All posts by Damon Sasi

Chapter 23: The Decisive Path, Part II

Now this… this is more like it.

Hours after his qualification matches, Blue looks out over the Leader Stadium, a vast underground room. He stands just inside the challenger’s entrance, at the midpoint of one of the rectangular room’s incredibly long walls. Watching the Challenge matches on TV, Blue often thought the Pewter gym was too boring. Misty’s water sports, Surge’s electric fields, Erika’s living arena, which he saw in person once as a spectator… they all make it clear that something fantastic is happening, something that will help forge legends and shape fates. Sure, Brock’s arena is bigger than theirs, but all that space has nothing to catch the eye. From the other side of a screen, the battles might as well be happening in some big warehouse.

But standing in it himself, Blue has a new appreciation for the impact of size. “Big” doesn’t cover it. The room is goddamn enormous.

He can practically feel the vastness of the arena in the quality of the air. It seems to be as large as the entire building above it, and effectively triples the building’s carrying capacity in the event of an emergency. The stands easily look fifty rows deep and are elevated most of the way up the walls. From this distance the people on them are small as his fingernail, and he realizes that from their vantage point he probably looks even smaller in contrast to all the space before him.

He was wrong about Pewter Gym. More than any spectacle could, its stark and massive arena makes it clear: this is something important. This is a place destiny is decided.

Time to kick off his.

“Challenger, Blue Oak. First badge.”

The speakers are loud enough to easily cut through the chatter of the spectators. Before the echo begins to fade, Blue is already striding out toward the challenger’s platform as the distant applause ripple through the room. Back straight, arms casually at his sides. The stands only seem about a quarter full from Blue’s vantage point. Not a bad draw on such relatively short notice: the fact that he’s an Oak probably did a lot to help attract people. He can feel his hands trembling with excitement. Thankfully the wide screens stationed along the upper walls don’t show it. He’ll be steady once the match starts and his attention focuses on the battle. He hopes.

The dozen steps up to his platform feel steeper than they are, and once he’s above its walls and on the platform, he moves to the railing. The size of the arena from this angle makes him suck in a breath. The field stretches out below and to either side of him, at least ten times the size of the one he fought in before, like a segment of the mountain was cut out and placed under the gym. Just imagining Aeosis fighting here, weaving between the boulders and diving beneath the ground to come up beneath his pokemon, makes him break out in a cold sweat.

Thankfully, he won’t have to worry about facing that monster. He pities any trainer that saves Pewter for their last badge. Whatever Brock ends up choosing for Blue can’t be worse than the supposed demigod of Mt. Moon.

Blue refrains from wiping the back of his neck, acutely aware of the cameras trained on him. He keeps his face carefully placid, not blank and empty, but alert and at ease. Crafting his image is important, and that image has to be of someone in control of themselves.

Grinning like a madman might give a bad impression.

“Leader Brock, of Pewter City, 138th Indigo League Champion, Trainer of Aeosis, The Mountain’s Might!”

This time the applause are much louder. Brock is hard to make out in the distance, but the screens show him walking toward his platform in his usual orange and dark-khaki shirt and cargo pants. Like his gym, Brock often clothes himself in the functional rather than flashy. It makes the Gym Leader look far less imposing than the reinforced leather he wore in the forest, which he needed to safely ride Aeosis.

As Brock gets close enough to mount his platform, Blue can just recognize him with the naked eye. Brock attaches an earpiece and mic to his ear, and Blue takes out the one he was given and does the same. After a moment the earpiece comes to life, and he hears Brock’s voice in it. “Hello again, Mr. Oak. Left toggle is to talk to me, right is to use the stadium speakers. Test your mic by responding to me, then announce your challenge after I address you, and then we’ll begin.”

Blue feels along the edge of his earpiece and toggles it to the left. “Okay, ready.”

Brock’s voice booms around the stadium. “Citizens of Pewter, gym members, guests from afar, welcome. Today another has come to test his mettle in our forge. Though still in his first week as a trainer, he has shown the will and skill to attempt a place among us as equals. Blue Oak, Pewter Gym honors your request. State the nature of your Challenge.”

Mastery, Membership, or Leadership. After a trainer fights their way to the top of a Gym, those are the options for formal Challenge. Each is more difficult than the last, and dictates what pokemon and techniques Brock will use.

Blue toggles his mic’s switch to the right. “I challenge Pewter Gym for Mastery.”

“Pewter Gym accepts. Incapacitate or force me to withdraw my pokemon, and you will bear our badge. Prepare for battle!”

The platforms hum to life and detach from the stairs leading up to them. Blue looks to his right and left, where the edge of the arena’s railing goes through the bottom of his platform to help it move. He doesn’t expect the match to require much movement, but he widens his step and braces his legs just in case.

“Go, geodude!”

Blue sees the flash, and the wide arena, the huge stadium, the crowds, it all falls away as his world narrows down to the pokemon on the other side of the arena.

He doesn’t even feel insulted at Brock’s choice of a lowly geodude after he already defeated Jarod’s graveler. A pokemon in one trainer’s hands can for all intents and purposes be a completely different one in another’s.

Unfortunately his plans are now derailed. He thought up strategies to use for a number of pokemon Brock might open with, even checking the history of earlier Challenges to get an idea for what might come, but Leaders are notorious for rarely repeating strategies.

Best to play it safe and assume this one won’t be as easy to beat as the last.

“Go, Gon!”

Blue’s freshly named shroomish appears on the field, and he catches the pokeball as it jumps back up toward him. As this would be his first public match, he took the time to rename the rest of his pokemon beforehand. The mushroom waddles about, too far from the geodude to spot the threat. “Gon, battle!” His pokemon goes still, then faces outward from Blue. If Brock favors decisive actions at the opportune moment, rushing into the battle would be the worst thing Blue could do. Or would it be the best one?

“We begin the match at a distance, as often occurs in the wild.” Brock’s voice holds everyone’s attention even as their eyes are locked on the pokemon, waiting for the first move. “The challenger makes an intelligent choice of pokemon for type advantage, but more important is his wisdom to remain cautious.”

Brock puts one hand out, metal claws covering the tips of his fingers. As the stadium holds its breath, Brock taps a pattern on the metal railing in front of him, another microphone stationed close to ensure the sound is spread.

His pokemon immediately begins to pick at itself, fingers chipping off bits of rocky hide. It grabs a rock from the ground and grinds the pieces against it, then tosses the rock toward Gon before repeating the process with a new one. The stones don’t travel far before arcing down, but they never touch the ground, instead hovering above it and gently floating outward at slightly different heights and speeds.

“Stealth Rock, an environmental hazard that will punish indecisiveness by bombarding new targets with stones. With his Grass pokemon’s status effects, the Challenger could outlast us easily by alternating pokemon. We must make it harder for him to win a waiting game.”

As Brock narrates to the audience, about half of whom are taking notes, Blue racks his brain for what potential traps besides the apparent and obvious one he might walk into if he tries to go on the offensive. He can keep a respectable distance while using leech seeds or powders, but geodude’s rock throws outrange them.

Blue’s fingers twitch. He’s already been outplayed. He just thought to use shroomish’s stun spore and risk sending Zephyr out for a quick gust to send it toward the geodude, but the floating rocks would knock him out of the sky the moment he got close. Was that intentional? Did Brock confer with his subordinates before the match?

Doesn’t matter. Focus on victory and find the path to it.

There are almost a dozen rocks out now, each spinning lazily above the ground in a half circle between their pokemon and in different directions from other. Gon can take a hit from them much better than Zephyr could. As long as he can get a leech seed onto the geodude the stealth rocks won’t matter as much, but even that might take too long. In which case his best bet is to end it quickly…

“Gon, Absorb!”

His pokemon waddles toward the floating stones. As soon as he gets close to one, it begins to gravitate toward him, faster and faster until it smacks into the shroomish and knocks him to the side.

The other nearby stealth rocks, which had begun to float toward Gon, immediately slow and begin floating in other directions, repelled by the one near him. Blue watches his pokemon get to his feet, injured but still okay, and lets out a breath. The rocks don’t move quick enough and aren’t big enough to do much damage to pokemon that aren’t weak to rocks in the first place. Gon begins to run forward again, now inside the stealth rock field.

Brock taps another command onto the railing, and his geodude moves quickly as Gon closes the distance between them, pulling up and tossing a stone as big as its fist. It hits Gon square in the face, and Blue’s pokemon tumbles backward.

As he feared, this geodude is much better trained than the one he fought before. If he gets close enough for Absorb, it might knock his pokemon out with a tackle before his pokemon can restore itself.

“Gon, Leech Seed!”

“Geodude, Dig!”

Murmurs ripple throughout the stadium as Brock’s pokemon begins rapidly tunneling under the ground. Blue watches the seeds arc through the air with his heart in his throat, but they land too late on the upturned soil where the geodude disappeared.

“Our biggest weakness as Rock trainers is our speed.” Brock’s voice fills the stadium again, immediately silencing the crowd. “Our pokemon rely on their tough hides to protect them, but when they face their weaknesses they cannot afford to take every hit. Whether by training or TM, ensure your pokemon have an escape tool for emergencies.”

Blue feels his lips threatening to stretch into a smile, and wipes the sweat from his neck again. He’s losing, and badly, but all he feels is exhilarated. This is the kind of challenge he was looking for. And he can still see a path.

“Gon, ready!” His pokemon goes still as it prepares for his next command.

“What will you do now, Blue? It doesn’t look as though your pokemon can take much more. Will you try someone else?”

Blue’s head snaps up as he’s addressed directly. Leader Brock stands with his arms crossed, patiently waiting for Blue’s next move. Graciously giving him the opportunity to withdraw his pokemon.

Blue switches his mic to the private channel too. “I was considering it, but honestly? I’m thinking maybe my shroomish can take one more hit. Funny thing about that last command, it was verbal. How do you plan on bringing your geodude back up while standing all the way up on the platform?”

Blue can see Brock’s smile on the screens above, and switches his mic back to open broadcast. The audience begins to murmur, no doubt wondering what he and the Gym Leader said. The more experienced among them have probably realized already and are explaining to their neighbors: once underground, Brock can’t send any more commands to his pokemon from on his platform. Geodude will default to the behavior of a wild pokemon, and only be able to detect Blue’s shroomish if he moves.

Which means all Blue has to do is wait. If Gon were older he would be able to use Growth, temporarily boosting the effects of his attacks, but if Blue is quick enough they won’t need it.

Time ticks by, and the crowd grows restless as they watch the motionless shroomish and trainers. The floating stones continue to rotate lazily midair, but some of them have begun to lower. Blue tracks the one closest to the ground, pulse speeding up as he feels the decisive point of the match approaching. Almost… almost…

It touches down, and a few seconds later geodude’s fist bursts out of the ground beneath it with a CRACK that sends it flying.

“Shroomish, Stun Spore!” Blue yells as the geodude pulls itself above the surface, and whatever Brock taps out against the railing is too late: the spores fall over the geodude, and its movements slow to a jerky halt.

“Gon, Absorb!”

“Geodude, return!”

Applause fill the stadium as Brock’s pokemon is recalled in a beam of light. Blue quickly smooths his face of any irritation, and smiles as the cameras shift to him. League rules are clear that trainers should withdraw their pokemon in a competitive battle the moment they believe theirs has lost, as well as refrain from attacking when it’s clear they’ve won. Still, he would have liked to get the Absorb off to heal Gon up before the geodude was withdrawn.

“Well done, challenger! You have once again demonstrated the trait our gym most prizes.”

“Thank you, Leader. I learned the value of decisive action while fighting the Viridian Forest fire, and from our meeting there I knew I had more to learn. Your members proved apt teachers throughout the day.”

Blue can hear the murmur of the crowd’s distant conversations again, and his smile widens briefly. He hoped before the match for a natural circumstance to speak to the crowd, and Brock gave him the perfect opening. In the space of seconds he established that he was in Viridian helping fight the fire and that he met Brock there. He would let the listeners fill in the details themselves: if the scene they envision is Blue Oak and their Gym Leader fighting side by side against the blaze, all the better. And a final, casual mention that this was his first day stepping into the gym, for those that don’t already know it.

As for the idea that Blue was exhibiting “decisiveness,” he’s starting to have his doubts. It really feels more like patience to him. He could ask Brock the difference after he wins, but that would probably ruin the moment, not to mention make him look like an idiot.

Brock unclips another ball from his belt. A heavyball. “Then let’s put your understanding to the final test. Defeat this pokemon, and Pewter’s badge will be yours. Go, Onix!”

Blue nearly has a heart attack in the time between the crowd’s shout of excitement and his mind to catch up with what he heard: “onix,” not Aeosis. Of course. That would be ridiculous. And yet some part of him is absurdly disappointed.

The onix is an adolescent, only about six meters long. Its rocky skin is a light grey, and its horn hasn’t finished forming. None of which really matters. Brock is widely acknowledged to be the greatest onix trainer in the world. This onix doesn’t have to be Aeosis to be a threat.

Thankfully it’s one of the pokemon he was prepared for, as unlikely as it seemed. As the onix looks around at its surroundings and goes still upon seeing Blue’s shroomish, Brock opens his mouth to say something else to the audience, but Blue cuts him off. “Gon, Leech Seed!”

His bruised and battered shroomish responds immediately, and the seeds arc up and land in various spots along the onix’s segmented body. “Gon, S-!”

“Onix, Ta-

“-tun S-”

“-ckle!”

“-pore!”

Blue and Brock’s commands blend together uselessly, but the Gym Leader immediately follows his with taps from his fingers, and his onix dives forward. The tip of its snout hits Gon and sends the shroomish flying backward.

Blue already has his pokeball in hand and aimed out, tracking his pokemon through the air in a state of icy detachment. “Gon, return!” The beam flashes out and intercepts his shroomish, sucking it back into the ball.

The stadium is still and quiet for a moment, and then applause echo from every corner. Blue lowers his pokeball and stares at it a moment, then takes out his pokedex and aligns the lenses.

Something eases in his chest when it confirms that his shroomish is still alive, and he puts his dex away with a sigh. That was close. He got greedy, trying to grab an advantage even with an injured pokemon.

“Is your pokemon alright?” asks Brock in his ear.

“Yeah,” he says back. “That was irresponsible of me.”

“I train my Challenger pokemon to pull their punches, but your shroomish could easily have been crushed.”

Blue feels a flush rise in his neck. He already admitted his mistake. “I’ll be more careful.”

“I was apologizing: each of us reacted instinctually. Let’s both try to do better.” Brock switches back to public broadcasting just as the crowd is beginning to quiet down. “An excellent save by the challenger! Never forget to train yourself as well as your pokemon: both your lives will often depend on your reflexes and coordination.”

Blue tunes out Brock’s words and focuses on his options during the brief respite. The leech seeds are planted, which means he just needs to buy time. He can send Zephyr out, but a single hit by a rock would knock it down, and if this onix is anywhere near as accurate as the geodude was, that won’t take long. Blue already got lucky once: to gamble on Zephyr surviving a Rock Throw would be beyond reckless.

Which means he has one choice left. “Go, Maturin!”

His squirtle appears on the battlefield. It doesn’t take long for her to spot the massive onix facing her and drop onto all fours, head thrust belligerently outward. “Maturin, Bubble!”

His squirtle dashes forward to get in range while Brock taps out his own command. Brock’s onix uncoils itself and lunges at a diagonal, and Maturin shifts her rear feet to turn with the massive rocksnake as it weaves in and out of the rocks on the battlefield.

Maturin sends out a series of bubbles just as the onix swerves again. The bubbles hit the onix’s side and pop explosively, their water raising a cracked, white welt at each spot along its rocky hide. The onix flinches and slows in its rush, and rears back.

A roar of pain reveals a maw massive enough to fit Maturin between its rock jaws, and Maturin recoils, ending its attack. Before Blue can give another command, the onix puts on a burst of speed, lunging around to the left of Blue’s squirtle before cutting sharply to the right.

“Maturin, Withdraw!” Blue yells as his pokemon is lost to view. On the monitors above he sees his pokemon from an overhead angle as she tucks herself into her shell just before the onix wraps itself around her and constricts.

The arena is so quiet Blue can hear his heartbeats under the low grinding of the onix’s tightening coils. “Another strong play,” Brock says over the speakers. “The challenger’s chosen a pokemon with both a type advantage and a strong defense. In combination with the leech seeds, it could potentially whittle down our onix. The question, then, is simple: how long can it hold out?”

Blue watches the leech seeds stuck to the onix’s skin stretch their roots out bit by bit, green tendrils slowly spreading over the light grey stone. Too slowly. A squirtle’s shell can withstand hundreds of pounds of pressure, but even an adolescent onix can exert more than that. Blue almost pulls out his pokedex to check the exact numbers, but he knows it wouldn’t matter. The leech seeds won’t bring the onix down quick enough. He needs more time.

Blue’s hand twitches toward his belt, then stops. The onix’s body is blocking his line of sight: the pokeball’s beam wouldn’t be able to reach his squirtle. Even if he could return Maturin, Zephyr won’t last long anyway.

Did he lose, just like that? No, there has to be a way…

“Do you yield, trainer?” Brock’s voice holds no reproach, but Blue imagines the judgement of those watching. How long is he willing to let his pokemon suffer? How much is he willing to risk its life, just to win?

But he has to win. There’s got to be something, some way out…

The worst part is that he can’t even give her new commands: all of her attacks require at least poking her head out of her shell, and she was standing horizontally on all fours when she withdrew. He can see on the monitor that her limb and head openings are right up against the onix. The first thing he has to do is fix that. “Maturin, Rapid Spin!”

For a moment Blue wonders if she heard him through all that stone, but then her shell begins to turn. After a moment he sees her stubby legs and arms clawing and scrambling at the onix’s stone hide, gripping the rough sides of each boulder to turn and twist around and around until she’s sticking up vertically. “Maturin, Water Gun!” Blue shouts as Brock taps out another command.

The onix bobs its head to the side as she sticks her head out and spurts water at its face. Blotches of white spread along its skin where some of the water falls, and it responds by roaring again and squeezing tighter. Maturin is forced to withdraw completely to avoid her extremities getting crushed, and the onix seems more angry than hurt. None of the water hit where the leech seeds are.

The grinding of the onix’s boulders rubbing against each other seems to fill the arena, and Blue can see his pokemon’s shell getting squeezed tighter and tighter. As his options fall away one by one, he feels his battle calm crack and fall apart. He tries desperately to call it back, to sink deeper into the objective clarity it provides, but every second that passes makes him feel more and more like he’s back in Viridian, with the shiftry dispatching his pokemon and rushing at him through the mist… his mind fills with that panicked desire to slow time down, stop it for just a moment-

“Trainer. Do you yield?”

This last said privately in his earpiece. Brock is being gracious in victory, and all it does is awaken Blue’s anger. He wants to yell out for Maturin to water gun again, hope that his pokemon can miraculously pull it off and force the onix to release her…

No. That was the first thing, the very first rule he recognized about what separates the good trainers he watched from the bad ones. Good trainers don’t just give commands and hope for the best. Both might seem like they ask the impossible of their pokemon, but the winners are the ones that always have a plan, some path to victory.

And somewhere in this fight, Blue lost his.

“I yield.”


Blue closes the call with Red after telling him about the match and agreeing to meet him and Leaf at the nearby Trainer House soon. He’s sitting on a couch in what looks like a staff common room, which he has all to himself as he waits for Brock to show up from wherever he is. The TV is on some local news channel with the sound off, and Blue stares past it unseeing.

The last thirty minutes were a bit of a blur. After Blue was defeated and their pokemon recalled, he stood on his platform and listened to the spectators’ applause and the Gym Leader’s final lessons from the match. Then Brock told him privately to follow the attendant back at the entrance, who led him to this room and told him to make himself comfortable. There’s a table laden with snacks and beverages, but they hold no appeal for Blue. All he wanted to do since withdrawing Maturin was leave, but he smiled and nodded as if he didn’t feel hollow inside.

Giovanni. Lance. Cynthia. His idols, the youngest trainers to become regional Champions in history, were all undefeated in their gym battles. It was part of their legend, that they were pokemon masters even from a young age.

A legend that Blue won’t share. And he has no one to blame but himself. How could he ever have thought he had patience? From the moment they got their pokemon, he was so focused on getting on the road and staying on the move, all so they could reach Pewter and he could get a badge within his first week as a trainer, something not even Giovanni accomplished.

His mistakes are so obvious now. Did he really try to take on a Gym Leader with just three pokemon? Sure he had the type advantage for two of them, but so what? He knew that wouldn’t be enough, any scrub can catch the right pokemon for a gym, but most fail in their challenges. He’s a pokemon trainer, not a pokemon catcher. And just packing some training in as he travels isn’t enough.

He wonders why this is all so obvious to him now, when it does him no good. Would Red or Leaf have told him as much if he asked them? Would he have listened? The thought makes him want to find a bed and pull the covers over his head for about a week.

There’s still a small part of him that insists that he just got unlucky, that he should have sent Zephyr out and tried to stall for the leech seeds, but instead he forces himself to go over his mistakes again and again until the persistent voice of stubbornness finally grows tired of it and slinks off elsewhere.

Blue’s exhausted in general, really. He’s barely gotten any rest since they set out, and was up early to start at the gym when it opened. Just as he considers lying down on the couch and catching some shuteye, there’s a knock on the door, and then it opens. Leader Brock comes in looking annoyingly stoic as ever, and Blue gets to his feet with a mostly contained sigh.

“Please, stay seated. I know you’ve had a long day. How are you holding up?”

Blue frowns as Brock sits on the couch across from him. He was expecting a lecture about safe battle standards or basic training responsibilities, not a pity party. “I’m fine. Just a bit tired.”

“I’ll bet. You arrived when, eight in the morning? Nine?”

“Closer to eight.”

“Quite a day. They’re still talking about it, you know.”

“About what?” Blue asks warily.

“The way you ‘took the gym by storm.’ Went right through the ranks without stopping, even beating Jarod and Sharzad! I was impressed with you after Viridian, and after battling you firsthand I can see how driven you are. I bet a lot of people will come to train with you, if you stick around for another challenge.”

Blue’s spirits were rising slightly as Brock spoke, but now they plummet back to the pit of his stomach. Right. As a general standard, Gym Leaders only accept challenges from the same trainer once a month. He would have to live with this failure for weeks before he can try wipe it away with a victory, and despite his new wisdom about the need to take things slower, the thought of spending a whole month in Pewter training is almost intolerable. “I… would love to. But I’m pretty sure my traveling companions would want to move on before then.”

Brock nods. “Well, however long you’re here, feel free to sign up for our classes or trainings. You earned the admissions already.”

Blue sits up a bit. “If I do well in the trainings, is it possible we could rematch sooner than…” he trails off as Brock’s smile fades.

“No, I’m sorry,” the Gym Leader says in a voice that brooks no argument. “I know some Leaders will bend that rule once in awhile, but I never have. You fought well, but you’re not ready yet. Surely you see that?”

If admitting it to himself was hard, Blue finds admitting it to another impossible. He simply grunts and changes the topic. “So what did you call me back here for?”

“I just told you.”

Blue blinks. “What, that?”

Brock grins wide as he leans back against the couch. “What, were you expecting a browbeating? I like to talk to challengers after the match, whether they win or lose. Especially the latter. I know it can be disheartening.”

Despite himself, Blue finds himself liking Brock. He’s been nothing but courteous even when he didn’t have to be, and the Leader’s charisma is as strong as he always heard. Now that the initial bout of moping is out of his system, he remembers that he’s having a private, personal conversation with a Gym Leader. Letting such an opportunity go to waste would be like throwing in the towel on his dreams and goals altogether.

“Well I have to admit you’ve cheered me up considerably. If you don’t mind my asking, could you explain your Gym’s virtue to me a bit more? I thought I understood it, but clearly still have much to learn.” The irony of having said practically the same thing earlier for the crowds when he was sure of his impending victory doesn’t escape him.

Brock’s face lights up, and Blue recognizes the expression of an ideologue with his favorite conversation topic. Red gets like that with science all the time. “Of course! But you sell yourself short, Blue, from what I saw you understand it quite well: the commitment to act once you’ve found a path to victory.”

Blue can sort of see how that relates to the Gym Leader’s fighting style, but it seems more like a vague platitude than a specific virtue. It is, after all, something he thinks of often, and has seen mentioned elsewhere. What makes Brock’s philosophy so different in practice?

A concrete example suddenly occurs to him. “So that’s the virtue you based your signature move on?”

“Exactly. Most people think Bide is about patience, but decisiveness is the true value. Complete commitment to a principle or action, with everything you’ve got. Often that takes patience, to wait for the perfect moment, but when you see it you go after it, full force and damn the consequences. That last part can be risky, of course. That’s why I’ve stopped teaching it by default to even those that earn a badge. Much easier to just hand them a copy of the Rock Tomb TM.”

Blue’s brow furrows. “I think your technique would be perfect for my fighting style and pokemon. What would I need to do for you to teach it to me?”

Brock gets to his feet, and Blue follows, wondering if he said something wrong. “First off, complete the rest of our trainings. After that, we can talk about it, and the virtue of decisiveness, again. Deal?”

Blue looks at the Leader’s outstretched hand. After a moment he takes it with a smile. The single most important thing about completing one’s ambitions is to not let setbacks stop your commitment. To turn defeats into victories, if possible. He may not have gotten the perfect Gym record he wanted, but maybe he can earn something more valuable instead.

“Deal.”

Chapter 22: The Decisive Path, Part I

The Pewter Gym’s exterior is the most imposing in all of Kanto, so large it can house half the city’s population in an emergency, with grey stone walls thick enough to withstand a charging rhydon. The walls around the front gateway are carved to resemble an onix rearing above, and walking past its threshold feels like leaving the modernity of the city around it behind.

Once inside, that idea is quickly dispelled. Despite the grey stone of the floor and walls, its doors slide open automatically, and its light installations are strong and unobtrusive, running in thin bars along the sides of the ceiling. Trainers and gym staff walk halls with the smooth gait of people with places to be and things to do, and after a moment Blue’s pace matches theirs.

As he passes the training rooms he can hear the muffled shouts of commands, and his fingers repeatedly brush the cool metal of his pokeballs as he resists the urge to unclip and play with them. Everyone he passes has a full belt of six, and the empty spots on his belt feel crippling. His shiftry is still recuperating at the pokemon center, and while it would be nice to have the fully evolved and powerful Grass type with him, it’s not likely to be obedient anyway.

Blue’s fingers brush the pokeballs to the front of his belt. Doesn’t matter. If he’s half the trainer he thinks he is, his squirtle and shroomish will be all he needs.

To be a Champion that leads the people beyond what they think is possible, he needs to be a trainer that proves the impossible can be done. The quicker he gets his first badge, and the more handicaps he has, the greater his fame will grow.

He walks straight past the auditoriums, past the demonstration rooms, the simulation facilities, and straight to the administrative offices. It’s early enough that there’s almost no one here, and he goes straight to the receptionist at the desk and puts his trainer card on the table.

“Blue Oak, here to challenge Leader Brock for a Pewter Badge.”


The stadium is small, about twice the size of a training room. A few steps beyond the entrance door the stone of the floor stops at the edge of the stadium’s walls, which contain a brownish orange soil littered with rocks and boulders of various sizes. There’s no scoreboard, no stands for a crowd, not even a podium for the trainers to stand on, just a square of slightly elevated land on each side. All in all, barely distinguishable from the kind of room a Trainer House might have.

Even still, Blue can practically feel his blood sing as he steps onto the tiny platform raised just above the field. He tilts his head up, feeling the heat of the overhead lamps on his face. The touch of cool metal beneath his fingers is electric, and the edge of his lips twitch, threatening to split up into a grin at any moment.

This. This is where he belongs.

None of the boulders are tall enough to obstruct his sight across the stadium, and Blue takes note of which rocks might provide good cover or can be climbed for a high ground advantage. His pokemon aren’t trained well enough for him to guide exactly where they go, but if they were… there’s a great mini-plateau for shroomish to rain pollen and seeds down from, and squirtle could use the sloping rock to the side to keep away from enemies-

The door across the room slides open and his opponent steps through. He’s not much to look at: a young man in cargo pants and a tank top, hair buzz-cut short. He watches Blue with a neutral expression, tossing a pokeball between his hands as he steps onto the opposing platform.

“Blue Oak?”

“That’s me.” Blue’s fingers itch to unclip one of his balls and copy the other trainer’s motions with it, or show him up with a finger spin or knuckle roll, the way the old man had. He practiced it daily and almost has it down.

“No badges, right?”

“Yeah.”

The young man nods and rotates one hand to toss his ball out without warning. “Go, Geodude!” He catches the ball when it returns and begins tossing it back and forth again. “One pokemon, first knock out.”

Blue sends out his shroomish, the detached calm descending to stifle his annoyance and excitement. This is just a preliminary check to ensure he’s not a total scrub. He plans on ending it as quickly and cleanly as possible. “Shroomish, Leech Seed.”

“Geodude, Rock Throw.”

Blue’s pokemon contracts its body before launching a trio of seeds across the stadium. The geodude moves in slow, short jerks as its arms push it forward, and one of the sticky seeds lands directly on it and begins to spread its vines.

It doesn’t seem to even notice, simply approaching the nearest rock and lifting it over its head.

“Shroomish, dodge!”

The rock is flung in an arc, easy to avoid. It bounces along the dirt and hits the edge of the stadium with a thud. “Shroomish, Stun Spore!”

“Geodude, return.” The rock pokemon is struck by its trainer’s red beam and withdrawn, leaving the leach seed and its barely grown roots to fall to the ground as the spores descend over them.

Blue frowns at his opponent. “Your pokemon wasn’t knocked out.”

The other trainer is already leaving, ball back at his hip. “The match was over. Your next opponent will be here soon.”

The sound of the closing door cuts off the response that rises to Blue’s lips. He knows gym qualifier matches are meant as tests for competence rather than full battles of skill, but what’s the point of sending someone out with a single pokemon?

Blue calls out “Shroomish, here!” to bring his pokemon back into withdraw range, then returns it to its ball. He wonders how long it would take for someone else to come out, and hops down from his platform onto the stadium. The dirt of the ground is soft under his shoes, and he crouches down to feel it between his fingers. Soon his whole hand is underground, and his brow furrows as he begins to dig. How far down does the stadium floor go?

Soon he’s elbow deep in the dirt. He pulls his arm out and brushes it clean as best he can before shoving the displaced pile of it back in the hole and standing. Would it be cheating to plant some traps for the next trainer? Probably. In a League match he wouldn’t be able to, and a wild encounter wouldn’t give him the opportunity either.

But even if he can’t manipulate the environment to his aid, as long as he knows the lay of the land he’ll have an edge against opponents, whether they’re other trainers or wild pokemon.

Blue begins walking the stadium, kicking into the dirt with the toes of his shoes. Some parts are firmer than others, and eventually he finds a spot that feels like solid stone just beneath the soil. A quick dig confirms it, and he begins to feel outward from the solid portion of the ground, noting that it goes up to the wall of the stadium. Walking around the occasional rock, he taps first in one direction, then the other, then continues on until he reaches a corner and starts a new side. After a minute of this he steps away, counting how many he takes before the ground grows softer again.

About five and a half. Hm. Apparently the trench they dug to fill the stadium with dirt didn’t start at its borders. What can he do with that?

Not a whole lot. The dirt gives digging pokemon a great advantage, while the stone would prevent all but a few rock pokemon from going under. It would also stop plants from growing, and make it harder to hide environmental hazards.

Blue continues testing the ground until the door opens again and another trainer comes through. The girl mounts the platform on her side and gives Blue a quizzical look. “What are you doing?”

“Just stretching my legs.” Blue returns to his own platform and takes out his shroomish’s ball again. “Rules?”

“One pokemon, first knockout.” She sends out a nosepass, the peculiar looking rock pokemon gathering electric charge as it marches rigidly across the arena.

Blue shrugs and sends shroomish out again. Electric shocks won’t hurt him much, and he can use leech seed and absorb to wear her pokemon down in a couple of minutes.

However, as soon as his shroomish has landed a leech seed and began absorbing the nosepass to regenerate the damage from its shocks, the trainer returns it again, barely twenty seconds into the match.

“You win,” she says, and walks out the way she came.

Blue sighs. He expected to run through the trainers until he got as high as he could, but this is ridiculous.

He hops back into the arena and sprays his shroomish with a bit of potion to help heal any residual damage, then resumes exploring the arena. Before long another trainer shows up, and after them another, and another, as he’s tested against a variety of rock pokemon.

Roggenrola, bonsly, larvitar… each is quickly withdrawn once it becomes clear that Shroomish’s spores, seeds and absorption abilities nullify the defense of their tough hides. A trainer with a dwebble gives Shroomish his first challenge, the Rock/Bug pokemon eating the leech seeds and going into its shell to avoid the stun spores, all the while inching closer and closer while Blue tries to direct his pokemon’s waddling retreat.

Once his shroomish gets backed into a corner, Blue’s calm gets tinged with worry, and he switches Shroomish for Squirtle. If it likes to hide in its shell so much, I’ll drown it in the damn thing. As soon as the Water type comes out however, the opposing trainer withdraws his pokemon and declares Blue the victor.

Blue rubs some sweat from the back of his neck. It’s a bit frustrating to have the battle called so abruptly, almost like he’s being cheated out of showing what he’s capable of, but for once he’s glad of it. He wants to preserve Squirtle’s water as long as possible, and generally avoid his pokemon getting tired out. It’s been almost two hours since his first battle, and the adrenaline of each fight is starting to tire him out once it wears off.

He brings Shroomish back out to give it the once over. The mushroom pokemon’s edges are drooping, its movements sluggish. Blue opens his bag and takes some food out for it, frowning slightly. Food and potions can only go so far: his shroomish has maybe another few minutes of fight time left before the exhaustion starts to really show.

Its leech seed supply is running low too. He counted eighteen seeds used, out of the roughly thirty the average shroomish stores. He’ll have to get a full count at some point…

The next trainer comes out, and this one Blue recognizes: it’s Jarod, the gym’s Third in command. The trainer is in his late 20s, with spiky orange hair and a thin scar that stands out against his dark skin. It stretches from ear to ear across his cheeks and nose, splitting his face almost evenly across the middle.

Blue stands, brow raised. “Already?”

“Brock said to keep an eye out for you. It’s clear that any more of the same would just be wasting time.” Jarod unclips a greatball as he walks to his platform.

Blue eyes the ball warily as he walks around to his. “Works for me. So what’s the deal? Another quick test?”

Jarod smiles, and casually tosses the ball forward. It spits out a graveler in a flash of light. “First knockout.”

Blue smiles back. Things are finally getting serious. “Leech Seed!”

“Graveler, Rollout.”

A jolt goes up Blue’s spine as the graveler pitches itself forward with its thick legs and arms, dodging the seeds that arc toward it and rolling toward his shroomish. “Shroomish dodge!” He yells, and his pokemon thrusts itself haphazardly to the side, luckily in the right direction to barely avoid the oncoming mass of living stone. The graveler rolls past and strikes a boulder close to the edge of the arena, ricocheting off and catching itself on its hands and feet before launching forward again.

Blue doesn’t give it another chance, pokeballs already in hand. “Shroomish, return!” So that’s the game, is it? His shroomish can’t dodge forever, and it would be hard for leech seeds or other status impairments to hit the graveler while it was moving like that. Even if one landed, it would take awhile to wear the large pokemon down. With that much weight and strength behind the enemy’s roll, his squishy shroomish couldn’t afford to risk a single hit.

Which means he needs something tougher. “Go, Squirtle!” His pokemon appears on all fours, looking around curiously until it spots the graveler. “Bubble!” he shouts just as Jarod yells “Rollout!”

The turtle sucks in a deep breath, then coughs out a stream of bubbles that float toward the onrushing graveler. “Withdraw!” Blue says, and his pokemon ducks into her shell. The graveler rolls straight into the bubbles just as they begin to lose their forward momentum and drift downward, and upon touching each a loud bang is heard, accompanied by a flash of light.

The rock pokemon didn’t achieve much speed yet when it hit the bubbles, and they knock it slightly to the side. Squirtle takes a glancing hit and bounces up against a rock before uncurling from her shell and returning to a ready position.

The graveler also reorients itself, light discolorations on its rocky skin where mist from the bubbles hit. It growls in irritation more than pain, and prepares to launch forward again. Blue quickly yells “Water Gun,” but Jarod says “Defense Curl” and his graveler huddles down on the ground, protecting its face so that only its back is hit. The pokemon’s stone skin turns white and cracks in numerous places from the water, but when its trainer commands it to Rollout again it does so without apparent difficulty, and Blue counters with another Bubble and Withdraw.

Squirtle bounces against two rocks this time before fetching up alongside the edge of the stadium. To his relief she still seems unharmed when she emerges from her shell, and he absently wipes some sweat above his eye as he watches the graveler careen around the other side of the stadium. With its water allergy (shut up Red, no one cares if it’s “not an ‘actual’ allergy”) a direct blast to the graveler’s face would be a one-hit-knockout. Until he can get a clear shot, Bubble will at least slow it down with minimal water use… but he doesn’t know how much longer squirtle can avoid a serious injury, and there’s another way he can slow it down too.

Graveler’s not just a Rock type, but also Ground because of its reliance on being in its element… and Squirtle’s water counters that too.

Graveler comes at his pokemon again and again, and each time Blue’s pokemon is knocked around, he keeps a careful eye on its surroundings. Finally the turtle lands in an area near the middle mostly devoid of rocks, and the Graveler prepares itself to rollout again.

“Squirtle, Soak!”

His pokemon hesitates a moment, not having a target in front of it, then belches a brief flood of water onto the ground, drenching the soil in a spreading circle. The graveler launches itself forward just as Jarod yells “Graveller, stop!”

The boulder pokemon tries to halt itself, too late. Its momentum carries it forward another few revolutions, just enough to get it well and truly stuck in the patch of mud, its weight too much for its stubby arms and legs to pull itself out. Blue was prepared to command his squirtle to withdraw in case it made it through, but he’ll never get a cleaner shot than now. “Squirtle, Water G-!”

The graveler is caught in a beam of light and disappears back into its ball. Jarod bounces it in his palm with a thoughtful look on his face. “Took you longer than I expected to think of that.”

Blue scowls as he withdraws his squirtle. “I waited for a good position.”

“The starting position was perfect for it.”

He’s right. Squirtle began the fight in a part of the arena similar to where it ended. “I was taken by surprise at first.”

“Right. Which is why I said you took longer than I expected.”

Blue feels heat brush through his chest, and takes a moment to keep his voice calm. “Well you were a bit slow on your reaction, for someone that saw it coming.”

“Not really. My pokemon began moving just as you did it, so my command wouldn’t have stopped it in time anyway.” Jarod’s voice is mild, his gaze locked on Blue’s from across the arena. “So you didn’t time it that way on purpose? Lucky you.”

“Lucky?” Blue’s laugh is sharp. “If that’s what you want to call your screw up. If you didn’t slow your pokemon down it might have made it through. The mud would have stuck to it, hurt it plenty, but you good as killed it.”

“That looked like your idea actually, if I hadn’t returned it in time.”

“You said to first knock out! I didn’t know you considered the fight over!”

“It should have been obvious that the fight was over. But I guess I’m forgetting you’re still a novice.”

“Oh that’s crap! One more Water Gun wouldn’t have killed your graveler, and the damn thing would have crushed my shroomish like a Bug type if it hadn’t dodged in ti-you think that’s funny?”

Jarod’s laughter stops, but he’s still grinning, face transformed from its earlier calm. Blue can feel his pulse in his temples, and takes long, deep breaths as his rage burns through him.

“If you want to train under Brock,” Jarod says conversationally, “You need to develop thicker skin.”

“And you need to learn how to accept a loss,” Blue spits back. “How did someone like you make Third?” Even as he’s saying it, the realization strikes that Jarod’s been baiting him, and it only makes him madder.

Jarod cocks his head, still smiling. “You think you’re a better trainer than me?”

“I know I am, or I wouldn’t be here. Is this the part where you pull out your real pokemon and make it fight my squirtle?”

“Would you accept such a challenge?” Jarod asks, sounding genuinely curious.

You bet I would almost makes it past his lips, but he bites them to stop it. The Third’s personal pokemon would crush him. He knows that, and he can’t put his pokemon in such a risk just for his pride. “Give me a month, and I’ll take you up on that.”

“A month,” Jarod says, voice flat. “That’s not even enough time for your squirtle to evolve.”

Probably not, but it might be enough to train his shiftry… “Is that a no?”

Jarod stares at him for a moment, and then cracks a smile. “Sure, why not. One pokemon, first knockout.”

Blue’s grin is savage. “You’re on.”

Jarod tips a salute and turns for the door.

Blue lets out a breath and wonders how long he has until the next trainer comes out. He summons Squirtle and takes out his water bottle, letting her drink it all down as he sprays her with the rest of his potion. Her battle wasn’t long, but it was hard on her, leaving visible scratches on her shell and her skin dry. He picks her up and takes her down to the mud she made, letting her play around in it for awhile to soak back up some of the water she lost. He grins as she burrows slightly underneath and pokes her head out to look up at him.

For the first time since starting, he considers taking his pokemon to a center to heal up and rest. He could do it… it wouldn’t cost him any progress from his earlier victories. But it would cost him time, since he can’t be sure when the next trainers up in the ranks will be ready for him. It might not be until tomorrow. It might not be until even later.

The quicker he gets his badge, the more his legend will grow. No way is he going to call it quits after his first actual match of any challenge.

Blue summons Shroomish so both pokemon can catch a breather in meatspace. He sits down and rests his hand on his shroomish’s dome as it dozes. Squirtle crawls over his legs and gets mud all over his pants, and he takes out some seaweed crisps to feed her.

He wonders how Red and Leaf are doing. He pulls out his phone he sees a text from Red from about an hour ago. His fingers hover over the screen to respond, then withdraw as he puts the phone away. The mood is too relaxing to break with a chat right now. He closes his eyes and leans his head back as his squirtle curls up next to him.

Sometime later, the door opens again. He gets to his feet and withdraws his pokemon, then sucks in a sharp breath.

Sharzad, Second Leader of the Pewter Gym, is mounting her platform. She smiles down at him, one hand resting on a ball at her hip.

“Expecting someone else?”

“Sort of.” He thought he’d passed some marker, gone on to the next level of Gym members. Instead he’s facing the Second now? Does that mean… “If I beat you, is Brock next?”

She grins. “Depends on how you beat me. This hasn’t been a binary evaluation, even from the start.”

Blue nods slowly. He knows every gym operates a bit differently in how they organize their internal structure and deal with challenges. There’s also talk that each Gym Leader looks for different qualities in trainers… things that they believe are most important to being a master.

It’s not hard to guess what Brock, master of Rock pokemon, might think is the best quality. Something that revolves around his favored type’s strengths. You need to be patient when you run a defensive strategy.

Is that why he’s been rising up the ranks so quickly? Is he showing strong patience? It’s not a quality he’d normally assign to himself, but maybe it’s true for pokemon battles. He was using a slow and steady strategy after all. And they definitely have the room recorded: maybe he was being watched between matches, to see if he’d grow restless or not use his time well.

Blue smiles as he mounts his platform. Patience. Yeah, he has that when he needs it. A true pokemon master and Champion needs every positive trait, and it’s good to have acknowledgement of his potential so soon.

“Ready?” Sharzad asks, shaking her long dark hair back and slipping a band around it.

“Single knockout again?”

“Nope. Full lineup.”

Blue’s fingers tap Squirtle’s ball at his hip. In this kind of battle, only having three pokemon is a huge handicap… but he only sees one at her hip. “Alright.”

She unclips her ball and tosses it. “Go, Tala!”

A flash of light, and Blue’s heart sinks as a cradily appears. One of the resurrected ancient pokemon, the rock skinned plant pokemon is the perfect counter to his team. He knew Sharzad favors its family, but he didn’t think she’d use one against him. The Rock/Grass type would have an equal defensive advantage against all three of his pokemon, but still have an advantage offensively against Squirtle with its Grass attacks, and could knock Zephyr out of the sky with rocks. That leaves Shroomish, but the cradily would be immune or counteract the mushroom’s spores and seeds, and without those he has no edge. Meanwhile the cradily can produce acids and toxins that Shroomish can’t risk being exposed to.

He’s so screwed.

And yet instead of feeling angry or frustrated…. he feels the calm of the battle cloaking him again. This is just another step. Just another challenge on the way to Champion, and no one, no one, is as deserving of that title as he is.

He can win this. Winning is what he does.

Cradily’s weakness is its immobility. Its suction cups can attach to almost any surface, but they’re currently sticking it in place on the arena floor, where it’s also spreading down roots to feed through. The rocks around it are a dangerous resource at its disposal, but they’re still a resource. Blue can assault it like a fortress, attack it from below and above after starving it out.

“Ready whenever you are!” Sharzad calls out gaily, and Blue’s hand unclips and flings out a ball in one fluid motion.

“Go, Shroomish!”

His pokemon appears, and Pewter’s Second doesn’t waste a second. “Tala, Rock Slide!”

Vines thick as Blue’s leg punch into the dirt and begin to heave. The ground of the arena shifts as it rakes up and flings a dozen small boulders.

“Shroomish, dodge!” They spray the field in an arc of noisy collisions, and his pokemon barely gets out of the way on time. “Shroomish, Leech Seed!”

The seeds are shot out, and Sharzad’s pokemon ignores them, acids on its flower petals quickly overcoming the seeds and killing them before they can grow. As predicted.

Unlike the dwebble though, the cradily doesn’t recognize the seeds that failed to wrap around it as food, and those that survive drop to the ground and begin to take root. The soil is too dry and lifeless for them to grow much, but some pale green vines creep out.

“Rock Slide!”

“Dodge! Leech Seed!”

“Rock Slide!”

“Leech Seed!”

Patience. That’s the key to fighting the strength of the earth itself. You’ve got to have patience. Thankfully, plants and water also have patience: patience enough for their roots to split stones, for their waves to wear them smooth over thousands of years.

“Rock Slide!” Sharzad yells, and this time one of the rocks hit his shroomish and knocks it back.

Blue watches, heart in his throat, as his pokemon slowly gets back to its feet. It seems to walk alright (though it’s hard to tell with its waddling gait), and Blue and Sharzad exchange a look, then a nod. Injured, but still good to fight.

Still, the idea that her pokemon is gathering more ammunition below the surface, and maybe even began before their match officially started, makes this plan much more risky. How far can it reach, exactly?

Blue feels worry thread through his shoulders and brow in rigid lines as he considers the possibilities. If he can’t cut it off… but the battle calm won’t allow for second guessing his plan at this point. It’s the only chance he has, the only path to victory. He has to see it through.

“Shroomish, Leech Seed!”

“Tala, Rock Slide!”

This one hits again, and sooner than he’d like, he has to withdraw his pokemon. The dirt around the cradily is carpeted with growing, interwoven vines, but he could have gotten a few more seeds off before running out… “Go, Squirtle!”

“Tala, Rock Slide!”

“Squirtle, Withdraw!”

His pokemon hides in her shell as the rocks hit, then emerges. There are new scrapes on her shell, but she seems unhurt. Blue grins. “Good girl!”

Sharzad crosses her arms over her torso, eyebrows raised. “A Water type? I’ve been curious about your plan, and I can’t wait to see where you’re going with this. Tala, Rock Slide!”

“Squirtle, Withdraw!” Fortunate for him, the ancient pokemon doesn’t produce Leech Seeds, and the rest of its Grass attacks are close range. Unfortunate for him, Blue needs to get close to use Soak, his most effective way to spread water. He’ll have to do what he can at a distance.

“Squirtle, Water Gun!”

The burst of water hits the cradily with no apparent effect, its rocky portions not affected the same way other Rock pokemon are. It might even be benefiting from the water, drinking it in, but that’s fine: what he cares about is the water that hits the ground by it, quickly getting soaked up by the ever growing vines of Shroomish’s leech seeds.

“What’s this? Trying to raise a dangerous garden around her?”

Blue doesn’t ask how she knows her pokemon’s gender, focusing instead on Squirtle’s timing to withdraw or try and dodge the next few oncoming attacks.

Soon an almost solid green carpet is spread around the cradily, though none are touching it: every time its vines try to curl around the pokemon’s trunk, it releases an acidic sheen to kill them off. Blue doesn’t command Squirtle to keep attacking: it’s time to focus on the defensive.

Sweat plasters Blue’s shirt to his skin, his eyes unblinking on the arena as he watches for every little twitch the enemy pokemon makes that might betray another attack. Sharzad has largely stopped commanding her pokemon, and it continues to occasionally fling or roll or tumble rocks at his squirtle. The arena is looking almost completely different now, with a wide spread of rocks in various sizes against the wall and in an arc from the cradily.

And finally, it happens: a hesitation. A pause, as Blue’s pokemon stands ready and defiant despite being hit twice more, and the plant pokemon stares back, vines still stretched below the much overturned and pilfered through soil.

“Tala, Energy Ball!”

Now.

“Squirtle, return! Go, Zephyr!”

His pidgey soars through the air with chirps of joy as cradily begins gathering motes of green light. The Energy Ball floats forward, a green mass of light that almost seems to swarm within itself. It peters out and dissolves into little bits the farther it goes, and eventually fades away long before it reaches his pidgey. When Zephyr spots the pokemon that’s facing its trainer, it soars down to perch on his shoulder. Blue smiles and strokes its feathers. It was good to see him flying. After his battle with the shiftry, Blue worried that he never would again.

Blue raises the whistle to his lips and points forward with his other hand. “Zephyr, Wing Attack!”

His pokemon launches itself with a flap of wings that cools his skin. It soars at the enemy with a battle cry, buffeting and slashing at its exposed plant parts.

“Tala, Smack Down!”

Her pokemon tries, its vines writhing beneath the ground as best it can with all the leech seed clogging and guarding the easy paths down. Or maybe it’s just simply out of rocks, as he hoped.

“Tala, Acid!”

One short blast on his whistle, and his pokemon dodges up.

“Tala, Mega Drain!”

Two short blasts to back off. Zephyr is able to harass and attack Sharzad’s pokemon almost without fear, dodging or gaining altitude to avoid whatever attacks do come his way. Meanwhile the cradily is getting badly torn up, and all the leech vines spread around it are cutting off its ability to draw more nutrients from the ground to heal itself.

It’s done. Victory is a heady rush, and Blue grins as Zephyr dives in and tears off another of the cradily’s long pink tentacle-petals, leaving it with one left. A moment later Sharzad withdraws her pokemon with a crooked smile. “Good match.”

Blue withdraws his pidgey, then feels like collapsing back down from relief, unaware of how much tension he was holding in. Instead he takes a deep breath and smiles back. “You too. So, did I pass?”

“Faced with a major type and experience disadvantage, you managed to restrict and starve out my pokemon’s attacks before launching an effective counter strike. I’d say that’s a yes.”

Blue grins and clips his ball. “Should I wait here for him?”

She laughs. “What are you, nuts? You’re not fighting Brock in a dingy place like this. Besides, the area’s a mess.” She’s not wrong: the tossed rocks, the mud pile, the interwoven mat of leech seeds… “And you shouldn’t be fighting him at all without resting up and doing some training, but if you insist, I’ll show you the waiting room for the main stadium. In the meanwhile, it’s time for you to get your pokemon healed. It’s impressive that you did all this in one go, but I don’t want you losing to Brock at anything but your best.”

The words main stadium are still ringing in his head, and he follows her out the door. “To be honest I kind of expected another test of some kind. Like, sitting there for an hour straight until he was available.”

Sharzad tosses her hair over a shoulder to give him an odd look. “Why would we do that?”

“You know, to test my patience. I guess I demonstrated it enough though, huh?” She’s staring blankly at him. “The trait Gym Leaders value? It’s patience for Brock, isn’t it? That’s why you guys let me challenge you so quickly?”

The gym’s Second laughs, the sound bouncing off its stone corridors. “Oh, no, that’s not Brock’s virtue at all. We didn’t even consider that when reviewing your matches.”

Blue feels heat rising in his cheeks. “But… then what-”

“It’s kind of the opposite, in fact. Patience on its own can be useful, but too much is a bad thing. As Rock trainers, we know that giving our opponents too much time will let them circumvent our defenses.” She gives him a lopsided grin. “Someone with patience would probably have more pokemon before challenging a Gym Leader.”

Blue’s flush spreads, and he fights down the argue how patient he was being. She doesn’t understand what he’s trying to accomplish. Besides, whatever this other trait is he clearly has that. “So what does Brock value?”

“Knowing when to strike decisively. Knowing when to take a risk, rather than waiting forever and playing it safe. If you’re always waiting for the perfect moment… sometimes, that can cost you everything.” Sharzad’s gaze is distant, tone soft, and Blue gets the feeling she’s thinking about something more personal than pokemon battles. “Sometimes the strongest play you can make is the one with the highest risk. And a true master knows when those situations are, and commits to them mind, body and soul.”

Chapter 21: Sample Bias

The Pewter Museum of Paleontology is one of the city’s crown jewels, almost as massive as its gym. It’s situated to the far north of Pewter, where the slopes of the surrounding mountains are traced with roads and pockmarked with mansions of the city’s most wealthy inhabitants. In the deepening twilight, Red watches through the cab’s window as the museum’s external lights suddenly turn on and highlight it, so that it’s visible from miles away.

He gently massages his right arm, morbidly drawn to feeling the muted tenderness deep within it. He was released from the hospital just an hour ago, and texted the others to let them know. Blue didn’t respond, but Leaf said she was still at the museum, so after stopping by the pokemon center Red used some of his swiftly dwindling funds to take a cab there.

As he waits, Red goes over his finances. The new week is coming soon, which means he’ll be able to take out another $100 from his savings of $2,148. His mom deposits a portion of his dad’s pension into it every month, adding another five hundred or so. He did some heavy spending to get ready for the journey, but now he’s hoping to live a bit frugally to start building his savings some more.

The problem is new opportunities to spend keep popping up, like paying Psychic Narud to help with his research, let alone any lessons. At times like this the weekly allowance limit is grating, but he knows that one of the best ways to exercising self control is to have such artificial limits until they become habitual.

The best solution he can think of is to apply to a research institution for funding. He has to preregister his hypothesis and research methodology anyway, so putting in some more work for an application to some places might be worthwhile. But at this point he’s not particularly sure his original hypothesis is even worth testing anymore.

When Red met Psychic Laurie and explained the situation, the doctor grumbled and muttered to himself a bit as he felt around in Red’s mind, much the same way Narud had. Even prepared for the sensation this time it was still disconcerting, and Red was relieved when the doctor finished, even though he simply confirmed Narud’s estimation and left to see his next patient without another word.

With his spinarak’s attack confirmed as a ghost move instead of a psychic one, his own supposed psychic trauma could explain why it was so strong against him. But it doesn’t exclude the possibility that it was still an abnormally strong attack paired with a particularly vulnerable target. The high concentration of “Other” that his pokedex detected in his spinarak might still be a significant indication of powerful ability.

It’s a thin thread, and seeming thinner all the time. Still, the experiment might be worth running regardless: for the personal experience, yes, but also for the field as a whole. A null finding is still important, so that anyone else who has a similar hypothesis can look back and see his research found no correlation. Such failures are integral for the pursuit of science to march on.

Red sighs. It just sucks to be the one to eat the cost of it, this time.

The taxi pulls up to the front of the museum, and Red hands the cabbie a twenty before stepping out into the night, tucking away his three dollars of change. It’s just his imagination that his wallet feels lighter, surely…

Red begins to climb the right side of the steps toward the museum entrance. An irregular stream of people walk down the left, mostly younger kids with their parents. About halfway up there’s a huge recess in the staircase, with a bronze statue of an aerodactyl skeleton on a podium. Red smiles as he watches a girl of about 5 reach up to grasp the last bone of its long tail, only to be shoo’d away by her father.

Red reaches the top and pushes through the glass doors, into the wide and well lit lobby. His eyes are drawn up to the dome above him, which has been painted to look like an overhead view of an excavation site, with people working to unearth some unidentified skeleton. Red hasn’t been to the museum since he was the little girl’s age, but he remembers the sense of wonder it evoked. He knows it’s had a lot of renovations and new exhibits since he was last here, and an echo of that wonder returns as he heads toward the ticket stalls.

“One please,” he says, and slides over another five. 43… He forces a smile at the receptionist and enters the museum proper, trying to shake worries of his diminishing cash for awhile and enjoy himself. After the past few days, he figures he deserves it.

The museum is a honeycomb of interconnected sections, each chamber focusing on a different topic. Red starts by entering a long, looping hall, its outside wall showing different strata of earth with pictures and descriptions of the fossils that have been found in each. Occasionally a sample will be on display in a plastic box sticking out of the wall, and Red stops around the middle of the 64-66 million year stratum to admire the perfectly preserved skull of a baby tyrunt, each tooth the size of his fingernails.

The inside wall of the curving hall opens into different rooms that further explore the time period it’s across from. The earlier rooms each cover shorter periods of time, but once it gets far enough back, it’s not uncommon to see tens of millions of years lumped into one room. Red goes into one of the last ones, which is between the 350 million and 400 million year stratum. It’s designed to look like it’s underwater, with blue tinted lights and bubbling aquariums, to fit with all the fossils here being from aquatic creatures. A relicanth swims lazily in a tank set in the far wall, ignoring the two kids that are tapping on the glass to get its attention.

Red’s phone buzzes, and he sees a message from Leaf asking where he is. After he responds, he wanders over to one of the walls with a lot of writing on it.

From here on back in the fossil record, we find nothing but aquatic creatures. This isn’t an accident! The ocean is considered by many to be the source of the first lifeforms: did you know that there are more Water pokemon than any other type? Some scientists believe that hot ocean vents created the perfect environment for the first organisms to form. Whether that’s true or not, current evidence indicates that land creatures didn’t show up until far after aquatic ones, and the earliest specimen show many of their same features. Whether the result of natural processes or some intelligent creator, the ocean is one of the most fertile grounds for discovering secrets of the potential origin of life on earth, and clues to the origin of species.

Under the writing there’s a progression of different skeletons, each vaguely less fishy than the last, with the age marked next to each. Red moves on to the next wall, which shows specimen from this time period.

He stares at a sectioned omanyte’s shell, admiring the polished gleam of each chamber and smooth geometry of the septa’s curvature. The origin of species… it’s not hard to imagine some intelligent creator when looking at things like this. Pokemon like klink and magnemite seem far too organized to have just popped into existence on their own. Far easier to grasp the idea of a purposeful creator than the sheer, mind boggling mathematical odds of pseudo-random natural processes forming such complex, working organisms.

But you can’t just look at one thing and draw conclusions from that. Avoiding such sample bias is fundamental to science. You can support any conclusion you want if you only look at examples that fit your hypothesis.

If you examine one species in a vacuum, like omanyte, it might make sense to believe it was designed by some intelligent creator that values beauty. But if such a creator exists, they’re terribly inconsistent in exhibiting that value.

Yes, the omanyte’s shell is beautiful, by many human standards of beauty anyway. But what about a vertebrate’s skeleton? Not particularly considered beautiful. Or the chitinous form of insects, which many like himself find outright repulsive?

So if beauty isn’t a recurring theme in nature, then maybe some other value was prioritized. The beauty of the omanyte’s shell compared to the chitinous form of a spinarak might be subjective, but order is fairly objective. Life may not all be beautiful, but perhaps an argument could be made that it’s organized? Klink are living beings made of moving gears. Surely that’s the fingerprint of an organized creator?

Red snorts. Voltorb, another pokemon that came into existence more recently, are so volatile that they often live short, fairly pointless lives before exploding, without even attempts at reproduction. The route of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in non-fish vertebrate travels from the brain to the larynx by looping around the aortic arch. In adult giraffarig, that means about twenty feet of extra nerve, a particularly wasteful and pointless design, the result of chaos, not order…

Or maybe expecting gods to follow human concepts like reason and consistency is mistaken on its own, and there are multiple who care about different things, or just one that has no unified or consistent methodology. In which case, trying to understand them would be worse than useless.

But anyone could cloud any idea in contradictory or inconsistent aspects to shield it from logical examination. Not being able to understand something doesn’t affect its potential truth value at all, nor justify believing in it.

Red yawns and leans against the exhibit, surprised at how weary he is after spending so much time in bed lately. Maybe it had something to do with his psychic experience earlier. He wonders if he should tell Leaf about it right away, or wait until Blue’s around too…

The bubbling of the water tanks and the chatter of the museum visitors makes for a soothing background noise, and he rests his forehead against the cool glass of the exhibit, feeling oddly detached from himself. As the dozens of voices buzz around him, Red admires the path of the helix spiral from an inch away, musing over whether the clue to some god lies somewhere in its curves, perhaps one of order and chaos, his gaze following the loops up right down left, up right down left, up right down left…

“Red!”

He turns and sees Leaf jogging toward him with a wide grin. “It’s good to see you up and about! Isn’t this place great? Come on, you’ve got to see this new exhibit that’s going up.” She grabs his left arm and begins to pull him past the rest of the aquatic fossils section. “I’ve been talking to the researcher in charge of it, and it looks fascinating, especially since we’ll be passing by Mount Moon soon.”

Red lets her drag him along as his senses return. “What’s it about?”

“Another explanation for the possible origin of life!” She waggles her other hand’s fingers, voice deepening. “Frooom spaaaace!”

Red grins. “Radiopanspermia? I thought that was proven unlikely: any bacteria that can travel by radiation pressure would be too small to survive in space without protection. Also what does it have to do with paleontology?”

“Not radiopanspermia, lithopanspermia.” They’ve exit the strata tunnel, and Leaf lets go of his hand as they walk together toward the back of the museum, past the artificial indoor dig site and theater room. “The bacteria hitches a ride on or in meteorites.”

“So not from space then: from another planet and then through space. What bacteria can survive in space? And planetary re-entry?”

“Cyanobacteria have been shown to do the first but not the second, but non-photosynthetic organisms deep within rocks to protect them have a chance to survive the exit and entry process.”

Red’s brow rises. “This has been tested?”

Leaf grins. “That’s what the exhibit is for. Many of the conditions were simulated of course, but it seems possible.”

They reach a doorway with a Coming Attraction banner over it, where a splashy cardboard graphic showing a meteor strike advertises the new exhibit. Red slows down, but Leaf walks around it and through the doorway.

“Uh, Leaf…?”

“Come on back, it’s okay!”

Red follows her, and they emerge in a half finished showroom. Most of the floor is still bare and empty, and the walls are bright with a recent coat of paint. A worker is at the top of a ladder installing some lights, and two more are pulling things out of a Container box while a fourth puts the lid back on his and withdraws it into its ball.

Leaf leads him to the side through another door, and this room is clearly much closer to being done. It looks like a small lab, with a focus on equipment and samples. An older woman is testing an unusually large and wide centrifuge on the far side of the room, her grey hair tied back in a ponytail as she peers through her glasses at the spinning machine. She’s dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and flip-flops, and when Leaf and Red approach she looks up with a smile.

“You must be Red.” She holds out her hand. “I’m Dr. Brenner.”

He shakes it, marveling anew at how normal his arm feels. “Red Verres. What’s your field of study, Dr. Brenner?”

“Officially it’s microbiology, but lately I’ve been branching out.” She pats the edge of the centrifuge. “Lately I’ve been studying astrophysics more. It’s fascinating stuff.”

Red nods. Like math, he finds studying physics more pragmatic than fascinating, but that might just be because he’s not as good at it as he’d like to be. “We’re not interrupting anything, are we?”

“Oh, no, not at all, I’m glad for the company.” She shuts off the centrifuge, and they watch it slow to a stop. She takes empty beakers out and puts them aside. “I’m just testing the equipment before the grand opening. Would you like the not-so-grand pre-opening tour?”

“Sure. I know the basics, but I’m curious to know what you’ve got on display here.”

Leaf stays behind to read the info-placard by the centrifuge as Red follows Dr. Brenner around the lab. “Well, there are a number of aspects to lithopanspermia that needed to be verified for the hypothesis to stay viable. First off, microbial life would need to be capable of surviving the stress of planetary ejection, that is, the gravitational pressure of escape velocity.”

“Is that what the centrifuge was for?”

“Exactly. The next is survival in transit: being able to survive the vacuum of space, and the bombardment of radiation.” They approach a table with a vacuum tube on it. “Nonfunctional, of course,” Dr. Brenner says, tapping the glass. “But simulating space to test different bacteria’s resilience has led to some interesting discoveries with extremophiles. And last is atmospheric re-entry.” They move on an empty part of the room. “Which we test with-”

“Sorry to interrupt,” Red says. “This is all really interesting, but if you don’t mind me saying so, even with experimental tests to ensure it’s possible, isn’t it still too speculative to warrant its own exhibit?”

Dr. Brenner laughs, a full, rich sound that makes Red smile despite a stab of irritation. It was a serious question.

When she finishes though, she’s shaking her head. “I’m sorry, I’m not laughing at you, I promise. Leaf told me you worked at Oak’s lab, and here I was still treating you like a tourist.” She walks back toward Leaf, and Red follows. “Ah, the clarity of youth. And so polite about it! No, I don’t mind you saying so, especially since I raised the same objection myself. That’s partly why I invited Leaf back here to chat after overhearing her interviewing some of the museum guests.”

Red turns to Leaf. “Interviewing is a strong word,” she says with a smile. “I was just curious to know what they thought of the museum’s exhibits. I’ve been here all day, and saw some very mixed reactions.”

“Like what?”

“Well, there were a few who-”

“Why not read from your review of the museum?” Dr. Brenner says. “It was quite evocative.”

Leaf’s cheeks flush. “That’s nice of you to say, but it’s just a rough draft.”

“You wrote a review?” Red asks, brow raised. “I’d love to hear it.”

She hesitates a moment, then takes a tablet out of her bag and taps a few times on the screen. Leaf clears her throat, then reads, “‘The children were fascinated, wide eyed with wonder as they raced from one exhibit to the next, their energy often too much for the parents that trailed behind. It wasn’t hard to see why: though paleontology is often lumped in with geology as the ‘mere’ study of rocks, Pewter’s Museum of Science clearly spared little expense to bring such a potentially dry field to life’… mmm…. hang on, I went on a bit describing the place… ah, here: ‘the impact of which were most evident on their parents. Some were bemused, others curious or thoughtful. But many looked irritated, shocked, or even angry. It wasn’t long before a pattern emerged: the exhibits that discussed evidence and hypotheses on the origins of life were the most troublesome. When asked about their thoughts on the museum, the responses were fairly similar: an admiration of the production value of the exhibits, but a concern for the accuracy of the subject matter.'”

Leaf pauses, looks up at them, then closes the tablet and tucks it away. “That’s, uh, the main point. It was interesting to see so many people react so strongly to the idea that life originated in the ocean, as if they didn’t expect to see something that challenged their views so much.”

“Is it really that widespread?” Red scratches his hair beneath his hat. “I mean, this isn’t really new knowledge.”

Dr. Brenner smiles. “I think you may have an exaggerated view of just how old and widespread it is. You’re both young: things that were discovered even as little as a decade ago seem like common knowledge, simply because you’ve known of them your whole lives. And you were raised in very educated circles.”

Red frowns. He had a few friends and acquaintances in Pallet Town that weren’t connected to the lab or any scientific field… some were even adults, like his dad’s old friends among the nearby Rangers. But he can’t remember ever really talking to them about things like this. It’s possible, even probable, that his perception of what’s normal is skewed by the company he kept.

“A lot of the people I spoke to were residents of Pewter though,” Leaf says. “Shouldn’t they be a bit less surprised?”

“Ah, well, the museum’s undergone a lot of changes lately. The more we learn the better it refines its exhibits, and the ones that are upsetting people… well, they’re generally newer.” She takes off her glasses and wipes at the lens, frowning down at them.

“Is that why you raised objections?” Leaf asks. “Do you think this one’s going to upset people too?”

Dr. Brenner looks at her in surprise, then smiles and puts her glasses back on, beginning to walk around the lab. They follow her as she starts checking over the various equipment that’s set up. “There were politics involved. I wasn’t always working with the museum, I’m fairly new here, actually, but Pewter has always had a bit of a conflict at its heart when it comes to the science it specializes in and the beliefs of its people.”

Leaf nods. “From what I heard, the main spiritual beliefs of residents hold that the first people came from stone, and that the original beings that survived were mostly rock type creatures.”

“Exactly. Ever since we became capable of reviving extinct species from fossils, many were able to reconcile the new information with those beliefs, and they seemed justified, since every revived pokemon is part rock-type. But we’ve always been unsure if that was just a side effect of the resurrection process. Even if the original creatures might have really been what we manage to create in a lab, others who focus on more than surface facts notice how little the rest of the evidence matches the creation stories.”

“What about the tourists?” Red says.

“Most have their own beliefs, some of which are pretty compatible with the fossil record. But Mayor Kitto and his predecessors, along with the city legislature, always used to put a lot of pressure on the museum board to keep the controversial exhibits from opening.”

Leaf’s brow furrows. “That’s terrible!”

Dr. Brenner grins at her indignation. “Ostensibly it was to ensure the accuracy of the data, and to keep the peace in the city. To be fair, there’s certainly been a lot of complaints in the past year, and it’s been getting worse.”

Red frowns. Public indignation isn’t a justification for suppressing the truth. He supposes he might feel differently if people storm the museum and burn it down, but that seems unlikely. “What changed?” Red asks. “Why did the museum decide to shift course?”

She shrugs. “I wasn’t in the board meetings, heck, I wasn’t even working here at the time. I don’t know what the deciding factor was. But there are always rumors. I’ve heard the mayor’s the one that had a change of heart, told the museum’s board behind closed doors to open whatever new exhibits they wanted.”

“So when you said politics, you meant it literally,” Leaf says. “What does he get out of it?” Red is struck by his friend’s intensity, and he can’t quite place why it feel so familiar until he realizes she reminds him of his mom when chasing down a story.

Dr. Brenner examines a microscope, peering through the lens and adjusting it. The slides nearby are labeled bacillus subtilis. A poster on the wall has a grid with columns labelled Low Earth Orbit, Planetary Ejection, Atmospheric Re-entry, and Simulated Conditions, and bacillus subtilis has checkmarks across the board. “My best guess?”

“And your second best, if you have one.”

She smiles. “Leader Brock isn’t happy about it. Considering Mayor Kitto isn’t an idiot, I’m assuming that was either the intended result, or an understood cost. I think it’s possible that the real pressure has been from the Gym this whole time, and the mayor is starting to push back.”

Leaf whistles quietly. “Power struggles between mayors and leaders seldom end well.”

“At least the museum gets to show whatever it wants now,” Red says. “Brock has no business telling it what to put on display.” Red tries to imagine someone telling the Pallet Lab what it can and can’t study and fails. He’s suddenly glad he never had to worry about the opinions of a popular but uninformed leader, and hopes Pallet doesn’t get a Gym anytime soon.

Leader Brock,” Dr Brenner says, the slightest of emphasis on the title, “Has always done what he thinks is best for our city. I disagree with his perspective, of course, but as far as I know he hasn’t made any ultimatums or commands. In the end, this exhibit is a sort of compromise.”

“How so?”

“Well, recent excavations of meteorite impact sites in Mount Moon found fossils, not just of pokemon but also microbes. There’s some debate over whether they were actually in the meteorites when they landed, and are therefore extraterrestrial, or if they’re from earth.”

“IIIIInteresting,” Red says, rubbing his jaw. People have thought clefairy and jigglypuff came from space for ages… this evidence would do even more to support that theory. “And if it’s proven that life came from rocks in the sky, that goes a long way toward supporting the idea that Pewter’s spiritual beliefs are at least metaphorically correct after all.”

“Exactly. So is it a bit premature compared to some of the other exhibits here? Sure. But speculative as it is, I plan to focus it on the science we have available, which is sound.”

Leaf smiles. “I’m looking forward to coming back when it’s finished.”

Dr. Brenner’s phone buzzes, and she checks the screen before tucking it away. “Sorry to say, I’ve got a prior engagement to go to.”

Leaf is already heading toward the exit, and Red follows her. “That’s okay, we’ve taken up enough of your time.”

The microbiologist laughs as she sees them out of the exhibit. “Not at all, it was a pleasure speaking with you. Are you leaving Pewter soon?”

Red nods. “We might stay for a few days, maybe a week, depending on how long it takes for our friend Blue to challenge Brock. Afterward we’re going to Cerulean.”

She smiles. “Well, I’ve gotten Leaf’s contact info, and sent her the location of the dig site incase you all decide to drop by and see it. I can give them a heads up: I’m sure they’ll be happy to have you visit.”

Red turns to Leaf, who’s grinning apologetically. “I know Mount Moon isn’t the safest place to travel through, but the dig site is on the outskirts. I thought, if our path takes us that way anyway…”

Red smiles back. “It should be okay, yeah. Blue might not be interested in the dig, but I’m sure he’ll be happy for the chance to catch new pokemon.”

“Thanks again, Dr. Brenner,” Leaf says, turning to her and shaking her hand again.

“You’re quite welcome,” she responds as Red does the same. “Feel free to come back anytime before you go. I’ll be here every night, around the same time.”

They wave and head for the museum’s exit, and Red checks his own phone. Still no messages from Blue. “Hey, have you-”

“No, I assumed he spoke to you. Think he’s still at the Gym?”

“One way to find out.” Red calls, and after about a dozen rings Blue finally picks up.

“Oh, Red! Hey man, sorry I didn’t respond earlier, I was, uh, a little busy.”

“That’s alright, I figured as much. You’re not at the gym, are you?”

“Oh, yeah, I am actually.”

Red checks the time with a frown as they leave the museum and begin to head down the front steps. “You’ve been there all day. Don’t your pokemon need a rest?”

“Well, I haven’t been battling for awhile. I, uh… I’m with Leader Brock.”

Red’s brow rises. “Really? I didn’t think he’d be giving private lessons on your first day there.”

“Well, normally he wouldn’t, but… we kind of fought already.”

Red stops dead, and from the expression on Leaf’s face she can hear Blue through the phone too.

“…You what?!

Chapter 20: Body and Mind

The next morning Red finds himself alone in his hospital room and looking for something productive to do. His mom left with Professor Oak last night, Blue is gone to the Pewter Gym, and Leaf is checking out the museum. So Red sets to work looking through all the advertisements for local psychics that offer their services.

Assisting trainers with challenging pokemon or difficult to learn commands is a psychic’s most common trade, followed by testing people for psychic ability or damage. But since Red wants a psychic who’s also willing to potentially get attacked by a spinarak, he needs someone whose profile advertises being open to “unlisted requests.”

He realized after talking with Professor Oak that testing his spinarak’s mental attack would be harder than he first thought. Even if he squared it off against his rattata, since he doesn’t actually know what the attack was he can’t reliably ensure that whatever it ends up using against her would be the right one.

So the Professor suggested turning to the experts. In the meantime, Red also put up a bulletin in the city’s online forum. His advertisement asks for a five minute meeting with anyone who has a spinarak and is willing to answer questions about it and submit its data for research purposes. Since Red doesn’t have the funds to pay for their time, instead he offered the opportunity for the trainers to get detailed data about their spinarak from his new pokedex model.

“Sounds good,” Professor Oak says over the phone. “And the psychic?”

“Colan Narud. His resume looked alright, but his main qualification is that he’s available today.”

“I’m sure he’ll do fine. This will be your first one-on-one meeting with a psychic, won’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Nervous?”

Red reflects on his mood, then frowns. “Well I wasn’t before, but now that you ask…”

“I just want to warn you that psychics can be difficult to interact with.”

Red’s brow rises. There are a lot of unflattering sites that discuss psychics and their powers. He tends to ignore most of them, especially those that express superstitious fears, but he remembers commenters in more general forums that expressed a distaste for the attitude or personality of psychics. Red always figured it was a mix of unease and jealousy, but he doesn’t expect Professor Oak to have such prejudices. “Difficult how?”

“It’s like dealing with someone from a different culture, with different social norms and concepts of personal space.”

“Is he going to try and mentally hug me or something?”

Professor Oak chuckles. “More of a mental handshake. Psychics tend to dip into the surface level of people’s thoughts in much the same way we use facial tics and body language for cues about someone’s emotional state. By all accounts it isn’t entirely in their control: just be aware that what you find offensive might not be intended to be.”

“Alright,” Red says slowly. “And how do I tell if they are doing something I should take offense at?”

“Well actual mind reading, though difficult and unreliable, is always a conscious choice. If he seems to pick up on something too specific to glean from surface impressions, you have every right to end the interview. If you want to take extra steps to ensure your privacy, the best bet is to just keep your attention focused on your goals and the current conversation. It can help to write down questions ahead of time, and keep your gaze on them so that your mind doesn’t wander far.”

“That’s not foolproof, is it?”

“No, any more than me asking you not to think of a pink donphan would stop you from doing so. If there’s something specific you desperately don’t want him to know, you would need much more preparation and practice to avoid him learning it as it pops up from time to time in your thoughts.”

“Ah. So this is why people sometimes hire psychics through intermediaries.”

“Absolutely.”

Red’s fingers tap the plastic railing of the bed. “Would you advise against meeting him?”

“If so, I’d have said so by now. I don’t mean to bias your perspective, just prepare you.”

“Alright. Is it okay if I call you after?”

“By all means.”

“Thanks professor.”

Red paces the room after he closes the call, biting his lower lip. Is there anything he knows that he absolutely doesn’t want to be read by a psychic?

Not really. Red considers himself a private person, but as long as the psychic is as discreet as his professional confidentiality requires, he doesn’t really see any harm in having his memories or thoughts dredged up. It’s not like he has any secrets a stranger would find interesting.


Psychic Narud looks about the same in person as his pictures online, but for one thing: he appears to be much younger. Red had a vague idea that the psychic was in his early thirties, but when he walks through the door Red drops at least a decade off that. When Red meets his eyes, however, there’s a weight to them that seems incongruous with the impression of youth. The psychic has decades packed behind his gaze, like an old mind in a young body.

The thought is so odd that Red blinks and looks away, suddenly distrusting his perception. It’s a disconcerting feeling that makes him feel on edge, and Red has to unclench his left hand to extend it as they exchange greetings. He tries to focus on more mundane details.

Narud’s dark indigo hair is cut short everywhere but the front, where it hangs down the sides to frame his smooth face. He’s dressed in black shirt and pants, with a white overcoat that flares out at the collar and coat tails that trail down to his upper thighs, almost but not quite a robe. Red’s seen a few psychics wearing a similar outfit, but not all of them do. He vaguely remembers there being different schools or sects, some of which have their own dress code or uniform. There’s writing on Narud’s white coat, not in the universal Unown, but in the old regional Kanji. On the left is written “ataru mo hakke,” and on the right “ataranu mo hakke.” It’s somewhat encouraging to see a psychic so dismissive of fortune-telling.

“I confess to some surprise,” Narud says as he sits on the chair beside Red’s bed. “I expected my client to be a doctor. Is your arm your only physical injury?”

“Yeah. Do you normally get called to hospitals?”

“I do, though not for mundane ailments. I hope that is not what you contacted me for: as I mentioned on my advertisement, my fee is only half refundable.”

Red fights a frown. “No, it’s unrelated. I was injured in the Viridian pikachu frenzy.”

Narud nods. “A troubling affair.”

“Were you in the forest?”

“I was not.”

“After I meant, to help.”

“No.”

Red waits for something further, but Narud stays silent, gaze steady on his. Red realizes he’s waiting for an explanation, an excuse to justify the psychic not helping out, and one clearly isn’t forthcoming. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect one, or maybe Red’s seeking justification for the vague irritation he feels toward the psychic, with his overly formal speaking and quick reminder of his refund policy.

Chiding himself for being uncharitable, Red clears his throat. “Well, it was pretty hectic. But no, my arm isn’t what I called you for. I have two requests: first, I’d like to check and see if I’m psychic.”

“Of course.” Narud reaches into one of the discreet pockets in his coat and pulls out a deck of cards. “First, simply concentrate on-”

“Wait, I’m sorry, I should have mentioned that I took the standard tests a couple years ago.”

He pauses, then tucks the cards away and reaches into another pocket. “Indeed? Then you want me to apply the more direct approach.”

“I do.” No matter how hard he tried during the test, he wasn’t able to visualize the shapes on the cards from the other person’s mind as they stared at it. From what he read that just meant he wasn’t a natural, but there are a rare few with weaker abilities that don’t develop the skills automatically.

“Very well.” The psychic pulls a pen and a folded sheet of paper out of his other pocket, opening it. “You are aware that this will constitute a direct intrusion into your mind, and that I am not responsible for any new mental discomfort or harm lasting less than twelve hours from our meeting?”

“I am.”

“And are you currently suffering harm from any mental attacks or damage?”

“Er. I think so? I was hit by something a spinarak did recently…”

“Describe the effects.”

Red does so, and the psychic writes them down on the paper. “I believe that’s sufficient. Are you aware of what this form is?”

“Yeah, I read it online.”

“Good. Please sign here.”

Red scans the document to make sure it’s the same one from the net, then scrawls his signature with some difficulty, trying to ensure it looks like the one produced from his right hand. When he’s done he hands it back, palms slightly sweaty.

Narud examines the signature, then nods and tucks it away. “Thank you. Are you ready?” Red nods, pulse beginning to speed up as he tries to prepare himself. “Then I will begin. There is no need to do anything: please let your thoughts wander as they will.”

Red sits still and makes an effort to relax. A few deep breaths later he feels his heartrate begin to slow, but when he wonders if Narud has begun or not it begins to race again. He knows the mental scan won’t feel like anything, but after the last experience of something messing with his head-

empty

dark

Red winces at the memory, and the psychic’s eyes widen. And suddenly Red can feel something… except feel is the wrong word. It’s not a sense of pressure or temperature or texture, nothing like a physical touch. It’s like a part of his brain separate from where his “consciousness” resides is suddenly… awake.

Goosebumps rise along Red’s arms, and he has to stop himself from yelling aloud. The sensation is distinctly unsettling, like watching a movie of yourself doing something you have no memory of. His sense of me, the “core self” residing somewhere just behind and between his eyes, suddenly feels like it has company in his skull. And that company is movingshiftingturningtwisting

“Stop!”

The sensation immediately ceases. Red’s whole body relaxes and he slumps back against his pillow, breathing hard. A drop of sweat slides down the side of his face, and his left hand trembles a bit as he wipes it away. “Was that… you?” Stupid question, but he can barely think past the lingering disorientation. Part of him wonders if his body’s reaction is a “real” one to a sudden and uncomfortable experience, or specifically a side effect of the invasion.

“It was.” The psychic reaches into yet another pocket in his coat and pulls out… candy. A variety of it. He unwraps something orange and eats it, then opens his palm to Red.

Red is about to refuse, then realizes the psychic might be offering for more than politeness. He takes a honey flavored cube and sucks on it, biting down to crunch on the outer shell and let the sweet, gooey center free.

“Thanks. So, uh. Was that supposed to happen?”

Narud actually smiles, making him look even younger for a moment. “It was not outside the realm of possibility. Now that I have touched your psyche, I have both good news and bad.”

Red swallows some of the candy, its comforting sweetness keeping him from getting too disappointed. He knew it was a long shot. “Bad news first, please.”

“I apologize, but it will be easier to explain the other way around. The good news is you have the Gift.”

Red’s stops breathing. “You’re sure?”

“There is no question. Even if you did not notice my touch upon your mind, it was immediately evident from the strength of that memory. It was the spinarak’s attack, yes? As I thought. The effects of Night Shade vary heavily, and while the fears it evokes in the minds of most are generally harmless, those of us with the Gift have much more fertile ground for trauma to grow.”

A confused jumble of emotions are gathering in Red, and he finds himself grinning wide until the last line puts a damper on his jubilation. “Trauma?”

The psychic’s face smooths out. “Would it be fair to say your father’s passing was a traumatic experience for you?”

Red stares as shock and anger and the echo of deep pain rise up in him. He picked that much up from the brief touch?

No. Psychics can only pick up surface emotions and vague impressions.

“Well, you certainly did your homework before coming,” Red says, voice cold.

It’s just a guess, but the psychic dips his head in a nod, completely unabashed. “It’s important for those with the Gift to know as much as possible about our clients. We research the lives of those whose minds we will come in contact with to avoid any unexpected shocks from the use of our powers.”

“And it helps you look more mystically all-knowing.” The psychic’s eyes narrow slightly, and Red tries to force his anger down and soften his tone. “Some people might call that manipulative. Not that stereotypes are always borne of truth, but there’s a reason many people don’t trust psychics. Maybe you should be more upfront with people?”

The psychic’s smile returns, slightly bitter. “It would do little to change perceptions. People fear what they do not understand.”

“People fear what they don’t understand, yes, but that should be more reason to be as honest and upfront as possible, not an excuse to be mysterious.”

“I believe you will see the necessity of such practices after you come into your powers.”

Red’s irritation with the psychic is tempered by the excitement that rushes through him again. “What powers do I have? How can I develop them? Is there a-”

Psychic Narud holds a hand up, and Red stops. “There is still the bad news. I mentioned trauma earlier for a reason. We do not share this information lightly, but those who fail the initial test who are in fact gifted often do so because some traumatic experience halted the natural development of their powers. For many, such intensely negative emotions seems to cut them off from their abilities permanently.”

Red stares at the psychic with growing horror and, unexpectedly, shame. A week ago he hadn’t even suspected he was psychic, and was content with that. Not two minutes after finding out he is, being told he’s psychically crippled makes his gut clench up and his breaths come shallow.

“Be calm. I refer mostly to those who do not recognize their potential until late in life. You are lucky enough to have done so early, though it will still mean many years of work to undo the damage that was done. And I must honestly tell you that you may never fully develop every aspect of your powers. Some may be permanently stunted. But I believe you can recover.”

“I… see. Thank you, that’s kind of reassuring.”

Narud dips his head briefly. “The Gifted are obligated to help welcome new members however possible. Allow me to formally congratulate you, Mr. Verres. The discovering of one’s Gift is usually a great day for us, even in such negative circumstances.” The psychic smiles. “You must have many questions. Please feel free to ask.”

“Many questions” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Red is still trying to get his thoughts in order from the double discovery that he both has psychic powers and that they’re likely stunted somehow. It’s far too much to take in at once, and Red’s right hand itches to start taking notes. He’d dictate them to his phone if he didn’t have company.

“I do, thanks, but I don’t want to take up your time, and I’d like some to put my thoughts in order. Would you mind tabling that for now?”

The psychic nods, though there’s a slight crease between his brow. “Yes, the second request you mentioned. How else can I assist you?”

“You said that the effects you felt were from Night Shade. Are you absolutely sure of that? Could anything else have had the same result?”

Narud shakes his head. “Mental attacks are often misclassified into different categories by effect, as is convenient to trainers. But those with the Gift can sense their true nature, and once we become familiar with them they are impossible to misinterpret. The signature here was how it turned your own deepest trauma against you. The strength of the reaction is from an unusually high loss that runs through the very core of your identity.”

Red swallows the last bit of the honey candy, feeling simultaneously embarrassed and irritated. “I’m obviously still sad about my dad, but it’s not ruining my life or anything. Couldn’t it have just been the strength of the spinarak?”

“You misunderstand: think of your psyche like your biological body, with its own specialized organs, its own homeostasis, its own immune system. Our Gift allows us to manipulate our psyche in ways that others can not, but only after intensive practice and training. Before that point, our powers act on a purely instinctual level, and will often act independently to protect our minds from harm. Your latent powers devoted themselves to partitioning the pain of your father’s loss into its own separate segment of your psyche, and have been maintaining it ever since. This partition was weakened by the spinarak to use your own trauma against you.”

Red opens his mouth to deny the psychic’s words, then realizes he’s just reacting, not actually thinking about what’s being said. He tries to ignore his agitation, but he doesn’t like to remember the months immediately following his dad’s death. Is it possible his recovery wasn’t from his own resilience and the help of his therapist, but the effects of fledgling psychic powers? Now that he’s paying attention, he notices the way his mind shies away from the thought and comes up with excuses that reaffirm what he already believes.

“Hold on please, I need to digest this,” he says as he lies back and closes his eyes without waiting for a response. He begins to take deep breaths, simply focusing on the feel of the bed beneath him and the flow of air in and out of his lungs.

I notice that I am upset. That’s step one: acknowledging that he isn’t thinking clearly anymore. To get back to some semblance of objective thought, he needs to follow through with the rest of the flowchart his therapist helped him construct when he was younger, using each point as guideposts to lead him back to clearer thinking.

Step two: identifying why he’s upset. Is it on the behalf of others, or himself? Clearly himself.

Step three: is he upset at something tangible, or because he encountered an idea he found offensive? Again, clearly the latter. He’s not being harmed in any way. It’s just his ego at stake. So he can take his time in responding to the offending notion.

Step four: is he upset because of something he’s afraid of being true, or because of something he knows is false?

If he’s upset at something because it might be true, then his sense of self is going to be reduced. Part of his identity is attached to his resilience. Accepting the idea that his psychic powers helped hide his trauma from him means giving part of that up.

If the truth hurts, it’s time for change. If the truth hurts, it’s time to grow.

Red rubs at the stubborn frown line between his brow and sighs. That’s the question. Is what he’s upset at true? If it is, then he’ll have to change to accommodate it. And, as his therapist would say, to thank Psychic Narud for the opportunity to grow.

He opens his eyes and turns to the psychic, who seems unperturbed by his abrupt withdrawal. “Can you prove any of this? Is there any experiment we can perform to demonstrate what you’re saying is right?”

Narud’s brow rises and he spreads his hands. “You use the words of science to clarify that which is intangible.”

“Intangible just means it can’t be felt. You’re still making truth claims about reality, and that means you should be able to support it with a prediction. Oxygen in the air is intangible too, but if you doubt its necessity to remain conscious, I could make this room air-tight and predict that you will black out.”

“The Gifted and ungifted alike require oxygen to live, but one cannot prove the existence of light to the blind.”

“Sure one can: just let them hold up an object and tell them what each one is without touching it.”

Narud shakes his head. “Your ability to see gives you an advantage over them, but you cannot prove the mechanism by which it’s gained. They must simply take your word for it.”

“I’m pretty sure there are ways to do that too, for light anyway, but I’m not asking you to prove the existence of the mechanism. I know psychic powers exist. I just need evidence to support this particular assertion.”

“Why hire an expert if you do not trust what they say?” Narud asks, sounding more curious than irritated.

Red frowns. “I hired you to tell me if I’m psychic, and I trust you on that because it’s something I’ve heard is within a psychic’s abilities. I didn’t hire you to judge whether my being psychic is what got me over my dad’s death. It’s possible that you’re just attributing something to it that is unrelated. Do you deny that if I asked a different psychic the same question, they might come up with a different interpretation of events?”

Narud frowns. “The majority would agree with me. But not everyone is equally skilled or capable of more subtle insights.”

Uh huh. “See, that’s reassuring and all, but from my perspective that doesn’t tell me much. Just that if you’re wrong, you’re wrong in an understandable way, like the person who taught you believed in the majority perspective. Without hearing what the others who disagree with you think and why, it’s your word against theirs.”

Narud meets his gaze impassively for a few moments. Eventually he nods and looks away, gaze distant. I probably offended him. Is an apology in order? He’s not sure what he would apologize for: he really does need something to help change his mind, especially when it’s on a topic so entangled in his self-image.

After about a minute, the fingers of Narud’s left hand drum briefly against the arm of the chair before stopping, and the psychic frowns and shifts a bit. Red wonders if he’s having trouble thinking of a way to prove his claims. It can’t be that Red’s the first person to ask him for evidence of what he says, can it?

“If you want some help-”

“No, I have an idea of what to do. The problem is whether you are prepared for it. I am trying to think of an alternative that does not leave you a weeping wreck.”

Red stares. “Um…”

“The most straightforward method would be to remove the partition. But this would mean returning your psyche to the immediate aftermath of your father’s passing, and would certainly constitute Unprovoked Mental Harm by law. Even with your permission, I can not do it.”

Red doesn’t deride the convenience of this answer: on the possibility that Narud is right, Red absolutely agrees that it would be a terrible idea to return to such a state.

But that still leaves him without a good reason to believe the psychic’s interpretation. “If you remove a partition, can you put it back up?” The psychic gives him a look Red can’t quite interpret, and he rushes to add, “Just out of curiosity. I’m not saying I want you to.”

Narud is quiet for a moment, and finally says, “It would be extremely difficult, and severely invasive. Think of the psyche as a body again. It would be like plunging my fingers into your chest to pinch a leaking vein from your heart. More likely to do harm than good.”

Red has the impression there’s more to it than that, but the answer makes sense on its own. “It’s easier to destroy than create.”

“Just so. And that counts when dealing with one’s own psyche as well.”

“So I could learn to remove my own partition, and then build it back up if I don’t like the result?”

“Not without months of work developing your abilities. And that is assuming you can handle the result of removing the partition.”

Red smiles, and it feels bitter even to him. “I survived it before, I can do it again.”

“Can you? The spinarak’s mental attack, Night Shade, is considered a Ghost attack because it targets the emotional weak points in our psyche. For most others the effects of this are mild, but those with the Gift have our own powers turned against us. What you felt from Night Shade was enhanced, but still real. Are you so eager to experience that again in full, permanently?”

Red twitches as another echo of

alone

hurts

flashes through his mind. The original attack practically knocked him out, and he’s still getting echoes of it days later. He thought he just needed to desensitize himself from it, but apparently the damage is done.

Red’s body breaks out in a cold sweat as he imagines trying to live with it

dark

cold

permanently, and he sees Narud wince and raise a hand to rub his temple briefly. “Did you… get that?”

He lowers his hand. “I did, as before. But it is easily remedied.”

“How?”

“Amnesia. The effects of mental attacks are often compounded by repeated exposure. To increase our resilience to them, the Gifted remove the memory of them.”

“Wait, you can actually make yourself forget things? Specific things, without it affecting other stuff?”

“With training, yes.”

“But… how would you even know if you succeeded? Or messed up?”

Narud smiles. “It is difficult to explain to the uninitiated. If you would like to begin your psychic training, I am available for that as well. It is also how we could test what I have told you: when you have gained adequate use of your abilities, you will be able to sense the partition for yourself. Keep in mind however that while it is up, your Gift will be significantly weakened, and it will take you longer than usual to develop it. With that in mind, I can assure you that my rates are quite reasonable.”

Red frowns and looks down, hand rubbing at his neck. “Just to check, is the partition permanently damaged? Is this… symptom going to get worse?”

“Without renewed attack, your psyche should be able to maintain the current equilibrium. There is a chance the damage to the partition will be healed over the months ahead, but yes, there is also a chance that it will weaken, and the symptoms will get worse.”

“Also over a span of months?”

“It would require some other heavy mental shock for it to happen more quickly than that. But I do not mean to frighten you: as I said, it is only a possibility that it will get worse, and it may in fact get better. Just so long as you understand there is a risk.”

Red nods. “I appreciate the honesty.” His mouth is dry, and he reaches for the cup of water on the nightstand. He isn’t sure how long they’ll be in Pewter, and he can’t afford to keep spending money on psychic lessons right now. He could barely afford today’s hundred dollar fee. Especially if he doesn’t know how soon they’ll be useful. Maybe if he starts making money off his research, but for now it’s not really feasible. At least he knows for sure the spinarak’s attack wasn’t psychic. It kind of puts a damper on his hypothesis, but it still might be worth following through to see the results.

He puts the cup back and clears his throat. “Psychic Narud, you’ve been very helpful. Your offer is appreciated, and I’ll have to think over my situation before making a decision. I don’t know how long I’ll be in Pewter, and am still working on getting my finances in order.” Also, he doesn’t entirely like the young man. He isn’t sure if other psychics are better or worse, but it would be foolish to take Narud as his teacher just because he’s the only one he knows.

If the psychic picks any of this up, none shows in his reaction. He merely rises to his feet, hands disappearing into his wide sleeves as he bows his head. “It was my pleasure to assist you today, trainer.”

“I might contact you about another matter soon, if you’re free.”

“When you have a time and day in mind, you are welcome to check my listing. Be well, Red Verres, until we speak again.”


After the psychic is gone, Red does some research online to try and verify as much of their conversation as he can, and takes notes about their conversation. It’s unfortunate that he has to type, and one handed at that, since it doesn’t have the same memory aid as writing by hand does, but it’s better than nothing.

The results from the web verification is mixed, especially on the metaphor comparing the psyche to a biological body: many seem to find it too clinical and mundane, which is not the direction Red was expecting the criticism to come from. Most of what Narud said seems decently supported however, and when Dr. Willow comes in to check on his arm after lunch, Red asks her if they have a psychic on staff.

“Of course,” she says without looking up from his cast as she undoes it. His arm looks much better than yesterday, most of the bruises faded to yellows and greens. “Why?”

“I had a guest today, a psychic I hired. He told me I’ve got a form of mental damage from a spinarak attack, and I do seem to have the symptoms… I was hoping to get a second opinion.”

She gives him a severe look. “Why didn’t you report mental damage earlier?”

“Er… I sort of forgot about it?” He gives a weak smile. “It’s not debilitating, just occasionally painful. But the psychic said it might get worse, so…”

Dr. Willow mutters something under her breath as she applies ointment that makes his skin tingle. “Well, just going off your arm, you should be out of here tomorrow, so I’ll flag him for a visit when he’s free.”

“Thanks Doctor.”

“Don’t thank me yet. If you think I’m grumpy about not being told sooner, wait till you meet Psychic Laurie. Brilliant man, but not the greatest people skills. Comes with being a doctor and a psychic I suppose: worst of both worlds.”

“Seems to be a running theme.” Hopefully it doesn’t come with the territory of being a trained psychic, because now that he knows he has the potential, or “Gift,” Red is resolved to become one as soon as possible. Even if it means cracking open the vault in his head and letting out the horrors within, he doesn’t like the idea of his powers doing things without his control.

His mind is all he is, all that he really has and can ultimately rely on. And if he has to lock away some painful memories or emotions in a corner of his mind, at the very least he should do it consciously. The alternative is never knowing for sure how he feels, what he thinks, and why.

When the truth hurts, it’s time for change. When the truth hurts, it’s time to grow.

Red sighs. He always dreamed of finding out he was psychic, but instead of being excited, it just seems to come with more worries. “Nothing’s ever easy,” he mutters, not realizing until after that he said it aloud.

“Well, one thing is,” Dr. Willow says as she reapplies his cast. “But you’ve still got a potentially long life ahead of you, so better get used to it.”

Chapter 19: Great Expectations

Red wakes from vague dreams to find himself lying on a comfortable bed. He opens his eyes, and it takes a moment to register his surroundings. Clean white walls, bright lights, a particularly distinct combination of smells, and…

“Mom?”

She sat with her eyes closed in the chair beside the bed, and they suddenly snap open at his voice. “Red!” She moves as though to hug him, then hesitates and rests a hand against his hair instead. “How are you feeling?”

He frowns and tentatively sits up, feeling out his arm. It doesn’t hurt much, but it’s in a cast that heavily restricts movement. “Pretty well, I think. Am I on any medication, or is it healed?”

She smiles, brow still creased with worry. “You’re clean. They said it’ll take about a week to make sure it’s fully healed. You’ve only been asleep for a day.”

Only? I was out a whole day? Is the fire under control? Are Blue and Leaf still in the forest? Do you know if they’re alright?”

“Yes, no, and yes, they’re fine. Calm down, Red, everyone’s safe.”

Not everyone. But he feels himself relaxing, bit by bit. “Where are they now?”

“At the pokemon center I think. Leaf was getting her injuries treated here, and left just an hour ago. She was tenacious in finding out how you were before she went. I quite like her.”

Red looks out the window. He’s on a fairly high floor of the hospital, and can see the sun is setting over the mountains. He can’t believe he was out for so long. “When did you get here? You didn’t go through the forest, did you?”

“No, Sam brought me. He came over this morning before I even turned the news on, and we flew straight here. He dropped me off and went to get the others.”

Red recognizes the strain behind his mother’s calm expression and tone. “Sorry for worrying you. I’m glad you’re here.”

She runs her fingers through his hair briefly, seeming about to say something, then bends forward and kisses his head. “Are you hungry? Thirsty?”

“I could eat, yeah.”

She smiles and stands up. “I’ll be right back.”

After she’s gone, Red looks around the room a bit more. His pokebelt is hanging from the wall beside him, his backpack on the dresser under the window with his hat placed on top of it. He can’t see his clothes anywhere, but the stuff he had in his pockets are in a clear bag on the nightstand beside the bed. A bit of tension he didn’t realize was there eases from his chest when he sees his pokedex in it.

Unfortunately it’s on the side with his broken arm, so he has to sit up and shift around to reach for his phone. While moving, his arm begins to ache, and he stops immediately until it fades, then moves more carefully. He never studied any medicine and has little idea of how his arm was healed, but the memory of his bone pressing against his skin makes his stomach churn. He’ll have to remember to thank the doctors that helped him when he gets the chance, and the woman that brought him here.

He finally manages to open the bag and extract his phone. He lies back and checks his messages, then finds Blue in his contacts.

Hey, I’m up.

No response for a few seconds, and then:

o shit

good to hear man

how u doin?

I’m alright. Is Leaf with you?

ya just got here

she says hi

u able to leave?

Don’t know, haven’t seen a Dr. yet. Will get back to you. Your pokemon okay?

There’s a pause, and a brush of anxiety makes his pulse speed up. Did they lose anyone?

theyre ok

still waiting on some

Red lets his breath out. Well glad you guys are safe. I’ll let you know when I can head out.

same here man

ttyl

Red opens the local news sites and scans the headlines. Twenty seven dead, over fifty wounded, and six still missing. He looks over the names, feeling a touch of surrealism at spotting his own. And then, under deceased…

Fara Melissa, Kuroda Ayame, Kuroda Kiku, Marcone Walter…

Red is suddenly cold beneath his hospital gown. Ayame and Kiku… they sound familiar, but they might not be the twins they met, he’s so bad with names…

But should it even matter? He shouldn’t be more sorry for those deaths just because they’re people he met, even if it was just once. Each death is a tragedy, even if he doesn’t know them: they’re still someone’s sister, brother, son, daughter, friend. One less person who might create new art, spur new research, or just share a companionable night around a campfire with, able to sleep sound with the knowledge that you’ll keep each other safe.

Red puts his phone down and leans back against his pillow, staring up as a sick burning sensation spreads through his stomach. Twenty seven or more lost, and Red could have easily been one of them. He was worse than useless, nearly getting himself killed right at the start…

No. He cuts off that line of thought, forces himself to think of how he used the onix roar to save himself and Leaf, and how his foresight ensured they had the lightning rods. It was a team effort, and he hadn’t been useless.

Soon he manages to completely banish the self-pity. He’s still sad about those that lost their lives, but he needs to think more constructively. Heroic responsibility doesn’t mean he should ignore the things he did right, or else he wouldn’t be able to expand on them.

Assess, evaluate, optimize…

Red picks his phone back up. First things first: be prepared for similar situations in the future.

He starts researching other pokemon in the surrounding area, first checking how sensitive their hearing is, then finding their most audibly distinct predators. The major issue is where there’s no local apex hunter: if he uses a beedrill buzz to scare off some breloom, he might attract some hungry fearow. Maybe I should make a list of apex predators first…

He’s still working ten minutes later when a doctor arrives. She looks just a bit older than his mom, though that might just be the carefully controlled exhaustion on her face. Red realizes she’s probably been up all night and day with others from the forest continually coming in. When she gets closer, he reads Dr. Willow on her nametag.

“Good evening, Mr. Verres.”

Mr. Verres. Feels strange being called that. “Hello. Are you the one that patched up my arm?”

“One of them, yes. How’s it feeling?”

He experimentally lifts it again and stops when it aches. “Starts hurting here, but just a bit. Thank you for all you’ve done.”

She dips her head. “Not the cleanest break we saw last night, but far from the worst. You got off fairly lucky.”

“Lucky to have such good friends, mostly.” He immediately regrets saying it. The others who died no doubt had good friends with them too. “So, am I free to go?”

“Let’s find out.” She unstraps the cast around his arm and his skin tingles as it comes in contact with the air again. Red winces as he sees how mottled with bruises his arm is, but when the doctor carefully prods at his skin he doesn’t feel any pain. She doesn’t seem satisfied though. “Not for another day to be safe. Think you can keep from moving your arm that long?”

“Do I have to stay in bed?”

“Not if you’re careful.”

“I’ll manage then.” There’s work he can do in the meantime, like researching spinarak, and maybe doing some experimenting with his.

His mom returns with a tray of food in both hands, and the doctor leaves them to it. The smell of mashed potatoes and pidgey nuggets stokes Red’s hunger to a fever pitch, and he begins shoveling them into his mouth as fast as he can move the spoon.

“Chew, Red. It’s not going anywhere.” Once she’s satisfied that he’s slowed down, his mom begins eating too, and for a time there’s silence but for the scrape of plastic cutlery and the distant sound of the hospital’s intercom.

Once his hunger is tamed and he has attention for other things, the silence begins to make him apprehensive. Part of him is glad his mom is here, but the rest is worried about her reaction to his injury.

“Well?” he says after a minute. “Are you going to try and convince me to stop? Keep working in the lab until I’m older?”

His mom raises a brow without looking up from her food. “Would it do any good?”

He smiles. “Do you have any new arguments to add?”

“No. But recent events might have changed their impact.”

Red just shakes his head.

She sets her fork down. “I heard that the three of you helped some Rangers on the way up.”

Oh. Right. “I… it was just-”

“I’m glad.”

He looks up to see her smiling at him.

“Glad that you’re out there, helping others. Your father would be proud.”

Red stares at his tray, heart pounding. It’s the best reaction he could have hoped for, but it feels dishonest. This seems too big a thing to be brushed off as a white lie, and too deliberate to be a lie of omission. “I miss dad. A lot.” The constant ache at the back of his thoughts sharpens for a moment, and he takes a deep breath to push it back into the vault he’d constructed for it. “But I’m not doing this for him.”

She takes his hand and squeezes it. “I know that, Red. That’s why he would be so proud.”

He shakes his head and pulls his hand away. “That’s not it.”

She tilts her head, brow furrowed.

“I don’t want you to have the wrong expectations. One day I’m not going to live up to them, and it’s better to know that now than be… disappointed.” She’s about to speak, and he hurries on. “And I don’t just mean that I’ll fail to save someone, or be too afraid to try. I mean I might decide against trying, as a conscious choice. Do you see? I might deliberately choose against what dad would have.”

His mom is silent for a time, and Red grows more and more worried. This is the frankest discussion they’ve had about his dad for years, and it’s the closest Red’s come to criticizing him. He should have waited, thought more about how he’d word it…

“I married your father because he was the best man I’d ever met,” she says at last. “I miss him every day. And sometimes I think that if he’d been just a bit less good, he’d still be here with us, and still be helping others.”

“We don’t know what happened that day,” Red says quietly. “That’s what you always said. Is there more to the story?”

She shakes her head. “No. It was his duty to go, and for all we know he did exactly as much as he needed to, as much as was smart to. He wasn’t the only one lost, and the others… his friends, they said he saved a lot of lives. That he just got unlucky.”

She takes his hand again, and this time he lets her hold it, her eyes as intense as he’s ever seen them. “However many lives he saved that day, he might have saved more if he lived past it. Maybe that’s just a rationalization. Maybe others would call that a cowardly excuse, but you’re not their child, you’re mine. Whatever the situation, whatever you choose to do, at the end of the day, all I care about is that you’re safe. Understand?”

A number of thoughts and situations come up that he wants to test her statement against, but it doesn’t feel appropriate just now. Unsure of what else to say, Red simply nods.

His mom smiles and lets his hand go. “Good.” She picks up her fork again. “So, tell me what happened after we got off the phone last night. I want to hear everything.”


Blue’s foot taps on the tile of the pokemon center, gaze fixed on the overhead screen above the lobby’s reception desk. He’s been watching the numbers tick slowly upward, both those currently being treated and the average wait times.

It’s been almost twelve hours since he arrived, exhausted and footsore. Gramps picked him and Leaf up from the forest once they were close enough to the city for their cells to start working again. They went to the hospital to get looked at, and while Blue’s wound took just a few minutes to inspect and finish healing, Leaf had to stay for longer. Afterward gramps brought him here before heading back to the forest on Glory, the pidgeot moving quick as a dart through the early morning sky with only one rider.

After Blue handed his pokemon over and was given his frustratingly long wait time, he went to the lobby. It was packed with dozens of other trainers fresh from the forest, and Blue picked himself a comfortable couch to rest on. He intended to at least stay up until he heard from Leaf or Mrs. Verres on how she and Red were doing, but he was out the moment his head touched the top of the squishy backrest.

He woke around noon, groggy and in serious need of a bathroom, to find a message on his phone from Leaf. She and Red were alright, and she was on her way to the pokemon center closest to her and wanted confirmation that it was the same one he’s at. He checked the name and told her it was, then went to relieve himself and wash his face.

By the time she arrives he feels like himself again, but his pokemon are still far from the front of the queue. He stops his leg from jittering and gets up as she approaches. She’s looking much better than the night before, and dressed in fresh clothing. “Hey. Feeling alright?”

She smiles. “A hundred percent. The healing went quick, I mostly stayed to get some rest and so they could check for any lingering effects.”

“And?”

She stretches her arms up and to the sides, then twists at the waist and touches her feet one at a time. “No permanent damage. The shock didn’t go anywhere important, thankfully. How are your pokemon?”

He grunts, mood souring again. “No clue.” He points to the screen.

“Oh. And what number are you?”

“103.”

“Oh dear. I’d better go get mine then.”

They head over to the front desk, whose staff has changed a couple times since Blue arrived. New arrivals have thankfully slowed, and there’s just one nurse manning it now.

“How much longer on 103?” Blue asks the guy while Leaf hands her pokemon over in exchange for her own number.

The young man glances pointedly at the overhead monitor, which shows the numbers that just finished being treated as 82, 89, 92, 94, and 95, while the average wait time is twenty minutes. “Perhaps another few hours, sir.”

Blue grunts his thanks, and they head back toward the couches. “What number are you?”

Leaf shows him her 148. “It’s going to be a long night,” she says. “We should go see Red.”

“Did you get a chance to?”

“Just for a minute or so. He was still sleeping, but his mom was super nice.”

“Yeah, Aunt Laura’s cool.” Blue wonders what Daisy’s up to. Gramps said she was helping out elsewhere in the forest, and he shoots her a quick text to see what’s up. “Let’s get some food first, the diners at pokemon centers are usually better than the stuff at hospitals.”

They go and do so, the tables around the food corner just as crowded as the rest of the center. As they eat their sandwich and salad, Blue gets a text. He expects it to be from Daisy, but it’s Red’s picture that appears.

“Hey, he’s up!”

“Awesome, tell him I said hi!”

Blue nods, fingers already moving, and a moment later he’s staring at the text asking how his pokemon are doing. He still doesn’t know how Zephyr or the shiftry are, but he doesn’t want to tell Red that he lost his caterpie or beedrill either. Maybe it would be better over the phone, get it out of the way, but he wants to be able to tell the whole story at once, give some context. He finishes the convo and puts his phone away. “At least his arm’s okay.”

“Yeah. It’s good that he got to the hospital when he did.”

Blue frowns at the crowd around them. “Some of these people should be there themselves. Their pokemon aren’t going anywhere, even if the line wasn’t so long.”

Leaf shrugs. “Maybe they’re too concerned for them to have any peace of mind. They’ve got to make sure they’re okay first.”

“But they’re in their pokeballs. It doesn’t matter to them if they wait an hour or a week.”

Leaf opens her mouth, then closes it and spears a tomato slice, chewing with a distant look on her face. Blue takes a bite of his sandwich and gets another message, opening it with his other hand to see it’s from his sis this time.

All’s good. Got home a couple hours ago.

And here he was, worrying like a chump. thx 4 checkin in w/ me

Grampa said you’re OK. Whine more <333

Blue snorts. well he didnt tell me u were home

Aww were you concerned about me?

my mistake

That’s sweet bro but I was runnin through Viridian when you were just out of diapers. Anything a newbie like you could get through is nbd

Appreciated though ^_o

Blue shakes his head and puts his phone away. “Be glad you don’t have any siblings.”

“Were you interested in seeing Red in the hospital, even if he wasn’t awake?” Leaf asks.

He blinks. “Uh. Yeah?”

“So how is that different than what they’re doing?”

Blue stares blankly at the trainers she gestured toward, and after a moment he remembers the conversation they were having. “Oh! Man, were you thinking of a response that whole time?”

“It was thirty seconds at most. Well?”

“Well what?”

“How is it different?”

Blue frowns. “Red wasn’t trapped in a pokeball in complete stasis. He might have woken up while I was there. Also I could have looked at him, seen how he was doing. It would have been reassuring.”

Leaf shakes her head impatiently and tucks some hair that gets loose behind her ear. “So let’s say you know he won’t wake up for another few days, and you popped your head in for a quick look. Is that enough? Would sitting beside him for a few hours be a waste?”

“Uh. Sort of, yeah. Red’s a smart guy, he wouldn’t mind if he found out I did more productive stuff. Hell, he’d probably agree with me.”

“What about Mrs. Verres? Would you have told her to leave him be, that he’d be fine without her waiting beside him?”

Blue shifts in his seat. “That’s different. She’s his mom.”

“So?”

“So it’s not about what makes sense, it’s emotional. That’s just the kind of bond parents have with their kids.” A pang of loneliness and pain, chased away with long practice. He knows gramps would stay at his bed if something happened to him. So would Aunt Laura, come to that.

Hm. That thought was kind of comforting. Is that important to Leaf’s point? He has to admit it might be, even if he still thinks it’s kind of a waste of time.

“Well that’s the kind of-”

Blue puts a hand up. “Wait. I get it.”

Leaf’s brow rises. “Get what?”

“I get what you’re saying. It hit me.”

“Just like that?”

“Yeah, just like that.”

Leaf looks skeptical, and he rolls his eyes. “No need for that look, gramps taught me about admitting when I’m wrong long before Red turned into a pain in the ass about it.”

“Sorry.”

“Besides, I wouldn’t say I was wrong unless I really believed it.”

She grins. “True.”

“Anyway, I still think it’s different. Pokemon aren’t humans. They won’t know whether these trainers waited here or not.”

“Maybe not. But it’s not for the pokemon. It’s for the humans.”

Blue considers this, then nods. “The way funerals are for the living.” He stands up. “So, I’ve got a few hours and you’ve got longer. Let’s go see Red, now that he’s awake.”

They leave the pokemon center and begin to walk toward the hospital as twilight cloaks the city. Pewter is very different from Viridian: far more open, with all the tall buildings spread out. Cars are rare here, with the forest to the south and the mountains to every other side, so the streets are much more narrow, and the walkways wider.

Soon they pass through a residential area, where the houses are almost all made of stone. A few young kids are playing on the lawns, some with each other, others with pokemon. A marill swims around two giggling children in a portable pool, and farther along a toddler rides the back of a growlithe under the watchful eye of their parents.

Despite the circumstances, Blue suddenly feels naked without his own pokemon resting at his waist. It feels strange to be uncomfortable around tamed pokemon when he spent his whole life around them. Especially since he’s only had his own for less than a week. Is this what exposure to wild pokemon does? Makes you wary of them all?

“Oh! Look!” Leaf whispers, and Blue follows her gaze to see a woman leaning out a window to splash some milk in the shadow of her house. Leaf stifles her grin behind her hand until they pass, then says, “I can’t believe that’s really a thing. I half thought you guys were joking.”

“Nope. Me and my friend Batu used to wear black and hide in the shadows to leap out at people when we were younger. We’d get splashed with a lot of milk, but it was always worth a laugh. One time-”

Blue’s phone chimes, and he pulls it out while Leaf tries to get a hold of her giggles. He stops walking, and she turns to him with a questioning look.

“It’s the pokecenter,” he says, heart suddenly pounding. “They’re telling me to come in.”

“What, now? They can’t have finished with your pokemon so quickly.”

“Yeah.” The message doesn’t say they’re done being healed, just to report to a certain room as soon as possible. Blue swallows the dryness in his throat and meets Leaf’s concerned gaze. “I guess I’ll catch you later.”

“Do you want me to-”

“No, it’s fine. Go tell Red I’ll be there soon.”

“Alright.” She returns his wave halfheartedly, and then he turns and jogs back the way he came.

Zephyr or the shiftry? Which one did I lose? Or was it both?

Blue makes it back in less than half the time, sweating and out of breath. He quickly follows the directional signs toward D9, and soon finds himself in an intensive care unit.

Blue’s stomach is clenched up like a fist by the time he reaches the door and knocks. A moment later a doctor opens it, almost as old as gramps, with her long greying hair tied in a braid. After confirming who he is she invites him inside the room. It looks less like a medical room and more like a computer lab, each console surrounded by periphery equipment and sporting numerous screens, and he realizes he’s in an assessment room rather than one devoted to treatment.

His pokeballs rest on a machine with spherical indents, each slot including a lens aligned with the ball’s to stream data from it to the nearby terminal. He notices that his shiftry’s ball isn’t among them.

“Hello Mr. Oak, thank you for coming so quickly. Some concerns surfaced while treating your pokemon.”

“Yeah, I figured.” Blue wipes his palms on his jeans. “So what’s up? Are they okay?”

“For the most part. I want to know about one in particular.” The doctor meets his gaze, and Blue suddenly notices how cold hers is. “Your shiftry. What happened to it?”

Blue stands a bit straighter, suddenly wary. “I told the guy at reception, it had some acid burns, puncture wounds, poisoning, and its limbs were cut off.”

“We can see that. I want to know how the amputations occurred.”

“Another shiftry’s leaves cut them off. What’s the problem? Are you able to heal it or not?”

“Your shiftry’s healing has already begun, and is going as best as can be expected. It should make a full recovery within a few days.” The nurse’s eyes are hard on his. “The question is whether it will be returned to you or not.”

Blue’s concern fades, anger taking its place. “What are you talking about?”

“I’ve seen thousands of pokemon injuries. Often from wild battles, some from trainer brawls. The wounds to your shiftry’s arms and legs are different from the rest. We have abuse laws in this region, Mr. Oak.”

Searing heat flares through Blue’s chest, each beat of his heart pumping magma through his veins. Calm. Steady. “Are you accusing me of something?” he says, jaw tight.

She doesn’t flinch at his tone. “Those wounds were specific, deliberate. Another shiftry didn’t do that. I want to know what did.”

“I don’t see how it’s any of your business.”

“As a matter of fact it is. If we suspect trainer abuse we’re required to report it to the licensing association. You can tell me or you can tell an investigative review board, but until you do either, you’re not getting your pokemon back.”

He unclenches his fists and takes a deep breath. After gramps dropped him off, Blue waited until he flew away, then jogged to a small pokemart nearby. He restocked on some supplies, including a few greatballs. Once outside, Blue released his shiftry and quickly recaptured it in a greatball before returning to the pokemon center.

Now he’s wishing he’d kept it in the original ball and just handed them the greatball to put it in when it was healed. “Look, I didn’t have a greatball on me when my group was attacked by the shiftry near the forest fire. I tried to use a pokeball, but it was too big. After we fought them off, this one was still alive, so I used one of the other shiftry’s arms that were severed and made him small enough to fit. He was badly wounded, and I didn’t have any other way to capture him. It was either this, heal him and risk someone else getting attacked, or letting him die. All things considered I thought this was the best option, since grass types can heal almost any wound.”

The doctor’s posture is still rigid, but her expression is a bit less severe. “You were with a group of trainers, and none of you had any greatballs?”

“No, there were only three of us,” he says immediately, while internally kicking himself for not having asked the others. He didn’t even consider it at the time. “Also we were busy last night, you know, trying to stay alive and keep the forest from burning down. If anyone had any before they probably used them by then.”

Her gaze lingers on his for a moment, then she nods. “Given the circumstances, then, I think you did the best you could. It helps that its wounds were promptly cared for. Just to be sure, please give me the names of the other trainers, so I can corroborate your story.”

“Oh come on! Why would I cut up my own pokemon and then bring him here to be healed?”

“Sir, please lower your voice.”

Blue fumes silently for a moment as he calms himself down. Just as he’s about to give her the names, footsteps approaching from the hallway make them both turn.

“Ah, there you are Blue. I thought I heard your voice.”

Professor Oak stands in the doorway, looking tired but smiling. He approaches the monitors, stripping gloves off his hands and tossing them in the trash before he examines Blue’s pokemon info. “Good, good, your pidgey healed just fine.”

Blue’s brain seems to have locked up at his gramp’s unexpected appearance. “His wing’s okay?” he asks after a moment, unable to pick beyond all the other questions.

“Yes, he’ll regain full use of it. The cut was deep, but it missed the bone.”

The doctor is staring at Professor Oak in shock, then turns to Blue. “You’re…?”

“Yeah, that Oak.”

Her cheeks flush, and she turns to the cheerful smile on the Professor’s face with a stammering apology that he waves away before it can take form.

“It’s quite alright, you were only exercising due diligence. I was hoping to have a talk with my grandson before we visit his friend in the hospital, however. Please excuse us, and message me if you need anything.”

“Of course, Professor. Thank you for everything.” She smiles and bows. “Your help has been invaluable, and I’ve never seen my people maintain such good morale in a situation this bad.”

Gramps beams at her and returns her bow, then heads for the door. Blue glances at the doctor as she gives him an apologetic look, pushes his bruised pride aside to mutter some thanks, and follows him.

As they walk through the corridor, his grandpa’s cheerful demeanor doesn’t disappear, but it does gradually fade to its normal, less weaponized form. Blue’s not sure what to say at first: did he just get rescued? It feels like he did, even though he was doing totally fine. He did nothing wrong. So why does it feel like he was let off the hook just because he’s the Professor Oak’s grandson?

To be fair, the Professor hadn’t said anything that could remotely be taken that way. Nor had the doctor implied it. It just seemed taken for granted that the grandson of Professor Oak would of course have the best intentions regarding pokemon wellbeing, and wouldn’t have acted in any way improperly.

Not that he’s complaining. Expectations like that will surely come in handy someday.

Still, even planning to make good use of the Oak name, Blue feels disgruntled. He was fully capable of handling this situation on his own.

Blue lengthens his strides to catch up to his grandpa. “So what are you doing here?” he asks, unable to keep quite all the hostility from his voice.

“Helping with the pokemon, of course. It’s all hands on deck from the surrounding cities, and since you all are here I decided to come to Pewter instead of help in Viridian. I arrived while you were sleeping in the lobby.”

“Ah. Well, thanks for the help back there. Saved me the whole minute it would have taken to give her the trainer’s names.”

The professor’s pale blue eyes flick toward him, and then they’re at the elevators. His grandpa waits until they’re inside and headed for the roof, then turns to him, face serious.

“You’re going to have to be more careful, Blue.”

“With what, exactly?”

“Your choice of victory conditions. There are many paths to becoming Champion, but the one you’ve chosen to walk is narrow as a razor’s edge. Stray too far on either side and you’ll get the title, but accomplish nothing with it.”

Blue scowls, leaning back against the wall and watching the numbers tick up. “You don’t think I know that? I did the best I could with what I had.”

“I believe that, and you believe that, and the two trainers that were with you probably believe that. But when the story gets out, as it certainly will once your fame starts to rise, you’re going to have to be ready to counter the unflattering colors some will paint you in.” The door of the elevator opens. “Start considering what you can do to give them something else to talk about.”

Blue follows him out, thinking it over. Gramps is speaking from experience, and Blue would have to be an idiot to ignore him. “So, what, like spread the story myself?”

“Is that the best you can come up with?” His grandpa waves at someone as they walk through the rooftop’s lobby, with its glass ceiling revealing that night has finally fallen on the city. Once they’re outside on the landing and launching area, he takes out Glory’s ball and summons the pidgeot in a flash of light.

Blue strokes the huge bird’s wing, and when it kneels he climbs onto the second seat on its back. I can’t wait until Zephyr’s this big. “I could help out here with you. Assist with pokemon injured in the forest.”

His grandpa smiles and mounts up before turning Glory toward the edge of the building, the pokemon’s wings spreading as it crouches for takeoff. “That’ll do, for a start…”


“Heyyy, look who’s conscious!”

Leaf turns to see Blue and Professor Oak enter Red’s room, the latter carrying a small bag. Mrs. Verres (“Please, call me Laura”) rises and hugs each of them, then excuses herself to get more chairs. The boys bump fists, and Blue leans on the edge of the bed to get a look at Red’s cast.

“Does it hurt if I do this?” Blue asks, extending a finger toward it.

Red bats his hand away before it can touch. “Thanks for coming, Professor.”

“Of course. From what I gather, you all did remarkably well in the forest, and I wanted to hear your stories personally.” The professor lifts the bag. “I also brought you each something. Ah, thank you Laura.” He takes the seat from her and lowers himself into it.

“You brought us gifts?” Leaf asks, excitement bubbling up in her. “You’ve already given us so much!”

“He’s just protecting his investment,” Blue says as he takes another chair to the other side of Red’s bed. He flips it around so he can prop his arms up on its back while he faces them. “Would have been embarrassing if we kicked the oxygen habit less than a week out.”

“Blue,” Mrs. Verres says, voice calm but firm. “I know you’re joking, but keep in mind that many people didn’t make it out of the forest. You’re all lucky to be alive, despite your achievements.”

To Leaf’s surprise, Blue looks genuinely embarrassed. “You’re right, Aunty. Sorry. So what’d you get us, gramps?”

“First, for Red, an ultraball.” He takes it out and hands it to him.

“Oh Sam, you shouldn’t have!” Laura says, admiring the sleek black and yellow ball that Red takes reverently. His finger traces the small gold lightning bolt etched into its cover.

“Think of it as a safety precaution. Training a pikachu can be dangerous, and at the very least you need to make sure the ball you hold it in can handle a stray bolt.”

“Thanks Professor,” Red says. “I was going to buy one, but now I can use the money on other things.”

“May I suggest some cheri berries? Besides their medicinal uses, they can be fed to your pichu to temporarily weaken its electricity.”

“Really? How does that wo-”

“Later, Red,” Blue says. “Next gift!”

Professor Oak smiles and turns deliberately away from him and toward Leaf. “Miss Juniper. Your decision to catch the pichu at great personal risk was admirable, but exceedingly dangerous. Rather than attempt to convince you not to try such a thing again in the future, I’d rather equip you so that you can do so a bit safer.”

He hands her a clear plastic jar of some thick amber liquid, tightly sealed. “Is this combee honey?” she asks, voice hushed, and Red gives a low whistle. A cup of the stuff can sell for as much as a hundred dollars, and this looks like a whole pint at least.

“It is, of a particularly strong potency. A small dab should be enough to attract any pokemon with a sense of smell. Use with extreme caution.”

Leaf grins and carefully tucks it in her bag. “I will! Thank you!” She’s already imagining all the ways she can use it, not just to catch pokemon, but also to train Bulbasaur. On top of that, plant pokemon are very adaptive at incorporating the effects of new substances in the plants and seeds they grow. He might even be able to develop his own attractive liquid or pollen…

“You’re quite welcome. As for you, Blue, I give you this.” He hands his grandson… a book.

Blue takes it with a frown that looks more like concentration than pique. “Nobunaga’s Ambition,” he reads from the cover, and flips through it. “Any significance here?”

“That’s for you to figure out as you read it. I have every confidence in you.”

Blue sighs as if he’d expected this, but nods and puts the book to the side. Leaf realizes he’s probably used to similarly cryptic directions from his grandfather. “Thanks gramps,” he says, and only sounds half grudging.

“So, what are you all planning now?” Mrs. Verres asks.

“I’m going to hit the gym when my pokemon are better,” Blue says. “Hopefully I can grab the Pewter Badge in a few days.”

“I have some research I need to do with my spinarak. If you have time, Professor, I could use some help organizing my thoughts on it…”

“Certainly.”

“And you, Leaf?”

She smiles. “The museum here has the largest fossil collection in the region, right?”

“Cinnabar might rival it,” Professor Oak says. “But it would be close.”

She nods. “I’m going to check it out. I’m really curious to know more about your region’s myths and history.” The older the better, and it doesn’t get much older than fossilized pokemon remains. She’s seen how historical evidence could alter or clash with local myths and beliefs back in Unova.

“It’s a fascinating place,” Professor Oak says. “You should all go.”

“Pass,” Blue says. “Seen it. Pretty boring.”

“I’m down,” Red says.

She smiles at him. “Cool.”

“Well, now that’s settled.” Professor Oak checks the time, then smiles and leans back in his chair, eyes sparkling with excitement. “It’s time for my payment for the gifts. I want to hear everything that happened last night. Who’s going to start?”

Leaf’s phone chimes, and her heart sinks as she sees it’s her mother asking her to call when she can. “Excuse me, I have to take this,” she says as she gets to her feet. “I’ll let Red cover my part.”

She leaves the room and finds a quiet corner of the hospital. She was putting off this conversation, but part of her is glad it’s finally upon her. After the numerous near death experiences in the forest, she doesn’t want to let some misaligned expectations get in the way of her and her mother’s relationship.

Leaf presses the call button, heart hammering as she tries to think of what to say. Should she sound calm and casual, as if nothing’s wrong? Cheerful? The usual cool and controlled?

She’s still trying to decide when the ringing stops, and her mother’s voice is in her ear. “Leaf!”

“Hi mom.”

“Oh honey, it’s good to hear your voice. I checked the Kanto news today and it showed a forest fire near where you said you were! Are you alright?”

Tears prickle at Leaf’s eyes at the naked concern in her mom’s tone, and she closes them. “I’m fine,” she says with a smile as she leans back against the wall. “And… Mom, I wanted to say sorry…”

Chapter 18: Interlude III – Son of Stone

When the gods came upon the earth, it was a single, massive lump of solid stone, floating through the Great Dark. So Brock’s great-grandmother taught him as a child, practicing his basic sums as she knitted a sweater with mesmerizing fluidity. Iron and tin, gold and silver, granite and obsidian, all the metals and minerals blended and fused into one cosmic body. The gods had argued over how they might shape this world, and were still not decided when they reached it. Kagu-tsuchi wished to scoop out the earth’s insides like an egg, and fill it with magma until it became a sun. Watatsumi wished to pound rain upon it until the stone eroded and pitted, and craters formed for lakes and oceans that would cover its surface. Every god and goddess had their own preference for what the world should be, and what manner of creatures they would fill it with.

Soon the argument became more than words, and each god began to form it as they wished. Fire filled its core so that the whole planet glowed, until water fell on the surface to cool it before it burst. Lightning blasted the stone into soil, and plants grew and sucked up the water before it washed all else away. It was a time of endless strife, and the gods were so busy trying to dominate each other that a hundred thousand years passed without a single creature they created surviving to birth a new generation.

It was the god and goddess Haniyasu-Hiko and Haniyasu-Hime that decided to fashion creatures that could live even in such endless turmoil. Though the fire filled its belly, still the stone was there. Though the lightning blasted pits in it, still the stone was there. Though the waves and rain pounded it to sand, still the stone was there. Though the greedy roots cracked it, still the stone was there. And so, they made their beings from stone, which weathered all things, cracked and scorched and pitted and split, but still there.

The rest of the gods’ creatures, crafted from other elements, lived where they could, but the stone people were capable of surviving in the most environments, and spread the farthest. Eventually the gods exhausted themselves into a stalemate, and left to regain their strength on the way to another world. The various creatures and demigods that they had crafted and left behind reached a relative peace of their own, and lived in their domains. As generation after generation passed, the people of stone softened and became flesh and blood. But just as the bones of the earth remained stone, so did the bones of the people, hard and strong enough to stand against the storms of the gods with a straight back.

“That is our legacy, Takeshi,” his great-grandmother told him in her native tongue, thin hands ceasing their waltz to grip his arm with surprising strength. “Stone endures.” Her thumb dug into his skin, not enough to hurt, but so she could feel the bones beneath his flesh. “Inside you lies the strength of the very earth itself. Others have forgotten their ancestors, but our people will always be the children of stone.”


Gym Leader Brock, who no one alive still calls Takeshi, sees the forest around him in the green glow of infrared. More than that, he can feel it through the pokemon he rides. Aeosis’s body winds between the trees, but his sides are so wide that they constantly strip the bark clean off the trunks he brushes against. Sharp cracks come from all sides as smaller trees and bushes snap and get trampled under the onix’s many segments.

“Brock!”

Again and again throughout the forest, trainers stop what they’re doing and look on as the massive rock snake passes by, almost sixty meters long from head to tail. The boulders of its body are the height of a tall man, and from his saddle a few segments behind the onix’s head, Brock’s messy brown hair bobs just below the tree branches.

“Leader Brock is here!”

“Brock! Brock and Aeosis!”

“At your side, Gym Leader!”

Brock uses the metal claws at the end of his gloved fingers to tap a quick pattern on one of Aeosis’s neck boulders, and the onix raises its head up and roars, a response to the the trainers they passed and a rallying cry to those ahead.

It took under twenty minutes to rouse and mobilize the Gym and any volunteers from Pewter once Brock got the emergency alert from Viridian. Brock was filled with pride when he stepped outside his gym and saw the size of the crowd waiting. Nearly twice as many as the last Tier 1 threat, and plenty of familiar faces.

He wasted no time sending out support teams to different parts of the forest based on the Ranger requests, only retaining five groups of five to ride with him toward the biggest fire, where the most help will be needed. A few have peeled off to assist Rangers they passed, and one from each group formed an escort unit for a group of injured trainers.

By the time Brock can see the glow of the fire above the trees, he’s down to five groups of three, each trailing his onix to either side on their own mounts. The others ride a variety of types to be prepared for any situation. Those from his gym tend to favor rock types, but few rock pokemon are fast enough to keep up with an onix.

“Sir, some trainers eight degrees to your left, around what might be a downed tree.” Jarod’s voice murmurs from his earpiece. Brock’s Third is flying above the canopy and looking down with thermal imaging goggles. With the reception out in this part of the forest, the radios are their only way to relay information and help navigate. “I think they’re trying to shift it.”

“Got it.” Brock switches frequencies to the others. “Turning left. Watch the tail.” He taps a subtle rhythm to the left of Aeosis’s neck, and the onix forges a new path through the trees, barely caring about foliage density. Brock’s body is high up enough to avoid most of the brambles and bushes that survive his pokemon’s passage, the rest scratching harmlessly at his armored leggings.

Soon he spots light ahead, blazing in the green tint of his goggles, and he quickly tugs them off until they hang around his neck. Within moments they’re at the downed tree where the the lanterns are hung. The trainers around it are standing at the ready, their pokemon prepared for a fight. Once they spot Brock on Aeosis’s back, their shock and terror gives way to relief, and one of the younger men leans against a tree with a hand over his eyes. “Oh, thank Arceus…”

Before Brock can ask what their situation is, one steps forward. “Leader, our friends are trapped under-”

Brock’s heart sinks. The trunk is nearly as thick as Aeosis, and anyone caught under it would be crushed like a caterpie. But his fingers are already moving in a rapid pattern on Aeosis’s neck. “Stand far back, all of you.” There are some branches extending from the trunk, and it’s possible the broken ones under it are holding some weight off…

They withdraw their pokemon and scramble to the sides as Aeosis rears up, then lowers his gaping maw over the trunk and bites down. Brock grips the handle on his saddle tight with one hand, then taps again to tell Aeosis to lift.

The tree rises slowly as Aeosis brings his head back up. Brock is lifted too as the segment he’s seated on rises, bringing him partway into the canopy. As soon as there’s room, a couple of the trainers begin to crawl under the tree, one holding a lantern. There’s a cry of relief, then dismay, and the others quickly join them to assist in bringing the bodies out.

By then his gymmates and volunteers have arrived, and a few get off their mounts to help. There’s the flash from under the tree of a pokemon being withdrawn into their ball, though in what condition Brock doesn’t know. Once everyone’s out from under the tree, Brock taps another command, and Aeosis drops the trunk with a crash, its middle imprinted with the onix’s triangular bitemark.

Some of the trainers are weeping over one of the bodies, while others surround a second, an unconscious girl whose arm was crushed. The grass is dark with blood in some places, and the smell of it fills the air around them.

Brock turns to the only trainer still standing. “What happened here? Did a raichu bring down the tree?” The woman doesn’t respond, staring in disbelief at her dead friend.

Brock feels a stab of empathy, then pushes it aside. He unstraps himself from his saddle and falls to the grass with a thump that gets her attention. She suddenly seems to realize how close she is to the massive onix, grief and shock joined by sudden fear.

He steps up to her and puts his hand on her shoulder. “What’s your name, trainer?” he asks, putting his will into his tone and grip, the same will that allowed him to catch and train the largest onix in Kanto.

The woman snaps to attention, eyes alert in a face full of loss. “Aiko, sir.”

“What happened here, Aiko?”

“It was… some breloom, we got caught up in their fight with the ‘chu… one of them shot seed bombs out. The trunk was already damaged by other attacks, and the seeds ripped right through it. Brought the whole thing down… we tried to get out of the way, but… Suki…” Tears gather in the trainer’s eyes, and she rubs them away with one hand, stifling a sob.

He squeezes her shoulder, gently but firm enough to bring her focus back to him. “What happened to the breloom? Are they still in the area?”

“Two captured, the rest fled when the tr-tree came down.” She takes a deep breath, then another. “Same with the ‘chu. We didn’t… we haven’t seen them since, but they ran that way.” She points, and her hand is steady.

Brock nods and looks at his people. “Gestov, Mark, stay with them and get the injured to a hospital. Paula, Avanni, see if you can find the breloom and ‘chu.”

They confirm, and he turns back to Aiko. Her face is full of loss and pain, but her eyes are clear, her breaths steady. Satisfied, Brock lowers his voice, speaking with quiet confidence. “Thank you, Aiko. I know your heart is heavy, but the others may yet need your strength to survive the night. Can I count on you to get them through this?”

“I… Yeah. Yeah, I won’t let them down.”

“I know you won’t.” He squeezes her shoulder again, thumb feeling her collarbone. “You have the strength of stone.”

She bows her head. “Thank you, Leader.”

Brock returns to Aeosis and climbs up its boulder segments until he’s back in the saddle. From so high up, he projects his voice for all to hear. “Tonight has taken much from you all, but it’s not yet time to mourn. We don’t know how extensive the rampage is, but the nearest Ranger Outpost has been destroyed, and you can’t stay in the forest. My people will lead you to Pewter, where you will be safe. Courage, for a little longer! Dawn is coming!”

Most of the trainers are looking at him by the end, brushing tears away or standing again, heads held high. Brock turns Aeosis toward a clear path through the trees, and they swiftly leave the gathering behind, his followers waiting until the onix’s long body and tail is gone before following.

Once he’s away from the lights, Brock puts his goggles back on, bringing the forest into green tinged sight again. One hand goes to his ear, and he switches to his Third’s frequency. “Jarod, some breloom may be in the area. Keep an eye out and relay to Paula and Avanni.”

“Yes sir. Be aware, you’re approaching the smoke surrounding the fire. I can’t see through it.”

“Got it. Stay clear for now.” He switches to general chat. “We’re approaching the fire. Groups four and five, spread out and circle around to lend support to the Rangers at different points. Groups two and three, disperse and check for distress signals to assist trainers wherever you find them. Without a steady signal to update them some might be obsolete, but keep looking.” Brock barely ducks in time to avoid a branch that sweeps just over Aeosis’s horn. “Group one, with me.”

A few moments later he sees the smoke, lit by scattered lanterns and the fire at its heart, and then they’re plunging into it. He guides Aeosis with taps of his fingers, a few on the side to turn him toward the denser smoke, and another quick pattern on his back to slow him down. The smoke makes his infrared goggles worse than useless, and he takes them off so he can see by the distant, diffused glow of the fire. As they get closer to the center of it, the light grows, as does the heat in the air.

Within a minute though, Aeosis begins showing signs of distraction, swinging his head around and growling. Brock looks around in the smoke for what might be upsetting his pokemon. Onix are used to navigating in the pitch blackness of mountains and deep within the earth, but maybe the ethereal lights and the thick smoke are making him twitchy.

Aeosis suddenly slows to a stop, and there’s a sharp crack as his pokemon’s head swings around, the horn on his forehead messily splintering a branch into pieces. Brock feels bits of wood rain down on him, and the stoney skin beneath his saddle vibrates with the onix’s growl as it peers into the smoke to their side. He taps a pattern along its skin, frowning. “Aeosis, calm. Forward.”

The onix’s agitation fades slightly and they travel deeper into the smoke, but before long Aeosis becomes unruly again. Brock begins to worry at his behavior. Combined with the low visibility around them, he’s not sure they can avoid crushing someone in their path, and soon he taps the command to stop.

“Something’s got Aeosis riled,” he tells the others through the radio as he unbuckles and leaps to the grass. “I’m dismounting.” Aeosis rears up once he’s clear, head snapping more branches and making them fall in a series of crashes that are almost lost in the onix’s roar.

“Aeosis, down!” Brock yells once the sound fades, ears ringing. He looks around, but can’t spot any threat that his pokemon might be responding to. He reaches forward and taps the command against its body, but the onix doesn’t heed either.

The Gym Leader quickly grabs the nearest boulder segment of its body and begins climbing, fingers gripping the edges to pull himself up and up, past his saddle.

Aeosis sways and turns a bit, an automatic reaction rather than an attempt to shake Brock off. He holds on tight until Aeosis is steady again, then reaches up to the last few boulders so he can grip the horn on its head. He braces his feet against the onix’s right jaw so he can look it in the eye closest to him.

The onix’s head is a bit bigger than he is, its eyes each the size of his fist. The smoke makes it too hard to see the shape and size of his pokemon’s pupil, and Brock has to go by other cues to judge his pokemon’s mood.

“Aeosis! Down!” He taps out the command on the rocky skin of his pokemon’s head as he says it, staring into the onix’s right eye as best he can through the thick smoke.

Its jaw opens, and Brock kicks off, gloved fingers carefully gripping the blunt side of Aeosis’s horn. The jaws snap on empty air, and then Brock is swinging back, heels slamming into his onix just beneath its jaw.

Brock hangs on tight as his pokemon rears back, more in surprise than any pain. Before it can try anything again, he pulls himself up past its mouth until he can crouch on its snout, staring into its eyes from an inch away. “Aeosis! Down!

Brock is distantly aware that his remaining gym members have arrived, fanning out in a loose circle as they watch. They know better than to interfere, but if Aeosis begins to rampage…

His pokemon shakes its head to the side. Not hard, barely a fraction of its full strength… but its full strength is enough to topple a building. Brock is whipped around its horn, the rough edges scraping his heavy gloves as he holds tight to avoid being flung off. He distantly hears yells of alarm from the others as the wind whistles in his ears.

He lands with another doubled kick on its jaw, pain jolting up his legs and pelvis, shoulders and wrists aching. “Stay back, everyone!”

Aeosis growls, eyes rolling to Brock’s new position on his left side. Brock’s hand goes to the heavyball at his belt. He could return Aeosis, get him under control where it’s safer… but that would have to be after tonight, since it would be impossible to find a space big enough to release him within the forest.

Worse than that, it would prove that he’s incapable of controlling his own pokemon.

His hand goes past the ball and unzips his pocket, then pulls out some small quartz shards. He presses them against the pokemon’s lips, letting its taste buds there feel the crystals. Aeosis makes a sound of hunger, and Brock whips his hand away just as his pokemon opens his mouth and snaps at the air.

A drop of sweat rolls down Brock’s neck, easily attributed to the diffuse heat of the nearby fire. “No, Aeosis. Our people need us, and you will listen to me, now! Down, Aeosis, down!”

The only sound is the rapid beat of Brock’s heart as his pokemon shifts its head from side to side… then lowers itself to the grass, laying out flat with a crash that nearly dislodges him.

He holds on for another few seconds, and then slowly steps down, ignoring the pain in his legs, merely glad that they’re still steady. He brushes the quartz against its lips again. “Good, Aeosis. Very good.” His pokemon opens its mouth, and he throws the crystals into its maw for it to crunch and swallow. Aeosis makes a contented sound from deep inside the long caverns of its body.

Brock strokes the ridges above its eyes until it closes its lids in satisfaction. Only then does his Second approach, dismounted from her dodrio. “What happened?” Sharzad asks.

“I’m not sure.” Brock looks around in the thick smoke again, where the other gym trainers have formed a loose semicircle. “Everyone, scout out in pairs, and stay alert!” They begin to move in expanding loops, disappearing between the trees as they explore outward.

Sharzad approaches and strokes Aeosis’s other eyeridge, long black hair tied back in a heavy braid. “What is it boy? What got you so spooked?”

Brock smiles as his onix responds positively to her touch, some of his tension fading. That had been far too close for comfort. Luckily Aeosis seems fine now.

Despite how responsive Aeosis often is, it would be a mistake to treat him like any other pokemon. No matter how much they trained, the onix’s temperament remains wildly unpredictable at times, and with so much power even the slightest mistake can be disastrous. The thought of what Aeosis would do if he ever went on a true rampage has kept Brock up many nights, and compelled him to spend more hours training the onix than the rest of his pokemon combined.

A year before, Brock fought a fully grown tyranitar that came down from Mount Silver. Four stories tall, each of its feet the size of a car, able to level a building with a sweep of its tail. He commanded Aeosis to wrap around it, hoping to bind it into submission for long enough for help to arrive. But after a few seconds of grinding, there was a massive crack, and the tyranitar’s struggles ceased. Brock stared in shock as his onix began feasting on the broken granite skin of its opponent, the enormity of the power he had harnessed truly registering for the first time.

Ever since Brock captured the legend of Mount Moon two years ago, he became something of a mythical figure in Pewter. It helped him expand the gym’s power and influence, but many of the residents began treating him with a deference that bordered on worship, which was distinctly uncomfortable. A number of the city’s citizens, especially the older ones, viewed Aeosis as a god, the progenitor of his race. Brock tried to convince others to work with the onix, but most were too afraid or reverent to attempt it.

As he told anyone who would listen, such talk was foolishness. A god would not be captured and tamed like any other monster, however perilous it had been to accomplish. Like the storm birds, they would be forces of nature beyond human control.

In private though, he can occasionally admit how that might describe Aeosis after all. Sharzad was the only one besides Brock willing and able to train the onix. She explained that in her home country, the onix grew nearly as big more regularly than in Kanto, though she admitted to never seeing one quite his size. It gives Brock a measure of peace to know that if something happens to him, Aeosis would be in good hands.

“He’s probably just unused to the smoke,” she says after a moment, reaching into the pouch at her waist and feeding Aeosis a small amethyst. “Maybe if he went underground he would feel more comfortable?”

Brock rubs his chin. “Maybe. He could submerge just enough that I could still ride him, if we’re careful. But it would heavily damage the tree roots, and-”

“Leader!”

Brock’s hand goes to his ear piece. “Go ahead Wallace.”

“We found two trainers, dead. They weren’t absorbed or eaten, but their bodies long, deep cuts.”

Brock relays the info out loud, and Sharzad swears under her breath, hand at her belt. “Killing without feeding. The only things in the forest that come to mind are shiftry.”

“And they would be virtually invisible in the smoke.” Brock switches to general chat. “High alert to all points! There may be camouflaged shiftry around us.” He switches to group one’s frequency. “Regroup everyone. With any luck Aeosis scared away any that were near, but don’t take any chances.”

“Return!” Sharzad’s dodrio disappears in a flash of light, her hands moving in a blur. “Go, Skydart!” Her huge fearow bursts into existence mid air, and she catches its ball with one hand as her other points outward, spinning in a slow circle. “Whirlwind!”

The fearow caws and tips into an angled spin, flapping wings barely able to fit in the limited clearing Aeosis created above them. The gusts of air send the smoke billowing outward in every direction, and the shiftry are suddenly there like a magician’s trick.

Brock counts five of them standing well away from Aeosis, and when he turns to look look back the way they’d come he sees another dozen approaching the many segments of the onix’s body, possibly more hidden in the smoke farther back. They must have been following them for awhile, more and more drawn to gather for a slaughter.

The ground practically quakes with Aeosis’s growl, but he doesn’t lose control again, glaring at the plant monsters with dilated pupils. Brock and Sharzad exchange a look, and then she holds both arms up and yells “Fly!”

Her fearow swoops down and grabs her arms in his talons, lifting her off with a few beats of his powerful wings. Brock leaps up onto Aeosis’s saddle and straps himself in with one hand as the other goes to his earpiece. “Everyone, use wind to push away the smoke,” he says in general chat. Smart enough for an ambush. Probably even smart enough to recognize a type advantage. “Aeosis, Bide.”

His onix immediately surges around into a coil, Brock holding tight as they whip around and around over Aeosis’s lower body with the grinding sound of stone on stone. Within moments, the pokemon’s entire length is wrapped in an ascending circle, with Brock riding the boulder near his neck at the top, well above the bulk of the onix’s body. Aeosis continues to churn slowly in place, letting them watch all sides.

If the shiftry were distracted by the sudden movement, they get over it quickly. Some bound forward, sharp leaves extended, while others stay back and begin to spit seeds out. They crack against Aeosis’s sides without leaving a mark, but moss and roots swiftly grow where they struck, spreading their way between the boulders as the forward shiftry slash and hack at him, their sharp leaves tearing against his rocky skin and leaving behind lines of acid that etch into the stone of his hide.

Aeosis’s body vibrates as he growls, but Brock taps out his custom command again. Bide, just a little longer… Shiftry are some of the most subtle and cunning pokemon around. If Aeosis just rushed at them, they would use their speed and agility to keep their distance, harry his sides and rear with quick strikes. It might take hours, but eventually they would whittle the titanic onix down.

More and more of the shiftry close in, covering Aeosis’s outer coils with acid scars and roots. Brock keeps his body low and slides his arms into straps along the saddle to avoid any seed that might shoot higher, and to be prepared for what comes next. He watches one of the shiftry in the distance finish spitting seeds out and leap forward to use its leaf blades.

A mirthless grin peels Brock’s lips back. Smart as the shiftry are, humans are smarter. And combined with his training and guidance, the prey they trapped is far too large for them.

Aeosis trembles beneath him and coils himself tighter, almost as if he’s trying to shrink into himself, and the shiftry’s attacks grow more frenzied, most of the remainder swooping in for the kill.

Now. Brock’s claws tap six times against Aeosis’s skin.

GROOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAARRR!

Brock keeps his eyes tightly closed as he’s whipped left and right, body tied so securely to the saddle that he’s in more danger of throwing up from nausea than he is of getting flung off. He’s long since grown used to the disorientation however, and simply holds tight and endures it while his onix unleashes the rage it had built up.

First the tail, swinging out in an unwinding arc that sends shattered shiftry sailing through the air, most already dead before they smash into trees. Then the head, darting left and right, rising and falling again and again to chomp down on the plant pokemon that had avoided the tail. In less than ten seconds, over twenty shiftry lie dead and dying, some chomped in half, the rest broken and battered into pulp.

Brock suddenly tastes eggs, hears a creaky door, feels the chill of the winter wind. A kaleidoscope of colors explode behind his eyelids, and his nose feels stuffed with cut onions, the acidic fumes melting his brain into jelly as the sensations all shift, then shift again, then overlap in a maddening mix. His skin feels both hot and cold in overlapping waves, and his sense of gravity completely unhinges so that it feels like he’s clinging to the saddle to avoid falling into the sky, then feels the pull to his left side, then all directions at once.

Aeosis makes a sound of confusion, slowing to a stop and writhing spastically. Brock struggles against the whirlwind of sensations and opens his eyes a crack as he bounces up and down. The three shiftry that remain are standing far back, and through his goggles, their eyes glow a brilliant green.

His pokemon suddenly flips himself over, rolling into a tree and collapsing its trunk over his back. The spike on his head keeps his foremost boulder segments from touching the ground, and ensure that Brock isn’t crushed in his carefully located saddle. Brock doesn’t know what sensations his onix is being overwhelmed by, but he can feel his own mind scrambling under the assault, and he grits his teeth as he struggles to stay conscious-

At first his brain interprets the high pitched screech as just another hallucination, but then the mental attack abruptly ends. Brock’s whole body sags, and he opens his eyes again to see Sharzad and Skydart diving at a shiftry. They stop mid-air, and there’s a flash before they fly back up. The shiftry they dived at is gone.

The others look up and around, but Skydart dives at them from the other side this time, and silently. He flaps his wings to stop just above them and hover for a couple seconds, displacing the newly gathered smoke. Sharzad hangs one handed, the other holding a greatball out so that it locks on to one of the shiftry, then tossing it for the capture.

The last one tries to spit seeds out at the fearow, but Sharzad shouts “Drill Peck!” and lets go, rolling along the grass as Skydart dodges the seeds and strikes, beak piercing straight through the shiftry’s eye and into its brain.

Brock looks away as the shiftry topples to the ground and the bird pokemon’s long, cruel beak darts in and out to feed, stomach queasy enough. Sharzad collects her great balls and stuffs them in her bag, then goes around to all the shiftry spread out in a circle around them. A couple more get captured as they lie bleeding and broken, but the rest are apparently dead.

By the time she approaches, Aeosis and he are mostly recovered, and Brock has unstrapped himself to feed the onix some more gems. “You two alright?”

“Yeah.” He rubs Aeosis’s eyeridge, then checks his wounds. None are serious enough to warrant medical attention: the onix’s hide is so tough that the acids had burned themselves out before penetrating far. “Nice timing.”

She smiles. “They’re vulnerable when they link up to do mental attacks. Do you think there are more around?”

The Gym Leader frowns. “I doubt it.” Shiftry are fairly rare, and while groups of them ambushing trainers aren’t unheard of, it’s strange to see quite so many. “In fact I’m surprised there were even this many in one area. They must have come from all around…”

The others have begun to arrive, staring around at all the dead shiftry and murmuring in surprise and alarm. Wallace approaches Brock, holding a pair of IDs. “The trainers we found. I marked their coordinates for later.”

“Well done.” He reads their names, Pamela Harris and Derek Watson, committing them to memory and studying their pictures as best he can in the dim light. Their deaths had warned him and his gymmates of the danger they faced. The least he could do is know who they were.

“Everyone else okay?” Sharzad asks, and the others confirm that they hadn’t encountered any trouble. “They must have all been drawn to Aeosis.”

Brock nods and puts the trainer IDs away. “Let’s get going then, before any more show up.”


The fire is a fearsome thing, burning hungrily for kilometers and constantly threatening to spread further. The Rangers and trainers have done a good job with the firebreak, but even with dozens of them working together, they could only expand it outward a bit at a time.

Aeosis almost doubles its size in one lap, then doubles it again in another two.

Brock stands on the onix and holds onto his horn as he tunnels just a bit beneath the surface, guiding him along the edge of the firebreak by tapping on it. Grass, roots and bushes are no obstacle, and the occasional tree takes only a few minutes to uproot and push aside.

After about an hour, the firebreak stretches far enough to safely contain it in every direction. Brock returns to Ranger Haru, who thanks him profusely for his aid. Most of the other rangers and trainers have begun to disperse, some to rest farther from the heat and smoke, others toward preregistered distress signals. Brock already sent the remainder of his group along to help them, and now that the fire is contained, he begins to search for a trainer or Ranger that might recognize the trainer IDs they found.

Someone eventually tells him he saw them with Ranger Malcolm, and when Brock tracks the coordinating Ranger down, his face falls as he takes the IDs.

“Yes, I sent them out,” he says taking his cap off and wiping at the sweat on his forehead. “Those damn shiftry… we had some others encounter them too.” He gestures toward three trainers, two boys and a girl, who are helping with some final cleanup efforts.

“Really?” Brock eyes the trainers, impressed. There probably hadn’t been as many as had attacked him, but they all seem fairly young, one of them especially so. In fact…

“Blue Oak?”

The youth looks up from the branch he’s dragging, then snaps to attention. He hesitates and looks at the other two, who nod at him to go ahead before he jogs over. “Yes, Gym Leader?”

“I thought that was you.”

“You recognized me?”

“We didn’t speak, but you were with your grandfather last year when he visited Pewter.”

The young Oak nods. “Of course. I forgot.”

Brock smiles. He can’t tell if the boy is implying that he regularly forgets meeting Gym Leaders, or if he’s just being modest of recognition he gets for being with his grandfather. “I hear you survived an ambush by some shiftry.”

Blue blinks. “Yeah, about an hour ago.”

“How many were there?”

“Six.”

Six more. “This was within the smoke, yes? How did you spot them?” Brock listens in quiet fascination, then shakes his head. “You got incredibly lucky.”

Blue stiffens a bit, chin rising as his face goes blank. “Yes, Gym Leader.”

“So did I.” Brock grins as Blue’s expression turns to surprise, and explains what happened with his own encounter. “Did you check the area, see if there was anything that caused them to attack you?”

“No, we came back to warn others.”

“Could you find the spot again?”

Blue hesitates. “Maybe. The smoke…”

Brock nods. “I understand. Well, I’m glad you’re okay. You do credit to your family name.”

Blue bows his head, “Thank you, Leader.”

Brock is about to turn away when the boy looks back up, seeming poised to say something further. “Yes?”

“You brought help, right? From Pewter?”

“I did. They’re spread out now assisting others.” Brock frowns. “What’s wrong?”

“I left some friends to come help with the fire. One was injured. If you wouldn’t mind, could you…”

Brock already has a hand on his earpiece, picking up on the boy’s concern. “Names?”

“Red Verres and Leaf Juniper.”

Brock asks over every frequency if anyone has encountered either, and gets the affirmative from Julie. “One of my people has your friend, Red, and is taking him to Pewter. She says the girl stayed behind at your camp.”

For a moment Brock thinks Blue is going to faint in relief, the young boy rocking back as his shoulders sag. He puts a hand out and grips his shoulder. “You alright, son?”

Blue takes a deep breath and nods, standing straighter again. “I’m fine. I just… thank you, Leader.”

The new sincerity in his voice makes Brock smile. He squeezes Blue’s shoulder, feeling the strength of his bones before letting go, remembering Aiko. His position often carries with it many burdens, but it’s moments like this that he feels most deserving of his title. “Thank you, trainer, for your assistance. Feel free to stop by the Gym, if you’re going to Pewter.”

Blue nods. “My friends and I were heading there.”

“Then stay safe until we meet again.”

The boy says goodbye to Ranger Malcolm, then the other two, and heads off into the forest at an odd hopping jog.

“What will you do now, Leader?” the Ranger asks.

“Head farther south. The Viridian Gym might need help with emergencies closer to their side of the forest.” Especially since Giovanni isn’t usually in his city, Brock refrains from saying. It would be uncouth to speak critically of how another Gym Leader manages their city. “Yourself?”

Malcolm sighs. “Once this fire dies down, we’ll have to assess how big an impact tonight will have on the ecology, and decide where and when to rebuild our outpost. The initial pikachu and raichu rampage that started this mess is just the beginning of our worries here. Combined with poachers that will come to take advantage of the confusion and chaos, a Ranger’s work is never done.”

“So it’s said.” Brock holds out his hand. “On behalf of Pewter, thank you for your service. If you need anything from my city, please let us know.”

The Ranger takes it. “Thank you, Leader. Your people made a great difference here, as did your onix. Good hunting.”

Brock nods and heads to Aeosis. He notices that it’s a bit easier to see than it was, and checks the time. Half past four in the morning. The sun’s rising.

Weariness numbs the edges of Brock’s thoughts, but he ignores it and remounts. “Group One, we’re headed south. Form up.”

There’s a lot of forest to cover, and a Gym Leader’s work is never done either.

Chapter 17: Tradeoffs

The shiftry rush at them through the swiftly thickening smoke, and the moment of shock shatters with the sound of their roars. Blue can feel his heartbeat in his throat, but it’s adrenaline that fills his veins, not fear. Now he knows what he’s up against. Now he can act.

“Go, Lep!”

“Go, Pauletta!”

Out of the corner of his eye, Blue sees Luis summon a doduo and Sarah an aipom. She yells, “Square!” and Luis echoes her, and their pokemon, including the nidorino and gloom, take positions in front of their left and right hands, covering all four corners as the shiftry close in.

Then Blue has to focus on his own opponent, who leaps toward him in startlingly quick hops. His left hand hand unclips squirtle’s pokeball as the right points at the shiftry. “Wing Attack!”

Zephyr dives and begins buffeting its eyes with its wings as its talons and beak tear at it. He aims his ball to the side, bracing with his other hand. “Squirtle, go!” As soon as his pokemon materializes, he clips its ball and points at the beedrill. “Soak!”

The turtle falls to all fours and opens its mouth, shooting water in a wide spray that drenches the bug. He hears the yells and cries of the other trainers and their pokemon as they fight, but his entire focus is on his battle. The shiftry is swinging at Zephyr, cutting itself up with its own leaves as the pidgey dodges and flits around its head. The smoke billows and gusts as Zephyr’s wings beat at it, making it hard to make out exactly what the shiftry is doing. Blue prepares to give another command, but the last one seems to be working for now.

Squirtle’s deluge slows to a stop as it runs out of water, and the air here too dry for it to absorb any more moisture through its skin. Blue returns it to its ball, watching as beedrill begins to move less sluggishly. “Beedrill! Poison sting!” Its wings move faster as it shakes the water off them, but only lifts for a second before sinking back down. Come on, get up!

The shiftry fighting Zephyr roars, then bends its knees and leaps back to get clear before swiping clumsily forward with both arms. When Zephyr flies above the sharp leaves to continue pecking at its eyes, the shiftry’s forward momentum immediately stops. “Climb!” Blue cries, but it’s already reversing the feint, leaves slicing up quick as a blink as it bounds back like a spring loaded toy.

Blue unclips and points Zephyr’s ball as his pokemon falls to the grass, covered in blood and with a wing half shorn off. “Return!” He’s fine, he’ll be fine once I get him to a pokemon center- “Go, caterpie! String shot!” The green bug looks pitiful against the towering tree monster, but it dutifully sends a sticky stream out. The shiftry blocks it with one arm and leaps forward, but gets drawn up short when the arm tugs against the ground where the string had fallen and stuck.

Beedrill’s wings buzz as it tries again to lift itself up, but it still doesn’t last more than a couple heartbeats. The shiftry cuts the string and leaps aside to avoid a second, and as Blue aims caterpie’s pokeball at it and opens his mouth, the shiftry leaps forward and cuts his pokemon in half.

Blue stares in shock for what feels like seconds, but can’t be because the shiftry doesn’t pause in its forward momentum, bounding around the beedrill and slicing at him. Wait, hang on- Blue’s hands are already moving ahead of his thoughts, dropping his caterpie’s ball to the grass and pulling out an empty one as he leaps to the side to avoid the shiftry’s attack.

Pain lances down his side as the edge of the leaves cut through the protective mesh under his clothes, and he cries out as his thumb expands the ball and aims it. He bites down on any further screams so he can hear the ping, throws-only one left-and hits the shiftry from the side.

It vanishes in flash of light, and Blue collapses to his knees, hand scrambling at his bag. Zero sudowoodo one sudowoodo two sudowoodo three… He pulls a potion from his bag and sprays it on his side, losing count of the seconds as the relief washes through him. He pushes himself to his feet and scrambles toward his beedrill, who keeps lifting up then sinking back down.

Out of time. He grips the beedrill around the middle and heaves it toward the rocking pokeball on the ground, narrowly avoiding its lashing blades and stinger. The ball disgorges the shiftry in a blinding flash and a bang just as his pokemon descends on it in a frenzy.

The bug’s stinger and arm blades pierce the shiftry’s rough skin again and again. It roars in pain and swipes at his pokemon, but the leaves only scratch its exoskeleton, and the beedrill just keeps attacking.

But it’s still being injured, little by little. One of its legs gets cut off by a swipe of the shiftry’s leaves, and half of its wings get cut off from another. Blue thinks furiously of what standard commands his pokemon learned in the ball when he registered it. “Beedrill, climb! Beedrill, back! Beedrill, Twin Needle!”

His beedrill doesn’t respond at all, and Blue’s heart sinks as it continues its self destructive frenzy. The tip of one armblade breaks off in the tree pokemon’s chest, bleeding clear ichor, but it doesn’t even seem to notice. A beedrill should be able to bring a shiftry down in most cases where it catches one by surprise, but whether because of its nature, the circumstance it was caught in, or its lack of training, his has gone too berserk to make efficient, decisive blows.

Blue hears one of the other shiftry roar and turns to the others. Two shiftry are lying still on the ground, but the aipom and nidorino are gone, probably withdrawn back into their balls. As he watches, Sarah’s gloom shoots acid at one of the remaining shiftry, who keeps trying to evade with middling results. Luis’s doduo weaves into range and get a pair of pecks in at his opponent’s elbow, severing the whole arm before leaping back out of the way of the other arm’s swipe.

It wails in pain, and its eyes suddenly glow as if lit from within. Within a second the other shiftry’s eyes are glowing too, and Blue feels a rush of fear as the two trainers and their pokemon suddenly stagger and collapse.

He turns to his own opponent and sees its eyes also glowing. His beedrill falls to the ground and twitches spastically, and the shiftry leans on its branches as it keeps its gaze on the bug, trembling and bleeding from over a dozen wounds.

Blue doesn’t stop to think: he grabs his caterpie’s ball as he runs toward Luis and Sarah, holding down the button and saying “Release Caterpie!” as his other hand takes out his last empty ball and expands it.

The shiftry with both its arms turns to him as he approaches, but he feels nothing, and soon he’s close enough to hold the balls forward so they can lock. Come on, come on…

The shiftry seems to realize something is wrong, legs bending as its eyes lose their light and it prepares to leap at him. The two pings go off almost simultaneously, and Blue throws just as it attacks. The shiftry bats the ball to the side, but not fast enough to avoid it opening and sucking it in, while the other simply gets nailed in the back and captured.

Blue runs forward and kicks first one ball, then the other, sending them sailing through the smoke before he rushes to Luis and Sarah. “Hey! Get up! GET UP!” He shakes Luis, who groans and presses his palms to his eyes, before going over to Sarah and doing the same with her.

Sarah quickly recovers, one hand rubbing her temple as the other picks up her gloom’s ball. “Return!” She clips it and picks out another ball. “Thanks Blue. Where-”

There’s an explosive crack and a flash through the smoke, and within moments the shiftry rushes back toward them. “Go, Ribbon! Quick attack!” Her newly summoned furret slinks between the shiftry’s feet in a dizzying whirl, biting and scratching while narrowly avoiding its return swings, not giving it a chance to focus a mental attack again.

A second explosive crack sounds, and Luis gets to his feet to face the oncoming shiftry. Blue turns back to the one with his beedrill and feels a jolt go through him.

His pokemon and the shiftry are both lying on the ground, completely still. He rushes back to them, hand unclipping beedrill’s ball. “Return!” He takes his pokedex out and aligns the lens, heart hammering in his chest as the screen shows weak but positive vital signs, and then:

No Neurological Response – Brain Patterns Critically Disrupted

Gone. Two of his pokemon, gone in minutes.

He looks over the shiftry’s wounds, some leaking a strange, thick blood, the flesh around others dark with poison. As the battle rages behind him, Blue mechanically sends his beedrill back out and orders the ball to release it. The shiftry isn’t moving, and he approaches it from behind and kicks the crinkly, tough white hair that drapes down its back.

It feels like kicking a log, and the shiftry rolls a bit onto its stomach. Dead too.

There’s a roaring in his ears, and it takes Blue a moment to realize it’s not something he’s actually hearing. He takes a deep breath as the anger boils up through his detached calm, trembling as he restrains the urge to kick the shiftry again and again and again.

Instead he turns back toward Luis and Sarah in case they need more help, but they’ve brought the last two shiftry down. The doduo seems to have pecked its way into its opponent’s eye socket until it reached the brain, but it got terribly cut in the effort, and one of its heads seems to still be suffering from the mental assault. Luis finishes applying a bottle of potion to the slice along its breast, then withdraws it. And Sarah…

Sarah sits with her pokemon draped over her crossed legs, stroking its long, sleek body. As Blue gets closer he sees the wide, dark stain in the grass, and realizes the furret’s neck is covered in blood. Its head was cut almost completely off.

She looks up at him as he approaches, crying quietly behind her mask. “Your pokemon?”

He shakes his head, not trusting his voice. Luis comes up behind her and puts a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Sarah. We’ll give Ribbon a proper burial later, but right now we need to warn the Rangers. There might be more shiftry out here, especially if we’re near a seedot nest they were guarding.”

She nods and puts her pokemon’s body down, whispering something Blue can’t make out. Then she stands and points a ball at it. “Good girl, Ribbon, r-return.” It gets absorbed in a flash, and Sarah turns away, one hand clipping it to her belt as the other goes to rub at her face beneath her mask.

“You alright?” Luis asks after a moment, gesturing at his side.

“Oh.” Blue looks down and prods at his wound, wincing a bit at the tender scab under the drying blood. “Yeah. I’ll get it checked out later, but it didn’t go too deep.”

“Lucky. No,” Luis shakes his head, then winces, hand going up to rub his temple. “Sorry, my head’s still a bit scrambled from their extrasensory assault. I’m sure luck had little to do with it. We’d probably be dead right now if not for you. Did you stay out of their line of sight, or are you psychic?”

Blue takes a breath, then lets it out. “Neither. I’m dark.”

Luis blinks. “Oh. Right. Well, good.”

Blue watches Sarah check each of the shiftry, cautiously approaching and kicking them the way he had. Here it comes…

“So, did you, uh, sense them?”

Blue looks at him.

“Is that how you knew? I’d heard that dark people can sense dark pokemon.”

Somehow Blue doubts that’s exactly what Luis heard. “That’s not how it works. We don’t have any mental powers, even where dark pokemon are concerned.”

“So how did you know they were there?”

Blue feels a bloom of heat in his chest, and imagines himself stroking a growling arcanine back to peace. There probably isn’t an undercurrent of suspicion in Luis’s tone. Blue’s probably just imagining it. “I just had a bad feeling, that’s all. The shiftry shouldn’t have stuck around when it saw it was outnumbered.” Blue looks at the original shiftry and is surprised to see it’s still alive. Despite being covered in acid burns and poisoned wounds, its chest rises and falls as it struggles weakly to move with its shattered leg.

“Well you were by yourself at first, weren’t you? How did it find you-”

“I don’t know,” Blue snaps. “But I didn’t draw it to me, if that’s what you’re implying. That’s just a myth.” He walks away before Luis can finish his surprised denial, heading toward the original shiftry.

“What are you going to do, Blue?” Sarah says as he passes her, voice still thick with sorrow. “Be careful!”

Blue stops just outside its reach, watching as it notices him and tries to attack with a sweep of one arm. It moves sluggishly, the remaining intact leaf dropping to the grass after a moment as it collapses onto its back again, breathing shallowly. Whether from blood loss or the poison in its system, it’s clearly dying.

He watches its yellow eyes slowly fill with light, a flickering, uncertain glow. He meets its gaze without blinking, and the light slowly drains away, leaving it staring blankly upward. Its chest still rises and falls, and Blue can hear the rattle of its breath as it struggles to draw in the next one.

Blue notices he has the pokeball in his hand, the one that held his beedrill. But it’s useless here, the shiftry are just too big… even the one that was missing its arm had broken out eventually, though it had taken a bit longer…

“Come on Blue, let’s head back.”

“It’ll die if we leave it here.” And all this would be for nothing. A total waste, like the pikachu that was almost his.

“What do you want to do, just heal it and let it go?”

“No. That would still be a loss.”

I refuse to lose again.

Blue eyes the shiftry that’s missing an arm, then looks back at the original that had set the ambush. Luis’s next question is just an annoying buzz as he carefully steps forward, then kicks the shiftry in the shoulder and leaps back.

The pokemon stirs weakly, emitting a rumbling cough and fannings its arms once before collapsing with a wheeze and going still, eyes closed.

Luis looks at him with wide eyes. “What did you do that for?”

“I’m going to catch it.”

Sarah’s brow creases. “You can’t, it won’t fit in a pokeball.”

“Then I’ll make it fit.” He takes a poison antidote and potion bottle from his bag and begins to spray the shiftry’s wounds. “You guys go ahead if you want, I’ll catch up.”

They don’t respond, merely standing and watching as he finishes treating the shiftry’s most serious injuries. When he finishes, he puts the bottles away and goes over to the severed arm of the shiftry Luis fought. He lifts it carefully, the barklike flesh rough beneath his hands, and brings it back to the living one.

“What are yo-”

Blue stands on one of its hand-leaves before it can recover too much and swings, the sharp leaves biting into the thin joint of its shoulder.

Blue! What the fuck-”

The shiftry groans and thrashes a bit, but doesn’t try to retaliate, so Blue swings again and almost completely severs the arm. It hangs loosely by a bit of flesh, and Blue suppresses the revulsion rising in his throat, feeding it to the fire in his belly as he sidesteps and stomps down, snapping it off. The shiftry shudders, but lies still.

Blue hears a step behind him and turns, expecting Luis to take a swing at him, but Sarah has a hand on her brother’s shoulder. The boy looks sickened and angry, but she just stares at the shiftry with red-rimmed eyes.

Blue takes out the potion bottle again and sprays the oozing stump, then goes to the shiftry’s other side. “Plant pokemon can heal practically any wound, if they have something to absorb from. That, plus some help at a pokemon center, and it should be fine.” He steps on its remaining arm and chops it off with only two whacks this time.

“But this is…”

Blue glares at him. “Would you rather it die? That’s better?”

Luis is silent, but Sarah says, “I would.”

He turns to her, frustration about to boil over. “I’m sorry about Ribbon, but-”

She shakes her head, staring at the original shiftry. “Ignore me. It’s not the one that killed her, and it dying won’t bring her back. Do what you want.”

Luis is staring at his sister with a mix of pain and alarm, but he stays mercifully silent as Blue turns back to finish butchering the shiftry’s remaining limbs, then cutting at its thick, heavy hair. He expects the pokemon to wheeze its last breath at any moment, but it’s a tough one: it passes out shortly after its first leg is gone, but keeps breathing.

When Blue finishes dragging away its limbs and brushing the long cloak of its hair away, the remaining torso and head look relatively tiny. He takes out his last pokeball, hefts it for a moment as he considers… should he chop off its nose too? More of the thighs? But no, he doesn’t dare risk any more damage. It’s time to roll the dice.

He aims the pokeball until he it pings a lock, and with an underhanded throw, it captures the remains of the plant pokemon.

Blue watches the ball bounce to the ground and roll to a stop, feeling hollowed out as he waits… and waits… and finally, slowly, lets his breath out a bit. Enough. It was enough.

“It worked,” Luis says, sounding a bit shocked and about as sickened as Blue feels.

“Not yet.” Blue takes out his pokedex and lines up the lenses, face blank as he watches the screen for the inevitable error-

His shiftry appears, information registering. Its vital stats are listed in critical levels, its mental activity subdued… but there. It’s alive. Alive, and his now.

And its first memory of its new master may well be him chopping it to pieces.

Something inside Blue loosens, the rage that he’d locked away pouring out in a scalding flood, diluted by nausea and sorrow and triumph. He wants to dance and cheer at having caught such a powerful pokemon, wants to sit and weep his self-loathing away. He wants to go back to the forest fire and throw the ball into the heart of the blaze.

But he can’t afford to lose control, not yet. Sarah and Luis are going to talk about this to others, and he needs to make sure the stories make him appear strong, determined. There are different ways he could react to this, all of them genuine, but still mostly within his control. Would it be better to look more relatable? Willing to do what’s necessary, but not callously? Would they respect him more for a moment of weakness, or would it just diminish what he’d done?

In the end he clips the ball to his belt, then lets himself slowly fall to his knees, resting back on his ankles with his fists on on the grass to either side, head hanging. His legs were feeling unsteady, and it feels nice to just close his eyes and breathe for awhile.

After a few moments, he feels a hand on his shoulder. He opens his eyes and looks up to see Sarah staring down at him with concern. Luis is behind her, looking less repulsed than a moment ago. Blue probably confirmed some of the nastier stereotypes of dark people to the older boy, but there’s not much he can do about that. He is who he is: he can’t change the fact that he’s dark. After tonight, he’s not sure he would even if he could, though that will probably change again eventually.

“You okay?”

Blue nods and slowly gets to his feet as Sarah removes her hand. “That’s probably the worst thing I’ve ever done,” he says, voice hoarse. He clears his throat and lifts his mask to his forehead, then rummages in his bag for some water.

“Where did you learn to do a thing like that, Oak?” Luis asks. “I can’t imagine your grandfather thinking of it.”

Oh, he’d think of it alright. As for do it, well… depends which stories you believed.

Blue decides not to share that. Instead he finishes the bottle and tucks it away again before fixing Luis with his best glare, shoulders straight and chin up. “Well I’m not my grandfather.”

“You say that like it’s a good thing.”

“He’s a great man. I’m going to be a greater one.”

Luis doesn’t look impressed. “Greater than the first Professor in Indigo? You’re not like any researcher I’ve ever met.”

“That’s because I’m not a researcher. I won’t ever be a professor. My grandfather was Champion in your parent’s day, and I’m going to be Champion in yours, but that’s where the similarity ends. My skill is as a battle trainer, and my priority is to win, whatever it takes.”

“If this is what winning looks like, I wouldn’t want to have to face you,” Sarah says, looking around at the shiftry’s limbs.

Blue shakes his head. He has to make them understand. “I’d never do this in a match or tournament. This was about survival. The shiftry’s, and eventually mine. I’m stronger for having it on my team.”

“Which will help you become Champion.”

“Becoming Champion is just a means to an end. It’s not my ultimate goal. On its own that wouldn’t make even things like this necessary.”

“Then what does? If being Champion isn’t enough, what is it you want?”

He meets her gaze. To tell, or not? Is it too early to set such high expectations? He might get mocked, laughed at, before he even has a chance to prove his capabilities.

Better to wait. Better to reveal it after he has a few badges at least, has demonstrated his skill.

He opens his mouth to say something generic about protecting the region-

Groooaaaaaaaaar!

All of them duck, kneeling in combat ready positions as they scan their surrounding. The mighty roar fades, and the smoke around them is suddenly ominous once more. I can’t use Zephyr again, he’s hurt…

“I don’t think that was a shiftry,” Luis says after a moment. “Way too loud.”

Blue shakes his head. “It sounded familiar, but… it wasn’t a venusaur…”

The earth rumbling roar echoes through the forest again, and this time Blue recognizes it. He lets his breath out in relief. “Finally.”

“Is that…?” Sarah slowly straightens, hand falling from her belt.

“Onix. An enormous one, by the sound.” Blue smiles, relief easing the last of his tension as he heads back toward the fire. “Looks like Pewter finally showed up.”


“Did you hear that?”

Leaf nods, standing and looking in the direction the roar seemed to come from. “Is that the real thing, or is someone else copying our trick?”

The two of them have been waiting over an hour since Blue left, quizzing each other on pokemon trivia to keep themselves awake and vigilant. Occasionally a ‘chu gets close enough to use the pokedex again, and they began experimenting with different sounds, one of them keeping onix on standby in case the golem or nidoking roars don’t work.

They haven’t been able to try many though, as the number of ‘chu running around their area of the forest seems to be dwindling. As they reduced, other wild pokemon have passed by in growing frequency, but luckily none have come near them.

Now the onix roar sounds again, and goosebumps run up Leaf’s arms. Something about hearing it triggers a primal fear in her hindbrain. She can imagine that sound traveling and echoing through each chamber of the rocksnake’s body before releasing in a hammerblow of sound and fury.

“I think it’s the real thing.” Red cranes his head in the same direction, then plops it back down. “Which means Leader Brock or one of his lieutenants might be close by. Maybe they’ll have enough people to send someone here soon.”

“I hope so. The fire doesn’t look like it’s gotten much smaller.” Leaf looks at Red. His face has been pale since he fell out of the tree, but it’s showing more and more strain as the night goes on. “You holding up okay?”

He grimaces. “Arm is starting to hurt, that’s all. Is there any more…”

Leaf worries at her lower lip a moment. “Yeah, but I don’t think we should use it unless that dose wears off completely. Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Red props his pokedex back up on his chest. Another half hour of trivia passes, Red randomly scrolling through pokemon files and turning a listed fact into a question, then Leaf doing the same for him. At first they stuck to local pokemon to help Leaf get more familiar with the native species, but eventually they drift farther.

“Why do some basculin have red stripes and some blue?” Leaf asks.

“Um, one’s salt water and one’s fresh water?”

“…You’re guessing, aren’t you?”

Red smiles. “Yeah. Am I right though?”

“No. We actually have no idea.”

“What?!”

“As far as we can tell, yeah, it seems pretty random.”

“How was that a fair question, then?”

“You should have just admitted that you don’t know!”

Red grumbles, scrolling for his own question. “Hm… ah, here. What’s the maximum horizontal airspeed velocity of a swellow?”

“Um… I think it was about 290 kilometers an hour.”

“Nope. Says 274.”

Leaf frowns. “That’s not right. Wait, is it a Unovan swellow or a Kanto swellow?”

“We don’t have swellow here actually, the closest live in Hoenn and Sinnoh. Are they faster in Unova?”

“Yeah, look.” She goes to its page on her dex and shows him. “Huh. The tails look a bit different.”

“Yeah, I can see that one on mine too,” he flicks the picture aside and the Unovan swellow takes its place. “But there’s only one number. I think we found a bug, or at least an oversight.”

Leaf smiles. “In yours, yeah. Mine’s fine.”

“Well it is still in beta,” he says defensively. “Guess I’ll write a ticket for Professor Oak.” He begins to awkwardly prop the dex up on one upraised knee so he can navigate and type one handed.

“You want me to?”

“No, it’s okay. Are you hungry, by chance?”

“Yeah, I could use a snack.” She takes some granola bars out of her bag, settling it down just inside the circle of unburnt grass. She unwraps one and puts it on his stomach, then opens her own and begins to munch on the sweetened grains, stomach gurgling.

As they eat, a spark through the trees to her left makes her grab her pokedex. She’s about to press the button when a pichu dashes out of the bushes across the clearing where they originally set up their sleeping bags, closely chased by a spearow.

The bird pecks and claws at the small yellow rodent with its hooked beak and talons, blood flying as the pichu squeaks and scrambles away. Leaf drops her pokedex and reaches for her belt, but then the fight is abruptly over: the pichu leaps away to get a moment of respite, and its red cheeks glow before lancing a bolt out at the spearow, who drops out of the air and tumbles along the ground. It tries to rise, but the pichu sends another bolt at it, then another, and the spearow lies still, the sickening smell of burnt feathers filling the air.

Leaf stares, hand over her mouth. The whole thing had happened in the space of seconds, too fast for her to do anything. She watches the pichu send another spark out into the grass, seemingly at random. It’s ragged and bleeding, and begins to crawl along the grass in a pained daze. Its nose wriggles as it sniffs its way toward them in a slow zigzag, and as it gets closer, she can hear a faint squeak with every exhale.

Her chest feels tight. “Red…”

He has his neck craned at an awkward angle to watch. “Yeah. Got a pokeball?”

“I do, but it’s too far to get a lock.”

“Do you think its parents might be nearby?”

“I think they would have shown up by now. Maybe it fell out of a tree and got left behind, or they were attacked by other wild pokemon…”

The pichu stops moving, ears twitching as it looks at them. It seems poised to flee, and Leaf’s pulse quickens. If it runs off into the forest with those wounds, it’ll die.

“Red, got any shock potions?”

“A couple.”

“Could I have one?”

“Sure. What are you going to do?”

She opens his bag and finds one, pocketing it. “I’m going to try to catch it.”

He looks at her. “By leaving the rods? Bad idea, Leaf. It’s not as strong as a pikachu, but it can still put you down with a strong enough bolt, and then you’re just another spearow.”

“I’ll have to risk it. It needs medical attention, and I can’t just leave it out there to die.”

“And what am I supposed to do if you do get shocked? Just scare it off and leave you lying out there?”

The pichu’s ears cock to the sides, then forward again. It’s too far for Bulbasaur’s sleep powder, even if she wants to risk sending him out, which she doesn’t: the sound and light would probably make it run off. But Red’s right, it’s too risky to leave the protection of the rods.

She could take one out and move it forward with her, but she would need to constantly be planting it for it to be of any use: she can’t react faster than the pichu can shock her. But if she could bring the pichu closer…

Leaf kneels down and begins breaking off little pieces of the granola. She discreetly draws her hand to the side, then tosses a piece of the granola forward, moving only her wrist.

The pichu dashes away into the dark as the granola piece bounces over the grass, and Leaf’s heart leaps into her throat. “No! Come back!” She wants to chase after it, catch it before it runs itself to death… but she can’t leave Red here alone, even with the rods. There might be other spearow around. She swallows her sorrow and sits back down, staring at her granola bar and trying not to cry. First the hoothoot, now this…

“Leaf, look!” Red says, voice low.

She turns and sees the pichu returning, slowly crawling toward the bit of granola. Hardly daring to hope, she watches as it sniff at the granola, then chars it with a quick spark of electricity and begins nibbling. Only then does she break off and toss out another piece, then another, each closer than the last.

She takes out a pokeball once it starts to get close enough, but doesn’t throw it right away. If the pichu see the ball come at it, it might run for good.

Instead she rolls the rest of her granola bar over the blackened grass so that it comes to rest past it. Once the pichu crawls over to the bar, Leaf quickly removes her shoes and socks.

“What are you doing?” Red hisses.

“Be right back,” she whispers, and starts to slowly move to the right toward the pichu’s side, bare feet making almost no sound over the dead grass. Red looks frustrated, but doesn’t say anything, simply raising his pokedex up, ready to sound the onix roar.

The pichu shocks the granola bar, inspects it, then does it again. From this close she can see the bloody scratch that runs down its back, and as soon as Leaf is outside of its peripheral vision, she expands two pokeballs and points their lens, holding her breath…

Pi-ping!

The pichu twitches and turns to the sound, but she’s already throwing, the first one straight ahead, and then turning the hand with the second up to toss it overhead at the last moment, so that it arcs carefully up, then down onto the pichu.

The pichu doesn’t dodge, sending a jolt at Leaf that travels through the first ball before hitting her like a burning, tingling punch that goes straight from her outstretched arm and down her left side, into her foot and out into the ground below. She collapses in pain as Red cries out, but even as she grits her teeth over a scream, she sees the flash from the pokeball, hears the rush of energy as it absorbs the pichu.

Ha… gotcha… Her eyes water as she curls into a ball. Swords of Justice, that hurt!

“Leaf! Leaf are you okay!?”

“Think so… ” Leaf carefully checks her hand, then foot. There don’t seem to be any visible burns. “Yeah… I’m okay…” The left side of her body feels tense and sore, and she uses her right hand to take the shock potion out of her pocket, spraying them over her hand and arm first, then tucking them under her shirt to spray the rest of the wound down to her foot, skipping her leg. She feels the pain and soreness fade through her body, first on the surface, then into the deeper tissue, and eventually in her leg as well, though not as much.

“Is your heart beating normally? What about your lungs, are you breathing alright?” Red stares at her anxiously as she stretches her arm, then tries standing up.

“Yeah, I’m okay. Just some soreness.” She limps over to the pichu’s ball as Red sinks his head back in relief. Leaf smiles as she picks it up, then returns to sit beside Red, tugging her socks and shoes back on.

There’s a warm glow in her chest that she’s fairly sure doesn’t have to do with being electrocuted. Unlike those that follow Ghetsis back home, she believes catching and training pokemon can be fundamentally for their own good as well as people’s, as long as they’re treated with respect. Especially since tamed pokemon usually live much longer than those in the wild, even without counting the time spent in stasis in the pokeball.

Saving a pokemon from what would have been a sure death, however, makes this the first capture she that she really feels unambiguously good about.

It almost makes up for the hoothoot that died from her forgetfulness.

“Well, I’m glad you’re okay.” Red smiles. “Also, congratulations! They’re pretty awesome pokemon, as you had plenty of occasion to see tonight.”

“Thanks. You guys said they’re rare, right?”

He grins. “Oh, yeah. Viridian Forest is practically the only place they’re native to in Kanto, and normally you’d be hard pressed to find any. I’m a little jealous, to be honest: I’ve always wanted one.”

She looks at him, and something in her gaze makes his smile slowly fade. “What?”

“Red, if I asked you to do something for me, but didn’t tell you why, would you do it?”

His pale, strained face becomes guarded. “That depends on what it is. But if you need help with something…”

“I do.” She looks down at the pichu’s ball, then smiles and holds her hand out. “Could I see your pokedex for a minute?”

Red raises a brow, but hands it over silently. His curious expression turns to shock as she aligns the lens with the pokeball. “Wh-hey, Leaf, what…?”

They watch the screen fill with the image of the sleeping pichu, the pokedex listing its mass, length, and other vitals. It’s dangerously low on blood, but nothing a pokemon center can’t fix. She places it back on his stomach, then meets his confused, wondering gaze. “He’s yours now. I want you to take him, okay?”

“I can’t… Leaf, get your dex and transfer it, him, over. I can’t accept that, why would you-”

“You can, and you will. Promise me you won’t do anything drastic, and then I’ll tell you.”

Red’s brow creases, and she can almost see the gears turning in his head as he tries to figure out what and why…

“I reserve the right to keep arguing with you over this after, but… okay. I promise not to do anything drastic. Now why did you do that?”

“Because your hoothoot is dead.” Leaf looks away from him. “It’s my fault. I forgot that you caught it, I forgot that it was on the ground. It got electrocuted when all the ‘chu were here. I… found it while I was walking and I didn’t… I couldn’t tell you…” Her head dips down and she closes her eyes, throat tightening. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Red, this is the least I can do to try and make up for it.”

There’s silence, and after a moment she gets her emotions under control and takes a deep breath before looking up at him. He’s staring at her with a mix of shock and something she can’t interpret. “Are you angry?”

“I’m… a little upset that you lied,” he says carefully. “But no, I’m not angry. I understand. And I won’t say not to blame yourself, because I don’t think you’ll listen if I do. And because maybe it’s okay to, a little bit.”

Leaf nods, some tension running out of her. “Thanks for understanding.”

“But Leaf, I still don’t think you should give him to me. A hoothoot for a pichu is hardly a fair trade!” He blinks at her expression, quickly adding, “Unfair for you, is what I’m saying! Not as in the value of their lives… you know what I meant! If you want to make it up to me, you can catch another hoothoot, but pichu are rare, and you got yourself shocked catching it!”

“And you got your arm broken catching that hoothoot.” She smiles. “Come on, we’ve given each other enough pokemon at this point. Think of it as payback for giving up your chance at one of the beedrill.”

“I didn’t want them anyway.”

“Still. Please, keep him. It’s the only way I’ll be able to have any peace over it.”

Red wipes the sweat from his face and grimaces. “You shouldn’t argue with someone who’s injured, you know.”

“So just say yes.”

“I… oh, alright! I’ll keep him.” Red lets out a breath, fingers rubbing over the red half of the pokeball. “Thank you.”

They sit in silence after that. Another distant roar sounds after a few minutes, and Leaf wonders if Blue’s alright. The weight that had been over her heart since finding the hoothoot is partially lifted, and she watches with Red as he examines his new pokemon’s information.


Red has rarely found himself at a loss for words, but ten minutes after Leaf registered the pichu she caught to him, he still can’t quite think of the right thing to say. So he just reads over its information with her, and slowly gets used to the idea that he really has one now. He didn’t lie when he told her he always wanted a pikachu: when he was younger he imagined catching one and naming it Faraday, or Tesla, or Ayrton if it were female. Maybe he’ll go with Volta?

He’s a bit sad that the hoothoot he caught is dead, but he didn’t really have a chance to bond with it, or even consider it his yet. He knows Leaf feels much worse about it than he does, so he tries not to dwell on it. He soon has something else on his mind anyway.

The pinching pressure in Red’s arm grows worse and worse as the night passes, and eventually real pain starts to bleed through the numbness. The excitement with the pichu distracted him from it for a bit, but an hour later he’s struggling to last another minute without asking for more medication. He doesn’t want to risk any adverse side effects from using too much too soon, and tries to lose himself in their trivia game again.

Just as the pain begins to get unbearable, he hears the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps. “Leaf-”

She’s already standing, a pokeball in each hand as she faces the direction they’re coming from, waiting to see what the newest threat is. After a moment Red realizes the ground is shaking, and dread fills him until the rhyhorn steps out from the darkness between the trees and into the light of their lamp, the trainer on its back looking down at her phone.

The relief is so strong it actually makes the pain go away for a bit, and when the trainer looks up and smiles, he smiles back, though it probably looks more like a grimace. “Got a distress signal from this area. That’s you, right?”

“Yeah. Did Blue send you?”

“Sorry, don’t know who that is. I’m from Pewter, came to help with the fire. We’ve got it under control now, and the pikachu around here seem to be gone.” She slides off her rhyhorn’s back and withdraws it, then walks over to them. She gives the lightning rods an appreciative look, then seems to notice all the burnt grass. “Wow. What happened here?”

“It’s a long story,” Leaf says. “Can you help with his arm?”

“You bet. Why don’t you tell it while I work?” She takes a container out of her pocket and opens it on the grass beside Red. Inside its box there are a bunch of medical supplies, and after taking a few moments to examine Red’s arm and ask some questions, she gets to work as Leaf explains what happened.

Red closes his eyes in relief as she gives him another local anesthetic, this one stronger, and something to reduce the swelling. He barely feels it as she realigns his bone and puts on a cast.

“Okay, that should do it for now. Let’s get you to Pewter, and they’ll take care of the rest.”

Red just nods dreamily, exhaustion and the lack of pain making him nod off. He thinks he hears something about Leaf staying behind to wait for Blue, and feels a note of alarm about that, but when he opens his eyes to say something he realizes he’s strapped onto the back of the rhyhorn as they travel through the forest. It’s surprisingly comfortable, and before he can say anything to the rider (I don’t even know her name…) he’s already drifting back to sleep.

Chapter 16: Diversions

Hundreds of hours in simulations prepared Blue for a lot of situations, but running through a forest at night was not one of them.

Foliage rakes at his clothes and skin as he weaves around trees and tall bushes. It’s hard to move fast and hold a flashlight straight, and he also struggles to keep the lightning rod from snagging every bush he passes. He contracted it to half its length, but it’s still over half as long as he is tall.

Worst of all, even with the flashlight to spot the obvious roots, every other step seems to almost land on one. Anyone else would have a twisted ankle in less than a minute.

But Blue Oak, future Champion of Indigo, has the physical agility and reaction time of a born pokemon master, and pokemon masters do not trip and eat dirt on the way to a double rescue, even with no one around to see it.

Instead he begins to run in an odd hopping motion, feet not swinging at all as he lands and pushes off with his whole foot. It’s tiring and probably looks ridiculous, but it’s faster than walking would be, and lets him avoid a faceplant.

And after all, there’s no one’s around to see it.

Thankfully he also doesn’t trip over a pokemon every five feet like in the sims. He sees a few pikachu and raichu in the distance as he travels, but none get close enough to be a threat. The frequency of wild pokemon encounters there were always annoying, but he supposes it’s to make up for the other challenges trainers face, like hop-running through a dark forest until your lungs burn and your legs feel like lead so you can stop a fire and get help for your friends before they die a horrible death.

Assuming there’s help available, that is. The glow of the fire above the trees seems to have intensified, and soon he begins to smell smoke. He pauses and drops the lightning rod just long enough to tucks his phone between his knees and put his facemask on. Then he picks it back up and keeps going, flashlight aimed at the ground to find safe spots for his feet. In the distance he hears a voice, amplified by something as it shouts orders. He uses it as his directional reference, figuring whoever is doing the shouting is probably in charge of stopping the fire.

Just as he’s beginning to see a glow between the trees, too steady to be the fire, a pikachu zags through the forest to his right and heads straight toward him. Blue feels his adrenaline spike as he quickly jabs the rod into the ground as hard as he can and jumps back, unclipping Shroomish’s ball before his feet hit the ground. A bolt of electricity strikes his rod, and he sidesteps to keep it between him and the pikachu as he throws, world narrowing down as calm settles over him.

“Go, Shroomish.”

Even while moving and in the dark, he judges the angle right and feels the pokeball smack back into his palm as it returns. Blue feels a moment of fierce pride, which cuts off abruptly when his foot hits a root and topples him onto his back.

“Leech seed!” Blue yells just before the fall knocks his wind out. He scrambles to get his soles under him and shines the light forward so he can see the fight.

His pokemon is shooting seeds up in an arc to land around the pikachu like hail. They’re faster than the powder, and Blue sees some manage to land on the rodent, sticking to its fur and spreading thin tendrils around it. The pikachu sends shocks at Shroomish again and again, but doesn’t seem to realize why none of them are connecting.

But the electricity is still traveling through the ground, causing his pokemon to jump and cry out in pain. “Sleep powder!” Shroomish sends out clouds of spores, and the pikachu begins to dodge, sending out erratic bolts here and there as its glowing cheeks leave streaks of light through the air.

It’s hard to keep the phone’s flashlight on it, but even harder to get a lock with a pokeball. Blue watches for an opening, a slight stumble, a slow turn-

The pikachu leaps forward and begins scratching at Shroomish, the two pokemon tumbling over the grass. It seems to have given up on its electricity, or maybe it ran out, but its claws and teeth are still dangerous enough to draw blood.

“Absorb!” Blue yells as he steps around the pokemon to keep the lightning rod between him and the ‘chu, just in case. Motes of green light appear on his pokemon’s wounds as it absorbs the pikachu’s skin and blood and uses its nutrients to regenerate itself. It’s enough to help his pokemon heal some of the damage it’s taking, but the pikachu has energy to spare, and doesn’t even slow down as it leaps off and begins to jump in and out of range for hit and run attacks, quick as a blink even while blood seeps down its fur from the eroded flesh.

“Headbutt!” Shroomish shoves forward with its feet to try and slam into the rodent, but it misses and tumbles over the grass, torn and bloody from the scratches. It gets back up and tries again and again, but it’s just not fast enough to match the pikachu’s speed.

Thankfully it doesn’t have to. Blue feels a distant, savage satisfaction as he sees the pikachu stumble for the first time, finally beginning to feel its losses. The leech seeds’ vines are now firmly wrapped around it and embedded in its skin, growing fat off its blood. Most grass pokemon aren’t unusually fast or lethal, but if you can stall your opponent long enough, they’re champions at endurance matches.

The pikachu starts to go wild as it feels its life being drained away by the plants, rolling along the ground and sending electricity through its own body as it tries to get the seeds off. Blue keeps trying to get a lock, but it’s moving too erratically. “Sleep powder!”

Shroomish sends out a cloud of spores, but the pikachu leaps away, tumbling into a roll. As soon as it’s back on its feet, it suddenly dashes off into the dark forest.

Blue stands frozen for a second, torn in two by conflicting desires. Then he curses, free hand moving in a flurry minimize-pocket, unclip-return-reclip, yank before he’s off after it, trying not to stumble as he holds the light ahead to keep the pikachu in sight and the rod up by his shoulder, ready to jam it into the ground the second the pikachu turns toward him.

Its energetic leaps are interrupted by constant tumbling along the grass, just hurt enough that he can keep up with it, but not enough to get close. Even worse, it keeps scrambling between and under dense bushes that he has to detour around. He loses sight of it a few times, only able to stay on its trail because of the occasional flashes of electricity.

This is stupid, he thinks as he run-hops, but he doesn’t stop. Even knowing he might run into another ‘chu or some other pokemon at any moment, even knowing that he’s running in the wrong direction from the fire, even knowing that he left the others to get them help quicker, not catch a pikachu, he can’t just let it get away. This is his best chance to get an electric pokemon anytime soon, and a rare one at that.

The pikachu finally starts to slow down enough for him to close the distance a bit, and then his foot comes down on the side of a root. He hits the ground face first, nose smacking into the plastic of his mask and sending a bolt of pain through his head. It takes him a couple seconds to push himself up and grab the lightning rod, then he’s off again, nose stinging with every breath as he looks frantically around for the ‘chu.

Nothing. A bitter frustration wells up as he slows, chest heaving as he flashes the light around, then points it away over his shoulder. He’s wasting time, he should be heading toward the fire… Come on, a spark… just one spark…

A flash to his left and he’s off again, hoping it’s not a different pikachu, hoping his nose isn’t broken, and hoping above all that he’s not endangering his friends with this mad chase.

The spark goes off one more time as he runs forward, and then there’s nothing but the light bobbing along the ground in front of him. His eyes flick from left to right in case it turned in a different direction, but there’s nothing, and he starts to feel the despair again. It can’t have gotten far, not moving as slow as it was…

His side aches, his nose pulsing with every beat of his heart. He trips again, barely managing to keep his feet, and just as he’s about to slow and turn the light away to look for more sparks, he sees something yellow in the distance, lying still.

Blue rushes forward in a surge of triumph, jabbing the rod down and pulling out a ball. An eternity passes before he hears the ping, and then he throws, hits, bounces, captures.

Yes!” He pumps a fist in the air, then falls to his knees as he clutches a stitch in his side, breathing hard through his mouth and fogging his facemask. He lets himself drop onto his side and lie still until his pulse has slowed down a bit, pulling his mask off so it rests on his head to prod his nose gently. No blood, so it’s probably fine. All worth it.

As soon as the stitch fades, he gets to his feet and goes to the ball with a grin. With a pikachu on his team he’s got a strong play against flying and water types, which will make Cerulean Gym significantly easier. He takes out his pokedex to register it, using the light of the screen to line up the their lenses.

Blue’s grin slowly fades as his pokemon doesn’t appear on the screen. Instead there’s just text listing the mass and atomic makeup of the contents, along with other basic information. No… it wasn’t that long, just a few seconds… He pulls the ball away, then realigns it. Again the pokedex treats it like a Container rather than a pokeball. The DNA of the leech plants and pikachu are listed, but there’s no brain activity, which means…

Blue’s hand trembles, and the lens unaligns briefly, causing the text to wipe and reappear. Not a pokemon, as far as the ‘dex is concerned. Just atoms of meat, and some plant. The seeds took too much blood, or maybe their vines entered its skull. A pokecenter could heal almost anything else, but not that. A damaged brain is unrecoverable. Dead.

Blue screams, throwing the ball at a tree. It bounces off and rolls back, and he kicks it against a bush where it comes to rest. His heart is pounding again as scalding tears gather at the corners of his eyes, and he rubs them away with his palms, chest burning as his anger roars through him.

“It’s not my fault. You ran, you stupid rat, you had the leech seeds on you and you… you attacked me, I didn’t… you made me waste all this time!

Blue clamps his lips shut as his yell rings through the forest. I’m talking to a ball. A dead pokemon in a ball. He focuses on breathing until the anger is back under control, then wipes at his face again and pulls his mask back down, tucking the pokedex away. He picks up the ball and braces his arm to release its contents, then unclips Shroomish’s ball.

“Go, Shroomish,” he says, just loud enough to be heard as he tosses it forward, arm catching it reflexively.

His pokemon is moderately hurt, but he doesn’t want to waste potions that they might need later. Instead he kneels down and picks his shroomish up, placing it by the body without looking directly at it. Some of the leech seeds fell off in its mad dash, but there are a few left, swollen and cracked. Shroomish waddles closer and begins to pick the seeds off with its teeth, crunching the soft shells to get to juicy innards.

Blue looks away, feeling his stomach churn. Within moments his pokemon’s wounds begin to glow green, body using the nutrients to repair itself.

There’s a flash of light to his side, and Blue turns to see another pikachu running through the forest, cheeks glowing like angry eyes. He watches it run off, then withdraws his pokemon after it finishes and goes to picks up the lightning rod. He turns to the body of the pokemon that was almost his. His lips tremble briefly with something fighting to come out, and he’s not sure if it’s going to be more anger or some pointless apology-

Another flash of electricity on his other side, closer. Blue takes a deep breath, then turns to the glow of the fire above the distant trees and jogs toward it, gaze ahead.


As Blue approaches the light he saw earlier, too steady and white to be the fire, this time he sees the lanterns hung here and there from the trees. Around them is a thin haze of white smoke, and as Blue gets closer he begins to see it in the beam of his phone’s light. Soon it’s thick enough to see around him like fog, and by then there’s enough light to put his phone away. Once it gets noticeably warmer, he finds the first trainers and pokemon working to contain the blaze beyond.

Blue stands and watches for a moment, panting for breath and slipping the lightning rod snug between his bag and his back along his spine so he has both hands free. Ahead and to the right, a sandslash is digging along the side of a trench to widen it, tearing up the grass and bushes in its way. A sudden crack makes him turn to toward a falling branch, and he sees a primeape jumping from tree to tree above with its trainer. Others on the ground quickly drag away any uprooted or broken plants to keep the firebreak clear of anything that might burn. Some of them, especially the rangers, have bright orange fire suits on, but everyone has some kind of breath mask.

He’s close enough for him to make out the words of the person with the megaphone he heard, their voice made strange and alien by a facemask and the amplification. “Second squad, flare up to the east!” they yell, loud enough to cut through the distant roar of the fire and various other shouts of trainers to each other and their pokemon. Blue follows its tone of command to a Ranger standing beside a fallen log with a megaphone in one hand a tablet in the other. When he gets closer, he sees she’s an older woman, greying hair cut short beneath her Ranger cap.

She glances at him as he approaches, then looks back to the screen. “Pokemon?”

“Squirtle, pidgey, shroo-”

“Phone.” He offers it to her, and she opens the map and sets a marker on it before handing it back. “Head west, find Ranger Malcolm.”

“My friend has a broken arm, he needs hel-”

“Is he alone?”

Blue pauses, irritated. “No, there’s someone with-”

“Then they’re as safe as they’ll get until this fire is under control. Check if their distress call came through.” She tilts the screen to him.

Blue’s anger almost erupts, but one look at the digital map makes him swallow them. The fire is a mass of thermal colors in the otherwise dark forest, with pinpricks of light showing people and pokemon. A river runs from northeast to southwest, creating a natural barrier for the fire on that side, while the Rangers and trainers spread out over a long, uneven half circle to contain it in the other directions.

The CoRRNet outpost is gone, lost somewhere in the middle of that bloom of color.

“Is this live?”

“Mostly. The pikachu and raichu knocked out the local tower, and it’s hard to get a steady signal.”

A graphic overlay shows different colored pings over various spots, and after a moment Blue finds their location, then traces his finger over the screen in the direction he came. “That one,” he says, pointing to the distress signal that marks where they made camp. So many… His friends’ red marker is just one among dozens blinking in and out of existence, crying for attention. He can see some pinpricks light there though, so assuming it updated recently, at least he knows they’re still okay.

“We have their location then. They’ll get help when we can spare it.” A message pops up on the screen beside one of the lights to the east side of the fire, and she raises the megaphone. “Squad five, raichu attack to the east!” She lowers it and continues watching the screen. “Get moving trainer. Head back to your friends or go find Malcolm.”

Blue stares at her grim face for another moment, her attention wholly on the screen in front of her, and turns away with a sick feeling in his stomach as he begins to run toward Malcolm. The fire is so big… Red and Leaf would be okay.

As he gets closer, the smoke in the air hangs thick. The diffuse illumination is tinged with yellow and red as the lamps grow less frequent and the fire’s light grows closer. It makes visibility a bit difficult again, lack of light replaced with too much smoke and shadow.

As he runs he catches glimpses of others around him, some widening the firebreak, others nursing burned pokemon. The earth trembles beneath his feet, and he sees a rhyhorn emerge from the smoke. A Ranger sits on its back, her hands tapping the ridges of it shoulders to direct it toward the fire. Two trainers walk out of the smoke to his right with with their arms around a third’s shoulders, the middle trainer’s legs burned through his pants. Blue looks away quickly and checks his phone to adjust his course a bit farther from the fire, breath loud in the facemask as he pushes himself to move faster.

When he hears a new amplified voice shouting “Tree coming down!” he turns toward it and jogs around a particularly dense clump of bushes in time to see a pinsir finish wrenching a tree out of the ground, its huge horns digging into the bark. Its trainer gives a whistle, and it releases the tree and steps back to let the whole thing fall.

The crash is enormous, but as soon as the tree settles a handful pokemon and their trainers set at it, hacking the branches off and carrying them away. The trees here are dense enough to stop the firebreak from continuing, but they’ve brought down about a dozen so far, and the pinsir is already moving on to another.

Blue jogs over to the coordinating Ranger and waits until he finishes speaking with a pair of others. Blue realizes he can see the smoke in the air moving subtly. They’re downwind, though thankfully it’s not a strong breeze.

The two trainers run off, and Blue steps up to the Ranger. “Ranger Malcolm?”

“Yes. Haru send you?”

“No, a woman, I didn’t get her na-”

“That’s fine. What’ve you got?”

“Squirtle, pidgey, shroomish, caterpie, beedrill.”

He frowns and looks at the tablet for a moment before shaking his head. “Squirtle might be useful, but it can’t hold enough for what we need. Can your pidgey create a whirlwind?”

“Not yet.”

“Have you got a firecoat?”

“No.”

“Any ultraballs?”

“No…”

“Ever fight a fire before?”

Blue just shakes his head, frowning.

“Well, we could use more hands to keep the firebreak clear. Just head over to-”

“Hang on, you want me to carry branches?”

The Ranger’s gaze flicks up from his tablet, eyes cool. “Is that a problem, trainer?”

“I left my friends to stop the fire and get help to them quicker, not fetch and carry.”

“Why are you wasting my time then? By all means, stop the fire.” He turns back to his tablet.

Blue grits his teeth. “Look, I know my pokemon aren’t the best for this, but I’m telling you, you’d be wasting me on pick up duty. I can give cover to others, stop ‘chu-”

“I’m not here to appease your ego, kid,” the Ranger says without looking up. “I’ve got over sixty-” He stops as Blue feels the wind pick up. Malcolm raises his megaphone. “Southwest breeze,fire line at five hundred meters and closing! Forward squads, fall back!”

“I want to help,” Blue insists after it’s lowered.

“It’s not about what you want, it’s about what we need. You don’t have the skills or pokemon to do what’s needed, which means you do what you can. If you don’t like it, you can go play hero somewhere else.” He turns as another Ranger approaches, and the two begin analyzing wind patterns.

Blue stomps away, half intending to head back to Red and Leaf and half deciding to find another coordinating Ranger to offer his help to. He can’t just run around helping at random. For one thing he might do more harm than good. For another, he needs to be officially recognized to get any prestige from this.

Most Champions are barely known before they reach the League, and are little more than figureheads once they gain the title. Instead of leading, of pushing society to the next step, the Championship title is treated like just another badge. A footnote in what they do after. Even those like gramps and Giovanni are known more for what they did after they relinquished their title.

It’s worse than pathetic. It’s a damned waste.

Gym Leaders can do more than just protect their lands and train others. They can change the face of entire cities with the power of their personality and vision of the future. When they’re loved and trusted by their people, they deserve their title: not “Protector,” or “Teacher.” Leader.

Blue isn’t going to be a figurehead. He’s going to be lead Kanto and Johto into a new age. An age without fear. Without calamity. An age of action, rather than reaction.

An age without the Storm Gods.

And to bring the people with him, to make them want to go with him, he needs to be the kind of person they’re willing to follow into a storm’s very heart, so they can rip it out.

All that starts here, helping however he can. Showing what he’s capable of. Who’s he to demand a more important task? He hasn’t earned their trust yet.

He can’t even catch a pikachu without killing the damn thing.

Blue takes a deep breath, then lets it out. When the anger is all but gone, he turns to walk back toward the Ranger. As he does, two women jog over to them through the smoke, one tall and willowy under her windbreaker, the other muscular and dressed in a judogi. The Ranger looks up as they approach. “River side?”

“Secure,” the taller one says, voice heavily muffled. She’s wearing a mouth filter and goggles instead of a full face mask, making it hard to tell her age. “But we had some trouble with raichu that came by.”

“What happened to Pam and Derek? They were supposed to give you cover.”

“They never showed up.”

“What? I sent them to you 20 minutes ago.” The ranger runs a hand through his hair. “Are you alright?”

“Fine,” the woman in the judogi says. “But my pokemon are hurt, and we’re almost out of potions. I don’t know if I’ll be able to fend off many more.”

“Hey,” Blue says as he reaches them. “Here, takes this.” He pulls the lightning rod out from where it’s wedged between his back and bag.

They look at him in surprise, but the trainer takes it, relief plain as she extends the rod and practices sticking it in the ground. “This’ll help. Thanks kid.”

“I’m Blue. Blue Oak.”

Her eyes widen behind her mask. “Thanks, Oak. I’ll get it back to you after.”

“Sure.” He turns to the Ranger. “I’ll help clear the firebreak. Tell me where you need me.”


The first thing the fire teaches Blue is to fear the wind.

He walks the firebreak with Luis and Sarah, a pair of trainer siblings in their late teens. The three work together to drag fallen branches and uprooted bushes out of the firebreak, sweaty, exhausting work made worse by the oppressive heat all around them. But the occasional brush of air against his skin brings danger rather than relief, causing them all to stop what they’re doing to look around, waiting, listening for the sound or sight of the fire racing toward them, of a warning called. The last stiff breeze had come in an unexpected direction had sent the fire a hundred meters in seconds, trapping a trainer and almost killing him. It had taught them all to be wary.

The trench is wide enough to stop the fire when it goes too far in any direction, but that means they end up walking a stone throw away from the fire in some areas.

Passing through those are the worst, the heat almost unbearable as they widen the firebreak at its far edge. Blue watches with a hand on squirtle’s ball in case any embers are blown across. The smoke is so thick that it’s like walking through a red cloud.

“I don’t think we can move this one!” Sarah half shouts over the roar of the fire, tugging at a branch that’s twice as long as she is tall. “Any of you got a strong pokemon?”

Blue shakes his head, wiping sweat from his neck. “Nothing that can cut it, either!”

“I’ve got one that might!” Luis unclips his pokeball and braces his arm. “Go, Jaws!”

A raticate flashes into existence, the muscular rodent immediately cowering from the light and heat. Luis kneels down and strokes it, murmuring something, then guiding it toward the middle of the tree branch. He stands it and points straight at the wood.

“Cut!”

The raticate begins to chomp at the bark, oversized teeth sinking into it with a crunch and jerking it off to spit to the side. It grips and chews and spits again and again while the trainers watch, and eventually it manages to bore through the branch and snap it in half with its final bite as it crawls through to the other side.

“Good girl!” Luis feeds and withdraws it as Blue and Sarah grab a half and begin to drag it away. Once they have both pieces a good distance from the firebreak, they continue walking again, breathing hard and occasionally stopping to clear other things off.

The break curves away from the fire for a bit, and they take a break to drink some water and rest in the lower heat. A dugrio approaches and passes them from behind, its trainer following the three bobbing heads as they widen the firebreak by another few meters, barely visible claws sending grass flying as it burrows up an down. Blue and the others quickly scoop up the clumps of grass and toss them to the safe side of the break.

“Where were you guys, when this all started?” Blue asks as they set off again.

“To the west, across the river,” Sarah says, loosening her dark hair from its messy ponytail and rebinding it tighter. “One second we were asleep, the next there were pikachu everywhere. One of them ran right over our friend, got caught in her sleeping bag.” She grimaces and looks away.

Blue looks at her, then Luis. “Is she…”

“We fought them off and got her to the Outpost, but by then it was already ablaze. They stabilized her, but…” He shakes his head, eyes angry and desolate. “One of the Rangers strapped her to his pidgeot and took off for Pewter. They’re worried there might be permanent nerve damage.”

Blue doesn’t know what to say to that, so he says nothing, fighting the fear for Red and Leaf that rises up in him. Even if he gets help to them, he has no idea how bad Red’s arm is. What if it doesn’t heal right? A one armed trainer is at a serious disadvantage, and far more vulnerable in the wild. Would his journey be over already? Over before it really began?

The thought makes him cold, even in the stifling heat around them. He always figured Red would end his journey as soon as he got his Researcher’s license: he’s a good trainer, but he’s not, well, Blue. He’s better suited in a lab or writing books. He’ll probably even become a Professor some day. But experience in the field is essential to be a researcher, and if he gets crippled this young…

Blue chases the fear away with anger. Red would be fine, and one day he’d pay the Storm God back for this… But his strongest rage seems so insignificant against the nearby blaze, a charmander throwing embers at the sun, and he can’t shake the niggling fear for his friends.

Blue feels the wind pick up again, and the three of them immediately tense, watching the fire and preparing to run.

“Shit.” Luis points. “It’s headed toward the break, that way.”

He’s right. Blue can feel the direction in the caresses of air, stoking the fire and blowing burning debris in that direction. They begin to run along the trench, listening to the fire crackle and roar as it spreads through the trees.

Then the fire is visible again, a glowing light through the smoke. Blue begins to hear a faint popping sound, and looks around with a hand at his belt. It doesn’t sound like the electricity from earlier… “What is that? It sounds like it’s coming from the fire.”

“It’s… nothing dangerous.” Luis shakes his head. “We heard it earlier. Metapod hanging in the trees…”

Oh. Blue’s glad Leaf isn’t around to hear it. She cares about pokemon so much that it surprises him how competent she is in a fight. Even coordinators like Daisy don’t think of pokemon the way Leaf does. Unovans are strange.

Blue pulls out his phone for any messages that might have gotten through to him from the others, but the screen’s illumination makes it hard to make out details through the smoke. He puts his phone away and shoves his worries away again. “Another branch up ahead.”

The night drags on, an unending journey through smoke and heat. Another sandslash, or maybe it’s the one from earlier, eventually comes by to widen the break another few meters. A few minutes later they find a tree that the sandslash dug around, and wait for a trainer with a pokemon that can knock it down to come by so they can help clear it. In the meantime, they drag a huge bush that was uprooted off the firebreak and onto the grass. Blue’s muscles protest as his breath catches in his throat, and when Luis shouts that they’re clear, lets it go with a gasp, arms burning.

He leans his hands on his knees to catch his breath, closing his eyes against sudden dizziness. A hand touches his shoulder and looks up to see Sarah holding a water bottle.

“Go,” she says and points away from the fire. “Get away from the heat and rest a bit. We’re waiting here anyway.”

He wants to argue that he’s alright, but she and her brother haven’t treated him as lesser just because he’s younger, and he can tell she’s not doing so now. Besides, the sight of her water bottle makes him realize how parched his throat his. “I’ve got my own. Thanks.” Blue stumbles away until the heat is a more bearable, near the outer edges of the lamp light. He puts his back to a tree and slides down to the grass, one hand digging his water bottle out of his bag.

Blue lifts his mask and takes a long drink. After the first swallow his throat seems to open up, warm water pouring down it almost faster than he can swallow. When his lungs start to burn for air he stops and secures his mask again. He pours the rest of the water over his hair before resting his head against the trunk and closing his eyes. His interrupted sleep is starting to catch up to him after laboring in the heat, and he struggles not to doze off as he lets his muscles rest.

He hears the crunch of footsteps approaching, and waits for Luis or Sarah to say something. Their steps are slow, almost awkward. When he hears them in front of him they still don’t say anything, Blue opens his eyes. He sees nothing at first, nothing but the white and brown and green of smoke and trees, and then his heart stutters in his chest.

A shiftry stands before him, over two meters tall hunched over, taller even than gramps. Its white mane of fur fades into the smoke perfectly, drawing his eyes to a bark covered humanoid body nearly as thick as the tree he’s sitting against. The branches that make up its arms are extended outward, fanning the air around it as it hop-steps delicately from one T shaped foot to the next, leaves rustling.

The leaves’ razor sharp edges are stained red, blood smeared across their stems.

Blue’s hand inches toward his pokeball pocket, heart pounding as the pokemon takes another step closer to him. He doesn’t know what sense it used to find him, but just as the smoke gives it incredible camouflage, it doesn’t seem to be able to see well in it.

Shiftry, Dark/Grass. Known as the ‘sinister pokemon,’ they excel at picking enemies who are weakened or at a disadvantage. Low defenses, but agile and deadly, capable of brute force mental attacks…

The shiftry balances from one foot to the next, legs moving with an awkward grace that reminds Blue suddenly of the way he’d run through the forest. As it hops a bit closer, the razor sharp edges of its leaves slice through the smoke, first one way then the other in sweeping gestures that buffets him with a gust of air.

Blue wonders if it’s trying to fan away the smoke to see better. His fingers trace over his pokeballs, plucking one out and expanding it with this thumb. Can a pokeball catch a shiftry? Some of the smaller ones, maybe, but this one looks too big. Either way, it would buy him time to get a pokemon out. Squirtle, shroomish or caterpie wouldn’t stand a chance. Zephyr could distract it and do some damage, but not enough.

That leaves one choice, risky as it is. Pokeballs train even the most vicious pokemon to not see people as targets, but it’s not a sure thing, and that doesn’t mean they’ll follow orders well.

Suddenly there’s the sound of voices, and the shiftry goes still, turning toward them. Panic constricts Blue’s chest, and he barely stops himself from calling out a warning. It might kill them in seconds if they walk near it unsuspecting, but it would kill him even quicker if it notices him. He turns the ball’s lens to face it, other hand putting down the water bottle and going to his belt… the ball isn’t pinging. Smoke is causing too much interference. He holds it up a bit, putting it closer…

“Blue, you ready?”

The shiftry turns its back on him and Blue shoves himself forward, holding the ball straight out toward it. It pings just as the shiftry leaps away, and the ball strikes it in the back and snatches it out of the air.

Blue rolls away before it even hits the ground, drawing his beedrill’s pokeball and getting to his feet to watch as the shiftry’s rolls to a stop. He has a brief moment of hope, and then the ball shudders and wiggles. Ah shit-!

“Blue!” Luis and Sarah materialize in the smoke, pokeballs in hand.

“Get back! Shiftry in the ball!”

“What b-”

The shiftry explodes back out of the ball in a flash of light and an unusually loud bang that hurts Blue’s ears, the emergency rematerialization blowing the two halves of the pokeball apart. It stumbles on its awkwardly shaped feet, seeming disoriented from the sudden change.

“Go, Beedrill!” Blue yells as he throws the ball high up. It opens with a flash, and as he catches the pokeball, his pokemon falls to the ground in a limp heap, wings moving slowly. Blue stares at it in horror. I forgot, the sleep powder…

“Go, Prince!” Luis shouts.

“Go, Rafflesia!”

The shiftry focuses on the nidorino and gloom that suddenly appear beside it, leaves fanning out. as the trainers catch their balls and yell simultaneously “Poison Sting!” and “Acid!”

Blue rushes to his beedrill as the fight begins. He opens the pouch in the side of his bag and pulls out bottles until he finds the awakening potion, shoving the rest back in and spraying the beedrill. Its delicate wings beat a bit faster, arms and legs twitching as it struggles toward consciousness. Blue can see some spores still covering it, and begins to carefully brush them away, not sure if an awakening potion would work while it’s still covered in the stuff. How do insects breathe? Should he be focusing on the head? He’s about to ask Red when he remembers he’s not here, and his hands brush faster, ignoring the unnerving feel of the bug’s chitinous body under his hands.

The shiftry gives a grinding, cracking roar, like tree bark twisting against itself. Blue looks up and sees the shiftry swing at Luis’s nidorino, leaves drawing bloody furrows along its hide. The shiftry isn’t looking good, mane and skin covered in dark patches where the gloom’s acid has burned it. Sarah’s pokemon shoots stream after stream of the caustic liquid out, hissing and bubbling on the shiftry’s skin.

“Double Kick!” Luis yells. His nidorino leaps and spins in the air to slam both hindlegs into the shiftry’s knee. It roars as the bark cracks and buckles, and its retaliatory swipe misses the nidorino as Luis’s pokemon leaps away. Another spurt of acid hits the shiftry’s leaves, almost dissolving one of them completely.

From all appearances, they’re winning. Strong as the shiftry is, the pokemon they chose are well suited to the fight, and they have it outnumbered.

So why is Blue still so tense?

Because shiftry are called the “sinister pokemon” for a reason. They target the helpless, and don’t fight fair.

“Horn attack!”

Why isn’t it using its a mental attacks?

Blue’s heart beats faster and faster as the shiftry spits seeds toward the gloom at an incredible speed, the hard shells striking it without much effect.

“Poison powder!”

Blue’s hands are paused above his beedrill, heart racing to a painful pitch. They’re missing something. What? What?

Why is it staying to fight when it’s so outnumbered?

“Oh, hell,” Blue whispers, and turns slowly around in a circle. He sees nothing but smoke and trees.

Nothing but smoke and trees.

The ball is already in his hand, already cocked back, already sailing out. “Go, Zephyr!” Blue yells, and as soon as he materializes, “Gust!”

His pokemon loops haphazardly midair so that he’s behind Blue, then begins to flap faster and faster, thinning the smoke in front of them as he blows it away.

The whiteness sticks in one spot ahead of him, and a second later his eyes adjust to see it for what it is: the mane of another shiftry. Another solidifies to Sarah’s right, and a third closer to Luis, like optical illusions made real. Three… four… Blue spins around. Now that he’s looking, he can see the shiftry that was creeping up on him through the smoke.

Six.

Six shiftry against three of them, and his only pokemon that can stand against them is asleep. Luis and Sarah stare in shock as the trap is revealed, and then step back to back, hands going down to their belts.

The revealed pokemon seem to realize their cover is gone, and then the forest rings with their grinding roars as they close in from all sides.

Chapter 15: False Dichotomies

“What do you see, Red?”

13… 14… 15… 16…

“Look!” Blue says, pointing Leaf at the light

17… 18… 19… 20…

Red feels his tension draining the longer he counts, and as another flash of electricity arcs, closer but silent, he sags in relief. “It’s okay,” he says, heart still hammering from the kick of adrenaline. “There’s no thunder.”

“What?”

“It’s not lightning. Must just be some pikachu howling at the moon.” Red begins to feel excited. Pikachu are hard to catch, but if there’s one out there exhausting itself…

“Pikachu? Those electric mice?” Leaf asks.

The next flash is closer. Over Blue’s description of the pokemon and its evolutionary line, Red can hear a rapid series of dangerous sounding crackles that echo through the air, along with a much louder crack of something else. Wood?

Then he sees another flash to his right, with that crackling pop of electricity much closer. Red turns to it with a frown and sees yet another one, so close the light can be seen between the trees. “Hey guys-”

A klaxon comes from all three of their phones, the harsh sound sending a flood of icewater through Red’s veins. He opens his mouth to yell that they’re here, inside the wards

-a light grows in the distance, the yellow shape at the center of it leaping from tree to tree, trailing electricity as it bounces past them to their right-

-Leaf spins toward it with one hand at her pokebelt, her lamplight blocked by her body a bit and letting Red better see-

-more lights in the distance, three, four, five of them, growing as they zip through the forest in every direction, some along the ground and others in the tree branches. The electric buzz is suddenly everywhere, arcs of white light crackling between the pokemon and racing down the trees in a series of pops and a shower of splinters. Leaf and Blue reach for their pokeballs, but there are too many

Rods!

Red scrambles for the trunk so he can slide down and reach his bag-Too slow, jump!-He readies himself to push off, hesitates at the sight of the distant ground-

-and suddenly the clearing is full of light as electric rodents zig and zag around them, there in a flash and then gone past. A stray bolt hits one of their lamps by the bedrolls, shattering the glass as the bulb blows, and then one of the bigger lights leaps toward Red’s branch-

Red, jump!”

He shoves off unevenly-

CRACK

-into a moment of panicked free fall, twisting midair until he lands. Red’s mind is full of a sudden, sharp agony, the feel of some crushing weight, and then sinks into darkness.


Blue knows he’ll always remember three things about that night: the smell of burnt air, the look on Red’s face just before he fell, and the period of sheer panic immediately afterward. The hateful feeling of helplessness.

Red, jump!” Blue yells, then throws an arm over his eyes as an electric bolt flashes down the tree. An instant later there’s an explosive crack, and bits of bark peppers his arm and face in a stinging hail.

There’s a thud and a crash, and Blue lowers his arm, blinking against the after-image of the bolt. The raichu dashes away, leaving a scorched furrow down the tree where the bark had blasted outward from the flash-boiled sap. The thick branch Red had been sitting on is broken about halfway.

Blue’s heart nearly stops as he spots Red on lying facedown under it, hat beside him.

No, no nonono…

“Shroomish, go!” he yells as he dashes forward, reclipping the pokeball and skidding to his knees to grab the branch. “Guard!” More lights are still racing through the forest as the snap and buzz of electricity fills the forest over the sound of their phone’s alarms.

Blue grunts, muscles burning as he slowly gets to his feet and lifts the branch. The acrid smell of ozone and burnt wood have replaced the forest smells that had been all around them just moments ago. A rapidly diminishing part of Blue is slightly in shock, wondering if he’d actually woken up at all, and this all a chaotic nightmare. The rest of him is busy struggling to get the branch off Red, dream or no dream. “Leaf!” He can just manage to lift it, but the smaller branches spoking off make it too hard to shift-

-and then Leaf is there, tugging at the other side until they can throw it to the grass away from Red. Blue checks Red’s pulse and lets his breath out in relief.

A pikachu races by closer than the others, and his shroomish sends a cloud of spores at it, far too slowly. Leaf’s Bulbasaur growls and holds his vines out at the ready while she kneels beside Red, a revive capsule already in her hand. “Turn him over, gently.”

He does so, carefully as he can. Red’s body is limp in his steady hands, but halfway through the turn Red’s eyes fly open as he screams in pain, back arching.

Blue screams with him, a release of tension as much as fear as he puts him down on his back. “Shit, sorry! What-?!”

“His arm,” Leaf gasps, and Blue sucks in a sharp breath as he sees a dark bruise already covering an unnatural bulge in Red’s left forearm.

Red whimpers and rests his head on the grass. “Broken,” he groans, and takes quick, shallow breaths that come out in pained noises.

“Are you hurt anywhere else?” Leaf asks, swapping her revive capsule for a potion. She sprays it over the bruise to reduce some topical pain and swelling. “Did you get shocked?”

“No,” Red grits through clenched teeth as his right hand grips his other shoulder to keep it still. “Wasn’t touching…” he pauses to take a shaking breath, “When it landed…”

Blue moves the lantern down to check his pants for burns anyway. His heart is still racing, but relief makes him light headed. “Lucky asshole.”

“Yeah… gotta stop… climbing trees…” Red makes a sound that’s half sob and half laugh. He closes his eyes tight as tears slide down from their corners. Blue almost looks away, then forces himself not to. If Red has to bear it, he can’t turn away, even if it makes him feel wretched and embarrassed for his friend.

And scared. Pikachu and raichu continue to run through the forest all around them. Most are distant, little more than flickers of light between the trees, but some pass close by, and the three of them are sitting targets like this. “We need to get you to the outpost.”

Leaf looks at him. “How? Carry him?”

“If we need to…” Blue hesitates, then lets a frustrated breath out. “We’d be even worse off if attacked.”

“We’ve got some painkillers in the bags, but I don’t think we should move his arm.”

“Painkillers would be good,” Red wheezes, and begins taking quick, deep breaths.

“Hey! No hyperventilating!” Blue is about to go for their bags again when another electric glow races through the forest toward them. A raichu leaps from branch to branch over the trees a stone’s throw away, its electricity strong enough to streak down the trunks with an explosive pop that leaves the bark charred. For a moment it looks like it’s heading straight for them, but then it’s past them. As soon as it’s gone, he dashes for their backpacks, grabs all three, and rushes back to the others. He pulls a local anesthetic and anti-inflammatory from his first aid kit, then hesitates as he looks at Red’s arm. He remembers his training, mostly, but it’s hard to make out the wound with all the discoloration.

“Give me.” Leaf takes the syringes and injects them carefully around Red’s wound, hands as steady as his when he’s handling pokeballs. “I helped mom take care of our pokemon.”

“I have too,” he says. “Just not people.”

“Most of it’s the same as normal types.”

Within seconds, the trembling tension in Red’s body eases, and he lets a breath out in a long, shaky sigh. He opens his eyes and looks up at them. “Oooh wow. That’s better. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Just try to keep still.”

Blue picks up Red’s hat and hands it to him. “Next time try to land on your feet.”

Red takes it and stuffs it in his pocket. “Nah, I’ll just aim for you to break my fall.”

Another light zips by there and past them before he and Leaf can do more than turn toward it. Blue’s heart pounds in his throat, and his hand goes to his pokebelt, fingers tracing the balls there without unclipping them. Squirtle, pidgey, caterpie and an untrained beedrill. More liabilities than help.

Instead he pulls out his phone and quiets the still-ringing alarm, then tries to call the nearby outpost. The phone beeps against his ear, and he frowns at the screen. “Signal’s going nuts.” He settles on sending an alert for assistance with the details. “Alright, I sent out our position. Should get through if it calms down for a second.”

Leaf turns off her own phone’s shrill alarm. “What’s going on, anyway? Why didn’t you guys mention these things?” She pulls out Red’s phone and quiets his too, returning relative silence to the forest.

“Hey, this isn’t exactly a common occurrence,” Blue says. “Pikachu are rare, and reclusive. Raichu even more so. The only thing that gets them riled up like this is a really bad thunderstorm, but Zapdos isn’t anywhere near us, and the sky’s clear-”

“It flew west,” Red says, right hand going up to wipe the tears and sweat from his face. “Must have gone south and set them off toward us, and each one riling up the others in a chain reaction.” There’s another crack of wood somewhere around them, and Red jerks in alarm, grimacing and putting his hand over his left shoulder.

“So the Thunder God is behind this.” The anger rises in him like a fiery tide, and in its wake comes relief. He welcomes the heat in his chest, the boiling of his blood, lets it sear away his weaknesses. Fear, helplessness, doubt, sadness, all are kindling for the righteous rage against the world that had taken his parents, taken so many, and now hurt his friend.

Blue watches a couple pikachu approach in a nimbus of light, and has to refrain himself from ordering an attack on them when they get close, wanting to lash out, make them pay by proxy.

He wrestles the impulse down. After his parents, anger had nearly suffocated him, tears scalding his face and throat burning with his screams. His therapist had helped him externalize it, and he still visualizes it as an arcanine, strong and dangerous as it prowls about in his chest and spreads its heat through him. Later, he promises. On our terms. It growls and paces a bit, then settles back down with a simmering tension.

“Speaking of Zapdos,” Red says behind him after the pikachu have passed. “If we’re going to be here awhile, better get out the lightning rods and plant them.” Red looks around. “You’ll have to clear that branch away first.”

“Why? It gives us cover.”

“That’s fine, but it has to be farther. Your shoes make you safe from ground current, but your pokemon aren’t, and I’m lying down. We need the rods to be farther back than the branch.”

Leaf is already at the other side of it. “Bulbasaur, come!” Her pokemon joins her, and she points. “Wrap.”

The pokemon’s vines grip it tight, and Blue joins Leaf in grabbing hold. “Okay, pull!”

They dig their feet in and drag it, struggling not so much with the weight as the shape of it, its smaller branches digging into the ground. Blue stops pulling and begins kicking at them until they snap so Leaf and Bulbasaur are able to drag it more easily.

“There you go… a bit more… Blue, there’s one near the end getting caught on a root-”

“-I see it, I see it. Watch for pikachu!” Blue grabs the branch with one hand and stomps on it, feeling sweat trickle down his neck.

Soon they have the branch moving easily, Blue measures the distance to judge if it’s far enough. Then they begin wrestling it between two trees to provide some cover and deter pokemon from coming in that direction. It’s about halfway there when-

“Incoming!”

Two pikachu run by on one side, followed by one more on the other that gets too close. Blue leaps in front of Red as its cheeks light up, but Bulbasaur is there tackling it away.

“No contact attacks!” Red yells, but it’s a distant noise, the whole world focusing down on the pokemon in front of him.

Here, there’s no anger, no loss, not even fear. When he’s battling, everything has a crystal clarity, just action and reaction. His hands already have pokeballs, expanding them with his thumbs. “Sleep powder!”

His shroomish expels a cloud of blue dust at the rodent. It leaps aside, so fast it’s just a yellow streak. Blue barely has time to sidestep to keep himself between it and Red when it sends a bolt out, hitting his shroomish and sending it tumbling backward with a cry of pain.

Blue’s left pokeball locks, and he throws just as the pikachu leaps away into the brush. It keeps running before he can toss the second. Blue lets out his breath and goes to his pokemon, pulling out a potion to spray the raw wound that runs down its domed body to one of its feet.

Bulbasaur is twitching and shaking as Leaf hovers over it with a potion bottle, lips pressed tight. “I don’t see an injury.”

“It got shocked from the contact.” Blue tosses her a paralyze heal and watches her bulbasaur’s body relax as the spray heals the nerve damage.

“Thanks.” Leaf picks up his pokeball and hands both back to him.

There’s a scampering sound overhead that makes them spin toward it, but there’s no light, and Blue realizes it must be some other pokemon running from the electric rodents. Sure enough another pikachu darts into the clearing, sniffing at their bedrolls. Its cheeks are alight with electricity, and when it turns to their second lamp a small bolt flashes out and destroys it in a pop and a shower of glass.

“Razor Leaf!”

Bulbasaur leaps forward and shakes its bulb, dislodging two flat, sharp leaves into the air. Its vines snatch them and fling one after the other at the pikachu, who leaps away to leave the rigid leaves quivering in the ground. The electric glow of its cheeks intensify, but Blue’s pokeball pings and he throws.

The bolt of electricity snaps through the air and hits the ball before diverting down and to the side. The ball hits its target, but doesn’t suck the pokemon in, simply rolling away half-open as a curl of smoke rises from inside.

The pikachu flinched from the hit however, and runs off. Blue sighs. Tamed pikachu are uncommon for a number of reasons. Ultraballs are shockproof, but expensive. He considered buying some, but pikachu are normally so rare…

They remain on alert for another few seconds, but none of the other pokemon are near them. Blue finishes dragging the branch in place while Leaf gets out Red’s two lightning rods, then her own. Blue gets his out of his Container, and they start to extend and plant them.

It’s hard shoving them through the root-filled grass, but eventually all four rods are towering above them in a rough square. He takes a full can of repel and sprays it in a slow circle around the perimeter. A bit of tension eases from Blue’s shoulders as he finishes and steps back into the middle of rods. “Alright. We should be good until the Rangers get here.”

Red looks around, then up at the tree branches. “That won’t stop the determined or panicked ones. And the rods won’t help against other pokemon.”

“We haven’t seen anything else yet,” Leaf says, watching a few pulses of light bounce through the forest in the distance. “They all must be holing up to stay safe… oh… oh no…”

Blue follows her gaze. There’s a sullen red light in the distance, and the fear returns like a fist around his heart.

“What is it?” Red asks, craning his neck up to try and see.

“Fire.”

Red makes a sound between a groan and a laugh as his head falls back. “Of course. Is it far?”

“Can’t tell,” Blue says. “But I don’t think the rangers are going to get us anytime soon. It’s in their direction.”

“If that spreads to their outpost, there won’t be anywhere to get us to.”

“Hell, that might be the outpost.” Blue feels his nails dig into his palms as he stokes the anger back, driving away the despair and fear. Out there are others who might be fighting for their lives, people without lightning rods. People, his people, who need help… The stampede might end in a few minutes, or it might go on for hours, and he’s stuck here…

Leaf turns to Blue, face pale but set. “You should go see if you can help.”

He stares. “What? No way. I’m not leaving you guys.”

“She’s right, Blue,” Red says. “The Rangers’ first priority will be the fire, and Squirtle might be able to make a difference.”

Another pikachu runs by them through the clearing, but by the time he and Leaf turn to it it’s already leaped up a tree trunk and through the branches, leaving behind dark whorls in the bark where it touched it. Blue turns back to Red and pokes a finger at him. “We are not splitting up at a time like this. Staying together keeps each other safe. If we split up we’ll only lowers our chances.”

“That’s a false dichotomy. Assuming there are only two options with two outcomes limits thinking.”

“If I wasn’t here you two might have gotten killed before Leaf got the lightning rods up!”

“But there are situations where splitting up can improve the odds for everyone!” Red grimaces and puts his head back down. “I’m a liability right now, you might survive better without me to worry about. And since you would be going for help, it improves my odds too.”

“Splitting up is how things go to hell half the time in Power Force!”

“That’s also how they save the day the other half!”

Leaf steps forward and puts a hand on Blue’s arm. It’s only then that he realizes he’s trembling. “We’ll be okay Blue. The rods will protect us from the ‘chu.” She gives a brief smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. “But they won’t stop that fire if it gets here.”

Blue forces his hands open and takes a deep breath. He should go, he knows that, but there’s a part of him convinced that if he leaves…

In his mind’s eye he sees Luke, lying dead on the grass. One of his people, and he hadn’t been able to save him. If he’s not here and something happens, if the beedrill swarm from earlier comes by, or another fire starts…

“Aaargh!” He turns away and grabs his hair, eyes screwed shut. The sense of helplessness is choking, and he lets the arcanine rise up, fiery fur blazing hotter and hotter. When he’s able to banish the image of coming back to find Leaf and Red’s lifeless bodies, he takes a scalding breath and turns back to her. “Okay. I’ll go. But if something happens to Red, I’m holding you responsible.”

Red blinks. “Hey-”

Leaf’s gaze is steady on his. “I won’t leave him.”

He nods and withdraws his shroomish before putting his bag on, trying to ignore the feeling of dread in his gut. I won’t lose him too. Not like this. “I’ll be back with help as quick as I can.” He turns his flashlight on and begins to jog through the forest toward the sullen light of the fire.

He only takes a few steps when Red calls out. “Blue!”

He turns and sees Red gesturing as he says something to Leaf, and she nods before pulling one of the lightning rods out of the ground. She cocks her arm back, and throws it at him like a javelin. Blue aims his light up to follow it and snatches it out of the air before it goes over his head.

“Don’t do anything stupid!” Red yells.

Blue stares at the two of them for a second, safe in their island of light, burning the image into his mind. Then he holds the rod up in salute and heads toward the fire without looking back.


Leaf watches Blue’s light fade between the trees with a painful hollowness in her chest. She can’t shake the feeling that she just sent him off to his death.

“I’m never going to forgive myself if something happens to him,” Red says.

She looks down at him smiles. “We can argue over who deserves more guilt later if we need to. In the meantime…” She pulls one of the rods out of the earth and repositions it to form a triangle. “Tell me about pikachu and raichu. Their contact static and cheek pouches remind me of emolga from back home, but the coloring is off, and they don’t fly.” She’d always thought emolga cute when she was younger, but these are too dangerous to see that way at the moment.

“No, thankfully these don’t fly.” Red looks like he wants to shift his position, but after a moment forces himself to still. “Pikachu are their second form, the first is pichu. They’re very quick, intelligent, and vicious when threatened. They can detect electromagnetic fields, have few natural predators, and their strongest senses we share are sound followed by scent. They can fill those cheeks with positively charged ions. We’re not really sure how, but they have the ability to negatively charge the surface of an object within their line of sight.”

“So electricity jumps to their target when the difference is enough.”

“Right, but the bolts still follow the path of least resistance, so they can be redirected along the way.”

Leaf nods. “Bulbasaur and Shroomish were able to chase them off without being hurt much.”

“Plants are more resistant than we are, but yeah, a few shocks from the pikachu won’t kill you. Raichu on the other hand…” He looks up.

She follows his gaze to the blasted, burnt wood and feels a chill. “I don’t know if I agree with Blue’s idea of ‘lucky,’ but you had a close call.”

Red grimaces. “We’re all lucky it didn’t rain recently.”

“Though that would have helped with fires.” She turns back to the red glow in the distance. It doesn’t look like it’s grown brighter, but it’s not dimmer either. “How’s your arm?”

“Not terrible. I can barely feel it past my shoulder, except for a vice-like pressure that’s just this side of pain.”

“I’m sorry you got so hurt. If I’d gone up and caught it before waking you-”

“Don’t be ridiculous, it’s my fault for staying on the branch so long.”

She smiles and sits beside him. That’s one thing she likes about Red and Blue. Besides accepting her so quick, they both have a sense of responsibility that others her age lacked back home. “You’re not exactly the best judge of what’s ridiculous.”

Red looks up at her with that strange look of his, a mix of curiosity and calculation. Like he’s testing different thoughts out in his head before giving them form and substance. He finally seems to decide on one, and smiles. “True. But don’t expect me to go along with your brand of ridiculity.”

“That’s not a word.”

He turns his nose up. “Maybe not in your barbarian lands.”

She almost misses the humor in his eyes. “I’m a wordsmith. If anyone here is going to judge the barbarism of words, it’s me.”

“Well as a ‘wordsmith,’ you should be aware that ridiculousness is a ridiculous word, so forge a new one.”

“Fine, but whatever it is, it won’t be ‘ridiculity.'”

The minutes pass as they discuss alternatives and watch the electric lights flit through the trees. Leaf is glad Red’s in a good enough mood to joke despite everything. They have enough medication to keep the pain at bay for awhile, but she’s worried over how long his arm might go untreated.

Eventually the conversation slows, and she just watches the forest around her, so subtly different from those back home. The smells are similar though, despite the less pleasant additions, and she can almost close her eyes and pretend she’s back in Unova…

She snaps her eyes open and takes a breath, realizing she was nodding off. It was close to the end of her shift when she’d woken Red, and now that the adrenaline is worn off, she’s tired.

She stands and walks in circles to stay awake, wondering if she should get some hot coffee from her Container. She’s just about decided on it when she sees two of the lights around them head their way, and runs over to that side to put herself between them and Red. “Heads up! Bulbasaur, guard!”

Her pokemon leaps in front of her, vines extended as the lights bounce closer. It’s a pair of raichu that look like they’re fighting, but not like any pokemon she’s ever seen. The two zig-zag near each other and occasionally collide, sending arcs of electricity outward into the trees on either side. The air suddenly smells like burning wood as the electricity sears through them, but thankfully none catch fire.

Leaf is tempted to send some razor leaves out to scare them off, but doesn’t want to risk drawing their attention. On top of that, she hates having to use potentially deadly attacks. But the dangers of contact attacks, and their speed at evading powders, leaves her with few options.

Her muscles tense as one runs by close enough for the copper rod on that side to draw a bolt, but keep going without pause. Leaf lets her breath out, and then-

“More on this side!”

She spins and sees a group of lights heading toward them, the one in front bigger than the others. She’s expecting another raichu, but it’s a large pikachu followed by what look like smaller ones.

“Pichu,” Red says. “Babies. They won’t come near us.”

And he’s right: the pikachu in the lead climbs up a tree when it’s a ways off, waits for its children to join it, then continues by, hopping from branch to branch.

Leaf is just about to turn away and watch for other threats when one of the pichu stops in mid-air.

It struggles and squeals in alarm, and a second after Leaf understands what she’s seeing, electricity arcs along its fur and lights up the spinarak web it’s caught in.

“What’s happening?” Red tries to turn his head enough to see.

“We’re in trouble,” Leaf says as the pichu’s family returns, bouncing around and squeaking back. She sees lights in the distance diverting, and turns in a slow circle. From every direction, pikachu and raichu are coming toward the sound of a young one in distress. “We’re in a lot of trouble.”

Red sees them too, and his hand goes to his belt. He braces his arm against the ground and says “Charmander, go,” wincing as the recoil jostles him. His fire lizard approaches him with a happy chirp, and Red rubs its smooth head briefly before saying “Guard.” He looks up at her. “I guess it wouldn’t do any good to tell you to leave and get help?”

“You guess right,” she says, pleased by how calm she sounds. It feels like her heart is going to bound right out of her chest, pulse jumping in her throat. “Anyway, I think it’s too late now.”

She wonders how long it would take for her mom to find out if she dies, and wishes she could call her. Their communication has been chilly since Leaf decided to leave home. It led to by far the biggest fight between them: not even grandpa had been able to calm things down. Mom insisted that she could begin her journey in Unova and go elsewhere later, but Leaf put her foot down. Her whole life she traveled all over the region as “Professor Juniper’s granddaughter.” She didn’t want to do it again as “Professor Juniper’s daughter.” She came to Kanto determined to find her own path and make her own name.

Instead she’s probably going to just die here in this forest, six days after arriving. Makes the whole fight seem kind of silly. Oh well. I’ll apologize if I survive.

The first few pikachu begin to arrive, bolts of electricity going straight to the lightning rods. “We’re okay as long as they don’t rush us,” Red says. “These rods can take multiple lightning bolts. Better keep Bulbasaur back from the ground current though.”

Leaf nods, not trusting her voice as she picks Bulbasaur up and brings him closer to Red. She clears her throat as she watches more pikachu begin to arrive, a few going to the webbing to help free the now sleeping pichu while the rest begin forming a circle around her and Red. “And if they do rush inside them?”

“Well. If it’s any consolation, you won’t have to worry about Blue holding you responsible.”

“Strangely, that is kind of reassuring. Thanks.” Arcs of electricity snap between the yellow and orange pokemon, some jostling each other, the others simply sitting and staring as the occasional spark flies out and chars some grass or bark. “You know, I was congratulating myself on not panicking a second ago,” she whispers, not wanting to set the ‘chu off. “But I think it was a bit premature.”

“Nope.” Red’s voice is breathy, and she sees his eyes dart this way and that as his hand brushes over his pokeballs. “Absolutely no panicking allowed. Panicking messes up plans.”

“Got it. No panicking. So what’s the plan?”

“Um. Still working on that part.”

Leaf swallows, mouth dry. “Right. Okay. A little panicking meanwhile, then.”

A pikachu fires a bolt into a rod again, and she jumps back with a small “yip,” immediately hating herself for the sound. A second and third begin shooting out electricity too, and her embarrassment becomes less and less important as more of the pikachu begin inching forward.

Red is muttering under his breath nonstop, and she whispers, “Are you praying or planning?” He glares at her. “I just want to know how screwed we are.”

Another tree branch snaps as a raichu’s bolt rips down it, spilling the pokemon onto the grass nearby. The pikachu it lands near dash away, setting off another wave of loud crackles and pops of electricity that bounces back and forth between the rodents, occasionally going out into one of the rods.

“Pessimism isn’t helpful!” Red shout-whispers over the sounds, closing his eyes with a look of concentration. “It’s hard to concentrate through all the noise!”

“Less complaining, more genius ideas!” She tries to follow her own advice, cataloging what long range skills they have at their disposal. Sleep powder, leech seed, razor leaf, gust, supersonic, silver wind… Her only pokemon besides bulbasaur with non-contact attacks all fly, and she’s not sure if they’ll stay within the rods. “Come on, you know these pokemon better than I do! Think!”

One of the raichu, bigger than average and with a notched ear, moves closer than any of the rest, and the random bolts from the other ‘chu stop. Their pokemon growl as it edges close to a lightning rod, and it stops, cheeks glowing as its eyes fix on her Bulbasaur. Electricity bursts out of the raichu’s cheeks and into the rod, the noise like a field of angry beedrill.

“Red!”

“These aren’t my best thinking conditions!”

“So do it louder and I’ll help!”

Red takes a deep breath and begins speaking, so fast she can barely make out the individual words.

“Spin-and-bulb-webs-and-seed, too-many, rats-can’t-fight-long-contact-shocks-maybe-distract, release-all-pokemon-run-light-off-”

“Plans that don’t sacrifice our pokemon!”

“-thisishardenoughwithoutfurtherconstraintsthankyou-pidgey-blows-sleep, might-get-shocked-but-possible-plan-A, char-starts-fire-scares-them-away, super-risky-plan-C-maybe, spin-”

“Wait wait, go back! Why not use Charmander’s smokescreen?”

“Risk of flashover, a spark might set the smoke on fire!”

“It would do that?”

“I don’t know but now’s not the time to test it!”

The raichu stops sending out electricity, and the relative silence is a shock all its own. It pads up to the rod and sniffs at it, as if curious to know why it’s not charred. It’s just out of range of a pokeball, and she takes one out and steps a bit closer, raising the ball up. Come on, come on… She steps a bit closer…

Ping!

She throws, and the raichu leaps out of the way. The ball bounces along the grass and is immediately engulfed in electricity, sparks flying from it and lighting the grass on fire. The long, flat bolt shape at the end of the raichu’s tail smacks down on the fire a few times, putting it out.

“They’re too fast to be caught like that,” Red says. “Maybe they’ll just keep shocking the rods and run out of juice. Or maybe if they come at us one at a time we can fight them off. Or if-”

A pikachu dashes forward from the side and crosses between the lightning rods, and Red and Leaf speak simultaneously.

“Razor Leaf!”

“Ember!”

A glob of fire and a pair of leaves fly out and drive pikachu back with a pained squeal, and a moment later the world explodes. Leaf shuts her eyes and covers her ears as light and sound bombard them, at least a dozen bolts of electricity driving into the lightning rods in a continuous stream. The buzz and crackle is deafening, and the air tastes metallic. When she closes her mouth she nearly gags from the smell of burning grass.

When the electricity tapers off, she blinks against the after image and looks around to ensure Red and their pokemon are okay.

The four of them are on a small island of green. All around it, burns scar the ground in crisscrossing tendrils as smoke rises from the blackened grass. Another bolt occasionally snaps out from the crowd of ‘chu, but most are silent and watchful once again.

Leaf suddenly sits beside Red, legs unable to support her. “We can’t fight that,” Leaf whispers. “And I don’t think they’ll stay out much longer. Think of something else.”

Red looks pale, chest rising and falling as his uninjured hand grips his hat tight enough to bend its bill. “Resources, we need more resources. What do we have? Clothes, food, maybe it’ll distract them? Throw pokepuffs around? Phones have no signal, too much electricity everywhere-”

Too panicked, we’re not thinking clearly enough. She tries to remember the meditation lessons she’d taken and takes a deep breath, sinking down, down into herself as best she can, drawing back in her mind so she has a bit of distance. “Too specific. Start broader. Priorities first.”

“Right. Priorities. There are threats. We need to survive the threats. We can’t escape the threats, so we have to fight them.”

The pikachu that had tried to rush them is licking the bloody line the razorleaf had furrowed down its side, and soon sends a bolt of it own out. More of them join it in a growing roar of electricity, and a few others begin creeping forward. “Fighting them doesn’t seem an option,” Leaf says, tenuous hold on her calm weakening. “Unless they have massive weaknesses. Anything?”

“We don’t have any ground types. We can’t outfight them, you’re right, but what’s left? If we can’t run, and we can’t fight, we’re dead!”

“Who was talking about false dichotomies before? Razor Leaf!” Bulbasaur cuts another pikachu as it tries to cross between the rods, and the electric storm intensifies, making her close her eyes and cover her ears briefly.

When it fades a bit, Red yells, “What, what’s left? At the broadest level, running, fighting, and talking are our options when faced with threats, and they’re pokemon so we can’t talk them down or bluff-” Red stops, and she turns to see him staring, eyes wide.

“Whatever idea you had, just do it!”

He’s already taking his pokedex out, laying it on his stomach and tapping the screen with his hand, then raising it-

“Grrroooaaaaaarrr!”

The sound is almost drowned out by the electricity, but it somehow still cuts through it. The bolts slowly dwindle, until the ‘chu are all staring quietly.

Leaf hardly dares breath, but she slowly takes her own pokedex out. “Name?” she whispers.

“Onix,” Red says, one finger tapping the side, then pushing with his thumb again.

“Grrroooaaaaaarrr!”

It’s louder now, not just because of the lack of electricity. The sound is like a mountain with a throat, an avalanche’s rage.

Some of the pikachu jump, ears twitching as they look around, noses in the air. She finds the pokemon quickly in her own dex, and now she remembers it, the great rock snakes that she’d heard live under the mountains here. She raises her volume to a third its max, then slowly increases it with every repetition, switching off with Red, then overlapping them.

“Grrroooaaaaaarrr!”

“Grrroooaaaaaarrr!”

“Grrroooaaaaaarrr!”

“Grrroooaaaaaarrr!”

“Grrroooaaaaaarrr!”

“GRRROOOAAAAAARRR!”

The pokemon start bolting, running in every direction one after the other, all away from the promise of doom in that roar. Charmander and Bulbasaur are both vibrating with suppressed fear or tension, but neither runs from the side of their trainers like the panicked ‘chu. She can barely believe it’s happening until they’re all in flight, and she doesn’t stop repeating the sound until their light completely fades.

“It worked,” Red says breathless and half laughing as he lowers his pokedex and closes his eyes. “Ha, I can’t believe it worked, haha…”

Leaf can’t quite feel relieved yet, but she lowers her pokedex too. “Natural predator?”

Red nods, still giggling with released nerves. “I heard about it once in a documentary… to keep zubat away… not all pokemon rely on sound as much, wasn’t sure if it would work here.” He covers his eyes with his hand, tension running out of him in a long breath. “You were right, my thinking was stuck in two modes. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. I’ve never been so scared in my life.” She feels a bit light headed, and rubs Bulbasaur’s until his trembling slowly stops. She looks up at the web where the pichu had been caught, but its parent had apparently gotten it out and taken it away. “When I can walk again, I’m going to remove the third web before it happens again.”

Red chuckles. “They were a great idea, but I’d have only strung up one if I thought that might happen. Speaking of which, mind giving me my hoothoot? Or does Blue have it?”

Leaf blinks at him, then grabs the lamp, shining it overhead to look around. “We never picked it up. I’m sorry, Red, it just completely slipped my mind.”

“What! You mean it’s been out there this whole time?” He looks out at the dark forest.

“It must be around here somewhere.” She begins to walk in wider and wider circles. Her feet crunch over the burnt, dead grass until she’s beyond even that, trying to remember where the ball fell and where it might have rolled to.

Another pikachu appears to be headed toward them, and she’s about to rush for Red when he raises his pokedex again. The roar reverberates through the forest, and the pikachu veers off in another direction. She continues searching, stumbling through the underbrush, much of which was scorched by the stampede of ‘chu.

She smells it before she finds it, burnt foul and visceral things that make her stomach clench. She slows to a stop. She doesn’t want to keep looking. Doesn’t want to see what she’s smelling, see the result of her forgetfulness. It might just be some wild pokemon that had been caught in the open by them. She could just turn away and look in another direction… but she has to be sure.

She holds her breath and forces herself to step further into the underbrush until the light falls on it.

The pokeball lies open, sparks still occasionally spilling out. The hoothoot is beside it, half its feathers burnt off, and the limbs strangely skewed, some dark liquid coloring the grass beneath it. The ball was struck by enough electricity to force its emergency release, but it had messed with the transition back to matter, or corrupted the data template. What had emerged was dead upon reconstruction.

Bile rises in Leaf’s throat, and it’s almost too much on top of all the terror and tension of the past hour. She stumbles away until she can’t smell it anymore, then bends over, hands on her thighs as she wills the nausea away.

“Leaf? You alright?”

She takes a deep breath, the another. “Yeah!” Her voice sounds alright. She swallows a few times, then picks up the lantern and slowly makes her way back to him, working on her face until by the time she’s back between the lightning rods her expression is confused and a bit worried.

“I’m sorry Red. I can’t find it. I’ll come back and look when it’s light.”

He frowns up at her, and for a second she thinks he’d call her on it, but he sighs. “Dammit. If someone else finds it…”

“It’s okay. You never registered it, so you’re not responsible if someone misuses it.” She puts the lantern down beside him and heads for the tree, moving mechanically to pick up one of the broken branches and climb up the tree with the third web. She swings the branch through the web and twirls until the whole thing is snarled, then makes her way back down and sits beside Red.

“Yeah…” He looks so frustrated and worried that she faces away toward the sullen glow of the far off fire. Is it brighter? Dimmer? She still can’t tell, and weariness suddenly drags at her limbs and thoughts as she watches another pikachu running in the distance.

She’s so tired. Morning is so far off, and she doesn’t dare fall asleep. She’s never wanted a night to end as badly as she does this one.

Come back safe, Blue. Come back with help, and come back soon.

Chapter 14: Desensitization

“So, what if we cut off Blue’s finger?” Leaf asks as they walk.

Blue glances at her, then steps to the side of the road so Red is between them. “I’d tell Squirtle to bite off two of yours, is what.”

Leaf grins. “She’d have to get through Bulbasaur first. My point is, would a psychic be able to lift it immediately after?”

Red scratches his hair, considering Leaf’s question. The morning dawned with clear blue skies above, and after a communal breakfast, they said goodbye to Allie, Matthew and the twins and resumed their journey north. Once they were on their way, Red filled the others in on the details of his spinarak capture, and his conversation with Professor Oak.

“It’s a good idea-”

Blue steps farther from him too.

“-but hard to test, obviously. From what I read, cut hair and nail clippings lose whatever protection they have as soon as the dark type moves away, since the ‘dead zone’ they passively emit doesn’t extend past their skin. And psychics have reported that the dead zone fades shortly after death, though that’s medical death, not brain death. So I’m not sure how long a severed body part would retain it.” Red puts on a speculative look and peers intently at Blue’s hands, stroking his chin.

“Hey!” Blue says as Leaf laughs, and slows his pace so that he’s behind both of them. “Keep your beady eyes to yourself and find a pokemon to chop up for your experiments.”

Leaf’s laughter cuts off, and she frowns over her shoulder as Red mutters “beady eyes?” to himself. “That’s disgusting! You’d have to do it while it’s still alive to test it.”

“You just suggested chopping off my finger!”

“It was a hypothetical! Some pokemon are actually butchered alive.”

Red blinks. “Are they? Which?”

Leaf grimaces. “Shellfish meat has a bad taste if it’s killed before it’s cooked, so they often boil or chop up living ones.”

“At least they’re killing them for food,” Blue says.

“Is that supposed to make it better?”

“Uh… doesn’t it?”

They start to argue over the ethics of eating pokemon, but Red is too distracted by her example to get involved. He pulls his pokedex out to see if there are any dark-type crustaceans.

“If you care about what happens to your pokemon you must recognize they’re capable of feeling, so why is it alright to kill them for food when we don’t have to?”

“I care about my pokemon because they’re mine, pokemon get hurt and killed in the wild all the time.”

“So that’s an excuse to hurt more of them?”

“It’s a fact of nature. Even plants can feel, if feeling is all you care about, well, something’s gonna die no matter what you eat-”

“Found one,” Red says to cut off their argument before it escalates further. “Crawdaunt, Water/Dark. A group of psychics went to different restaurants preparing them and reported that after they were, er, chopped up, their parts kept their own dead zones for a short time after being separated, but before the crawdaunt died.”

Leaf looks faintly nauseous. “Well, that’s that, then. If the deadzone is tied to the body parts, then it can’t be something in the mind.”

Red shakes his head. “Not necessarily. We don’t actually know the mechanics of how it works. What if the source is the mind, and the field it subconsciously covers the body with just takes awhile to fade?”

They continue to discuss it for the rest of the morning, all the while keeping their eyes peeled for cocoons, webs, or nesting pokemon as they travel. Despite the lower chances of running into pokemon together, no one suggests splitting up again.

Short of blind luck however, Red despairs at finding a hoothoot or noctowl before they leave the forest, let alone some of the rarer pokemon like pikachu or budew. They’ve been walking at about 3 kilometers an hour, and would likely leave the forest by tomorrow afternoon. Thinking of the bird that flew overhead last night, he’s more frustrated than ever that he’s the only one among them without a flier. He’d rather not settle for a pidgey or spearow, neither of which are capable of mental attacks.

In the meantime they bring their own pokemon out and train with them as they travel. Leaf sends her rattata from one bush to another on her side to hone its precision in following directions. She eventually nicknames him “Scamp” after he tries to grab a bit of pokepuff from Blue’s shroomish. The fungal pokemon waddles along beside them on its stubby feet, dutifully sending clouds of different spores and powders over bushes Blue wants to check for hidden wilds.

Red decided to summon Charmander for some physical training. The fire lizards’ strongest muscles are in their hind legs, vital to help them leap out of harm’s way while young and launch themselves into the air when they grow wings.

Once Charmander manages to grab the bit of pokepuff Red holds near his chest, he lifts the next bit to eye level.

“Jump!”

Charmander leaps, biting at the air before he falls back to the grass.

Blue smirks. “Speaking of losing fingers…”

“Come on, Charmander, you can do it. Jump!”

Charmander crouches, then leaps again, snagging the pokepuff.

“Good job Charmander!” Red tears off another piece and lifts it above his head. “Again, jump!” His pokemon tries, again and again, but can’t go higher than Red’s head. He growls and leaps again, snapping at the air before falling to the grass, breathing hard.

“Go on boy, you’re getting higher. Jump!”

Charmander looks at the pokepuff, then him. He makes a gurgling sound, and suddenly starts climbing Red’s leg.

“Hey!” Red stops walking, stretching his arm higher as his other hand reaches for his pokemon. “That’s cheating!”

Charmander pays him no mind, crawling around his side to avoid his hand, tail kept carefully apart as he makes his way up Red’s shirt, then leaps off and grabs the pokepuff. Upon landing, the fire lizard happily curls up on the grass and munches on his prize. Red sighs.

“So are you going to punish that?” Blue says. “Since he was supposed to jump?”

“I wouldn’t,” Leaf says as she tosses a berry to Scamp. “Might discourage creative problem solving.”

Red nods. “Guess he’s had enough jumping for now.” He rubs the soft hide on Charmander’s head, then returns him to his pokeball as the others walk ahead.

Red summons his spinarak for the first time since he caught it. As soon as it’s out, he avoids looking directly at the face-like pattern on its back. He feels his thoughts shying away from the memory for fear of feeling its echo again, but the problem with trying not to think of something-

dark

alone

Red focuses his gaze on one of its legs, quickly bending down to check if its wounds from before healed properly. He can’t quite bring himself to touch the arachnoid, and simply pulls some jerky out, shredding it into small bits for it to eat.

Something simple to start… “Spinarak, string shot!” he says, pointing at the branch of a nearby tree. The bug turns to see what he’s pointing at, then shoots its webbing up, attaching a line to the branch. “Climb!” It scuttles up the string until it can hang from the beach. “Return.” It drops and scurries back over to him. “Good job.”

Red drops the meat strips, and suppresses a sudden shudder as its mandibles clack audibly. He’s glad bug pokemon don’t react as positively to physical affection, because he can’t bring himself to treat it as warmly as his rattata or charmander. And that’s even putting aside the-

cold

hurts

Red shakes himself, breath catching in his throat. This is going to be harder than he thought.

Bug pokemon always creeped him out. Just the thought of his spinarak crawling up his body or resting on his arm makes him break out in goosebumps.

I need to desensitize myself, Red realizes. Pokemon professors need to be capable of studying all kinds of pokemon. Professor Oak doesn’t get squeamish when handling venonat, or paras.

Unfortunately, Red never mastered that particular brain hack. He knows the theory though: small exposures in safe and calming circumstances until he no longer feels an aversion to that, then moving on to more extreme circumstances.

Red sighs and tells his spinarak to follow him as he catches up with the others, then begins training it in basic webbing commands: string shot, trip lines, web traps, slowly working his way up to the more complex traps and obstacles. The other two watch his new pokemon curiously for a bit, but if they notice the way Red avoids looking directly at or touching it, they don’t comment.

The hours pass, and the sun rises to its zenith. Eventually the trio finds a clearing to stop in for lunch. There’s a small boulder resting beside a nearby tree, and Blue points at it as the other two feed their pokemon, then withdraw them.

“Shroomish, Leech Seed!”

His pokemon’s soft body contracts, then pulses, the dimples in its fungal dome sending out half a dozen seeds over the rock. A gel around the seeds causies them to stick, and soon they split open. Thin roots snake out to find the miniscule pits and wedges in the stone, and within few seconds a dozen small cracks are heard. Leaf steps closer and kneels to watch, keeping her hands away from the glistening roots as it they slowly press into the boulder.

But soon the vines stop growing, and the seeds fall off one by one, the ends of their roots wilting. Blue frowns and sends his pokemon to eat them. “That wasn’t particularly impressive. In the vids I’ve seen, leech seed can eventually bring down even an onyx.”

“Well, there’s a difference between ‘living’ stone and ‘dead’ stone. This,” Leaf says as she knocks a fist on the boulder, “Is just rock. It’s virtually devoid of nutrients for the roots to absorb, and is much harder for the digestive enzymes of the leech seed’s roots to break down. But living stone is basically like really hard chitin. It’s still organic.”

“Damn. I wanted to get a sense for how well it would work on Leader Brock’s pokemon. ” Blue pulls out some berries for his shroomish once the pokemon finishes eating the barely grown plants.

“The leader of your Rock Gym is named ‘Brock’?”

“His name’s Takeshi actually, but he goes by Brock.” Red says. “Don’t any of your Leaders use nicknames?”

She smiles. “Yeah, our Flying Gym leader’s is Skyla. So what kind of Leader is Brock?”

“Very involved locally,” Blue says. “The city loves him, which means anyone who wants to be mayor there has to hold his favor.”

“So much for the separation of powers.”

Red shrugs. “The people have spoken. Thankfully he seems smart and competent, so things in Pewter have been going pretty well. They have a lot of civic pride.”

Blue withdraws his shroomish, and the three remove their facemasks and take out food for lunch. Leaf has some bread, cheese, and tomato slices, and Red realizes that he hasn’t seen her eat any meat. Granted, most of their trail food consists of fruit, rice balls and granola. Rather than put her on the spot about it, he tests his hypothesis by offering her some jerky, which she politely turns down. After hearing her objections to the way pokemon are treated, he wonders if she avoids eating any pokemon at all, even the plants and water types.

After they eat, Leaf steps away for a bit to call her mother while Red quickly confirms that Zapdos’s storm is still safely north of Pewter. Blue begins setting up some virtual training for his new pokemon, and Red checks his mail.

He looks at the message from Leader Giovanni again before going to his new messages. It’s still hard to believe that such a huge figure had actually taken the time to respond to a random message by a fan. Red doesn’t consider himself easily star-struck after growing up knowing the world famous Professor Oak, but Giovanni’s accomplishments are just as impressive in their own way. More than that, he has a unique way of rationally looking at the world, and Red always learns something new by reading his blog posts.

Red goes to his new messages and sees one from Professor Oak:

Hello Red,

I sent an email to Elite Agatha last night, and she responded to me this morning. Psychic attacks are generally felt as mental, while ghostly attacks are experienced as emotional. This seems like an antiquated conception of the division between the mind and emotions, which is why we call both mental attacks, but she insists the difference is noticeable to those sensitive to such things, however fine the line is to others.

I’ll ask some others just to verify, but this is Agatha’s area of expertise, and if we take what she says as a working hypothesis for now, the description you gave of the attack makes it seem more emotional than mental. Hard to be sure though. I would make finding out your top priority.

Safe travels,

Sam

Red puts his phone away. “Hey Blue, wanna do me a favor?”

“What’s up?” Blue taps at the pokedex screen, gaze intent.

“Would you mind letting my spinarak use its mental attack on you?”

Blue’s fingers pause, and he lowers his pokedex a bit to look at Red. “Say that again?”

“I’m still not sure if it was a psychic attack or a ghost one, and since you’re dark…”

“No.” Blue turns back to his pokedex.

“I don’t mean right now, but after I train it a bit-”

“Sorry. I’ll pass on testing out its poison too, or Charmander’s fire.”

Red laughs. “Come on, seriously. It won’t affect you at all if it’s psychic, and you’ll barely feel it if not.”

“No shit? I didn’t realize.” Blue raises the pokedex a bit higher, leaning back against his bag so his face is hidden behind it.

Red’s smile fades, brow furrowed. “Why not?”

“I just don’t feel like it.”

“That’s not a reason.”

“Sure it is. Not my concern if you won’t take it.”

A hot flush spreads through Red’s chest. “What’s your problem?”

“An annoying bidoof who can’t take no for an answer.”

And ignites. “I guess it was too much to expect a rational justification from you.”

“Guess so.”

Leaf rejoins them, looking a bit apprehensive. “What’s up?”

“Nothing. Blue’s just being self-centered jackass.”

Blue lowers his pokedex and sits up with a scowl. “You asked me for a favor, but I’m the self-centered one?!”

“You refused without even explaining why!”

“Sorry professor, better get used to the fact that you don’t always get to know everything!”

Leaf steps forward, palms out to both of them and looking a bit shocked. “Woah, guys, calm down…”

Red can’t remember standing, but Blue is too, and he cranes his neck to look at him around Leaf. “If you’re not going to supply a reason for your actions,” Red says as blood pounds in his ears, “Then you can’t complain if I come up with my own.”

“I can if you’re calling me selfish for not obeying your every command!”

“‘Every command?’ Excuse me for assuming you’d want to help me get my researcher license!”

“Well excuse me if I don’t like being experimented on just because I’m dark!”

Red’s anger hits a wall. “What? That’s not-”

“Yes, it is! I’m just a test subject to you now, aren’t I?”

“Come on, you know me better than that! Besides, you said you were over it!”

“I lied, you idiot!”

The two of them are breathing hard as that last shout fades away, and as Red tries to think of something to say, Blue makes a sound of disgust and grabs his water bottle before striding away,

“Wait, Blue-”

“I’m gonna take a leak, Red. Mind if I have some privacy?”

Red stops following, cheeks hot as he glances at Leaf. She’s looking after Blue with a mix of puzzlement and sadness though, and when she turns to Red there’s a fierce light in her eyes.

“You. Explain.”

“It was… I just asked him if… ah, hell.” Red sighs and sits back down, wanting to simultaneously punch Blue and apologize to him. “I asked if he’d mind me testing my spinarak’s mental attack on him. When I told Blue I knew he was dark last night, he said it doesn’t bother him any more.”

“Did you consider whether he was putting on a brave face?”

Red rubs his face. “Not at all. He’s right, I am an idiot.”

Leaf lowers herself to a crouch, leaning back against a tree. “I don’t think taking your friend at his word makes you an idiot. It was a mistake. If you did consider it but ignored it, that might be a different story.”

“You don’t know Blue the way I do. In retrospect it’s obvious that it would bother him more than he let on, like the fact that he didn’t tell me himself after all these years.”

Leaf has a brow raised. “Is it really that big a deal, here? There’s some prejudice in Unova, but…”

“When my mom was our age, it was illegal for them to hold public office,” Red says. “People said someone with a dark mind could hide any corruption from psychics. Like mind reading’s reliable enough to detect that anyway, right? It was stupid superstition at the heart of it. Dark pokemon have pretty much always been seen as evil in Kanto, and a lot of villains in our movies and shows are dark. Things are a bit better now, but you’ll still meet some that makes a big deal of it.”

“Wow. That kind of explains why he kept it secret though, doesn’t it?”

Red shakes his head, anger returning. “Even from me? Talk about lack of trust!”

Leaf frowns. “Red… don’t take this the wrong way, but how many other friends do you have, besides Blue?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Can I make a prediction? Or speculation, rather?”

Her phrasing helps Red take a step outside himself. “Uh… yeah. Go ahead.”

She picks up a dead leaf and begins to slowly shred it with her fingers, gaze down. “I know I just met you and Blue, so let me know how far off I am. You made a few friends when you were younger, but none of them really kept up with you in school as well as Blue did. After he lost his parents and you lost your dad, it became more than just a rivalry. Blue didn’t focus as much on academics, but he’s still smart, and you both had the same drive. Took your goals seriously. Other kids became hard to relate to, and eventually you started to spend most of your time with him or older researchers and lab assistants. But they weren’t really your equals, while Blue was.”

Red is watching her with a mix of embarrassment and admiration. “Okay, you’re not far off at all. In fact your model is surprisingly good considering what info you have. What made all that so obvious?”

She smiles. “Not just you. I think that summary fits him too. I’ve never heard either of you refer to others your age when you talk. Your past agreements or arguments all seem to be with each other. Other than family members, it’s like there’s no one else for either of you. You guys aren’t just friends.”

Red feels a bit uncomfortable as she talks, then distinctly nervous by the end. “Woah, woah, you’re not saying… it’s not like we’re…”

Leaf looks puzzled for a second, then laughs. “No, I don’t mean it like that! I’m just saying, if you were just close friends, he probably would have told you. But beyond that, you guys act like brothers, and brothers sometimes have a sense of rivalry. My guess is, he didn’t avoid telling you out of lack of trust, but because he was embarrassed at being seen as lesser.”

Red thinks back to how he felt after his spinarak blasted him, careful not to think of the blast itself. He hadn’t wanted to tell Leaf and Blue because he hadn’t wanted to admit his weakness. It was only the necessity that made him do so. He wonders how many other important sides of themselves people hide from each other, even those they care about, out of embarrassment. It’s easy to say “He should just trust me” when it’s not you that feels ashamed.

“Yeah. I get it.” Red sighs. “So you think I should apologize?”

“Damn right you should.”

Red gets to his feet as Blue walks back into the clearing. “Hey man, I’m really s-”

“Forget it.” Blue waves a hand. “Let’s just drop it, alright? We should keep moving anyway.”

“Uh… sure. You got it.” Shit. Despite all that, he still hoped to perform the spinarak test. Now he can’t think of a tactful way to bring it up. Red’s movements are aggressive as he packs his bag, but he keeps his irritation off his face as they start walking again.

It’s so frustrating to have the answer to a question so close, and be unable to test it. The itch to know is still there, and it gets worse the longer he tries to think of alternate ways to determine the attack type, all of which are significantly less precise. Worst case, he could just wait to find another normal or dark type to test it on, but a pokemon wouldn’t be able to communicate what it had felt. He finds himself getting angry at Blue again for refusing. Maybe he could arrange to accidentally-

Red slams the door on that train of thought, a sick feeling in his gut. Even knowing Blue would be immune or resistant to its effects, it’s a horrible thing to think of doing to his friend.

To anyone! he screams at himself. That’s Mad Scientist thinking! That’s the kind of thing that gets people branded as Renegades!

Red forces himself to take out his notebook and start writing about something, anything else, as they walk. His hands are shaking a bit. I’d never do something like that, he assures himself.Least of all to a friend. Never.


The kilometers pass steadily underfoot as afternoon gives way to evening, and each of them gets some training in with the rest of their pokemon. Blue and Leaf train with their starters and pidgey, but neither takes out their beedrill, wanting to do some extensive virtual training with them first. Having fewer pokemon than the others, Red brings Charmander back out after finishing with his rattata’s training, and lets the two of them get used to concurrent orders as they walk. After a couple hours, his rattata has gone through three pokepuffs and Charmander two, but they’ve mostly stopped reacting to his words unless they’re prefaced properly. Red is impressed by how much smarter his well-bred Charmander is compared to the wild rattata.

Eventually the sun begins to set, and they find another Ranger Outpost to camp by. They stop at the outpost itself, a small collection of buildings where they can pick up some free traveling rations and food for their pokemon, courtesy of their Trainer IDs.

There’s no spare room for uninjured travelers in the buildings themselves, so the three set up camp within the wards again, using a trio of handlamps to light the perimeter before laying out their bedrolls in a loose triangle. Red calls his mom briefly to assure her he’s still alright, then checks CoRRNet with some trepidation for any news in the area he might have missed. All seems quiet in the forest, however. They’re about twelve kilometers from its northern edge, and fifteen from Pewter. Zapdos seems to have swung to the west, and Pewter is no longer in a state of high alert.

“I’ll take last watch,” Blue says as he finishes eating, then slips into his bedroll and turns to his side before waiting for a response.

“Okay,” Leaf says. “Night.”

“Night,” Red echoes. Despite saying they’d put the fight behind them, Blue was distant all afternoon. Red isn’t sure how long he’ll stay upset, but he’s willing to wait at least a day before poking at it. Normally after a big fight they would keep their distance and cool off for a bit, but that’s not really an option here.

He turns to Leaf. “You tired?”

She shakes her head. “I’ll probably stay up for a bit. First one to fall sleep gets second watch?”

“Deal.”

They lie down and open their pokedexes. Red looks up efficient ways to set up webbing with spinarak, wondering how to make use of it tonight. He could put a bit of pokepuff in it to draw prey. It would probably work on caterpie and other bugs, but a hoothoot would free itself within seconds without spinarak hanging around nearby to distract or attack it after it’s caught.

He closes his pokedex and starts sketching out different web patterns that might better secure a bird pokemon. He could have two sets of vertical lines to the sides of the main web to snare its wings, but what about the talons?

It’s hard to use a bug pokemon’s skills to try and stop a flying type. They got lucky before with Bulbasaur and the pidgey, and Bulbasaur was badly hurt all the same. Red frowns, thinking of psychic and ghost and dark interactions again, and begins writing them all out, then categorizing all the pokemon types.

Substance:

Normal, Fire, Water, Plant, Electric, Poison, Rock, Metal, Bug, Ghost

Descriptive:

Flying, Fighting, Ground, Dragon, Psychic, Ice

“Whatcha writing?” Leaf asks, voice low.

Red cranes his neck to look at Leaf and sees her lying with her hands behind her head, staring up at the dark. He turns back to his notebook and reads the lists out loud.

“Huh. That’s an interesting way to divide them.”

“Remember our conversation a couple days ago? When we just set out?”

“Yeah. You think of the types as emergent properties rather than fundamental aspects.”

“For some, yeah. But I’m not sure if I’m right in all of them.”

“Ground being descriptive does seem odd. But why wasn’t Dark listed?”

Red sighs. “Because I have no idea where to put it.”

He hears her shift and sees her lying on her side to face him, so he turns to do the same. “From what we learned today, it seems like a fundamental aspect of their biology.”

“Possibly.”

“Probably.”

He shrugs a shoulder. “Maybe probably. The way their immunity works is moderate evidence for it. But there’s other evidence against. Before, I would have said Dark Type was descriptive for the same reason Psychic is. That there’s nothing inherent to the biology that interacts uniquely with certain elements or substances, the way water conducts electricity or metal is harder than rock. Is every cell in a psychic type psychic? Probably not: all the phenomenon we observe with psychics relate to their mental powers’ strengths and shortcomings, not their biology. So I thought Dark types were similar, because other than their unique resistance and immunity to ghost and psychic phenomenon, they don’t really have any unique interactions.”

“But that’s not actually true,” Leaf says. “You have Fighting down as Descriptive-I understand why, I remember your point from earlier-but even if it’s just a label put on anything that is really muscular and agile, fighting pokemon tend to have a clear advantage against Dark pokemon, even the physically tough ones.”

“But is that because of something unique to the Dark typing, or just an interaction of the individual species? There aren’t really many physically strong Dark pokemon. Some are very fast, and some are bulky, but by and large, they’re not strong. So what if it’s just the result of that?”

“But then other strong physical types, like Rock-”

“Think outside the bounds of the typing system for a moment: is there any reason that a Fighting pokemon’s punch should be so much harder for an umbreon or mightyena to recover from than, say, a heavy rock thrown at them, or a body slam?”

Leaf takes a few moments to think about it, eyes staring down. Red waits patiently for her to finish setting aside the assumptions their cultures surround pokemon types with.

Eventually she looks up and says, “No. But from all we can observe, that’s just the way it is.”

Red slumps back, arm covering his eyes. “I know,” he moans quietly. “It doesn’t make sense!”

Leaf laughs, hand over her mouth. “If the evidence doesn’t match your beliefs…”

“Right, right.” Red sighs. “Just because something doesn’t make sense to me doesn’t mean the world’s wrong. It just means my model of the world is off somewhere.”

“Why do you care about this so much anyway? It seems like the kind of thing a competitive trainer would obsess over.”

Red feels himself get defensive, then realizes she’s asking out of genuine curiosity. After only having Blue to discuss things like this with for so long, he’s not really used to that. “Because it confuses me, and things that confuse me are the best warning flags I have to unknown unknowns.”

Leaf smiles. “Unknown unowns? You think there are more than twenty-eight?”

Red grimaces, lips twitching up. “That was a terrible pun.”

“Inown.”

Red groans and mimes throwing his pencil at her. She ducks her head, then comes up grinning. “So you mean it’s the way you realize there’s something you don’t know that you don’t know?”

“Right. When we feel confusion, it’s the result of some new data that’s at odds with our model of how reality is. So either our model is flawed for not being able to account for the new stimulus, or the stimulus is false.”

“Like if Blue wakes up tomorrow and starts reading science journals?”

It’s Red’s turn to cover his laugh, and he turns to glance at his friend’s still form. Blue’s breaths are steady and even. “I’m still holding out hope he will eventually, but if it was something sudden, then yeah.”

“And since your model of Blue includes a disinterest in science articles, then maybe that part of the model is wrong.”

Red nods. “Just the first few times though, after which my model of him will have updated, and it won’t be confusing anymore. Alternatively-”

“Alternatively, your model of the article might be what was wrong. Your confusion would be from ‘why is Blue reading something he normally finds boring?’ but maybe it’s about something relevant to competitive battles.”

“Have we been reading the same blogs?”

“Not in this case, but it makes sense. Except, what do you mean by the stimulus being false? Like if it’s just an illusion of Blue, or a hallucination?”

Red smiles. “That’s a possibility, though a very low one. More likely is that he’s just pretending to read an article to irritate me.”

She raises a brow. “Does he do that?”

“Not really. Though when we were younger he once started carrying around a notebook and randomly scribbling in it every time I did or said something.”

Leaf buries her laugh in her arms. “It’s not funny,” Red says, indignation fighting his own smile. She nods without looking up, and his smile wins out. “Okay, it’s a little funny. Anyway, that’s why I’m so interested in pokemon types. They’re a major clue to the way the world really works, and the more they don’t make sense, the more I wonder whether what we know is really accurate.”

Leaf is still smiling when she raises her head, but her tone is serious. “Have you considered whether we just can’t understand it? If it’s just something unknowable?”

Red shrugs. “Sure, but what’s the use of that kind of thinking? Just throw our hands up and stop trying to figure things out? There may be limits to what our flawed and feeble minds can do, but until there’s a sign we’ve reached it, I don’t see the point in being pessimistic.”

“Just checking to make sure. It’s at least worth recognizing when you might be on a dead end path.”

“Yeah. What about you? Doesn’t the weirdness of typing interest you at all?”

Leaf turns to lie on her back again. “Sure. But then, everything interests me. That’s kind of my problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was raised by two generations of professors. Mom just got her title and lab last year, but she’s always been a researcher. Grampa specialized in pokemon population distributions when I was a kid, so we traveled all over Unova when I was growing up.”

Red refrains at the last second from exclaiming over how cool that must have been. Her mood is too melancholy, so instead he just says, “What was that like? I’ve lived in Pallet my whole life.”

“It was fun, for the most part. I made a lot of different friends… but I had a hard time relating to them, and always had to move again soon. I had a lot of cool experiences and opportunities, but never stuck around in one place long enough to really feel like I belonged, or focus seriously on a single project. I’m interested in a lot of different fields of study, but not really an expert in any of them. I’m good at living outdoors. I’m an okay fisher, back when I fished. I’m good with pokemon, I’m good with numbers. I liked gardening, but wasn’t so good at that. I’m okay at programming, I actually enjoyed it a lot, but I only had a few tutors spread out over the years and there was never much time to really learn it formally or practice much.”

Leaf goes quiet after that, and Red keeps the silence, waiting. Eventually she says, “I want to find something I’m really great at. I want to be an activist, maybe go into politics, but I’m too young to be taken seriously in most fields other than as a trainer. And I felt like my worldview was too tied to Unova’s culture. I wanted a wider perspective, to see how other regions think about pokemon and human interactions. I had the idea for a book on the legends of different cultures because I like writing, and grampa’s research on Unova’s legends always fascinated me. The way people describe the old stories of Zekrom and Reshiram’s battles as a clash between Truth and Idealism, or how they ascribe meaning and purpose to the Forces of Nature when they go around causing disasters.”

Red smiles a bit. “Well, you came to the right place if you’re looking for parallels to that.”

“Yeah. Comparing the different views on your Storm Trio and our Weather Trio should be interesting. Speaking of which, are you and Blue really planning on heading into the storm if Zapdos comes?”

“Yeah,” Red says after a moment. He doesn’t bring up his contingency plans in case Blue might not be fully asleep or wakes up at any moment. It occurs to him that he could send her an email, give her an idea of his plans and enlist her help. “But like we said, we’re not going to just rush at Zapdos and try to take it down. We just want to help others, for now.”

“Still, you’ll need well trained pokemon just to handle any wild pokemon rampaging due to Pressure. Do you think three pokemon are enough?”

“No, I don’t. We’re not likely to find new pokemon training ours while we travel though.”

“So what’s your plan?”

“What makes you think I have one?”

Leaf smiles. “Unless your notebook is full of nothing but doodles, you’d better have something.”

Red smiles back and pushes himself to his elbows. “You know, I actually do. And you might be able to help with it…”


Red wakes to the feel of a hand shaking his shoulder. There’s a second of disorientation, then he scrambles off his belly and looks up at Leaf, who’s smiling. “Getsumthin?” he mutters, rubbing at his eyes. “Caterpie again?”

“Nope. Say hello to your first flier.”

Red blinks at her, then pushes himself to his feet and turns to the branches above, where Leaf is shining one of the lamp lights. The second web he instructed his spinarak to weave is still up there, and the pokepuff he’d climbed up and put there is gone. In its place…

Red grins. A hoothoot hangs tangled in the web, sleeping. Its feathers are covered in the sleep spores Leaf’s bulbasaur had coated the web with.

“Awesome,” Red says, mind coming fully awake as he gets out his pokeball. “When-”

“Just now. I heard its wings, then it struggled a bit in the web. I think its beak was full of the pokepuff, because it didn’t make much noise. We should set up another one, maybe we’ll get another!”

“Yeah, let me just-”

“What’s going on? We under attack?”

Red and Leaf turn guiltily to Blue, who’s staring blearily up at them. They forgot to keep their voices down.

“Sorry Blue, everything’s fine. We caught a hoothoot.”

Red turns back and aims his pokeball, but the web is too far up. He set the first one lower so they could see it in the light, but a caterpie crawled into it before he even fell asleep. Leaf insisted he take it after giving up his chance at the beedrill, so he caught his second bug pokemon. The second web was put higher, and between the long branches of two trees in hopes of being more accessible to a flier rather than a crawler.

Red puts his pokeball away and begins climbing, and Leaf shines the light on the tree to help him see.

“Oh, nice,” Blue says, getting to his feet and rubbing his face. “Hang up another and catch me one, would you?”

“Sure,” Red grunts, limbs burning as he pulls himself up to the branch parallel with the web.

“We actually hung another two,” Leaf says, pointing. “Nothing in them yet though.”

He straddles it and drags himself carefully closer, then takes out his pokeball and aims it. After a moment it pings, and he lobs it onto the sleeping pokemon. The ball absorbs it in a flash of light and falls to the grass below. “That’s five. Told you I’d catch up to…” Red trails off as a second flash registers to his side. He turns, thinking one of them had caught another that appeared just then, but they’re both looking up at him.

“What is it Red?”

“Thought I saw something. You guys didn’t-”

The night briefly lights up again, and suddenly Red has trouble breathing. His heart races in his throat as he automatically starts to count, feeling his body tremble.

0… 1… 2… 3…

“What was that?” Blue turns to face the direction of the flash. To the west.

4… 5… 6… 7…

“Red! What’s wrong?” Leaf asks.

8… 9… 10… 11…

Red stares out into the darkness of the trees, and sees another bolt of electricity light the distant forest.