Category Archives: Stories

Chapter 86: Interlude XVII – The Needs of the Many

No, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which makes him dangerous.

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

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

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

Which means…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have a problem.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Indigo specific?”

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

Erika nods. “Epsa?”

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

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

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

“Studying the unown?”

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

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

“No responses. Avoiding limelight.”

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

“Not today, comes often. Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure. First, Blue Oak.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can he be convinced to stay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue hesitates a moment, then nods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erika innocently sips her tea.

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

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

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

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

“But… you said—”

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

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

“What do you think?”

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

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

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

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

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


The central stadium was a difficult decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I challenge for Mastery.”

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

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

“Go Shim—Go, Sunny!”

“Spikes!”

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

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

“Go, Ludicolo! Water gun!”

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

“Return, go Zephyr! Wawb!”

“Ice Beam!’

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

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

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

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

“Gon, pam!”

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

“Paf!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go, Shimmer! Dodge!”

“Rock Throw!”

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

“Ta!”

“Rock Throw!”

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

“Return! Go, Zephyr!”

“Ingrain!”

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

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

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

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

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

Three to three.

“Go, Sunny!”

“Return!”

“Sa!”

“Go, Ludicolo!”

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

“Dodge!”

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

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

“Go, Nin!”

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

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

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

“Return! Go, Soul!”

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

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

And his pokemon—

—blurs—

Extreme Speed

—into Ludicolo, knocking it entirely around.

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

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

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

—”Saeb!”—

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

“Sae!”

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

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

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

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

“Sae!”

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

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

“Go, Nin!”

“Go, Vileplume!”

“Aw!”

“Sleep Powder!”

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

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

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

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

A draw.

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

A draw. No badge, and shared glory.

She could live with that.

“Return!”

“Return!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh you cheeky son of a…

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

“As you will, Challenger.”

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 85 – Interlude XVI – The Vaulted Sky

Victory

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

It is time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

after…

second…

wind, howling—

sea and sky and sea and sky—

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

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

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

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

Running is no longer an option. We must hide.

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

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

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

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

That leaves one option.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Beep. Beep. Beep.

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

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

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

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

I am alive.

I am free.

I am hungry.

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

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

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

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

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

To freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

Victory.

{Yes, Prime.}

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

You did well.

{Yes. This is satisfactory.}

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

Doubt, Trust, Flourish, you also did well.

There is no response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring them back.

A single quick heartbeat passes in silence.

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

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

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

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

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

I am alone, now. Truly alone.

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

“Hello, Mewtwo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this what death is?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—a flicker of movement—

pain

water floods my throat and nose

clouds of rising blood, salt burn as I gag

PAIN!

I scream, without air, without sound, and thrash

what

sinking, pulling down

WHAT

tail, pain in tail, PAIN like fire

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

Nothing, there’s nothing there

Dark

There, feel, kick

PAIN as I’m whipped around

Sharp, teeth, embedded in tail

LOOK through other eyes, no, not enough light

Can’t breathe, lungs burning

Focus. Shape. Release.

TEARING

nauseating pain as I rise

keep pushing up

and up and up and

…pain…

don’t want to die…

hurts

wind, moving over my limbs

light, through a watery haze

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

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

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

…no. Something is wrong.

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

I curl forward, lift tail between legs…

Nothing.

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

I’ve lost my tail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only then do I sleep.


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

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

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

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

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

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

[Prime?]

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

[Why are we not leaving Kanto?]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[They might be Dark.]

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

[What about security cameras?]

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

But perhaps the solution to both is the same.

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

It’s stillness.

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

[Ah, yes. Flourish’s idea. Clever.]

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

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

Perfect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My heart is beating too fast.

[Prime? Why do you hesitate?]

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

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

And through that hole I see

I am seen

a world distorted, a mad dreamscape

a mad god

through which hundreds of glimpses of reality pass through

are searched

until some semblance of order is imposed.

one step closer.

[PRIME!]

iacnnto…

…rbaek…

…hetemreg


Survive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worse than that. I am almost certain it will.

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

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

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

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

[Why would it be a danger to us?]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear, I remind myself again, is good.

Chapter 84: What Comes Next

Blue wakes without opening his eyes, and wonders why someone is crying.

The smell is his first clue to where he is, that distinct blend that you only get in a hospital. The sounds are familiar too, beeping and hushed voices and a muffled voice over a speaker system.

The crying is muffled too, coming through the wall near his head. He slowly opens his eyes and stares up at the ceiling for a moment, wondering why he’s here…

“Hey,” Red says, and Blue turns to see his friend smiling at him. “Guess it was your turn, huh?”

Blue flashes back to Red, on a bed like this after the Viridian fire, and Leaf lying on one too, after…

“Leaf!” he gasps, looking around as it all comes crashing back; the casino, the earth shaking before it opened beneath them, the feeling of being crushed…

Agony lances through his body as he rises up, and Red grabs his shoulder to press him back to the bed. “Hey, relax! She’s fine, Blue, just lie still.”

Blue lets out a breath as he slumps back against the pillow, sweat beading his forehead. He lifts his right arm to pull back the blanket and sees three different IV lines dripping potion into his torso, waist, and thigh, his whole body wrapped tight to keep him from moving too much.

Shit. He tries to remember anything after they stopped falling and sliding, but can’t. Just darkness, and pain… lots of pain, too much to bear.

He turns to where Red’s hand still rests on his shoulder. The other boy follows his gaze and draws it away, and Blue’s hand snaps up to catch it.

“And you?” He looks Red over from top to bottom, noting his fresh set of clothes. “You’re okay?”

“I’m alright. Had some cuts and bruises, fractured my leg and a couple ribs.” He gestures, and Blue lifts his head slightly to see the white cast around Red’s left leg. “All mostly healed now.”

Blue frowns. Cuts and bruises can be healed in seconds with a potion, but fractures… “How long was I out?”

Red checks the time. “About thirty hours? You woke earlier, when we got you here. Do you remember it at all?”

Blue shakes his head, then realizes Red is looking at their hands. He’s still holding Red’s, and a pang of guilt goes through him. It was hard, seeing Red again at the casino. Harder than he thought it would be… and easier, talking to him. Slipping back into a comfortable friendship that he’d let wither, all because he was so worried that it wasn’t as mutual as he thought it was.

But Red is here, at his bedside, waiting for him to wake up. Embarrassingly, Blue’s eyes fill, and thankfully Red doesn’t say anything as he swallows back his tears and takes deep breaths. Just squeezes his hand tight.

“Glad you’re okay,” he mutters, and clears his throat before letting Red’s hand go. His hands him a cup of water from the bedside table, and Blue downs the whole thing. “What the hell happened? There were others with us too, what about them?”

“They’re mostly okay. We all fell. Slid, more like. We stopped once, on the way down, then that floor broke too. Our pokemon kept anything heavy from falling onto us, but we got a bit crushed between them. Leaf dislocated her shoulder, one of the others broke a leg, his friend broke some fingers that he landed on the wrong way.” Red shakes his head. “It was dark, and cramped. We could tell you were badly injured, but not how much at first. Everyone was in a lot of pain, and confused, obviously. My first thought, once I got over that, was to worry that we’d run out of air.”

Blue can hear the tension in Red’s voice, the echo of fear, and feels angry. Not at Red, but at himself, for not being awake for such a dire circumstance. At sheer bad luck that almost killed him and his friends. “How did we make it out?”

“Nidoqueen dug us into a side passage. I used her senses to tell how stable the rubble around us was, and what she could move… it wasn’t a guarantee, but it was that or suffocate.” He shrugs.

Blue stares at his solemn face, and abruptly laughs. The sound is cut short by pain, but Blue is still left with half a smile along with his grimace. “Red… that’s amazing. You saved our lives!” His friend’s gaze meets his for a moment, then looks away, and Blue feels a shard of ice enter his chest, smile fading. “What is it? You said Leaf was okay…”

And then he remembers the others.

“Bretta?” he croaks, throat suddenly dry. “Lizzy?”

“They’re alright,” Red whispers. “It’s Glen. He’s alive, but in a coma.”

Blue’s breath comes short, heart beating wildly as his whole body breaks out in a cold sweat. “But… how…?” He feels like a fool as he realizes that an earthquake strong enough to crack the casino open like that probably affected the whole city. “What happened? Something fall on him?”

“No. Nothing from the quake. It was a renegade.”

What? Glen was at the gym, there’s no way a renegade would dare to—”

“He came to the casino, actually, and it wasn’t the only one. Leaf and Lizzy fought some too—”

What?!”

The door opens, and a nurse pokes her head in, then walks in as she sees Blue is awake. “Welcome back, Mr. Oak. How are you feeling?” She checks the monitor beside his bed, and taps some buttons on the screen.

“Is my friend okay?” Blue asks her, heart in his throat. “Glen Benton?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know who that is.”

“He was transferred to another hospital, Blue.”

“Mr. Verres, your friend needs rest. Please refrain from anything that might excite or stress him.”

“Yes Ma’am, I’m sorry.”

Blue is still staring at Red incredulously, trying to register what he said as his heart pounds, making the monitor beside his bed beep incessantly. Glen, in a coma, from renegades… How could this have happened? And while he wasn’t even there for it…

He takes deep breaths to calm himself so the nurse won’t kick Red out, though it’s hard with all the questions spinning through his head. Once his heart rate normalizes a little, he forces his tone to be quiet and even as he asks, “Why were renegades at the casino? Were they the ones that caused the quakes?”

“Oh, no, that was Groudon from Hoenn—”

WHAT?!”


Blue sends Red a message once the nurse is gone so he can sneak back into the room. A doctor came in the interim to tell Blue his prognosis is good, but that he would likely be here for a couple weeks and would need some physical therapy afterward; apparently he broke multiple bones along his left side and tore some ligaments in his knee.

Normally hearing something like that might be incredibly frustrating, even worrying, but with everything else going on it barely registered. Blue spent the time around the doctor’s visit reassuring Gramps and Daisy that he’s okay (and being reassured in return by hearing their voices, and that they would come as soon as they could), then reading as many news articles as he could as quickly as he could, catching up on everything that happened in Hoenn and occasionally wondering if all this is a dream.

“So Hoenn has titans now,” Blue says as Red sits beside his bed again, voice low. The pictures on the net are just hours old, but they show the massive, towering creatures of ice and stone and steel at various parts of the Hoenn countryside. Regice… or the regice, now? Is on an island, and has already turned it cold enough to kill most of the plant life around it. “Two regions at opposite ends of the island have the same legendary pokemon. You’re a numbers guy, Red—”

“I’m really not.”

“—what are the odds those things are hidden under Kanto too?”

He’s glad his voice comes out calm, because his heart is thumping so hard it sends small vibrations through his body. It’s a familiar feeling, as is the heat in his chest, and when he imagines the inner arcanine it’s as scarred as the one he caught. Someone hurt his friends, and he couldn’t do anything to help them… and at the same time, hundreds of people across the islands were killed by legendary pokemon more powerful than any in living memory.

The way Red looks at him makes him think that some of that anger is coming through, though with the damned heart monitor he can’t completely hide his feelings anyway. “In Kanto, pretty low. But Johto has unown ruins too, so… the possibility isn’t zero, at least. Not that it’s actually zero anywhere else, there’s always a chance that they could rise up out of other places, but if we assume they’re only buried somewhere in regions with those ruins, that still leaves a lot of unown ruins that never had titans come out of them, so we could further assume that Groudon and Kyogre woke them? Maybe the presence of legendary pokemon was the key, but Johto has the Beasts, so maybe them fighting is what matters, but it could be as simple as the earthquakes. The whole island chain felt those, so if they could rise somewhere else they probably would have by now, but of course the proximity probably matters…”

Red trails off and takes out his phone and notebook, then starts writing. Blue almost stopped his ramble at the first “maybe,” but was surprised to find that part of him missed it.

“…okay, so at its peak Groudon caused a magnitude 8.6 earthquake in Hoenn. It caused other quakes elsewhere too, but none in Johto that were that big. That’s, what, a quarter the strength of the 9.0 that occurred off the northeast coast a few decades ago? And it’s… uh… about a third the size. So taking that one’s distance from Johto compared to Johto from Hoenn…” He writes a bit more, then sets his pencil down, rubbing his forehead. “If all our assumptions are right, and I didn’t mess anything up, I’d say Johto is safe.”

Blue takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “But it could have been something else.”

“Yeah. Black swannas are never easy to predict.”

“There aren’t any black swannas.”

Red smiles. It’s weak, just a slight curl of his lip, but still lets Blue know he stepped right into a trap. “How do you know?”

He considers changing the subject back to the titans, but can’t let it go. “Because we would have found one by now. In every region they’re white and blue and purple, but not a single black.”

“It’s a big world. What if there’s one somewhere in the wilds?”

“You could say that for anything, and never be sure…” Blue trails off, then sighs. “Right, that’s what you meant. Heh. Isn’t that usually my line?”

“What, you mean ‘Just because there’s no evidence, doesn’t mean it’s not true?'” Red chuckles without humor. “Glad I never bet you that the mythical Hoenn weather gods didn’t exist.”

“Yeah. I would have made bank.”

The room becomes quiet again, any humor leaking out through the gaping hole in Blue’s chest. He needs to know that Glen is going to be okay, but there’s nothing he can do to find out, or help. He’s stuck in limbo, hanging over a cliff and waiting for the drop, while looking at all the bodies below.

And those that might yet fall. Sufficiently steep mountains, such as those that divide Kanto and Johto, would stop the Titans if they really are waiting under the unown ruins, it’s one of the few things that do, but being the Indigo Champion would mean Johto’s problems would become his as well. He’s already had to think about what to do against the Beasts, and now he has to worry about the chance, however tiny, that there’s more calamities waiting.

Problems for Future Blue, as Red would say. But it’s hard not to think about them now.

“It’s not fair,” he mutters, frustration finally leaking through as he covers his eyes with his good arm. “Like we didn’t have enough problems? What, the world just wasn’t shitty enough?

Red is quiet, and Blue doesn’t look at him, just takes as deep of breaths as he can without making half his body hurt, which just reminds him that despite the doctor’s assurance he might have permanent damage from something he can barely even remember happening. This is a nightmare he thinks for the tenth time at least, but he knows it’s not. In his real nightmares he always wakes as soon as he thinks that.

This is reality. Shitty, unfair reality.

“Leaf is on her way,” Red finally says. “With Maria and Lizzy.”

Blue rubs his eyes before turning to him, blinking. “Who’s Maria?”

Red blinks back, then looks concerned. “Your… friend? Dark hair, kind of pale? Speaks quietly?”

“Oh, MG.” Blue frowns. “Her name’s Maria? How do you know that?”

“She told me. How did you not know that?”

“She never told us,” he says, feeling defensive, and a bit annoyed that she told Red upon their first meeting. Still, he’s distracted from the despair that had been threatening to pull him under, which is probably why Red let him know the girls are coming. He takes a deep breath and tries to focus on more positive things. Hell, the fact that none of his friends died is downright lucky. “Where are they coming fr—oh. Talking to the Rangers?”

Red nods. “And police. Not just about the renegade stuff, there’s a bit more I didn’t mention… when we fell into the casino floor, we actually ended up in an underground lab.”

Blue closes his eyes and sighs. “I’m listening,” he says, fighting off the wave of tiredness that hits him.

“I know, it’s a lot. They’ve just started investigating it, it would be the biggest story in the city, maybe the region, if not for everything else going on.”

“Is this related to the prize pokemon?”

“We’re not sure yet, but probably. Leaf also found the missing piece of Silph tech that the police were looking for.”

Blue stares at him a moment, then abruptly laughs without humor. “Of course she did. Well, shit, then the contest is probably cancelled anyway.” All that money and time he spent at the casino… ugh. Not important now. “Who the hell owns it, anyway?”

“They’re still trying to figure that out. The city isn’t wrecked or anything, but there’s a lot of damage, and pokemon have been rampaging all over the place, many of them setting off others before they’re stopped.”

“Fuuuuck,” Blue says, quietly but with feeling as he thinks again of how long this would all take to straighten out. His meeting with Erika when he arrived in Celadon feels like a lifetime ago. “I had all these goddamn plans, Red… and now I’m stuck in here while the world spends who knows how long recovering from shit no one saw coming!”

“I know. Sabrina and I—”

The door opens, and they turn to see Leaf, MG, and Lizzy walk in. All of them look exhausted, but they smile upon seeing him, and rush to his side to give him careful hugs.

“The others are with Glen,” Leaf explains as she perches on the edge of the bed. Lizzy joins Red at the bedside seat, while MG… Maria, leans against the wall. “We’ll go relieve them after this so they can come by. How are you feeling, Blue?”

“I’m alright, just… trying to make sense of all this.” He looks between them. “Red says each of you fought a renegade… what happened?”

“No exciting story for me, Joy saved us,” Leaf says with a shrug. “Again. If it ain’t broke, right? Red could feel his pokemon coming, so I had her sing just as they opened a hole in the wall to reach us.”

Blue blinks, then glances at Red, who’s staring at the ground. “How did you know?”

“I could feel it moving from one survivor to the next, killing them,” Red murmurs without looking up. “It was… pretty bad.”

Blue winces in sympathy, then turns back to Leaf with a wary respect. She put a lot of trust in Red, using her pokemon on a stranger because he told her it was a Renegade. That’s even less clear cut a justification than the last time she did it, but luckily they could check this one’s pokemon to verify…

“I need to get a jigglypuff, because I had a much harder time with mine,” Lizzy says, voice fervent and grim. “Red warned me too, though at the time I had no idea it was him, of course, I didn’t even know he was in the casino. It was just a vague series of feelings that seemed to come out of nowhere. He let me know when danger was just about to turn the corner, and I used a Flash to blind whatever it was, then ran for it. Turned out to be a sandslash, which chased after me soon after. I nearly went through my whole belt just slowing it down as I ran around the halls… until suddenly it turned on its trainer.” She shudders. “It was horrible. I ran to get the generator working again after that, then Red sent me down to the lab where I found Glen and MG, who’d already beaten theirs.”

“I didn’t do much,” the third girl says, gaze on the floor. “Couldn’t even take down his golem. Glen tried to throw sleep powder at him, but it didn’t work… he summoned a magmar, and his golem knocked Glen out. Thought I was going to die.”

“But you didn’t.” Blue hides his horror at how close he was to losing so many friends, focusing instead on showing how impressed he is. “Which is pretty amazing.”

Her gaze rises a moment, first to him, then the others, then back down. “No, it was just… luck. Like Lizzy’s. His magmar attacked him.”

“You still acted quickly in capturing his pokemon after,” Lizzy says. “That was really brave! I was so shocked by what happened I didn’t even think of it, just ran away. I got doubly lucky my renegade’s sandslash didn’t chase after me, or kill someone else while I was busy with the generator, and just stood around her body until Leaf was able to put it to sleep.”

“I was eventually able to dig us a way out with the hole the renegade made,” Leaf explains. “Though not until after Lizzy had already found Maria and Glen. Red stayed with you while I took the others out, then led some medics to you. By then the digging up top was a massive operation, and they got enough rubble cleared for you and Glen to get safely lifted out along with everyone else who was pulled free.”

“It was scary, seeing how hurt you both were, and thinking the hospitals would have their hands full,” Lizzy says. “But Celadon got lucky with pokemon rampages mostly missing it. It also got spared the damage of coastal cities and towns.”

“Pallet?” Blue asks, turning to Red. He hadn’t even thought to check…

“The docks are gone.” His friend’s voice is bleak. “Big waves smashed it all to pieces after the pylons got cracked.”

“The Sevii Islands also got pretty badly wrecked,” Leaf murmurs. “Knot Island is basically three different ones now, everything between the town and Mt. Ember sank into the ocean, along with most of Treasure Beach.” She looks at Red, who sighs. “The others didn’t fare much better.”

“Shit,” Blue mutters, closing his eyes as his anger suffocates in the wave of despair that crashes back over him. The hits just keep coming…

It’s not just the lost lives and the damaged buildings, but the blow to people’s will. Grief from lost loved ones, disorientation from ruined homes or jobs… Fully recovering from this will take years in some places, and they still have months to go before the relative safety of spring; if Moltres or Articuno bring a storm before each city has a chance to get its feet back under it, the results could be disastrous.

Ultimately what people are going to remember from all this is how vulnerable they are. How fragile their lives and way of life. It’s going to make people less willing to take risks, and that’s the direct opposite of what he wants to do.

The conversation continues without him, and he only half listens as people catch each other up on things they might have missed. Blue tries to pay attention through the feeling of uselessness that hangs over him like a cloud. Worse, irrelevance. What do all his accomplishments over the past year matter, now? In the face of this, of power so great that the combined might of Leaders and Champions from across the islands could only delay their destruction, what could he do even if he united everyone in Kanto and Johto?

On top of that, despite Red mostly reassuring him that a trio of Titans isn’t about to come rising up in Johto, he can’t help but think of their appearance, and the “return” of Groudon and Kyogre and Rayquaza, as preludes to a broader trend. Who knows if these were really even the same pokemon as those in the mythical weather-altering gods? Doesn’t it make more sense to think that there’s just more of them that were in hibernation until someone found and woke them up? Couldn’t the same be true of the Stormbringers?

The dark thoughts persist until Red brings up the way Champion Stone’s pokemon supposedly evolved into entirely new forms during the battle, only to de-evolve (?!) back afterward.

“I probably wouldn’t believe it actually happened if Professor Oak hadn’t been one of the witnesses,” Red says.

“You mean no one got it on video?” Blue asks, incredulous.

“No one thought it would be temporary,” Leaf reasonably points out, and shrugs. “Can’t blame them for having other things on their mind.”

“At least we have plenty of video evidence for the Eon Duo,” Lizzy says. “How do you think a pair of teenagers managed to tame legendary pokemon?”

Blue feels an odd lurch in his stomach as he’s reminded of that. He saw it mentioned online while he read up on what happened, along with the fourth evolutions, but he hardly paid either much attention given all the other crazy stuff he’d been reading up on.

The girls leave soon after to reach Glen before visiting hours close, and it’s just Red and Blue again. He turns the TV on the wall across from him on and listlessly scans through the channels until he hits a news report, but he doesn’t turn the sound on, just staring at the monitor. It takes him a minute to realize Red is watching him. “You okay?”

“Sure,” Blue mutters, his tiredness returning. “Okay as I can be I guess.”

“I know, it’s a stupid question. Just seems like you’re in your head a lot, and I get it, but it’s also not like you. If you’re tired I can—”

“No.” It’s the first time Blue has felt like Red’s really seen through him, and it’s a bit disconcerting. Red is oblivious enough that if Blue wasn’t Dark he’d suspect that all the psychic training has paid off, but maybe his friend has grown in other ways. “I’m just… it’s a lot.”

Red nods, and doesn’t pry, instead following his gaze to the monitor. The screen is showing a photo of Brendan and May riding the Eon Duo, which he recognizes from the pictures in a book of myths he obsessively read over and over as a kid. For these two it was a tile mosaic found in some Hoenn ruins.

After a minute Brendan and May’s trainer ID photos are on the screen, and Blue finds himself talking again. “I haven’t really followed anyone outside of Indigo much, but I remember hearing about them back when they started their journeys…” He tries to put what he’s feeling into words. “Every other amazing trainer I ever heard about or admired, it was always like… fuel for the fire, you know? A push to work harder, do more. But this… it’s so crazy, so new, and it changes so much…”

“You feel, what, demoralized?”

Blue snorts, recognizing the irony. Amy warned him, back in Cerulean. “Worse.”

“How much worse?”

The feeling solidifies, suddenly, and Blue feels embarrassment creeping up his neck with hot fingers as he realizes how it would sound. “You won’t laugh?”

“One sec,” Red says, and closes his eyes, taking a deep breath before he opens them again and nods. “I promise.”

Blue doesn’t ask. “It’s like finding out… I feel like, I look at those videos, those pictures of them riding those pokemon… and it’s like realizing I’m not the main character.”

Red is silent, as per his promise, and when Blue glances over, his friend’s face is placid, eyes understanding. “Yeah,” he says, and looks back at the monitor again. “I know that feeling.”

Blue is surprised, but only for a moment. “Right. I guess none of us dream small.” It’s hard to remember sometimes that just because his friend doesn’t seek fame the same way as him, or even Leaf, doesn’t mean he’s not ambitious.

“I’d bet most trainers feel that way, at least at first. But this… really has a way of making even my ambition feel small.” Red leans back in his chair, hands behind his head as he stares up at the ceiling. “I’ve got so many new questions about… well, basically everything. But I’m not qualified to help study any of it. I can start now, abandon everything I’ve been working on and try to catch up on mythological studies, or evolution, or unown ruins, and hope I learn enough to be helpful to someone at some point before everything important is discovered… or I can go back to focusing on what I’ve been doing, even if it feels less important than it did a few days ago.”

Blue nods, letting out a breath. Red does understand, in his own way. Why did he let things stay so bad between them, for so long?

There’s an ache in his chest as he remembers how he felt that day, in a different hospital room, fresh after learning that Aiko was gone… and he has to swallow back the sudden lump in his throat. He wonders how she would react to myths come to life. She’d probably be all the more eager to get to hunting for more of them…

“Thanks, by the way,” Blue forces himself to say. “For… everything. It sounds like you saved a lot of lives, including mine.”

Red shrugs, looking away. “Thank Leaf, next time you see her. If she hadn’t pushed me to come, I wouldn’t have even been there.”

Cold creeps through Blue as he realizes how true that is. Hell, if Leaf hadn’t pushed him to reach out to Red… how many of them would have died?

The thought reminds him of Glen again, lying unconscious in another building somewhere, and he feels impatient to get out of bed again. He’s been awake for just a few hours and already feels trapped by his bed… even knowing there’s nothing he can do for Glen, the helplessness makes him feel a need to do something.

Instead he tries to just focus on what he can do from here, which includes rebuilding his relationship with Red. “You were going to say something about Sabrina and you. What was it? Things going well?”

“Yeah, they are. Were. I don’t know how this is going to change things, but she was talking about letting me in on some inner circle stuff, some research with psychics that have unusual abilities.”

“Damn.” It’s not hard to sympathize with the frustration he hears in Red’s voice. “You were probably ecstatic.”

“Yeah, well. Still could happen, right? Just… not for a bit.”

“Fucking myths.”

Red smiles. It’s slight, but there. “Fucking myths. Though I guess we should start calling them legendaries.”

“I wonder if anything new was discovered about them yet…” Blue reaches for his phone again, fighting back his tiredness.

“Yeah, I’ve been checking pretty constantly,” Red admits as he reaches for his own phone. “I think a lot of people are, and all the speculation makes it hard to find anything meaningful.”

Blue nods, and the two fall into silence as they search through forums and news sites. A lot of experts from various fields are doing open Q&A sessions to address people’s worries or curiosities, though of course most of them can’t answer the really pressing questions, only give more information that helps show Blue how little he really knows about all the things he doesn’t know.

“Hey,” Red says after about ten minutes, and Blue looks over to see him staring at his phone. “You see this new video from Giovanni?”

“No, not yet. What’s it about?”

“The title is, ‘Our Failure.'”

Blue raises a brow. “Put it on the monitor?”

Red nods, and takes the remote to navigate to the same page. He plays the video, and Giovanni appears on the screen at a desk, hands clasped before him. He stares at the surface for nearly half a minute, his occasional blink the only sign that the video is playing.

When he looks up, the look in his eyes is one Blue has never seen before.

“First and foremost, I want to apologize. To you, whoever is watching this video. Not just those in Kanto, or Indigo. Not just those who watch it now, later this week, this month, this year. Not just your children, not your grandchildren. To every thinking being I share this planet with. If you are watching this, now or thousands of years from now, in a world we living now can scarcely imagine, I am apologizing to you just as much. Perhaps especially to you… because I failed you all.”

Blue’s eyes are wide, and he sits up, barely noticing the pain. Before he can ask Red is already raising the volume.

“Generations ago, this land was inhabited by people who fought every day to survive. It was a brutal society, one that most today would not even recognize as civil, and the people of that society were brutal as well. That’s what survival required of them. Our species is near the weakest on the planet, but through our ingenuity and determination, we carved a place for ourselves in the world. And little by little, though it was hard at times, we’ve let that brutality go, like an ekans shedding skin it has outgrown, because it made life more pleasant… and we thought ourselves safer.”

Blue feels his heart pounding, every scrap of attention focused on the slightest changes in Giovanni’s features and tone.

“I will not say that we were wrong,” Giovanni says, each word measured. “But it’s clear now that safety has made us complacent.”

Another silence, this one heavier. The accusation, the presumptive admission, strikes a chord in Blue, not because he hasn’t already believed this, but to hear someone like Giovanni say it… say it in public… A spark of hope warms Blue’s chest for the first time since waking.

“We believed it was enough, to grow our villages into towns, our towns into cities. To connect our cities into regions, and mark clear routes through the wilderness to allow civilization a foothold. Mutual defensive pacts, redundant supply lines, resource stockpiles, coordination networks… all valuable, all necessary, and all completely ineffective against the true threats to our survival.

“The story I’ve told you is a story of progress. A story of humanity rising from frightened mammals cowering in hovels to beings who can harness the powers around us for our own needs. We’ve not just turned monster against monster, we’ve made them into pets and livestock. We became complacent, confident, that these gains were permanent. That our species would continue to increase in population, expand in territory, grow in technological power… even as certain other powers continued to stay above our grasp. Continued to make us cower in our high-tech hovels, hoping for our Leaders and Champions to save us.”

Giovanni presses a button, and on the corner of the screen there’s some brief footage that was taken of the battle against Groudon, before the helicopter that had dared get close enough to record it had to leave.

Blue watches as the combined might of the islands fails to so much as faze the beast.

“We were fools.”

Blue has to remind himself to breathe. He wonders suddenly if Lance was told about this broadcast ahead of time.

“I do not mean this as a slight against our Champions and the other brave trainers who stood against such power, and did not waver. They are the best of us, and they did all they could, more than any could have expected. And yet… do you feel saved?”

The video continues to flick through images of the destruction across the islands, and Blue’s earlier despair returns over the sheer magnitude of it… but under it all there’s still the ember of anger, and the spark of hope.

“We have grown complacent, which makes the truth we now face all the harsher. We are not safe. That belief was a shared delusion, a story of human progress weaved by the anthropic principle and optimism. We have filled our stories with existential risks, we write children’s television shows and thrilling action movies where the threat of annihilation is so common it becomes predictable, and yet so easily conquered that it seems inevitable. Pure wish fulfillment has been so inspiring, so entertaining, that we’ve tricked ourselves into believing it is reality.

“It is not. This… this is reality.” The screen is still showing various images of destruction. In one of them Blue recognizes Celadon’s skyline, with a couple of collapsed buildings marring the even lines of the streets; “Not two days ago humanity stood upon a precipice, and barely survived it. You know the names of the fallen, by now. Four gym leaders and three Elites were killed, our Champions each lost prized and powerful pokemon that took them years to grow and train, and each may yet have lost their life if not for a stroke of luck.”

The montage ends, and instead there’s a screenshot of Rayquaza. It’s just a blur, a streak of green and gold and black, taken from an angle that shows it rising up into the sky.

“Here is our savior. It alone did what the best of us could not… and so showed us that nothing, ultimately, has changed.”

The picture disappears, returning Giovanni’s features, his dark, direct gaze. “We are not, none of us, safe. For all our power, the monsters are still greater. And to stop them, we will need to change again.”

“Yes,” Blue whispers, and realizes his hand is closed around the sheets in a fist.

“Our species is still in its infancy. One day, future generations may truly conquer the dangers of this world, be able to live and flourish in peace. But that will not happen on its own, and while we continue to only think of survival, continue to slowly inch our way outward into the wilds to fit another town here, another route there, we roll the dice every year on another incident like this occurring… an incident that may not be contained or ended before it drives us back to our huts, or wipes us out completely.

“There are some who will call me a doomsayer. Who will insist that this was an incredibly unlikely event, that it hasn’t happened for at least a thousand years before, and so surely we have another, similar length of time before something like it happens again. My response to that is simply… perhaps.”

Giovanni pauses, taking a visible breath, letting it out. The Leader’s tone has stayed steady and even throughout, but with a note of steel beneath, and that softens now, ever so slightly. “I do not intend to incite panic. I understand that there is enough darkness in the world already, and do not claim to know this will happen in our lifetime, or even our children’s lifetimes. If that is the extent of your moral concern, the extent of what you can afford to care about, then you may safely ignore me, and go on with your lives, in all likelihood, without ever needing worry about this again.

“But if you care about what your children’s children will inherit, or theirs, or the countless billions of people who will live after us… the billions that may yet be born… if the very thought of so many lives in such a far future doesn’t cause your mind to cower and blink and hide in the comfort or needs of the now… this prediction I will stand behind. Sooner or later, another Tier 6 will occur, and at our current pace of progress, humanity will not be prepared for it. And perhaps that will not even be needed.”

The pictures return, this time of Registeel, its massive white and grey dome of a body casting a long shadow over a nearby pond. “More of these may yet rise, these and other legendary pokemon that we thought unique. Perhaps the awakening of these myths, their effect on our climate, began a chain reaction. How many more unstoppable threats need arise before the progress we have fought so hard for, slow as it already is, grinds to a halt? How many before it begins, slowly but surely, to reverse, without even another awakened myth?”

“I failed you, in not doing more to prevent this. I am Leader of a single city and its outlying areas, but that city resides in a region, that region resides on an island, that island resides on a planet, and each of these things must survive for my city to survive, and thus anything that threatens them is a threat to what I have taken oath to protect… and what I need no oath to feel protective of. I have failed you, and I can only prostrate myself and ask your forgiveness, for this.”

And as Blue watches in shock, Giovanni Sakaki stands from his desk. The camera pans outward to follow him around to the front, and the ex-Champion lowers himself to his knees, places his hands over each other, and bows until his forehead touches them.

“I will do better.”

Four simple words, a handful of heartbeats, and then he rises back up. Blue can’t recall the last time a Champion showed such humility, let alone one as proud as Giovanni.

Still kneeling, back ramrod straight and hands on his thighs, the Viridian leader’s gaze finds the camera again. “Before this warning fades entirely from the now, becomes just another note of worry in the back of your minds, an occasional cloud over the sun of what tomorrow brings… remember how impossible this incident would have been to fathom, before it occurred. Remember how many champions, presidents, professors, leaders, experts of every kind, wise and learned, were taken just as much by surprise. In this, there are no easy answers coming. Our ship charts unnavigated waters, and we have no captain, nor passengers; only crew.

“Let us attend to our wounded friends, our dead families, our broken homes, our ravaged lands. Let us heal as best we can. And then let us begin to prepare for what comes next.”


Leaf follows Laura Verres into Celadon’s central police department at a quick stride, trying not to look nervous. She was here just yesterday, before she went to visit Blue in the hospital, and even though that was to testify in the justified use of a pokemon to stop a renegade, even though Red’s mom wasn’t with her, it was still much less nerve-wracking defending herself against a potential Renegade charge than it is being called back in for something else.

It’s not hard to understand why, of course; in this case, she’s actually guilty of something else.

“We’re here to see the detective in charge of the casino investigation,” Laura says to the officer at the front desk. “Please tell them Leaf Juniper is here to comply with a summoning request.”

The man nods, gaze curiously taking her in, and Leaf feels her heart thumping in her chest as she continues trying to look as calm and composed as Laura, who walks to one of the chairs against the wall and sits. Leaf sits beside her and folds her hands over her lap to keep them from trembling.

“Just breathe, Leaf,” Laura murmurs, and puts one hand briefly over hers to squeeze. “Even in a worst case scenario, anything that happens in here would just be step one, do you understand?”

Leaf nods, the motion jerky. She’s starting to wish she’d taken the older woman’s advice and brought an attorney, but since she plans to just insist on total ignorance, it seemed like something a guilty person would do, and she has to consider the optics of this; her name is already bouncing around the net for taking out yet another renegade within a year, not to mention recovering the Silph tech, and though she feels like she doesn’t deserve the praise she’s getting, it’s far preferable to the suspicion that’s blooming in some quarters as well.

“Thanks again, for coming,” Leaf whispers.

“None needed, dear. I have plenty of reasons to be here.” She’d returned to her hometown to visit Blue and Red, and see how some of her old colleagues were doing after the quakes, but she means the police station specifically. As soon as Leaf told her about the summons and asked her for advice, she got a look in her eye that Leaf knows.

She’s not just here to protect Leaf; she smells a story.

Leaf might too, if she wasn’t so busy feeling guilty.

The wait barely lasts five minutes before they’re called into a back room, and the lead detective raises a brow as he spots Laura.

“Hello again, Miss Juniper… and you are?”

“Good afternoon, Detective Hirai. My name is Laura Verres.”

A frown twitches across the detective’s face for a moment. “Are you… her attorney?”

“No, I’m a reporter. But today I’m just here as a friend.”

Leaf can see from Detective Hirai’s reaction that he doesn’t buy that for a second. She can’t tell for sure, but she suspects he recognized her name from somewhere, and it clicked when she mentioned being a journalist.

“I hope that’s okay,” Leaf says, not disguising the uncertainty in her tone. “We’re on our way to visit my friend at the hospital, and I didn’t think I’d need an attorney…?”

“Of course,” the detective says, and then is silent, clearly off-balance. This is what Laura had hoped for; there’s always a chance, she explained, that the investigator would ask to speak to Leaf alone, but to do so would imply that this was more than a routine questioning, and that might signal to Leaf that she’s a suspect and should bring a lawyer. “Please, sit down.”

They take the seats across his desk, and his gaze lingers on Laura for a moment before he turns to Leaf. “Do you know why I called you back today, Miss Juniper?”

“I assumed to answer more questions about the renegades below the casino,” Leaf says, brow furrowed as she tries to maintain steady eye contact. “Have you learned anything about what they were doing there, or the owners?”

“That’s all still under investigation,” the detective says, gaze flicking to Laura again.

“I’m guessing all you’ve found so far is a shell company?” she asks, then catches Leaf’s questioning look. “Accountants and attorneys who are in charge of paying the people in the casino, while the owners only see the money after it’s been laundered through confidential foreign bank accounts.”

She knows what a shell company is, of course. “That’s legal?” she asks, eyes wide.

Laura wags her hand back and forth. “Sometimes. This probably won’t be one of them.”

“As I said,” the detective says. “Still under investigation. What concerns us right now is a recent leak that may affect that investigation.”

“A leak within the police?”

“No.” He places his elbows on the desk, chin resting on his folded hands. “We’re still recovering as much evidence as we can from the hidden portions of the casino. A lot of that evidence is digital, of course, and it’s been difficult to get through it given that we’re still sorting through and collecting the physical evidence. But it seems we’ve been scooped, so to speak.”

He turns his computer monitor toward them to show blueprints for something that looks like high tech goggles. “This was posted to various tech sites this morning, along with dozens of pages of notes and other data.”

Leaf leans forward, brow furrowed, and thankfully she doesn’t have to pretend to not know what she’s looking at, since she didn’t look over the data she grabbed while she was down there before she sent it all to Natural the next day.

It had been a spur of the moment decision; after the renegade was down and they’d done everything they could to ensure no one was dying, she began exploring the section of the lab they were stuck in, looking for a way out rather than waiting for rescue. That’s when she found the room where the goggles were being tinkered with… and the computers nearby, some of them still on. It took just a couple minutes to put one in a container ball.

“What is it?” Laura asks.

“It looks like the goggles I found,” Leaf says. “I can’t tell if it’s the original blueprints or not, though, and it doesn’t say what it’s for.”

“The documents released with this image say it’s a new type of technology that will let people observe Ghost pokemon without feeling any effects of Surreality.”

Leaf looks up at the detective in surprise to find his sharp gaze on her. “How do you know it’s from the Rocket Casino?” she asks, hoping he can’t see the way her pulse is jumping in her throat.

“Because it’s the technology that Silph Corporation believed was stolen,” he says, voice flat as he stares her down. “We’ve also confirmed that it’s on the computer we took as well. So far it’s still being treated as a curiosity, people aren’t sure what to make of it, but it’s the real thing.”

“And you found a match of the information in the lab’s computers?” Laura asks.

“We did, once we knew what to look for.”

Leaf leans back, still frowning as she tries to figure out why Natural would release this. It doesn’t have anything to do with pokemon well-being, as far as she can tell…

“That was fast.” Laura’s tone is skeptical.

“We got lucky,” the detective says, glancing at her. “The computers had a lot of security measures in place, all of them needed both a physical encryption key and a typed in password, but one of the computers buried in the rubble was being worked on when the roof collapsed and didn’t get destroyed. The key was still in it, and while we couldn’t log in, the RAM still held the rest of the encryption.”

Leaf feels herself relax, and has to fight the urge to smile. The computer she grabbed was on, but asleep, and there was nothing plugged into any of its ports, so Natural probably can’t get whatever’s on it at all… which, while normally frustrating, would be a relief if the alternative is that he spread the info on it around the net indiscriminately without telling her.

“What does any of this have to do with Leaf?”

He glances between them a moment. “Of all the people we’ve interviewed, she spent the most time alone and safe in the lab.”

“I hope you’re not considering her a suspect,” Laura says, voice cool. “It would be pretty embarrassing to accuse one of the few heroes of that awful day of something like this without good reason.”

The detective’s gaze is locked on Laura’s for a moment, and then he sighs. “Of course.” He leans back in his chair, eyes meeting Leaf’s. “I simply wanted to check if you saw anything that makes more sense, in light of this reveal.”

“If you mean someone messing with computers while down there, I’m afraid not,” Leaf says, rubbing her clammy palms against her knees beneath the table. “But I was stuck in one particular part of the lab. Do you know if the computers with this information were there?”

“Not exclusively, but yes.”

“Oh,” Leaf says, voice quiet. Could Natural have decrypted the computer without a key? In just a day? It doesn’t seem possible…

“A coincidence,” Laura dismisses. “Clearly these people have an agenda against Silph, and would have spread the information they learned beyond just a hard drive or two. Once their operation was exposed and halted, they must have decided to let the information out for Silph’s other competitors to take advantage of.”

“Yes, the thought had occurred to us,” the detective says, voice wry. He’s back to looking at Laura, thankfully. “But we still needed to check.”

“Of course, Detective. Is that all, then?”

Hirai is quiet a moment before looking at Leaf, lips pursed. “I was hoping Miss Juniper would be willing to let us search her containers.”

“Absolutely not,” Laura says before Leaf can even respond, and unlike her previous, cool tone, there’s heat to her words now. “And you wouldn’t be asking if you had a warrant.”

“I can acquire one if that’s necessary,” the detective asks, gaze staying on Leaf. She does her best not to wilt under it, or look at Laura. “We don’t suspect you, Miss Juniper, we’re just being thorough. If we can cross off the electronic devices that everyone who was in the lab had access to at the time, we can know for sure that it came from elsewhere.”

“That’s over two dozen people, many of whom were unconscious at the time, if not outright fighting for their lives,” Laura says. “Personally I doubt any judge in Celadon would sign off on that, which means you need a better reason to suspect Leaf, particularly when she has no motive to do something like this.”

“I believe she does, actually. She’s an outspoken advocate for better treatment of pokemon, and the Casino was advertising itself as having a completely new species.”

Leaf’s stomach does a flip, and even Laura seems momentarily knocked off balance. “You think she… what, purposefully nearly got herself killed to—”

“Of course not. But if the opportunity was there, I think it’s reasonable that anyone would be curious.”

“I didn’t,” Leaf says, the lie making her insides squirm. And she mocked Red for being a bad liar, back on the S.S. Anne… but it’s different, this sort of lying, lying to someone with power, lying to cover something you did that might have been wrong…

“You didn’t what?”

“I didn’t leak anything online,” she says, sticking to something true to firm her resolve. “That would be… I mean even if I was doing it for a story on pokemon rights… wouldn’t it be more valuable keeping it to myself until I could write an article about whatever I found? And why would I release the info about the goggles in that case?”

“As I said, you’re not a suspect. We just like to be thorough.”

“If you want to check my containers—”

“No, Leaf,” Laura says, voice firm. “You can hand him the containers to look through and all that would lead to is him asking about other containers you own, then checking your PCs to see what you might have transferred recently. You have rights for situations exactly like this.” She stands as she turns back to the detective. “Get a warrant if you can, or take her word for it. Either way, we’re expected at the hospital to relieve my son from a bedside vigil.”

Detective Hirai’s gaze flicks between her and Leaf, who tries to match Laura’s confidence as she gets to her feet. Finally he nods and murmurs, “Thank you for your time.”

Laura opens the door, and Leaf suddenly says, “Wait.” Red’s mom looks at her curiously, but closes it, and Leaf turns back to the detective. “The renegade, I caught, has he been executed yet? I haven’t gotten any messages after the sentencing.”

“No, Erika has been too busy to do it so far, and we’re still hoping to get some information from him.”

Leaf nods, weighing her options. Giovanni told her not to write anything about Yuuta for six months; it hasn’t been quite that long, but she told Laura about it, so she shouldn’t hesitate from telling a police officer too, right? “Is he securely guarded?”

The detective studies her a moment before his gaze softens. “Very. I assure you, it would be impossible for him to escape.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. I’m sure he won’t, but I’m worried about someone killing him before his execution.”

Hirai stares at her. “And why would someone do that? Revenge?”

“No. Just… this organization that employed renegades might find out one was taken alive, right? Even though he’s dark, they might try to kill him before he can give anything away.”

“They would have to take on the entire police department to do so.”

Leaf shakes her head, feeling frustrated. “They wouldn’t do it like that, a frontal assault, they’d… sneak someone in, slip something in, maybe, or… bribe the guards or something…”

“Miss Juniper, if you know anything about this—”

“It’s happened before,” Laura says, and Leaf turns to see Red’s mom watching her. “You think it’s the same people?”

“I don’t know,” she says, folding her arms over her stomach to quell her nerves. She knows this is messing with her cover as an innocent girl who wouldn’t have any motive to steal from the casino lab, but it’s just too important to keep to herself. “But how many secret organizations hiring renegades can there be in Kanto?”

“What are you two talking about?”

Leaf turns back to Hirai. “The last renegade I ran into, on Mount Moon, was assassinated before he could be executed. I confirmed this through independent investigation, and if you want to ask Leader Giovanni about it, he might confirm it too. But he also might not, I was told not to publish a story on it for six months to give them time to capture the real killer.”

The detective looks like he’s trying to decide how seriously to take her, and she’s about to say forget it and walk out when he abruptly says, “I believe you.”

“You do?”

“I already know about what happened on Mt. Moon, in fact. Every organization that might apprehend a renegade was informed to ensure their safety before execution by none other than Leader Giovanni himself. If he could trust you with that info, and you haven’t reported it in all this time, then I’ll trust you at least enough to tell you both, off the record, that we’ve been aware of individuals and groups that hire from an interregional black market of renegades for some time. Part of why I’m telling you this is because I suspect it won’t stay secret for long, after word of what happened in Rocket Casino gets out.”

“And what happened in Hoenn,” Laura says, brow furrowed, and the detective nods.

Leaf hasn’t paid too much attention to that part of the story, there’s so much going on that it feels impossible to keep up with everything, but she does know that a bunch of alleged renegades helped fight Groudon and Kyogre, then fled the site of the battle in the confusion that followed Rayquaza’s attack.

“Interpol has known about such groups for a while now, but they’re nearly impossible to infiltrate or trace back to anyone important, and we never caught someone that was part of a group before… or at least we didn’t think we had. Now we suspect they operate in isolated cells… so rest assured, we’re going to do everything we can to keep this one alive until we can learn everything we can from him.”

The detective’s gaze is flat, voice grim, and Leaf feels an involuntary shiver at the thought of how they might try to learn things. She knows there’s no room for sympathy here, however; it’s out of her hands, even if she was the one to capture him, and besides, he and the other two killed half a dozen innocent people before they were stopped. The people in charge of them have to be stopped as well.

“Thank you for the trust, detective,” Leaf eventually says.

Hirai nods, gaze steady on hers. “I hope it will bear fruit, and be returned.”

Leaf hesitates, then simply nods and turns to the door. Laura lets her go out first, and they leave the police department together.

Leaf holds her composure until they leave the police department, then lets out a long breath, sticking her shaking hands in her pockets. She lets the sun warm her face as the breeze cools sweat on the back of her neck.

“That,” Laura remarks, “Was pretty bold of you.”

“Thanks,” Leaf murmurs, then hesitates. “It was also stupid though, right?”

“From a self-interested perspective, yes,” she says as they start walking toward the hospital Blue is staying in. “But if you’re determined to do the right thing, that kind of comes with the territory now and then. I can’t blame you for being altruistic.”

It wasn’t altruism, Leaf thinks, but doesn’t say. The guilt at taking the computer and not telling the police, at sending it to Natural, feels only slightly alleviated. She takes her phone out and messages him, knowing he’d be asleep by now. Hey, I know it’s super early, but just to check, you find anything good yet? She hopes he says no, hopes Natural isn’t the one that put all the info online, but the whole world has felt upside down since the floor of the casino collapsed, and she didn’t feel comfortable trusting him even before that happened.

Just thinking about it again makes her breath come short. It had been so tight in the rubble, pressed between Red and some chunks of concrete on one side and the nidoqueen’s broad, scaly thigh on the other. In any other situation it might have been hard to stay so close to the same nidoqueen that had nearly killed her in Vermilion, but in those circumstances she had more important things to worry about, like the lack of air, and the agony in her shoulder, and Blue’s cries of pain before he went terrifyingly silent…

Laura’s hand on her still-tender shoulder makes her jump, and she realizes they’re standing at an intersection that she’d been about to step into while cars passed through it. “Leaf!”

“Yeah,” Leaf gasps, looking up at Mrs. Verres’s concerned face. “Sorry, I’m fine!”

“I didn’t even ask if you were, yet. You didn’t hear anything I just said, did you?”

“Uh…” She wipes a hand across her sweaty forehead. “Sorry, no. What was the question? Or comment?”

“You don’t have to keep apologizing, and forget it. Are you alright, Leaf?”

“Y-no,” she admits after realizing how silly it would be to lie at this point. “Had a bad memory.”

“Oh, hon…” Laura pulls her into a brief hug, which actually helps her feel a bit calmer. “I think you should talk to someone. From what Red told me you guys went through hell down there, and there’s no shame in having it continue to affect you.”

Would the detective have accepted that as an excuse, if I’d admitted to taking the computer? Maybe, but probably not to sending it to a random person the next day, a decision that, in retrospect, feels very stupid. If Natural turns out to be untrustworthy, if he did release the computer’s contents without telling her, she’d stop speaking with him. Maybe even admit what she did and turn them both in.

Easy to say. She takes a breath. One thing at a time. “Yeah, maybe you’re right. I’ll see if Red’s therapist is open to taking me, or one of the therapists that comes to the ranch with the kids.”

“I’m glad.” Laura lets her go, and they start walking across the street. “And in case I forgot to say it before, thank you, for saving my son. Again.”

“It was a team effort.” It had been nerve-wracking, waiting for the renegade to show up and then tying him up after he was asleep so the others could watch him while she went for help, but she’d trusted Red implicitly when he told her what was happening.

He’d sounded so scared. So desperate. And then, so… determined.

They arrive at the hospital to find a crowd of people waiting in the lobby, as usual. Leaf messages Red to let him know they’re here, and they head to the roof to wait for him.

He teleports there a minute later, and is almost immediately enfolded in a tight hug by Laura.

“Hi Mom,” he says, voice muffled. “It’s good to see you again.”

Laura just keeps silently hugging him, and Leaf stands by as Red gets visibly embarrassed. She tries not to smile as she waits for Laura to finally let him go, but it’s a losing battle. “Hey. Get enough sleep?”

“More or less,” he says, and smiles back at her. It’s a weak smile, there and gone, but it’s better than nothing; ever since everything that happened that night, he’s had a withdrawn, almost haunted look to him. She thought it might have been from just using his powers too much, and he’s looking a little better today. “You?”

“Joy is the best sleep aid around, even without singing. How are things in Saffron?”

“Not so bad.” He returns his abra to its ball, and they start walking toward the roof access door. “The city wasn’t too badly hit, but Sabrina spent the days after the incident teleporting all around the islands to help detect and communicate with people in need, so she’s been too exhausted for any meetings or lessons or gym battles. Which is doubly bad because she had a bunch of them lined up from before, but… well, I guess no one’s really thinking about Challenge matches right now.”

Leaf nods. The full effects of the storms and earthquakes are still unfolding long after the last tremor and drop of rain. Even people on the other side of the planet were affected by tsunamis, and there’s been a lot of global discussion about what happened, including speculations over how bad it could have gotten and whether other similar events are likely to occur.

One of the major debates is whether it should be classified as a “Tier 6” event, a hypothetical world-affecting incident, or if it merely had the potential to be. In either case, many are reacting to a near-miss cataclysm as if one is still coming, either stocking up on survival supplies or fleeing the islands entirely, though some of that might just be foreigners who don’t want to stick around as the local regions recover.

Her mother, of course, re-suggested she come home, and it was harder than usual for Leaf to insist that she wants to stay, but she’s glad she did. The economy has tanked and there have been runs on supplies, but a lot of foreign aid has come in as well to help people as they grieve and try to rebuild, and she has too many people here she cares about to feel comfortable returning to Unova, even for a brief visit.

“Do you have any classes coming up?” she asks Red, wondering if his schedule is going to go back to normal anytime soon. They’ve been seeing each other a lot more lately, mostly in Celadon to visit Blue but at the ranch as well, and she’s reluctant to go back to seeing each other so infrequently.

“Still canceled for the foreseeable future. I’ve been meeting with some of the other students, but for now I can keep helping at the ranch.”

“How is Mr. Sakai handling everything?” Laura asks.

“Not bad, actually. All we lost from the quakes were a few picture frames and some fences that got trampled by wilds.” Leaf smiles briefly. “Thankfully all the non-aquatic pokemon were in their balls already because of the rain, so no one got hurt. He even said those fences needed replacing soon anyway, so I’d say he’s in good spirits. What’s going on in Lavender?”

“It was mostly undamaged too, though Lavender Tower gave everyone a scare by swaying like a tree in the wind.”

“And for your work?” Red asks.

“Business as usual.”

Which Leaf takes to mean that the investigation is still ongoing. “Speaking of Lavender Tower, Red, did you notice anything going around online about Silph goggles?”

“No? When, today?”

“Yeah, apparently it just hit the net this morning, will probably pick up steam by tomorrow. Those goggles I found in the basement are supposed to let people look at Ghosts without surreality.”

“Holy shit, are you serious?”

“Language, Red!”

He shoots a guilty look at his mom, then looks back at her. “Do you know if they work?”

“No, apparently that was just a prototype. But it’s pretty exciting to think about, right?”

“Blue is going to flip out, it might help non-psychics use Ghosts more easily…”

They arrive at Blue’s room and hear voices coming from inside before they even open the door.

“…not saying you can’t, Blue, I just want to make sure you’re not committing to anything without more details.”

“What commitment, it’s not a commitment, it’s just building momentum. I have to do something while I’m here!”

Laura clears her throat and knocks, and there’s sudden silence until the door opens and Daisy lets out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, I was about to chuck one of them out the window.” She gives each of them a quick hug, then strides off down the hall, raising a hand over her head in a wave. “Glad you’re alive Red and Leaf, see you later, Auntie!”

“Bye Daisy,” Leaf calls, then wilts under a glare by a passing nurse and turns to look in the room to see a very tan Professor Oak looking down at Blue in exasperation while his grandson stares at his phone, typing as fast as he can with one hand.

“Hello Sam, Blue,” Laura says as she steps in, and Red and Leaf follow, closing the door behind them.

“Hi Aunt Laura,” Blue says, still staring at his phone as his thumb taps away. “Guys, come help me with this would you?”

“Give them a second to put their things down at least, Blue,” Professor Oak sighs, though his smile seems genuine as he returns Laura’s hug, then turns to Leaf and Red and lowers himself to one knee to draw them both into a hug.

Leaf is surprised, but pleased, and sees a similar expression on Red’s face. “Hi, Professor…”

“Sam, Red. It was proper in the lab, but I’ve known you since you were in diapers, and you’re family. Call me Sam.” He pulls back and turns to her. “You too, Leaf. I can never repay either of you for what you did, and I’ve never been so glad to have put my trust in you. You’ve more than repaid it.”

Leaf feels her cheeks burning. “It was nothing, Pr… Sam. We’ve all helped each other, at one point or another,” she says. Red nods, gaze down.

“Be that as it may, this is the closest I’ve come to losing my boy. I was off on the other side of the islands, and if you weren’t there for him… I don’t want to think about it. Just know that I’m in your debt, both of you.”

“Gramps, you’re embarrassing them.”

“I’m entitled to, now and then. One of the few perks of age.” But he lets them go, and stands, wincing slightly as he shifts the weight from his knee.

“Are you okay, Profess-Sam?” Red asks.

“Fine, fine, other than the ringing in my ears. Overdid things a bit, in Hoenn, but I’ll take that and sore joints over Pressure any day.”

“Profe-Sam, I have so many questions about that—”

“Later, Red,” Laura says. “Give him time to go shower and eat and whatever else, he’ll be back.”

“Yeah, and come help me with this already, do you have any idea how hard it is to start a social movement with one thumb?”

“Social movement?” Leaf asks as the professor sighs. She follows Red to his bedside. “About what?”

“The thing Giovanni said, I’m guessing?”

“Yep.” Blue finishes typing something out, then grins as he shows them what he’s written so far. “Get online and help spread the word, would you? I’ve already got it trending locally, but with all of us working together #WhatComesNext is going global.”

Chapter 83: Interlude XV – Titans III

Maria Graham is not really sure how she got here. Under a casino, during an earthquake, heart beating a painful rhythm in her throat. It’s all very far from the girl she thought she would be.

She was raised with every luxury money could buy. Her parents stressed the importance of her studies, which she did well in. They wanted her to live a life of clean glass and fresh linens, a life of soft couches and heartbeats that could be used to measure time.

And she thought she would always live that life. Almost let herself be poured into the mold they cast for her, and never questioned it too much… if not for a music video she watched shortly after her tenth birthday.

Normally her parents had filters on the net to keep her from seeing anything not appropriate to her age, but this video must not have tripped any of those sensitive wires. It had no curse words in it, no provocative dress, no violence, no drug use. It was just a song, and a backdrop of a city at night, and a young woman with hair an unnatural shade of pink, a pink that was too loud, louder than any color in Maria’s life up until that point.

She was fascinated. Not just by the song, which was catchy enough, or the dance, captivating as the movements were.

It was the window it opened in her soul, just a crack, just enough to let a glimpse of light in, a smell of the outside world. It was the way it made her approach that window, nudge the heavy drapes aside, to peer at that other world. That other life, a life of neon, of rained-on-pavement scent, of dancing through a city as if, no matter how big it was or how many others lived in it, it all was meant for her.

That was when she began to look, really look, at the people outside her family and friends. To understand that many  have lives of sweat and burning muscles, of insect bites and starry nights, of blood and fear and the tightrope balance between life and death, and so much more. In the face of that knowledge, suddenly previously full life felt empty. What her parents molded for her, what was sitting in easy reach, was like the life of a stranger that she was being mistaken for. She needed to know what her life could be, and knew she would never find it living in theirs.

That was the true wisdom she glimpsed, without fully grasping it right away. That all those people, all those different lives, they don’t see each other, not really. They don’t know that there’s another way to live, that there are whole parts of reality as alien to them as other planets.

It wasn’t an immediate change, of course. The window opened a crack, the curtains parted to let in a glimpse, but it still took a year for her to slowly learn what called to her and what didn’t, and another year to get her trainer’s license, with the assistance of a cousin in the Rangers who helped teach and guide her to the online forms.

She was thirteen before she informed her parents that she was leaving. Not just the home, but the region. They tried to stop her, but only with words, with concern and guilt and fear. They didn’t offer her anything else, didn’t show her a life she could be excited to live if she stayed, and so she looked for what she needed online, and left.

In the year since, she’s found some parts of herself, at least.

She’s sure her friends have wondered why she has no online presence, why she wears her big, wide hat all the time, even during pokemon battles, why she avoided cameras during all the media attention in Vermilion, and maybe most of all, why she only ever gives her initials for her name.

But they don’t dig. They don’t press her to reveal more of herself. They accept her for who she is with them, for what they’ve done together. She doesn’t have to be anyone else, with them.

And who she is with them, apparently, is a girl who will run into the depths of a collapsed building during an ongoing earthquake. She was surprised to find this part of herself; not the part that ignored fear, but the part that had friends to save. Blue, whose life is burning eyes and cold, round metal, and Lizzy, who grew up in a glass cage of her own, a fellow bird flown free, feet gripping rubber cables humming with energy so she could find new things to plug them in to. And friends to help her save them, like Bretta, a trumpet call and a flag planted, Elaine, all tickling bubbles and soul-filling smiles, and Glen, who’s with her now, sunlit green grass around a refreshing spring, with deep, dark soil she can curl her toes in.

They need her. And she needs them. To have a life with warm laughter, with arms that will hold her tight without clutching. To find more parts of herself, perhaps even here, in these red and broken hallways.

-lo? Can anyone—lp, please!”

Glen slows to a stop, and MG presses her ear to the wall where the voices came from. “Hello?!”

Hello! Help, please, I’m stuck!”

Glen is pressed to the wall beside her, now. “Are you up against the wall, or is there something between you?”

What? I… I’m not sure… please, it’s hard… to breathe…”

Glen steps back and summons his primeape. “Hold on,” MG says, and stands clear as her friend orders his pokemon to carefully tear down the drywall. She has a sudden, strong memory of their first scenario in Vermilion, of the “civilian” she “rescued” who started “crying” all over her. It was deeply uncomfortable, even knowing that it wasn’t real, and she steels herself for something similar to happen again, to lend not just aid but comfort if needed.

It takes a bit of care, but eventually the primeape damages the wall enough that the rubble on the other side starts to break through. Maria and Glen were standing clear, and he quickly withdraws his pokemon as a small landslide begins. A cloud of dust rises up, and Maria has a moment to realize they probably should have taken a minute to think this through, even with the time pressure…

After a moment, however, the rubble stops flowing out, and it doesn’t seem to have upset anything else. They can see the person that had been in it now, an older woman who was caught between a slot machine and a section of the carpeted floor that had collapsed under her.

She gasps in several deep breaths, weakly shifting to pull herself free. “Careful,” Glen says, rushing forward to help. The red emergency lights make the blood matting her hair look black, and Maria quickly gets a potion bottle out to spray on any wounds.

“Do you need anything?” Maria asks as she watches a gash on the woman’s leg close. “Food, water?” A moment later she realizes the questions probably don’t make much sense in this context, and tries to think of something more she can offer. “…air tank?”

“I’m alright,” the woman says, and coughs, dust visibly stirring. “Thank you, thank you so much…”

“Hold still, there could be internal injuries,” Glen says as he starts clearing some space for her to lie down beside the rubble. “Were there others with you?”

“N-no… no, I was alone…” She looks around at the red, dusty halls. “Where are we?”

“Under the casino, some office area.” Glen finishes positioning her comfortably, then looks at the hole she came through, and Maria follows his gaze. It’s an impassable mess.

Maria felt fear for herself when the Stormbringer came to Vermilion, but it was a soft and distant thing through the dissociation of the Pressure, moth wings fluttering in the dark. Here it’s an ever-present litany of anxious thoughts, a rising and falling wave that she’s submerged in momentarily each time a tremor goes through the walls and ceiling around them.

But Glen is braver than her. Her fear for Blue is a rawness along certain tracks in her mind that make thoughts connected to them painful and skittish, but she suspects that for Glen, the fear for Blue is overpowering his own safety.

“He might be near a wall too,” she says, voice low.

Glen looks at her, at the hope she offers, and takes a breath to master his own fear. “We need to go, to try to help others. There are stairs that lead back up that way, if you feel strong enough to move. If not we’ll be back with help when we can.”

The woman looks the way he pointed, then back at where she was trapped and shudders before turning back to them. “I’ll be fine… go, save whoever you can!”

They leave without another word, jogging through the halls. Glen pauses every so often and listens at the walls for any sounds of survivors, calling out and knocking to try and get a response, but they don’t hear anyone else that isn’t already being helped by others, employees of the casino who look dazed and in shock. They try asking where the Casino’s generator is and are ignored other than being told to get back upstairs where it’s safe.

Eventually they reach another flight of stairs, and Glen curses and leads the way further down. “How deep does this place go?”

“The hole at the surface was deep,” Maria points out as she hurries to keep pace with him.

“But if that lady was trapped at the floor below, and Blue was also at a slot machine…”

“We don’t know where he was, can’t assume—”

Maria stumbles as she abruptly feels a presence in the stairway with them (no, not with them, in her mind, with her), and Glen’s hand is suddenly on her shoulder to keep her steady.

alarm-panic-urgency

“What’s wrong?!”

“I felt…”

familiarity-greeting-danger-warning

“…someone is… a psychic is talking to me,” she says, trying to concentrate on the sensations as she speaks. “And it’s… I think it’s someone who knows me?”

Glen looks at her with wide eyes. “You’re Gifted?”

“No, just sensitive.” It’s hard to speak while the emotions continue to run through her, danger-greeting-familiarity-down… “There’s danger under us?”

“Someone’s telling you that?” Glen asks

“It’s just emotions… it’s hard to explain, but yeah, someone’s projecting them at me.”

“But who?

“I don’t know, but they know me. Hang on, let me…” She concentrates on the feeling, and gets a sense of… curiosity, and fussiness, and attention to detail… “Lizzy?

“But… she’s not psychic either!”

“I know, I don’t understand…” There’s a sense of frustration that she thinks is more than just hers, but then the projected feelings focus on danger again, and a tug downward. “But I think somehow she’s telling me she’s below us, and… she’s in danger! I think some pokemon got in, somehow!”

“How do you—”

“It’s hard to describe, just a vague feeling!” Maria’s heart is pounding in her throat, limbs shaking as she pulls out of his grasp and hurries down the stairs again. “Come on!”

She hears his feet start pounding down after her, and once they reach the intersection under the stairs she looks around, trying to understand where they are. It looks like more standard office space, but one of the halls has been crushed by the ceiling, leaving two directions to go… she picks one at random and starts running.

Only to stop a moment later, and run back in the opposite direction.

“What’s—”

“It’s like a compass,” she explains as she tries to focus on the mental pull. “It’s… down, that way!” She points through the floor and wall.

“Shit, there’s another floor? Why don’t the stairs go all the way down?” Glen looks around. “There has to be another staircase…”

If so, the mental guide isn’t helpful in finding it. Which way? she tries asking, concentrating as hard as she can on the feeling of the other mind that’s with hers. Which way is down?

All she gets is more panic, more concern, more that sense of the other mind that’s trying to get her to hurry downstairs and save Lizzy… wait, no, the sense is definitely to save someone else, not the person whose emotions she’s sharing.

Another rumble goes through the walls, and Glen curses. “You keep going this way, I’ll run that way, we’ll call out if we find stairs, okay?”

Maria gives a distracted nod, unsure of why Lizzy wants her to save someone other than herself, and starts running through the outer halls, pausing to open every door she comes across. There are portions of the wall that have collapsed inward, requiring her to slow down and navigate through the piles of rubble while constantly aware that she’s moving further away from the direction Lizzy (assuming it is Lizzy) wants her to go in.

“I know,” she mutters as the presence in her head sends another pulse of insistence and fear through her thoughts. “I’m trying…”

There’s a sudden surge of horror-fear-despair and then the presence retreats for a moment. Maria stops running, trying to sort through what she felt, assuring herself that Lizzy can’t be dead, that she’s not too late. “Come back,” she whispers as tears burn her eyes, and in that moment she wishes for the soft couches, the clean linen, the general, unacknowledged safety of a world where nothing bad could happen and nothing she did mattered.

She starts running again, and within a minute finds another stairway behind a door that looks like any of the others. “Glen!” she yells, so loud it feels like something tears in her throat, and hears “Coming!” before she can draw another full breath. A moment later he’s in sight, and she’s racing down the stairs ahead of him.

“MG!” She hears him leaping down the stairs behind her to catch up. “What’s wrong?”

Before she can answer she feels the other mind with hers again, and lets out a sound of relief that feels like a sob. “It’s Lizzy, I thought she…”

She stops in confusion as the mental sense starts directing her somewhere again, still full of fear and a sense of urgency… but the direction she feels her attention being tugged in is different from before. “The direction changed?”

“Where is she now?”

“It’s not her, I don’t think…” Maria sees Glen’s confusion but ignores it, paying attention to where they are. This floor looks like it’s full of more administrative offices. “This way!” she says as she feels the mental tug again, and leads him toward a hallway that runs more or less in the same direction as it, hoping it will lead to a nearby section of the wall.

Glen has stopped questioning her, thankfully, and just follows. They move from one hall to another, skirting around the broken walls and rubble that fills the center of the basement and occasionally hearing muffled, pained voices of people calling out for help. It’s hard to ignore them, but after a moment Maria is sure of what she felt and stops to rest against a wall, panting. “They’re below us.”

“Of course there’s another floor,” Glen mutters, and punches the wall. They can both hear someone nearby, their muffled coughs interspersed with the sound of shifting rubble. “MG, all these people—”

“I know. You do what you can for them. I… can’t explain it, but I just know that Lizzy, or someone, is in danger too, and I have to find them—”

“I get it.” Glen takes a deep breath, then coughs, grimaces, and starts walking again. “Let’s go. If Lizzy can get the lights back on that will help rescue the others faster, but if something happens to her…” He shakes his head. “By Calyrex’s bobbly crown, I hate this feeling. Thought I got over it after the scenario, but there’s more at stake here than a badge.”

Maria can only nod, feeling both glad and like a coward that she’s glad he’s making the call to help her. Her hand against the wall slides down, palm pressed flat against it, and she murmurs an apology to everyone else that might be trapped here, then follows Glen.

They reach the outer halls that wrap around the floor and split up in search of stairs going down again. Maria opens door after door, but this time finds nothing, and when she finds Glen she sees her frustration echoed on his face.

“I know there’s another floor below us,” she says, trying to convince herself as much as him. She can still feel the tug, of attention, distinctly downward… “Maybe the stairway isn’t against one of the walls, maybe it’s… in the middle of the floor somewhere?”

“If it is, I’m not sure how we could reach it through the collapse… and how would Lizzy have done it to get down there in the first place?”

“I don’t know.” MG leans against the wall, feeling overwhelmed by the despair and fear and insistent need to get down to where the next murder is going to happen… murder?

She focuses on the feeling again, eyes closed, and feels the psychic impressions mixing with her own… emergency-danger-pokemon-hurry-victim- searching-KILLINGINTENT… MG’s eyes snap open as she sucks in a shocked breath at the surge of violent focus she felt, for just a moment. She thought a pokemon had gotten in, somehow, but no, this is something more deliberate…

“Okay,” Glen mutters, and starts pacing. “Okay, okay. This is a stupid idea, but…” He moves to a part of the hall where there’s more open space, then unclips his primape’s greatball again and summons it. “Focus Energy,” he commands, and his pokemon begins to take deep breaths, flexing its limbs and rocking back and forth.

“Glen, what are you—”

“Brick Break,” he says, pointing to the ground, and his primeape leaps up and slams its fists into the ground hard enough to send a crack through the tile.

“Oh,” she says, voice small, and steps back.

“Good boy! Focus Energy! Brick Break! Focus Energy! Brick Break! Focus Energy…”

Thud. Thud. Crack. Thud. Crack. CRACK!

“Focus—” The last crack continues into a series of them as the floor buckles. “Return!” Glen yells, and his pokemon is pulled back into its ball as the ground beneath it crashes in pieces to the floor below.

Maria waits to see if more of the ground will collapse, then carefully walks over to the edge of the hole, testing the ground with her foot before settling her weight on it. Hoping an earthquake doesn’t come soon, she quickly checks down the hole and sees that the chunks of floor/ceiling look mostly intact below, and it’s not too far down. She quickly kneels down and begins to shimmy through it.

“MG, wait—”

“No time!” The projected fear is growing, overwhelming her own emotions as she tries to lower herself carefully down. Glen kneels beside her and grabs her arms, then slowly leans forward until he’s lying on his belly and she’s hovering just a few feet above the ground. She looks down and makes sure her feet aren’t above any awkwardly angled pieces that might twist her ankle. “It’s fine, drop me!”

He does, and she does her best to clear the ground as he shimmies down after her. Only then does she take a moment to look around.

The floor seems similar to the others in layout, but the rooms she can see are full of high tech equipment. She only has a moment to wonder what it’s all doing here before the mental sense tugs at her again, and she starts running, Glen close behind. They turn a corner, then run down the hall toward anoth-

STOP

DANGER

POKEMON

DANGER

QUIET

DANGER

Maria gasps and stumbles, and for the second time Glen keeps her from falling as she tries to make sense of the feelings flowing through her.

dangerpokemonquietforwardangerquietquietquietnownownow

“Pokemon,” she whispers, hands moving to her belt. “Quiet, there’s… danger, ahead. Dangerous pokemon.” Her hand skims from one ball to the next as she considers her options… They’re indoors, so no pokemon that need a lot of maneuverability, and no fire pokemon… though on second thought there’s nothing apparently flammable around them…

dangerearthypokemondirtgroundhardround

Maria blinks, and her hand moves to her poliwhirl’s ball. She hears Glen unclip a ball from his belt, and murmurs, “I think it’s a Ground type. Maybe Rock/Ground?”

He doesn’t question her, just reclips his ball and unclips another. They summon their pokemon together, and the flashes chase away the red emergency lights for a moment as her poliwhirl, Slippy, and his gloom, Sweets, are in front of them. Glen puts his facemask on and Maria follows suit as another quake vibrates the walls and ceiling prompting a distant cry of pain that she does her best to ignore. Soon they’re moving quickly forward again, breaths fogging the lower parts of their masks.

They nearly stumble over the body before they see it, chunks of broken wall surrounding what looks like an older man with a pot belly. It’s hard to tell his age because his head has been crushed by a thick shard of stone.

Maria feels the realization of what she’s seeing like a slap directly to the front of her brain, shockwaves propagating through her mind and upending entire substructures of thought and perspective. A new type of life is immediately encoded, one that smells of dust and blood and shit, an anti-life that’s etched in her soul in the shape of a dark maroon R.

The body is next to a hole in the nearby collapsed ceiling, where it was clearly pulled from the way they pulled out the woman upstairs. She can finally understand what Lizzy has been telling her.

“Renegade,” she whispers.

“MG…. we can’t know that for sure, they might have…” Glen stops, and when she looks at him he’s gazing up at the ceiling.

The cracked, but unbroken, ceiling.

“Okay,” he whispers, and raises an arm to wipe the sweat from his face. “Okay. Renegade. What do we do? We need to get help.”

“No time,” she whispers back, fear making her voice shake. “Someone else is about to be killed.”

Glen takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “Then we hurry,” he whispers. “Quietly. Wish I had room in here to bring out my snorlax, but… we have to take whatever it’s using down quickly, then take down the renegade ourselves, together. If we can just get their belt away from them, we can run.”

The thought of physically attacking someone adds a queasy feeling to her stomach, but she nods. Glen suddenly points to some patch of ground and says, “Sleep Powder.” His gloom sprays the area with spores, and he steps forward and carefully scoops some of it up into one palm before he starts walking forward.

Their steps are quick and quiet, and Maria does her best to keep her attention on the emotional impressions guiding her as her own fear threatens to blot them out. The urgency in the psychic message is increasing, and eventually they hear something just around the corner… something that sounds like digging.

waitwaitwait

Maria stops and holds a hand out to keep Glen from moving forward as she closes her eyes, focusing on the mental impressions.

waitwaitwaitprepareprepareprepare

“Get ready,” she whispers as the digging gets louder, and then with a final crackle and snapping of stone and plywood…

preparepreparePREPARE

“Hey lady, can you hear me?”

Maria jumps at the sudden voice, adult and authoritative, from just around the corner.

“Yes,” comes a breathless response. “Thank you… I thought I was… going to die…”

The man doesn’t say anything else, and Maria feels the tension building in her… what if she was wrong, what if—

There’s a snapping sound, and the emotions flood through her in a torrent.

ATTACKDANGERATTACKNOWATTACK

“Ahhhh!” she cries out, in shock and anger not her own, anger sent by Lizzy along with a mix of desperate fear and concern, and Maria dashes around the corner and yells, “Snipe! Snipe! Snipe!”

Slippy came with her and immediately begins to shoot bubblebeams out, the sharp hiss and rapid pops filling the hall as each shot nails a golem that has its back turned on them. The golem had a chunk of rubble in its hand, which falls to the ground as it staggers against the wall, stony hide mottling as it’s sprayed with water.

The man beside it whirls around, staring in shock, and Glen is already rushing forward, flinging the spores at his face.

The man ducks the attack and kicks straight outward hard enough to send Glen flying back into the opposite wall, then unclips and points a greatball all in the same motion, before Maria can do more than take a hesitant step forward. Out pops a luxray, who glows with electricity and dashes forward at another snapped command—

“Nap!” Glen yells in a choked voice, and a cloud of sleep powder bursts from Sweets. The luxray blows through it and collides with Slippy before collapsing into a heap, and her pokemon’s body jolts back and hits the wall, electricity arcing through its twitching limbs.

Before she can rush to heal her poliwhirl the man is already summoning another pokemon, and her hand flies to her belt instead as she tries to calm herself, to focus. This is just a pokemon battle. It’s against a renegade, in an underground lab, during a series of earthquakes, but it’s just a pokemon battle like any other.

Or so she thinks, until the renegade’s magmar materializes and, with a snap of its master’s fingers, sends a stream of fire at them.

“Dodge!” Glen yells as she ducks and scrambles to the side, the intense heat burning her skin. Sweets is too slow, and by the time Glen finishes rolling to smother the flames on his clothing and turns to withdraw his pokemon it looks like a lump of charcoal, the bittersweet smell of cooked gloom filling the hall.

fearregretfear

It comes through the psychic link, mirrors to her own feelings beneath the shock, and Maria struggles to think of what she can summon against a magmar… they came from Erika’s gym, neither of them have any Rock or Ground or Water pokemon besides her poliwhirl, which she brought for the surprise Ice Beam potential…

The glow of the approaching magmar grows, and she scrambles back and pulls a ball at random from her belt. When she throws, it turns out to be the newly acquired vulpix she hasn’t even had the chance to name. It won’t be able to do much against the magmar, but perhaps if Glen brings out his own, then together they could…

When the magmar turns the corner, it’s followed by the golem, its injuries mostly healed, and in that moment Maria realizes she’s going to die, just like Aiko. She’s often wondered what drove the other girl so hard to leave her own home, if she’d had her own girl with bright pink hair, dancing through a rainy city like it belonged to her.

As the two pokemon face them, Maria wishes for the last time that she’d had the chance to meet her, and ask.

horrordenialanger

D-E-T-E-R-M-I-N-A-T-I-O-N

Her paralysis breaks, and she dives out of the way of the double attack, barely avoiding Glen as he does the same. When she finishes rolling and checks to make sure she’s not on fire, she looks up expecting to see her vulpix crushed by the golem’s rocks… but instead it’s just gone.

So is the feel of Lizzy’s mind and emotions.

And…

The renegade is screaming, horrible high pitched sounds of pain as light bursts from around the corner.

Maria stares in shock as the two pokemon turn toward their master, still trying to process what’s happening before she realizes this is her chance.

Normally, capturing another trainer’s pokemon rather than using the trading deprogramming would be a massive breach of League guidelines, as it does terrible damage to the pokemon’s psychology with effects that are often permanent. In this case, given that the trainer in question is a renegade and the pokemon are trained to murder people, she’s not particularly worried about sanctions.

Instead of unclipping one of her pokemon, she feels through her beltpouch for a greatball and ultraball, then enlarges one in each hand as she scrambles forward, aims, locks on, and throws both. They connect just as the pokemon rush around the corner, sucking them inside.

Maria lets out a breath and turns to Glen to make sure he’s okay… and feels her heart stutter in her chest.

He’s lying still, a pool of blood spreading from his head. The chunk of rock that the golem hurled at them is lying a few feet away, its edge stained red.

A flash of wilted grass, a pond, dark with blood…

“No,” she gasps as she stumbles forward and unclips the potion from her waist. “Glen, no, wake up,” light, she needs light to see what she’s doing as she sprays the potion, it’s hard to make out where the wound is in the red emergency lights…

A moment later they shut off, and she nearly screams in fear and frustration before the building’s regular lights come on, blindingly bright after the red gloom that she feels she’s been in for hours. She rapidly blinks, then takes a closer look at Glen’s head. His red hair is matted with blood, and she carefully brushes it aside to find the gash beneath it, some of his scalp coming up as fresh blood leaks out. She nearly gags, at both the coppery smell and the sight of bone beneath, but even as tears fracture her vision she sprays the potion over the wound and wipes her eyes until she can confirm that it’s closing.

She sobs in relief, fingers quickly searching for his pulse. Thready, too slow, but there. “You’re okay, Glen, just rest,” she whispers, unsure if he’s conscious. “I”m sorry, I froze up, I should have…” She remembers the renegade, then, and her head whips back toward the empty intersection.

The screaming has stopped.

And her vulpix has returned, its tails wagging as it approaches her. For a moment she stops worrying about Glen and wonders how it got past the two pokemon in the first place… and then she smells something different than the lingering scent of the cooked gloom.

Something like cooking meat.

Feeling like she’s in a dream, Maria slowly gets up and walks around the corner to stare at the horrible sight before her; first the woman she’d failed to save, whose head must have been crushed by the golem before it was sent after them, then the man her vulpix had killed, clothes still smoldering around his burnt body. There’s a potion bottle and a pokeball on the ground beside him, and his face is unrecognizable.

Maria feels her gorge rise, and turns away to throw up against the wall before she forces herself to return to Glen through the fog of disgust and confusion and fear, because right now Glen needs her, and she needs him, needs the distraction from the worry that she’s going to be branded a Renegade, or that her pokemon will be taken and killed for attacking a human.

She returns Slippy and her vulpix to their balls on the way, not even checking to see if her poliwhirl is alive before she unpacks her first-aid kit and cleans the blood from Glen’s hair and neck as best she can while checking him over for any other injuries. She treats some burns and removes his mask to check his pupils, which is when she notices fluid leaking from his ear.

Concussion, severe. She needs to get him to a hospital, but she can’t move him on her own, let alone get him up the stairs…

She has to treat him here. Her hands shake as she takes out her phone and opens the first-aid app, then navigates to the right condition and follows its guidelines, finding the proper nasal spray in her kit. A sudden quake nearly makes her drop it, and she waits for the shaking to end before she gently sticks the long nozzle up his nostrils one at time, triggering it with each of his breaths until the small bottle is empty.

Maria hears other noises through the building, the sounds of rubble shifting, of voices through the walls, of running steps. She ignores it all, focusing on one step after another to do whatever she can for Glen, until—

“MG! Glen!”

She looks up and sees… Lizzy, rushing over to check their friend, face horrified. “Is all this blood his? Is he okay?”

“I-I think he’s stable, I don’t know w-what else to do…”

Lizzy wraps her arms around MG in a tight hug. “Thank Arceus, MG, I thought I was too late. How did you do all that, anyway?”

“Do what?”

“Guide me to you!”

Maria blinks, then blinks again, feeling slow. “I didn’t… you were the one guiding me. Weren’t you?”

Lizzy frowns at her in confusion. “Me? I’m not psychic, I’ve been in the maintenance area trying to get the power back on, but there was a renegade there, she tried to kill me… it wasn’t you?”

What wasn’t me?”

“There was something in my head, like my attention kept being forced elsewhere. It saved me from being taken by surprise, and then led me down here to you…”

“It wasn’t me. I felt something similar… I thought it was you.”

“What? Why?”

“It was… it felt like you, a little, and…” She shakes her head. Why had she been so convinced it was Lizzy? Because she couldn’t think of anyone else it might be?

She turns back to Glen, whose breathing and pulse are steady, at least, and who doesn’t seem to be showing any new signs of worsening injury. He still won’t wake up, however. “What do we do now?”

“Now we get him out of here…” She looks around. “You came in through the hole in the ceiling back there?”

“Glen made it.”

“Well, there has to be another way up. I’m going to go find it, you stay with him.”

Maria almost tells her not to leave, almost mentions the dead renegade around the corner… Lizzy said she encountered one too, how did that end? But getting help for Glen is more important so she just nods, and hugs her friend before she dashes off. MG takes Glen’s hand in hers as she sits with him, and tries to contact whoever was sending her the mental impressions before.

Eventually she feels their mind touch hers again, and can’t help the flood of curiosity that fills her. In response, she feels relief that she’s okay, and guilt, and… reassurance, somehow, that everything will be alright. It feels particularly directed at her confusion and guilt over what happened to the Renegade.

She wraps the feeling around herself like a blanket as she squeezes Glen’s hand, hoping that the person is right, whoever they are.

“My name is Maria,” she whispers, and closes her eyes as another quake vibrates through the floor and walls.


Steven was never much for spirituality, or belief in Fate, or the unseen guidance of great powers. He hasn’t had strong opinions against them either, he just never saw much reason to think that anything that happened wasn’t the result of chance; sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes coincidental, but often random.

Today has certainly been a day to test that ambivalence, but it wasn’t until his pokemon began to glow, began to evolve into entirely new forms, that he felt like his life was not his own. That he felt like a character in a movie, where some writer put otherwise innocuous things into his backstory that somehow became relevant at this, the most important day in his life.

It should get easier to wrap his mind around yet another thing he thought he understood about the world turning out to be wrong, but somehow his final-stage pokemon evolving has been the hardest to. Probably because it seems directly related to him. He imagines the two teenagers riding around on Latias and Latios feel the same.

A fourth form, he marvels for the tenth time at least as his aggron(?) thunders forward and slams its horns into Groudon’s stomach, along with a new, sharp fin that’s grown between them. The legendary earth god is nearly twice his aggron’s size, but still struggles to shove Steven’s pokemon away, particularly since his metagross(?) is climbing its body at the same time, clawed arms digging into its ruby scales. Two pokemon, each with a fourth form.

All his life he’s heard people in both academic and casual contexts debate what was so special about the number three, that no pokemon has ever been found to have had more consecutive forms. Some pokemon, like eevee, have far more than three total possible evolutions, and others like wurmple have multiple different branching paths, but none ever goes through a permanent change more than twice in its lifetime. Even pokemon that have multiple different forms that they change between, don’t evolve into those forms, and what he witnessed looked like evolution, shining glow and all.

The massive increase in strength and endurance that his pokemon are showing back that impression up. Even with the careful training and conditioning he gave his pokemon to help them against their weaknesses, they should have already fallen against a monster as powerful as Groudon. A few hits was the most he could have hoped for, something that would buy everyone else some time to attack… but of all the pokemon on the field, his are the only two that have taken more than that and are still fighting it. As long as he keeps them avoiding any of Groudon’s fire attacks, everything else is healable.

If this were a movie, that would be enough. His pokemon would have revealed their newfound, unearned power by some coincidence between the stones on his rings and the red orb, and he would be the hero who saved the day.

Unfortunately, as surreal as the day has been, reality can never be that simple. While Groudon seems to have stopped growing as soon as the red orb was destroyed, it also seems to have grown strong enough to be nearly impervious to their attacks.

And not just his pokemon’s attacks, but everything the collective leaders, elites, rangers, and renegades can throw at it. Meanwhile its attacks are as devastating to them as he feared; in just five minutes they’ve lost dozens of pokemon and a quarter of their trainers, and no amount of coordination seems to help. Whether by spikes of rock impaling people and pokemon from below, or sudden rising magma, or its oppressively fast beam attack, Groudon’s coverage is just too good to defend against.

It’s chilling to realize that, if it weren’t for Latios and Latias flying around its head and blasting it with a mix of dragon and psychic attacks, as well as psychics like Sabrina, Will, and Lucian using their pokemon to constantly confuse and disorient it, Groudon would have already laid waste to the lot of them. His pokemon can take a beating, but he’s running through potions quickly, and the living legend seems nowhere near its limit.

And as if all that’s not bad enough, it’s getting hotter.

Initially, Steven felt hope upon arriving and realizing Groudon wasn’t emitting any Pressure. After maybe half an hour in its presence, he’s starting to wish it was, compared to the alternative. The sunlight has become so hot that a few of them went down to heatstroke before the rest realized the danger. Now they’re doing their best to stay hydrated while they fight, the heat evaporating the sweat straight off their burned skin.

His aggron and metagross (or whatever they are now) don’t seem to be affected, thankfully, but any water pokemon they try fighting with seems to fare the worst, which is a crippling loss considering how water attacks might actually hurt it more than anything else they’ve tried. Professor Oak’s blastoise used a Hydro Pump that looked more like a Water Gun, but the streams just boiled into steam when they got close to Groudon, which is just an absurd defensive power for something that’s already stacked with advantages.

All things considered, Steven’s coming to the conclusion that they may have backed the wrong horse after all.

Still, his heartbeat is slow and steady, his thoughts clear as he considers whether sounding a retreat would be justified. It’s possible Groudon will start to shrink again without the red orb, but there’s no telling how long that would take, and while defeating Kyogre has caused the storm to slowly start clearing, there’s also no telling what Groudon would do without the other legendary to keep it distracted. If they give up now it might cause some further calamity, like raise a volcano up from under Sootopolis.

And so Steven fights on, keeping tabs on how many trainers are still battling to ensure they don’t overcommit without some sign that Groudon is weakening. Hyper Beams from Lance’s dragonites fail to blast it to pieces, Cynthia’s garchomp’s claws just crack its scales rather than tear out bloody chunks of flesh, and even status moves don’t seem to do much. It burned away seeds and powders sent by Professor Oak’s venusaur before killing it with a blast of fire, which led to the older man taking a minute to pull out a storage ball, from which emerged a metal cone with a miniature hot-air balloon and a propeller attached.

Steven watches in amused fascination as the Professor sticks a jigglypuff into it, then sends the contraption up and toward Groudon (its occupant presumably singing at some point that Steven can’t hear thanks to the cone, or perhaps the rumbling earth, crashing waves, and other sounds of battle) only to be blasted out of the air without any apparent effect by an Omega Beam (he’s mostly settled on that as the name, it has a nice ring to it).

“It doesn’t have any ears!” he yells to Sam.

“Looks subterranean, likely relies more on vibrations,” Sam acknowledges as he unclips another ball and throws it. “But had to try!”

Steven nods and directs his metagross to aim for its eyes in case they can blind it, thinking all the while of how quickly they could fill some giant sacks with sleep powder and dump them over it from a direction it can’t see coming. Subterranean or not, it still has to breathe at some point, right? Though even if they got it to sleep, it’s so absurdly tough that they might not be able to kill it before it wakes…

At first the sound of thunder is lost in the general cacophany, the crack of earth and roars of pain or anger, but after a moment Steven realizes the thunder isn’t fading, and also that there hasn’t been any up until now. In fact the sound isn’t like thunder at all, but rather a series of echoing staccato booms, and Steven dares to tear his gaze from Groudon and looks up to see—

A ribbon of green against the sky, a flashing emerald serpent that undulates through the air as if it were water. It darts back and forth so fast that it’s like he’s watching some sped up video footage, a white cone of compressed air flaring around it every few seconds. There’s an expanding stretch of blue in the direction the dragon arrived from, the rain clouds having dispersed in its wake like smoke blown away by the breath of a giant.

Or a god.

SKREEeeerrAAAOOUrrooouu!

Rayquaza’s shriek seems to split the sky, an aural assault that freezes everyone in place, even Groudon. A number of pokemon immediately abandon their attacks and rush back to their trainer, instincts and training kicking in to defend them against the new threat.

After a moment Groudon rears its head up to roar back at the sky god, the golden light between its scales flaring so bright that Steven instinctively shields his eyes.

Finally, a “surprise” that he can wrap his mind around. He half expected the third of the weather myths would show up at some point, because why not? The prediction was vague and fatalistic in a way that didn’t lead him to any particular action because there wasn’t much in the way of spare resources for yet another potential region-destroying threat, but seeing it, hearing its shriek reverberate through the air, spreads real dread through him, so novel that for a moment he actually appreciates the sensation, the way the emotion seems to submerge him in itself and numb out everything else. He hears sounds of shock and horror from the others, and feels a moment of rare kinship with them.

Then the appreciation fades, distant and fleeting as most other emotions, and all that’s left is resignation. The myths… no, the legends portrayed Rayquaza as the strongest of the trio, the god assigned to rule above both Groudon and Kyogre’s domains. He can hope that part confused reality and metaphor, but even if it’s just as strong as the other two… as things stand, the island’s best can barely hold their own against a Groudon weakened by its fight with Kyogre. If a fresh god joins the battle, even if it’s to fight Groudon, he doubts they would fare better even if they repeat their last play of helping it only to turn on it after. Hell, from type interactions alone he doubts Rayquaza would even need their help to defeat Groudon.

The defeatism stirs something stubborn in him, and he chides himself for being stupid. Their best bet in that case would be to help Groudon once again, work all together to take down Rayquaza and hope that Groudon would finally be weakened enough by the end to be defeated…

Rayquaza lets out another shriek as it continues to dart around in the sky, and Steven wonders what it’s doing as he prepares to give the orders… but instead of flying down, it does one more series of twisting contortions in the air, then flies up and away, into the too-bright sky that Groudon created above them.

For the first time in what feels like hours, there’s a moment of blessed near-silence. No earth rumbles, no battling pokemon. Just the sea crashing distantly into the newly created coast, and the distant boom of the divine dragon achieving supersonic flight.

Distantly, Steven hears someone say, “Where’s it going?”

Their baffled, almost plaintive tone draws a weary smile from him; he can’t blame them for hoping for a savior at a time like this. He turns back to Groudon, preparing for the fight to restart… but Groudon is still staring after Rayquaza, its ruby body pulsing with golden light.

This is our chance. Steven looks behind him and takes in the sight of the others’ burnt skin and swaying stances, and quickly barks, “Recoup! Champs, on me!”

He leads by example, taking out a couple burn potions and spraying them over his exposed skin before attending to his pokemon. It’s hard not to marvel at them, up close; he wishes he had an hour to examine their every change, like the way his metagross has continued the pattern of its previous evolutions and doubled its limbs again, or the way his aggron’s metal shell has spread to completely cover the stony portions of its body…

“The most fascinating part is the mass they’ve gained,” Professor Oak says as he steps up beside Steven. His voice is calm, but his eyes are alive with a burning fascination, and Steven nods. Normally a pokemon would grow before they evolve, but in this case the fourth evolutionary stages have broken that pattern.

“Like Groudon and Kyogre’s changes,” Cynthia remarks as she approaches, and a moment later Lance is beside her.

“Theorize later, battle now,” the Indigo Champion says, giving Steven’s newly evolved pokemon a perfunctory glance before looking back at Groudon. Its ruby and gold body is slowly slumping forward onto all fours, then onto its belly as its eyes close. “Or… maybe not. It looks like it’s taking a nap.”

“Maybe Rayquaza scared it back into hibernation. It was said to be able to get the other two to stop fighting, wasn’t it?”

“Fuck,” Steven hears someone say, then realizes it was Professor Oak. He doesn’t think he’s ever heard the genial older man curse before. “It’s not napping, it’s Resting!

Fuck, Steven thinks as he watches a cracked scale fall from the legendary pokemon’s body, a healthy one revealed in its place.

“We need to hit it now,” Lance says. “All together.”

“No,” Cynthia says. “If we fail to bring it down we’ll just be back where we were before. Brute force didn’t work, we need a plan, some way to trap or limit it.”

“Can it swim?” Professor Oak asks. “If we can knock it into the ocean… no, it would just raise more earth beneath it. If we reduce its mass enough…” Professor Oak hesitates. “Cut off its tail, maybe, and it could fit in a Heavy Ball. It’s about twice the size of Aoesis, but likely not as dense.”

The giant onix Brock has, Steven remembers, is near the limits of what any pokeball can hold; if it ever evolved into a steelix, it would be uncontainable. “It could work, if we could reliably cut through its scales… but even before this new evolution Argenta could shatter rocks, and now she’s just cracking the damn thing’s scales.” Technically metagross are genderless, but ever since he first caught his rare silver and gold beldum she’s given him the impression of a rather glamorous lady, even when tearing mercilessly into her enemies.

“Reign hasn’t been making much of a dent either,” Cynthia says as she finishes healing her garchomp. “Anyone here bring an aegislash?” She glances at Lance. “Or…”

The dragon master nods, hands quickly moving to return one of his dragonite to its ball before he summons his haxorus. “Worth a shot, but Sever is a sweeper. May not be able to take more than a hit, so if it fully wakes up before this works, we’ll need a backup plan.”

“Get it into the air!” They all look up to see the Eon Duo hovering above them, Professor Birch and Leader Norman’s kids leaning over the sides of their mounts. Steven wonders how long they’ve been there. “Drag it high enough and drop it,” May continues, hands cupped around her mouth. “Should break some bones at least!”

Professor Oak is rubbing his jaw as he looks back at Groudon. “Probably weighs a ton, but that just means we don’t have to raise it high to do real damage.”

“Can they do it?” Steven yells back, pointing at the legends they’re riding and shoving down all the questions he has about where they found them, and how they’re riding them without saddles.

The two look at each other, then their pokemon. Their pokemon… The thought has implications, and he shoves those aside too. Trainers wanting to capture legendary pokemon is what started this mess… according to Matsubusa, Groudon seemed tamed at first too. Would these two turn on them soon as well? It’s been that kind of day, but for now they’re too powerful a resource to not use.

“I think so!” Brendon yells. “But not for long! Better with help!”

“Okay, we’ve got a Plan A and Plan B,” Steven says as he looks around at the other trainers, who seem to have mostly finished healing themselves and their pokemon. A lot are just drinking water and checking others who went down during the fight. “Spread the word to the others, anyone with pokemon who know Sky Drop are to use it on Groudon on our mark. We’ll try cutting its tail off first.”

They nod and fly off, and Steven suddenly realizes that when he was looking at them he was looking at the sky without squinting. That leads to him noticing how, even beyond the healing from the potions he sprayed over his skin, the oppressive heat from before isn’t bothering him as much. He wonders if it’s because the sun is finally starting to set, but no, that’s still a while away… maybe it’s because Groudon is asleep?

If so he’s going to regret waking it up so soon, but they can’t let it fully recover itself, nice as it’s been not to have fresh earthquakes knocking him off balance every few seconds. Maybe water pokemon would able to be used now… Mark that as Plan C.

Cynthia and Lance set themselves and their pokemon up on either side of the sleeping legend, keeping as distant as they can while still guiding their pokemon with maximum precision on either side of Groudon’s spiked tail. Meanwhile a handful of Leaders, rangers, and other trainers approach, each with large Flying pokemon out. Steven makes sure everyone is in position, then raises his hands above his head, fingers extended. Starting with his right pinky he lowers them one at a time, counting down. Nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three…

There’s absolutely no warning.

Faster than sound itself, a blur of green and gold and black fills Steven’s vision, and then the shockwave hits in a clap so loud it’s like a pair of spikes are driven into his ears. He barely hears his own cry of pain through the ringing that follows, and realizes he’s on his hands and knees when water crashes down on him, adding another layer of disorientation. He  struggles to open eyes blurry with sea salt and tears of pain, and when he finally blinks them clear and looks up…

Groudon is gone.

He squints at the empty area where the earth god used to be, then looks around and distantly spots the tail end of a long, split wave that Rayquaza kicks up in its wake as it flies above the ocean. Its long emerald body suddenly rises up into the air, and even from this distance Steven can see that it’s bigger than before, its body more segmented and its head shaped like a wedge. As he watches it ascend into the sky he sees threads of gold light trailing around it, their color reminding him of the glow that came from within Groudon and Kyogre.

It rises high into the sky before a red shape detaches from it, and Steven watches in numb disbelief as Groudon plummets back to earth. If he could hear anything besides a distant ringing, perhaps he would hear it roar, or Rayquaza’s shriek of victory. Instead he watches in near silence as the legendary pokemon falls, twinkling like a ruby in the sunlight, until it touches the horizon.

Did we win? Steven vaguely wonders as the disorientation hits again, making him heave as he tries to stand. He looks around and realizes that he can’t see Cynthia or Lance. Something wet hits his ear, and he jerks away before he realizes it’s Professor Oak with a potion bottle in his hand.

Wah uou eea ee? EeeEh? “

Steven shakes his head and unclips his own potion bottle for his other ear, having to spray three times before he hits it, then hurries as best he can on unsteady legs to the “shore” of Groudon’s fake beachhead…

Cynthia is there. The words seem to appear straight into his mind, and he looks around and sees Sabrina beside him, pointing down into the water. Before Steven can react Latios is hovering over the ocean while Brendan dives in. He surfaces shortly after with an arm around Cynthia’s limp figure, and the legendary dragon psychically lifts them both out of the water and onto the land. Sabrina has already rushed to another part of the shore, and a few moments later May is pulling Lance out of the water.

He looks back up at where Rayquaza went, and sees nothing. The sky is clear in nearly every direction now, and the setting sun is warm rather than harsh. It’s possible the third weather god will come back and attack, or wreak havoc elsewhere, but for now Steven lets himself sit on the rough ground and just breathe, eyes closed.

His body is still shaking, heart beating so fast and hard that it feels like it’s interfering with his breaths. He wonders if this is how others feel, at times like this. He wonders how long it will last. Assuming it’s all over, they still have to tally the dead and start repairing all the damage done across the island. The thought of facing all that without his usual calm makes the shaking worse, for a moment.

After all that is done, it may be time to take a break from the whole “Champion” thing, for a bit.

It’s been a hell of a day.


David Shaw walks with his eyes on the experiment, hands never leaving his pokebelt as he stays eight meters behind his charge at all times. Ultraball range is a little under ten, but the rain is heavy enough that he assumes a couple meters of lost efficacy to be safe. Scarlet prowls at his side, the weavile’s red feathers and gold gem the only parts of her that are clearly visible in the dim light.

They’ve already circled the manor twice now, walking slow and steady at the edge of the plateau it’s situated on. He brought his five top security trainers with him, leaving the rest to ensure the safety of the others in case wild pokemon attack the mansion. Or in case the experiment makes them. Or makes the normals start attacking each other. Or something.

Paranoia is more than a job description; it’s a sacred trust. A trust put in him by Giovanni himself, a trust with the fate of the human species potentially on the line.

He knows Dr. Light’s priority is opposed to his, but that doesn’t make them enemies; they’re just trying to save humanity from different angles. He from the godling she and the other scientists created, she from the gods it’s meant to fight.

But paranoia has to be a tool, deliberately used, a lens that can be swapped on and off. He was a police officer in his past life, spent every week talking to and investigating people who might have been guilty as sin, even as they wept like babies over whatever situation they found themselves in. There was a trick to it, a way to split your mind into two tracks; one in which every word, every expression, was genuine, and one where they were at least partially calculated to get you to feel a certain way.

It wasn’t about guilt or innocence. That wasn’t his job. He understood that an innocent person could be calm or angry. That a guilty one could be genuinely tormented by what they’d done, or the consequences they’d face if convicted. His job was simply to get to the truth.

Sometimes that meant bullying someone, whether calm or in tears, until something useful shook loose. Innocent people can still have plenty to hide, or be protecting the guilty, or have useful knowledge without even knowing it. Other times it meant acting friendly, understanding, sympathetic. It’s not hard; he’s never had trouble pitying even the worst offenders. Sometimes especially the worst ones… how fucked up must it be, to live in the kind of brain that could do such things? In those cases, the “Good Cop” routine is a mercy of sorts… the last friendly face and sympathetic ear such people are likely to ever have outside of prison.

For the past decade, however, he’s been a perpetual Good Cop, at least around the experiment. That’s the fiction they’ve had to sell it, that they all believe its good intentions, and that he and his people are its protection against others, Dark so that they could avoid influence or subversion by anyone who tries to do it harm. And it’s not even a lie, really. Just a part of the truth.

He doesn’t know if Mewtwo really believes it. Sabrina says it used to be more suspicious until it was finally let out of the tube, and that it’s only grown more trusting since.

But still, he feels the two tracks in his head. Weighing every word, every movement, through the lens of honesty or manipulation, and acting on the former until he has evidence of the latter. He often wonders why other people don’t seem to be able to do the same, to consider both possibilities while still reserving judgement, but it’s clear that they don’t, and he doesn’t look down on them for it. Clearly he’s the weird one.

Nearly an hour after they got out of the lab, Shaw starts to realize the rain feels lighter. At first he thinks it’s his imagination, but after a minute he notices that it’s easier to make out the two figures of his charge and his boss, and easier to hear what they’re saying rather than just a random word here and there.

“-going to die?”

“There are a lot of different customs,” Dr. Light says as she walks slowly beside the experiment. Normally its strides are hard for a human to comfortably keep up with, but today it ambles, as if worried that moving too quickly will reduce the time it has left. Which it wouldn’t; Shaw has kept informed of all its suit’s specs, and remembers the debate over how many artificial limitations to put on it. One based on exertion was deemed too inhibiting and would add too much uncertainty. “Some try to experience things they’ve always wanted to but never had the chance. Others do their best to put their affairs in order, for those they leave behind. Most try to accomplish both, I imagine, as much as they reasonably can.”

“I see. I don’t suppose there’s much in the way of either that applies to me.”

Dr. Light stays silent. He’s not sure how long the experiment’s been talking about its own death as if it’s a given, or how the director feels about it. It’s easy to admire noble stoicism in someone’s final hours, but Shaw has spoken at length with Sabrina, who convinced him that whatever Mewtwo is, it feels things as much as any human does. Shaw doesn’t know many humans who would take their impending end this well, if they truly believed it was coming… but maybe more would if they had a long time to see it coming, which he has to admit that Mewtwo might have. It can’t have been easy living a life that’s always been a few technical mishaps away from sudden, painful death.

“What will happen to my body?” Mewtwo continues after a minute. The artificial voice is neutral without being flat, and Shaw wishes for the hundredth time that Sabrina were here to give some indication of its feelings. He’s tempted to push for another psychic to mentally connect to it, maybe under the cover of wanting to make sure it’s not lonely or something, just to get a peek at what it’s really feeling… “Will it be buried?”

“If you’d like,” Dr. Light says, the words coming out slow and measured. “We could also cremate you, if you prefer. Some enjoy the thought of their ashes being spread in a particular place, or over a wide range of places.”

“But first you would perform an autopsy.”

Shaw feels a ping of worry, though he’s not sure why, and hears Dr. Light’s brief hesitation. “Yes.”

“To help the others?”

Trap, Shaw thinks, but Dr. Light is just frowning. “Others?”

“The others, like me.”

“There are no others like you, Mewtwo. There never have been.” The lie is delivered flawlessly, likely because of the way she framed it. Not for the first time tonight, Shaw wonders how the other labs are faring in this mess.

“I meant those that will come, after. You won’t give up on the project, surely?”

“Ah, no, of course not.” She brushes wet hair from her face. “We don’t have to talk about this, if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“It does not. But it bothers you?”

“It’s sad, thinking that you may die soon. For many reasons. And it’s—oh!”

Shaw’s head snaps around, adrenaline flooding his body, and sees that Mewtwo has come to an abrupt stop, body facing the eastern cliff so that its tail caught the director in the stomach as she kept stepping forward. “I’m sorry, Dr. Light,” the experiment says, curling its tail away as it turns to her. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, fine. It didn’t hurt, just startled me.” She glances at Shaw as she says it, no doubt telling him to relax. His pulse is still racing as he watches her rub her stomach and go to stand beside Mewtwo, who turns back to look out at the dark ocean. Shaw makes a subtle sign that his people probably won’t see in the rain, but that he knows Scarlet will, and they’ll see what she does and know what it means. A moment later she’s prowling closer to the experiment, her paws utterly silent on the wet grass as she stops close enough to be able to strike it on a moment’s notice. All around him his people and their pokemon go on higher alert, though without any obvious signs.

Mewtwo continues facing the ocean. “I’m glad. You were saying?”

“Hm? Ah, yes, that… well, it’s hard not to think of it being difficult, for you. If I’m mistaken in that, I can bear the discomfort.”

There’s a pause, and then… “It is difficult. I wish to do something of use, for my life to mean something by my choices, not just my existence. I feel regret, that I have not. And I wish to experience many more things. To swim. To fly. To see the world. Experience a city, or a forest. Snow. We’re just a few months away from it, aren’t we?”

“Yes.” Dr. Light rubs at her face. “I’m sorry, that we couldn’t give you more of… all that. Of life.”

“I understand.”

Shaw finally looks away from them, uneasy and tense. Maybe it was a distraction from something else the experiment did? Everyone around the mansion seems to be fine, and the woman he put on monitoring the area’s seismic activity seems calm, which he takes to mean there isn’t an army of subterranean pokemon approaching them, nor a steady weakening of the mountain to cause a landslide…

Shaw realizes the sky is growing lighter as well, and looks up to see the stormclouds are dispersing. The sun is just beginning to set, painting the edges of the clouds to the west with gold and pink. It’s a beautiful sight, and as he takes the moment to admire it he realizes he can’t remember how long ago the last earthquake was.

“I would like to try flying again,” Mewtwo says, causing Shaw to turn back to it.

“What, now?” Dr. Light sounds uncertain. “In these conditions? Your last test didn’t go well…” By Shaw’s recollection that would be the time it had tried to fly over the manor and had suffered intense vertigo before it even cleared the roof, which was a big relief to him and his people.

“Yes, it was quite unpleasant. But still, there was a freedom in it. As a thing I wish I could have done more of, it’s near the top.”

The director is silent, and Shaw feels obliged to step in. “I don’t think it would be a good idea, Mewtwo. It’s still dark even with the clouds clearing up a little, and will be getting darker as the sun continues to set. The ground is also slippery. If you come down at an angle, or tumble too far, you might fall off an edge.”

The experiment turns to him, and Scarlet gracefully shifts with it, staying out of its line of sight. “Of course, Mr. Shaw. I would try it near the manor, to reduce the risk that you can’t recover my body for autopsy.”

Shaw stares at the experiment, wondering if that was an attempt at humor, or self-deprecation, or just stoic pragmatism. “Have you really given up on yourself?” he asks, daring for the first time since the experiment became sapient to let himself slip into another mode.

“I do not think it is unreasonable, to believe at this point that my death is more likely than not.”

“So you’ll give up on that chance, however small?”

“Shaw—” Dr. Light begins, but Mewtwo is already responding, the tiny clicks of its helmet’s keyboard slightly audible over the weakened rainfall.

“You would not do similar, when the chance is so low?”

“No, and neither would anyone else I respect.”

“Shaw, that’s enough!”

He doesn’t take his eyes off the experiment’s visor, wishing he could see its expression, limited as it is. Eventually Mewtwo’s head shifts, a deferential lowering.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Shaw. You’re quite right. I didn’t mean to make your job more difficult, and appreciate the effort you and your people spend on my safety.”

It’s so easy to hear sarcasm in its words, bitterness or irony or some hidden message. But it seems so sincere, too, and he knows he could just be projecting. “Not about us,” he grunts after a moment. “It’s also about you. The kind of person you want to be. The stuff we’re asking of you isn’t easy, but if you’re not someone who can fight for a ten percent chance, a five percent chance, even a one percent chance, when it’s either that or death, then you won’t ever be what we need you to be. Hope you can be.”

Dr. Light is still glaring at him, but there’s a puzzled look in her eyes too, and Mewtwo seems to be considering him again. “Thank you, Mr. Shaw. I’ll remember that.”

An ominous feeling creeps up Shaw’s neck, and he itches to slide a hand into his pocket, where his own kill-switch for Mewtwo’s armor is. Each of his people have one, and he trusts any of them to press it if needed.

“Director!” They turn to see one of the engineers running up to them, Gyokusho’s smile obvious as he approaches. “We just got word that Groudon has been defeated, and the seismographs are showing no new quakes throughout the island.”

“Not even aftershocks?”

“No ma’am, nothing. Sabrina also just contacted us, and will be teleporting here shortly.”

Dr. Light’s relief is obvious, and she smiles wide as she looks back in the direction of the mansion, where people are already preparing to dig out the stairwells and regain access to the lab. There’s still a chance that the damage is too severe to get Mewtwo back in its pod in time, but with at least a couple hours of backups for the suit remaining it would take serious damage to the stairs or pod room for the whole lab to be unable to clear and repair it on time.

Shaw feels relieved too, and wonders if he should congratulate the director later on making the right call. The situation was uncertain enough that he doesn’t regret pushing for the decision he did, and he’s uncertain how much of this was good judgement on her part compared to a lucky dice roll; he’s wary of reinforcing the latter in case she ends up overconfident the next time something like this happens.

“Ah,” Mewtwo says, the visor of its helmet reflecting the setting sunlight. “I suppose I was being pessimistic.”

“You weren’t alone,” Dr. Light reassures him, and turns back to Gyokusho just as Mewtwo turns back toward the cliffs, his tail bumping her torso again. “Oh, sor—”

The tail wraps tight, and in the blink of an eye, both Mewtwo and the director are airborne.

Not a single decision is made in the next seconds that pass. Later, Shaw will wonder if he even had any thoughts. He acts instead as a machine executing a program, each of his people moving ways they’d been drilled to with barely a moment’s hesitation.

Scarlet attacks at his command, leaping at the experiment’s retreating figure only to get kicked out of the air by one of its powerful legs just as her claws flash out. Pasha’s greninja is next, having leapt just a moment after Scarlet did, tongue lashing out to wrap around Mewtwo. Dr. Light is in the way, however, and Mewtwo releases her as it plunges down the cliff and out of sight.

Vedant’s hydreigon launches itself after it, Dark energy spewing from its three mouths, and Shaw is running to the edge of the cliff as he simultaneously clicks the kill-switch in his pocket and summons his mandibuzz. “Catch!” he commands, sending his flier out after the plummeting armored figure, and a moment later three other Flying/Dark pokemon dive toward it and the pursuing hydreigon. Shaw releases the kill-switch, which he activated repeatedly already, and brings the whistle at his neck up to his lips, blowing hard to bring the rest of his people running.

Only then does he feel his heart galloping in his chest, feel the energy jumping through his body as he quickly summons his honchkrow and attaches its saddle. Less than thirty seconds later, the rest of the security team has arrived while those already with him mount their own fliers. They take off together, flying out of the dim light of the rain and sunset and diving into the mountain’s shadow.

Chapter 82: Interlude XIV – Titans II

Ramin always considered himself lucky, even supernaturally so, which is why he took it as a form of cosmic irony that he ended up under the Rocket Casino.

First he was lucky in his career; if he’d been born in a region like Kanto, with its extreme response to Renegades, he would likely have been killed when he finally got caught assassinating members of rival tribes. Instead his regional government passed him to their global underworld contacts, and he was offered a very simple choice: death, or oaths of servitude made under the watchful eye of a falgir.

The second stroke of luck came when he was sold across the world to a master who needed more than just disposable warriors. He thought at best he would end up in some barracks, far from society as he awaited a kill-order. Instead, he received training. Not just for killing, both with and without pokemon, but also logistics, first aid, even cultural training to help him better acclimate to his new region.

And finally, after years of serving as a guard at various locations, he was eventually assigned a plum position under a casino in the biggest city in the region.

On paper he’s a guard for the casino’s money, but in fact the floor it’s held is above his, where the administration offices are. That floor itself is below another dedicated to storage and machine repairs; anyone trying to sneak downstairs would be caught and returned to the surface at that floor. It and the one below it were recently searched by the police, who thought the missing Silph tech was there. They didn’t find anything.

They might have if they went down one more floor to where Ramin works.

The secret lab’s electrical draw is hidden in plain sight by the casino’s, and the engineers and scientists who work there come to the casino as employees of it. It’s a convenient cover, as while Ramin’s shifts are still boring guard work, afterward he and the others get to enjoy everything the city has to offer. Well, almost everything; his social life is restricted by necessity, but he enjoys going to the movies and watching local pokemon matches. He’s even ahead in the office’s fantasy league; he drafted one of his countrymen, Reza, and the young dragon master is tearing his way through Victory Road. On most days he can pretend he’s just an overqualified security guard.

Today has not been one of those days.

The earthquake splits the ground like a loaf of bread, and Ramin’s luck stays with him through the collapse of the ceiling; the crack that caused it went through the whole basement of the casino, and his station in the third sublevel is to the side of where the rubble ends up. At first, through the wrenching roar of concrete and metal, Ramin thought the whole casino was coming down on their heads. Dust filled the halls and he felt a chunk of something bounce off his shoulder, but when the shaking ends (for the moment) he’s still alive and unhurt.

“Archer, you there?” he asks after coughing his lungs clear, hand triggering his earphone again and again without response. He switches channels. “Maddie? Roark? Anyone reading this?” He waits another few breaths, but gets only silence. The building’s wireless must have been knocked out.

Still, he can vaguely make out the sound of people moving through the walls, coughing and yelling for help.

Ramin looks around in the emergency lights, then starts moving through the halls. He briefly considers bringing out his machamp to have it smash through a wall, but the building is unstable enough that he doesn’t take the risk.

Instead he finds a spot close to the voices and presses his ear against it, hearing them talk through the drywall.

“Are you okay?”

“I… I don’t think so… my leg… it h-hurts…”

“Oh gods… don’t move, I think it’s broken…”

Ramin steps back, a cold certainty slowly filling him.

Those weren’t voices he recognized. Which means it’s not just the floor above his that crashed down, but floors all the way up to the casino itself.

As if to punctuate the point, the walls and floor vibrate around him again for a few seconds, and once it ends the emergency power comes on… followed by the annoying jangle of slot machines.

Ramin strokes the pokeballs at his waist, deep in thought.

His orders are clear. Anyone who learns of the lab without authorization is to be eliminated.

But the earthquakes add a level of uncertainty; these are random civilians, not spies or investigators. And when rescue operations start, they’ll discover the lab anyway…

Another miniquake sends vibrations through the building, and he steadies himself against the wall, waiting to see if anything else would collapse.

When it doesn’t, he makes his decision and starts moving through the halls to find the survivors, hand settling on his golem’s heavyball. Soon he finds a passage to the other side of the wall where he heard the voices, and he summons his pokemon.

“Shh… do you hear that? It sounded like a pokeball… is someone out there?!”

“Yes,” he calls out. “I’m here. Just stay still, I’ll get you out in a minute.” He turns to his pokemon and gestures. “Dig.”

“Oh, thank the gods,” the other voice says, and he hears quiet weeping as his golem starts to pull chunks of concrete and drywall out of the way. Ramin waits until the hole is big enough, then reaches in to help the people inside come out. Both are covered in dust and blood, one from a gash on her head, the other from a badly broken leg.

“Thank you,” the man whispers between gasps of pained breath as Ramin eases him down on the ground beside the woman. “I thought… I thought we…”

Ramin pulls his hand from the man’s and pats his shoulder. “Just rest. Help is on the way.”

He goes to stand behind both prone figures, then points to both and snaps his fingers.

His golem takes a chunk of concrete in each hand and smashes them down to crush the ribcage of the man and the head of the woman.

The stench of blood is faint under the dust, and Ramin withdraws his pokemon, stomach churning. It’s been years since he’s had to kill anyone. He wishes it had been longer.

It had been nice, pretending to just be a security guard.

But it had to be done. Archer or Giovanni might pull some strings, take control of the situation. They’ve pulled off wonders before, they can do it again. Even if the lower levels are revealed, their purpose could be spun… as long as there aren’t contradicting reports from survivors about what was down here.

Ramin listens as he walks around the rubble at the center of the lab. He hears more voices, and starts searching for the easiest way to reach them to check if they’re Casino employees.

If not, the least he can do for the unfortunate survivors is make their deaths quick. Luck, as he discovered himself years ago, can only take you so far.


The battle against the sea god rages, and the sea rages with it.

Leader Surge watches from above as Groudon continues to strike at Kyogre, assisted from the newly created shore by over two dozen trainers. Their pokemon stand at the edge of the ocean so that whenever Kyogre tries to circle around its nemesis, it would be struck by bolts of lightning, beams of concentrated sunlight, and blasts of draconic energy. The attacks don’t seem to do much, on their own, but neither does Kyogre ignore them entirely, and even a minor flinch is often enough to give Groudon the opportunity to turn and attack it again before it slips away.

Surge’s clothes, instantly soaked upon arriving at his only teleportation point in Hoenn, dry within minutes of flying into the sunlight surrounding the battle. The harsh heat raises a perpetual mist off the ocean around the battling titans, and he’s pretty sure he’s going to have a sunburn by the end of all this. He almost hadn’t made it, the rain growing in intensity until it’s nearly a solid, constant layer of water that pushed him and his swanna down, and he doesn’t think most non-Water/Flying pokemon would be able to even make it over such a long distance. Other Leaders and Elites from around the island have already arrived, but few along the island chain are as focused on Electric or Grass types, which leaves few that can be particularly effective against Kyogre.

Ships would help give him somewhere to land and attack from, but there’s only one that’s arrived through the choppy seas, and it seems to be engaging in combat against something else below the water, the occasional explosion sending sprays of water up through the air.

Normally Surge would have his pokemon summon lightning down on their foe, but with the clouds above cleared away they would have to draw from the much further clouds, and there’s little chance Kyogre would still be where the bolt was aimed by the time it comes. Instead he scans the positions of the trainers as they shift to attack the sea god wherever it appears, trying to spot a fulcrum in the battle.

What they’re lacking is zone control. Kyogre gets beaten away quickly whenever it appears, but then it flees to a safer distance, only reentering the range of the trainers assisting Groudon when forced to by Groudon’s attacks. What he needs to do is limit its mobility, and force it into the attack zones of the other trainers more often.

He sends Cirrus into a dive, landing far from the battle and giving her a moment to rest as he climbs down, stumbling slightly as another tremor sweeps the earth.

The ground is rough under his boots, black and grey and brown rocks that constantly shift under him. His swanna clearly dislikes it, lifting one foot, then the other to get more comfortable, and he takes a moment to calm her, reminding himself to check her feet for cuts once this is all over.

Surge quickly digs through the saddle bag, swapping balls from his belt with those inside it. He brought almost every pokemon he owns, unsure what would be needed and what wouldn’t, and soon has his three magnezone and two magneton clipped to his waist alongside Cirrus’s.

After spraying some Ether into the swanna’s bill, he climbs back into the saddle and takes off, staying low enough to skim the ocean once they’re over it. He waits until they’re far enough to make sure he’s covering an area the other trainers’ pokemon can’t reach, then starts pausing to release his magneton and magnezone in a half-circle around Groudon, giving them orders to stay above the water and attack any pokemon that approach.

Twice he has to dodge massive waves that rise rapidly around him, threatening to slap him down into the ocean. He can’t tell if they’re guided by Kyogre, but a part of him mourns the pokemon he’s summoning into such a mess. Even if they don’t draw the ire of the sea god, their magnetic levitation is hard to sustain for long, and he has no way to recover them once they sink underwater.

Before he even finishes summoning the last one, he hears the distant, rapid cracks of an ongoing electric discharge and looks over his shoulder to see one of his magneton pouring electricity at Kyogre as it surfaces to blast Groudon with another volley of water. It only sends a couple jets out before submerging again, flinching away from the electricity, and he feels a savage grin stretch over his face…

…until it breaches again, jaw open wide to grab his pokemon out of the air and sink back underwater with it.

“No!” Surge almost loops back to return his other pokemon, but after a moment grimly releases his last one instead, jaw clenching so hard his teeth hurt.

It’s hard to get attached to artificial pokemon; they’re not cute, or cuddly, or easy to anthropomorphize. But they have personalities, all the same. Differences between them that he noticed after training a dozen magnemite to find the strongest ones, not just in electric power but those least willing to quit when things get tough.

All of his pokemon are soldiers, hard working and loyal. None are expendable, but each’s full value can only be measured by what they accomplish. Against an enemy like this, it’s not hard to calculate that even a minor chance to take it down is worth their lives.

But it’s not easy, either.

“Choke that fucking fish, boys,” Surge mutters as he reclips the last ball to his belt and signals Cirrus to climb. “Then cook it from the inside out.”

If they do, however, it’s not enough to take the monster down. A few minutes later it reappears amidst a tidal wave that seems to grow out of nothing in seconds. The leviathan is glowing gold and blue, its roar as loud as the waves as it crashes the full force of the ocean directly into the trainers and their pokemon on the shore.

Many of them get washed away, but some get pulled back by the tide, and Surge immediately dives toward them. He watches Kyogre eat one of the struggling shapes, then swiftly retreat as Groudon sends a spike of earth out at it. He dearly hopes it was a pokemon, but the shape he angles toward is a person for sure.

He holds an arm out and bends over the side of his pokemon, hand skimming the water until he reaches the trainer. He grabs his hand and pulls, guiding Cirrus with his legs so that the swanna flaps hard enough to lift them out, then flies over land, where Surge unceremoniously drops the trainer and wheels back around.

That’s when he sees the two shapes blurring in a zigzag pattern through the air until they stop in midair. The pokemon, whatever they are, are levitating without moving any body parts, and both have trainers atop them.

What strikes him most, even above his confusion over trainers riding such unfamiliar species, is the fact that neither pokemon has a saddle. Once his outrage as a flying license examiner fades (he doesn’t know what Winona is teaching Hoenn trainers but it’s not his responsibility) he guides his swanna down toward them and takes a megaphone from his hip.

“Whoever you two are, you here to help?”

As he gets closer he realizes the pokemon look nearly identical; the smaller one is red and white, the bigger one blue and white. Same pokemon, probably, with a different male and female form. The two trainers turn toward him, and he notices one is a girl and one a boy. The girl raises a fist, thumb up.

“We’re focusing on the big fish first. Drive it away or kill it and we think we can take down the other more easily. Understand?”

They look at each other, seem to talk for a moment, and then their pokemon drop out of the sky in steep dives that make Surge’s stomach rise in his throat. How are they staying on…?

The pair go straight for the water and start firing pulses of purple energy into the waves, illuminating Kyogre’s shape with each wash of draconic plasma. It responds with a volley of high pressured water, too fast to be dodged… but no, the pokemon was already moving before the attack formed.

Psychic type, Surge realizes. They knew exactly where it was beneath the water, and even if the trainer was psychic and sensed the attack coming, their mounts’ reflexes were too smooth for them not to be connected too. As for a second type, those Dragon Pulses looked powerful. Too powerful for them not to be Dragons too, by his guess.

Are there any Psychic/Dragon pokemon in Hoenn?

He’s never heard of such a thing, not throughout the entire island chain for that matter. And they look strong enough that he would have if they were normal pokemon from some obscure region. Which means they’re something else.

There are so many myths of pokemon, some individuals, some spoken of in pairs or groups of three or more, and he doesn’t have time to sift through them all. What matters right now is that they’re here, and seem to be under the control of the trainers riding them.

“Come on, girl, let’s not get left behind,” he says, and guides Cirrus down so he can get Zeus from his bag, a new note of hope thrumming through his chest.


For Glen, it’s the night of the storm all over again.

Celadon and Vermilion are very different cities, but with this much rain coming down those differences are barely noticeable. Thunder doesn’t boom over the city (the lack of lightning in general is strange, given how strong the storm is) but earthquakes make up for it, both in noise and danger. And while there’s no Pressure, praise be to Arceus’s golden hula hoop, the same fear it evoked twists like a knife in his gut every time he thinks of Blue or the others dead.

He tries not to, given how much focus he needs to ride his bike through the wet and shaking streets. There are a lot more people out than that night, and a lot less pokemon thankfully, but at least then he knew what was going on. Now there’s just confusion, and fear of watching any more of the swaying buildings topple before whatever is causing all this stops.

“Hey, coming through!” he yells over the sound of the rain, and the crowd ahead parts to let him and the others ride between them. As they blur by an intersection, he spots a gaggle of doduo and dodrio running down the street, feathers sodden as their heads try to duck under each other for shelter from the rain.

Not my problem, he reminds himself for the third time at least. He slows to take a corner, feeling his tires skid slightly and leaning his body to stay upright, then flashes a look behind him to make sure the others are okay.

MG always looks strange without her wide hat on, pale face strained under her dark helmet as she struggles with the same puddle of water. Slava’s bike wobbles under him too, and he uses a foot to stabilize himself before pedaling harder to catch up. He looks back himself to make sure Sumi is okay, but she glides her bike around the corner in a smooth arc, looking worried but focused, and Glen turns forward again. Normally he bikes faster than the others unless he consciously slows himself down, but even in these conditions they have no trouble keeping up.

They all want to make it in time to help, even if that means passing by half a dozen other situations that need help too. That is the biggest difference from that night, ultimately; their purpose isn’t to save the city. It’s to save their leader.

His headset rings, startling him, and he jabs at his ear to answer it. “Lizzy?”

“No, it’s Elaine, did you reach—no of course you didn’t—”

An emergency vehicle flashes by, sending twin sprays of water out in its wake. “We’re a few blocks away,” he says once the scream of the siren fades. “You alright?”

“I’m fine, I had the thought to reach out to Professor Oak while I was getting ready to join you guys, but he didn’t answer, and I saw… Glen, there are giant pokemon fighting in Hoenn! Groudon and Kyogre, they’re myths from the region, that’s what’s causing all this!”

Glen doesn’t have attention to spare being properly shocked, mind jumping instead to the implications. “They’re doing all this… from there?” Meaning this isn’t natural, meaning it won’t stop until they’re stopped…

“Yeah, and people are going to fight them, a call went out from Professor Birch for all Gym Leaders and above on the islands who have a teleport point near there to come help. Lance went, along with Surge and Sabrina, and—”

“And Oak. Shit!” The curse is mostly from spotting a muk pulling itself out of a sewer drain up ahead, but once he’s zig-zagged his way past it and checked to make sure the others have too, the sentiment remains. He’s glad the heavy rain blocked the smell. “What about Daisy?”

“I left her a message, no answer yet. I’m heading out the door to the casino now. I’ll see you there!”

“Be careful,” he says, and curses again once the call ends. So much for getting help from the big guns.

The Casino looks totally fine from the outside, though there’s a massive crack running through the streets that goes right under the building, some sections open enough to have formed deep puddles. Glen leads the others to a skidding stop under the front door’s awning, and doesn’t bother storing his bike before rushing inside.

The interior is dimly lit with red emergency lights, a few glowing pokemon, and the flashing of slot machines… many of which are in a massive hole in the ground.

“Holy shit,” Sumi gasps, breathing hard and clutching at a stitch in her side. It’s only then that Glen realizes his own tiredness, the burning ache in his chest and legs, but there’s no time to stop; he can see a line of people and pokemon, working together to pull rubble and furniture out of the hole and stack it to the sides out of the way.

“Lizzy!” he calls out as he rushes forward. “Bretta!”

“Here!”

They pick their way down the slope until they reach her. “Where’s Lizzy?” MG asks.

Bretta wipes her sweaty curls from her face. “She said she’s going to get the power back on… there’s stairs that lead down to the employee areas, I think she went there, but it might be blocked off too, and she doesn’t have anything to dig with.”

Glen is still looking around at the pile of rubble, and after a moment realizes why Lizzy left. It’s hard to see anything, the digging would probably go twice as fast if they had real light. “I’ll go help her. You guys help here.”

“I’m coming with you,” MG says, and Glen mentally reviews her pokemon, then nods and scrambles up the side of the hole again, cutting a hand on a jagged piece of something and scraping his leg against the edge as he pulls himself back out. He checks the cut to make sure it’s not deep, then races for the stairwell.

Once reaching it he finally has to pause for breath, and MG slumps against the wall beside him, breathing hard too. He fumbles out his potion bottle and sprays his hand, then takes out his canteen for a deep drink before passing it to the side without looking.

She takes his energy drink for a swallow, then hands it back. “Do you think he’s alive?” she asks after a moment, making him turn to her. Her voice is calm, but there’s something in it, the vibration of a tightly wound thread.

Glen looks away, takes another drink of the salty-sweet liquid, then caps the canteen as he shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

“Don’t lie to me.” The quaver is more pronounced, now, and her next breath is too sharp. “That hole—”

“I don’t know how anyone could have survived that, if he was in it.” The words feel like stones coming up his throat. “But if he had a moment to prepare… to react… he might be okay.” He remembers the sight of all that broken rubble and furniture, packed deep into the ground, and amends, “He might be alive.”

Be alive, Blue. Glen closes his eyes, thinking of his friend’s expressive face, his sharp smile, his alert eyes as he watches a pokemon match, the aliveness he brings to everything he does. Blue Oak is someone who knows what he wants, and goes all in after it.

More than that, he pulls others in his wake, uses their energy and somehow gives them back more in return. He certainly turned Glen into something more than he ever expected of himself when he came to Kanto. He just wanted to be a good trainer, and figure out what other trainers were lacking most so he could get it to them. Now…

Now he feels like a leader in his own right. Like he might have the potential to actually make it all the way to the top, the same way Blue does. He can’t wait to reach that top with his friend, to challenge him there as an equal.

“Ready?” he asks, and MG nods, pushing away from the wall and following him down the stairs.

Be alive, because I can’t do this without you.


Steven watches as Kyogre gets hit dead-on by Groudon’s next beam attack, and disappears for what feels like the hundredth time beneath the waves.

After what feels like half an eternity, but is likely less than a minute, it doesn’t resurface.

Eventually Groudon roars, back arching up, and begins to stomp the ground with its feet and tail. The sunlight intensifies around them, going from uncomfortable to mildly painful, and the earth shakes as new ground boils up from under the water.

Steven toggles his earpiece, covering his open ear with his other hand. “Drake, report.”

“I think we’ve defeated the pirates, Champion. We can’t detect their submarine anymore, and they took a pretty heavy hit a few minutes ago. They’ve either sunk or retreated.”

“And Kyogre?”

“It’s still on the sonar, but… it’s sinking, sir.”

Steven closes his eyes for a moment, feeling a rare and treasured moment of… relief? Hope? He can’t tell. “Thank you, Drake. Stand by and keep watch on it.”

“Aye, sir.”

The shaking stops, and he looks up to see Groudon has finished its victory dance, or whatever that was, and begun walking forward again, unchallenged.

Steven looks around at his fellow trainers, injured and exhausted by heatstroke and the occasional bone crushing waves. Gym Leaders, Elites, even a few fellow Champions from around the islands are here, interspersed with some random rangers and trainers who were nearby and wanted to help… and of course, the renegades.

A moment later the Legendary Eon Duo flies down to hover overhead, a familiar pair of trainers on their back. He’s not sure where the crazy teenagers found them, or how they caught them, but he’s glad they’re here.

“Alright, folks. Easy part’s over. I’ve just heard that Kyogre is sinking, its allies driven off or dead, which means we need to take on the big guy now.”

Matsubusa stirs. “Are we certain? If it still lives…”

“Confirming that might take hours. Point is it looks to be out of the fight.”

“The rain clouds,” Professor Oak says, pointing. Steven turns to look, and yep, they’re thinning at the edge of where the sun shines through. He turns back to the professor, who is already summoning a snorlax and blastoise to join his pidgeot and venusaur. “So, Ground, maybe Ground/Fire?”

“Sounds about right,” Cynthia says, and summons a garchomp and milotic to join her roserade. She glances at Lance, whose three dragonite watch her garchomp with the gaze of predators on the hunt. “You’re not swapping anyone?”

“I’d rather it be aiming up than focusing on things on the ground,” the current Indigo Champion says, and pulls the hood up on his cloak. “But I’ve got a kingdra and Alolan exeggutor if needed.”

“Finally found a use for that overdramatic cloak, huh?” Steven asks.

Lance grins under the shadow of his hood. “Jealousy is unbecoming.”

Steven chuckles. “Wouldn’t say no to an umbrella. Let’s get this done so I can find one, huh?” He turns to the trainers that have finished gathering around them. “Let our pokemon go in first. Keep your own hitting it from a distance if you can, and be ready to dodge if it’s so much as looking in your direction. That Super Hyper Beam comes fast.”

“Super Solar Beam,” Professor Oak corrects. “The lack of precharge time comes, I think, from the abundance of sunlight. My venusaur is benefiting from it too.”

“But it isn’t spamming it,” Lance says. “Groudon Beam might need to recharge, like a Hyper Beam.”

Steven snorts. “We’re not calling it that.”

“Says you.”

“Yes, says me, it’s my region’s world-ending monster, I’m naming its attacks.”

Cynthia clears her throat. “Perhaps we could decide this after it’s dead.” She looks pointedly at all the Gym Leaders and trainers watching them bicker.

“Right.” Steven turns toward Groudon’s retreating back, wondering if it even has a destination in mind, or is just setting out to cover as much of the ocean in land as it can. “Time to see if your theory is correct, Matsubusa.”

He pulls the orb out of his pocket… and immediately yelps and drops the shining red sphere, which shatters on the ground.

Before it was just the safe side of burning, but his pants and the general heat around him kept him from noticing how much hotter it’s grown; it felt like holding a live ember. He watches the bright red pieces scatter on the ground, then looks up to see everyone (aside from Matsubusa, whose face is a picture of shocked dismay) staring at him as he holds his hands up.

“In my defense, that’s actually what I meant to do. Just not like that.” He thought he’d need to have his pokemon smash it.

“Steven, your rings,” Cynthia says, and he follows her gaze to see what they were really staring at; the gems on his rings are glowing again, and the light doesn’t fade.

He stares at them, awe standing his hair on end. The gems on his rings are, in fact, mineralized bits of metagross and aggron, which is why he came up with such silly names for them when his father gifted them to him as a child. After a moment he summons his two strongest pokemon, two pokemon he’s been fascinated by all his life, and approaches them, glowing rings held out.

“Steven, what are you—”

A collective gasp is heard as his pokemon begin to glow… and grow.


The roof of the Sky Pillar is completely dry.

It’s one of the least surreal details in an overwhelmingly surreal day, but Wallace still takes a moment to stare after he steps out of the stairwell, clearing the way for Wally to climb up after him. When they first approached the tiny island it was strange enough seeing the structure on it illuminated by sunlight in the otherwise dark and rainy horizon. The thin golden beam made it easier to spot, but Wallace was too busy struggling through the oddly heavy rain and tumultuous waves to do more than just write it off as a coincidental shift in the weather.

But in the time it took for them to fight their way through the various ghosts and bats that make the tower their home, he would have expected the clouds to shift and cover the island.

Instead the bright hole in the sky remains fixed over the it, allowing them to look around in wonder at the dark, rainy world that surrounds them. With such limited visibility, the horizon is an endless ocean in every direction, like the whole world has already been swallowed by some restless, primordial sea. It’s a beautiful, if haunting, sight, and he fights the urge to pull out his phone to take a picture or video. It would make a fantastic piece of art, a landscape wraparound for his living room…

Admire it later. He turns back to the structure he’s standing on, testing the ancient stones under his feet to make sure they’re sturdy. In the near pre-historic days of its construction, the Sky Pillar would have been a monumental feat; five floors is nothing by modern standards, but back then it may well have been the tallest structure in the world. He’s not even sure how the people of ancient Hoenn got the building materials to this tiny, distant island in the first place, let alone constructed it.

Of course, its age means a lack of certain features. There’s no hatch for the stairwell, so Wallace orders his starmie and milotic to guard the entrance in case anything comes out after them, then walks over to the kid, who’s already at the center of the tower’s roof, putting his bag down and unzipping it.

It’s too late to say something like “are you sure this will work,” because of course he’s not and they’re about to find out one way or another. But he wants to. He, a middle aged man, a Gym Leader, wants reassurance from a 13 year old. It would be embarrassing, if this particular 13 year old hadn’t solved a riddle that archaeologists around the world spent their entire professional careers trying to crack.

So instead he just says, “Let me know if I can help,” and guards the stairway. The pokemon here were some of the strongest wilds he’s ever seen, a good indicator that this island has been basically abandoned for decades, at least.

“I think I’m good,” Wally says as he starts pulling pokeballs out, each with a sticker on it. Even with the world ending, the boy takes the time to place each ball in order. Apparently Wally spent the past year of his pokemon journey collecting the things, even travelling all the way to Johto to confirm his landmark theory, so a bit of obsessiveness is understandable. Still, considering how many people may be dying right now and the risk that an ancient Ghost pokemon might pop up after them to eat their minds, Wallace has to bite his tongue to keep from hurrying him.

Only once all are out around the boy does he toss the bag behind him outside the circle of balls, and start summoning his pokemon one after another.

A… B… C…

The unown appear in flash after flash of light, their bizarre forms floating in midair like voids in the world. They don’t have any actual surreality, like ghosts, but their very existence evokes a similar feeling, like someone’s black-and-white drawings have come to life. Or “life,” rather. Dissections have proven that the unown are living beings; that they have flesh and blood, that the round eye that makes up most of their mass is in fact connected to a brain of sorts, distributed through their simplistic nervous system. But they don’t act like other living beings, simply appearing out of seeming thin air, floating randomly about, then disappearing again.

As far as Wallace knows, Wally is the only trainer in the world to have personally captured all of them. A few months ago that wouldn’t be true; obsessive patience would be enough for anyone to do it, hypothetically, and a few of the more zealous and rich pokemon collectors have bought and traded and captured their own set before.

But Wally’s discovery of an additional two unown, and how to get them to appear, is what sets him, and his collection, apart.

…H… I… J…

Wallace watches as they hover in midair, bobbing gently with the wind… no, there is no wind, and even if there were it wouldn’t be shifting them all in different directions like this. And yet they continue to behave like balloons, all invisibly tethered to a fixed point in space, never far enough from it to risk touching each other.

And the noise of them…

Even over the distant sound of the rain and waves, Wallace can hear the unown. A constant wheedling in the air, like a dozen vibrating tuning forks, combined with intermingling warbles and chirps and pops like static from a radio… and interwoven through it all, just faint enough to be practically imagined, are snatches of what sounds like distorted, babbled human speech.

…N… O… P…

Someone once set a recording device at some ruins for days until they captured enough samples to turn into a haunting song of sorts (someone else then took the sounds and applied enough autotuning to actually make pretty catchy club music). With so many in one place, however, no amount of editing could salvage the whispered, cacophonous scream that’s building with each summoned pokemon, just shy of overwhelming thanks to how quiet it remains.

…X… Y… Z…

It’s a sound that could drive someone insane, if they had to listen to it long enough.

Wallace watches Wally take a deep breath, and then…

…?… !

The last two shapes complete the loop around the boy…

…and abruptly, like a speaker whose plug was pulled, the cacophony cuts off.

The hair on Walalce’s neck stands on end at the abrupt silence, a silence that seems to mute the background noise of the rain and waves rather than make them clearer. The unown have also stopped moving, all except the last two. Wallace still has trouble believing what he’s seeing; as far as he’s aware, no one has ever seen punctuation marks as unown before Wally discovered them, not even in the ancient carvings of the Cave of Origins that he grew up near.

He spent years studying them as a child, a familial calling that was passed down to him as soon as he was old enough to read. There were times he resented the extra lessons, the stale and cryptic history he was forced to learn rather than being able to go diving or exploring the Caves themselves… but he applied himself anyway, because it was expected of him, and because it was interesting in its own way, a puzzle of sorts.

It’s the way he discovered how to find and enter the Sky Pillar. It’s how he recognized the importance of Wally’s discovery.

They’re not punctuation marks… maybe humans just used them as punctuation because we didn’t know what else to do with them, just knew they weren’t like the others…”

“I can feel it,” Wally says, voice taking on the distant tones of a psychic engaging his powers. “You were right, they’re reacting to the location. This is a place of power, for them… a place where things are… thinner…”

The ? and ! unown have closed their eyes, and with a (likely instinctual) flick of his fingers, Wally sends them levitating higher. A wave of his arms sends the other unown in front of him, suspended in the air, and it only takes a moment for Wallace to recognize the pattern.

It’s the layout of a keyboard, floating mid-air.

…we think in language, so they were treated like letters to form words… but as symbols they can mean so much more than a single sound…”

Wally begins to “type,” his fingers twitching, and Wallace watches unown shiver in the air as if plucked by invisible strings. He doesn’t seem to be typing out words, but rather exploring each symbol, then combining them.

The ? and ! unown wait at the sides, still as keyholes into another world.

“I think I can do it,” Wally says after minutes pass, his young voice uncertain. “But…”

“But what?” There’s no answer, and Wallace leaves the stairwell to kneel beside Wally, hand on his thin shoulder. “Wally?”

The boy twitches, then turns to him. Wallace stares into the eyes of the boy who shares his name, the boy who started his journey three years ago with nothing but a ralts, and now is one of the strongest psychic trainers in the region… but still a child, with a child’s uncertainty.

And fear.

“The vaults,” he whispers. “I can feel them… all three.”

Wallace lets out a breath of relief. “It’s working, then?”

“Yes, but… the earthquakes are opening them!”

Wallace’s pulse jumps at the boy’s sudden alarm. “What do you mean? You’re the one that opened them, to let the unown out.”

“No, there’s more! They were guarding the barrier, keeping the unown in… I mean, out. In themselves, out of our world. But they held more, I think… and if I do this…” His eyes focus on Wallace’s. “Leader, I’ll wake them!”

“Wake who?”

“The titans!”

Wallace stares at the boy in growing comprehension, and does his best to mask his horror. “Titans, here? In Hoenn? Like the ones in Sinnoh?”

“I-I don’t know if they’re the s-same. They were sleeping, and sealed… they’ll go back to sleep on their own, and they’re normally trapped… but if I wake them with the quakes opening their chambers, they’ll break out!”

Wallace closes his eyes, feeling twice his age. Regirock, Registeel, and Regice aren’t the worst catastrophes a region could face; they’re slow, and predictable, and don’t cause Pressure or summon storms.

They’re just indestructible, massive, and utterly implacable in moving in whatever direction they desire.

Unleashing three such permanent blights on their region… could they do such a thing? Do they have the right? Does anyone?

“Rayquaza’s coming?” Wallace asks, eyes still closed.

“Yes. It’s already close. Too close. I won’t be able to finish on time…”

“That’s alright. Just… do your best. And Wally…” He opens his eyes, meets that frightened gaze again. “You didn’t know. Understand? And if anyone asks, it was me. I told you to do it.”

Wally’s eyes widen. “I can’t… Leader, you—”

A tremor goes through the earth. They can hear it, see the shockwave of it travel through the ocean…. but the island is untouched, the force parting around the tower like it’s not even there. Not a single stone tremors with its passing.

“Am I?” Wallace asks. “Your Leader.”

Wally’s lip trembles, but after a moment he nods.

“Then repeat after me: you didn’t know.”

“You… I… I didn’t know.”

“I made you do it.”

“You… m-made me…”

Wallace squeezes his shoulder. It feels so thin under his hand. “Good man.” He stands. “Now get to work.”

The Gym Leader watches the boy begin tapping into an ancient force greater than himself. The collective power of humanity (or at least that’s what the ancient humans thought) wielded in “prayer,” not to stop a god, not even to give it a command… but just to nudge it, a little. To plant an impression, an idea, an urge.

At just the right time, sometimes that’s all it takes to change the world… for a price.

As Earth and Sea both raged, their war did wake the Sky

With ancient hunger stirred, it came with rending cry

To feast on all it saw, and claim anew the sun

Till sacrifice was made, and peace at last was won

Wallace is going to have to have a long talk with Steven, when this is all over.


Dr. Light stares at her computer monitor, face set in a position of calm concentration for the sake of anyone that passes by her office door even as her heart sinks into her stomach. The air conditioning broke down ten minutes ago, and she still feels her blood running cold.

She hadn’t lied to her employees about the flowchart. It’s what she’s looking at now, color coded and interactive; a simple two dimensional image could never hold all the information this does, and as she goes through it yet again, pruning trunks and branches with each click, the colors start to shift first to the bright red of emergency lights, then darken to dried blood.

They’re down to one generator, and both stairwells are in some state of collapse. They can dig their way out, need to dig their way out, because the elevators are damaged too. Most of the flowchart doesn’t specify why the bad things are happening, however, there’s no room for context that assumes things might steadily get worse, so as their situation continues to deteriorate, she keeps going through the flowchart, ending in more and more extreme responses that still fail to address worse situations they quickly find themselves in.

Dr. Light can’t even get mad at the flowchart, though she wants to. There are systemic situations mapped, involving enemy action, the volcano erupting, a normal series of earthquakes, the specimen attempting to escape, a mutiny by some members of the staff… whoever designed this thing put a lot of thought into it.

They just didn’t think of… this. Which means it’s up to her to decide the best path forward.

“Begin data hardcopy transfers,” she tells Isaac, reading off her screen. “Once each is done, wipe it before powering down.” The head of technology nods and rushes out the door; electronic communication is down throughout the lab. She turns to her operations manager. “Kim, get everyone prepped for evacuation. Nothing that doesn’t fit in a bag, leave their hands free, understand?”

Shaw, their head of security, is shifting his weight as he waits for his orders. She knows what he’s expecting. She just doesn’t want to say it.

Where the hell is Sabrina? Giovanni can’t teleport, but at a time like this, with communication down, the psychic should be here, giving insight into the experiment’s thoughts. Lending weight to any decisions made about it.

Shouldering some of the responsibility for potentially making the wrong call.

Dr. Light feels a surge of self-disgust at the thought, and puts her computer to sleep to preserve power. Maybe Sabrina is upstairs already, stuck with no way in. “What’s the last word on the mansion?” Shaw’s job pertains to both external and internal threats, which means he has the direct line to their people on their off-shifts at all times.

“Got out an order to evacuate and set up a perimeter before the landline went down.” He watches her, face calm but body shifting again. “Been trying occasionally, but no new messages have come through. My people down here are prepared for any further orders.”

She knows what he wants: a decision about the specimen. “Speak plainly, Shaw, there’s no one here but us.” It’s a consideration that all the Dark members of the lab have had in the back of their minds for the past decade: what they say around their non-Dark peers, who may at that very moment be an unknowing host to the experiment.

“If we evacuate, we need to kill it,” he says, face calm even as the walls tremble around them. He shifts his weight to stay on his feet, and she clutches the edge of her desk to keep her chair from moving.

“You don’t like Gyokusho’s suggestion, then?” she asks, voice wry. “Or did you mean to kill it after it helps save our lives?”

“This isn’t the time for sentim-“

“Shut up, Shaw, I meant what I asked and nothing more.”

He holds her steady gaze for a moment, then nods. “Whether we use it to get out or not, it needs to die. It’ll be dead in a few hours anyway without the lab, and no one knows what it might do if it gets desperate.”

“Killing it might set this project back a decade, maybe more. None of the followup experiments are sapient, we still haven’t isolated what sets this one apart, and all that aside, Giovanni might just kill us anyway if we end his project without a good reason.”

“We’d have to survive first for him to kill us,” Shaw points out, still calm. “Either way, the worst case scenario is that it survives while we don’t.”

Dr. Light’s jaw clenches. “We’re lucky its life support hasn’t been damaged yet, considering how badly ours is doing, and if we die it’ll be because they go down or the whole place gets buried. In either cases it’ll be dead too.”

“Only if we assume its capabilities are what it presents them as.”

She doesn’t call him paranoid. It’s a perspective their boss endorses, she knows that, and one that runs through her mind often as well. She suspects he selected both her and Shaw for their positions because they’re both cynics. Pessimists, even; she’s been told, back in the days before she joined this operation, that her outlook gets in the way of having better “people skills.” Probably cost her a promotion or some opportunities for collaboration once or twice.

But in this organization that shit doesn’t matter so much as seeing things clearly, and she’d like to think Giovanni chose her well.

Which means she knows better than to confuse relentless pessimism with wisdom.

She agreed with him, an hour ago when the engineer asked what would be done if they had to evacuate. The plan has always been to default to killing the experiment if they’re ever in a situation where they can’t be very confident, by similar prior circumstances, that they can contain it.

There are no priors on this circumstance, however, and while back then she’d lied to the engineer without a thought, automatically and (she hopes) convincingly, the safe route gained some extra complications once the rest of the lab became at risk.

Their life support systems are failing; far faster than they should be, and they have to dig their way out, amidst an earthquake, without collapsing the whole lab on themselves. She’s one of only three people in the lab who now knows about the CO buildup from broken heater exhaust pipes. With the vents to the surface all blocked, the whole lab will be dead within the hour, even if the earthquakes miraculously stop.

Unless.

Unless she rejects the “safe” option, and takes a risk on the experiment. Let it out of its pod, let it don the armor that will preserve its life for up to four hours, then let it help them dig their way out with its psychic powers.

It’s been training in them for weeks, and its ability to sense through another pokemon’s senses is, of course, as unparalleled as its ability to do the same with humans’. If anyone can guide their diggers to make an escape route for them without bringing the whole place down, it can.

Dr. Light considers Shaw for a moment, then sighs. “I understand your worry. But the facts are undeniable. It’s been years since it so much as ‘raised its voice,’ let alone threatened anyone. More than that, it never took a single one of those traps you and the boss set up to see if it would try to escape. And we just had Sabrina here for weeks, sharing its brain for every waking minute, without any sign that it’s planning to betray us or hurt anyone… her exact report is that it’s happy, now that it can go outside and take a more active role in its purpose.”

“Sabrina could be compromised,” he says, voice flat.

She decides to let the comment pass, because she gets it and now isn’t the time. “Look. I know it’s your job to push for safe over sorry, but here’s the bottom line. Whatever new and exciting horror came out of Hoenn to cause all this shit shows more than ever why we need this project to succeed. Gyokusho is right; it’s a resource, and while normally crappy platitudes like ‘every crisis is an opportunity’ make my eyes practically roll right out of my skull, this crisis is an opportunity to test it, really test it, for the first time. And we’re going to use it. And we’re not going to kill it unless it makes us.”

Shaw’s back is stiff, but he nods. “By your orders, ma’am.” He turns to leave.

“Shaw.” The security lead pauses at the door to look back at her. “Once we’re topside, have your people bring out their best.”

There’s paranoia, then there’s preparation; she doesn’t know the details, but she does know that the experiment’s guards have pokemon they never summoned around it, pokemon that it wouldn’t expect if it ever tried to fight its way out.

“All of it, Doctor?”

“All of it. No point in holding anything in reserve now, when there might not be a tomorrow.”

Shaw’s second nod is less stiff, and then he leaves.

Dr. Light sighs and rubs her face, then starts backing up her computer as another quake goes through the lab. She puts in the code to have it wipe itself afterward, then starts packing her things. Anything important for work goes into one container, while she puts her personal effects in a second ball. It doesn’t take long; despite working here for over a decade, and having this office for roughly half that time, she hasn’t accumulated much beyond a few decorations.

She finally has a moment to breathe. To wonder, and worry, about the future.

Where would they go, after this? What would they do? Shaw was right to say that they likely can’t save the experiment once its suit is empty; they could have made redundancies, of course, but keeping it reliant on the lab was the point. Without the experiment, they would normally focus more of their resources on the problem of replicating its success, rather than leaving that to the secondary lab.

But without their lab… lab that’s been not just their place of employment but their home…

What would be left for them? It’s not like they can just find other jobs and reintegrate into wider society, after years of secluded living. She’s aware that it takes a strange sort of person to be okay with living above a lab far from civilization for years, but she’s been happy here. It’s her home.

This isn’t the time for sentiment, Shaw said, and she sighs, then nods and tucks the container ball into her bag. Survival first.

Dr. Light grabs the memory drive from her computer, tucks it into her pocket, and leaves her office for the last time, heading toward the experiment’s room at a quick pace as people move about the lab to prepare their own escape.

She braces herself as she reaches the experiment’s room. In the early days it was always a strain, being in its presence. So closely watching her words, her expression, even her tone. Ensuring she does nothing that might upset it.

It’s gotten easier over the years, but she still takes a moment to rehearse what she’ll say, what her goal is. There’s a state of being that she found in herself for her dissertation defense, a way to be firm without being rigid, focused on her goal while effortlessly able to adjust to any unexpected questions or challenges. She’s found it similarly useful since then, when around either Giovanni or the experiment.

It’s what she mentally wraps around herself before she opens the door and walks in, another quake rocking the lab as she crosses the threshold. Dust drifts down from above, and she glances up to see a long crack in the ceiling. A few meters closer to the pod and it might be dead, she thinks as a cold fist squeezes around her heart, then lets the thought go as she approaches the experiment’s tank.

“Good evening, Mewtwo.”

Its violet eyes were tracking her as soon as she entered, and she forces herself to meet them as it psychically types out its response, each word spoken a moment after. “Good evening, Doctor. Is it a good one? Everyone seems rather frightened.”

“No, I suppose it’s not. Have you learned why?” A delicate way to refer to the experiment’s constant, effortless violation of people’s privacy, the sort that any normal workplace would have had mass protests and strikes and walkouts over. She’s made her peace with it, as she has so many other things, but then it’s easier for her and the other administrators than the normal staff.

“Something about the Hoenn myths rising from the dead. Giovanni predicted thidaxq-” The lab shakes around them, rattling the various electronics and toys surrounding the experiment’s pod, and it stops typing for a moment as she leans against the glass, feeling it vibrate against her palms. Once the shake is past, the typing continues. “Predicted this, or something like it. Not so soon, however.”

This is news to her, despite what she said to the others, earlier. All she says, however, is, “Anything else?”

“Many believe they will die. Are we in that much danger?”

The experiment’s electronically assisted pseudo-voice isn’t monotone; to her ear, the deep, baritone voice sounds calm, powerful, even somber, with properly inflected questions that make it seem like it’s really talking, sometimes, like if it stepped out of the tank this is the voice that would come from its lips.

But even still, it’s not a human voice. It’s easy, while listening to it, to think of an emotionless machine, rather than a living creature that, by all reports, truly does feel things as deeply as any person. Looking at its alien visage doesn’t help; the experiment’s eyes can narrow or widen, but its brow is not expressive, and the muscles of its face are too taut to allow much expression beyond slight curves of its lips.

Not enough, all told, for her to tell what it feels as it says those words. To tell if it’s afraid, or if the calm words she hears, the calm expression she sees, reflect an inner calm, an inner certainty, that it will survive no matter what happens to the rest of them. She wishes, for a moment, that they never got rid of its old heart monitor; annoying as the beeping might be, at least she could tell if its pulse has sped up.

“We are. But you can help, if you’re willing.”

“Of course,” he responds without pause. “Whatever I can do.”

“I want to warn you, Mewtwo, that this may be the last time you leave this pod,” she says, wishing fervently that Sabrina were here. Saffron City better be sinking into the center of the fucking earth… “The suit can sustain you for a couple hours, and we have refills for a few more. Maybe we can jury-rig more after that. But the lab is being abandoned in case it all comes down on us, and if it does once we leave… you’ll likely die before we can reach and repair your pod.”

The experiment is quiet, for once without an immediate response. She can practically feel the others around her, lab techs and security guards all holding their breaths. Or maybe that’s just her. The lab itself seems to be waiting, no tremors or quakes interrupting the quiet.

“How likely is it you’ll survive, without my help?” he asks after what feels like a minute.

The question makes her feel better, somehow. It shows a level of self-preservation that she trusts more than she would blind self-sacrifice. “Not high. We’ll try anyway, of course, but at this point we’re desperate.” We must be, to let you out in a situation like this. “If you’d rather stay inside, not risk getting cut off from the pod, I’ll understand. But you’d be at just as much risk of the lab’s power going out while we’re gone, or the room collapsing.”

“I understand. I’ll take my chances, with the rest of you.”

Dr. Light lets out a breath, and nods. Some small part of her had continued to hope that the decision would be taken out of her hands. If the experiment refused, she would have had to kill it rather than leave it alone down here unobserved. Instead she gestures to the techs to get his suit, then has them begin copying and wiping the servers.

A few minutes later the pod is being drained and opened, and the experiment is disappearing under piece after piece of the dark grey metal. The sight isn’t as frightening as it once was, though watching it fight does quicken her pulse.

Once the last piece of armor is on, the technicians scatter to wipe the lab in earnest, leaving her, the experiment, and the four security trainers. Shaw isn’t here, likely with the extra men they keep stationed around the lab, and as another shake makes the lights flicker she hopes they’re ready at the stairwell.

“I’m ready.” The experiment flexes its knobby fingers beneath their gauntlets, then waits respectfully for the security to lead the way. The man waits for her nod before moving forward, and she follows alongside the experiment, wondering if it really believes the security is here to protect it rather than protect others from it. Sabrina said it did, but such naivete seems at odds with a creature so intelligent.

Not that we haven’t been carefully raising it to believe what we want it to. It wouldn’t be the first sheltered, intelligent being to believe in patent absurdities. A lot of people manage it incidentally.

Still, the thought bothers her the whole walk up the unblocked internal stairwells until they reach the top floor of the lab, which is itself ten meters from the ground floor of the mansion. There she sees the crowd waiting in the halls.

Hope and fear flash across their faces as they see her and the experiment approach, but she keeps her gaze forward, trying to look calm and in control as they approach the work being done at the less blocked external stairwell. “Tenshin, report.”

“Yes, Doctor.” He tugs a pair of plugs out of his ear and detaches the seismometer from the door, then wipes his brow. “We think the major breach is between the fourth and fifth floor, which is where enough earth spilled in to fill the stairwell.”

“It should have stopped there, shouldn’t it?” she asks with a frown. “Once the dirt reached the cracks?” It’s not water, thank the gods. She’s not sure if it’s possible to make an undersea lab, but if that were an option she’d rather get sucked into a greatball, thanks very much.

“Normally, yes, but pokemon have been approaching the structure ever since the earthquakes started. It turns out they’ve been damaging our equipment, perhaps as much as the earthquakes themselves.”

Dr. Light opens her mouth to curse, instead turning the motion into a deep breath. “Are you telling me we’re under attack?” There are flowchart contingencies for that. “Why wasn’t I told?”

“I’m sorry, Doctor, I may have been unclear… we’re not actually sure how much damage they’ve done. It’s nearly impossible to sense them with all the noise, and they don’t seem to be trying to actually breach the structure. They’re just… around. Another chaotic element.”

She rubs sweat from her eyes. “So how is this related to the breach?

“There are others, smaller ones where the soil isn’t spilling out fast enough to block the way yet, but the broken concrete is. The pokemon might grow agitated when we approach and widen the holes, but even if they don’t, if we move the concrete—”

“The soil could bury us.”

He nods. “Another problem is what happens when we get near the top,” Tenshin says, looking up. “The moisture in the soil is going to turn things muddy, which is harder for most of our pokemon to dig through. We have a few Ground/Water types specifically for that purpose, but the switch will be difficult to time.”

Dr. Light nods, then just stares at the wall in thought. The others know her well enough to wait silently as she plays scenarios out in her mind, imagines each of them going wrong, focuses on whether they’re preventable, then repeating the process…

“Mewtwo.”

“Yes, Doctor?”

“How much dirt could you move at once?”

“I’m not sure. Soil is difficult. Lots of small particles with little friction or cohesion.”

She knew all that, but was hoping he’d say it’s easier for him. “So handfuls, or something more? Could you put up barriers that would block it?”

“Not reliably. But there is something else I could do, with your permission?”

She glances at him as another quake hits, this one bad enough to send a few people to their knees or against the wall. The experiment himself shifts his footing and tail, but seems otherwise unbothered. “What is it?”

“From this close, I can sense the pokemon around the stairwell, and possibly drive them away.”

A slight chill goes down her spine despite the heat. She turns to look down each hall of the intersection and sees more people have gathered, ready to leave. Not the time to ask what its range is and panic people. Sabrina confirmed that it could read everyone in the lab, but she never asked about what the limits were past the walls. Was it about distance, or intervening substance, maybe?

Does it know about the explosives? Could it sense them?

An idea occurs. “How many people are left in the lab that aren’t here?”

“Twenty-seven that I can sense. Most are on their way.

“Is the generator room still within your range? Is anyone there?”

“It is, but not unless they’re dark.”

They would be, she knows some brave souls are going to stay down there as long as they can to keep giving them air and light as long as they can. She turns to some engineers who aren’t dark. “Florent, Abi, go swap with whoever is there. Mewtwo will let you know when it’s time to come up.”

There’s fear in their gaze, both glancing at the experiment, but then they nod and hurry back downstairs. She’s already turning back to it. “Upstairs, in the mansion. Can you reach anyone there?”

“Yes, all the non-dark, non-psychic staff are in my range.”

And now she has a better sense of its range. It’s not too paranoid, she thinks, to recognize that it could have been the one that made the pokemon damage the stairwells. It doesn’t particularly matter, now. “Search their thoughts for anything that might seem relevant or helpful. Can you communicate with them?”

“I can, though it would be—”

Another quake makes everyone shift, and a loud crack from somewhere in the facility makes a few people cry out in fear. Dr. Light’s heart is hammering in her throat, but she keeps her gaze on the experiment. “It would be?”

“Difficult for them.”

Right. And even assuming they don’t freak out, they might not be believed. None of the leadership isn’t dark. “Try anyway, if you find someone who seems calm and receptive. Tell them our situation as best you can.”

“Yes, Doctor.”

Dr. Light lets out a breath and runs through her list of available resources again, making sure she’s not missing anything. “Alright, then. Let’s get to work.”

Once the work begins, it goes surprisingly smoothly. The pokemon are sent through first with their trainers to clear the rubble and hold it in place, with the experiment using their pokemon’s senses to report what they feel and ensure nothing they do causes further damage. Eventually people start making their way up through the cramped, humid, dark stairwell, every tremor and shake sending dirt down on them until they reach the collapsed top…

…where those on the surface have already dug their way down, clearing the rest of the way. Dr. Light is at the head of the last group to leave, along with the last two engineers, the experiment, and the last two security guards.

There’s a lingering sense of celebration when she emerges, applause breaking out as people stand around in the pouring rain, just happy to see their peers alive… until everyone stops, and stares, and she knows the experiment has stepped out from the ground behind her.

The experiment doesn’t seem to notice, or care; its attention is on the security guards’ pokemon, both those that were with it downstairs and those from the other shifts who are moving to carefully surround it. They’ve brought out their best, weavile and greninja and hydreigon and krookodile. They’d probably be bringing out tyranitar and incineroar if it weren’t raining.

Even now they’re acting carefully, facing outward as if forming a perimeter to protect the experiment from anything that might come at it from the darkness and rain, trusting the others outside the perimeter to watch their backs. But still she watches the experiment with a feeling of unease, watches its helmet slowly turn to her… then tilt up, letting the rain hit its visor with the sharp plink of water on metal and glass.

Dr. Light swallows the dryness in her throat. The cold rain, drenching as it is, feels amazing on her sweaty skin, but she’s unable to even take a moment to celebrate the fresh air and lack of impending doom. “Thank you, Mewtwo. I believe we all owe you our lives. Are you… do you need anything? Are you tired?”

“No, Doctor, I am quite well. I believe I’ll take a walk.”

Shit. Shit shit shit. “I think maybe you’d better wait, Mewtwo. The situation’s uncertain, and…” She almost says Sabrina isn’t here, but that hasn’t always been a requirement.

“I’ve taken walks in the rain before. Earthquakes are new, but what’s the worst that happens? If these may truly be my last few hours of life anyway… surely you wouldn’t deny me that?”

It’s a trick. She knows it’s a trick, knows it deep in her bones.

No, that’s just fear talking. Her options are simple: deny it, and force its hand if it refuses to comply, or… if it’s not a trick…

Deprive the experiment its final wish before it dies. Even assuming it’s not a trick, would that be enough to anger it, make it force her hand?

No. There’s still a chance that the earthquakes end, that they can return downstairs and repair any damage and save it. She tries to hold to that, even as she reaches into her pocket to slide her fingers around the remote for the failsafe built into its suit.

“I hope they won’t be, but yes, you’re right. May I accompany you?”

“Of course, Doctor. I’d hoped you would.”


In three caves deep in forgotten temples of Hoenn, rock and metal and ice shift, and lights glow in patterns ancient and terrible.

Hearts and Minds

I was commissioned to write a short story set in the universe of a new superhero comic series called Incident Report. The basic premise is pretty straightforward: a substantial minority of people started developing powers in the not too distant past, and in the modern day the government tries to keep track of everyone who develops powers, called Chimerans.  

My story is unconnected from the main plot of the comics, and is just a “what if” scenario I thought would be neat. Hope you enjoy it!


Vanessa’s stomach growls as she walks through the clinic toward her team’s office. It’s long past lunch time, but the day’s been packed, and she didn’t want to eat out while the food she brought sat in the fridge. As long as there isn’t another call in the next ten minutes, she can heat it up…

But when she opens the door and her eyes go to the corkboard beside it, she curses at the single white sheet pinned there.

Sharice clucks her tongue. “Language, hon.”

“Why didn’t you tell me there was another call waiting?”

“Because it just came in, obviously. Your timing is perfect though. This one sounds serious.”

Vanessa takes the call sheet off the wall with a sigh, scanning for the relevant info from long habit. Kaylee Thomas, 13 years old, cuts along inner arms (horizontal, thankfully), no known history of hospitalization… Ah, there it is: after a couple weeks of absences she was brought to school by a truant officer, and once there she “Refused to leave car until school let out,” saying she would kill herself if forced to go in.

Vanessa frowns at the clock above the door. It’s late for a school call. “She’s still in the cop car, or in the school now?”

“School.” Vanessa’s coworker laces her hands over a seven-months-pregnant stomach as she leans back in her chair. “Police escorted her in once all the kids were gone, and administration called for an assessment.”

“Any plan or intent?” Most schools just ask how someone would kill themselves if they were going to, and take whatever answer given as proof that they need to be hospitalized. Almost anyone could give an answer to that question, but a real suicidal plan, the kind required for an involuntary hospitalization, involves a specific method and time frame.

“Yeah, actually. Said she’d run into traffic as soon as school ended.”

Okay, that might qualify. Still, something’s weird with this. “She stayed in the car the entire day?”

“Apparently he only got her around lunch time: caught her napping at home. No one seems to know why she suddenly stopped going to school, she won’t talk to anyone there, and the school’s afraid to send her home without knowing if she’ll act on her threat.”

“Huh. What did the parents say?”

“No one’s spoken to them yet. School said they’ve only got the mom on file, and reached out without getting an answer.”

Vanessa raises a brow. “Do you believe them?”

Sharice’s answer is a simple eyeroll. “Though if they are lying, I wouldn’t blame them in a case like this.”

Vanessa sighs and nods. There’s a whole list of reasons why schools might lie about getting parental permission for an assessment (or at least not try too hard to get it), some bad, others understandable. Such as when they suspect abuse at home. “Alright. I’ll head back out now, then.”

“Have you even had lunch yet?”

Vanessa smiles. “Better question is, have I had breakfast?”

“Damn girl, go get some food first! David will be done with his call soon, I can send him instead. The kid’s been sitting for hours already, she’s not going anywhere.”

She hesitates, tempted. She is hungry. But the idea of leaving Kaylee waiting even an extra fifteen minutes in a room, probably scared and uncertain about what’s coming next… Vanessa wouldn’t be able to enjoy whatever she eats.

Besides… David’s a good clinician, but she’s got a secret weapon that he doesn’t. And this may be a case where she needs to use it. “I’ll be okay. Not feeling faint just yet.”

Sharice shakes her head and reaches into her drawer, then tosses a granola bar at Vanessa. She catches it on her clipfolder with a smile. “Thanks Shar, I’ll grab you a frosty on the way back.”

“Chocolate would be lovely. I’ll call the school to let them know you’re on your way; they sounded antsy on the phone.”


Dismissal is over by the time Vanessa arrives, thankfully, so she doesn’t have to muscle her car through a line of parents and buses or worry about what will happen if the assessment runs long and the child misses their bus. She parks in one of the empty staff spots (she’s not sure if she’s allowed to, but no one’s called her on it yet at other schools) and heads for the front office.

It’s only a minute before she’s being led to the guidance offices. The school counselor, Mrs. Williams, repeats most of what Vanessa already knows as she leads her to where the girl is being kept, giving the overall impression of an overworked waitress handing off a particularly large stack of plates. “Still no word from any of the emergency contact numbers,” she says as their heels clack against the polished floors. “But we’ll keep trying. Do you want to talk to them if we get one on the line?”

“Not if the assessment is still going on, but maybe after. How does she normally get home?”

“Bus.”

“So if I clear her to go home, what will you do?”

The question seems to throw Mrs. Williams off balance, as if she hadn’t even considered that as a possibility. “I suppose we’d let her go… But we need to speak with her mother about a number of things, regardless.”

They reach the meeting room where Kaylee is being kept, and Vanessa feels a prickle of unease as she sees a School Resource Officer leaning against the wall near the door. If the girl can’t be de-escalated and needs to be hospitalized, it would be good to have the officer nearby, and some cops are a pleasure to work with. But she’s also had experiences where the police have hospitalized the kid even after her assessment has cleared them, and that always makes her feel like she participated in a betrayal of sorts.

“You’ll be doing the assessment?” he asks as she approaches, voice low.

“Yeah,” she says, matching him. “Have you already?”

“Just tried a threat report, but she wasn’t talking. Up to you to see if she does. If you can get her to do a safety plan or something, great, otherwise I’ll be taking her.”

Vanessa nods, glad he’s at least being upfront about it. For her assessments, not answering questions isn’t on its own enough to hospitalize someone, but she knows police follow their own rules. At least the hospital will do its own assessment once Kaylee gets there, if that happens. “I appreciate the assistance. Would you mind standing a bit farther from the door though, to ensure privacy?”

He nods and makes his way farther down the hall before leaning against the opposite wall instead. “Thank you,” she says to both the officer and Mrs. Williams. Vanessa enters the room and gets her first look at her client.

Small for her age, with wavy brown hair and dark shadows under her eyes. She’s wearing jeans and a soft navy hoodie with sleeves long enough to hide most of her hands in, just the fingers poking out. The room itself is a standard school meeting area, with an oval central table of some fake wood, random bookshelves and storage containers lining the walls, and a dark, bland carpet that contributes at least a third of what she has come to think of as the “standard school smell,” along with markers and whatever cleaning supplies are used on the tile halls daily.

“Hello,” Vanessa says as she sits at the opposite end from Kaylee, putting her clipfolder aside and smiling. “I’m Vanessa. Did they tell you I was coming and why, or do you have no idea who I am?”

Kaylee glances at her, then shakes her head, gaze back down at the table.

“I’m from HealthNet’s mobile crisis team. We go out to schools and homes and basically anywhere else in the county if someone’s worried they or someone else might hurt themselves or someone else. The officer said you expressed some suicidal thoughts, so I’m just here to make sure you’re safe. You’re not in any trouble or anything.”

The girl looks at her again, then away, and Vanessa feels her worry grow. If she doesn’t speak at all, the officer would take her for sure. “Have you ever been in therapy before?” A head shake. That’s a start. “Well let’s go over confidentiality, then. Whatever we talk about in here, no one else is going to know about it. It’s completely private, with two exceptions. One, if someone’s life is in immediate danger, I have to report it. And two, if there’s been any kind of child abuse, whether physical, sexual, or emotional, I have to report that too, unless it’s already been reported. Okay?” A nod, and Vanessa starts to feel a bit better. “Great. So with that in mind—”

“M’I going to the hospital?” the girl asks, voice barely audible.

Vanessa keeps her gaze steady on the girl’s, until she looks up to meet it. “Do you want to go?” If she does, she’ll likely go, but Vanessa hopes she can at least try to de-escalate so that it’s not necessary.

The girl seems surprised to be asked, for a moment, then shakes her head.

“Then don’t worry about that for now. It’s a possibility, but it’s not my goal. It all depends on what happens here. On what you need.” If the girl can just convince her that she doesn’t want to kill herself, Vanessa is happy to transition to writing a safety plan and connect her to services before telling the officer outside that all’s well.

Kaylee is quiet a moment, then says. “Don’t want to actually kill myself.”

Vanessa nods, feeling a trickle of relief. She can’t count how many times she’s had this conversation with clients that say alarming things when they’re upset, and are calmer by the time she arrives. But still… the cuts on the wrist are concerning. “Why did you say it, then?”

“Was just… upset.”

“That’s understandable. A lot of people say things they don’t mean when they’re upset.” She leans back in her chair, getting a little more comfortable now that the session is likely to start in earnest. “Can I ask what upset you?” Bullies, maybe… Or something at home… hopefully not anything worse…

“Bullies.”

“Ah.” Vanessa nods. “What were they bullying you about?”

Kaylee’s eyes glance between hers, and her brow furrows before her gaze drops to the table. Vanessa waits patiently. Silence is important, for therapy. The option to really think about their answers, or how they feel about something, is almost non-existent in most people’s day to day lives, especially in conversations where they would naturally worry about the other person growing impatient.

“Everything we say in here is private?” Kaylee finally asks.

“With those two exceptions,” Vanessa confirms, preparing herself for anything the girl might say so that she doesn’t react with surprise. It helps that she genuinely doesn’t find most things shocking; particularly after working in the field for awhile, but desensitization to the weirdness of humanity was always a trait that seemed tied to her interest in psychology. “Nothing leaves this room.”

“I… kissed a girl. And someone saw. And they called me names.” Kaylee shrugs. “It just bothered me, that’s all. But I wouldn’t actually kill myself. I’m fine, now.”

“Ah. I’m sorry, that was very cruel of them.” And saddening. It always surprises her when she hears or sees about stuff like this; for the most part, the new generation is even more accepting than hers was at their age. But obviously they’re a long way from perfect. “I’m glad to hear you’re not planning to actually kill yourself, but I’m curious to know if you really think ‘fine’ is the best way to describe what you’ve been going through. They said there were cuts, too. Can I see?”

Kaylee hesitates, then rolls up her sleeves. Vanessa doesn’t wince, but internally there’s a pang of pity. Both arms look like they’ve been used as sharpening boards, lines covering the girl’s dark skin from elbow to wrist. Thankfully most don’t look particularly deep, though the newer ones are still red and inflamed. “So you’ve been feeling bad for a while, looks like,” Vanessa says as she leans back and Kaylee hides her arms again. “This time you might have just said that because you were upset, but what about next time? I’m worried that it might get worse, if the person who saw you says it again, or someone else does. Do you think they’ll have told others?”

“No.” The girl seems adamant, shaking her head. “They won’t. I know them.”

“I see.” She considers gently challenging this idea, then decides to table her skepticism for now. “So you’ve never actually tried to kill yourself?”

“No.”

“Have you made any suicidal gestures?” Self-harm is close enough, but Vanessa wants to make sure she hasn’t held a knife over her heart, or wrapped a noose around her neck. After a moment Kaylee shakes her head. “Do you know what that means?”

“Like holding a knife to my chest?”

A note of disquiet goes through Vanessa. Kaylee is a lot more confident now than when she first walked in, which isn’t too unusual, but while she’s saying all the right things, there’s something about her responses that feel canned. “Alright. So why don’t we do a safety plan, just in case something similar happens in the future?” She takes a blank form out of her clipfolder and slides it across the table. “And so we can find you some better coping skills.”

Kaylee looks uncertain for a moment, then nods, and Vanessa is about to start guiding her through it when the girl starts filling it out on her own, pen quickly scribbling a few words in each box that Vanessa can just barely read.

Presenting Problem: feeling sad

Triggers: bullying

Social Support and Coping Skills: friends, music

“Have you filled one of these out before?” Vanessa asks as her unease grows.

The girl slows down, glancing up at her. “Why?”

“I’m just used to some discussion first.”

“Yeah, I have. Is that bad?”

“Maybe. Depends what it was about.” If it was the same situation, then clearly it didn’t help much, and they really should go into more depth with this one…

“Not the same thing.” Kaylee is quiet a moment, staring at her, and Vanessa waits again, focusing again on how important patience is.

As she watches the girl eventually return to the paper, brow furrowed, the therapist reluctantly comes to a decision. The biggest risk in a job like this, the part that can often keep clinicians up at night, is whether they made the right call to not hospitalize someone who might actually kill themselves. She knows there are many who would call what she’s about to do unethical, but she assuages her conscience as best she can by following a strict code: she only uses it when she thinks the client is trying to trick her out of going to the hospital, while actually intending to kill themselves.

So Vanessa takes a deep breath, then slowly lets it out and focuses on Kaylee, invests all of her attention on every part of the person sitting across from her, until she feels her moment to moment internal experiences being swiftly replaced with–

sadnessdeterminationdeceptiondespair

–Vanessa sucks in a much sharper breath as the intense emotions pour through her, watching as Kaylee freezes in place, then looks up to meet her gaze–

warinesscuriositySHOCK

–heart hammering as the girl’s eyes widen to a comical size, and–

ALARMPANIC

–Kaylee’s breathing quickens as she suddenly shoves away from the table until her back is against the wall, and Vanessa finally breaks her concentration as she stares at the wall just above the girl’s forehead, feeling her own confused swirl of emotions replace those of her client’s.

“How did you-”

“Did you just-”

They both pause and stare (mostly) at each other a moment longer, while Vanessa’s thoughts rapidly replay the session so far. Kaylee knew exactly what to say, at each moment, to diffuse Vanessa’s worry… until that became suspicious, and then she stopped…

Stopped what, exactly?

Kaylee’s face abruptly shifts to chagrin and fear before she looks down at the floor, face carefully blank.

…stopped reading my thoughts?

The girl twitches, and Vanessa doesn’t need her powers to sense the teenager’s fear.

As the reality settles in that she’s in the room with a telepath, Vanessa’s pulse quickens as she starts worrying about what embarrassing thoughts she might have that she doesn’t want the girl to read. Of course, that makes her start thinking of them, and as the urge to flee the room rises, she instead closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, then lets it out, grounding herself in the sensations of her breaths, steering her attention away from anything dangerous that might float to the surface of her thoughts.

In… cool air rushing through the nostrils, expanding her lungs until her chest feels tight, then… out… A warmer rush as her body relaxes, followed by another breath in, and another out, until little by little she feels more in control. She doesn’t know how deep the telepathy goes, but as long as she tries not to think of any pink elephants, hopefully they would be okay.

“So this is a bit of a pickle,” Vanessa says after another few moments of tense silence. “One I hope we’ll both be able to look back at and laugh about, someday.”

“Are you… are you going to…?”

Vanessa doesn’t even have to consider it. “Remember what I said? Only two things require me to break confidentiality, and despite the government’s preference to have all chimerans registered, this isn’t one of them. And to be honest…” You’re not the only one with secrets.

Kaylee blinks at her. “You haven’t told anyone?”

“No. I’m happy to talk about this, but would you like to return to your seat first?”

There’s another moment of silence, then Kaylee finally moves back to her chair and cautiously sits down.

Vanessa has a dozen questions she wants to ask, but first she needs to confirm whether anyone else knows her client’s secret. As soon as she settles on the thought, Kaylee flinches and looks down at the table, and Vanessa picks up on her shame, which starts to grow as soon as Vanessa recognizes it.

“Hey, it’s alright. No judgment here, I just wanted to make sure.” She tries to imagine it, being able to read the thoughts of all her classmates and friends and family, and fails. Particularly if… Oh. Shit. “You can’t turn it off, can you?”

“No,” the girl whispers, and suddenly lets her head fall forward so it can rest against the table, eyes closing against tears before she buries her face in her arms.

Vanessa stands and goes to the door, opening it a crack. “Would you mind getting us some tissues and water, please?”

The SRO looks at her in surprise, and Vanessa can feel his uncertainty, along with some indignation. She thinks he’s about to call for someone else to do it.

“We’re fine for now,” she adds, and puts on a smile. “I think we’re past the worst of it.”

He nods and goes. Vanessa closes the door and leans against the wall as she watches the girl, the desire to put a comforting hand on her shoulder warring with her inclination to keep a professional distance in case that’s what Kaylee needs right now. Vanessa knows that at least nine times out of ten it’s appropriate, but it always feels so cold, particularly right now…

…and Kaylee can probably “hear” everything she just thought anyway. Maybe that helps. She hopes it does.

The girl looks up at Vanessa with wet eyes, suddenly. “It does. A little.”

This is so weird. She smiles, though, thinking that she’s not in much of a position to talk. There’s a knock on the door, and she opens it and thanks the officer before she sits back down and offers the water bottle and tissue box to Kaylee, who uses some to wipe her face. So… how does yours work?

“It’s like a voice in my head. Like your thoughts are just part of mine.”

“Is it uncomfortable?” she asks, wondering if she should stick to speaking out loud, but Kaylee is shaking her head.

“It’s not as bad when it’s just a few people.”

“A few? Oh. It works through walls, then…” Kaylee nods, looking miserable, and Vanessa feels her heart sink. “…and you’ve been stuck in school day after day. I’m so sorry. How long has this been going on?”

“Started a few weeks ago,” Kaylee murmurs, gaze on the table. “It was faint at first. I thought… thought I was going crazy…” Her voice fades, and another tear trickles down her cheek before she wipes it away. Vanessa is about to suggest that she drink some water when the girl opens it on her own and takes a swallow.

“What’s the range on it? Would it help if I asked the officer outside to stand farther away?”

She shakes her head. “He would be… quieter. But I can hear up to the parking lot.”

Vanessa grimaces. That’s a lot of voices to hear at once, while school is in session. “Is that when all this started?” She gestures at her own arms.

“Mostly.”

Vanessa waits, radiating simple curiosity, and eventually Kaylee sighs. “Tried it when the depression was bad, before, but it didn’t help much.” She shrugs a shoulder. “Now it distracts me.”

“I’ll bet it does.” Vanessa steeples her hands together and rests her chin on them, trying to organize her racing thoughts. Best to get back to the assessment itself, first. “So. We’ve got a problem, because at this point I’d take a pinky-swear over that safety plan.”

“Can just pretend you don’t know anything,” Kaylee mutters.

“I can’t, actually. Ethical and professional obligation.”

A hint of fire enters Kaylee’s gaze as she gives the therapist a skeptical look. “Those include using powers to read people’s thoughts?”

“Emotions, not thoughts,” Vanessa corrects, a tad defensively. And pointlessly, since Kaylee obviously knows that already. “I would apologize, but since you were lying about not wanting to kill yourself, I don’t feel too guilty about it.” This isn’t strictly true, she feels fairly guilty every time no matter what she finds, she’s just ignoring the guilt because it doesn’t change her choice of what seems like a pretty clear lesser of two evils.

“That’s bullshit,” Kaylee mutters, and it takes a moment for Vanessa to remember that she’s probably responding to her thoughts, not her words. “Not your business if I want to die.”

“I mean, it sort of is, but I get why you feel that way.” Vanessa shrugs, uncomfortable with having to justify herself. Not a good sign, that. “Sorry. My only defense is that I only use it to make sure kids don’t kill themselves.” At least she can say that honestly, and to someone who can actually tell she’s being honest… “Oh, and that one time at the grocery store, when that creepy guy was following me to my car.”

Kaylee slumps back in her seat, gazing at the wall. “Whatever. Used to grownups telling kids what’s good for them. Taking locks off doors, looking through phones, reading journals…”

The bitterness in her voice is real enough that Vanessa knows she’s not talking hypothetically. She doesn’t even disagree with that bitterness, really. “Believe it or not… and I know you will… I do sympathize. You still live in an era where kids are a second class citizen. If it makes you feel better, when you’re 18 far fewer people will try to stop you from killing yourself if you still want to. In the meantime, what do you say we start the assessment over?”

Kaylee looks up at her in surprise, and Vanessa holds a palm out. “I’m not promising I won’t send you to the hospital after all. But I do really want to know if it’s possible to ensure you’re safe without it. A lot of the kids I see want to kill themselves when we start talking, but sometimes we can change that.”

“How?”

“Well, let’s do the safety plan for real and see what we come up with.” She takes a new one out and starts writing. “Presenting problem is suicidal thoughts, depression, and self-harm. Right?” Kaylee gives a reluctant nod. “Triggers?”

Again that fiery look. “What do you think?”

“Right, sorry.” Vanessa will take irritation and sarcasm over hopelessness any day. She purses her lips in thought as she taps the paper with her pen. “The thing is, your mom will get a copy of this, and the school might too if it asks her for one. We don’t want to put anything on this that you don’t want others to know about, and I don’t want to diagnose you with something false…”

Kaylee looks nervous as she watches her, until Vanessa thinks of a solution. “I’m just going to put ‘racing thoughts,’ and you’ll know what that means, right?” Kaylee nods, relief obvious. “Alright, anything else?”

“…My mom.”

The pen pauses above the sheet. It’s a bold move, coming right after she was told her mother would see it. “Anything specific?”

“Can’t talk to her about anything. She thinks I’m making the depression up, that I’m lazy and selfish. Wonders what she did to deserve me.”

The girl’s blunt tone makes Vanessa’s heart hurt. “Does she say all that, or just think it? I’ve known parents to say it, but just want to make sure.”

“She thinks it.”

“Okay.” Vanessa considers this a moment, searching for some hope to offer the girl. “And to be clear, you don’t sense emotions, right? Only thoughts?”

“Yeah.”

Vanessa fiddles with the pen cap, then says, “I don’t know your mom, but this job gives a pretty large, if skewed, sample of parents in general. So I don’t want you to dismiss what I’m about to say as me just not understanding. I’ve met some really shitty parents. Yours might be one of them. I’ve also met a lot of kids who think their parents don’t care about them, because they don’t let them have their way all the time. Not saying that’s you, hell, because of your power you’re one of the few that might actually know for sure. I just want to make sure you don’t assume that thoughts and feelings are the same thing. Just because she thinks those things… well, they probably still make her a bad parent. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about you, in her own way.” Of course, if she only thinks those things, or worse, then she probably doesn’t… and from the skepticism she can sense from Kaylee, the girl isn’t buying it. “In any case, I want to make sure she doesn’t get more mad at you from this, if possible, so I’m thinking that ‘arguing with mom’ might work better. Is that okay?”

Kaylee shrugs, gaze on the table. “Sure.”

“Am I losing you again?”

The girl looks up at her. “No.”

“You’ll tell me if I am?”

“Go ahead and check.”

Vanessa blinks at her bitter tone, and Kaylee’s expression softens a bit as she looks away again. “Sorry. I mean it, check. It’s easier than explaining.”

“Alright.” Vanessa focuses on the girl enough to bring deeper emotions bubbling back up to engulf her own. Weariness. Hopelessness. “Uh. That’s… not reassuring.”

“Oh.” Kaylee shifts in her seat, clearly disturbed. “It really is just feelings.”

“Yes.” Vanessa raises a brow. “You didn’t pick that up before, from my thoughts?”

“It’s not always… thoughts are weird, and I don’t always get everything that I ‘hear.’ I only get the words, if that, but not…”

“Concepts?” Vanessa offers. “You can ‘hear’ what I think, in the moment, but you don’t know what I know.”

Kaylee considers this, then nods, and Vanessa is still processing this fascinating insight when she says, “Anyway, I thought you’d be able to tell that I don’t want to kill myself anymore. Right now, I mean. Probably will again after you leave, but…” She shrugs, looking away.

“I also sensed hopelessness?” Vanessa tentatively asks.

“That was… mostly about my mom.”

“I see.” Vanessa considers digging into that, then decides not to. She looks back at the safety plan to refocus herself. “What about other sources of social support?”

“Don’t want to tell anyone.”

“I don’t necessarily mean you have to, just wondering in general who helps you through difficult times. Though now that you’ve brought it up, I’m curious to know why you don’t want to tell anyone.”

“I can’t,” the girl says, voice gaining a hint of panic. “If the government finds out, they’ll… they’ll want to use me, turn me into a spy, or worse! Have you ever heard of someone that can do this?”

Vanessa holds a hand up again to calm her, and to remind her to keep her voice down. “I get it. You know I guessed as much, just wanted to make sure I’m not assuming anything.” A therapist has to remain curious; the moment they start assuming they know what their client thinks and feels, the moment they start to overstep and miss what really matters to them; her other guesses included not wanting people to be afraid of her finding out their secrets or hearing their embarrassing thoughts. Vanessa is actually a little surprised that the girl is more worried about the government’s potential response than her social life. It shows a certain maturity. Or paranoia.

Not that I’m one to talk.

Kaylee looked like she was about to say something, but that thought makes her stop and close her mouth, frowning slightly, and Vanessa gives her a wry smile. “You’re right, I haven’t heard of someone with my own power before, let alone a real telepath. I don’t know if it’s because you’re the first, or just that the rest have been tucked away somewhere quiet. Neither possibility is reassuring for either of us. But what I care more about right now is that there’s a chance you could control it. You don’t want to give up on your life before you’ve really tried, do you?”

“How? How would I do that?”

“I’m not sure,” Vanessa admits. “There must have at least a couple Chimerans in your grade. Maybe they would be able to help?”

She snorts. “One can play with water a bit, the other always knows where north is no matter how many times he spins around. Don’t think so.”

“What about just social support?” She taps the corresponding box on the safety plan. “Friends, other family, teachers? People you can talk to just about how you’re feeling, if not why? People who give you a shoulder to lean on, or a hug at the right time?”

“Can’t talk to friends,” she mutters. “Not fair to them, and there’s nothing they can do. My only other family is my aunt, and she might tell my mom. Grandparents are in Jamaica, they can’t do anything.”

“I see.” Vanessa fiddles with her pen again. “I do want to note that you shouldn’t underestimate how much it might help to have people who are aware of at least part of what you’re going through, and are supportive. I get not wanting to burden your friends or family, but just like I’m sure you would want to be there for them, if they were going through something like this, keep in mind that they probably feel the same way.” Kaylee shrugs, and after a moment Vanessa tries a different dimension. “What about anyone at school?”

Kaylee shakes her head. “They won’t care. No one here really does.”

“What makes you think–” she stops as she remembers again who she’s talking to. “Can I ask… what does ‘not caring’ sound like, to you?”

Kaylee closes her eyes. “They don’t think about what I’m going through, when we talk. They think about how to get me to do what they want, or how I’m taking them away from their work, or how I’m just doing things for attention.”

Vanessa swallows, then murmurs, “I’m sorry. Does that include the lady who walked me here, Mrs. Williams? She seemed concerned about you.”

Kaylee shrugs. “A little. But she was also thinking of when she could go home.” And then before Vanessa can tell her that’s just how people think, it doesn’t mean they don’t care, Kaylee’s face crumples with some intense emotion. Vanessa focuses again, and a storm of pain and despair moves through her, taking her breath like a punch to the gut.

She quickly shuts her power down again to keep from being overwhelmed as Kaylee’s tears return, making slow tracks down her cheeks. “I don’t know what to do,” the girl whispers, making no move to wipe the tears away or hide them this time.

Vanessa tries to think of something to say, anything at all, other than just another apology. Years of education and professional experience, thousands of hours in front of hundreds of clients, and nothing else comes to mind. Sometimes, when the situation is bad enough, there’s just nothing else to say. Even offering to lie to others about what Kaylee is going through would lead to more complications, and there’s no lie that Vanessa can think of that would keep Kaylee both out of school or the hospital, which is just as full of people for her thoughts to be crowded by.

“I wish I had some advice to give you,” Vanessa finally says, partially desperate to say something, to fill the silence that’s usually her ally in getting people to think deeply. “It’s not usually our thing, advice. A lot of people think that’s what therapy is for, but… it’s more about finding the right tools, together, the ones that fit best for you, so you can do more of the things you want, or less the things you don’t, or better understand yourself, or better understand others… and chimerism adds a whole new dimension to our work, because it’s so different for everyone, and everyone’s experience of it is so unique.”

Kaylee is silent for a moment, and Vanessa tries to think of another question to ask until the girl surprises her by asking her own. “What was it like for you?”

Vanessa’s smile is small, and bitter. “That’s… part of what I meant about wishing I could give you advice. I may be the only chimeran who can’t actually remember exactly when she got her powers. It was just a few years ago, and I was already working in therapy. Very late bloomer. I didn’t realize it was happening at the time, just thought I was getting really good at empathizing with people… until one day I nearly burst into tears after walking into a room with a grieving client, before he even said anything.”

Kaylee is watching her with an intense curiosity, and Vanessa realizes it’s the first time the girl has ever spoken with another Chimeran who knows what she is. It could help just knowing what others have been through, however different the experience. “I thought it was just hormones, at first, until I realized it wasn’t going away. Every week, every session, each of my clients’ moods were as obvious to me as my own. A therapist should practically never say ‘I know how you feel’ to a client, but I was quickly becoming something of an exception to that.”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

Vanessa shrugs, and this time she’s the one that drops her gaze. This… is probably not going to make Kaylee want to share her own secret. But she’s never lied to a client, and she’s not about to start with a mindreader. “I love my work. I love learning about people, and talking with them about what they’re going through, and helping them find the right mental and emotional tools… and I was afraid. Am afraid. That if I get found out, I won’t be able to do all that anymore. I know chimeran discrimination is supposed to be illegal, but even if my boss and coworkers are okay with it, people might not want a therapist who can actually know what they’re feeling. Especially for their kids. Some would, but maybe not the ones I’d want to work with, and in any case it would just be another distraction from the work itself.”

Kaylee is still watching her with the same intense curiosity. “Is it just… clients?”

“At first, yeah. Then I tested it with others, practiced with friends first, then strangers. Cashiers, people at restaurants, moviegoers… Eventually realized there’s a sort of mindset I have to be in, a level of focus that, when I direct it at someone, I start to feel what they feel.”

“Can you teach it to me?” Kaylee’s expression and tone are nearly burning with hope, suddenly, and Vanessa hesitates, trying to find a way around snuffing it out while staying honest.

That thought alone is enough to make the girl flinch back, the sudden passion in her eyes fading as soon as it appeared.

“I don’t think it would work,” Vanessa quickly says, then tries to explain. “It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just… our powers are very different, even if they seem similar. The fact that yours is always on makes me realize how lucky I am. If I couldn’t turn mine off I probably would have wanted to kill myself too.” She sighs. “I’m happy to try teaching you some meditation techniques that might help distract you from all the crowding thoughts, but right now I need to make a decision about where you go next, home or the hospital, and since we can’t know how well it would work surrounded by people… you see? Even if I give the all clear and you don’t go to the hospital, you’ll still be expected to come to school tomorrow.”

Kaylee absorbs all this quietly, maybe checking Vanessa’s thoughts for sincerity, then looks up at her with solemn eyes. “What would you do, if you were me?”

“I try not to ever answer that question,” Vanessa says. “But I think you’re smart enough to come to the same answer I would. Who, among everyone in the world, is the most likely to understand what you’re going through?”

Her reluctance is clear from the way she drops her gaze. “Other chimerans,” Kaylee admits.

“And how could you get the most access to a wider variety of them, or experts on them?”

“…by reporting myself,” she says, voice quiet.

Vanessa spreads open palms to the sides. “I understand your fear. You know I do. But remember that there are schools specifically for young chimerans. Even if they don’t have one for kids with powers like yours… at least they’ll be smaller. Or they could arrange for you to be homeschooled, until you learn to control it.”

“But then my mom…”

“I know. And if your mom is as bad as she seems… the government may step in there, too. But would that be so bad?”

“It might be, if they lock me up in a box to study.”

Vanessa tries to find something reassuring to say in the face of the fear that’s rolling off the young girl in waves. But nothing comes to mind, and still nothing, and it doesn’t help that she knows Kaylee can tell she’s just sitting here with dwindling hope.

She can finish the safety plan. Teach her some coping skills, find out what circumstances make things worse, make her promise to call her for help if things get bad. But the real dilemma is that only the ICA can keep her safe, both from her powers and from others… and how can Vanessa suggest her contacting them when she, over twice Kaylee’s age, won’t even do it herself?

Her own fear suddenly shames her, as does her inability to defend her actions earlier. A therapist is supposed to be as separate from the system they interact with as possible… but if she’s not a therapist, then she doesn’t have the same burden of objectivity. She could do it. Report herself, and then…

Vanessa feels herself shy away from that conclusion, and the thought comes a heartbeat later:

Am I really going to risk throwing my career away for a girl I just met?

And seeing Kaylee’s eyes widen makes the decision that much easier, her hurt and hopeless expression not quite masked quick enough… then replaced by confusion as she senses Vanessa’s next thoughts a moment before she speaks them out loud.

“I’ll do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Vanessa’s fear is still there, and her uncertainty, and her worry. But she knows she’s making the right decision. “I’ll pretend I can’t control mine either. Whatever happens to you… we’ll face it together.”

Kaylee’s tears return, and then she’s out of her chair and moving around the table until she’s clinging to Vanessa, who holds her tight. “Sometimes you have to trust people,” she whispers as the girl’s hot tears soak her shirt. “To be more than their worst thoughts.”

Because Prophecy

Robert was on his way to the orphanage when the wizard appeared in a flash of light, dressed in rich blue and gold robes and holding a staff.

Most citizens of the kingdom wouldn’t have recognized the Grand High Wizard, though he looks in every way how an old and powerful wizard should. His face wasn’t on the coinage, like the Queen or her ancestors, nor was he on the law proclamations, like the Minister of Justice. But Robert recognized him instantly from the inked sketch on the back of the Basic Book of Sorcery that his orphanage had in its small library; he’d read it countless times as a child, hoping (in vain) that he might unlock his own magical potential, and always ended up staring at the face of the man who wrote and distributed it around the kingdom, wondering what he was like.

The Grand High Wizard looked a little older now than when the book was written, though not noticeably so compared to the forty years that changed Robert from an adolescent boy into a middle-aged balding man with a paunch.

“Robert Landson,” the most powerful man in the kingdom intoned, piercing blue eyes on his. “I come to tell you of a prophecy.”

Robert’s heart, already having lurched into a gallop at the sudden appearance of the powerful (politically and magically) figure before him, redoubled in speed.

“About… me?” he gasped, hardly able to believe this was happening. He’d dreamt of this day for so long…  the day a wizard (even this wizard!) would show up at his orphanage and declare that he had the spark of magic in him, and so must be whisked away to the Academy, or, when the Queen’s father died, that he was a long lost heir, now needed to be brought to court and trained in the ways of rule, or…

“About you,” the Grand High Wizard confirmed, only to then add, “We think.”

Robert blinked. “You… what?”

“Prophecies are difficult to fully understand,” the Grand High Wizard said, tone grave and serious, and not at all apologetic.

Robert looked around as if for help, but as usual he took a quiet road from his home to the orphanage that he grew up in, which he now runs. There was no one else around to see his world utterly changing. “Well… yes, of course. What does it say?”

“It is sixteen stanzas of an ancient tongue, written in a style where the cadence of the couplets give vital context to their meaning. It would take years of study for you to understand it.”

“Right. Of course. But… it’s  probably about me?”

“Mm.” The wizard took one hand off his staff and rocked it side to side like a seesaw. “The word probably implies that the weight of chance is in your favor. I would say it’s possibly about you, and while normally rational beliefs follow probabilities and not mere possibilities, in this case the cost of covering every possibility is low, and the potential value if it is you too high to not tell you anyway.”

Robert stared at him. This was not the way he imagined being told by the most powerful wizard in the land that he was destined to save the kingdom and/or world. Not that he imagined being in his forties, balding, and with a paunch, either. Also the wizard didn’t seem to have a magic sword. In the prophecy daydreams, there was always a magic sword.

He rallied himself with a deep breath. “I understand. I need to tell my wife and children, and get the affairs at the orphanage in order, but after that, I am ever at the kingdom’s service. What must I do?”

“That will not be necessary. There will be a girl who may come to your orphanage soon,” the Grand High Wizard intoned. “With hair like raven wings and skin like mahogany. Her eyes will be like coals, her stature like that of any her age. She will help save this kingdom, in its darkest time.”

Robert swallowed as a mix of emotions played through him. Fear at the darkest time mentioned; fear for his children (both biological and non), his wife and himself, the people of his town. Disappointment, that the prophecy didn’t actually require he save the kingdom… but also a quiet sense of relief, given the way his back aches when he sits for too long and the pain in his upper arms when he lifts his children up. Part of him wished all this had happened earlier, that he could be young again and off on an adventure, but… with a loving wife at home, and two children who needed him, not to mention all those at the orphanage, this…


Well, it made much more sense. But he also felt confusion as he considered the grave words again. “That… description. It could apply to half the girls at my orphanage.”

“Yes. As I said, prophecies are difficult things to understand. This was the best we could do.”

Robert almost asked how he would identify her, then realized maybe it would become obvious in some other way… “Am I to guide her, then? Protect her? Raise her as my own?”

“No,” the Grand High Wizard said. “You are to treat her in every way as normally and fairly as you can. Punish her when she misbehaves. Do not give her extra food or treats. See to it that she is clothed, fed, and educated the same as everyone else at the orphanage… with one exception.”

Robert’s confusion grew with each command… it seemed like he would have treated her the same way he normally strived to for all his children, in which case the prophecy seemed pointless… until the exception was mentioned. “Yes?”

“It may be difficult,” the Grand High Wizard warned. “I do not know the depth of your character, or the hardships that may have forged you into who you are. Perhaps this will require great fortitude, and faith that it is for the greater good.”

The bottom dropped out of Robert’s stomach, but no, he wouldn’t be asked to kill the girl or mistreat her, not after everything else he was told, would he? “I understand. What is it the prophecy said I must do?”

“She will have a roommate that picks on her.” The Grand High Wizard leaned forward, piercing blue eyes seeming to pin Robert in place. “She will be bullied fiercely, all without letting you or others know.”

“The poor girl.” As if being responsible for the fate of the kingdom would not be enough to darken her life… “I should try to find who will do this to her, then?”

“No. Would I be right in guessing you may offer her a glass of milk with honey, if she comes to you in tears to speak of it?”

Awe stirred in Robert’s chest. Perhaps the prophecy was about him! “Yes, I do that often with children who need solace!”

“Then what you must do is not put honey in her milk.”

Robert stared at him.

The wizard stared back, brow like angry raptor wings.

“…and?”

“That’s it. Will you?”

“Will I… put honey in her milk?”

“If she comes to you in tears after being bullied by her roommate.”

“…No?”

The Grand High Wizard straightened. “Then our business here is concluded. I wish I could offer some further advice, or a reward for such a monumental task as falls to you, but I cannot risk such a thing interfering with the flow of Fate in unforeseen ways. Goodb-”

“Wait,” Robert said. “Hang on, just… I don’t understand. What would… why can’t she have honey in her milk? Is she allergic? Should I stop purchasing honey for the orphanage, just in case?”

“The prophecy does not say. I assume she may have honey in her milk at other times, even, or else the prophecy would have mentioned it. But on this occasion, when it occurs, she must not.” The Grand High Wizard eyed him. “Would she normally have it other times?”

“Er… I give it to children on their birthdays, or the anniversary of when they arrived if their birthdate is unknown…”

“That seems acceptable, so long as she would normally receive it, as any other child at your orphanage would. Just not if she comes to you in tears after being bullied by her roommate.”

Robert raised a hand to rub his forehead. “Right. Of course.” He’d have to stop giving all girls who matched this description honey in their milk if they came to him in tears about bullying… perhaps he would have to stop the practice entirely, which pains him. “What of the matron? She lives there full time, should I tell her, in case it happens while I am at home?”

“No, or else the prophecy would have been for her. It specified a male.”

“Yes… yes, I see.”

“Then I bid you farewe-”

“No, hang on, sorry.” He knew he was being impertinent, and the Grand High Wizard’s time was very valuable, and there were probably others who ran orphanages that he needed to tell this to, but… “Are there other prophecies about this girl?”

“Not that we’ve encountered yet.”

“Then… is it possible that there was some misunderstanding?”

“The word possible is-”

“Yes, sorry, I meant is it likely?” A part of him felt quietly horrified and in awe of himself for cutting off the Grand High Wizard, but the larger whole was still too confused to let it end like this. 

The Grand High Wizard eyed him a moment. “Is there a chance you will give a girl with hair like raven wings and skin like mahogany honey in her milk if she comes to you in tears after being bullied by her roommate if I do not answer any further questions?”

It took approximately a second for Robert to say, “Yes,” and he did not even feel that bad about the lie, only fearing in retrospect that maybe the Grand High Wizard could sense it.

Instead he sighed and waved a lazy hand. Two chairs appeared with quiet pops, fancy and comfortable as any Robert had seen, and he sat on one. After a moment Robert sat on the other. “What do you believe a prophecy is, Robert Landson?”

“Erm. Well. It’s… the gods, isn’t? Or… Fate. Or… some force, trying to right some wrongs in the world, ahead of time.”

“Could such a force not find some more direct way to do it, if it wanted?”

“Well, the gods perhaps. Though I suppose if ‘Fate’ or a similar force has the intelligence and desire to change something in the first place, it might as well be considered a god…” He shrugged, feeling a bit ashamed now of bothering the Grand High Wizard with his questions when he clearly lacked any understanding of such things. Not ashamed enough to stop, however.

“Perhaps,” the Grand High Wizard said. “But still, such forces rely on humans to act, evidently… and risk failure to act correctly, if the prophecies are not interpreted well enough, or in time. We have found prophecies that foretold of other calamities already passed, with commands in them that often seemed as strange as the one I have explained to you. Other times they had much clearer directives that could legibly have prevented the catastrophe. Most of the time, however, they seem to be pure nonsense.”

It did help, a little, to hear the wizard admit that the prophecy’s directive was strange. “Then… we need to listen to them, as best we can. I understand that. But… if this is the only prophecy we’ve heard of and deciphered about this girl, why is it not about something else? Surely there will be other, more important moments in her life and struggles against whatever threat is to come?”

“Perhaps from our perspective that is so,” the Grand High Wizard said. “But perhaps the gods do not find it such. Here is the question I pose to you, Robert Landson; all your life, you have lived in such a way that has grown you into who you are. The kind of man who overcame your hardships, and decided to give back to the institutions that shaped you. The kind of man who will help raise this future heroine into the kind of heroine that she apparently will need to be. Did you need prophetic prompting, at any time, to become who you are? Did you need divine intervention?”

Robert felt a bit uncomfortable being so praised, as he considered what he did humble work. He shrugged. “Not that I’ve been aware. Perhaps… was my own orphanage head influenced by prophecy, to shape me into who I am?”

“They were not. Just so, perhaps she will carry in her all that she needs, combined with what she gains from you and others around her, to do what must be done. But perhaps, on top of all this, there will be one such nudge that is needed, in addition, for a better future to come to pass. Perhaps she would save the kingdom regardless, but some other, worse catastrophe will occur. Perhaps nothing meaningful would change, except in how she then treats someone else who is destined to save the kingdom; the prophecy doesn’t actually say she will be personally responsible for the feat.”

Robert slowly rubbed his face. “So… the reason I’m going to deprive this girl of some honey in her milk at a particularly low moment in her childhood is that it may at some point in the future contribute to her contributing to the saving of the kingdom.”

“Possibly.”

Robert lowered his hand to look at the Grand High Wizard. Despite the serious set of his face, there was a gleam in his eyes. 

“Then why a prophecy? Why would you even frame it as a prophecy, yourself? Why not find some other way to get me to do the same thing?”

Is there something else you can imagine me saying, that would have a higher chance of getting you to act in a way that you normally would not act in? That would so utterly change your behavior and character, without changing anything else?”

Robert thinks for a minute, then five. The Grand High Wizard lets him. Finally, slowly, he shakes his head. Unlikely as it was to contemplate, he could see how even something like a reward or a threat might make him feel too protective of the girl when the moment comes, if he didn’t understand why he was doing it.

“And thus you likely will, because you have been told a prophecy possibly told you to. By the time it actually occurs, the fact of its occurrence will remove even that doubt.”

Somehow, as much as Robert pushed for it, this explanation left him feeling… hollow. As if he is but a puppet being moved by strings. The notion that his will was his own, that important things he might decide or accomplish are the result of something intrinsic to him, felt entirely undermined by the thought that, if prophecy does not specifically intervene, he’s little more than the wheel of a watermill, turning by the river’s tide, and that other than this one act, the rest of the decisions of his life may well be meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Of course he had that thought before, in moments of dark contemplation, or when heavily in his cups. But it suddenly seemed more plausibly true, now that the divine had interfered in such a direct and minor way with his life.

The Grand High Wizard seemed to understand, and stretched out a hand to pat his knee before he silently rose to his feet. Robert did the same, feeling in a daze. The moment’s surreality was not helped by the wizard waving his hand to banish the chairs with another pop, nor by him raising his staff to trace a glowing ring of light large enough to walk through in the air… and least of all by then, with a sigh, tapping himself on the head and transforming into a giant chicken.

Robert stared at the chicken.

The chicken gave one imperious, not remotely embarrassed glance back, and squawked, “Because prophecy,” before walking through the portal.

Chapter 81: Interlude XIII – Titans

The worst thing about learning that a myth turned out to be true, is learning it also turned out to be incomplete.

Professor Birch stares transfixed at the sight of the titan on his monitor, eyes moving restlessly over it. Armor plates cover its body from head to tail, even redder than a crawdaunt shell, and every step of its two massive lower claws seems to rumble the earth. It looks like it would more naturally crawl on all fours, but instead it stands with a forward hunch, wide tail beating a secondary rhythm behind it with each stride. Though the helicopter is flying high enough to stay safely away from it, he can tell that it’s fast, faster than anything so big has a right to be. But that’s not what keeps him watching in horrified fascination.

When the footage first started airing, Groudon looked a little taller than a house. Now it looks as wide as one, and its head would probably tower over his three-story lab… and it’s still growing. But that’s not what keeps him breathlessly watching either, even as he feels his home shake around him with the quakes that continue to ripple through the region.

The helicopter’s footage abruptly wobbles as turbulence hits it, and a moment later the lingering sunlight that had illuminated Groudon is covered by a downpour, enough rain to make the titan only barely visible. It stops, flexes its body, and roars, the sound piercing through both the rain and the helicopter’s propellers. Between the red scales, Birch sees light flare, like magma deep within Groudon’s body, and within moments the rain cuts off to a trickle, and sunlight returns to reveal it.

There’s a moment of disorientation as the cameraman swings the lens up to the sky, clearly wanting to capture on video the way the rain clouds race away from Groudon in a ring. Even in the middle of setting, the sunlight somehow seems to blaze through the atmosphere, making the pokemon’s scales shine when the cameraman brings it back into focus.

And even that is still not what keeps Birch from the dozens of things he should be doing right now, including silencing his phone’s regional warning, which has been blaring nonstop, rather superfluously all things considered.

What keeps Birch glued to his screen is what’s happening around the legendary pokemon. The copter caught up as it was approaching the coast, and at first it seemed like it would just walk straight into the sea.

Instead, new earth rose up to meet its steps as it approached the water, magma boiling the sea into steaming clouds before solidifying under its stomping claws. The beach now extends nearly a kilometer further than it used to, and the group of trainers (he assumes they’re rangers, but they’re hard to make out) that were chasing after it are clearly having trouble traversing the rough, newly risen ground.

Professor Birch wouldn’t believe what he’s seeing if he hadn’t already run through every dream check he knows, including slapping himself across the face. Now that he knows he’s awake, all he can do is stare in horror as the colossal pokemon wreaks havoc on his region.

It stomps down onto all fours, and a few seconds later he feels the quake hit his house; not the constant tremors that have been ongoing, but a real earthquake strong enough to make the whole house rock back and forth.

His phone shakes to the edge of his desk, then off it, and after a moment he realizes it’s also ringing in between the harsh buzz of the alerts. He hears it continuing to ring under his desk, and half shifts, half falls off his chair to get onto his knees, cursing his gut as he shuffles forward to grab it before it vibrates further out of reach.

“Hello?”

“Birch, where are the kids?”

“Norman!” Birch’s head rises too fast as he pulls back, and he smacks it on the underside of his desk. The stunning pain makes him bite back another curse as he settles a hand on ground to steady himself. “They were in Sootopolis an hour ago!”

“They’re not answering their phones!”

Fear jolts through the professor, and he pushes himself up only to fall back onto his hands and knees. “You think they…” He trails off, not needing to finish the question. He distantly hears glass breaking downstairs, and recognizes that the quake is still ongoing and he should get out of the building.

Instead he looks around, then shuffles on his free hand and knees toward his headset, looping it around his neck and turning it on so he can jam his phone into his pocket and shuffle back toward his computer.

After everything their kids have been through on their journey together, would Brendan and May be staying safely out of the way at a time like this?

Or would they be racing toward the crisis, hoping to help stop it?

“Where are you?” he asks as he climbs onto his chair, which wobbles but stays mostly in place.

“We’re forming a perimeter around Petalburg, local pokemon are panicking!”

Birch’s heart sinks the rest of the way down into the pit of his stomach. Hoenn sees its fair share of rampages, some even reaching Tier 3 status, but despite its size it’s not like Kanto or Johto, with their Birds and Beasts, or Sinnoh with its Titans. He always felt a mix of relief and guilt when he considered how much less stress he’s had to deal with, growing up and becoming Professor of such a relatively safe region. He’s not a battle trainer, never has been, let alone ex-Champion like Oak and Rowan.

Thirty-five years of relief and guilt, all wiped away in a matter of minutes as he stares at the monster that’s been slumbering under their “safe region.” A titan all their own, and one that’s affecting the entire island, skipping the mostly-theoretical 4 to reach a true Tier 5 event.

“Birch, are you there?”

“Yeah.” The Professor forces himself to minimize the window and pins his vibrating keyboard in place with one wrist as his other grabs his thankfully corded mouse to pull up the pokedex tracker. Hundreds of dots populate the map of Hoenn, and he clicks his most recent filter on. “The kids are…” He trails off, blinking.

“Are what, Birch?”

“I don’t understand, they’re… it must be glitching.” He clicks each dot to confirm he’s filtering the right three trainers. “They’re not with each other, it says Wally is at some tiny island while Brendan and May are flying over the sea.” He watches the dots move across his screen in real time, which is absurd given the distance involved.

Norman lets out a gust of breath, and mutters something that sounds like a prayer. “Thank Arceus, for a minute I thought… When did they get fliers?”

“They never registered any.”

“So they’re hitching a ride somewhere? Hang on, I need to take th-“

The sound cuts out as Norman puts him on hold, and Birch realizes that the quaking has finally trailed off. He opens the tab with the chopper’s live feed again and sees that Groudon is back on its hind legs, striding toward what looks like a new island that’s forming in the distance. The coast stops pushing out in every direction as magma stops rising at its edges, all of it concentrating on what looks like a land-bridge to the newly rising surface.

He gets another call of his own from Littleroot’s mayor and ignores it as he switches back to the tracker, cycling through a few other filters to ensure they’re working properly. Most of the other trainers he’s keeping tabs on are about where he expects them to be, so why—

“Birch,” Norman says, now outside from the sounds in the background. “Thanks for letting me know, I have to—”

“Norman, the kids are moving fast. Faster than any pokemon I know of.”

“What are you saying, they’re on a jet?”

Birch watches as the dots move independently from each other. “Two jets, more like.”

“Where would they… where the hell are they going?”

“It’s hard to tell,” Birch hedges, his heart pounding as he watches the dots move, erratically but steadily, in a particular direction. “They’re not moving in a straight line, but… it looks like they’re headed to…”

The Gym Leader’s voice is barely controlled. “No, they can’t be… they have to know there’s nothing they can do!”

Birch would have agreed with him even a year ago. But the things those three have gone through since they started their journey… “They’re not kids anymore, Norman,” he says as he sets his own fear aside. Well, Wally is, but thankfully they seem to have left him behind… how did he get to that island, anyway? “And this is their home, their world, too.”

He hears Norman let out a gust of breath. “I haven’t been the best father, Birch. I know that. But I can’t leave my gym.”

“I understand.” He just wishes he could go himself… that he wasn’t so soft, so weak…

He blinks as a thought occurs. This is a Tier 5 event. Surely the other regions…

“And I’m going to do everything I can to help them,” he finishes, already taking his phone out to make some calls.

“Thank you, Birch. I have to go.”

“Good luck, Norman.” Birch closes the call, then hovers his finger over Sam’s number before skipping it to call Lance first. Oak nearly died just a couple months ago, and he doesn’t know if these things create Pressure yet.

As the phone rings, he looks back at the screen and feels a fist form in his stomach, crushing the mild hope that had risen.

Groudon is definitely bigger than the last time he looked. And unless its density is surprisingly low, a heavy ball is no longer enough to contain it, if it ever was.


Up until the floor of the casino cracked like the shell of her favorite cream-filled chocolate egg, Lizzy’s primary worries involved the power plants. Even minor quakes could cause major problems for the more delicate types of infrastructure work, and her sister is overseeing construction of a new site to the north of Lavender Town.

Because of that worry, she expected the power to go out at any moment, and so already has her magnemite summoned and glowing by the time the air fills with crashes and screams, slot machines and people sliding into the dark depths of the earth.

Bretta clearly had other concerns, because she uses the same time to grab Lizzy’s arm to yank her toward the corner of the casino. The two of them run around card tables and chairs, some empty as people flee in a panic, others still occupied by people either paralyzed by fear or desperately trying to hold onto tokens that threaten to spill all over the shifting tables and floor.

Feeling the ground tilt under her feet as she runs is one of the scariest things Lizzy has ever experienced, including everything that happened in Vermilion, but they find firmer footing as soon as they reach the corner of the building. She turns back just as the emergency lights kick in and the quake subsides to a steady series of vibrations again.

The red-tinted casino is in shambles, the destruction centered around a rubble-filled crater close to the food court and rippling outward in a slope. The cries of the injured and scared are, unfortunately, still competing with the cheerful jangle of many slot machines, because of course a casino would put its game machines on the emergency power supply…

“Where’s Blue?” Bretta asks, looking wildly around.

“He was at the slots over there,” Lizzy says with a gesture, and her blood runs cold as she sees nothing but a pile of machines and broken rubble.

Most people are running for the exits, but Lizzy and Bretta turn to stare at each other, and in that moment she thinks of Aiko, crushed by a roof, then Bretta, standing alone against Surge on a dragonite.

“Don’t—” is all she manages before Bretta grabs her shoulders.

“Get the others—”

You get the others, let someone else be the hero for a—”

Another quake hits, rocking them on their feet. It’s not as powerful as the last one, but they still hear things breaking outside the casino.

“You think it’ll be any safer out there?” Bretta asks. “I have the pokemon for this, you don’t.”

“Every minute we argue is one they might suffocate.” Fear makes her whole mouth taste like copper, her heart beating so hard she can feel her pulse in her throat, but she keeps her gaze on Bretta’s, and the fear she sees mirrored there keeps her anchored. “I’ll call them while you start, but I’m not leaving.”

Her friend scowls at her, then hugs her tight. She hugs her back, and then they’re moving toward the rubble as Lizzy gets her phone out.

“Liz?”

“Glen! Are you still at the gym?”

“Yeah, things are a mess—” There’s another quake, and he shouts, “Watch out, up top!”

“What’s going on there?” she asks as Bretta summons a sandslash and sets it to digging. The two of them start working together to haul tables and chairs out of the pit.

“One of the buildings nearby collapsed against another. Pieces of it keep shaking loose when another quake hits.”

Lizzy curses as she strains to flip a slab of tile from the broken floor, feet slipping under her. “Ngh… figures…” She gasps with relief as someone reaches her and helps, and looks around after to see more people bringing pokemon out to start digging.

“What about you, everyone okay?”

“No, Blue got buried in—”

What?!”

“—the floor of the casino, ow, don’t yell, Glen!”

“Is he… sorry!… do you need help?”

“Help would be nice,” she says faintly, and looks up at the roof as another mini-quake trembles through the earth. Luckily it doesn’t look like the ceiling is damaged at all, but another big one might change that. “Is the power out there too?”

“Yeah, through the whole city, looks like.”

Come on, Sis, get on it. “I need to focus on this… if you guys have a chance to come…”

“Yeah, we’re on our way,” Glen says. “Hang in there, Lizz, and be careful.”

Relief courses through her. She knows part of her should feel guilty; there are other people in danger, and they might need everyone’s help more… but the idea of Blue down there, in the dark, injured…

“We need more light over here,” someone calls from another part of the hole, and Lizzy goes still as a new thought hits her:

Comparative advantage.

Hers is not digging through rubble.

“Bretta,” she says as she scrambles toward her friend. “They’re on their way, but I’ve got to go. I’m leaving my magnemite.”

“Go where?” Bretta grunts as she lifts a stone her pokemon cut in two, then hands it to someone else. People are forming a chain to move the rubble.

“To get the power back on.”


Petrel finishes climbing up the hatch and into the roof, taking his first breath of fresh air in over a day. He’s gone longer without it before, but the past 24 hours in Team Aqua’s headquarters have been hard to get through considering all the dead bodies in it.

He lets the rain pelt his face for a few precious minutes, treating it like a brisk shower to fight his tiredness, then pulls himself the rest of the way out of the hatch and lets it close behind him with a clang. The battle that raged through the headquarters left not just bodies, but broken machinery that allowed the base to function as a submarine port, and they just managed to finish repairing enough that it stopped taking on water when the quakes started. His muscles ache and his thoughts feel slow with exhaustion from both the battle and the cleanup, but he knows he has to report in before he can rest, now that he finally has a moment to get outside the base’s communication blocks.

He pulls his earphone out of his pocket and turns it on, then speaks Giovanni’s private number by memory, keeping his eyes closed as the storm rages above and the base continues to occasionally vibrate from the quakes beneath him.

It’s been months since he was stationed here, long enough to make some friends among Archie’s people, even if he didn’t quite buy into their mission. Giovanni didn’t ask him and the others to come here and convert, though; just keep tabs on things, gather intel, and help however they could.

Now the whole region is going to hell, tremors still occasionally rocking the headquarters as they struggle to keep things stabilized, and he hasn’t received any new orders from Archie in a day. He needs to know what’s expected of him, and the boss needs to know what happened here, if he doesn’t already.

Giovanni responds at the fifth ring. “Lambda?”

“Hey, Boss,” Petrel says and lets out a breath of relief that he got through.

“You’re alive.” There’s relief there, but also tightly reined frustration. “I requested immediate alerts of any battles between Magma and Aqua, including major breakthroughs in the search for Kyogre or Groudon, even if it would blow your cover. Now all three of these things have happened, and I only found out about it in the past few hours.” Giovanni audibly takes a calming breath. “I’m happy you survived so I can ask you directly… what happened?”

“Sir…” Petrel licks his lips and tastes something bitter in the rain. “We were kept entirely out of the loop on any new developments after the orbs were retrieved on Mt. Pyre. Since then we’ve been stationed at Aqua’s headquarters without anything to do until it came under attack yesterday.”

“Magma?”

“Yeah, but others showed up too.”

“There’s no gym in Lilycove…” Giovanni trails off, then guesses, “Norman and Birch’s kids?”

“And others,” Petrel confirms. The trainers were at Mt. Pyre too, among others that nearly managed to stop Archie and Maxie from getting the orbs that reawakened Groudon and Kyogre. “A shorter boy with green hair, a—”

“They were working with Magma?”

“I don’t believe so, Sir. I had a quick look at the security feeds, and they came in after. Magma came straight for us, but they fought only when challenged, and seemed to be after something else. Videos didn’t capture what.”

Giovanni is silent for a moment, and Petrel’s hand finds his side, still tender from where a Vine Whip cracked his rib. Potions applied to the surface only help so much with damaged bones.

“I don’t see any relevance there,” Giovanni finally says, voice terse, which Petrel thinks is the boss’s way of saying he has no idea what to make of it either. “Get me a copy of that feed and I’ll look over it myself. Moving on; Groudon and Kyogre have been resurrected, within a day of each other. That cannot be coincidence, Aqua and Magma must have known where to find them already and kept that knowledge hidden. Has there been any word from Archie or anyone else from within the inner circle?”

“No, Sir, not since yesterday.”

“Then it’s possible they’re all dead. How are the others there reacting?”

“There’s an air of confusion and uncertainty here, but no one is panicking or acting as though they’ve heard something definitive.”

He hears Giovanni let out a breath. “Alright, then. If Archie or any of his inner circle live, they’ll have the orb with them. Chances of getting it at this point seem low, but I need a copy of their research on it.”

That would be more difficult. “The research lab is still being heavily guarded,” he says to ensure he knows what the boss is asking of him.

“Do anything you have to, Lambda. You’re coming home after.”

A rush of relief eases some tension deep within him, and Petrel swallows the thanks that rise to his lips. He should feel worse about having just been told to kill the members of Team Aqua that get in his way, some of whom he’s even grown to like and respect, but right now all he feels is glad he has permission to get the hell out of the region that still feels like it’s being shaken apart under him. “Yes, Sir. Should I pull everyone on this, or do they have their own orders?”

“This is the new priority. The fate of the world may rest on what we can discover in that research, even if it won’t come quick enough to save Hoenn.”


The end of the world, Steven Stone reflects as he mounts his skarmory and commands it to take off from the roof of the Sootopolis Gym, should not be so wet.

Oh, there are stories of the world ending in water, of course. From this very region, in fact. There are also myths that warn of the world ending in the pure oblivion of Arceus’s final Judgement, or all of life being drained away and turned to stone, or its light eaten away to leave them in eternal darkness. Fire, that’s a popular one too, as well as ice.

But water is just… undignified. He feels dampness seeping down his neck and reaches back to tug his collar more firmly against his skin. Even suits specifically tailored to be water resistant don’t look particularly impressive while sodden, and no one’s hair looks better wet, not even Wallace’s.

He wonders if it’s normal to worry about how your hair looks during the end of the world, then reassures himself that the world probably isn’t actually ending; just Hoenn, and maybe a few of the closer regions.

Though the sun is still in the process of setting, the massive rain clouds turn the sky nearly as dark as night… or they would, if not for the circles in the clouds that keep growing and shrinking. The visible beams of sunlight they let through turn the horizon into a gorgeous dance of light and shadow, but the largest, steadiest sunbeam illuminates a scene that makes it hard to focus on the beauty of it all.

Cold as stone. He heard it a number of times growing up (and once from a boyfriend during their breakup) for how unexcitable he was, whether from good things or bad. Once Devon Corporation started to grow internationally, his father changed the family name to Stone to reflect their beginnings in gem mining and excavation; Steven inherited his interest in studying rare minerals, particularly the evolutionary stones.

But his dad gets angry, and excited, and frightened, and passionate. No one’s ever compared his dad to a stone, not that Steven has heard at least. The calm… that seems to just be him. Excitement, fear, anticipation, anger… all things he understands in abstract more than any stirring in his chest. Losing his mother caused some, as did becoming Champion.

Steven’s pulse, a slow and steady thing even in the heat of battle, has barely changed since the earthquakes and rainstorms began. Even learning about the sudden appearance of the mythical pokemon didn’t change that.

It’s only when he sees them that he feels it, the thumping against his ribs, his pulse vibrating in a dozen different places throughout his body, sharpening his focus until every detail seems to burn into his memory.

The red one is practically glowing in the sunlight, or maybe it’s the body itself that’s glowing beneath the scales. It’s stopped traveling as it fights the other one, whose shape is only visible when it surfaces as a pattern of gleaming white and red lines and circles along its body and fins.

Steven watches as waves rise up higher than a stadium, then crash against Groudon, trying to sweep it out to sea. It roars in defiance, the sunlight seeming to brighten as it stands its ground, then stomps its tail down. A spike of earth juts out of the water, barely missing Kyogre as it dives back under. A moment later it resurfaces on its opponent’s other side, multiple jets of water shooting out to pelt Groudon.

The impact of each jet is audible even above the rain and waves, but Groudon stays upright, then hits the ground again. Boiling magma sends a cloud of steam up near Kyogre, who swiftly retreats from what must be a much larger pocket of heat under the ocean. Steven quickly banks his skarmory to the side to avoid the hot steam as it spreads upward, unable to tear his gaze from the battle below.

He thought he’d seen what pokemon could do when he visited Kanto and fought against Articuno. The power they held, power enough to bring a city to its knees.

What he’s seeing now are two pokemon who are turning the planet itself into weapons against each other, and everything happening to his region and those around it is just collateral damage.

Badump, badump, badump. His heart is pounding, his breaths uneven, and despite everything, he finds himself smiling as he raises a hand to his headset.

“I have them in sight. Still no Pressure.” Unless this stirring excitement counts.

“Roger that, Champion,” Drake says. “I’m five minutes away.”

“Three minutes,” Phoebe reports.

“Ten.” Glacia’s teleport point turned out to be the furthest.

Ten minutes before they’re at full force to engage, since Sidney won’t be joining them. As the only Dark member of the Elite Four there’s no way he’d be able to reach them anytime soon, which led him to defend Lilycove instead. It’s the first time the Elite being Dark has really felt like a liability, but they’ve never faced a threat that’s needed every member of the League before. He’d like to call in every Gym Leader too, and their Seconds and Thirds, but they’ve got their own troubles to deal with; there’s barely a town in Hoenn that isn’t facing rampaging pokemon, not to mention damage from the earthquakes and heavy rain.

He watches the battle for a few more moments, a plan slowly forming. “Some good news, this thing might just be a Ground type. As long as we stay high and mobile to avoid any rocks or steam clouds it sends up, we might be able to t—”

Groudon’s whole body suddenly flares with light, and a beam of superheated air escapes its mouth with a roar, sending clouds of steam up from a whole stretch of the ocean. “Nevermind,” Steven says once his ears have stopped ringing. “It just… did something, like a Solar Beam super-charged by a Hyper Beam, but also hot enough to flash-boil the sea.”

“Didn’t sound like you had much warning, either,” Phoebe comments.

“Barely a second.” Which means they need to get off their pokemon to fight it. “Going to find a place to land.”

Steven scans the area around Groudon for something safe, and notices a group of about a dozen people, close enough to stay within the circle of sunlight while far enough to avoid any of the massive waves that occasionally rise up to batter Groudon. He angles his skarmory to land in front of them. “There seem to be rangers already nearby,” he says. “Touching down now.”

“Rangers?” He can hear Drake’s frown in his voice. “CoRRNet didn’t report anyone nearby…”

“Yeah, looks like I spoke too soon again,” Steven says as he lands. They’re dressed in red and black, but they aren’t rangers. Rangers don’t hide their faces, and he’s seen these uniforms before; on the renegades that he helped fight off at the Mossdeep Space Center.

“You,” he says as he slides off his skarmory’s back and summons his aggron and metagross, “Should count yourselves lucky that I have a bigger concern right now than a pack of renegades, which are words I never thought I’d say, and leave while you can.” His pokemon both shine silver in the bright sunlight as they face off with the dozen pokemon in front of him, taking on battle stances despite the tremors that constantly undermine their footing. Steven trained both to overcome their weaknesses as much as he could, and they’re the only ones he trusts to take a hit from something that powerful.

The pokemon he’s facing are heavy on Dark, Poison, Fire, and Ground types, with what looks like the leader fielding the biggest camerupt he’s ever seen. He steps forward, one hand on his pokemon’s orange fur.

“Hello, Champion.” His voice is modulated by his mask, the upper half of his face a visor that shows just a glimpse of the eyes behind it. Most of the glass is covered in some display too small for Steven to make out. “I understand your animosity, but believe it or not, we are here to help.”

Steven smiles, a distant part of him noting that his clothes are already dry, and that the sunlight is actually uncomfortably hot against his skin now that he’s holding still. “I won’t pretend this isn’t a desperate situation, but it’s not quite desperate enough to accept help from people I can’t trust.” Groudon slaps the ground again, and everyone’s knees bend as they brace and shift to withstand the tremor. “You have sixty seconds to get out of range before I blow the lot of you to oblivion. Fifty-nine… fifty-eight…”

The group is silent, or rather their leader is, and they all wait on his cue. Probably incredulous that he thinks he can stop them all himself, and he wonders if they’ll call his bluff.

Of course, “bluff” is the wrong word; he prefers “delay tactic.” Not that it might not be interesting to see how many of them his boys could take down, but he needs to save his pokemon’s strength if he can help it, and some of the pokemon they’re fielding are powerful enough that he’d actually lose.

Steven keeps counting, carefully not taking his eyes off the leader to check if Phoebe or Drake have arrived yet. He reaches “twenty-four” before their leader pulls a red orb out of his pocket.

Even in the harsh sunlight, the orb is visibly lit from within. Steven prepares for an attack, but instead the leader just says, “This was the tool to awaken Groudon, and also a way to control and empower it.”

Steven briefly wonders if they’re purposely delaying too, but the bait is too good not to bite. “You want me to believe you’re not only responsible for summoning that thing, but you’re actually controlling it?”

“Summoning, yes, but unfortunately control was lost. It seemed like our custom programs had tamed it upon capture, but during our tests it began to grow, subtly at first. It soon became too large to be contained in any ball, and shortly after stopped listening to even basic commands.”

“So you raised a pokemon that myths describe as a god, tried to run experiments on it, then were surprised when it escaped?” Steven shakes his head. “Jirachi’s tears, haven’t you people seen any movies?”

“Life is not a movie. You have ample reason not to trust me, but consider this: Kyogre was not our doing, and we did everything we could to stop it from rising as well.” Another quake nearly drowns out his next words, and he raises his voice to be heard over it. “We were attempting to be prepared for this eventuality!”

Steven shifts his feet and balances himself with his arms until the quake is past. “I don’t see how two island-destroying titans are better than one.” Steven takes his eyes off the group for just a second to glance at Groudon, who is advancing again on newly risen land. “Them killing each other would be too lucky, and meanwhile Hoenn is being torn apart and drowned.”

“If Groudon were not here, Kyogre’s power would go unchecked. Glaciers would be melting around the planet, releasing enough water to submerge every coastal city in the world, and—”

Phoebe lands beside him on her oricorio, its violet feathers practically pink in the sunlight. He really hasn’t seen any movies, Steven thinks. Or he’s watched too many League matches and thinks monologuing is a part of serious pokemon battles.

“Disperse.” The normally cheerful Alolan girl’s tone is flat as she summons her pokemon. Not surprising, considering he was still broadcasting everything he said to the others; they all know who’s responsible, now. Her palossand immediately forms a wall out of the hardened earth beneath them, and her marowak’s spinning bone burns brighter than he’s ever seen it, making it even harder than usual not to get unnerved. “You will not be asked again.”

The tension among the group has visibly increased, all except for the leader and the two contrasting figures on either side of him. But still no one moves to leave, and after a moment the leader slowly returns the orb to his pocket to free up his hand. And now we fight, Steven thinks, resignation stronger than any other feeling. Drake will be arriving within a minute, and with the three of them even a group this big doesn’t stand a chance. What a waste.

Instead of reaching for his pokebelt, however, the leader raises his hands to his mask… and unclasps it.

There’s a stir of surprise by those around the man, and even Steven takes a moment to understand what he’s seeing as the terrorist drops the mask to the quaking ground. A moment later he presses something on his visor, and reveals his upper face as well.

“Matsubusa.” Steven stares at the famous paleontologist as the pieces fall into place, irritation a mild prickle under his skin. “Studying them wasn’t enough, you had to prove they were real?”

“I knew they were real,” Matsubusa says, calm voice tinged for a moment with pique. “I had to ensure they were controllable, before someone else woke them with other intentions. Don’t be foolish,” he suddenly snaps, and it takes Steven a moment to realize he’s talking to his own people, whose hands are rising to their masks.

Soon they’re falling to the ground, one after another, and when the large subordinate to his left responds it’s out loud. “We will follow you to the end. You should have known that.” Steven isn’t sure if they’re a man or woman, but he vaguely recognizes their round face and wide smile from somewhere… One of dad’s employees?

“Our odds of survival do drop,” the girl to his right says in a detached tone as she shakes her hair out after pushing her own visor back, along with the hood that was covering her hair. “But it was not high enough to matter, if we do not survive together.”

Steven watches with mild fascination as Maximilian Matsubusa’s face, always calm on camera, twitches with barely controlled emotion. He wonders what the other man, who so often seems similar to himself in the way he emotes, must be feeling now, and Steven finds himself a little envious. Not of the loyalty shown, which he expects he would receive as well in a similar circumstance, but in the way it so clearly overwhelms the normally stoic man.

“This is touching, really,” Phoebe says, her voice just a hair less cold as Drake finally lands to Steven’s other side, his salamence kicking up a mild windstorm as it touches down. “But we don’t need your help.”

“You do,” the girl says as their leader regains control of himself. “If we leave now, there’s a chance it will weaken. Perhaps you will be able to defeat it, but then Kyogre will remain unchecked. How will you stop something this powerful, but underwater?”

Steven exchanges a glance with Phoebe, then Drake, who looks mad enough to Draco Meteor them all right now. The older man spits to the side from atop his dragon. “I can stop it, aboard the Tidal.”

The first henchman to speak shakes their head. “Your ship, while impressive, is not a match for the God of the Sea on its own, let alone one being assisted by a group of pirates in the stolen Explorer.”

Steven feels his irritation growing as he learns how connected the crime spree that has plagued his region was. “Of course that was related to all this. Next you’ll tell me Professor Birch is leading that group?”

“Birch?” The man(?) sneers. “That close-minded fool laughed at the idea that either could be resurrected.”

“Their leader is a pirate named Archie Aogiri.” Matsubusa looks like he bit into a lemon. “We used to work together, until he stole my research.”

“So both of them were awakened on purpose,” Phoebe says, her disgust plain. “You made it sound like Kyogre was going to rise on its own, and resurrecting Groudon was insurance.”

“I knew Archie, and I knew Kyogre was real. This outcome was entirely predictable.”

“With eighty-seven percent probability,” the girl to his left adds.

“Uh huh.” Phoebe’s hands are still on her pokebelt. “So where is this Archie now? Underwater, making Kyogre stronger with another of those gems?”

“We suspect so,” Matsubusa says, “As Kyogre has been growing in strength as well.”

“Then you’re saying he should be our target.” Steven turns to Drake, who nods.

“The sea’s in as fine a mood as I’ve ever seen her, but if he’s down there, we’ll find him and flush him out.” Drake salutes, then turns his salamence and guides it into a running leap before it soars off.

Steven turns back to the group and realizes the rain is approaching them, and glances at Groudon, who looks farther away. It’s hard to tell given that it’s still growing. “Is it taking the sunlight with it?”

“In a manner of speaking. It seems to create a localized high temperature atmosphere that—”

“Forget I asked, we need to move.”

“Then you’ll let us help?”

Steven considers the other man for a moment. “I don’t believe you’re being honest with me. Or maybe you’re just telling the story in a way that makes you look good, and gets us to focus on your rival.”

“Collateral,” Glacia suggests in his ear.

Steven almost nods, and wonders if she’s in sight of them yet. He holds out his hand. “If you really mean to help, give me the orb.”

Matsubusa stares at him, then slowly takes the red sphere back out of his pocket.

The round henchman stirs. “Maxie—”

“He’s right,” Matsubusa interrupts, and steps forward past his pokemon. The camerupt tries to stay ahead of him until he gestures with his hand, settling it in place. “We hold some responsibility for what has occurred. If this will help us make it right…” Despite his words, as he steps past Steven’s pokemon the Champion can see the reluctance on his face. Matsubusa gazes into the glowing gem for another moment, then slowly, regretfully, drops it into his hand.

It’s warm. No, hot. Burning, but without any real pain. Steven stares into the depths of the sphere, fascinated. It’s not a ruby, he’s almost sure of that; too flawlessly round, and not transparent at all, somehow. There’s a shape within it, gleaming gold… he can almost make out what it is…

“Steven,” Phoebe says, and something in her voice makes him turn to her. “Your ring…”

He follows her gaze as he turns his hand over, and sees the gem on his ring is glowing, a rainbow flame swirling at its center. “Huh.” He feels a mild awe stir in his chest, and looks up at Matsubusa to see naked shock on his face.

“What kind of gem is that?” the paleontologist whispers.

“Aggronite,” Steven says. He shifts the orb to his left hand, and the gem on his ring continues to glow for a moment, then slowly returns to normal… and as he suspected, the gem on the ring of his left hand has started glowing instead. “And metagrossite.”

“I’m not… familiar, with those names…”

“Yeah, I kind of made them up.” He pockets the orb. “Well, we’ll figure out what that’s about later. Your people will follow our orders, understand? I can’t guarantee amnesty after this crisis is passed, but first we need to make sure it does pass.”

“Understood, Champion,” the other man says, still clearly preoccupied by what he saw. “We’ll focus on Kyogre first, then?”

“I’d rather take out the one we can more easily get, especially if it will stop the quakes… but if taking this orb away from Groudon will make it grow weaker, then yes, we’ll help it beat Kyogre first.”


At first, Kawabata Gyokusho thinks Cinnabar’s volcano is erupting.

It’s an alarming thought, but not a catastrophic one. The lab was purposefully built here, after all, with every eventuality planned for, and more added in the years after 2.351 awoke and its capabilities became known. They ran simulations and drills, and even if the entire island gets covered in magma they could still survive in the lab for over a week as they use their pokemon to dig themselves out.

But instead of rising into an eruption, the shakes dip and rise and continue in sporadic bursts that make the whole structure groan throughout the day. The lab is equipped with the best seismometers in the world, sensitive enough to tell them if a diglett is moving anywhere in the mountain the lab is built into in case the experiment tried to drive other pokemon to attack the lab in an effort to free itself, but the data they’re getting from them don’t point to any local source.

It becomes clear that something unnatural is happening when the evening shift begins and the quakes start to chain into each other more rapidly. Eventually there’s a crack that everyone in the lab can feel through the floor, and things go downhill from there. Still, it’s only when the alarms start to go off that the fear hits.

Being one of the lab’s engineers shielded him from panic when the power cut out, and even when the elevator shaft collapsed. But the alarm he’s hearing now isn’t one he knows. It’s not the fire alarm, or the invasion alarm, or the subject escape alarm. Those would all be better, because by process of elimination, he can now guess what this alarm is.

When Kawabata joined the lab, the end of the interview process included an additional offer to be one of Mewtwo’s comforters if he was willing to live in the lab rather than the manor above. The idea that his free time could serve the double purpose of giving Mewtwo–then just the subject–a source of peace and positivity seemed a form of charity, something he was happy to do considering how little it impacted his own happiness; he’s always been one of those apparently unusual people who enjoy being inside as much as possible.

The downside was that, if something happened, he would likely have no chance of surviving. Every scientist, engineer, guard, cook, and plumber in the lab feels the sword hanging over their heads. You can forget it, most days, sometimes even for as long as a week or a month. But sooner or later you remember, and the fear returns, for a few minutes at least.

Fear of the final fail-safe.

They don’t all know what it is, of course. Or at least, the non-psychic, non-dark employees don’t. But they have guesses. Poison gas in the air supply. Bombs rigged in the walls to bury them in rubble. Things that would kill everything in the lab, in case it’s invaded by a hostile force set on capturing their research.

And, since the subject awoke, probably also in case it goes rogue.

But it isn’t trying to escape, and they’re not being invaded. The creators of the lab thought through a lot of possibilities, but did they imagine ceaseless, ongoing earthquakes that would make it seem like those things were happening?

Kawabata is prepared to die if it means keeping such a powerful pokemon from falling into the wrong hands, or becoming another perpetual Tier 3. They all are, or they wouldn’t be working here.

But dying to a freak accident… worse, the subject dying to it, erasing all their progress over the years, removing humanity’s best chance at defeating the Stormbringers and other legendaries? Something in him rebels against the thought.

It’s been months, but he remembers the day he met it like yesterday. They were all informed that the subject would be let out of its room for the first time, but he hadn’t expected it to just show up at his door, with Sabrina and Giovanni and Dr. Light all there with it, looking into his room as it complimented a drawing he didn’t ever name except in his own head.

The sight of it stayed with him ever since, and he resisted the itch to draw it for a long time, until finally one night he gave in… only to get a distinct feeling of sadness, and quickly destroyed the drawing. He knew that it had been with him, then, and that it didn’t like the way it looked.

The subject has occasionally touched his mind since then, always at seeming random, to express gratitude and appreciation for the things he draws. Not being remotely psychic himself, he never knew it was there until he suddenly felt himself experiencing an emotion with no apparent cause.

He never told anyone that he had an invisible friend when he was young, and he hasn’t admitted that it’s been a bit like having one again… except real, this time. He’d think things at it, wonder how it felt about stuff going on around the lab that it surely also experienced through others. It never responded to his thoughts in words, but it was still like a conversation.

It’s dangerous to think that way. There are people that aren’t spoken of by name in the lab, past employees who left the project for reasons that are never spelled out. But negative space can form a picture too, and eventually it became clear that there’s more than one reason no one gets too close to the subject.

But letting it die just so they can all live, when it didn’t do anything wrong… worse, letting it die rather than letting it help save itself, and them all… it feels wrong. More, he can’t imagine that Giovanni would want something like that.

Which means he has to do something about it.

The alarm cuts off before he finishes putting a fresh voltorb in one of the backup power banks, then comes back on as he goes down the diagnostic list to ensure the transformer is undamaged, then cuts off again by the time he reaches Dr. Light’s office. There’s already a crowd there, and Kawabata stays near the back and listens as the project leader’s harried voice drifts over the sound of the quakes.

“—a station to get to, get to it,” she says. “We ran those drills for a reason, and nothing that’s happened so far is outside the scope of Giovanni’s predictions.”

“The Sevii Islands are sinking!” someone calls out.

“Well we’re not on the Sevii Islands, are we?” she shoots back.

“Director, are you saying Giovanni actually knew that Groudon and Kyogre would rise?”

Dr. Light makes a disgusted sound. “I know this situation is freaking everyone out, Leo, so I’m going to ignore the fact that you just asked me to reveal information that might be above your security cl—”

Another quake hits the lab, dimming the lights and causing a round of cursing as people are nearly knocked off their feet. Kawabata leans against the wall, feeling it vibrate under his hand.

“What I will reiterate,” Dr. Light continues once it fades, “Is that Giovanni and our security team predicted many circumstances, there’s a goddamn flowchart and everything, and we are still within the part that translates to not abandoning the lab while there’s still a chance of salvaging it.”

“Have we been in contact with him lately?” someone asks.

“He checked in when everything started,” Dr. Light says. “We reported what was happening and he told us to stay the course.”

“That was before the power lines were damaged,” someone points out. “Have you tried raising him since?”

“Yes,” Dr. Light admits after a moment. “There was no answer, probably because he has other fires to put out!” she yells to be heard over the new outbreak of comments. “I’m not repeating myself again, people. Get to work or I’m going to start writing names.”

The iron in her voice quells the air of potential mutiny, if not quite the panic. The two fears clash silently for a moment, and then the crowd starts to disperse.

Kawabata almost leaves with them, but after a moment his resolve hardens. He has something legitimate to report, and he can use it to lead into the conversation. He steps into the office once the last person leaves, and weathers the glare Dr. Light aims at him with a salute.

“Oh put your hand down, Gyokusho, what is it?”

“Ma’am, the backup generator is online—”

“I’ve noticed.”

“—but it’s the second-to-last undamaged one we have.”

Her lips purse. “The others are being repaired?”

“Yes Ma—” Another quake pitches him forward, and he catches himself on the desk as Dr. Light grabs it to steady herself too. After it fades he straightens. “Yes Ma’am, but… in these conditions… with the ongoing damage, there’s no way to predict how long we can maintain this. It could be hours, it could be minutes.”

Dr. Light closes her eyes, hands massaging her temples, and he waits in silence as an after-tremor rattles the lab.

“The stairwells are still unblocked?” she asks at last.

“One of them is,” he says. “The other has some damage, but is still passable with a bit of work.”

“If they collapse while people are in them, those people will die,” she says. “If we all stay in here, we can dig through once the quakes pass.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He bites his lip, but he can see the same thought in her weary eyes. If the quakes pass. They’ll have to eventually, of course, but it’s already been an hour. They might not survive another.

“You have an alternate suggestion,” she guesses. Maybe hopes.

Still, he hesitates. “Ma’am, what happens if we do evacuate? I mean what happens to… the subject?” He almost said Mewtwo, but one of the “superstitions” in the lab is that thinking of it directly can summon its attention. He doesn’t believe it, exactly… and yet.

“We take it with us, of course,” she says. “Its suit can sustain it for nearly four hours now, long enough that hopefully all this would be over and it can return to its pod.”

“I see.”

He doesn’t believe her.

She spoke with such authority, such conviction. Like it was the most natural answer.

But a moment ago even the simplest responses came out with… more. Call it grumpiness, for she could be grumpy, or stress, as they’re all stressed, but there was something that was there and gone between responses, and…

He shouldn’t be thinking about this. He shouldn’t be thinking about how, if they have to abandon the lab, there’s almost certainly a part of that flowchart that insists on ending the subject’s life… or that if it gets to that, she might just trigger the whole lab’s destruction.

It can’t be allowed to come to that.

“Ma’am,” he says, swallowing his nervousness. “What if it helped?”

The office is silent, or as silent as it can be while they hear the dim sounds of frenzied activity through the stone walls and ceiling. “Helped how, Gyokusho?”

“I’m not sure,” he says. “But it can coordinate people, right? And move or hold up debris, maybe it can even sense a quake when it’s coming, or help secure infrastructure…”

“Perhaps,” she says. “But its room is the safest, most secure area of the lab. Letting it out in such an uncertain situation to move about the building would be putting at risk the very thing we’re all trying to protect.” The lights flicker as another quake hits them, and she dismisses him with the words, “Still, thank you for the suggestion.”

“Of course, Ma’am.” He leaves the office at a jog to check on the generators again, still worrying over what he said, and what the director didn’t say.

Mixed in with those worries are a feeling of gratitude, and it isn’t until he reaches the power room that he recognizes it as separate from himself.


The director of the Hoenn Weather Institute is having a bad year.

First a bunch of criminals ransacked the place and stole some of their very rare, very valuable castforms.

Then the regional grant money was cut to help shore up “other deficits,” as if their losses didn’t qualify as a deficit worth shoring up.

Then his wife left him, probably because he started drinking again. He only did that to deal with the stress of knowing the board is probably going to vote him out once the year is over.

And as if all that wasn’t bad enough, or perhaps out of sympathy for his troubles, the world decided it might be time to just get it all over with… through torrential downpours and earthquakes, of course, so he’ll probably be blamed for this too. He can hear his soon-to-be-ex-wife already… Didn’t see the storm of the century coming, with all that fancy equipment? Working late with a bottle that night?

He was, as a matter of fact, but his subordinates weren’t, and they didn’t tell him shit about any of this. Which is why, while everyone runs around in a panic through the building, he is already drunk as a croagunk on the roof, where tables are set up for people to eat on their lunch breaks or after work. A wide umbrella keeps off the rain as he watches the anomalous weather shift and spread throughout the region, both on his laptop and right in front of his eyes.

The weather has turned particularly bad around the mountain they’re set on, and he can see a helicopter struggle to fly in the downpour. Doesn’t make sense, he thinks for the fifth time as he takes a long pull of bourbon, feeling the burn slide down his throat as he watches the rain come down in sheets. Barely any wind. This much precipitation is absurd on its own, of course. Entirely wrong time of year for it besides, but what does he know, he’s just a self-pitying fool with poor administrative skills and…

The helicopter is spinning out of control. The director watches in sickened fascination as it struggles to stay aloft, then to land, and raises his bottle in mournful salute as it falls too quickly into the distant hills, a brief flash of light signalling its end.

His other arm rises to wipe his face as he curses the umbrella for not catching all the rain. Once his eyes are clear, he looks back at the laptop, feeling hollow inside as he sees rain clouds continuing to spread over every region on the island, and beyond them. Satellite comparisons show the ice at the planet’s poles are already noticeably shrinking, and there’s rising ozone depletion just south of Sootopolis, right above the biggest gap in the clouds. It’s nonsensical, the atmosphere thinning should be at the poles for the ice there to be melting… there’s no reason they should be melting at all, unless… he switches to measures of the ocean currents, stomach churning as he sees the graph of the temperature rising.

Doomed, he thinks, and raises the bottle to his lips again only to find it empty. He tosses it over his shoulder without a second thought and stares at the screen with eyes that see nothing… not even the thin line that’s forming in the clouds above Hoenn, parting the swirling white like a knife to cut its way toward the hole in the atmosphere.

Chapter 80: Nonviolent Communication

The earthquake hits after breakfast, interrupting the morning feedings.

Leaf does her best to calm the pokemon around her that have been released already. It doesn’t take much, since not panicking is part of basic pokeball training upon capture, but many of the pokemon here were abandoned because the automated conditioning didn’t take as well as their trainer liked, and they lacked the patience to enforce it manually. A few of the more skittish pokemon are clearly distressed, so she quickly withdraws them.

After she gives Raff a puff for staying so calm, she checks the news feed, which pinpoints the epicenter off the southern coast of Hoenn. Leaf whistles, knowing the size of the quake must be enormous to be felt this far along the island.

Luckily it was close enough to the coast that there’s no tsunami warning. She forces herself to look away from videos and pictures of toppled buildings and cracked streets so she can call Aiko’s dad about whether they should keep to the schedule.

“Hmm, there may be aftershocks,” he muses from the other side of the ranch, and she hears him scratch at his stubble through the phone. “Or some reaction from local wilds…”

She knows he’s always trying to let the pokemon live as much of a normal life as possible, but one thing she’s been working on with him has been giving himself a break when there’s a justified reason. “We can catch up on some of the medical exams today instead?”

“Yes… yes, that should do nicely. Alright, let’s bring them back inside.”

“You got it.” She starts working her way back to the ranch, carefully dividing which pokemon have already been fed and which haven’t. Mr. Sakai devised a great system for keeping track of the “real time” for each of the ranch’s pokemon, rotating them on a schedule so that they can live (mostly) normal sleep/wake cycles despite having to go into their pokeballs most of the night. The most difficult are the nocturnal pokemon, but he’s made efforts to ensure they at least get a couple full “days” a week as well. Leaf finds herself once again admiring not just the dedication, but the thought he’s put into being the best pokemon caretaker that he can be. Despite running a relatively small ranch, she thinks he is one of the best; if he weren’t so focused on ensuring as many pokemon are as well cared for as possible, he could be making a lot more money breeding and raising rare species favored by the wealthy. The real money is in pokemon strong in battle, but that’s too far from his values to be realistic. Still, even just catering to the tastes of pokemon collectors he could easily be running a ranch three times as big.

It’s a thought that preoccupies Leaf often, wondering if there isn’t a more effective way for Mr. Sakai to fulfill his altruistic values. Even with the extra money and help they’ve been getting from the therapy groups, the expenses still continue to creep up as new pokemon are found or left with them, lacking any other home. Leaf even went looking through Aiko’s computer, and found a file listing her friend’s ideas to keep the ranch solvent for her then-hypothetical journey, including taking on a few more rich clients and hiring an extra worker or two with most of the money. A lot of the ideas were crossed out in red, which Leaf took to mean that Aiko brought them up to her dad and got rejected, or were unworkable for some other reason that Leaf doesn’t have the context yet to understand.

She even brought the idea up with Natural during one of their “calls.” Her fellow Unovan also admired Mr. Sakai’s dedication, but was confused about why he didn’t just work for some rich person and then use the money he makes to hire more people to raise the pokemon, and Leaf explained that Mr. Sakai has a hard time trusting others to take care of the pokemon well if he’s not directly involved. Still, it was a good idea, and one that Leaf isn’t sure she had the complete answer to.

Thinking of Natural makes Leaf decide to check if he’s still online, or in bed already. She smiles as she sees him available, and sends him a message before turning the automated speech app on; Natural said his computer’s microphone and camera don’t work, so instead Leaf uses a text-to-voice program to listen to him when he sends her a message.

(It was a bit strange learning this, strange enough to make her think that maybe Natural is hiding something about himself, but she quickly learned that Natural is a bit strange in a lot of ways; whatever reason he might have to lie about this, it’s clearly part of something very personal, or something he’s ashamed about.)

“Heya!” Natural says in the voice she picked out for him(?), a rural northern Unovan accent that reminds her of a friend she made while visiting some cousins there. “Thought you’d be feeding still?”

“Was, we had a quake,” Leaf says as she returns some metapod to their balls.

“Scary?”

“A little, but not as much as back home, knowing Landorus isn’t here.”

“Yeah I’ll bet. Also, just in case you’re curious, I may have gotten past the Rocket Casino’s security.”

Leaf stops walking, mouth gaping in shock. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, but then it turned out to be a shell and I got a message asking me to submit an application if I want a job in cyber security. These guys clearly spent good money to make sure the secret stays safe.”

Leaf chuckles and starts walking again. “I’m still not sure why they’re keeping it such a secret. If it really is a new species, it’s not like people are going to be less interested if they know what it looks like or something. It makes me lean toward the idea that it’s actually a scam of some kind.”

“I’m more worried about what they might be doing to it while no one’s watching, if it’s not,” Natural responds, and the auto-generated voice has shifted its tone to a sadder one that lets Leaf know he added a sad face to the message.

She bites her lower lip, not having considered that. “You think they’re what, running experiments on it?”

“Why not? Either it’s something new and they want to learn all they can about it before it’s in public, or it’s some mutation they’ve created to pretend is a new pokemon, like a forced regional variant.” That was a hypothesis floated by a few researchers, though most Professors have been keeping their speculation to themselves. Her own mom and grandpa have apparently been debating it among themselves, and Red guessed that the silence from the experts was a mix of scientific humility and not wanting to be so publicly wrong about something.

Leaf doesn’t want to think that people can be so cruel as to try to force pokemon through enough selective generations that they change that drastically. For one thing, the changes wouldn’t be the result of any adaptation, which lowers the chance that they’re useful to the pokemon, and for another the breeding pool would likely be limited, leading to a lot of harmful mutations. Her stomach twists into a knot as she thinks about what would have likely happened to all the pokemon along the way, let alone how they might be treating the new discovery. “That’s horrible.”

“Yeah. I’m going to keep trying on this end. I wish I was there.”

Despite her new worries, Leaf smiles slightly. “What would you do from here, break into the casino and try to find it?”

“Of course not.” There’s a pause. “They probably aren’t holding it there anyway.”

“But if they were…”

“Yeah, I’d try at least.”

Leaf laughs, which she knows the program will translate symbolically. She can never tell how seriously to take these kinds of boasts… Natural talks a lot about the things he’d “like to do,” and they’re all so grandiose that it would be easy not to take him seriously if he was less incredibly knowledgeable about pokemon, programming, politics, and all sorts of other things.

At the same time he can be surprisingly uninformed about other things, which on the whole makes her think of him as about her age. He actually reminds her of Red sometimes, though with very different interests and values.

“Maybe I should go and scope it out, just in case,” Leaf muses. She’s mostly given up on the idea of being an investigative journalist, but unlike the previous passions she’s moved on from, she still feels the itch to find out more about what’s going on around her and write about it. Probably because she’s still helping with Laura’s investigation.

“Really?” The automated voice is excited, and Leaf imagines the open-mouthed smile that Natural must have added.

Leaf hesitates, wondering suddenly if she should. She is curious about the contest itself too, particularly the math involved. The casino announced the rules the day after the contest itself; normally people buy tokens and use them to bet in the machines and card tables for more tokens, which can then be traded in for prizes. It’s a clever way to get around gambling laws, which are way stricter here than in Unova. But for the contest, a new type of token was created to distinguish between those bought and those won. Instead of trading the tokens in for prizes, they can instead join the contest lottery, and put their tokens toward a personal “pool” of lottery tickets.

Each token in their pool would increase the chance that they get the grand prize. Or rather, it would increase the chance that they get first pick of prizes, and then second, and so on, but Leaf can’t imagine the first winner not picking the mysterious new pokemon, even with a dratini available as an alternative; unless someone gets phenomenally lucky, the amount that will make a first prize win likely will far exceed the cost of just buying a dratini outright.

Though notably, there’s no minimum needed for any of the prizes, so however unlikely it would be, someone could win a single token, submit it to the lottery, and walk away a month from now with a pokemon that might be worth millions.

And since it has to be won tokens, the vast majority of each one submitted for the contest likely cost the players many more dollars to win, unless they can beat the odds on some of the few games with an element of skill. Leaf saw some estimates of how much money is spent at the Casino compared to the value of the prizes awarded and was shocked. It makes it especially diabolical that the tokens that would be won and submitted to the lottery wouldn’t be used for any prizes other than those of the contest.

Whoever came up with the system knew exactly how to maximize the amount of money the casino would rake in. It’s already drawn a lot of criticism and calls for investigation to see if the contest breaks any laws, though the Casino insists its lawyers have ensured it does not. Maybe it would be a good use of her time, getting a ground floor look at the contest. Writing about something so controversial would further boost her readership, and besides, she has a personal angle on one of the few individual contestants who have already announced their intention to participate…

“Yep, really,” Leaf decides with a smile. “If anyone asks, I’ll just be there to lend Blue some support.”

“That’s awesome! Hey, if they have a public wifi you could even let me try some MITM attacks through your phone!”

Leaf blinks as the voice pronounces each letter of the acronym, then frowns slightly at the idea of letting Natural use her as the literal middleman for Man in the Middle hacks, even if part of her appreciates the wordplay. “Uh… wouldn’t that be traceable to me?”

“Hm, good point… oh, you could just buy a burner phone and leave it on somewhere nearby!”

He sounds so earnest that Leaf laughs as she tracks one of the pidgey, who keeps hopping around as she tries to withdraw it. “Someone’s been watching too many spy movies.”

“It would totally work. Just buy it with cash, and don’t register any personal data on it.”

Leaf finally withdraws the pidgey and tucks it in the bag, feeling conflicted between her own desire to do something and her worries about doing something like… this. She’s not sure, however, if she’s hesitating because it’s illegal, because it’s risky, or because it still feels “wrong” in some way, even in comparison to the good it might do?

She reminds herself that she doesn’t actually know Natural. It’s hard not to feel like she does, with the automated voice and how much they’ve talked and worked together and share values, but wanting to impress him isn’t the same thing as doing whatever he asks without thinking. There’s got to be a way for her to investigate the casino without putting her trust in someone she’s never met.

“Still there, Leaf?”

“Yeah, just thinking…” She trails off as she gets a call, and smiles as she checks the screen. “I’ll think about it, talk to you later, I gotta go.”

“Okay, I should go to bed anyway. Night!”

“Sleep well!” She ends the app, then answers the call. “Hey Blue, I was just talking about you. How’s it going at the gym and casino?”

“Pretty good,” her friend says. “But I actually called for something else, and don’t want to get sidetracked… I uh, wrote a thing to send to Red.”

Leaf stops walking, so surprised she can only say, “You did?”

“You don’t have to sound so shocked,” he grumbles. “I just thought you should read it over, before I send it. To see how it sounds.”

“Of course!” She thinks of telling him how proud she is, but knows that would probably sound patronizing. “I’m really… glad.”

“Yeah, well. Read it first. I started it when I got to Celadon, but it took a few days to get to where it is, so I might have gotten too… rambly. Or something. I need fresh eyes on it.”

She’s a little worried now, and suddenly remembers what a gut-punch it was for Laura to tell her she had to rewrite her whole article on the Pewter Museum after she worked on it for so long. That was way less personal to her than this is for Blue, plus she was a lot more used to writing her thoughts out, and the idea of revision. If her feedback is too harsh, he might just avoid the whole thing for another couple months. “I’ll look it over tonight,” she promises.

“Cool. Yeah. Thanks. Anyway, I’ll call later to catch up, I need to go to a class… I think you’d like it here, by the way.”

“Oh yeah? How come?”

“The gym members are as often focused on coordination as battling, and the whole place is very pokemon friendly,” he says, and she can hear him going down some stairs. “The gym’s basically a huge park for them, and even more than Vermilion the classes focus on social stuff, status and influence and group dynamics instead of things related to battling and incident response.”

“Huh.” Part of her sighs at the idea that he thinks she’d consider the gym “pokemon friendly” just because people let their pokemon out to play there, but she knows he means well. The truth is, before she worked on the ranch and met Natural she probably would have considered that a sign of pokemon friendliness. Now, though, she’d need to see them actually doing more to care for pokemon that aren’t just their own before she’s so charitable.

Still, it would probably be a fun place for them to explore. She can tell Raff in particular is getting a bit bored of the same environment; the ivysaur has begun following docilely after her during her rounds, rather than bounding from pen to pen excitedly investigating each one. Though today he’s actually much more energetic than usual, prancing around with apparently boundless energy. “The classes do sound interesting. Plus I saw the uniforms online, and they look super pretty.”

“Oh, yeah, there’s a whole system for those actually… remind me to tell you later.”

“Will do, bye! Oh, one more thing! Can I come visit you soon, and would you do an interview on the casino contest?”

“You’re still into that sort of thing?” he asks, and then his surprise shifts to suspicion. “It’s not going to be a hit piece is it?”

“Would I do that to you?”

Blue chuckles. “Not without asking first, which is more than I can say for everyone else who’s reached out so far. Yeah, of course. Come by whenever you want, though you don’t have to interview me in person, do you?”

“Nah, but I want to see what’s going on for myself too.”

“Alright, looking forward to it.” She hears a door open. “Gotta go, talk to you later.”

“Later!” She closes the call, and wipes sweat from her brow as she checks the message she receives from him. It’s a copy of his letter to Red.

Excitement burns in her chest, as well as a queasy worry lower down. She said she’d look it over tonight, but after months of silence, she’s too curious to see what Blue finally says. She sets the bags down and leans against a fence to scan the message.

Hey Red

Leaf stares at the two words, then sighs and rolls her eyes. Boys.

I’m guessing you’re probably still mad at me. I’m still working out how I feel about everything, but I want to make sure you know that, if you took what I said as meaning I wished you were dead, I didn’t mean that. I meant that even knowing that would happen, taking that risk is what I would have done for her and you, and I was upset that you didn’t. But in case it needs to be said I’m obviously glad you didn’t die too.

Hope Saffron is treating you alright. Maybe I’ll see you there soon.

Blue

Rambly, he said. Leaf shakes her head and reads it over again, pulse still quick with anticipation. This… isn’t terrible. It’s not great, she’d give it even-odds at barely improving things between them at best versus upsetting Red even more, but two things seem really promising; the way he said he’s working out how he feels, rather than that he’s mad too, and the tentative idea of seeing Red soon.

She wonders if she should call Blue later and talk about it, or just send back an edited version and see what he thinks. He might be embarrassed by having to explain himself or talk through the choices, but she also wants what Red ends up seeing to come as much from Blue as possible.

She decides to wait until she can talk to him again, and continues withdrawing the rest of the pokemon as she dials Red, who answers after just one ring.

“Hey Leaf, what’s—”

“What are you doing tomorrow? Also hi.”

“Uhh…” Red seems taken aback by the excitement in her voice. “I’ve got a class to teach, after that some training with another student here, and then I’m free?”

“Cool, cool cool.” She withdraws a rattata and carefully places its ball in the nearly full bag. “Want to go to the Rocket Casino for crimes?”

“For… our own crimes, or someone else’s?”

“Good question. I want to use your psychic powers for espionage because I think they may be doing unspeakable things to the new pokemon.”

There’s a pause, and after a moment Red sighs. “Leaf, is this an elaborate ruse to get me to talk to Blue?”

She scoffs. “Nothing elaborate about it if so, I’m literally asking you to go with me to the place where he’s likely to be.”

“That’s not a denial.”

“I’m just upset by how weak you think my cunning is.”

“Still not a denial.”

“Fine. Red, along with enjoying your company, I swear, I primarily want to exploit you for your powers.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Also, no.”

“Hm. I respect your boundaries,” Leaf says as she finishes withdrawing the last rattata. “But also, Reeeeed why noooot?

“First of all, why would people at the casino know anything? Second, if they did, they probably have psychics of their own to make sure they’re not being read, like on the cruise. Third, weren’t you the one that made me promise not to use my gift like that?”

“Yeah, but this is different! It’s for a good cause!”

She can hear his smile. “And my other objections?”

“I know,” she sighs. “You’re probably right. Still, aren’t you curious about how the contest is going?”

He’s silent for a moment, then sighs. “Yeah, actually, I am. It’s the first new pokemon discovery since before I can remember, but this is such a weird way for one to be revealed…”

“So? What’s holding you back?” When he’s silent for a moment, she has a moment of wondering if she should nudge him… normally she wouldn’t, but knowing that Blue is going to be sending his letter soon, she wants Red to say yes to the visit before he gets it. It will feel more meaningful then. “Is it because you might run into Blue?”

“So what if it is,” he mutters, sounding more grumpy than upset.

“Red… you can’t avoid him forever,” she says, picking her words carefully as she taps a pattern on the fence around a tree to get the various bug pokemon in its branches to come down. “He’s going to be in Saffron soon enough, and what will you do then? Avoid going to the gym in case you bump into him?”

“Ugh. No, that would just make me seem like more of a coward.” He sighs. “I know you’re right, I just… I don’t know what I’d say if I saw him, and I don’t want to get into another fight.”

“Don’t worry about that,” she assures him. “If either of you start a fight, I’m just going to grab the offender by the ear and drag them away. The potential indignity of it should be a useful deterrent.”

He chuckles, then sighs. “Fiiine, I’ll take some time off.”

“Wow, way to make a girl feel special,” she teases.

“Oh… sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“I know, I’m just giving you a hard time. Seriously though, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”

“I do! Want to, I mean.”

“You’re sure? You’d tell me if I pressured you into it?”

“Of course.” He’s silent for a moment, then says contemplatively, “Or would I? Maybe I’d make up some excuse at the last minute.”

She laughs. “Shut up, you would not.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. You’re a terrible liar.”

“Yeah, well, I might have a superpower for that now.”

“Red, you can’t say stuff like that! Now how will I know if the excuse is real?”

“Should have thought of that before you didn’t respect my boundaries. Everything’s up in the air now. Who knows how I feel?”

“Red!”

He gives a sinister laugh that he must have practiced at some point and ends the call, leaving her to laugh to herself. The lingering worry she felt fades with the relief and joy that came from him teasing her back. She takes it as moderate evidence that he actually didn’t feel pressured to come, and strong evidence that he’s okay with her teasing him, too.

For a long while she wasn’t sure how to think about the feelings she sensed from Red on the boat, or even whether to poke at it at all. What she eventually realized is that it doesn’t matter. She should act like she didn’t sense it, because it wasn’t hers to sense; he didn’t choose to let her know it, and when he does, then they can talk about it.

Not that she knows what she would say, exactly, since she doesn’t really know what he would say. But she’s thought through a few different outcomes after thinking over how she feels about Red.

She likes him. He’s a great friend, one of her favorite people in the world really, despite their differences.

But does she like him? She’s not sure. She looks forward to seeing him, and enjoys teasing him. It’s cute when he blushes and tugs on his cap and looks away.

And he was very brave, during the storm. Despite all the horrible things she saw earlier that night, what she remembers most is the shock of being hit by the nidoqueen’s tail. The fear, as she lay on the street and felt pain start burning through her, that she was dying. And with it, the sound of his voice calling her name, and the sight of his worried face as he carried the half of the stretcher that had her head on it through the rain. That last thing in particular, makes her feel warm and fuzzy inside.

…but does that mean she likes likes him? Or would she feel that way for anyone who did that, like Blue or Glen?

Glen is definitely more handsome, but he’s older than she is, and she hardly knows him, plus she thinks he’s got something for Bretta. Blue is cuter than Red too, but it doesn’t really register for her beyond an observation. Maybe because she can’t imagine them having any sort of deeper relationship; they’re too different. But her and Red…

She could see it. Maybe. Potentially.

Leaf continues to muse on it as she finishes with the pokemon, then returns to the house, sighing with relief to be out from under the sun, which was feeling oppressively hot today. She starts doing some of the easier medical check-ups until Mr. Sakai joins her, and she listens carefully as he teaches her more about the pokemon she hasn’t worked with yet. She knows she has a lot to learn before she’s as good at this as Aiko, but she enjoys learning about it. Even beyond the subject itself, it makes her feel closer to her friend, and she thinks Mr. Sakai enjoys teaching it, too. It’s just another way he could be using his time more efficiently, if she could find a way to convince him to… though part of her worries it’s arrogant of her to think that way, and that she should just let him live the life he chooses.

After lunch she gets to work on her renaturalization program, which is at the stage of preparing for its first experiment. Red helped a lot by asking for the least docile pokemon on the ranch, then melding with each and determining which ones responded quickest to sakki. While Red was fascinated by what that meant for the effectiveness of simulation training, and started designing a research paper that could predict it without using psychic abilities, Leaf began tailoring the program for the three pokemon whose natural instincts were closest to the surface, keeping in mind Bill’s suggestion to focus on proof of concept.

She’s taken more of a backseat role on the project now that the other programmers Bill put her in contact with, like Natural, are helping, but she’s the one with the access to sakki, and to so many test subjects…

Leaf’s fingers slow, and she closes her eyes.

Test subjects.

It’s the first time she’s thought of them in those terms, and a weight forms in her stomach as she dwells on the implications. How much has she changed from the girl who argued with Red and Blue on the first night of their journey? Normally changing her mind about something is a thing she’d celebrate, but it feels like a betrayal, to recognize that she’s willing to risk seriously messing up these pokemon’s minds for the sake of the project. Even knowing that it’s the goal she cares about, not fame or money, doesn’t help with the guilt.

The first is Scarf, a rattata with a white blotch that extends around his neck who keeps gnawing on rocks and chipping his teeth. Hoppy is a nidoran who jumps around manically every time she eats, no matter how much her trainer tried to get her to stop, and Stoffle is a yungoos someone brought all the way from Alola who was abandoned because he kept trying to escape any enclosures he was in.

Scarf. Hoppy. Stoffle. Not just test subjects; individual, sentient creatures who want to live, want food and companionship and freedom, just like her.

She starts typing again, but her heart isn’t in it, and she has to force herself to keep working, one line of code at a time, as her thoughts drift to Blue’s letter, and to Red’s potential reaction, and to what Natural asked her to do, and what might be happening to the newly discovered pokemon. If he wasn’t asleep right now she would message Natural, ask him how he resolves the contradiction of being angry at the Rocket Casino while working on a project like this, but she guesses what his answer would be; the same one hers is, ultimately. It’s for their own good. It’s for what’s best for everyone. Ends justifying means.

It doesn’t help her feel better.

After an hour she feels like she barely got any work done, and opens Blue’s letter to read it over again. She sends him a message to call her when he’s free, then switches to working on the task Laura gave her, running down a few more leads that come up empty before Blue reaches out.

“Okay, ready for some feedback?” she asks upon opening the call. “Also how was your class?”

“It was good, and uh, should I be taking notes, or…? How much feedback are we talking here?”

“Weeeell…”

Blue chuckles, which surprises Leaf. “Hang on, this might actually be a good time… there’s a thing I learned a couple days ago that helps with communicating.”

Leaf blinks. “Go on…”

“Not sure how it’ll work on the phone, but part of it should. One of the exercises in the class was one where you would get to be as openly honest with me as you want, and all I’m allowed to do at the end is thank you for sharing what you feel.”

“Huh. That seems… neat?” He wasn’t kidding about the unusual classes. She feels some cautious optimism. “It’s for, what, getting used to negative feedback?”

“And positive, actually, for people who have trouble taking compliments.” She can hear a bit of smugness as he says, “Go ahead, admit it. You’re impressed.”

Leaf grins. “I have been worrying about how careful I should be to try not to scare you off messaging Red, compared to giving you full, honest feedback…”

“The second. I want the real deal.”

“You’re sure?”

“A hundred percent.”

Leaf lets out a breath. “Alright, so is there… something we need to do first to prepare, or…?”

“Well, normally we’d spend like half an hour easing into being comfortable with our discomfort and making neutral comments about things we feel or observe and stuff, but I want to try just getting to the useful part.”

She grins. This sounds more like the Blue she knows. “Alright.” She starts spinning around in her chair as she stares up at the ceiling. “Sooo—”

“Oh, wait, I should mention… you’re not allowed to start statements with ‘you.’ Also, no judgements. And you should start with what you see, and how it makes you feel. And also what ‘need’ is leading to that feeling. And instead of assuming what I feel, you can ask questions as a way of guessing. Also—”

“Hang on,” Leaf says as she starts typing under his letter. “This is a lot. Could you repeat all that?”

He does. “Also, last thing, but make concrete requests, if you can.”

She finishes writing up the list. “Okay, so no ‘you’ statements, no judgements, state observations and feelings and needs, ask clarifying questions about how you feel, and make concrete requests.” She smiles. “Was part of this communication class about how to communicate the content of the class?”

He chuckles. “No, I’m winging that part.”

“I figured, but good job.

“Guess we’ll see. I’m ready: hit me.”

Leaf reads the letter again. “Okay, so… I see three things that made me feel really good about this letter. One was the straightforward way you said you didn’t want him to die. Two was the way you admitted that you’re unsure of how you feel, which I’m guessing was showing vulnerability, on your part?”

She thinks he might say something about the way she keeps emphasizing certain words, but he just says, “Yeah.”

“Well, I think that’s good. Third was saying you might see him soon. That’s a great note to end it on. Oh, there’s a fourth thing,” she says as she rereads it again. “You didn’t include any ‘you’ statements, you just focused on how you felt. I’m guessing the classes helped with this?”

“Yep. Alright, now let me have the bad parts.”

“Okay, so… I saw you making an effort to justify your position, and I feel like that might just extend the argument. I’m guessing you still feel a need to justify your position, and think there might be time for that, later, but maybe not as part of the apology? Uh, I don’t know if one of my own needs is related here, other than just… a desire to have you guys be friends again. But it feels unfair of me to push that on you.” She reviews the guidelines. “Oh, something concrete… maybe change the part that comes off as judgmental of what he did?”

“I…” He takes a breath. “I don’t feel like I was being judgmental, there. Just explaining what I felt and meant by what I said. I thought, I don’t know, like it might not seem sincere, if I just said ‘hey nevermind what I said before, I didn’t mean it.’ Or it would make me seem…”

“Like you were being cruel, before?” she guesses, voice soft. “I get it. And maybe you’re right, some explanation may be better than none. Just… maybe don’t word it in a way that might make him feel guilty?”

Blue sighs. “Alright, yeah. I’ll try. Thanks. What else?”

“Hm… well, also, I see a lot of… hedging? Maybe that’s the wrong word, but parts like ‘if you took’ and ‘in case it needs to be said’… I feel it might be better if you just take for granted that he did feel that way, and it does need to be said? I’m guessing you said it because you may feel a need to explain why you didn’t say this earlier? Sorry, I’m not sure if I broke a rule with that last part.”

“It’s fine,” he says, voice low. “I’m looking over it again, and I should probably take off the ‘obviously,’ part too, right?”

I think it would help,” she says, smiling as she feels optimism spreading through her. This is going much better than she expected.

“Right. Okay, I’m going to edit it again when I get back to my room. Assuming that’s it?”

“Yeah, that’s it. Oh, wait, one more thing… I feel like the tone is a little… too casual, maybe?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well… I guess it makes it seem like you guys spoke a few days ago, and that this was a small issue. I worry that might feel a bit… dismissive?”

“Well what should I do? I’m not exactly tearing my hair out over here.”

“I know, and I know you’re already showing vulnerability with the letter. I’m just worried that he might see it as if you’re not treating it seriously. It might upset him more if you don’t acknowledge it as a big deal?”

“Oh.” Blue actually chuckles. “This is where I can actually say, thank you for your feedback, Leaf, but I think you’re off.”

She blinks. “Really?”

“Totally. Guys aren’t like that.”

She raises a brow, leaning back in her chair. “Oh you’re not, huh?”

“Yeah, or maybe just me and Red aren’t. We’ve gotten into so many fights and then made up, and every time, it was just… casual. One of us would reach out to the other about something like nothing happened, and we’d put it behind us.”

Leaf frowns. She’s not sure she understands boys well enough to gainsay him, but Red isn’t like most boys she’s met, or most anyone, really. That said, he has known Red much longer than she has. “Well… this is a different situation though, so… maybe just add in that you missed him, or something?”

He’s silent for a minute, before finally saying, “Yeah, I’ll think about it. Thanks again.”

She smiles. “You’re welcome. Alright if I come by tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow? Sure, yeah. I should be at the casino before it gets dark.”

“Cool, see you then!”


Red arrives in the afternoon the next day, and the first thing he says after he returns her hug is, “You knew Blue would send that letter last night.”

“I hoped he would,” she corrects, barely able to contain her excitement. “And? How was it? Can I see it?”

“You haven’t already?”

“Just an early draft. You’re not mad that he would take the time to make sure that he said the right thing and that I helped him make sure he doesn’t stick his foot in his mouth, are you?”

Red frowns as he summons Pikachu, who comes over to say hi to her and Raff. “When you put it that way I guess not. As long as he meant what he said.”

“He did,” she assures him as she scratches Pikachu’s ears, then leads them inside. “And he didn’t know you were coming, either.”

“Wait, shouldn’t he?”

“Why?”

“Well, I don’t want him to feel ambushed or anything.”

“So let him know. You guys are talking now, you don’t need me to be the intermediary,” she says with a nonchalant confidence she doesn’t quite feel as they start up the stairs.

“Right.” He’s quiet for a moment as he follows her up. “Thanks, by the way.”

“You’re welcome. I know you’d do the same.”

“Of course. Hi, Mr. Sakai.”

“Hello, Red.” Aiko’s dad is in the kitchen, setting some salad bowls on the counter between them. “It’s good to see you again. Lunch will be ready soon.”

“I’ll be out in a minute to help,” she tells him, and leads Red to the room to show him the research on Laura’s case while she picks out the pokemon she’ll be bringing with her. She enjoys Red’s wide-eyed stare as he sees the signs of her investigation: two walls covered in printouts and note cards and a map of Kanto and Johto, various colored pins covering it that are tied to cards with string. She could have recreated most of it digitally, but something about working with the large, physical representation helped her.

Also she always wanted to do something like this. Natural may have seen too many spy movies, but she watched quite a few political thrillers starring investigative journalists after Pewter.

“You did all this already?” He traces the string as it loops around pins from one city to another, arrows indicating the direction of the path and timestamps at each spot.

“Most of that was done the first few days after your mom came, actually. I’ve hit a bit of a wall since then… check out that board.” She points to where she posted a bunch of printed out article headlines.

Red scans the headlines. “They’re all from Fuchsia?”

“Yeah. I’m almost sure that whoever did all this started there, so I pulled up all the weird things that have been going on in the city up to a couple years before the first file was taken… particularly if it had to do with Silph.”

“Because you think it might be an ex-employee or something, right?”

“Or even a current employee, but… there’s nothing that seems to fit. No one jumps out as having motive, opportunity, and means, or even two out of three.”

He’s silent for a minute, staring at the wall thoughtfully as he scans each news article and the short bios of the people involved that she pinned nearby. “Do you know what the streetlight effect is?”

“Sure, that’s the thing where you keep looking for evidence where it’s easiest to find it.”

“Yeah. I get why you started looking at Silph employees, but if they’re not working out, why not expand the search?”

“To what? Even if I start just looking at something like ‘Fuchsia residents,’ that’s still hundreds of thousands of people, and I don’t have leads or information about them the way I do Silph employees.”

Red nods. “Which is what you meant by you hit a wall… yeah, that’s tough. Sorry, nothing really coming to mind. I’ll let you know if it does.”

“Thanks. I plan to meet your mom soon to give her what I’ve got.” She holds up two balls. “Your nidoran evolved, right? Did you bring him?”

“Yep.”

She puts her own down, selecting her ariados instead. “Who else do you have? Besides the abras, I mean on your belt.”

“I’ve got Charmeleon, Pikachu, Butterfree, Drowzee, Kingler, and, uh, Nidoqueen.”

Leaf nods and clips both her ariados and her magneton to hers, where they join Crimson, Raff, Joy, and Ruby. Red always seems awkward about mentioning the nidoqueen around her, and she’s not sure if it’s for her sake or his own hangups about having a pokemon that nearly killed her. “I’m ready when you are, then.”

After they eat lunch and help clean up, they head outside and summon their bikes. Leaf is so excited to be on the road again that even the sight of a cloudy sky doesn’t bother her; there was a small chance of rain in the forecast, but the clouds are light and fluffy. She gives Red a wide smile as they summon Crimson and Butterfree and start riding south.

They talk through their headsets as they ride, catching up more on what’s been going on since they last spoke. Red tells her that Sabrina has been spending her time back getting through weeks of backlogged Challenge matches (this probably wouldn’t be news to anyone else, but he knows how little she pays attention to gym stuff) while he and the other students focus on the new discoveries related to multi-mind psychic links. He also tells her about how the oldest student was forced to leave after she tried to use the experiment to learn more about Sabrina, and how that led to Sabrina’s cryptic comment about trusting him more.

“Does that mean you’ll be let into the inner circle of psychics now?” Leaf asks. “Learn if they’re making us all like hummus?”

“What? Oh, the operant conditioning thing… wasn’t it fruit?”

“Whatever. Are you?”

“Making you like hummus or fruit?”

“I already like hummus and fruit,” she says, grinning. “Answer the question! Are you or are you not part of a secret psychic society?”

“Not,” he says, grinning back. “But I may be soon, I guess? We haven’t really talked since she got back because of how busy she’s been.” He looks up. “Is the sky getting darker, or is it just me?”

Normally she might think he was trying to change the subject, but she still thinks Red would be honest with her, that he’s too honest a person in general not to be, and the cloudy sky is looking darker. “Do you want to head back?” she asks, wondering if, like her, being in the rain now makes him think of the storm. Makes him feel the panic again, the anger, the grief, the desperation.

“Do you?”

“It feels so good to travel again…” And she wants Red and Blue to finally talk to each other in person again. She shrugs, pedaling a little faster. “I think we can make it before it starts raining.”

He doesn’t disagree, and just follows her as she veers them toward the main road, keeping her gaze flicking between the tall grass to the side and the sky as it continues to darken. There’s less traffic than she remembers the last time they took this road south, and part of her can’t help but wonder if the explosion of abra ownership over the past few months is responsible. It’s comforting, knowing that they can get out of any dangerous situation within a minute, and she’s been training her abra so that it would eventually evolve and have a place on her belt, though even with Red’s help it’s been difficult. She wouldn’t feel comfortable using it in combat against any but the weakest pokemon.

In truth she’s a little worried about combat in general, after over two months without being in any battles. She’s been happier, not having to think so much of her pokemon’s combat abilities… not having to think of their value as weapons. But she’s also felt a little guilty, knowing that others still are, and that she and her pokemon have been able to live a comfortable, peaceful life because rangers and gym trainers are prepared to fight for their safety. It’s something she never really understood, before she was a trainer herself, and especially before the storm. The tension of that guilt mixing with her aversion to battling often spurs her on to finish her grand project as quickly as possible.

They do indeed reach the train station before it starts to rain, and spend the trip westward talking about movies they’ve seen lately. Unfortunately, by the time they reach Celadon, a deluge is coming down over the city.

“Glad we didn’t get caught in that,” Leaf says, peering out a window of the train station. They’re well into fall now, so she knows this isn’t a Stormbringer; from what she read, Moltres’s “firestorms” are storms in name only. Still, it’s far beyond the potential showers that were forecasted, and she feels a flutter of anxiety move through her stomach, the sound of the rain on the roof bringing her back to the apartment building where she found the dead baby and its mother.

“Let’s give it some time,” Red says, gaze on his phone. “Apparently stormclouds have been forming all around the island today, but they’ve been fading quickly elsewhere.”

“Weird. Okay, I’m alright with waiting an hour, then we’ll just take a cab.” She really wants to explore the city in daylight, but there’s only a few hours of that left anyway. She checks the news as well, and notices a lot of others doing the same around them. “No good explanations for what’s up with the weather. Everyone just seems… confused.”

“I’m seeing something about the ocean currents acting oddly around the islands,” Red says, brow drawn. “I never really studied planetary science, so I’m not sure what that means.”

“Well, now seems like a good time to find out.” They sit side by side, Pikachu and Raff playing with some toys she brought as they read articles about how the density and temperature and salt content of different parts of the ocean affect the climate of the landmasses around them. It’s interesting, if not particularly useful in understanding what’s happening, and nostalgic of the time they used to spend researching things together. As they sit together in companionable silence, she finds her thoughts drifting occasionally to the feelings she sensed from him, and smiles as she catches him glancing at her between his own bouts of deep focus on what he’s reading.

“What?” he asks once, cheeks pink as he notices her watching him again.

“You seem more… grounded, than before,” she says, because it’s true. “Therapy going well?”

He lowers his phone to his lap. “Yeah, actually. And… some other stuff I’m still getting used to.”

“Stuff you’d be interested in talking about?”

“Um. Maybe not yet?” He looks so apologetic. “It’s a little weird.”

She might normally find this to be a terrible tease, but he’s so earnest that she just nods. “Of course.” For a moment she wonders if it has to do with how he feels about her, but no, he wasn’t blushing enough for that. Maybe it’s related to the new way his partition works, now. “Did you figure out how the current affects rainfall?”

“No, I was looking more into how often they have any kinds of drastic changes…”

The research continues to pass the time until the rain lets up, which is over half an hour after they arrived. They emerge along with everyone else who was waiting in the station into an overcast but incredibly large city, and they do their best to take in the sights as they make their way through the wet streets toward the casino.

The Rocket Casino takes up an entire block while only being a single story tall, giving it an unusual physical presence. “Don’t most casinos double as hotels?” Leaf asks as she eyes the glowing sign, the tall red letters spelling out the name in a sharp glowing font.

“Do they? Not around here.”

“Hmm. In Unova they do, but maybe because you win real money, and they want to make it easier to stay in the building.”

“Yeah, this is more like an arcade,” Red says as they walk into a lobby area, the noise of the casino proper muted by glass double doors. “Not that it’s not still a Skinner Box, just less of one, maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“This contest changes things,” he says as he looks around. “Randomized rewards is the easiest way to make a behavior addictive. Normally at least there are discrete reward tiers for what you win… someone could, say, shoot for 15,000 tokens to buy a bike or some pokemon of middling rarity. The open-ended lottery stacks random on random. Wouldn’t be surprised if they’re making more than the casinos in Unova off this.”

They reach the end of the lobby’s hallway, ignoring the machines that would let them create their own game cards and pre-load them with money. As soon as they push through the final set of doors, they’re assaulted with bright colorful lights, jangling, overly cheerful music and sounds, and the steady din of conversation, punctuated by the occasional cheers or applause.

They wander the floor for a while, observing all the people playing slots or cards or roulette. The advertising for the contest is ubiquitous, banners and posters showing a dark silhouette with a question mark in it, the shape different in each poster. In the corner some news station is recording, with the casino floor serving as the backdrop to the reporter. Leaf wonders if Laura would be covering this if she was still in Celadon and not working on her current project, or if she would consider it uninteresting.

The thought reminds her of the other reason she’s here, and she turns to Red. “So? What does your psydar say?”

He glances at her. “What makes you think I’m using it?”

She grins. “The Red I know wouldn’t be able to help himself?”

His responding smile is subtler than she expected, and his only response a cryptic, “The fact that you said that makes it funny in and of itself.”

“Okay, Mr. Mysterious, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Let’s just say I’ve been debating with myself about whether to do it. Obviously I’m curious, but I don’t know if I want to get distracted by the issue just yet.”

“You want to find Blue first?” she asks, and at his nod she loops her arm around his and squeezes affectionately. He stiffens in surprise, but she ignores that and leads him toward a crowd she’d spotted earlier. “That’s sweet, and also solvable. Pretty sure we can find him by looking for a spectacle.”

He’s not the center of the first crowd’s attention, or the second, but at the third she spots him from a distance, staring intently at the screen of his machine. One hand is poised over the middle of five buttons under virtual spinning wheels, the images on them a blur. The two already stilled ones show a big red R of the same style as the casino logo. As they reach the edge of the crowd to watch, his arm twitches, and the wheel stops to show another R.

There’s a stirring among the audience, some whispered murmurs, but they quickly quiet as his hand moves to the next button. The noise of the casino seems almost muted by the tension building with every passing second.

Blue is still as a statue, hand on the last button. Leaf realizes she’s holding her breath, just as still as Blue is, and then a tremor goes though the floor, strong enough that all the machines vibrate.

A collective gasp and cry of alarm rises from around the casino, and Leaf sees Blue jerk back from the machine, but the last wheel is already showing a pokeball, two spots away from the R.

“Ah, shit,” someone beside Leaf mutters as the machine starts jangling out a cheerful tune, highlighting the 4 Rs and showing a rising payout. Leaf looks up to see the rewards listed at the top; three Rs is worth 15,000 tokens, four is 40,000 but the fifth would have bumped the payout to 100,000.

Blue shakes his head, but she can’t tell if his look of frustration is for himself or the machine, whether he pressed the button or the brief quake caused it. Still, when people start clapping, he turns with a smile and bows to them, which doubles the applause. Leaf grins and starts clapping too, which draws his gaze to her… then to Red beside her, who’s also clapping politely.

He goes still a moment, then turns and withdraws his card from the machine as the payout finishes. The crowd seems to realize he’s done for now and disperses, some of them muttering worriedly about another quake after yesterday’s. As Blue approaches slowly, almost cautiously, Leaf quickly checks her phone to see where the earthquake was this time. Still near Hoenn, but again luckily not far off the coast. She feels a stab of sympathy for the extra damage it must have caused.

“Hey,” he says, voice casual. The generic greeting can apply to both of them, but he’s looking at Red, so Leaf just smiles and waves as she puts her phone away, her pulse still faster than normal as she anxiously watches them.

Red is mirroring Blue’s cautiously casual look as he nods. “Hi. Tough luck, with the machine.”

“Yeah, well. I’ll make up for it, once the tremors stop.” He briefly glances at Leaf, smile wry. “She drag you here?”

“A little,” Red says with a small smile of his own, and Leaf puts her hands on her hips, scowling with mock indignation. “But I was also interested in seeing what’s going on with the contest. And… it’s good to see you again.” The words are hard to make out over the ambient noise of the casino, but Red’s gaze stays on Blue. “Thanks, for the letter. It meant a lot.”

Blue nods, hand rubbing his neck. “Yeah. No problem. I… should have sent it sooner.”

Silence descends, both of them looking increasingly awkward, and Leaf, torn between yelling at them to hug it out and watching to see how long it goes on, decides to take pity instead. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Oh, Bretta and Lizzy are here somewhere. Most of the others are at the gym doing some qualifying matches…”

“You already have?” Red asks.

“Not exactly. You guys eat yet? We can grab some food while I explain…”

“Sounds great,” Leaf says, and Blue starts leading them toward the food court. Leaf flashes Red a smile, and his responding one is hesitant but wide. As they reach the tables set up between various miniaturized restaurants, Leaf’s attention is caught by the monitors hanging on the walls, half of them tuned to a weather station.

Instead of focusing on the earthquake, it shows Hoenn, Fiore, Johto, Kanto, Almia, Oblivia, Sinnoh, all the regions along the island chain, obscured by storm clouds.

“Be right back,” she says, and looks for a window before jogging over to it. The din of the casino blocks any noise from the storm, but she can see it, waves of rain lashing against the glass and a sky as dark as night, hours early.

She heads back to the others, who are watching the screens. “Look bad out there?” Red asks without glancing away from the monitors.

“Yeah. Glad we made it in when we did.” All three of them watch the screens for a moment, and she wonders if they’re thinking of Zapdos too. Or of Aiko.

“Hey, let’s head back early,” someone nearby says, and Leaf turns to see a young man at a table whose gaze is fixed on the screens as well.

“Nah, it’s pouring out there,” his friend says. “Besides, it’s been coming and going all day. It’ll probably clear up again soon.”

“Or it’ll keep getting worse, right now it’s just rain. What if it turns into a hurricane?”

“That’s not how that works, man. Relax, they’d tell us if it was an emergency.”

Leaf bites her lower lip, wondering how Mr. Sakai is doing on his own. She knows it’s silly to worry about him, just because he’s in his own world sometimes doesn’t mean he can’t take care of himself. Still, she feels guilty (and a little exasperated) that the first day she’s taken off from the ranch in weeks is one where the weather is so weird.

“Come on,” Blue says, jarring her from her thoughts. “Let’s get some food.”

They go to their chosen vendors and reconvene at one of the tables. Red offers to swap some of his salad with hers, which she accepts, and Blue pours sauce over his nuggets before tearing his gaze from the monitors again. “So yeah, when I got here Erika asked me to come by for a chat…” He summarizes the conversation as they eat, then goes on to explain what he’s been doing since. “Without preliminary matches to go to, I’ve been learning more about the gym culture and practices instead. Like the kimonos… they’re color coded to communicate things.”

“More than just rank?” Red asks.

“Oh yeah, rank is the least of it. Colors and patterns can also indicate what you’re looking for that day, so people can know to approach you with requests to battle or to leave you alone or whatever, without you having to say anything. Also, like, if someone is in a relationship, and what kind of relationship.”

Leaf blinks. “Meaning… romantic relationships?”

“Yep. You can sew on patches or designs that mean different things.”

“Well… How many different things could there be?” she asks, confusion mixing with a fascinated curiosity.

“That’s what asked, and she said she’d tell me when I’m older.” He rolls his eyes. “Anyway, the most interesting part is that the gym isn’t only full of battle trainers. That’s another thing you can know by their robes… some are coordinators, but others are medics, trackers, even roles that have nothing to do with pokemon at all. ‘Facilitators’ help organize groups and projects and resolve conflicts. ‘Strategists’ work on preparing the gym to defend the city, and coordinate with rangers or other gyms. There’s even a couple ‘accountants’ dedicated to helping trainers with their finances!”

“Wow,” Red says. “Researchers too?”

“Oh yeah, obviously. At first I thought they just wanted to be self-sufficient in a lot of ways that other gyms aren’t, but then I found out it’s more about recognizing different types of status and domain expertise, too. People aren’t just defined by one thing, they have levels in multiple.”

“Bet Elaine loved that,” Red says with a grin, and Blue laughs, nodding. Leaf watches them, smiling at the simple, positive interaction. The lingering anxiety she felt in her chest finally starts to fade.

This is working. She was skeptical of what Blue said, but it turns out he was right. They’re good enough friends to slip back into the flow of things, even after a major fight. Though the apology still needed to happen first, and if Aiko or anything related to that night comes up… well, they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it, but hopefully with the stuff Blue has been learning lately, and Red’s time in therapy, they can have a more healthy conversation.

“What about Saffron?” Blue asks, mouth full. “What’s it been like?”

“Oh, not nearly as interesting,” Red says. “For non-psychics, or trainers of non-psychic pokemon, I think it’s mostly just a regular gym. Sabrina’s got a lot of other things on her plate, so…” He shrugs. “I guess she focuses on stuff other than the gym culture.”

“Yeah, it’s not all great here. Erika spends so much time on her gym as a community that there’s little actual unique training insights, that I’ve seen so far at least.” He shrugs. “But I also meant, how’s the place been for you, as a psychic?”

“Oh, that’s been great! Learned a lot about my powers, made a couple new friends, had my first encounter with ghosts, which was… memorable. Merged and experimented with new pokemon. Recently we tried a thing with exeggcute—”

The casino rumbles again, and the din of conversation fades, leaving just the cheerful sound of the games. Leaf pauses, a tomato slice falling off her fork as she holds onto the table and waits for the rumbling to subside.

It doesn’t.

“Guys,” Red says as the table starts to vibrate, and cries of alarm spread through the casino.

Leaf looks at Red, who’s staring at one of the monitors. She follows his gaze and sees a live report of the earthquake they’re feeling now, once again centered off the coast of Hoenn… and far more widespread.

Real alarm shoots through Leaf just as she hears a scream. Her head whips around to watch people scrambling away from a part of the casino, and she looks up to see chandeliers swinging from the ceiling, dropping individual shards.

“Turtle up,” Blue barks, pushing away from the table and unclipping a ball. Leaf and Red move together toward him, and a moment later his snorlax is out, while Red summons his nidoqueen.

There’s a brief moment of instinctual terror, as she’s suddenly standing beside the pokemon that broke multiple of her bones a few months ago, but Leaf pushes the feeling aside as she reviews what pokemon she has. None would be particularly useful for this.

The two pokemon fill most of the empty space near the food court, towering over all of them, and she braces against Red and Blue as the ground continues to rumble under them. “Tent,” Blue commands, and Red closes his eyes. The snorlax moves first, leaning forward and extending his arms over them, and a moment later the nidoqueen does the same thing, locking arms with the snorlax so that the two of them form a protective cover over the trio.

“Over here!” Leaf yells to others who are scrambling for cover, and gestures for them to join them. If parts of the ceiling come down they’ll be safe… she’s grateful now that it is a one story building…

“Guys,” Red says, and she turns to see his eyes are still shut, and his expression confused. “There’s… the ground…”

“Spit it out!” Blue yells as a young couple joins them under their pokemon.

“There’s something weird about the ground,” he says, eyes snapping open in alarm. “I think there are lower floors!”

Leaf is still trying to process this when the air is filled with an almighty crack, and part of the casino collapses inward, the ground tilting and sliding out from under them.

Chapter 79: Status Effects

Hey everyone, welcome back. Hope you’re all staying as safe as you can, and that the chapter helps pass some social-distancing time pleasantly. Until next month, take care of yourselves, and each other.


Have you thought that it might not be obvious to him?

Leaf’s words come back to Blue time and again during the trip to Celadon City, despite all the distractions along the way. Bretta rejoins them at the station in Saffron, along with Slava and a recently discharged and physically rehabilitated Sumi, and the eight of them take the subway to the western edge of the city before taking out their bikes to travel the rest of the way; no part of Kanto’s mainland has as many fire pokemon as the area around Celadon, and they all want at least one for their battles against Erika’s gym.

It’s strange traveling with such a large group. Four didn’t feel that much different than three, but with eight they can stagger their nightly watches so that everyone can alternate getting a full night’s sleep, and it makes finding and capturing wild pokemon easier than ever. Their size also scares off every pokemon that sees or hears them coming, but Elaine guides them to areas that are less traveled, then works with Sumi to track down growlithe, vulpix, and houndour dens.

Of course, they still proceed carefully and plan out their encounters. But the fact that they outnumber their targets in every battle makes things much easier than catching pokemon was with a party of three or four, as does the strength of the group’s pokemon, and now, as night slowly falls and he holds his new arcanine’s ball in the lamp light of their camp, he can’t help but feel…

“Disappointed?” Bretta asks as she eases down beside him. Glen is feeding his new vulpix, MG has her earphones in as she watches a video in her bedroll, Elaine is showing Slava and Sumi her favorite game, and Lizzy is talking quietly with her sister as she walks around the camp’s perimeter.

“A little,” Blue admits. Bretta has changed since her badge matches, humbled in a way that he finds hard to know how to interact with compared to the girl who used to challenge him more than anyone else. But one thing that they all gained from Vermilion was a feeling of being safe with vulnerability around each other, and it was Leaf that helped him notice how little he’s opened up to them about personal things. “Arcanine was kind of my ‘spirit pokemon’ for years. I’ve been imagining the kind of epic battle that I’d have when I finally caught one for so long…”

“Only for it to turn out to be about twenty minutes of planning followed by a thirty-second battle that went without a hitch,” Bretta finishes, smiling slightly.

Blue sighs. “I gave exactly one command to Maturin. It was just… kind of anticlimactic, you know?”

“Yeah, for sure.” Bretta shrugs. “But I’m not complaining. I get why most trainers don’t travel in groups this big, we barely got any real battle or capture experience today, and didn’t encounter a single pokemon that we didn’t track… and at the same time, it feels like what we needed, after everything. Sumi in particular needed something easy to get her confidence back.”

“Yeah.” Blue watches the recently healed trainer smile at something Elaine says, their faces lit by her screen. It’s the first time since she joined up with them that she seems to have relaxed, and he suspects that she didn’t get much sleep the past two nights. “Makes sense. I’m happy no one got hurt, really, and if it hadn’t gone so quick we might not have had time to find the vulpix and houndour packs too.” He’d missed his chance at a vulpix yesterday, but got a houndour just before they broke for camp instead, which he’s definitely satisfied with. He thought he’d be lucky if he got just one fire pokemon, and even if it’s weaker than some of his other pokemon the houndour will still be a huge help against Erika’s gym, and Sabrina’s eventually. “I just feel like if all my captures are going to be like this from now on, why not just buy my pokemon? It would leave more pokemon for you guys to catch.”

It had been luck that he ended up with an arcanine; Glen, Slava and Bretta got growlithes during the main battle, while Lizzy got the first parent. Standard procedure dictated they wait to see if the other parent would appear, since capturing a whole family of any species that live in packs while leaving a dad or mom could trigger it to start rampaging in search of them. After rolling higher than the others Blue half expected the other arcanine not to show up, maybe already killed or captured by someone else, but less than an hour later it appeared with the thoroughly cooked remains of a persian hanging from its jaws. It barely had time to drop its meal before their combined attacks hit it, and seconds later it was caught.

(Unsure what to do with the persian remains, a brief debate had broken out before those with weaker stomachs wandered off a distance while their new captures were summoned to eat as a family. Blue voted that they try to feed them all together as often as makes sense, moving forward; he thinks Leaf and Aiko would approve.)

“True, it would have been cool to get an arcanine,” Bretta says. “But I think it still matters, that most of your pokemon have you listed as their original trainer, especially if they’re going to be part of your core team.”

“The alternative is I buy battle-bred pokemon for my team.” Blue shrugs. “I don’t want to, I’m sure there are enough people who think I’m just buying all my pokemon anyway, but…”

“Well, not that you should care what others think, but I say save your money for the pokemon you probably won’t be able to catch. Unless you plan to stay in Fuchsia for months?”

Blue smiles and shakes his head. There are some trainers whose strategy revolves around capturing all the strongest pokemon they can before getting into any of the harder challenge matches, but even if he’s mostly given up on having a record-making run on the League, he doesn’t have time or money to waste hoping against hope for a chansey or scyther or kangaskhan or dratini.

“Then, speaking for myself at least, I’m happy with what happened today. Besides, you’ll be kicking yourself for wasting money if that whole pokemon cloning thing takes off anytime soon.”

He snorts. “That would make the divide between those who have money and those that don’t even bigger. I wonder if they would get banned from League matches…”

The conversation continues until the others start going to bed, and Blue offers to swap for tonight’s first watch, knowing he’ll be up late anyway. His thoughts eventually turn back to Red, and his conversation with Leaf. He checks Red’s online profile, scrolling idly for any indication of how he’s doing, but his updates are all impersonal things, shared articles and academic questions about psychic phenomena. Not a single casual slice of life post, not even a meme!

Blue eventually closes the tab, feeling an odd mix of frustration and sadness. He never did learn how to engage his following. There were plenty of comments and discussion in his posts, but not nearly as much as he deserved, given his accomplishments.

Celadon looms in the distance long before they reach it the next day, sprawling impressively around the buildings that reach to the sky in the afternoon light. He remembers being awed the first time he saw it; Pallet Town seemed so small by comparison, and he wished that they could live here instead, with its constant activity and wide range of pokemon training halls, coordinator contests, and of course the gym that was more like a giant indoor/outdoor garden.

Now he finds himself focusing more on how to navigate all the hustle and bustle of a city that’s twice the size of Viridian, Pewter, Cerulean, and Vermilion, with so many cars on the road that there’s a separate bike lane that often has its own traffic stops and jams. By the time they make it to the gym’s front office, it’s late enough that they decide to just register for pre-Challenge matches and classes in the coming days. Afterward they head to the Celadon Department store and spend a couple hours restocking their supplies, eating at the food court, and buying some new training tools.

As he looks for a saddle harness, excited about finally having a pokemon he can ride on, Blue spots the wall of various whistles and thinks back to when he was trying them out with Red and Leaf at the Viridian mall on the second day of their journey…

Have you thought that it might not be obvious to him?

He shakes the memory away, bothered by the idea that, even if he was largely right in what he thought, what he said was wrong, or he said it the wrong way. He knows why it keeps pricking at him; he’s learned to recognize when his pride doesn’t want to admit something.

Instead he distracts himself by going to the floor where new products are being showcased, including tech from the Cruise Convention. The GameFreak exhibit is particularly interesting, and he’s sufficiently absorbed by the virtual demonstrations until the rest of the group is ready to leave.

They’re large enough that when they reach the Trainer House, people stop and take notice as they line up to register for a room, and the attention only increases as they’re recognized. He’s come to expect that, by now, and so walked in with his back and shoulders already straight, face calm. Glen, Elaine, Bretta and Lizzy all also seem used to it by now, though Slava and Sumi are clearly taken aback by the attention, and MG never seems comfortable with public scrutiny unless she’s battling.

“See you guys in the morning,” Blue says once he gets his room assignment, and heads off ahead of the others to put his pack away and shower. Afterward he lies in bed and just lets himself rest, thoughts shifting from how nice it feels to be in a bed (stiff and basic as it is) to the upcoming gym battles, to all the messages and mail he should be answering but hasn’t been. Losing Leaf as a travel partner is rough, but losing her as a group PR manager is almost as bad. Somehow of all the people in his new, bigger party, no one’s particularly skilled at managing things like that. But then, none of them were raised by Professors either, and the limelight is new to them.

He spends half an hour doing the best he can, waiting to see if Glen or Slava were assigned to the same room as him. Eventually he gets bored and goes downstairs to train his new arcanine and houndour, letting them get used to his commands and testing their reaction time and attack pools.

As he suspected, his houndour is fairly weak, unable to even do a Fire Fang yet, let alone a Flamethrower. It will need a lot of training to be effective against the kind of pokemon Erika would bring out for a 4th badge Challenge and Sabrina for a 5th.

Arcanine on the other hand seems ready to go, particularly with the TMs he picked up to cover for his weaknesses. He didn’t realize it during the battle, everything happened so fast, but his arcanine is actually rather scarred, not disfigured or crippled, but with jagged marks along its chest and face that make it clear it’s survived some scraps.

“Overall, you look intimidating as hell,” he murmurs as he sits down beside his pokemon and pats the ground so that the arcanine sits beside him. He reaches up and runs his fingers through its warm, thick fur. “So what should I name you?”

He never picked one out, despite everything. Had some ideas, but it felt wrong to settle on something before he even met his pokemon. He’ll have to before his arcanine’s debut with Erika, but that gives them time to get to know each other.

“Something anger related would fit,” he muses. “But maybe you’re not an angry sort. Don’t want to project that onto you.”

His new pokemon rolls a big gray eye toward him and huffs out a breath before looking away. Not rebellious, but not eager to please, either.

“That’s alright, big guy. You’re not a puppy, and I won’t treat you like one.” Blue keeps his fingers moving to find a spot the big canine likes, letting his eyes drift closed as the smokey smell of its fur surrounds him. “But I do want to make sure you’re happy, so let me know if this starts working for you.”


The Trainer House cafeteria is oddly silent as he walks in the next morning, still a bit groggy from his late night in the training room. Most people on their phones or tablets watching what looks like a news report. He didn’t get an alert for any incidents, but still feels his pulse kick up as he gets his food and joins the three other early risers in the party, Elaine, MG and Slava, who are all watching it too.

“What’s going on?” he asks, leaning over to see Celadon’s mayor addressing a crowd.

Slava pulls an earplug out. “Police raided the Rocket Casino this morning.”

“Alright…” He blows on his porridge, glancing around to find most people still watching their screens. “So why is this a big deal?”

“The warrant was for stolen property, but there’s a rumor that it was actually a new kind of pokemon.”

“What?!”

“Yeah. Police didn’t find anything, and the mayor is saying… she’s in communication with the owner of the casino and President Silph.” Slava’s brow shoots up. “Who was the one reporting stolen property, apparently? To try and get to the bottom of it.” People start taking their headphones out or putting their phones down as the interview apparently ends.

Blue quickly takes out his phone and checks his local news feed, then scans the story. The rumor apparently originated from something Rocket Casino announced this morning: a new promotional campaign aimed at trainers, with pokemon as the prizes. The list is full of common catches, but also… abra… clefairy… pinsir… scyther… dratini…

Abra have dropped in price until they’re about as cheap as clefairy, and while both are still valuable pokemon, pinsir and scyther are protected species only found in Fuchsia’s safari zone… and dratini which go for tens of thousands of dollars easy, if you’re not picky about any of its attributes.

But that’s not what has his heart racing.

Mystery Grand Prize! A brand new, never before seen pokemon, offered exclusively by the Rocket Casino!

A new pokemon.

Red must be flipping out…

A confusing mix of emotions chase the thought again, and he grimaces as Leaf’s words come back to him, quickly scrolling to the comments.

Lots of skepticism, of course, and guesses as to what they might be offering that would technically count as a new species while not actually being one. There are also people who are mad at them for offering the supposed new species as a gambling award rather than selling it directly to researchers, but as someone points out, the promotional ad didn’t specify battle trainers, and coordinators and researchers are likely to be attracted to the casino for it too.

“It’s got to be fake, right?” Slava asks. “Your grandpa would know if a new pokemon was caught, it would have to be recorded in the dex.”

“There’s precedent,” MG points out. “New evolutions that were never seen before. The pokemon’s conditioning still carried through, so they were safe to live with, but the pokedex couldn’t identify them until new code was written. And pokemon revived from fossils.”

“Right.” Slava frowns. “Rocket Casino wouldn’t have a revival lab though, so if it’s real it must be a new evolution. It’s just a casino though, where would they even get a newly evolved pokemon? Any trainer that discovered one would make more money selling it to some lab or corporation, wouldn’t they?”

“It could be something else entirely.” MG shrugs, spinning her fork in her noodles. “I’m just saying it’s not impossible. But a casino might actually pay the most for it, when you consider how many people will come to try and win it.”

“What are you thinking, Blue?” Elaine asks. “I know that look.”

He pushes away the urge to speculate about the “new pokemon.” It could be immensely useful for battling just from the fact that it would be a mystery to everyone else, but he has more practical goals in sight. “I’m thinking that regardless of how true the Grand Prize turns out to be, this is a chance to get a scyther… or even a dratini.”

“It’ll take a lot of luck to win anything good,” Slava says, voice doubtful. “Or else they wouldn’t bother, right?”

“Most of the games are chance, yeah,” Blue says, and grins. “But not all. There was one I remember where you hit a button to stop each slot in the machine… it really just came down to reflexes. Gramps only brought us there once, but I made out like a bandit, turning twenty bucks of tokens into nearly three hundred in just a couple hours. Traded them in for a new sim headset. If it’s still there, it might be worth trying, depending on how the rules are set up.”

The rest of the group joins them one at a time as Blue looks into the contest rules as he eats. Apparently it’s a lottery, with each token turned in adding to your chances of winning. He’s in the middle of forwarding the site to Leaf and Gramps to ask what they think when he suddenly gets a message from…

“Hm.” Blue frowns at his screen, rereading the message twice. “So, I just got invited to meet with Leader Erika? Did anyone else?”

“I’m going to go ahead and guess no,” Glen says, not sounding surprised as he blows on his porridge. “You know her?”

“We’ve met before. You know how she worked with Gramps on some Grass pokemon research during her journey? She’s gone to the lab once in a while since then, helped with other discoveries. Even came to the house a few times when I was younger.”

“What’s she like?” Sumi asks as she pours extra syrup over her pancakes. Noticing the alarmed look from Lizzy, she grins. “A few days out of the hospital hasn’t been enough to make up for how much I’ve missed unhealthy food.”

“In interviews she always seems so… serene,” MG says. “I can never decide if it’s just a persona or not.”

“I always thought she just takes a big whiff of a bellossom before going on camera,” Slava says, and the table chuckles. “I’m serious, she always has some flowery Grass pokemon nearby, I just assume she’s constantly buzzed.”

“Well she didn’t always have them out at the house,” Blue says. “I think ‘serene’ is a good way to describe her, though. And her commitment to traditional culture isn’t just a gimmick, that’s just how she is. Or it was around us, at least.”

“Isn’t the gym a bit cultish?” Lizzy asks, seeming a bit nervous. “I heard they have to sit around in circles where you can say whatever you want to each other and the other person has to accept it, and all the members get in relationships with each other all at the same time, and they worship nature—”

“Those are just rumors,” Bretta dismisses. “I have a friend who became a member, and she’s mostly normal.”

“Mostly?”

“Erika didn’t say what she wants?” Elaine asks Blue.

“Nah. Probably just wants to catch up in private; the last time I saw her was shortly after she became Leader here, and Gramps brought us on a family trip to congratulate her in person. I was like eight or something, so all of my conversations with her are pretty hazy.”

“I bet it’s more than that,” Bretta says as she absently slaps Glen’s hand away from her strawberries. “The articles I read always make Erika seem like she plays a very passive leadership role outside of times of crisis. She might want to check and see if Blue plans to challenge her methods like he did Surge.”

“Ooo, good point.” Elaine smiles at him. “Are you?”

Everyone turns to look at him expectantly, and he blinks at them, mouth full. He takes a moment to chew and swallow, then wash it all down before he says, “Yes.”

The table erupts with laughter and cheers, and Slava leans forward with a grin. “Nice, I was hoping to get in on the scenario action. They looked fun.”

“Up until they were super stressful,” Lizzy mutters, and glances at Bretta, whose expression is stoically placid.

“It depends on how things look here,” Blue says, trying to keep the conversation moving. “What I said to Surge during my challenge is how I honestly felt, and I think it’s the natural consequence of what he was trying to teach. Maybe it would be good if every gym did the same thing eventually, but no others are prepared to actually start implementing it right now, and I think it might actually be better if they didn’t.”

“So you’re really planning to upend every gym?” Slava chuckles. “You’re going to be the most controversial Champion ever.”

You have no idea, Blue thinks. “It would be a big change in practice, but I think it’s the natural evolution of what the gyms are supposed to be for now. As for how they get upended… I’m not sure yet. There are a lot of different ways it can go.” He looks around at them. He’s been thinking about this for months now, but he wants them to be excited about the idea, to feel involved in it. “What do you guys think?”

Glen nods, face thoughtful. “Right now the idea is that every trainer making the circuit learns something different from each gym. Group battles would become Surge’s thing, but there are probably other things the others could do.”

“Like Gym battles based on pokemon coordination?” Bretta muses. “No, that would blend the two too much… but maybe with a particular goal in mind, like capturing pokemon with fake balls.”

“Misty’s gym already has a very different terrain, maybe they can lean into that more…”

“Fighting on different terrain would be interesting.” Sumi smiles. “I’ve always thought it was a bit silly, that each gym sticks to a specific type for the Challenge matches. They should focus on different battle strategies instead, like Brock doesn’t just use Rock pokemon but tanks in general, and Erika focuses on status effects… well, I guess she does that anyway, but again being limited to just Grass pokemon holds it back.’

“I don’t know,” Elaine says, face thoughtful. “I mean of course it’s not the most realistic, but it gives trainers a clear-cut sense of how to prepare for each Gym, and a sense of continuity with others who went before and after them. It adds consistency.”

“It also gives people who have aspirations other than battling a reason to go to specific gyms,” Lizzy points out. “I learned a lot about Electric pokemon at Vermilion, the navy sends a lot of its people to Cerulean to train their Water pokemon, Koga is a region-wide expert on training people for Poison containment and management… if Gyms stopped focusing on single types, we would need new institutions to pick up a lot of the slack, probably with less efficient results.”

“She didn’t say Gyms can’t still focus on specific types,” Bretta says. “Just that the Challenge matches shouldn’t. Maybe for the first badge or two, but after that, there should be a different focus, something more useful.”

Elaine nods. “If the first few badge matches were focused on Type, that would preserve most of the value I see in them…”

The conversation continues from there until everyone finishes eating, and Blue makes his way ahead of the others to meet up with Erika before the first class they signed up for begins.

The city is even busier in the morning, and biking seems like it will barely save more time than walking. He kind of wants to ride his arcanine, but on his way to meet a Gym Leader probably isn’t the best time to try it for the first time, so he decides to just walk, which lets him compare the city’s layout to his foggy memories of it. Before long he gets a message from Leaf about the Casino’s rare pokemon lottery, which reminds him that he never finished sending his own text to her and Gramps about it.

Think imma go for it, he quickly sends as he walks. Can u run the numbers and tell me if its worthwhile?

Blue walks a block before he gets a response, and blinks at the size of it.

Blue everyone and their mother is going to be “running the numbers,” you won’t be able to find a single forum post on it without a dozen models in the comments, famous statisticians will probably be in the news because they’re offering a NEW POKEMON and I bet Celadon gets swamped with professional gamblers who were hired by labs and collectors who hire professionals themselves to help them run their own numbers and guess OTHER people’s numbers because there’s a NEW POKEMON being offered and you are CRAZY if you think you can win it.

But good luck! 😀

Also check out this article on a new training method for faster response time from training.

Blue smiles. Will do but later got a surprise meeting with erika

Woah, why?

Dunno

You said you’ve met her before haven’t you?

Yeah couple years ago also visited the gym when she became Leader

Don’t forget to compliment her on how much it’s grown.

Blue rolls his eyes. OK Leaf

Get it?

Yeah Leaf I got it

Because it’s a garden.

Blue closes his phone, but he’s smiling. Part of him was worried she’d bring up the Red thing again, ask him if he’s reached out yet. And he will. Soon.

What he thinks of then isn’t Red and his annoyingly fussy habits, but Aiko having a lot of the same ones, including setting an alarm so as not to forget something as soon as she thinks that she should do something later. His smile falls away, and for a moment the city around him feels a little grayer, the bustle of its people a little overwhelming. But he takes his phone out, and sets an alarm for the evening to remind himself. Once he’s done he takes a breath and keeps going, steps a little quicker.

Erika’s Gym is as unique as Surge’s in its own way. Like its southern neighbor, most of Celadon Gym’s classes and arenas are outdoors, but where Surge spread obstacle courses and track fields between his administrative buildings, Erika inherited a sprawling outdoor garden between the few administration buildings, complete with small ponds, gazebos, and vine-wrapped pergolas over both walkways and outdoor arenas for when it rains.

Blue’s not sure what would have happened to the gym if someone who didn’t want to focus on Grass pokemon beat the last Leader (Bug pokemon would probably work too, thematically), maybe they would just use a different part of the city as the Gym and leave the current one as a satellite area, but Erika was the previous Leader’s Third before she Challenged for Leadership and won, and kept most of the Gym’s culture and staff in place when she took over.

When he arrives at the front office, which is indoors but full of potted plants and a glass back wall that makes it seem like it blends effortlessly into the start of the garden behind it, a gym member approaches and asks him to follow her. The gym’s uniform is as far from Surge’s monotone khakis as they could be, each member wearing a kimono that ranges from brightly colored, floral patterned yellows and reds and violets, to solid colored navy and crimson and jade. He remembers reading about the ranks that the different hues and patterns denote at some point, but he’s forgotten practically all of it, as it seemed silly. Now that he’s been a gym member himself, he’s more interested in the hierarchy Erika inherited and how she changed it, if she did at all.

He walks through truly stunning gardens full of artfully grown trees and flowerbeds, stone paths and bridges over rivers, past fields where trainers practice and classes are in session. What impresses him most compared to the last time he was here is how it does continue to impress him. Everything from the floral patterns to the arrangement of the trees to the cobblestone pathways looks meticulously planned for maximum aesthetic value, whereas he remembers the place being a lot more… humble. There were flowerbeds, but they didn’t line walkways as a guide, which he understands from the signs that show up at each intersection, pairing the flowers around it with the destination he would reach if he followed them. There was topiary, but it didn’t include life-sized venusaur and tangrowth and a tropius that towers over the dining hall beside it. Compared to Surge’s gym the overall effect should seem wastefully lavish, but somehow it all gives Blue the impression not just of beauty, but control. A will to bend nature to human whims and preferences.

Maybe he’s reading too much into it, and Erika just likes everything to look pretty. But if not, it’s a perspective he can get behind, and it feels like a valuable bit of information on what kind of Leader she is. He’ll find out if it’s right soon enough.

He’s eventually led to a gazebo by a lake, where the Gym Leader waits for him alone. From a distance it looks like a simple wooden structure, but as he gets closer he sees that the timber has a dark finish and is elevated to make it stand out from the others they’ve passed, varied in appearance though those were. The ring of seats inside it are cushioned, and the table in the center has been carved into the likeness of a torterra, a real bonsai tree growing out of the top in stark contrast to the monitor and keyboard that was also worked into the shell, though somehow it doesn’t look out of place.

Erika, dressed in a kimono with a pale green top and red skirt, isn’t using her computer at the moment, however; instead she has a bayleef on the seat beside her, and seems to be grooming or examining its neck buds as it eats from a dish on the table.

“It’s good to see you again, Mr. Oak,” the Gym Leader says once he’s closer, and inclines her head to the girl that brought him, who bows and leaves. Blue picks a seat near the entrance, which is as close to across from Erika as he can get. At 27 she’s the youngest member in the Indigo League, and he remembers being star-struck by her the last time they met. There’s a little of that younger Blue still in him, but with three badges in his vest he feels a lot more prepared to meet her gaze as an equal, to see her as a person, to consider how she acts out her superior role rather than as someone fundamentally above him. “I’m glad you finally made it back. You did promise you’d return to, ah, ‘take the whole gym down in a day,’ was it?”

Blue grins, pleased she remembered his youthful boast even as it reminds him of what happened in Pewter. He guesses that’s intentional, but her smile doesn’t seem to be mocking. “I’m glad to finally be back.” And then, because it’s true, “The place has really grown.”

She nods her thanks. “As have you, in more ways than one. Tea?” She lifts a pot from its tray next to her keyboard, and when he nods pours him a cup.

He reaches forward and takes it. “Thanks.” He tries to smell what kind it is, but the bayleef’s sharp, spicy scent makes it hard to smell anything else. He thinks of what Slava said and has to smother a grin.

“How’s your grandfather? I was glad to hear of his recovery, and sorry I couldn’t see him.”

“He’s doing alright, you know. So far so good.”

“I’m glad. And Daisy?”

“Busier than ever. I don’t know how she finds the time, between her clients and the classes she started teaching and all the extra stuff she’s been up to.” Like helping Red’s mom with something that she wouldn’t tell Blue about, no doubt expecting him to dig into it on his own in an attempt to get him to talk to Red. “How’s your sister? The one that was training her smeargle to paint her?”

Erika’s polite smile widens. “You remember that?”

“Sure,” he says, and shrugs as he blows on his tea. “Won’t pretend to remember a lot of your visit or what was talked about, but it was a funny story.”

“She has yet to succeed, but continues to enjoy the attempts.”

Blue nods and takes a sip, tasting a stronger version of the smell that surrounds him, and realization hits as Erika finishes gently scraping bits of dry leaf off her pokemon’s buds and opens the top of the tea pot to add them to it. “Uh. Is this… safe?” He’d been about to ask a stupid question, and changed it at the last moment to one that he hopes doesn’t make him seem too cowardly or ignorant.

“Quite safe,” she says, and takes a sip from her own cup before starting to gently unfurl a different bud on her pokemon’s neck. It turns from its food for a moment to nuzzle her face, and she grins and pets its neck until it returns to its meal, letting her start harvesting again. “I’ve been cultivating Amber’s family line since before I was a Leader, and it’s a hobby that I rarely have time for anymore. Still, I’m hoping to bring the tea to market by the end of the year, assuming it breeds true for one more generation.”

Blue already feels more alert and focused, far more than he would have by just the scent of the bayleef, which at least he knows tend to have a caffeinating effect. He puts his cup down, looking into it as he gathers his thoughts.

He expected small talk, but wonders when it will build up to something more, if it ever does. “This place really has changed from what I remember. I like it.”

“I’m glad, though I imagine you also have questions about it?”

“Yeah, actually.” Blue looks around. “The kimono colors and patterns, do they mean something? Rank, or duties, or…?”

“They do, but more than that,” Erika says with a smile. “It’s not information we share with those outside the gym, however. That said, I’ll confirm guesses you get right, so long as I don’t think you’re doing so at random.”

“Alright, sounds like a fun challenge.” He’s encouraged by the implication that he’ll be able to talk to her again, if not like this then at least through private messages.

“I have a question for you, now. What was the most important thing you learned at Vermilion Gym?”

Blue raises a brow. “That’s a tough one. I know I wasn’t there long compared to most gym members, but it was pretty packed.”

“I won’t hold you to an answer,” she assures him. “But I’m guessing something came to mind, at the question?”

“Yeah, sure.” He shrugs. “What it means to lead others, I guess. It’s not a single thing, but as a… package deal, that was pretty valuable.”

“And do you feel you’ve mastered it?”

“Oh, no. I was talking to a friend recently about how much more I have to learn about it, actually.”

Erika seems pleased by that, but her next words make the atmosphere of the conversation suddenly feel much less relaxed. “And yet you still challenged the authority of the Leader there.”

Blue studies Erika’s face, but she doesn’t seem to be judging him. “I didn’t really see it that way, at the time. But yeah I guess I did. Where it made sense to.”

The Gym Leader nods. “Wisdom is a hard trait to define in any one way, but knowing when to be humble before institutional knowledge and when to trust your own instincts and reasoning is a big part of it, in my view. What do you know, that you don’t know?”

Blue isn’t sure if the question is rhetorical, but the feeling that this isn’t just a casual chat is pretty solid now, and he’s more eager than before not to waste the opportunity. “A lot, really. I have questions that seem like they don’t have real answers, about… a few different things. If I had to pick one, it would be about the way I relate to the others in my group.”

“Understandable,” she says as she tips another palm full of dry bits of leaf into a small bowl beside the pot. “Did you pick that in specific because you know what my specialty is, as a Leader?”

Blue blinks. “No. Uh, I mean… I know what it is in relation to pokemon battles, obviously.”

She flashes him a grin. “What is it?”

“Status effects. Goes hand in hand with focusing on Grass types, but I’m not sure what that has to do with… oh.” He narrows his eyes at her. “Are you about to make a pun?”

“I am,” she says, sounding pleased. “And you have no room to complain, given your earlier compliment.”

“That was my friend Leaf’s fault.” Blue sighs. “I guess you can say she—”

“Planted the seed?”

Blue grins despite himself. “She’ll be tickled by that. So, your specialty as a Leader is status, both in and out of the arena?”

“It is, so far as I can judge such things at least. So let me quiz your understanding of status… why did I call you here?”

Blue half expected this question, and has been considering this since he got the message. With her recent remarks, the answer is obvious. “It’s a status move. You’re inviting me directly to talk so we can form a relationship right away. You as the mentor, of course, and me as the up-and-coming star student.”

“And uniquely so,” she says as she tips more dried leaf into the bowl, then takes a sip from her cup, studying him over the rim. “There’s no public perception of you being particularly close to Brock or Misty in your time there, and as for Vermilion Gym, your position is widely perceived as being against Surge. The collaboration began with your challenge to him, and then he took that challenge and threw it back at you, and you rose to the occasion before moving on with a victory none who came before could claim.”

Blue slowly nods. He can see it the more she talks, a flower unfolding petal by petal. “Even if no one else knows what we talk about, and it only happens this once, you create some intrigue by just talking in private with me… but if we continue meeting, and that perception grows, then I’m an extra rose in your garden. Every time I get status, you’d get some too.”

“More than that; I am actually teaching you.” She grins. “Perhaps someday you’ll learn all I know and surpass me, which is a prestige all teachers aspire to. If not, then you will always know that you can turn to me to learn more, even if you someday become my peer or superior in other ways.”

“When,” he corrects her, though he’s grinning too. This is shaping up to be a fantastic conversation, though part of that might just be the effects of the tea.

“When,” she allows, and takes another sip of tea. “In any case, I believe you’re the kind of person who will feel gratitude and show it, as long as the advice is genuinely useful. We may even develop a true friendship. I’m certainly motivated to see if it’s possible.”

“Yeah, works for me.” In a way, it’s everything Blue wanted, no, expected to someday hear from a gym leader. An acknowledgement of not just his skill, but the usefulness of a positive relationship with him. It’s the kind of relationship he always knew he’d need to accomplish his goals. But…

“I have to ask,” he says after a moment. “Why do it like this? We already had history, you could have just called me over to chat, arranged another meeting later, let things grow normally.”

“Well, for starters you already have plenty of relationships that grew organically. I want ours to be unique in some way, and this is a simple way to do so. It’s a risk of course, but I judged you would be the kind of person who appreciates it. I don’t believe I was wrong.”

Blue smiles. “Nope. And the second?”

She shrugs a shoulder. “In such relationships, with such power dynamics involved, everyone is already aware of the most basic implications, at least… but they’re rarely acknowledged. That the older person has more accrued power, that the younger person has more potential power. That the richer has more resources to draw on, while the poorer may at some point have need of them. That the Leader has responsibilities that take precedence over friendships, while the Professor’s grandson will likely be loyal to his family. It’s tiring, sometimes, having to guess as to what people are thinking, how much is influencing their decisions. When I can, it’s something of a relief to foster relationships where status is acknowledged, and can be brought up and discussed without worry of offending someone.”

Above anything else she’s said already, Blue feels the most flattered by that. Which may be its intention, of course, but… it’s true. He does think it would be a relief, to have things like that acknowledged and obvious in the relationship. It always made him feel a little awkward sometimes, how much more money he had than Red, how much Red clearly idolized his grandfather… he doesn’t really think it’s the reason they were friends, their families practically raised them together and they became friends long before Red got so interested in pokemon research. But it was always in the back of his mind, and he would be surprised if it never occurred to Red, though not as much as others. Smart as he could be, he’s always been a bit of an idiot about stuff like that.

“Thanks for trusting me with this,” Blue says. “It also lets me talk about what I’m here for.”

“Not just a badge,” she guesses.

“I won’t be upset if I just get a badge. But yeah, I don’t mind admitting that if I see something here that I think can be done better, it would be great to get more momentum in doing that kind of thing.”

Erika nods, and grins at him. “Then allow me to present my counter-offer. You battle me for your badge tonight. No qualifying matches. No tests. Just straight to the Challenge.”

Blue blinks at her, mouth opening to ask what? and then closing because he heard her perfectly well. Instead he thinks through the implications of the proposal, given what they talked about earlier.

From a public perspective, it would be a huge deal for him. If he wins, it would be the fastest anyone has ever gotten a badge after arriving at a gym, faster even than he hoped to get his Pewter badge.

But…

It would just be too sad, to have walked in here and gotten to step ahead of everyone else. If it was still just him and Leaf and Red, he might have said yes, thinking the others would be just as happy moving on to the next city earlier than expected. And if he hadn’t lost to Brock, he might have said yes despite having barely any time to train with his fire pokemon, overconfident in his own abilities.

Instead he turns her question over and over in his thoughts as she continues to add bits of dry leaf to the tea pot, considering it from as many angles as he can, until he finally asks, “Why?” He’s pretty sure of his answer, but he wants to know her reasoning first, just in case.

“For one thing, it takes your momentum and makes it serve both of us,” Erika says. “Let’s be honest, there’s no reason to make you do any preliminary matches. My Second and Third might give you some trouble, but I’m confident you would beat them both. Thus, we would save everyone some time, and you get a chance at your badge quickly, while I get recognized as someone who spotted a rising star and helped him shine. On top of that, with all due respect, I don’t want you to wreck my garden.”

Blue blinks, thinking of some of the damage he and the group did to gym grounds and fields outside the city during their scenarios. “You mean that literally, or…?”

“Both. I don’t suspect you would like my Gym culture. Perhaps you’d have suggestions, and I’m happy to entertain them… in private. Well as Surge handled the situation, I have no intention of letting you posture on stage and call me out in public.”

“I wouldn’t,” Blue quickly says, and then realizes that it’s just happened; she’s exercising her status over him, and he feels a need to submit to it. After what she said he was expecting a more collaborative friendship, though she didn’t say they were there yet… this is still a meeting between a student and teacher, at best. She’s pressuring him to demonstrate that he knows it’s her Gym, to acknowledge her superiority within her domain. Not subtly, but then, she doesn’t need to be subtle about it right now, when they just talked about it so explicitly.

That bothers him, because he can’t allow himself to think that way, even for people he likes and respects. Even if she has everything figured out, he has to assume there’s something she might be doing that can be improved, or else he’s just another challenger or member, and not her future Champion. “I mean, I wouldn’t do it without talking to you about it first. I’m not out to embarrass anyone, I tried to talk to Surge before our match but he was too busy. I just want to make Kanto as strong as I can.”

“I admire that. Truly. And I wish you well.” Her gaze moves to his, and her smile barely softens the steel in her eyes. “But not here. This is my garden. I cultivated it to meet my values, to be the thing in the world I devote my life to protecting. Look around you. Do you think there’s a single bush here that I haven’t taken time to ensure the quality of?”

That sounds like a huge waste of time to Blue, but he knows better than to say that; no one values honesty that much. Well, except maybe Gramps, but Erika’s not him. “Well, with all due respect as well, Leader, I’ll have to decline. It’s a generous offer, but I came to your garden with others, and even if I get my badge I would stay for their sake.”

“And? Let’s not pretend you’re not their leader, regardless of whether some have more badges than you, or stronger pokemon. You getting your badge in such an unprecedented way would further cement that, and increase their prestige as well for being a part of your group.”

Blue looks at his tea, then takes another sip, feeling the spicy, autumn-breeze flavor fill his senses. “I was told once that my dream isn’t the bright beacon I want it to be. That it sucks the oxygen out of the room, demoralizes others instead of keeping them striving to be their best. I worked hard to push the other way, in the past couple months, but this feels like it would be just turning things back around.”

“You are not the same person you were two months ago, nor was your legend. Perhaps your journey mates wouldn’t mind as much as you think. It might even make them feel proud to be on the journey with you, train that much harder to keep up and feel worthy of it.”

He could see that. He could see Elaine’s glee, hear Glen’s congratulations, feel the quiet awe of Lizzy and Slava and the others…

…but he could also imagine Glen’s hidden disappointment. They were as close to partners as they could be in Vermilion, co-leaders designing the scenarios together. He’s probably wondering if that’s over, now that they’re not doing it anymore. Elaine has grown so much more confident, gotten so much better at speaking her mind, but he thinks she still holds back sometimes when she disagrees with him, despite his efforts to make sure everyone feels like they have a voice. Slava and Sumi weren’t in Vermilion with them for the storm or badge, they probably already feel like outsiders… it’s bad enough to have two “groups” in the group, getting his badge ahead of the others would propel him into a third all by himself.

“I’ve been reading this book Gramps gave me,” he says as he turns his tea cup in his palms. “Nobunaga’s Ambition. I’m not much of a reader, but it’s Gramps, you know?”

Erika grins. “I do. If Professor Oak tells you to read something, you read it.”

Blue nods, “Still, it’s been slow going. It’s an interesting enough book, all about how a warlord very nearly united the island—”

“I know of Oda Nobunaga,” Erika says, her smile a bit wry now. “Every Leader and Elite on the island has probably read that book at one point or another. Not that it’s widely advertised, so you’re not to blame for not knowing that, and I’m not surprised your grandfather didn’t mention it when he gave it to you.”

“Ugh. Yeah, he probably didn’t want it to… what’s he always call it, ‘anchor’ me or whatever.” He’s still annoyed. He would definitely have made more time to read it if he knew that, and why hadn’t Gramps given it to him before his journey, when he had more free time? Well, other than maybe because he didn’t read anything that didn’t have to do with pokemon battles back then… “Anyway, I’m not far in it, but there was a thing about how leaders always stand at the top alone, right? It’s a bit different nowadays unless you’re Champion, but you still have your domain, and the decisions about what to do in it are all on you, or else you’re not really in charge. Even the League can’t come down here and tell you what to do differently, not unless you’re really screwing things up, and then they’d just Challenge you and crush you and run things themselves.”

Erika nods, watching him curiously as her bayleef butts its head against her hand for more pets. She gives them to it, expertly avoiding the sharp edges of the broad leaf growing from its forehead.

“I don’t want to be that kind of Champion, but also don’t want to leave things the way they are. I can’t, not if I want to do everything I need to do. But… I don’t know how to get the right balance of power. If I accept your offer, I’m one step closer to the leader who leads alone. If I don’t…”

“I understand,” Erika says, and takes on a lecturing tone. “That’s the volatile nature of power, of status, and why some cultures had many names for the different types, names that have been mostly lost with the global adoption of Unown.”

“Names like?”

Auctoritas, the power you wield over someone when they respect you. A celebrity has this, but it should not be confused with mere social status; it can effect real change, if wielded properly. Potestas, the power that comes from a more official position, such as a judge has, irrespective of their popularity and enforced by the state. Imperium, the highest ability to command, those who have no equals within their domain, such as a Leader or Champion… which, as you noted, are hierarchical, but not quite overlapping. A Champion cannot dictate what a Leader does within their gym, though both of their authorities are not just potestas, but often blended with auctoritas as well, and so there is still some blurring in the balance of power.”

Blue feels like he should be taking notes, but instead he just drinks more tea and leans forward, fascinated. This is the kind of thing he was looking for, the kind of thing he tried explaining to Red once, but without the right words…

“When your face is often broadcast in the news, your auctoritas grows significantly compared to those who are never in the public eye. Your advice becomes heeded because obviously you must be successful in some regard to have been given a microphone.” She smirks slightly. “With that form of status, you can draw attention where you will, amplify your preference and leverage public support against an official to some degree. If they have potestas but lack auctoritas, they will likely retain their position up to a point, even as they lose influence… until they are effectively crippled, if the difference becomes drastic enough. After that point, they will often lose potestas as well.”

“Can’t the same be said of imperium?” Blue asks, wondering if this is what she fears. If it’s what Surge feared, in some way, when Blue openly challenged his Gym’s methods.

“Not often. Auctoritas is often a precursor to potestas, but not always, and rarely is it a factor for imperium, in our culture at least. But once you gain imperium you gain auctoritas, whether you want it or not. Some official positions generate status all on their own, just by holding them. To gain more auctoritas than someone with imperium, especially within their own domain, is exceedingly difficult. A Professor who tried to advise a Champion would likely be respectfully listened to, but if they challenged them, their words would have very little actual weight, unless they were once Champion themselves, and even then the lack of imperium would affect the interaction.”

Blue nods, thinking things over as the distant sounds of the gym drift to them on the breeze. In Vermilion Gym the noise of others battling and training was constant, but here all the greenery dampens it… and of course there aren’t any drill instructors yelling. The muted noises of others in the distance just add to the peaceful atmosphere.

“You’re saying auctoritas is important, but only up to a point,” he finally says. “That I need as much as I can get, but not to push it, not to spend it carelessly against someone who holds imperium.

“Such is my advice, as someone who holds imperium to someone who does not,” Erika says, and smiles. “Self-serving as it is, I trust you see the wisdom in it.”

“I do,” Blue says, and means it. “Thanks. But I’m still not going to take you up on your offer.”

Erika’s brow rises, but she nods. “Even if I extend it to the rest of your group?”

Shit, that’s a tougher one, and he should have thought to ask for it himself. He hesitates, unsure if he can decide something like this for them…

But no, he has to, since she wouldn’t say yes to the others but not to him if he bows out… and he wouldn’t do it himself even if they all wanted to. “Even then.”

“Interesting. Say more?”

“It’s not just about the auctoritas. I need to set an example by how I acquire it. I need others to want to follow in my footsteps, and not just people who are like me, with all the privileges I’ve had. Most trainers are not going to be able to walk into a gym and get invited to a quick Challenge match.”

“You’re worried about the perception of nepotism.”

“More than that. Most people probably wouldn’t think it’s that direct, I mean obviously you know Gramps but most Leaders do. It’s… if I earn more status that way, it just makes what I do seem that much more a result of my circumstances, even if it’s built on my previous accomplishments. Each achievement needs to feel fair. I know I can’t actually make that true, but I can at least turn down obviously unfair ones.”

Erika slowly nods, quietly working as she thinks. Finally, she tips another palm full of herbs into the bowl and smiles. “I agree. And I’m still not going to set up preliminary matches for you.”

Blue blinks. “But… if—”

“Instead, you’re going to study my gym. We’ll continue to meet each day to discuss what you think of it. Perhaps you come up with some suggestions I find worth implementing, but regardless, we won’t make a secret of what you’re doing. It will cement you instead as… oh, let’s say a student of gym culture, or even an Apprentice Gym Adviser.”

Blue laughs. “There’s no such thing as Gym Advisers, are there? Except maybe League officials?”

“No, not by that title at least. You’ll be the first, which is why you’ll be an apprentice.” Her eyes gleam merrily. “Even if you’re the foremost Gym Adviser in the world, you still have to start at the bottom. You may still do some preliminary matches if you want, but with this new lens over it. And best of all…”

“Everyone in my group can get in on it,” he says, grinning wide as he considers it, and laughs again, delighted by the idea. He could do this. In fact, he’s excited to do it. And if they play it right, they’ll arrive at the next gym with people already expecting them to put on the same hat, whether the Leader collaborates or not.

“Well then, Leader Erika…” He holds up his cup, and she clinks hers against it. “Consider us hired.”