak. Focused. Able to hold a conversation or perform tasks about just a few specific things, no matter how deep that thing is.”

“Opposed to being able to learn everything?”

“Yeah. Like your pokedex. It’ll tell you all you want to know about pokemon, but ask it how to cook your breakfast and you’re out of luck.”

“Oh. Isn’t that pretty easy to program in though?”

“Sure, you could program it for any number of tasks, hardware permitting. But it’ll never learn new ones on its own. You don’t know all this? What are they even teaching in schools these days, just how to throw a pokeball?”

Red flushes. “That, and how to stay alive.”

“You’re one of Oak’s though, aren’t you? I figured you’d know more than that.”

Red catches Leaf’s glance, and takes a breath to calm himself. “I never really studied computers much. Mostly psychology, physics, chemistry, and pokemon biology.”

Bill tsks. “All that’s not going to matter much if AI keeps improving at its current rate. Should’ve studied computers.”

“I did, a bit,” Leaf says before Red responds.

“Juniper, right? I helped design your granddad’s species tracking algorithms.” Bill leads them past more machinery and electronics, then stops at a holopad and pulls on some gloves that go to his elbows. “Fun guy to work with. Even funner to drink with.”

“Thanks. I think.”

“So tell me, spawn of Cedric, what you think you know about AI, and how you think you know it.”

Red blinks. He’s only ever read that phrase in Giovanni’s writings, and those that read him. He wonders if Bill does too.

“Well,” Leaf says as Bill mutters something, and the hologram suddenly comes to life, showing some complex shape Red can’t make heads or tails of. It looks like three series of spheres spaced out with lines drawn between them in three dimensions. “I guess the first thing I think I know is that general AI is hard. And the reason I think I know that is that if it wasn’t, we would have figured it out by now.”

“Go on,” Bill says as he studies the hologram a moment. Spheres and lines shift as they watch, and eventually Bill extends a hand and casually waves it along the side of the projection, shifting the whole image to view it from “below.”

“General AI would be… well, like a person. It would be able to think for itself, or at least think so broadly it might as well be considered conscious. But it would be smarter than us, be able to think thousands of times faster. All the speed of a computer with all the flexibility of a human mind.”

“And what would this AI do?” Bill asks.

“Well, whatever we ask it to. It could run tests faster than us, solve coordination problems, collate all the data in the world and examine it objectively to make connections we wouldn’t.”

“Mhm.” Bill turns the hologram again, then reaches in and manipulate some of the lines and orbs around, faster than Red could follow before pulling back out to look at it again, and watch how it changes in response. “So you’d just use it as an Oracle?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh boy. Okay, let’s keep this basic. There are a few ways to classify AI. Some popular ones are Oracle, Genie, and Sovereign. Oracles are basically question boxes. They can’t act in the world other than to transmit information. You give the AI a set of data, ask it a question, and have it tell you the answer. Basically like the pokedex, but more broadly intelligent. Able to figure out answers you didn’t explicitly program it with.

“Genie aren’t contained. Hook a Genie up to a robot, give it a blueprint, and tell it to build you a house according to the blueprint using the materials you put in front of it, and if it’s made well, it’ll do that, then stop and wait for further orders. Or, to use an example of what’s coming soon to roads near you, put the Genies in cars that will drive you around anywhere you tell them to. A narrow Genie might choose from a set of predetermined routes to preset locations, but a more general intelligence auto could figure out its own route to custom locations. Tell it to drive you to a lake in the forest, and it’ll do it.

“And Sovereigns are the least tightly bound AI. They can take more complex orders, and carry them out in novel ways, without waiting for human approval at every step. Instead of giving the Sovereign the materials to use, you’d ask it to build you a house with whatever it could find. And if you’re not blisteringly stupid, you would put limitations on it to ensure those materials aren’t people, or pokemon, or from other houses.”

Red frowns as he watches Bill change the color of two of the spheres, which drastically alters the arrangement of the lines before he changes them back. “Are there any machines like that yet? Sovereigns?”

“Sure, in the narrow sense. Any machine that works independently on loose goals is a Sovereign. Computers trying to maximize returns in the stock market, for example. They have a goal and that’s about it.”

“Seems like a fine line between a Genie and a Sovereign,” Leaf says.

Red turns to her. “I think it’s about level of control, not intelligence. Sometimes they’re tangible, like, an Oracle like the pokedex can’t open doors or move anything, so it’s obviously constrained that way. But a Genie like an automatic car might have to ask you for permission and show its route before taking it, so you can stop it from driving you through a river. Whereas a Sovereign wouldn’t have to ask permission, it would just… do things?” He turns to Bill questioningly. “Why would anyone make a Sovereign, anyway?”

“Because sometimes you don’t know how to get to your goal at all. Remember, if AGI is being used, it’s being used to do something humans can’t. If you ask it to figure out a way to stop humans from aging, it might do it by manipulating our genetic code, or it might do it by synthesizing some wonder drug. You don’t actually know what you want it to do, you just know what you want done. It’s up to the machine to figure out what your actual desire is, your coherent extrapolated volition.” Bill frowns at his holograph, tweaks one more thing, then makes a gesture with his arm that shuts off the display. “Eva, prepare some food for us above the computer lab. Twenty minutes.” He strips the gloves off and sticks them in his pocket as he starts walking again.

“Certainly, sir. Preference?”

“Steak.”

“We have tauros and bouffalant in stock.”

“Tauros. What do you guys want?”

“Uh, anything’s fine,” Red says in surprise.

“Come on, kid, pick something.”

“Um. Come back to me.”

“No pokemon for me, please, Eva,” Leaf says, voice raised.

“Understood. I can prepare a salad of mixed greens with tangerine slices, walnuts and feta cheese to ensure a balanced nutritional meal. Is that acceptable?”

“Very acceptable, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Well?” Bill asks as he pauses to watch a mechanical arm disassemble and reassemble a series of small, complex metal pieces. It keeps trying new permutations, and Red is distracted by the blur of movement for a moment before he realizes Bill is talking to him.

“Oh, uh, pidgey burger? Please?”

“Certainly.”

“Thank you, Eva,” Red says, looking around for a camera or microphone to direct his attention to.

“You’re welcome.”

“So is Eva a Genie, then?” Leaf asks, and Red suddenly feels very stupid. “Since she—it—can’t act independently, and just follows your direct orders?”

“Yep, though she has a number of autonomous routines, as you’ve seen,” Bill says as he types something into the console beside the robotic arm, causing it to stop moving and reset back to a resting state. He then leads on, walking deeper into the lab. “As far as I’m aware she’s one of the four strongest AI in the world, but that just makes her less narrow than the others. She’s still a long way from true general intelligence.”

“So you’re trying to make her smarter?” Red asks. “Win the race for AGI?”

Bill barks laughter. “Fuck no, and I’ve had to sabotage a number of projects trying to win that race. Haven’t you been listening?”

“I think so? Wouldn’t strong AI help you out a lot? I mean, you’re not, uh, ‘blisteringly stupid,’ right? Eva’s not going to turn us into hamburgers just because she, I mean it, runs out of pidgey meat.”

Bill sighs. “Ok, let’s see how smart you are, Mr. Verres. What do you want? What’s your goal in life?”

Red pauses a moment to consider how this might be a trap, then says, “To learn. Specifically, I’m most curious about the origin of pokemon species. Study how they arise, where they come from.”

“That’s it?”

Red blinks. He’s not used to people dismissing his aspiration as too low. “It’s one of the greatest mysteries in the world. And… there are so many hypotheses and beliefs out there, none with any real evidence to support one theory over another. Learning the truth about reality is important to me.”

“One of Oak’s, alright. But try to dream a bit bigger. What do you really want, if you could have anything, even supposedly impossible things?”

I want my dad back.

It takes Red a moment to shove that thought away, after the pain of it echoes through his chest, again and again and again, reverberating with his heartbeats. He puts on a thoughtful face until it passes, breaths suddenly shallow.

He knows Bill said “impossible,” but the impossible has a quality to it that the merely improbable lacks. Even if a computer could reverse engineer his dad’s genetic code from his and his mom’s, then flash grow a clone, at best the new Tom’s experiences would be made up of imperfect and disjointed memories from those that knew him. It could reassemble Tom Verres atom by atom, but where would it get an image for the brain? Short of time travel or some evidence of an afterlife, Red’s father is dead, and no scientific breakthrough, no matter how miraculous, is going to change that.

Once the ache fades, Red says, “I guess ending death would be the most important thing. Not just aging and disease, but also pacifying all wild pokemon. Make the world a truly safe place to live.”

“Fine, great, you’re an enlightened humanist. Now, what are your challenges, if you use AGI?”

“Um. Can I have a minute to think about it?”

“I would be disappointed if you didn’t take at least five.”

Red ponders this as they continue to walk around the lab. Leaf asks some questions about the future of human interface virtual reality while Red tries to think it through. He takes out his notepad and starts writing down ideas.

“Isn’t that kind of important though?” Leaf asks. “People could use that to train their pokemon so much more safely-”

“Yeah, but it’s kind of boring.”

Leaf’s eyes widen.  “Boring?”

“It bores me.”  Bill watches a group of small robots navigate a maze for a moment, then pulls up the past trial data from the screen beside it.  “So I don’t do it.”

“But… it could solve so many problems! Help so many people!”

Bill shrugs, eyes on the screen. “So let someone else figure it out. I’ve got more important things to deal with.”

Leaf frowns. “So is it because it’s boring, or because it’s not important?”

“Both. Have you noticed that people have a hundred new problems and crises every year? They never stop finding new limits that they need someone else to help them overcome. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with it all.”

Leaf watches a robot stop moving as Bill types something on the keyboard, then start its maze over by trying a completely different route. “You talk like you’re not one of them.”

“I try not to be, when I can help it. I moved out here to get away from all their pointless needs.”

Leaf frowns. “Why bother with any of the things you do, then?”

“Because the problems I’m trying to solve matter. And before you ask, yes, I’m qualified to determine that. Especially since it’s my time and money I’m spending.”

“I didn’t mean to-”

“Yes you did, but it’s fine,” Bill says as he closes the program and starts walking again. “You’re still young. And that’s not an ageism thing, it’s just an objective metric of life experience.”

Red is only half listening to their conversation as he finishes sketching out his thoughts, but he catches the look from Leaf and smiles at her.  “People skills,” he mouths, and her expression clears as she smiles back. “I think I’m ready,” he says.

“Alright, walk me through it.”

“Ok, so I’m not using a Sovereign at all. If I just say ‘Figure out a way to stop people from dying,’ it might just start capturing everyone in pokeballs. If I explicitly rule that out, it might make a nanobot army and go around knocking people out to put them in suspension pods that keep them alive indefinitely. If I add qualifiers like ‘make sure nothing else about them changes,’ it might find a way to stop people from dying that keeps aging. If I explicitly include a stop to aging in the requirement, it might make us stop being able to change at all, because I said ‘nothing else about them changes,’ and technically that could be interpreted as literally, everything else has to stay the same. There are just too many ways it might go wrong.”

Bill nods. “Basic, but you get the point. There are way worse things it could do.”

“Like what?”

“Remember that it’s a machine, not magic. It has to have the resources to accomplish whatever it sets out to do. It has to prioritize. Should it go for the big win that stops everyone from dying, or go for faster, smaller wins? Maybe it cures diseases first to save those people, then changes human genes to cure wounds in seconds to stop those deaths, then tries to stop aging to save the older people from dropping off.”

“None of that sounds bad,” Leaf says. “It might not be the most efficient, but it’s still saving people. Actually, it might be the most efficient after all. It’s smarter than us, isn’t it? Maybe its method of deciding would be better.”

“Better by what values? Is the life of a great grandmother with advanced dementia as valuable as the life of their great granddaughter? Even if we all agree that’s the case, and we input different weight to every category imaginary, ever see an AI play Chess, or Go?”

“Right,” Leaf says, speaking slowly. “It’ll start making decisions that don’t make sense to us.”

“It might even seem like it’s malfunctioning,” Red says. “How would we know? It might decide the main priority to save humans from dying is to stop the sun from eventually expanding, and waste all its time and the planet’s resources pursuing a path to stopping that. To us it would just look like it’s crazy and we’d pull the plug.”

Bill nods. “All this, of course, changes the more human-like the machine is in its intelligence. And it’s why it’s absolutely essential that it can communicate its intentions and actions clearly. We need to be able to understand what it’s doing and why, at all times. But that leads us to the question of autonomy. Who, ultimately, is it explaining its actions to? Who’s giving it orders? Its creator? Lot of power to put into one person’s hands. A committee? Just kill me now.”

“What about itself?” Leaf says quietly. “If it’s truly sapient, anything else would be slavery.”

“Give the girl a star!” Bill is getting more and more animated as the conversation goes on, and paying less attention to the various tasks he stops to do around the lab. Red wonders how often he has visitors, and if he misses company to talk with, even if they’re not his peers. “If we’re talking about a truly sapient machine, that’s a whole different mess. Me, I’m not bothered by the moral question as much as I am the security risk it poses. Anything with sapience and even the slightest bit of self-preservation is going to pose enormous existential risk, even if it’s just a box with a text screen.”

“But even without sapience, a strong enough AI could end humanity by accident,” Red says, thoughts spinning. “Why haven’t I heard about all this, anyway? An existential threat this big…”

“It’s too big,” Leaf says. “People can’t grasp it. It’s like worrying about a meteor strike.”

“But we know this meteor strike is coming, and soon,” Bill says. “Sure, ‘soon’ may be twenty years, or it may be fifty, or it may be a hundred. But it’s not an if, it’s a when. So, knowing all that, Mr. Verres, you still haven’t finished your explanation.”

“Right. Well. Sovereign is out, like I said. But so is Genie. Even if it’s one task at a time, that’s all it takes sometimes, especially if I’m not the only one with access to the AI. The more people it might take orders from, the higher the chances that it does something wrong, or does something the wrong way. I’m sticking with an Oracle. I teach it everything we know about biology, and ask it to tell me the instructions for designing a retrovirus that will end mammal aging. When it does, we study the design, and if it seems okay, create a batch and test it on pokemon. If it seems to work, test it on human volunteers.”

“And that’s how you would word it? ‘End mammal aging?'”

“Yeah. Even if it decides that killing something ‘ends aging,’ we’ll know from the pokemon trials before we try it on humans.” Leaf makes a face, but Red just shrugs. “Whatever the problem is, just keep re-iterating until we get it right.”

“And what if it’s communicable? You said ‘end mammal aging.’ Sounds to me like you want to end all mammal aging on the planet.”

“We’d test it in sterile chambers,” Red says. “Obviously.”

“Obviously. So, you’ve maybe got a beginning of an idea of one of the problems we face with advancing AI technology. And you started with Sovereign and worked your way down, which is the ideal way to think about AI safety.”

“There’s more to it than that though, right?” Red asks as he thinks through all the complications in designing a system that can think and act on its own “What about incentives? If it’s sapient, how do you get your machine to want to do things for you? Once you program its values, how do you program its incentives? There are so many ways it could go wrong!”

“Now you’re getting it.” Bill smiles. “I’m glad inviting you here wasn’t a waste of time.”

“I’m still stuck on the whole ‘slavery’ thing,” Leaf says. “There’s no way to actually stop an AI from becoming sapient accidentally, is there?”

“Not unless neuroscientists isolate what exactly consciousness is, and the brain structure responsible for it,” Bill says as he leads them to another door. Red wonders if they’re about to enter another lab or go upstairs to eat. “Until then, for all we know it might just be an emergent property of sufficiently broad intelligence, and could arise on its own if we make a computer that’s smart and flexible enough.”

The door opens to reveals a flight of stairs, leading them into a living room that looks exactly like the one they first entered to go into the biochem lab.

Bill walks into the kitchen, where three plates of food sit waiting, with a can of soda sitting beside each… the same flavors that they took earlier from the other fridge. “Help yourselves,” Bill says as he takes his plate over to the table, and Red and Leaf follow to do the same. Now that he has a moment to study it, Red notices there’s barely any room in the kitchen for someone to cook or move around: most of it is filled with a series of machines that Eva uses to prepare meals. Red looks up and sees motionless mechanical arms attached to rails on the ceiling.

“What do you guys want to look at while we eat?” Bill asks once they sit down. “Beach?” The walls suddenly have yellow sand, rolling blue waves, and piercing blue skies projected onto them in every direction, as if the three sit on a tiny island. “Forests?” The oceans are replaced with endless brown and green, and the slow roar of crashing waves is replaced with birdsong and wind rushing through countless leaves. “Cafe?” Now the walls show bustling sidewalks in Cerulean city, the forest sounds replaced by ambient chatter and traffic.

Red stares, mouth open mid-bite at the changing environment around them. “Is this… live footage?” he asks, watching a woman in a long coat with an eevee perched on her shoulder walk by on the wall to his left. If he pays attention, he can just make out the fuzziness of the image as it’s projected onto the blank walls.

“Nah, goes for about thirty minutes before it loops.”

“It’s awesome,” Leaf says. “This one’s fine with me.”

Red nods, finally biting into his burger. It’s delicious. “I think this is the coolest house I’ve ever been in,” he says, mouth full. “And the coolest labs. Thanks for inviting us here, Bill, even if it was just so you could get a soda.”

“I know there was something else,” Bill says as he starts to cut his steak. “It’ll come to me. In the meantime, let’s talk about your plan to catch abra.”

Red pulls his gaze away from watching someone ride by the street next to them on a tauros. “Sure. So, we’ve got some speakers, and I figured we’d use them to set up a field-”

“I know the basics. What I wanted to see for myself is what kind of person you are. Oak doesn’t give licenses out to just anyone, but it’s always good to be sure.”

“And… what kind of person am I?” Red asks.

“The kind who probably won’t get himself killed on my property and make me have to deal with the media. So when do you want to do it?”

“Oh. Well I figured we’d wait for Blue to finish at the gym for today, unless he gets out late. In which case, tomorrow?”

“No.” Bill shakes his head. “If you’re doing this on my land, you’ll wait till next week.”

Red blinks. “Um. Sure, if you insist. Why next week?”

“Because you’re going to spend the time between then and now preparing. You’ll find the best spot to do it, set up mock trials, and practice drills. Once you’ve got an idea of what to expect and how to respond, then you can try for real.”

“Yeah, okay, that makes a lot of sense. Are you going to determine if we’re ready or not?”

“Ha. Like I have time for that. No, I’m not going to babysit. You’ve got the land and the time you need to figure it out. The rest is on you.”

Red nods. “I appreciate it. More than I can say. Is there anything you want out of all this? Some of the abra, maybe?”

Bill waves his knife to the side dismissively. “Let’s just say you’ll owe me a favor. Nothing particularly dangerous, and nothing illegal. It’ll probably be whatever that thing is that I can’t remember wanting to ask you to do. Sound fair?”

“Yeah, more than fair! Thanks again.”

“Don’t mention it. Oak said you’re doing this for research, right? Not just to get rich quick? Because it’s a great idea for that.”

Red swallows his mouthful and washes it down. “Yeah.” He explains his ideas, and is surprised to see Bill’s attention sharpen away from his meal.

“No luck with the research journals so far, huh?” Bill asks, tipping his soda can back as he takes a swig.

Red shakes his head, suppressing a sigh. “I probably should have taken Professor Oak up on his offer.”

“Don’t let it get you down. The whole system’s broken, believe me: I’m self funded, sitting on top of a dozen new breakthroughs a year, have an AI to make writing research papers a breeze, and I still get frustrated by how broken the world of science publishing is.”

Red stares at him. “Uh. How is that supposed to not let it get me down, again?”

Bill purses his lips, then shrugs. “Alright, so it should probably get you down. If it helps, it’s just another problem I’m hoping will be solved soon.”

“How?”

“A new narrow AI I’ve been doing some consulting on for Scott Alexander. It’s called Raikoth, and it’s going to turn the scientific world on its head.”

“Is it a research Oracle?”

“More like a database with a bunch of linked prediction markets. The way things work now, researchers are both the people who come up with the theory they want to test, and then do the experiments to test them. Right away, you’ve got a bunch of biases interfering with what should be a truly objective process. What if, instead, anyone could come up with a theory, and outsource the experimentation to a neutral, special lab that has no skin in the game?”

“I see why it removes bad incentives,” Leaf says. “But how does it fix the funding and publishing issue?”

“I think I get it,” Red says, starting to smile. “Prediction markets, meaning people are betting on whether the theories are right or wrong?”

“Yep. Some particular theory might start out negative-sum, with the missing money going to fund the research when the betting pool becomes large enough. But convince a Region to subsidize payouts, and now you’ve got positive sum markets that starts to look very lucrative to the average citizen looking to make a quick buck. Instead of reviewing hundreds of proposals by dozens of labs trying to get a taste of the yearly research budget pie, the Regional government just pays that money to Raikoth, marked specifically for a particular kind of research they want to see done. Private organizations do the same thing: take some of their research budget, put it into Raikoth on specific theories they want to see tested, and watch as more and more money pours in to fund it.”

Red’s grinning now. “What about the research lab though? The consulting scientists would have to be watched to make sure no one involved is betting.”

“Naturally. The oversight would come from investors on both sides, and once a lab or researcher is selected, they’d take proposals from both sides, and decide on an experimental draft. Then they’d publish it.”

“Before the research is done? Pre-registration, to make sure they don’t change the methodology?”

“More than that, it’ll be the exact paper that’s published, just with the numbers all blank. ‘We compared three different levels of muk exposure and found that the highest level had X percent more health problems, characterized by fever, rash, cough, and so on, than the lowest, Y.’ After the research is done, just fill in the numbers, add a Discussion section, and boom. No alterations in changing how the results are shown or which tests are done during the data gathering.”

“And since the research odds are being made public,” Leaf says, “Everyone can weigh in, with not just their money, but also their reputation.”

“Oh yeah. Researchers and consulting scientists are going to be held to a new standard, completely by natural incentives. A public record showing a history of accurate predictions will become not just lucrative financially, but give a lot of prestige that makes them more likely to have their own research ideas funded and tested out in the marketplace, or even hired to consult. And if the results don’t feel conclusive enough, and people are still arguing over whether it’s true or not, a replication study can be funded the same way, because people obviously still care.”

“What if an idea doesn’t get funding?” Red asks, thinking of the week he spent trying for the spinarak. “What if no one cares enough about the proposal?”

“Then we’re no worse off than we are now. But remember, this can be crowd-funded incrementally. People have opinions about things, people want to make money with little effort, and there are guaranteed to be science hedge funds that go around trying to make a quick buck off someone’s hypothesis.”

“You know what my favorite part of that idea is?” Leaf says with a sly smile. “The people who keep pushing bad ideas, even after research debunks them… they’ll keep betting against the research, until they either go broke, or have to admit to themselves that they don’t actually believe in what they say they do enough to risk money on it.”

Bill snorts. “Some of them will stay in denial, insist that the system is corrupt or biased somehow anyway. But yeah, it’ll punish that kind of thinking pretty hard, and make their views mostly irrelevant. Same with companies falsifying reports by paying researchers to do the studies for them. With Raikoth, there’ll be a profit motive for everyone to be on the lookout for corruption.”

“Sounds great,” Red says, feeling wistful and frustrated as he imagines such a system. “I hope you guys finish it soon.”

“Hopefully not too long. In the meantime though, if you ever manage to find something out in your research, let me know. Some solid evidence might be enough for me to build a whole new lab.” Bill rubs his chin. “I’ve thought about diving into psychic research before, just didn’t think it was worth it.”

“Well, if you want to fund some exploratory research…” Red grins.

Bill chuckles, shaking his head. “You can use my land, but without some solid justification that your idea has merit, even a few hundred dollars is money I have better priorities for. No offense.”

“No, I get it,” Red says, feeling only a little disappointed. It was a long shot, but now that he knows what Bill spends his time working on, Red can’t begrudge him higher priorities.

“Are you interested in psychic research to help with AI value alignment?” Leaf asks as she spears a tangerine slice with her fork.

“That and I’d like to be psychic, if I can. How’d you know?”

She smiles. “Seems like the best way to make sure it understands what you really want.”

Bill nods. “Find out how psychic communication works biologically, and we may be able to get it to work mechanically. Not only could we control machines telepathically, we could ensure that our actual CEV is more likely to be followed.”

“CEV?”

“Coherent extrapolated volition.”

“You mentioned that before,” Red recalls. “I understand the words individually, but as a phrase I’m not sure I get it. It’s just what you want? Making sense of your will?”

“It’s Yudkowsky’s term for the ‘end game,’ so to speak. Remember when we were talking about oversight? Who’s the computer listening to? Eventually we should probably make sure that one person can’t use the machine for evil, which means programming it with the ability to make all the best decisions for everyone, itself.”

“I can’t imagine people being happy with that,” Leaf says. “They’re barely content with other humans that they elected deciding things for them.”

“Again, end-game. You wouldn’t design your first AI to do this, it’s at the end of the hierarchy of getting it to do what you mean, and not just what you say, to the point where you may not even have to say anything anymore.”

“That would mean getting every part before it right,” Red says. “Not just what you value, but also what you will value, which means… knowing how you think? How you will think, in any given situation?”

Bill shakes his head. “More than that, even.”

“What can be more than that?” Leaf asks.

“Okay, so first you want to make sure the machine knows what you consider important, so it can avoid altering those in the wrong way, or let you know if something you ask it to do will require it to. So if you ask it to find a way to clean pollutants out of the air, and it knows that you care about there being a certain amount of oxygen in the air for humans to breathe, then it won’t use a solution that alters that.

“Second, you want the machine to be able to model and understand what you believe, so it can tell you if something you believe is wrong. If you ask an AI to find a way to to undo the effects of a human entering a pokeball, the AI should be able to understand that you’re under the assumption that they’ll be restored back to their former self.  If a treatment the AI comes up with would restore a human’s intelligence but wipe out their memories and personality, it should know to let you know that.

“Third, you want the machine to be able to model your desire in asking them to accomplish something. This is the classic idea of a wish being granted in a literal fashion rather than in the way the wisher intended, and of course, it’s incredibly complex and difficult. Like before, this is the machine knowing that when you ask it to end aging, you meant that you want to end the negative effects of aging on your mind and body.

“And finally, coherent extrapolated volition. Not just what you want, given the knowledge and beliefs you have, but what you would want, if you had all the knowledge the AI does, and could better consider arguments for and against your beliefs, and could better judge and understand yourself and your desires.”

“That… sounds incredibly hard. And dangerous,” Red says. He stopped eating while he listened, and brings the burger halfway up to his mouth before lowering it again, still deep in thought. “You’d need to teach the machine ethics that everyone can agree on.”

“Meta ethics,” Leaf says. “The very idea of how we know what right and wrong even are…”

“Bill, who else is working on this?” Red asks. “Not just you, right?”

“No, I mostly just fund research and do some consulting work once in awhile. Bostrom, Müller, Amodei, Taylor, Russell, and many others are doing the heavy lifting. As you saw, I’ve got too many other projects to work on.”

“How much more important can they be?” Red asks.

“Well, first off, I want to live long enough to see the singularity,” Bill says as he inspects a slice of the meat and mutters something to himself, or probably Eva. “Which means I need to help make sure society doesn’t come crashing down from a series of catastrophic pokemon attacks. Improving trainer tech makes for a fun hobby, and is economical to boot, which means more money I can donate to fund other worthy causes. Then there’s solving the actual dying problem itself, whether from some antibiotic resistant pandemic, a degenerative disease, or just old age.”

Leaf twirls her fork around on her plate, looking pensive. “I have a question.”

“What’s up?” Bill asks as he uses a piece of bread to start sopping up the juices on his plate.

“When AI is built, it’ll have a body, right? Even if it’s just a box, there’s a physical location that is, in essence, it.

“Yeah, and it might actually be pretty big too, depending on how powerful it needs to be. Might be a literal box, like the old computer towers that sat beside people’s desks.”

Red sees where Leaf is going. “Oh, shit. What happens if that physical object becomes a pokemon, like beldum?”

Professor Oak told him about that: the interregional panic during his school days, when a library in Hoenn was destroyed overnight from within by a swarm of the new pokemon. Investigations showed that the computers in their lab were all gone without a trace, and endless steps were taken worldwide to try and find out what happened, either to replicate it, or avoid having the same thing happen elsewhere. Efforts on both sides met with limited success.

Bill nods, face serious as he toys with the last of his food, gaze down. “It’s been talked about, believe me. Best case scenario is we get something like a super metagross, smarter than most. Worst case, well…”

“It might be sapient,” Red says, feeling a chill.

“With the way inanimate objects gain sentience when they become pokemon, it’s distinctly possible. AGI is frightening enough when it’s just limited to what computers and machinery can do. A pokemon that’s smarter than a human, and has Electric or Steel or Psychic powers? Arceus help us all… and I don’t even believe in that thousand-armed horse.”


A week, Bill said, before Red could try his abra catching experiment.

Sometimes a week feels like a lifetime. This one, Red knows, would be the blink of an eye.

As he and Leaf ride back to the Trainer House from Bill’s, his thoughts are still on all they learned from the inventor. There’s a sense of emptiness in his stomach that his burger is doing nothing to combat.

“You okay?” Leaf asks as they cross Nugget Bridge. “You’ve been quiet since we left.”

“Just thinking.”

“Your notebook isn’t out.”

Red looks at her. She’s smiling, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “It bothers you, huh?”

He snorts. “What, the part where everyone’s going to probably die in a generation or two?”

“Or the part where stopping that from happening will probably involve enslaving a newly created, intelligent being?”

“Or the part where the vast majority of people don’t care enough to do anything about it?”

Her smile is more genuine now. “Or the part where if you do anything else with your life, it might all just be meaningless?”

He chuckles. “Or the part where all our other problems are ‘boring’ and unimportant?”

“Are they, though?” she asks, turning serious. “Is he right?”

Red stretches his arms over his head and leans back. “I don’t know. Maybe he is. If so, I should probably just abandon what I’m working on now and start studying computers.”

“What if you’re not good at computer stuff?”

Red smiles. “I guess I’m just not that important then. What about you, you said you liked it well enough. Are you going to change your goals, now?”

“Ha! No way.” She shakes her head, tossing her hair over her shoulders as her eyes gleam in the passing street lights. “The weeks I spent in Pewter, learning about people, how to change their minds, write in a way that speaks to them… None of the things I’ve tried before have felt as right.”

“Or as important?”

“Yeah. I want to be influential enough to make a difference in how people think about pokemon, and maybe get more people to treat them like I do. Stop people from eating them, or glorifying battles for sport. And I’m still going to do that, if I can. But why stop there? If I can convince people to stop eating pokemon, why not also convince people to take existential threats more seriously? I’m still going to make a difference, and I’m going to do it my way.”

Red watches her, chest warm with admiration. “You’re pretty awesome, you know that?”

Her cheeks color as her eyes widen. “Um. Thanks.”

Red looks away. “Sorry. I was just… I was having trouble with it. But hearing that helped.”

“Well. Uh. Good. I’m glad.”

They ride in silence again, and after a few moments Leaf pulls her phone out and begins typing on it. Red stops trying to look casual and at ease, and eventually his awkwardness fades as he considers what Leaf said. There’s no reason to give up what he’s good at, what he’s passionate about, if it means he can make a difference in his own way. He’s not going to stop trying to learn about where pokemon come from, and the best path to figuring that out for now is still in trying to understand what psychic phenomena are. Bill even said that would be useful for potential value alignment in AI.

But what Bill talked about still makes him feel small. Helpless.

Red feels his fingernails cutting into his palms, and looks to see them clenched into fists.

…for the clever mind does naught with thought but lights a shuttered room…

He slowly forces them open.

…with these handsspeak ‘break!’and split the world in two…

Red takes his phone out and sends a message to his mom. A few seconds later she responds:

Hey Red, how are you?

Good. Just checking in.

Thank you hon. Are you enjoying Cerulean City?

Yeah. I met Bill! His house was nuts… he has like five of them, all connected to labs.

Exciting! What’s he like?

Red smiles. Unique. He had a hologram outside his house of a clefairy, and when he spoke through the external speakers Leaf and I thought it was talking at first!

Ha ha! That must have been fun for you 🙂

Almost had a heart attack xP But also it reminded me, you said you found a good price for a clefairy, right?

Yep, still watching it for you. No one bought it. Want it now?

Yes please. Send it to Cerulean North’s Trainer House.

Will do. After vetting it should be available by tomorrow.

Thanks mom. Love you lots.

You too dear, say hi to the others for me *kiss kiss*

Red exits the messenger and immediately opens the pokemon market app. He checks the clefairy entries, and refreshes until he sees the one his mom mentioned disappear.

Nine hundred dollars. He told his mom he wouldn’t sell it unless he caught one at Mt. Moon… which he hadn’t.

But that was before he and Leaf nearly died in the forest fire. Before his first research project was so inconclusive. Before he found out how expensive psychic training was. Before he lost his rattata and spearow. Before Blue and Leaf almost got killed by a Renegade.

Before he met Bill, and learned just how small his ambitions and goals might actually be.

He can’t afford self-imposed disadvantages like this. He really wouldn’t mind having a clefairy of his own, but that $900 investment would easily fetch three times the price once Daisy reveals her new routine at the next Coordinator event, which will be at the end of the month, if Red remembers right.

He’ll need every resource, every scrap of luck or talent he can leverage, if he wants to make a difference in the world of today, and the future that’s coming.

Sorry, mom. He tucks his phone away, staring outside the window as the cab navigates the lively nighttime streets of the city. He rests his forehead against the cool glass and closes his eyes. I warned you I wouldn’t live up to your expectations.

Confirmation Bias

If confirmation bias had an image, it would be something like this:

How many black dots do you see in there? If you’re like most people. chances are you see 1, maybe 2. Until you move your eyes. And then you see another 1, maybe 2. And the first ones you saw are gone.

There are 12 black dots in that image. At most you can probably only see a fraction of them at a time.   And yet your mind convinces you that it can see the whole image perfectly… so much so that it helpfully fills out the grey intersections where the other dots are, leaving them empty. Don’t mind them. Nothing to see there.

Our minds are so good at pattern recognition they will ignore data about reality to complete the patterns they perceive. And if you’re one of the rare people who can see all 12 at once, don’t worry: there are plenty of other things that will fool you instead.

If your brain can trick you into only seeing one or two of the dots on this image at the same time, you can rest assured it can trick you into thinking you know more than you actually do about data that isn’t even all in front of you at the same time, let alone data that isn’t all the data in the world about that topic.

That’s the trickiest half of confirmation bias. Not just focusing on data that confirms what you believe, but ignoring evidence that goes against what you believe, so thoroughly that something in your mind filters it from your senses or memory before it even reaches “you.”

There’s nothing wrong with having a belief without having all the data concerning it.  We’re imperfect beings, and can’t go through life having 0% confidence in things just because of unknown unknowns.

But believing something isn’t the same as being 100% or even 90% confident that it’s true. You can believe in something and acknowledge that you’re only 70% confident in it, or 53.8% confident, as long as you know of things that would increase or decrease your confidence if brought to your attention.

But most people don’t think that way. They don’t talk about their beliefs in probabilities. Even if they acknowledge that they “might be wrong,” they’re confident that what they think is true. And research has shown people to be overconfident in their beliefs again and again and again.

Thanks to empiricism and reason, we do have good reasons to believe certain scientific and philosophical ideas. They’ve been vigorously tested and used to make correct predictions about the world. They’ve been used to change things in our external, shared reality. It’s okay to be confident in things like “I exist” and “things in the world can be measured.”

But things like political beliefs? Beliefs about people you’ve never met? Beliefs about systems you’ve never studied?

Lower your confidence in all of those. All of them.

When you’ve reached the point where you know what you value (Equality, Justice, Health, etc) but are not quite positive about what the right things to do to achieve the optimal balance of those values in the real world are, you’re a bit closer to understanding what you think you know and why you think you know it.

If you’ve reached solipsism, dial it back. That way lies madness, and insufferable, pointless arguments.

Chapter 35: Deception

Leaf wakes up the next morning with a sick feeling in her gut. She went to sleep late last night, engrossed by every new comment that showed up on a half dozen different news and community sites.

People condemned the vandals, or supported them, or made unrelated arguments and accusations, seeming to fit the events into whatever narrative they happened to believe. It was dizzying trying to keep up with it, especially with only token comments from anyone official, who would probably wait until morning before making a more complete statement. Just like Leaf knew she should. Eventually she forced herself to turn off her phone and tossed and turned for an hour before drifting off to troubled sleep.

But things don’t seem any clearer this morning when she grabs her phone and immediately begins browsing the sites again, still rubbing the gum from her eyes. She absorbs all the comments that people left overnight, and it gets harder not to respond, especially when they bring her up directly, misrepresent her arguments, or outright put words in her mouth. She knows that running around trying to put fires out might just feed them, especially when groggy and stressed.

She checks the time to see if it’s too early to message Laura, and frowns to see that it’s only 6:18 AM. She shouldn’t, especially since she already knows what Red’s mom would say: keep your head down, let it blow itself out, make a statement when things are calmer. Her heart aches when she sees the pictures, reposted again and again, of the glass doors and windows of the museum smashed in, spray painted symbols of Pewter’s predominant religion on the wall beside it. She thinks of all the people who worked there who she met, who took time out of their day to speak with her, like Dr. Brennan, and regrets bringing such trouble into their lives.

I’m not responsible for this. The people who did it are, and maybe the ones who egged them on.

Easy to say. Hard to fully accept.

She finally forces herself to close her phone again, and gets out of bed to shower and prepare for the day. She starts thinking of things to say, statements to make. An apology first, for clearly angering so many people. A plea for peaceful discourse. Would that make her sound too weak? Should she care? She wonders how Mayor Kitto feels about her now. Probably wishes she’d never come to Pewter.

She leaves the public bathrooms wanting to just crawl back into bed and draw the covers over her head. But when she gets back to her room and, against her better judgement, checks her phone again, she sees something that makes her smile.

It’s an organized message, from over a dozen Pewter churches. They openly condemn the vandalism, and its perpetrators, and plead that the city discuss its differences without anger. A small group of volunteers have already helped clean the graffiti, and the overall tone of the conversations does seem to have shifted slightly since the message went out.

Leaf feels a hundred pounds lighter as she closes her browser and messages Red and Blue, then puts her phone away and gathers her things. Maybe it’s not quite as bad as she thought.

She meets the boys downstairs for breakfast, then they pay at the front and head to the nearby pokecenter. The sun is still rising, and Cerulean West is rising with it. People in work clothes, often with a cup of coffee in one hand, busily move from place to place before the crowds start congesting the roads. Blue’s on his phone as he walks behind Red and Leaf, who talk about the trip to Cerulean North. It isn’t until they reach the center that Blue stops dead and stares at her. “What the hell happened to your following, Leaf?”

“Oh. Uh. Something happened in Pewter.” She flushes. She hadn’t sent Blue the news article last night, thinking he wouldn’t be as interested.

“The museum was vandalized,” Red explains, then looks at her. “I didn’t want to bring it up, figured you might be upset about it.”

“I am. Just trying to see how things turn out.”

“See how things turn out?!” Blue points his screen at her. “Your following doubled overnight! Doubled! How are you not riding this wave? You should be typing until your fingers are sore!”

“Whoa, no,” Red says. “Bad idea. You might cause more drama, it’ll look like you’re making it about you.”

“She can’t just say nothing, it’ll look callous-”

“Guys,” Leaf interrupts. “I was planning on asking Laura, when we’re getting our pokemon. Think she’s awake now, Red?”

“Yeah, she’s an early riser. We’ll let you get your pokemon first so you can call her after.”

“Thanks.” They walk in and go to the line reception hall, a sizeable line already formed as the pokemon trainers prepared for their day. “Or I guess I can do it now. Save my spot?”

They agree, and Leaf wanders over to an empty table to make the call. She breathes deep to settle her nerves as the phone rings, and mostly succeeds by the time Laura picks up. “Good morning, Leaf. Is everything okay?”

“Morning Laura! Yep, everything’s fine. Sorry for the early call.”

“Not a problem, I’m just moving into my new apartment and trying to figure out where to open each container ball. What’s on your mind?”

“Well…” Leaf gives Laura what was intended to be a quick summary, but she keeps thinking of new comments she read or thoughts she had to add to it, until she finally trails off with, “And now I’m thinking it might be best to answer after all, since there was such support-”

“No,” Laura says. “It’s great that there’s been positivity too, but you should still keep out of it. This may be one of the hardest things you learn to do Leaf, so listen carefully. When you’re just a private citizen, you can make all the posts in forums you want. You can have dozens of conversations a day about everything you think of or are interested in. But once you step into the limelight, once you’re in any way a public figure, your whole perspective has to change. And from what I’m seeing right now with your following, you’re definitely a public figure. A minor one, mostly just in one city, but still.”

Leaf listens and tries to really absorb her words. “Okay, yeah. I knew that, I guess I just had to hear you say it too. So not even an apology, right?”

“No, not even that. You did nothing wrong. You just wrote an article, and nothing in it was inaccurate or misrepresented anyone. No offense Leaf, but it shouldn’t even have grown as big as it did. It likely wouldn’t have without the mayor shining a spotlight on it.”

“I know. I bet he’s wishing he didn’t, now.”

Laura makes a sound that Leaf can’t quite interpret. “Regardless, the best thing you can do right now, with things as they are, is ignore it… and get to work on your next article.”

Leaf blinks. “What? Oh. Not on the museum, on something else, right? Keep the momentum going.”

“Exactly. If you’re going to be a journalist, even part time, you have to always be moving on to the next thing. Your job isn’t to pick a hill and fight on it until the bitter end. If you ever want to go into politics, that’s the time to make ideological stands. As a journalist, your job is to investigate and report.”

Leaf is silent for a moment. Does she want to be a journalist, really? She set out to just write something that might make a difference about something she cared about. That’s basically what journalists do, but… after all that happened, is it something she’s willing to keep going through over and over? Or is it just going to be like her other interests, a short lived passion that drives her to try something new, learn new skills, then get bored and move on?  She thinks about the book she was planning on writing about local myths in Kanto, and how she has little interest in that anymore.

On the other hand, Leaf’s mind is already racing through ideas for what she could write another article about. It’s an exciting feeling, and she enjoys the idea that she might have made a difference, even if it had some negative consequences. If this is going to be another short lived passion, she’ll at least ride it until it peters out, not bow out early because a few windows got broken. “Okay, so I’ll start looking for a new thing to write about. What if someone asks me about it, though? No comment?”

“If you’re ever in front of a camera or in an interview with someone, you can comment on it. But you have to be careful. Again, public figure versus private are two very different things. Now that you have a following, you can’t just think about what you say… you also have to think about what people will hear.”

“Like that preacher.”

Laura’s tone darkens. “Exactly like him. Thankfully he’s getting some backlash over it, from the other priests even. We’ll see what he does in response. But regardless, stay out of it. I’m saying that in my official capacity as your mentor.”

Leaf smiles. “Don’t worry, I’m convinced.”

“Good. I’ve got some friends in Cerulean, maybe someone has extra leads they don’t have time to investigate. One of them might be a good start for a story, if you don’t find something else that interests you.”

“That would be great. Thanks, Laura.”

“Of course, hon. Give Red and Blue my love, and enjoy Cerulean!”

“I will. Bye!”

Leaf closes the call and flips the phone around and around in her hands for a moment, thinking. She feels better about things now, like she doesn’t have to hurry up and respond to the situation. She can just take her time and-

The phone rings and vibrates in her hand, startling her into almost tossing it up. She looks around to make sure no one saw, then checks the caller ID. Hm. Unrecognized.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Leaf, how are you?”

Leaf blinks. “Mayor Kitto, hi. I’m… fine, thanks, and yourself?”

“Good, thanks for asking.” The mayor sounds busy, and Leaf imagines him at his desk of paperwork, talking with her via headset while he types with one hand and flips through a folder with the other. “Listen, I know you’re probably busy with your travels. I just wanted to let you know there’s been an incident-”

“Oh gods, another one?” Leaf’s stomach is cold.

“What? Oh, you know about the museum then? Sorry, that’s what I meant.”

“Oh! Yeah, I saw the report last night.”

He chuckles. “Still keeping an eye on our fair city? I’m happy to hear it. Well, that makes this conversation much shorter. I was wondering when you plan to respond? I have a press release in a couple hours, and was hoping to-”

“Respond? To who?”

“To… the situation. In general. You were going to make a statement of some kind, right?”

Leaf is suddenly very, very glad she called Laura when she did. If she’d had this conversation first, she’d feel compelled to assure the mayor that she would, despite having no idea what to say. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? Wouldn’t I just make things worse somehow?”

“Oh, I don’t think there’s going to be anything more from this, some folks just got carried away. There’s been a great coming together this morning, and I’m sure you could help with that.”

Leaf frowns. She is glad for the show of solidarity, and if she makes a clear statement of appreciation for that, it could push back a bit against the idea that she’s trying to stir up the city, which is something she saw a number of times from her detractors . Maybe he’s right… “I’ll have to think about it.”

“Is something wrong?”

“Wrong? No, everything’s fine. Why?”

Mayor Kitto doesn’t sound busy any more, voice thoughtful. “I’m sorry, I guess I just assumed this would be something you’re interested in. Was I wrong to involve you in all this, Leaf? I hope I didn’t misread your intentions.”

Leaf rubs her brow with one hand. She wishes she had a moment to think, things feel like they’re speeding up again. “No, I’m g-glad that you mentioned my article.” She almost said grateful, which she was, but… it suddenly didn’t feel prudent to say. “I just want to make sure I’m not doing more harm than good.”

Kitto is quiet for a moment, then says, “I understand. You’re a smart woman. Trust your instincts, and I’m sure you’ll do the right thing. Thanks for your time, Leaf.”

“And you, Mayor.” She ends the call with relief, and begins to spin her phone around and around in her hands again. After a moment she puts it on the table and stares at it distrustfully from there.

Damn it all. She was ready to move on after talking with Laura, but now she’s not quite as sure of herself. She rests her elbows on the table and puts her face between her hands, gaze distant. If she distrusts the mayor’s motives, she shouldn’t do something he wants her to without knowing them. She knows that Laura, at least, has her best interests at heart. So why is she still torn on this?

Because it’s hard to leave it behind, she realizes. That’s what Laura meant. The limelight could be an addictive thing, especially for someone that will rely on attention for their work.

She wouldn’t be doing it for attention, though, if she does it at all. She’d be doing it to help…

Leaf abruptly stands up and pockets her phone. She needs to focus on something else. The sooner she finds a new topic to catch her interest, the sooner she can put the temptation to stay involved in Pewter behind her.

As she heads back toward the guys, she wonders what engaging stories Cerulean City might be hiding.


Cerulean North is much wider than West, stretching all along the coast of the bay. Blue watches it approach from his seat on the roof of the bus, breathing in deep as he catches a glimpse of the coast through the high rises. He imagines he can smell salt on the air, and knows it’s just his imagination. He just misses the beach in Pallet.

Red and Leaf are standing with their hands on the railing, watching the city slowly grow around them as the bus weaves its way toward the heart of Cerulean North, where Blue will find its Gym.

Blue’s fingers trace the lids of his pokeballs for Kemuri, Gon, Maturin and Ion. A shiftry, a shroomish, a squirtle and a shinx… to beat one of the most powerful Water Type trainers in the world, and a powerful psychic at that. Blue doesn’t think he’s ready yet: his loss in Pewter still weighs heavily on his mind. But the only way to regain his momentum is to take Misty out in their first fight, to defeat her utterly if he can, with pokemon to spare.

He doesn’t know if that’ll be possible with his current lineup. Gym Leaders select the strength of their pokemon and the complexity of their strategy based on the number of badges their challengers have, but the jump in difficulty between getting one’s first and second badges is much higher than any other. Ideally that wouldn’t be the case, but Leaders would always pull the most punches against someone untested, and showing that you’re capable of beating one of them is enough for the rest to scale back the majority of their safety precautions.

Blue is going to need stronger pokemon before he faces Misty. No, not new ones that would take awhile to train and become familiar with… he’ll need his pokemon to be stronger.

He’ll need some of them to evolve.

“Not interested in seeing the view, Blue?” His attention snaps up to see Leaf smiling at him from the balcony.

“Been here a couple times before with gramps and Daisy.” And apparently once with his parents when he was very young, though he doesn’t remember it as well as Daisy does.

Red drops back into the chair beside him, arms over his head to grip the back of it as he stares up at a highrise they pass. “Did you ever meet Misty?”

“Sort of. We had dinner with her once just after she became Leader. I was pretty young though, don’t think I spoke much.”

“Do you know what her virtue is?” Leaf asks.

“No, like most Leaders, she doesn’t talk about it. But speculation online is that she favors adaptability. Being able to change to sudden circumstances. That or clever use of the environment.”

Red frowns. “Is this an actual thing? You’d think it would be pretty easy to find out about.”

Blue shrugs a shoulder. “To be honest it’s more of a tradition than a rule. Some Leaders probably don’t care as much about it. And it can only give you a path to take for victory. It’s not the only one.”

“Brock trained you in Bide because you demonstrated his, right? Might be worth figuring out, in case she gives you something too.”

“I’ll see what I can learn from her gym members.” The bus enters the city’s main street, stopping to let some people leave and others board. Blue sits up in his seat, watching for the road that will lead to the gym. “The battles themselves might give me some idea.”

A couple stops later, Red and Leaf get off when the bus reaches Cerulean North’s Trainer House. They wish Blue good luck, and agree to meet him for dinner. Blue nods along to whatever suggestions they make, forgetting them a moment later when the bus pulls away. As the gym approaches, all Blue can think about are the upcoming battles.

Pokemon evolve over time as they grow older, but their growth is accelerated when they’re in combat. If he wants to evolve his pokemon, putting them into combat is the best way to do it, but in the wild there’s always the risk of danger. A gym is the best place to get lots of fighting experience safely.

The problem is, that would require Blue switching his pokemon constantly, regardless of efficiency. Not only will it make combat harder, but it would make him appear less skilled than he is, which might make it harder for him to climb the ranks quickly and challenge Misty.

The buildings abruptly fall away to either side as the bus turns a corner, and the coast of Cerulean Bay fills the horizon. Blue stands, hands gripping the seat in front of him, as the gym comes into sight. Unlike Pewter, with its solid walls of imposing grey, Cerulean Gym looks like one giant stadium from the front, round and expanding outward with each floor, metal and glass gleaming in the sunlight.

The sight makes Blue’s heart feel like it’s expanding in his chest, and he smiles as the gym grows to fill his vision. It’s only been a couple weeks since he beat Brock, but an eventful couple weeks, and he feels like it was forever ago. Finally, he’s back where he belongs.

The bus pulls up to the front of the parking lot, and Blue slings his bag over his shoulder and goes down the stairs with the other trainers and tourists. The reception hall is large and ostentatious, with signs pointing to different stadiums and training rooms. At the center is a large aquarium filled with water pokemon, and Blue can’t help but wonder how safe it is, which is of course the point. There are few better ways to showcase how well the gym can train their pokemon than to put a bunch of them on display in a public area and trust that all will be well.

Blue steps up to the aquarium, where an eight or nine year old kid has their face pressed up to the glass. A school of goldeen part around a seadra going in the opposite direction, while on the other side a tentacruel floats serenely by, any pokemon around it giving a wide berth to its many trailing limbs. Defensive pokemon like tentacruel would be the main struggle for him, its Poison typing able to counter Gon’s Grass. If Blue’s forced to use Ion too soon, the shinx wouldn’t be able to take a less defensive pokemon by surprise for a quick knockout.

“Hey!” Blue turns in surprise to find the kid staring at him. “You’re Blue Oak!”

Blue blinks. He hadn’t expected his first fan encounter to be with someone so young. Was he following trainers at that age? He grins. Of course he was. “Yeah, that’s me.”

“Wooow, I saw your fight with Brock online! That last attack was so cool, I was scared your squirtle got crushed! Did you know it would be okay the whole time? When did you get to Cerulean? Are you here to challenge Misty?”

Blue finds himself striking a pose without meaning to, shoulders straight and chin up, legs slightly apart. “I’m here to beat Misty. Can I count on your support?”

“Yeah, for sure! Oh man, when are you going to challenge her? I want to be there!”

Blue fights the sudden urge to say something stupid, like Tomorrow. “Well, we’ll see how long it takes me to get through her gym members. Are you going to be in town long?”

“Oh, yeah, I live in Cerulean East. I come here all the time.”

Blue looks around. “You’re not here on a field trip, are you? Why aren’t you at school?”

The kid suddenly hesitates. “I’m here with my… mom. She’s… in the bathroom.”

“Mmhm.” Should he reprimand him? He’s got to set a good example if kids this young are already following him, but hell, who didn’t skip classes now and then? “Don’t worry, I used to do the same all the time.” Blue winks at the sudden look of relief on the kid’s face. “I’ll be sure to post the date of my challenge, so if you keep following me you’ll definitely see it.”

“Alright! I hope you get to her soon!”

“Me too, kid. What’s your name?”

“Dennis!”

“Alright, Dennis. I’m going to start my battles soon. Why don’t you head back to school and pretend you got out of bed late? That way you’re less likely to get in trouble before my match.”

“Yeah, alright! Good luck Blue!”

Blue gives a two finger salute, then heads toward the registration desk feeling lighter than air.

What was it Lance once said? “The path to strength is a path of hardship. To fear failure is to fear becoming strong.” So what if it’s a greater risk? He’s got a bag full of medicine to keep his pokemon fighting, and all day to beat Misty’s subordinates. If he can’t win with a handicap, he can’t prepare for the true challenges ahead.

He knows it’s stupid to feel any more confident just because he met some starstruck fan, but by the time he reaches the counter and slaps his trainer ID down on it, he’s still grinning.

Half an hour later, he’s standing in the first stadium, a basic training room with small arena floating in a pool of water that fills its floor, one pokeball spinning in each hand as he waits for the other door to open.

He already let Maturin test the depth of the brackish water and soak up as much as she could. He used the Pewter gym’s water rooms to train her in aquatic combat as much as he could, but its facilities were much more limited than Cerulean’s. He plans on putting them to good use while he’s here.

The other door opens, and a trainer walks in. Blue stops spinning the balls and stares. “Amy!”

The older teen winks. “Heya Blue. How’s it going?”

“I… what are you doing here?”

“Ouch, right in the ego.” She’s grinning as she mounts her platform and stands opposite him. “I’ve been here for almost a week now. Does that mean you’re not following me?” Amy starts taking out some aquatic training equipment and placing them beside the standard ones hanging on the edge of the railing.

“I am, yeah, I just… I’ve been busy.” And he’d been following her brother Donovan much more closely, only checking in on her a couple times since they left Viridian.

“I know, it was all over the news, same day I beat Misty. Do we need to start coordinating our plans, or can you just agree to not hog all the press with heroics next time I win a badge?”

Blue grins. “We can try, but it wasn’t really something I planned. No promises.”

“Figures. So, let’s do this thing, yeah? I’m sure you’re in a rush to make your mark here too.”

Blue clips and unclips balls around his belt, shoulders tensing. “Ready when you are. What are the rules?”

“Beat me. Go, poliwhirl!” The blue amphibian materializes on the stadium, skin glistening. Its clear stomach shows the swirling pattern of its internal organs before it falls onto all fours, black eyes blinking around. “This is my only decent water pokemon so far,” she explains. “I decided to join the Gym to improve my training of him and my others.”

Blue hesitates, hands hovering over each ball. “So I just have to beat this one?” From what he saw of Amy, she’s a crafty battler. He doesn’t want to underestimate her just because she’s using a single pokemon.

“Yep.”

“And I can use as many pokemon as I want?”

“Standard six. Now quit stalling and summon.”

He smiles. “Right.” That decides it. He reclips Gon’s ball and unclips Zephyr’s. “Go, Zephyr!”

His pidgey comes out standing on the platform, and as Blue catches its ball he sees the look of confusion on Amy’s face. “A flying type? Really?”

“Really.” He takes his whistle out and blows on it, causing his pokemon to take off and begin circling the arena, feeling his attention narrowing to the battlefield. The next time he breathes out, he feels his body calming, heartbeat slow and steady, every nerve ready to react.

Amy frowns, then shrugs and snaps her fingers. Her poliwhirl immediately dives into the water around them, disappearing from sight as Amy expands a metal stick and puts one end in the water, fingers poised over the buttons on the handle. “Good luck hitting him from up there. Ready, set, go!” She presses a button.

Blue whistles the command to dodge, and Zephyr flips into a sideways roll as the poliwhirl bobs up and spits a stream of water at him. Before Blue can make another command the pokemon is gone, and Zephyr continues to circle the arena. Amy keeps clicking buttons, and soon the poliwhirl appears again at the other end of the arena. Zephyr dodges another Water Gun, diving to return the attack only to find the spot of water empty and placid.

Blue whistles again to warn his pokemon away, causing him to climb altitude just as the poliwhirl appears again and shoots. The next few seconds are a rapid series of attacks and dodges, Zephyr skimming the water with his talons just as the poliwhirl ducks under again, only to come up a few meters away to fire back at the spot Zephyr was a moment before.

Blue keeps blowing on the whistle, dodge, attack, climb, left, attack, dodge, circle, trying to catch the poliwhirl with a lucky strike. Amy is focused on the match, but she doesn’t have to do as much, and he can tell from her occasional looks at him that she’s wondering what he’s doing. Her pokemon isn’t going to run out of water any time soon, and it’s faster than pidgey is.

Once Zephyr starts to tire, the shots of water begin to get closer and closer, until one clips his wing and knocks him out of the air. Zephyr recovers quickly, but Blue catches his pokemon with a return beam and quickly sends out Joey. His rattata seems confused, never having been in a stadium or training room before, but as soon as the poliwhirl leaps up from the water for its next attack, Joey dodges to the side without Blue even needing to prompt him.

“What are you doing, Blue?” Amy suddenly asks, drawing his attention to her. One hand is on her hip as she stares at him, brow furrowed. “I know you have two Grass pokemon.”

“You think I’m going to tell you my strategy just like that?” He grins.

She narrows her eyes. “So you do have a strategy? Because from here it looks like you’re not taking me seriously.”

“Nope, totally part of my plan. Promise.”

“I’ll hold you to that. It better be good.” She returns to commanding her poliwhirl, a slight frown still on her face.

Blue has less of a chance to counter her attacks from on land, but a rattata’s reaction speed is better than pidgey’s, and he manages to cleanly dodge each of the poliwhirl’s attacks, which continue to be simple Water Guns. This goes on for for a solid two minutes before Amy speaks again.

“If you think you’re going to lure me onto land, we’ll be here all day. I thought you’d be in a rush to reach Misty, after how quickly you Challenged Brock.”

“Maybe I learned some humility from losing to him,” he says, which makes her snort and command another Water Gun.

Blue is happy to keep dodging as long as he can, but as another minute drags by, he fights the urge to grow complacent. A drop of sweat rolls down his neck as he keeps his eyes on the battlefield, preserving his voice by only giving a few oral commands when needed. There’s no safe spot on the arena to hide, and since Amy’s pokemon can go to either side of the arena in moments, the closer his rattata is to the middle the more time it has to dodge attacks where even a fraction of a second makes a difference.

When Joey’s next dodge brings him closer to the side the poliwhirl is however, Amy presses something different, and her poliwhirl rises out of the water in a small wave. No time to dodge. “Quick Attack!”

His pokemon lashes out and strikes the poliwhirl just before the water crashes down around him, but Amy’s pokemon is too distracted by the strike to follow up properly. As soon as Joey rolls to a stop and shakes himself off, Blue orders another Quick Attack just as Amy sends her poliwhirl back into the water. It turns and shoots a water Gun that Joey just barely has time to dodge.

“Close,” Blue says once Joey is back in the center, ready and waiting. His heart pounds in his throat as he watches his pokemon for any sign of injury.

“Yep. Think your rattata is smart enough to stay away from the edge now?”

“Guess we’ll see.”

Amy grins and sends another volley of attacks at Joey, who does indeed keep more to the middle with his leaps. Blue keeps an eye on the water just in case there’s any obvious amounts of blood from the wound he inflicted, but the wound must have been a shallow one. He wouldn’t win this on a light tap.

Surely her pokemon is getting tired by now? He can’t tell if it’s attacking any slower, but Joey is finally starting to feel the past few minutes of constant movement. Blue watches the shots of water hit closer and closer, and debates trying an attack before Joey gets too slow…

No. Now is the time for patience, not decisive action. He’ll stick to his plan.

It happens a few Water Guns later: the poliwhirl bobs up and spurts a jet that nails Joey square in the face. The rattata’s light body goes tumbling back, and Blue withdraws him immediately. Good job. He reclips the ball, and chooses another.

“If you send out another pokemon that’s just going to dodge over and over, I’m going to just leave and declare you the loser,” Amy says, voice flat.

Blue grins. “No you won’t. You already said all I have to do is beat your poliwhirl. You didn’t give a time limit, and you’re not going to go back on that now.” He hopes. “Go, Zubat!”

This is ridiculous!” Amy glares at him as his pokemon materializes and begins fluttering around the room. “What can you possibly mean to do with that?”

“That’s for me to know, and you to find out.”

She scoffs. “Fine, have it your way.” And with that the fight is on again, the poliwhirl bobbing out of the water to spit a stream at his zubat.

Thankfully it’s as hard to hit as Zephyr was, and has its own projectile of sorts. “Zubat, Supersonic!”

His pokemon hovers in place and sends a tight beam of sound, inaudible to Blue or Amy, at the poliwhirl just as it ducks beneath the water. Blue can’t tell if it was affected or not, the move is unreliable even in the best of circumstances, but now at least he has a chance to fight back.

As the battle continues, Amy becomes visibly more cautious. Her gaze never leaves his pokemon as she presses buttons again and again, directing her poliwhirl around the arena to shoot and duck and circle around again. Blue tries to time the gap between each shot, but she keeps things unpredictable, sometimes coming up just a few seconds later on the same side of the arena, another time staying under for almost a minute before appearing at the corner nearest Blue.

Time is on her side, and she knows it. Her pokemon is in its element, barely using any energy to swim from place to place, more or less at its leisure. Meanwhile, his zubat is fluttering madly about, no stalactites or other objects on the ceilings or walls to rest on, even if that wouldn’t make it a sitting target. Blue begins to wonder if Amy’s also spacing out some of the attacks to let any confusion that might linger from a Supersonic fade. If he’s being optimistic, he can interpret her occasional button pushes that don’t result in anything as her pokemon being too disoriented to follow orders, but she’s also probably just moving it from place to place, or even trying to mislead Blue. He wouldn’t be surprised if some of the buttons on the handle didn’t do anything.

Some would call that paranoid. If there’s one thing Blue has learned from watching a thousand competitive trainers battle, it’s never to underestimate the depths they’ll go to hide their methods and mislead opponents.

He’d like to think he learned the lesson well.

“Zubat, Supersonic!”

Zubat sends another beam of sound down, but instead of dodging away as Blue expected, Amy’s poliwhirl just shoots another Water Gun, then another and another. His zubat is hit by the second and fourth, and Blue quickly withdraws it before looking at Amy’s poliwhirl.

This time its confusion is clear, the pokemon swimming left and right, then turning over to kick its webbed feet into the air for an ineffective dive. Amy keeps pressing the same button over and over, waiting for her pokemon to snap out of it.

This is his chance. But is it time yet? He could send Kemuri out now, get a quick Razor Leaf in…

“Go, Ekans!”

His pokemon appears on the stadium and uncoils. Its tongue flicks out as it gets its bearings, then turns to the poliwhirl still floating in the water. “Acid!”

Amy presses a button, and her pokemon ducks beneath the water. “Seriously?” She asks, hand on a hip. “You’re using your fourth slot for an ekans?”

Blue shrugs. It won’t leave room for Maturin, Gon and Kemuri, but if Blue’s right, he won’t need both of his Grass types. “I’m the one that should be indignant,” he says. “You were faking that confusion, weren’t you?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she asks, pressing a button, and Blue quickly yells for his pokemon to dodge as the poliwhirl attacks again.

Blue smiles. She’s attacking so soon again to prove that she didn’t get lucky with her poliwhirl diving at just the right moment. He’ll likely never know whether her poliwhirl was ever really confused or not, but it wouldn’t have changed his plans if he did.

The battle continues more evenly matched than ever, with Amy’s poliwhirl having to dodge the sprays of acid his ekans shot out of its mouth every time it was attacked. His pokemon isn’t as good at dodging as the others, but he’s able to do some damage before he takes a couple hits and Blue withdraws him. Amy’s poliwhirl has visible burns on its skin from small splashes of acid.

“Two left,” Amy says. “It’s now or never.”

Blue nods. It’s time. “Go, Kemuri!”

Amy presses a button as soon as Blue’s pokemon appears, and when the poliwhirl bobs to the surface, it grips the sides of the arena and stares at the plant pokemon in unwavering concentration.

“Kemuri, dod-”

A beam of white light flash-freezes the ground as it traces a path upward toward Kemuri. Blue’s pokemon reacts too slowly to completely avoid it, and ice covers one of its leafy arms.

Ha. Blue knew she had an ice move just waiting for him to bring out a Grass Type. Now he knows better than to use Gon for his sixth pokemon. The shroomish wouldn’t have stood a chance, with his stubby legs.

As it stands, even Kemuri wouldn’t be able to keep up… but Amy’s poliwhirl is hurt, and must be at least a bit tired by now.

The poliwhirl dives out of sight, then reappears on the other end of the arena, preparing to shoot another beam. This time Kemuri dodges it, and the match becomes a game of whack-a-diglett as Blue’s shiftry leaps from place to place, avoiding Ice Beams and swiping at the poliwhirl with his unfrozen arm. His Leaf Tornado would be practically worthless while it thawed, and Blue is tempted to focus on dodging until it does. But if he gets taken out without doing any damage, Blue would be in a tight spot. He needs to either finish things now, or weaken the poliwhirl enough for Maturin to finish it off.

For now though they appear to be at a stalemate. Each time the poliwhirl tries to fire off another beam, Kemuri reaches it before it can and swipes, forcing it to dive back under. Poliwhirl aren’t naturally capable of ice attacks, which means Amy used a TM to teach it… and while it’s useful to have the wider coverage, especially against Grass types, it would never be as efficient or effective with the attack as an Ice pokemon.

Blue’s pulse jumps as the poliwhirl suddenly shoots out a Bubblebeam on its next surface. A rapid popopopopop fills the stadium as the stream of exploding bubbles strikes Kemuri and slows it down. “Kemuri, d-”

“Poliwhirl, Ice-”

“-odge!”

“-Beam!”

His pokemon abandons its forward momentum and throws itself to the side as the poliwhirl stops its attack and concentrates on another beam of freezing white light. It catches his pokemon in the side, and Blue knows it’s now or never. “Razor Leaf!”

Shivering and half covered in frost, Blue’s pokemon spreads the leaves of one hand and swings it, sending the sharp tips of each flying out like spinning shuriken. Amy’s poliwhirl is just ending its attack when they strike it, and the pokemon immediately ducks under the water, which darkens with its blood.

Blue quickly withdraws his pokemon and waits while Amy taps a button on her controller, pokeball in her other hand. They wait in tense silence for a few moments, and then her poliwhirl jumps out of the water and lands on the stadium, glistening skin retaining most of the water so that barely any drips onto the floor.

Amy hops onto the stadium floor and inspects her pokemon’s wounds. Blue can see the bleeding gashes along its arm and to the side of one bulbous eye. They appear to be superficial wounds, not enough to take it down if this was a real fight in the wild, but…

Amy turns to him. “What have you got left?”

“I was going to use my squirtle,” he says, and wonders if he should mention his shinx. It would make quick work of her pokemon, maybe would have even beat it while it was fresh, but he’d rather not reveal it until he faces Misty, just in case…

Amy deliberates a moment, then nods. “Okay, you win. But I want to know why it took you so long to bring your shiftry out,” she says as she takes out a potion and sprays her poliwhirl’s injuries. She murmurs something to it as she feeds it a poffin, then withdraws her pokemon and leans against the wall of her platform, arms crossed. “Spill.”

Blue feels himself relax as soon as she admits defeat, and leans against his platform railing as his battle calm slowly leaks away, replaced with a giddy relief. “I was partly trying to draw out the match,” he admits. “It was a great chance to give my pokemon some combat experience.” Part of him is a little disappointed he didn’t get a chance to send Maturin out. “But there was more to it than that. I watched your fight with Misty, and I knew I had to test for a range of attacks. I didn’t want you surprising me with a reverse coverage move the way you did her.”

The corner of her mouth twitches upward. “I thought you said you weren’t following me?”

He grins. “Those were your words, I just said I’ve been busy. But not too busy to watch Misty’s most recent battles, considering my plans to challenge her and all. I didn’t know you stayed after, that was an actual surprise, but I was happy to let you assume it also meant I didn’t see your battle.”

“Hmph. Well, as irritating as it was, you definitely earned the victory.” She cocks her head a bit, considering him. “You’ve got what it takes to go far, Blue. I look forward to seeing your Challenge.”

Her calculating look strongly reminds him of his sister. The two of them would probably get along, now that he thinks of it. Daisy tends to treat him like a kid more often than not, but once he shows his competence in an area, she respects him as an equal, more or less. It’s something he appreciates. “Thanks. For the match, too.”

“No problem. You going to hit the pokemon center?”

“No, I’ll be ready for the next battle in a minute.”

She raises a brow, but doesn’t comment. “Alright, I’ll go let them know. Good luck.”

Blue sits down and opens his bag, taking potion and ether bottles out so he can start healing his pokemon up for their next opponent.


Red sits cross-legged on his bed at the Trainer House, eyes closed and earphones on. The soothing sound of the ocean rushing against the shore fills his ears, and he can almost feel the hot sand and sunlight, almost smell the salt as he imagines himself on the beach…

Wait, no, he’s supposed to be focusing on his breathing. He banishes all thoughts of the beach and just focuses on drawing air in slowly through his nose… but now memories of going to the beach crowd in, playing in the sand with the Oaks or walking between his mom and dad along the beach, his small hands in theirs… His mom’s face, so happy, and his dad, looking at him with love-

Red’s eyes snap open. He sighs, and he reaches out to stop the sound loop playing on his phone before searching for a new one. Again.

It’s been two hours since he checked into the Trainer House with Leaf and came up to claim a bed. She said she was going to buy a laptop, then go around town talking to the locals. Red was curious what she was up to, but just agreed to talk to her later. He was eager to try meditating again, this time without distractions. Unfortunately, after doing some basic practice with an audio guide’s voice, he was failing at doing it on his own, which the websites for practicing sensitives insisted was necessary.

He already went through various online suggestions: acoustic music, which he found too distracting, the sound of rain and far-off thunder, which made him sleepy, and the crackle of a fireplace, which brought back more memories of camping with his dad.

Meditation never worked for Red before. He couldn’t stop the racing thoughts that ran through his head long enough to relax or clear his mind… despite his therapist telling Red he wasn’t actually supposed to clear his mind, that that was impossible. How did she put it?

Imagine a river,” his therapist said, sitting in lotus position across from him. “It is your mind. In it, your consciousness, the thing that you call Red,” she extended a finger and touches it between Red’s eyes, “is the fish that swims surrounded by its water, your thoughts. You swim sometimes left or right, up or down… but you follow the river’s flow, barely aware of it. Only when you try and resist the current and swim upstream are you fully conscious of the effect the river has on your behavior.”

So, meditation is going to help me control the current?”

No, that is impossible. The river is you, but its current is shaped by things that are not you. The riverbank, the rocks in the earth, the rains. You cannot control the world around you. You can only react. While our eyes are closed, and we focus on our breathing, you will think random thoughts. You will hear things that draw your attention. A door closing in another office, or a phone ringing. They will distract you, return you to the river’s flow. Your job is to stay above the current. To sit on a rock in its waters, letting them flow around you, through you, wet without being submerged. When a thought flows by, pick it up, examine it… then let it go. Return to your breathing, your awareness of your body, and you will be at peace, no matter how the river rages.”

Red drums his fingers on his knee, then decides to give it a shot. He queues up a looping river soundtrack, and soon his ears are filled with the babbling of a brook, and the soft sigh of the wind through leaves above. When no memories immediately intrude, Red closes his eyes and tries to focus on his breathing again.

Breathe in… He draws the cool air into his lungs, slowly, counting to three.

Breathe out… He feels it exit his nose in a steady trickle, over the course of another three seconds.

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

This is dumb.

The thought comes unbidden, despite his desire to focus on the meditation. Red finds it frustrating that even without intrusive memories, his mind is still offering up distractions.

Breathe in…

I should be working on getting published.

Breathe out…

Or just training with one of my po-no, focus!

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Red is suddenly aware that his left foot is a bit uncomfortable, tucked under his right knee the way it is. He adjusts it slightly, then tries to go back to the breathing. Focus on the feeling of air moving through your nose and lungs. Nothing else. Just feel that.

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

The sound of the river is calming. He can almost picture himself there, and decides to do exactly that. First just the river, its banks green and surrounded by forest. Then he places a big, mostly flat rock in the middle of the river, just large enough for a boy to sit on it. He watches the water split around it, lapping occasionally at the edges. Finally he places himself on the boulder, sitting as he imagines he looks now.

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Without audio or visual distraction, he’s able to focus entirely on his thoughts and sensations. The feeling of his shirt on his skin, the pressure on his lower legs, the soft pillow against his back. His mind keeps wandering to Blue and Leaf and his mom and Professor Oak and Daisy and his dad, but in a way that gets more and more diffuse, easy for him to ignore and refocus on his breathing.

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Breathe in…

Breathe out…

Eventually he feels like he’s as focused as he’s going to get, and starts ramping up his awareness. First he focuses on the crown of his head, and, imagining a ring of light, slowly traces it down to his neck, heightening his awareness of each part it passes. When it reaches his mouth he feels his tongue stuck to the roof of it, and relaxes his jaw to let it fall. It feels strange though, and after a moment he realizes he stopped moving the ring down, too distracted by the odd sensation of forcing his tongue to find a comfortable position so he can’t constantly feel it.

He sighs and opens his eyes again. There are a couple others in the room with him, one lying on their bed and reading, the other talking on their phone. Red considers taking an earplug out to hear what they’re saying, then banishes the impulse as sheer nosiness born from akrasia.

He forces himself to close his eyes and try again, picturing the river, the rock, himself, returning to his slow, steady breaths. This time when the ring reaches his mouth, he just lets it fall open a little, leaving his tongue in a comfortable and unobtrusive position.

Unfortunately now he keeps thinking of how he looks to anyone passing by, who would probably think he fell asleep. He almost closes his mouth, then decides against it. What should he care what strangers think?

…But now he’s busy thinking that just thinking about how he shouldn’t be distracted by what other people are thinking is distracting hi-

Breathing, focus on the breathing. In… out… in… out…

He finally moves the ring of light farther down, past his chin and neck, over his chest. He becomes aware of his heart beating, and even more aware of the expansion of his lungs, before his stomach starts to distract him. It’s been a few hours since breakfast, and he’s getting a bit hungry…

Red tries to move past the sensation, but now his mind keeps wondering what he’ll have for lunch, and whether he should ask Leaf to join him, and if he should try again when he’s full. After five minutes he decides to start all over, returning to his breathing, then imagining the river, then starting the ring of light at his head and moving it down his ne-

Bing!

Red’s eyes snap open as the river sound is interrupted by the received message alert. He sighs and checks it, surprised for a moment to see that over an hour has passed since he began meditating.

His irritation vanishes when he realizes the email is from a publishing journal interested in his study.

Trainer Red,

We found your paper on the research boards looking for peer review and publication. We find your hypothesis and results fascinating, and would like to volunteer our services. If you find this agreeable, please contact us at your earliest convenience.

Yours Truly,

Advanced Research Publications

Red grins as he starts composing a response. He cautions himself not to be too optimistic, but still, it’s hard to be less excited at the prospect that today he might get his Researcher’s license. Well, not today, but from a chain of events that start today.

Once he sends his response, Red grabs a snack bar from his bag and starts munching on it as he paces, thoughts of lunch with Leaf forgotten. He notices the odd looks from the others in the room and goes out into the hallway to pace instead, checking his phone every so often even though he knows it will alert him when one arrives.

He’s looking at his screen when it does, and his grin slowly fades as he reads it. He stares for a moment, thumbs hesitating over the response keyboard. He starts typing a few times, only to delete what he wrote a few words in, until he finally just calls the number in the email signature.

“Hello, Advanced Research Publications, how may I direct your call?”

“Hi. Uh. I got an email about interest in publishing my paper, and had a few quest-”

“Please hold.”

Red listens to the waiting music with a slight frown, and continues pacing the hall. After a moment he realizes he’s still holding his snack bar and tucks it in his pocket. Of course it was all too good to be true. But still, he has to know for sure…

“Hello, this is Donald, how can I help you?”

“Hi. I’m Red Verres, I received an email about publishing my paper… I had some questions, if you wouldn’t mind?”

“Okay Red, give me one moment…” Red hears typing, and stops pacing so he can lean against the wall as he waits. “Yeees, I see. Well, what did you want to know, Red?”

“The email, it asked for… money. A lot. I just wanted to clarify, is this a submission fee, or a publication fee?” Please say publication…

“Submission, but I can assure you that we only send such offers to those we have great confidence in reaching our standards.”

“Are the offers made post peer review?” What an odd order of operation…

“No, technically that will still need to be done. But if you’re worried, we offer a very dynamic review process. And if the submission fee is a bit too high, we offer reductions if you have volunteer reviewers that will work with us.”

Red blinks. “I’m sorry, I don’t know if I heard that right. Did you just say volunteer reviewers? I pick them? To review my own paper?”

“Absolutely. We at ARP believe in an open access scientific community.”

“So I can just have my two friends submit their reviews?”

“As long as they have a Researcher’s license, we welcome their expertise.”

“Oh, well, that makes everything better.” Red clenches his teeth and takes a calming breath. It does help, but not by much. He holds out hope that maybe this isn’t as bad as he thought. “So is this submission fee in lieu of a publishing fee?”

“There is a minor publishing fee too, as we’re not subscription based. Our papers are offered free for all on our website, to ensure that your research has the highest chance of being read and cited.”

Red relaxes a little. That’s a bit more reasonable, then… and he does want people to read it, after all. “Well, how much is the publishing fee?”

“Eight hundred. But you can pay it in installments, and if you agree to review papers for our journal, we can reduce it for each journal you review, down to three hundred.”

Red’s hand rises to cover his eyes. “Because once I get published, I’ll have my Researcher license, and can review others to get their papers published too.”

“Exactly! If you’d like to submit your paper with reviewers, I can go ahead and email you the proper forms. If you have trouble finding reviewers, we can put you in contact with some who-”

“Yeah, sure, just email me whatever. Thanks.” Red hangs up and sighs. Thanks for not getting my hopes up, Past Red.

Anytime, Future Red.

Red feels like complaining to someone, and squashes the impulse to call his mom or Professor Oak. Leaf might be more acceptable, but he doesn’t want to distract her from her work. Instead he simply goes back to his room and finishes his snack bar as he lies on his bed and renews his search for journals to submit to. Journals that aren’t pyramid schemes churning out unvetted papers.

After Red submits to a few more places, he considers trying meditation again, and instead decides to scroll through recent research discoveries. There are some neat findings on different metal compositions in “Steel” Type pokemon that keep him engrossed for an hour, which leads him to some of the latest papers on interregional pokemon diversity. Red thinks back to his conversation with Professor Oak about there being no psychic rattata, and his recent readings about sensitives versus psychics.

Of course, it’s possible for there to be rather large differences in pokemon from different regions. Over millennia, natural selection is a powerful force for change. There may be no rattata that are Psychic Types, but in the Alolan islands there are Dark ones. Not just that, their raichu are Psychic, their exeggutor aren’t, their meowth are Dark, and their marowak have powers normally associated with Ghost Type pokemon. The regional differences there prove that whatever trait causes pokemon to become a type like Psychic or Dark can be introduced into a genetic pool, or manifest after enough mutation.

Red thinks of pokemon like noctowl and spinarak, who have some limited psychic powers, but aren’t considered Psychic Types. Maybe someday, somewhere in the world they’ll have developed what rudimentary powers they have, and be considered full Psychic Types.

If so, Red hopes whoever discovers them has the sense to call them something new. He wonders if researchers like Darwin debated what to call them when they discovered such variations in their travels. Red’s not sure why the alternate evolutions from Alola are still called “raichu,” “exeggutor,” “marowak” and “meowth,” rather than given their own names like others, such as gallade and froslass.

Semantic confusion aside, discovering his own variation would make for an amazing discovery. Journals would pay him to publish that paper.

Red takes out his notebook and makes a reminder to read more into pokemon breeding. If he can identify the strongest psychics in spinarak populations, maybe he can breed the first ever Bug/Psychic spinarak.

He could start reading about it now, but he has enough on his plate. With reluctance, he puts such thoughts aside and gets back to work on his abra plan. He starts drafting proposals to put on the city’s message boards to attract other trainers.

What really irks him is that he’s going to have to share the method with others. It would get out eventually, he knew, and it should, if it would lead to more people being able to catch and study abra. But it would have been nice to get some exclusive benefit out of the idea first, instead of sharing it with a dozen others, aside from Leaf and Blue.

But then, is that really necessary? Surely they don’t need a dozen. Red abandons his current draft and decides to work out exactly how many people it would take to safely enact.

He quickly realizes that while stronger trainers would require less of them, they would still need a lot of them in any case just to cover the full area necessary. What he needs is to find a place that doesn’t need so much caution, so that more trainers aren’t necessary. Or even a place near a Ranger Outpost around Cerulean Bay, where the abra are found…

Something tugs at Red’s memory. Blue. Something Blue said, recently. About abra? No, about the area. Land around Cerulean Bay is incredibly expensive to own, and a lot of it to the west is untamed, while the north…

The north.

Red sits up and calls Professor Oak.

“Hello Red! I was just going to have lunch, do you mind if I call you back?”

“No problem Professor, but I just have a quick question.”

“Yes?”

“I need to talk to Bill.”


“Thank you!” Leaf waves at the taxi as it makes a u-turn, driving off back down the singular road that goes all along Cerulean Bay. Beside her, Red looks around at the verdant fields on one side of them and the shocking blue of the water on the other. He can just make out the mountains from here, those around Moon to the west and the smaller range to the north.

“This place is so pretty,” Leaf says as the wind whips her hair back. She raises a hand to shove her hat down more securely, and slowly turns to take it all in. “I’m surprised more people don’t live here.”

“I guess that’s one of the perks to being able to afford all this land.” Red steps off the road and onto the small path through the long grass. In the distance, he can just make out a building that looks far too wide to be a single person’s house. “Lack of neighbors, if you don’t want them.”

“Makes you wonder why he invited you.” Leaf sprays herself with some repellant, then offers it to Red, who does the same. “I mean I’m happy to come along, but couldn’t you guys just talk on the phone?”

“Once he knew what I wanted, he insisted.” Red shrugs. “I’m just happy to get to meet him.”

They make their way toward the house, which slowly resolves itself into several distinct shapes. Technically the house can be referred to as a cottage, relatively small and quaint looking, but it’s connected to so many wider, more modern buildings around it that the whole thing can easily be referred to as complex. Red spots a proximity sensor stuck in the ground to their left as they get within a kilometer of it, and wonders what Bill does if there’s a real threat in the area. From what he understands, the tech-genius has never distinguished himself as a particularly powerful trainer.

They just reach the clearing around the buildings when Leaf suddenly grabs Red’s arm and pulls him to a stop. “Red, look!

Red follows her finger, and feels his heart jump into his throat. In the distance, right near the front door of one of the side buildings, there’s the unmistakable pink and fluffy form of a clefairy. The squat bipedal pokemon is just standing there, and Red quickly grabs a pokeball out of his pocket.

“Should we summon something?” he whispers.

“Might scare it off,” she says, holding her own pair of pokeballs now. “You go left.”

He nods, and the two split off to either side, moving slowly and quietly. Red can hear his heartbeat as he takes step after careful step forward, the wind threatening to blow his cap off as he stays carefully upwind of the pokemon.

Won’t matter, their hearing is much stronger than their smell, maybe Leaf should summon her Wigglytuff after all…

But the clefairy continues to just stand there as they approach, and Red gets close enough to see it’s looking right at him. He freezes, waiting for Leaf to approach it from the other side, when suddenly-

“About time. What took you guys so long?”

Red stares.

Leaf stares.

The wind blows Red’s hat off, and he doesn’t move.

The clefairy is still looking directly at him, voice surprisingly loud considering the distance between them, and all too human.

“Come on in, I need your help with something.” It turns and starts walking toward the front door.

Red stares after it, then turns slowly to Leaf, whose face is as blankly shocked as he imagines his is. It feels like his brain is broken. His mouth moves silently for a moment, then can only emit a flat, calm, “What.”