Category Archives: Pokemon: The Origin of Species

Chapter 100: Collaboration

All in all, the research community doesn’t take the news well.

“I don’t understand how the Professor can be okay with this!”

Artem paces around Red’s room, more riled up than Red’s ever seen the older researcher. The mood is infectious, and even while keeping his psychic senses to himself Red struggles to stay seated and just let his legs bounce.

“It’s not that he’s okay with it. It’s just that he can’t overturn the Champion on his own, not when it comes to safety from pokemon.”

“Since when did research fall under that?”

Red raises a brow. “Since the research involved potentially creating pokemon.”

Artem pauses in his pacing, opens his mouth, closes it, scowls, and resumes pacing as he mutters, “We were being careful.”

We were, sure. Not that it wasn’t cool to see the idea catch on and spread like that, but once others started doing it, there’s no way everyone was. ”

“So you agree with the decision?”

“Didn’t say that.” Red runs a hand through his hair. “It would be one thing if we knew for sure that unown could create pokemon, but continually fail to understand or replicate it.” It’s not like he hasn’t had plenty of experience with that. “But suspecting without being able to test…”

Red grimaces as the wordless frustration spreads through his chest. Artem sighs and nods before resuming his pacing, and Red tries to focus on what he should do now.

If the origin of pokemon is really just another type of pokemon, Red’s work would be far from over, since the obvious next question would be where unown come from. But at least he’d have a direction to look in; it would make all the other avenues that have been hovering at the back of his thoughts—abiogenesis, natural selection, panspermia—discardable, freeing up thought and research time toward an avenue with an actual expectation of answers somewhere along the path. Figuring out where one creature comes from, no matter how unusual, is a very different thing from figuring out where the thousands of others do.

In truth though, with his partition down Red is more conflicted than he lets on. With full access to all his memories, the news that research would be restricted due to potential danger makes him think of his own secrets. They may not fall as cleanly into the Champion’s purview (the sakki, maybe, but the rest would likely be a civilian matter), but it does show that people like Lance are willing to keep potentially dangerous truths from being known.

It should make him feel better, particularly when he remembers his response to Giovanni that day, after being asked what it would take for Red to hide a discovery on the origin of species:

If someone learned how to make their own pokemon, for example… they might create a legendary, or a dozen…

His own words make it hard not to understand the Champion’s perspective. But Artem doesn’t seem to be in the mood for a real discussion just yet, which is understandable given he spent so much time on the unown experiment just to be told he can’t continue it.

Still, sitting here being gloomy about it won’t help anything. “On the plus side, there’s no ban on experimenting with metamon.”

Artem pauses in his pacing and turns to Red, frown shifting as his lip twitches upward. “You mean ditto.”

“Metamon is the better name,” Red insists. “Ditto already means something.”

“So does farfetched, but context makes it clear what people mean.”

“Well, Professor Oak says metamon.”

Artem rolls his eyes. “I swear if this turns into another barrierd situation—”

“Hey, we’re not Unova.” Sorry Leaf. “And metamon isn’t nearly as bad as ‘Mr. Mime.'”

“I don’t care how bad the name is, I just want it to be consistent.

“I get it, but name quality matters too. If we leave everything to popular preference we’re more likely to get stupid names, like Sirfetch’d.”

“Wait, what would you call it?”

“Absir’d.”

“…Alright, that is better. But metamon isn’t.”

“Is too. And,” he goes on before they get caught in a loop, “The fact that they can transform into any pokemon opens a lot of questions about their biology that might still teach us something about pokemon. It’s hard not to get excited about that.”

“Sure, but we’ll have to wait for those who have one to discover everything.” He eyes Red. “Unless the Professor…?”

Red’s fledgling optimism fades as he shakes his head. “There are only a couple dozen that were captured, and they’re all being very carefully distributed. The lab has one, of course, but…”

Artem sighs and keeps pacing. Red is a little relieved his friend didn’t ask why Red isn’t there already.

It’s been a while since Red felt torn about his decision not to work at Pallet Labs. Now that he’s got some original research under his belt, and more citations than nearly any other first year researcher, the idea of going home feels less unearned (though he still feels annoyed by how that happened even after the churned out correlation studies ended up being a bit useful). He’s been back many times since the day he learned free teleportation, and the more often he goes the more he finds himself missing the clean halls, constant sound of friendly debate in the cafeteria, and easy access to the various experts all working on their own interesting things. He could be satisfied, he thinks, accepting a junior position there and knowing it wouldn’t just be from nepotism.

But it would still be a junior position, helping others in their research. Sure, he’d have a voice at the table, and knows the others there well enough to be fairly confident his thoughts will be respected. In a way it would be a dream come true.

Just not the dream.

And he doesn’t need to be at the lab to send them his ideas, which he’s already done. Instead he has to pursue the ideas that he’s uniquely suited to, create new opportunities in the field that those in the labs can’t.

“You know,” Red says after a moment as he pulls his phone out to check the announcement again. “This says no one’s allowed to experiment with unown creating pokemon. But it doesn’t say we can’t study them at all.”

“What, are you suddenly fascinated by the sounds they make?”

“No, but I’m also not trying to sneak around the ban either. I was just thinking, what would I want to do if we discover that the unown do create pokemon?”

“Right, find out where the unown come from. But what new info do we have to figure that out?”

“Not new info, but the network is still there. We’ve been using them to track unown movements and they took it upon themselves to try monitoring for abiogenesis. I bet they’re as frustrated as we are, but still interested in doing something meaningful if they can. We should give them a new direction before they move on to something else.”

Artem’s pacing slows, face thoughtful. “Something besides tracking them, you mean? We’ve gotten lots of good data from that, but it’s the kind of work that requires hundreds of people all contributing data little by little, nothing active or exciting. And we still don’t have any insights from it yet, other than confirming that they originate and congregate at ruins.”

“Yeah, and we can’t follow them beyond the regions to check if there are others in the wilderness, but we might be able to tell if we find enough psychics willing to camp out at ruins and monitor any that appear.”

“You think, what, they’re the same ones leaving the regions and teleporting back?”

“Either that or the number of unown in the world is rapidly increasing, and has been for years. It’s not absurd to think of, but it would be good to test both ideas if we can.”

“So the psychics monitor memories of the appearing unown, while others go along for recording and protection?” Artem scratches the light stubble growing along his jaw. “Yeah, maybe… we could also—”

Red’s heart jumps into his throat as their phones buzz, the sound impossible to mistake for anything else. Before he can take his out to check the notification, Artem already has his in hand.

“Tier 1 east of Pewter. Some trouble coming down from Mount Moon.” He looks at Red, not needing to ask the question; he knows Red has been there, and so can teleport over.

With so many trainers busy on Cinnabar Island, or recovering from the battles there, the rest of Indigo has rallied to help at the various incidents that have popped up in the days following. Psychic trainers who can freely teleport have been in particularly high demand, as CoRRNet has struggled from the lack of able trainers to spare sending extra to Tier 1s, especially since, with many of the strongest trainers in the region kept busy, the Tier 2s have needed more quantity to make up for the weaker participants.

Which is why in the past week Red has assisted with two different Tier 1 incidents and one Tier 2. He’s mostly been acting as support, but still battled his share of wilds at each.

And saw his share of casualties.

“I should go,” he says, throat dry. Artem nods and hurries to gather his things, and Red pulls up his checklist to make sure he doesn’t forget anything.

“I’ll start scouting for interest.” His friend sounds guilty, and Red knows he’d come if he could. “Maybe see if there’s a few people in WCN who have explored any ruins before.”

“Sounds good.” Energized electronics, crammed canteens, pouch of pokeballs… His travel bag hasn’t seen much use since Lavender, but maybe he should put a battle bag together for sudden incidents. “I’ll make a post about it once I get back.”

“Cool.” Artem is standing by the door, shifting his weight. “I’ll be nearby, probably.”

“See you soon then.”

“Right. Be careful, yeah?”

Red forces a smile. “I’ll try.”

Artem nods, closes the door, and Red is alone.

He closes his eyes, skin flushing hot and cold, and quickly summons his ivysaur before he lets himself drop onto his bed, taking deep breaths as he stares between his feet, anxiety and dread swirling through his stomach and up his chest.

Some days, when his depression is bad enough, it can get hard to remember all the ways he’s improved over the past few months. Other times, however, it’s very clear how much easier it is for him to function without his partition up. He even occasionally thinks he’s close to being truly “healed,” or at least no longer really debilitated by his grief.

Until last week. It was the first time he didn’t have his partition up when an incident alert came, the first time he had to decide whether to go into a dangerous situation or not with the full weight of his memories quickly helping him imagine everything that could go wrong.

The resulting panic attack quickly disabused him of the idea that he’d gotten through the worst of Aiko’s death.

As his Ivysaur walks over and presses against his legs, Red feels himself curling into a ball, whole body drenched in sweat as he forces his breathing to stay a steady, even cycle. He tries to ground himself, first in his body, then in his setting, eyes moving over everything he sees, hears, feels… I’m sitting on my bed, I don’t need to leave, nothing is attacking me…

His ivysaur’s bulb is close to his face, and Red takes a deep breath of the unique scent, using it as yet another grounding point and reminder that he’s safe. One of the first things he did when he got ivysaur and wartortle was spend some time with Blue and Leaf, learning from their experiences with their own pokemon, but before buying them he also researched what unique value he might have access to, both as a psychic and for his own different goals and lifestyle than theirs. His collaboration with the What Comes Next group in Celadon gave him the idea of aromatherapy.

He reaches down to stroke behind his pokemons’ ears, and Ivysaur gurgles happily as it settles against him. He’d like to bring Pikachu out too, but while much more cuddly, the mouse is also more attuned to Red’s stress, and got very twitchy during his last panic attack.

So he just sits with his Ivysaur for a while, waiting until the feeling of safety is more concrete and he can breathe easier. It takes a few minutes before he feels more solid and present in his body, but the ball of anxious dread is still in his stomach, and the thought of getting up to go to the Tier 1 makes it spread, disrupting his breaths for another few cycles.

If it was just a risk of danger, Red’s pretty sure he would be able to talk himself into going. What really keeps him paralyzed is the idea that he might be put in another situation where he has to make an impossible choice. Memories of Aiko running ahead of him, of Leaf’s shock and Blue’s anger, crowd his thoughts, and it’s hard not to just bring his partition back up.

He can get through this if he gives his less traumatized self more control. With the partition up it’s so much easier to be optimistic, to just not think of those possibilities and focus on what he wants or needs to do.

But that’s a solution from his less integrated days. If he gives up control now, his partitioned-self would probably suggest he try working it out anyway unless Red amnesias this whole incident, which he’s not willing to do. Partitioned Red would notice something off anyway; he can hide the emotions, but not his body’s lingering reaction to them..

It’s a relief to be on the same side, even if they still disagree about things. Sometimes partitioned Red will even do things like read guidelines used by firefighters for determining safety levels for burning buildings, or emergency triage protocols, both for the knowledge and because he knows his unpartitioned self cares about it.

More than that; while sometimes it can trigger stressful memories or what-ifs to read about life-and-death scenarios, when his partition is up and he’s just experiencing things through it, the overall experience of reading guidelines the professionals use is actually rather soothing.

It also opened up opportunities, according to Dr. Seward.

Once Red feels a bit more grounded again, he takes his phone out and plays one of the recordings from past him with his partition up.

“Hey Red. If you’re listening to this one it’s probably because you’re feeling stressed about another tough choice you might have to make.” He remembers nudging his partitioned self to keep things vague in case he ever needs to listen to these around others. “Maybe just thinking about what people will think of you, in general. I get it. I mean I don’t get it as much as you do right now, but I remember those feelings too, and they suck.” He hears his past self sigh. “It’s okay to be scared of making the wrong call, or being shunned for whatever choices you make when all the options suck. I can’t promise it’ll be okay, but… just try to remember why we’re doing this, alright? It’s because we can make a difference. We’ve done it before, saved a lot of lives, prevented more cracks in the world. Maybe someday it will make more sense for us to be like Bill, but we’re also learning too much from field work to give it up now. Remember Lavender? That sucked too, but how much further back would we be if we hadn’t been there? Not to mention what might have happened to the others. We developed psydar because we had to during the storm…”

The twisted ball in his stomach relaxes little by little as Red listens to more examples, things that were harder to remember when his mind was crowded by all the potential bad outcomes. He even smiles as his past self mentions that they wouldn’t even know they were psychic if they hadn’t been blasted by their spinarak.

“…end of the day, just focus on what you can decide when you can decide it. Remember what Giovanni said about allowing himself to be human? Whatever you’re struggling with right now, maybe not doing it is the right answer. Maybe doing it is, but in a certain way that some others won’t understand. Whatever the case, as long as you can keep learning from the decisions, that’s what matters most. And… no matter what you decide, you know that some people will always be on your side. Mom, the Professor, Dr. Seward… Leaf, probably…”

Sabrina too, and probably Giovanni. But partitioned Red doesn’t know about why that would be, and it’s enough to be reminded that the category of people exist at all.

“…and me. I may not always understand, because, you know, the amnesia. But whatever we deal with, we’ll do it together. Good luck.”

Red lets out a long breath as the knot finishes unraveling until it’s just a weight in his stomach. He still dreads what’s ahead, but it doesn’t feel like more than he can handle, or like it will automatically end in catastrophe.

Aware that every minute passing is another he could be helping at the incident, Red still takes a moment to gather his thoughts and introspect on whether he wants to respond in some way. Dr. Seward said writing would let him remember things more clearly, voice was the most convenient and added more emotional data, and video was the least convenient but maximized the potential impact. So he starts a video recording and aims the camera at himself, trying to push down his self-consciousness and muster a smile.

“Hey, Red. If you’re listening to this one, you’re, uh, probably wondering if you’ll ever feel better about whatever’s stressing you out right now. I just want you to know, whatever you feel… you probably have a good reason to feel it. It’s okay to be worried. But you’re going to feel better. It just happened to me. It’ll happen to you too. Oh, and partitioned Red, if you’re listening to this to remember what it was like to feel panicked so you can make another recording that might help… the mention of people who will stick by us was really good. There are some others too, so feel free to just say that, ‘and others too,’ as an extra reminder, in case I’m further gone next time. I know that probably feels annoyingly mysterious, but… you get it. Thanks again, for everything.”

Red ends the recording, gives it a name, then takes another deep breath and feeds Ivysaur a poffin before withdrawing him and grabbing his hat on the way out.


Leaf smiles as she sees the dots appear in the distant sky, hand tilting her hat to keep the setting sun out of her eyes. The flying pokemon and their riders quickly grow as she watches, and she waves once they’re close enough for her to make out who’s who. Blue and Elaine are in the front, and wave back before starting their descent to the Trainer House roof.

It’s amazing seeing how big Zephyr has gotten, particularly since he and Crimson used to be the same size. Leaf thinks her pidgeotto is close to evolving after a particularly intense battle south of Fuchsia yesterday, but she’s not sure Crimson will catch up anytime soon unless things get worse around here.

Nearly two weeks after the battle at Cinnabar City, most of the Fuchsia gym members are still helping reclaim the island, which means more and more locals have been called on to help the rangers. She’s in the city too often not to help out when she can, though thankfully that’s only meant a couple battles so far.

Each lost life feels extra harsh, with her project underway, and each day that passes before it finishes feels heavier.

She grips her hat tight as Blue and the others land, waiting for the buffeting wind to fade before she runs over to hug them as they dismount. “Welcome to Fuchsia!”

“You weren’t kidding, the Safari is beautiful.” Elaine looks back out toward the wilderness to the northeast as her hands move automatically to unsaddle her mount. “We saw so many pokemon as we flew over, whole herds of tauros and a family of kangaskhan, and I think I saw a dragonair in one of the far lakes…”

“You said there’s a chance we’ll be able to get admission at some point?” Maria asks. It’s been a while since Leaf saw her without her big floppy hat, but she seems to be trying out sunglasses as a new fashion choice, which, when combined with her dark clothes and flying helmet, makes her look like the world’s youngest (and cutest) member of a biker gang.

“I think it’s especially likely now, assuming the project stays in the sweet spot… well, kind of bitter spot… of needing more support, without losing so many rangers to other duties that it’s put entirely on hold.” Leaf holds her hat again as Glen and a couple of people she doesn’t recognize descend, then gives him a hug once he hops down. “Glad you could make it,” she says, happy as always to see him moving so much more smoothly these days.

“Not getting left behind just yet,” he says with a distractingly charming grin.

“I thought field tests would still be a ways off?” Blue asks as he finishes caring for Zephyr and withdraws him.

“Before, yeah, but our timelines also got thrown up in the air, what with the new pokemon.”

The fact that they turned the second half of her birthday into a tense and frightening night, and caused horrifying amounts of pokemon and human death, didn’t stop part of her from getting excited about the possibilities ditto/metamon might represent.

They copy the pokemon’s natural instincts, but not its conditioning! she texted Natural as the information on them trickled out. Not just one type of pokemon, every pokemon they transform into!

If we can figure out how, maybe we can code it. It was early morning for him, which is normally when he would still be asleep, but he’d been as glued to the news feed as her. We need a copy of its pokeball data from someone that caught one.

They might not release that to the public.

Then we’ll get it another way! Maybe the project will have enough pull to get a copy?

And so it did, a new wing being formed specifically to focus on the new pokemon’s potential application to their goal. It was staffed by an even broader pool of talented programmers who coordinated with various labs and other organizations trying to learn more about them, not to mention figure out how to train them. The Rangers were even able to secure a specimen for the team to examine, on occasion.

Natural in particular went into a frenzy once he got a copy of the ditto’s code, though he wasn’t on that team, being a relative unknown who kept his personal life private. Leaf was uneasy about that, and considered asking him how he got the code, but after what she trusted him with following the incident she’s not sure she’s one to throw stones. In truth she was more worried about the way his sleep schedule seemed to shift later and later each day as he obsessed over the new pokemon, but other than basic check-ins she’s had too many other things on her plate to also start managing how others use their time.

Like her plan to uncover the Fuchsia ninja clan, assuming it exists.

After walking the city and talking to locals didn’t get her anywhere, she decided the best way to find Laura’s informant, or at least someone who might work with them, is to set a trap.

Her reasoning is simple: there’s no way whoever’s been regularly stopping criminal activity in Fuchsia would do so by just randomly wandering the streets and waiting until they spot something. Not unless there really is a whole clan running around the city every night, and that would make it harder to stay unnoticed.

At first she thought they must have someone inside various criminal organizations feeding them info, but that wouldn’t explain the corporate crimes that get stopped too. And it’s not like all major crime gets stopped, and if there’s a pattern to it, it’s not one Leaf or Laura could figure out.

She considered reaching out to some of the gangs herself, maybe just posting on their message boards to see if anyone would be willing to talk off the record about their experiences. Laura talked her out of it, since the gang members would see it as a trap and anyone working with the ninja who might be monitoring their forums would get tipped off that someone’s looking into them.

But there was nothing stopping Leaf from making a few fake accounts and leaving cryptic hints about a planned robbery.

Leading to that idea was the realization that Laura’s informant isn’t primarily motivated to take down Silph; the vendetta was borne out of a desire to protect Fuchsia. Which means they’re probably more likely to react to something that could be a big enough threat to the city.

In practical terms, that means a handful of potential high-value targets; government buildings, pokemon centers, entrances to the safari zone, and of course the gym. Most criminals wouldn’t be crazy enough to hit the latter, and there’s not much value to them in government buildings… well, not unless it’s something much higher level than the sorts of street gangs that were already chased out of the city. The Safari Zone is one option, but that might involve the Rangers, and Leaf doesn’t want to set up a false crime that, if seen by anyone and reported, would waste their already limited time and resources.

That doesn’t leave much; a lot of valuable pokemon might be stolen from a pokemon center, of course, but they have moderately high security. Same with robbing supplies from trainer markets, or any other store that might have lots of high value items…

…but upstream of all of them are the warehouses that goods get shipped to when they enter the city.

So Leaf spends the night with Blue’s group, showing them around the city and getting to know the trainers that Blue picked up in Saffron until the sun sets and it’s time to say goodnight. Instead of teleporting back, however, Leaf makes her way to one of the warehouse districts by the docks, where storage balls containing everything from Silph merchandise to Pokemon Center supplies are being held before distribution.

It only took a bit of footwork to scout out where the best vantage points to intervene in any attempted robberies would be, and after that she just had to find a place she could set herself to watch for anyone that might use those vantage points.

This turns out to be the roof of an apartment building nearby, which only takes a few minutes of fumbling with her bag outside to enter as someone else does. Once settled on the edge of the roof, she lifts her binoculars to watch the warehouse district.

The city is well lit, but not in the places she needs to be watching, and so she reaches up to switch to thermal imaging.

The world immediately darkens as most of the ambient light disappears, leaving a smattering of dots that glow bright white as they move from place to place. Each is a person or pokemon, their silhouettes surprisingly sharp in contrast to their surroundings, though there are a few fire pokemon that give off so much heat she can barely tell their species. There are also far more flying pokemon than she would guess, and for a moment she just stares at them, zipping above the city like shooting stars.

Then she turns back to her target, or at least where she thinks it should be; some buildings are dimly visible, but many are cold dark blocks. It takes another switch back to normal vision to make sure she’s looking in the right places, then she swaps back to thermal to settle in and watch the darkness for anything unusual.

Before long it becomes easier to find landmarks. While street lamps are stationary white pinpricks rather than glowing illuminators for their surroundings, she can still track their positions, and any ventilation in the buildings tends to be hot enough to glow too.

It’s a fascinating alternative way to see the city, and she wonders with a jealous pang if this is the sort of thing Red and other psychics see when they fully merge with pokemon that have different ways of seeing the world than humans.

The thought has her summon Raff to keep her company, and once he’s settled beside her she puts one earphone in to listen to a podcast on aerial coordination maneuvers as she waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits, stretching her arms one at a time, then her legs.

And then waits some more.

The next episode (matching poffin flavors to different pokemon tastes) has just started when a mechanical voice behind her says, “Leaf Juniper.”

She yelps and drops the binoculars, rolling onto her back and preparing to command Raff to defend her when she realizes who’s standing right behind where she was perched.

Leaf scrambles to her feet, pulse pounding in her ears, but the figure just stands there, watching from behind their mask. Just a few inches taller than Leaf, and just as Laura described, wearing a dark outfit that makes their silhouette hard to discern.

“Are you… how did you…?” Raff, the useless lump, sniffs curiously at the newcomer, then settles back into place.

“You’re not the only one with binoculars. Also thermal imaging, I’m guessing?” The voice is disguised by the filter, but Leaf can still hear the amusement. “When I saw you up here, just a single white spec sitting perfectly still for half an hour, I thought you might be a cop, or one of Silph’s people. But you’re working for Laura Verres, aren’t you?”

“I…” Claiming not to know who Laura is would be stupid, gods this whole thing was stupid, Laura was right she’s not ready for this sort of thing… “I’m here alone. I mean, on my own. I was… following a tip, about some criminal activity—”

“Liar. You’ve been asking around the city about me. Kind of annoying, given you also caught Silph’s attention with that. Or did you not consider that people who know more than random drunks might take your interest as evidence itself?”

Leaf swallows, not even needing to answer. She hopes her blush isn’t visible through those dark goggles, but if they see infrared then her face is probably burning like a charizard’s tail. “Sorry.”

“You’ll make it up to me,” the figure says with complete confidence. “After all, we have the same enemy, even if you don’t know it yet.”

This utterly fails to set Leaf at ease. “We do?” Oh, right.. Get your head in the game, Leaf. “We do. You want to take Silph down.”

“I want him taken down,” the masked figure corrects. “I don’t care who does it. Thought Laura would, figured legitimate means might do the trick, but he’s got too much power for that.”

“I won’t do anything Laura wouldn’t. Can’t, even.”

“Oh really? Would Laura have stolen data from the lab under the Casino?”

“What are you talking about?” Leaf asks, after what she hopes is a just-long-enough pause. Her heart, which had been starting to slow a little, is kicking in her chest again like an angry ponyta.

“Or maybe Laura had a hand in that too. She was with you at the station, after.”

This is just speculation. Unless… Leaf’s blood turns to ice as she remembers, too late, that the person in front of her might be a psychic. Just because the one that ran from the police in Celadon was dark doesn’t mean this is the same person!

“You don’t have to admit to anything,” the figure says as Leaf considers a number of dramatic options for escaping, including just running past the figure. “I’m just here to let you know, we can work together… if you’re more careful, going forward, than you have been. Or else you’re just likely to cause more problems for me.”

“What do you want me to do?” Leaf asks, focusing as best she can on the exercises Red taught her to throw off psychics.

“For now, nothing. And I mean that; your investigation in Fuchsia is over. But in exchange, we’re going to figure out who else Silph’s been battling in the shadows… and if the enemy of our enemy is our friend.”


After his initial meeting with Sabrina, Blue expects Koga’s invitation on his second day in Fuchsia to be a similarly blunt dismissal of any attempt to jump the line or alter his gym culture. From what he’s seen online and heard from others, it’s the most traditional gym in Indigo, and when he arrives on site he gets that impression immediately reinforced.

Even the buildings feel like a piece of ancient culture, each one built in the old style of wood and paper walls that made reconstruction easy after pokemon attacks, with large open spaces between the administrative entrance building and the various classrooms around the compound. Between them are small ponds, rock gardens, and various types of arena. He knows there are modern training facilities underground, but the overall effect is a mix of the utilitarian Vermilion and cultivated Celadon gyms, particularly since the uniform he sees on various gym members is a dark montsuki embroidered with the gym badge.

Though the ambiance is different from either. There are a few distant sounds of battle coming from various directions, but there’s no drill instructors yelling orders, nor pockets of people engaged in quiet conversation. Overall his walk toward the center of the gym feels… peaceful.

The Leader’s building is much like the others, though it’s raised a little higher and looks more detailed and stylized. As he approaches, Blue pauses outside of it to watch as a pair of non-trainer gym employees clean an arena, carefully digging up sections stained with acid or toxic sludge and safely disposing them in a marked canister before replacing the arena floor with fresh soil. Some of the arenas are stone, but those would put ground types at a disadvantage, and this gym no doubt expects to see many of them from people coming prepared to counter the Poison type focus.

Blue’s fingers brush the balls on his belt. If Rive evolves into a rhydon and Tops into a kadabra, he’ll have a solid pair of offensive counters for Koga, and with a magneton or two he’ll have powerful defensive counters…

But it’s Nin that he thinks will really be his ace. If he can get the golbat to evolve into a crobat, it’ll be able to resist Koga’s Poison types while still being able to sweep.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t been training Nin or Rive much since he was preparing to face Sabrina. Such an abrupt switch in focus feels strange without the payoff of having gotten a badge, but her offer was too good to pass up.

He has his suspicions about whether she actually intends to experiment with Koichi’s theories, or if she already knows the outcome and is just putting him to a test before she reveals what she knows. Of course that would only make sense if there’s some truth to it, unless she’s just yanking his chain… but he didn’t get that vibe from her.

Instead she seemed to be assessing him in a way that no other leaders have, including Erika. Whatever she has in mind for him when he returns to her gym, he has a feeling it’s more than just the answer to his question and a Mastery Challenge.

He makes his way inside the Leader’s building and finds himself in an entrance hall with space for boots and coats, along with a small nook with a flowerpot in it. The whole area makes him feel like he’s stepping into someone’s home, not a Leader’s office. What if someone’s in a rush to get from one place to another?

Well, in those cases they probably just ignore it.

Right. Everything’s so peaceful here that he’s having trouble imagining it in a state of emergency, but at the end of the day it is a gym, and a pretty respected one at that. Koga’s held his gym longer than any other Leader in Kanto besides Blaine, and like Blaine is relatively isolated compared to the rest of the Leaders, making the amount of land under his protection larger than most. Fuchsia does have an unusually high concentration of Rangers nearby to help with threats to the city, but most have a primary duty to the Safari Zone rather than nearby incidents, which means it’s up to the Gym Members to form the backbone of any defense of the city and nearby towns.

Koga is a man that not only commands respect, but deserves it. Blue takes a breath, preparing himself to return to the demeanor and perspective he learned in Erika’s gym, turning himself into more of a refined trainer, or at least one who’s able to demonstrate appropriate respect. Not that any Leader is likely to put up with disrespect, but how the respect is shown matters.

Finally he knocks on the wooden portion of the door, then opens it at the “Enter” that comes through to find Koga himself sitting at a low table with his legs folded beneath him, tea set on another table beside him while his attention stays focused on a laptop monitor. No receptionist, no waiting room. Just a large living quarter, and a few other rooms along the walls.

By most metrics of evaluating status, it’s the most humble he’s ever seen a gym leader. But like all the others, something about the man in front of Blue is more than what he appears. The calm strength in his posture, the sense of both focus on his work while being aware of his environment, the simple comforts of his surroundings, all reinforce Blue’s knowledge that he’s walked into the room of a man of power.

He wonders, vaguely, when he’ll start having that effect on people, and then wonders for the first time if he already does to some degree.

“Welcome to Fuchsia, Trainer,” Koga says once Blue has closed the door behind him. “Please sit.”

“Thank you, Leader.” Blue bows his head as he sits, mirroring Koga’s posture and hoping the conversation doesn’t go on too long; seiza hurts his ankles.

“Tea?”

“What kind?”

“Shincha. Fresh, not stored from a previous season.”

As if that matters, since storage puts things in stasis anyway. Still, it’s pricey stuff, and Blue bows his head again to show his thanks. “I would love some.”

Koga pours Blue a small cup, turning away from his computer for the first time since Blue entered. “You’re resting too much weight on your legs.” Once Koga puts the pot down, one hand lifts the cup toward Blue while the other taps his own stomach, eyes meeting his. “Engage your core to hold your weight up.”

Blue straightens as he takes the saucer. “Like this?”

“Less rigid, or your shoulders will soon grow tired. Do not focus on just one part of yourself; let your awareness spread through your body, while holding your goal gently in mind, and you will find a position that feels more natural.” He sips his tea as Blue tries to follow this advice, then nods and turns back to his monitor. “You can also sit zazen, if you would prefer. I know the rumors about me, but I don’t judge people by things as inconsequential as that.”

Blue considers a moment, then says, “I might, if this starts feeling bad. For now I want to try getting this right.”

Koga nods again, takes another sip of tea, then puts it down and types something out on his laptop. Blue blows on his tea as he waits, breathing in occasionally to enjoy the rich scent until the Leader finishes, then closes the laptop and gives Blue his full attention. “So. Are you just here for a Mastery Challenge, or do you have some other interest in my gym?”

Blue smiles as the Leader opens their conversation with a trap he prepared for. He also learned at Celadon how well a cup of tea can help give extra thinking time, and so takes a sip and runs through his prepared response before he sets the cup down.

“I won’t pretend I wasn’t running from one badge to the next when I started my journey. And obviously once I slowed down it was to get more involved in Vermilion and Celadon. But at Saffron I focused on developing myself and my pokemon, and forming new connections. That’s all I want here; if it turns out your gym has more to teach me than others, I’m open to staying longer, and if you’re interested in what I’ve done at previous gyms, I’m of course happy to talk about that anytime.”

Koga’s gaze is as intense as Sabrina’s, and after a moment he asks, “Does that mean you would say no to an early Mastery Challenge?”

Well, shit.

It’s got to be a bluff. There’s no way Koga, of all Gym Leaders, is going to let Blue jump straight to a badge match after just arriving…

“You’re skeptical. Perhaps it will help if I clarify that this is not a free offer; there is a problem I cannot solve myself, and cannot ask anyone from my gym to solve. You are an outsider who may actually possess the traits and skill necessary. What I propose is a straightforward exchange.”

Blue hides his smile behind another sip of tea, fighting to control his excitement before he lowers his cup again. Forget the early badge challenge, there’s no way he’s turning down the chance to solve a problem for a Gym Leader!

“I wouldn’t be opposed in principle,” he says, voice level. “But I’d like to hear more about the problem, first.”

“It’s my daughter. Janine is intelligent, resourceful, strong willed… and arrogant. She acts as though her position as future Leader of Fuchsia is guaranteed, and yet her focus has fractured. She has neglected the duties of a potential Leader for her own priorities of what a Leader ‘should be,’ without yet even experiencing the demands of the position.”

Blue listens in carefully concealed fascination, aware that he’s being confided in and unsure why. Koga doesn’t strike him as the sort of man who’d share personal family drama to just anyone… how desperate is he, exactly?

“Respectfully, Leader, couldn’t you just…”

“Defeat her? For another few years at least, yes. But those are years she is spending unwisely, and eventually she will have an opportunity to ascend to Leadership that I will have no say in.”

“What, you think she’s going to Challenge another Gym Leader?”

“Perhaps, if she grows impatient enough. But we would both prefer she replace me in Fuchsia, assuming she is worthy.” Koga takes another sip of tea, gaze dropping for just a moment before returning to Blue’s. “And my own plans are being delayed, so long as she is not.”

Blue blinks. “You want to retire? No… you plan to ascend. How many powerful pokemon have you been hiding, exactly?” He’s too excited by the even juicier gossip he just got freely handed (which of course he wouldn’t be sharing with anyone, if he wants the positive relationship with Koga that’s clearly being offered) to maintain his respectful calm, thoughts already racing over all the current Elite’s teams. “If you think you have a chance, I’d bet on you over Bruno and Will.” The Johto psychic replaced Karen after her injury against Zapdos, and while he’s strong, Koga probably has some good counters against him. “Maybe Lorelei too. But you’d have to be hiding something really monstrous to beat Agatha or Lance.”

Koga merely watches him, brow slightly raised, and Blue grins and holds a hand up. “Not that I’m actually expecting an answer. Either way, I’m looking forward to the matches.”

“Matches that will happen sooner, if I have reason to believe Janine defeating my Second would be cause for celebration.”

“Right.” Blue straightens his back, feeling a mild ache on his ankles and waist, and does his best to consider the situation from Koga’s perspective. “So if you need me to talk to her… I mean, I’ve got ideas for what gyms should be more like, and would be happy to pitch her on it. But that’s no guarantee, so I’m guessing it’s not what you want. It also doesn’t sound like you expect me to get stronger than her anytime soon, to demoralize her or whatever.”

“If you are capable of becoming her equal, or better, and that demoralizes her, then I won’t consider that a failure on your part.”

Blue would call that cold, but… he gets it. “But you don’t think that’s likely.”

“No. You are a skilled trainer, but I judge Janine will still be your better for a while yet. That doesn’t mean you cannot provide a decent challenge to her, however, and I may be wrong about your potential. What matters is not whether you can, however; it’s whether she thinks you can.” Koga pours himself more tea, then offers it to Blue, who lets him refill his cup. “Especially if I make it clear I expect you to.”

Blue raises a brow, then finally gets it. “You’re going to make it seem like I’m your successor.”

Fuchsia’s gym leader nods. “I expect you to be working hard while here regardless. Combined with my public favor, I suspect she will quickly realize that you can, in fact, surpass her, and hope this will force her to reprioritize the path to Leadership itself. I want her to be so busy training her pokemon and others’, bonding with gym members, studying gym logistics, all the things it takes to become a Leader, that she has no time for anything else. Will you do this?”

“To be clear, you want me to lie about my intentions here? Make it seem like I am considering staying and becoming Leader?”

“Yes,” Koga says, no shame in his voice. “And if Janine focuses on her gym duties again, or you beat Janine in a pokemon battle even once, I will allow you to Challenge… for Mastery, of course, but also Membership, if your time here does change your mind.”

Blue smiles. It’s not quite the agreement and role he forged with Erika, but it’s unique and prestigious in its own way, and he’s got no objection to some deception for a good cause.

Also, this would make three secret agreements with three different Leaders. He may not be able to show them off, but it still feels as good as getting a badge when he repeats what he said to Sabrina: “That sounds perfect, Leader.”

Chapter 99: Interlude XX – Change

Gifted.

It was a concept Natsume carried with her as close as her name for as long as she could remember. There was no “talk” about the gift, no explanation for what it was, what it meant. She learned about it the same way she did how to hold a spoon, by simple observation and gentle guidance. She learned how to bend the spoon the same way, around the time she was learning her letters. In their home, there was barely any talking at all; why use words, when sending and sharing feelings and notions was so much more direct?

Losing them was like losing parts of her mind. Learning to live without them was impossible without relearning how to learn.

She stayed, for a while, with a man who had a kind and perpetually worried face. She could feel that he cared for her, but it was abstract compared to her parents’ love, and laced with worry and grief. He took care of her, tried to encourage her to speak more, but he wasn’t like her. His mind was like a picture; her mental fingers touched it without being touched. It wasn’t what she needed.

Eventually someone came who was, and little by little she regrew around the parts that were missing, felt their absence without suffering their lack… though there was suffering, too, as she was made, little by little, to understand what she’d lost. The kind man, who she later understood was her father’s brother, held her many nights as she cried.

But still she barely spoke, making her wants and needs known through her gift. She pitied those who had to resort to speech for all their communication needs, felt no desire to use it herself. Every word felt like dragging meaning and feelings and thoughts from a deep pit, misshapen and painful. Each time she managed it felt like leaving her parents further behind. No one seemed to understand; even others like her were too immersed in the world of the ungifted, preoccupied by concepts of separation and privacy.

You cannot simply immerse yourself in another’s thoughts without asking,” her sensei explained, the words emphasized by a projected sense of support and patience. This was not their first conversation on the topic, but he never became upset with her. “Even asking is considered rude, and even if they say yes, they will not mean forever. If you keep trying, people will not want to be your friends.”

So? She asked without words, sending back her wariness of such people. Why would she want to be their friend, if she couldn’t understand them and they didn’t trust her?

The next session she was introduced to the empty people. A creature that looked like a man, but with nothing inside; who spoke without thought; who smiled without feelings.

It was all she could do not to run, screaming, from the room.

What kept her rooted in place was the utterly horrifying thought that perhaps the man was, in fact, a real person… and that the fault lay in her own gift. If the man was real and it couldn’t sense what he was feeling or thinking, how could she trust it to tell her what anyone really thought or felt?

How could she trust her memories of her parents’ minds, and what they shared with hers?

She’d pitied non-gifted, for not knowing. For having nothing but hope, some words, some gestures, to believe in their parents’ love. It seemed far sadder than her own losses, to never feel that love directly, know it as true as her own.

Once her own certainty was stripped from her, chaos reigned. Order was all that could save her, and so she threw herself into her gifted lessons, took every idea she was given and turned it around in her thoughts, examined it from every angle, and when her brain felt too small to hold it all she used paper, and when the paper too small she taught herself to type, and from there she had access to the whole of the world’s knowledge, sterile and abstract as it still seemed without a mind behind it.

She had little interest in other subjects, but some of the research involved psychology and history and math, and so she threw herself into learning those too, which involved learning still more things first. It was slow, and difficult, and she realized she needed a sensei for something other than her gift, and so, painfully, began practicing her speech.

Eventually, frustrated in part by the lack of others’ ability to communicate clearly, she developed a more direct way to transfer a concept from one mind to another. Her sensei was surprised, then delighted and proud. No one had done something like this before, apparently, and suddenly the way she was treated changed.

Before she had been considered slow and stupid and broken, because she didn’t talk, because she didn’t want to talk. Now people were interested in her, intrigued, excited. More gifted wanted to meet her, to experience what she could do. She was introduced to psychic pokemon minds, which felt even easier to communicate with, and lauded as a prodigy.

It wasn’t long after that before the man appeared.

He was another empty person, but his dark eyes still seemed to peer into her mind when he met her gaze and asked her what she wanted, and what she would do to get it. She answered honestly, and he told her about a special, private school for the gifted, one of his philanthropic projects that combined cutting edge research with an environment that fostered both personal and psychic growth.

She was only eight, but she agreed immediately, and after a couple conversations, her uncle did too. She said goodbye to her second home and went to her third with eyes forward.

She had to learn everything anyone knew about the gift, everything everyone knew, and if that wasn’t enough she’d learn more. She’d figure out how it works and how accurate it is and in the end she would know that the love her parents felt toward her was real.


Had it not been for the Hoenn incident, the battle for Cinnabar City would be the most frightening in Sabrina’s life.

Part of that is how unknown the stakes are; failing in Hoenn would end civilization on the island, perhaps the world, and while the danger posed by the shapeshifters doesn’t seem quite as obviously large, they still seem likely to change the world if left unchecked.

But that’s abstract, a fear for the lulls and space between breaths. In the moment, her old enemy chaos reigns once again.

Sabrina watches from atop her bronzong as the trainers fight below her, alert for another discrepancy among the minds of the wild pokemon attacking them. She senses one just as a raticate starts to turn into an ivysaur, and sends a psychic blast from Bronzong down on the imposter, keeping it disoriented until a nearby trainer can swap to a magmar and bathe it in flames.

But the distraction costs them when a sandslash, normal to Sabrina’s senses, emerges under the magmar, pulling it underground and out of withdraw reach. Sabrina quickly has her bronzong confuse the wild pokemon long enough for the suffocating magmar to counterattack, the glow visible through the soil for a moment. But even with the sandslash dead it struggles to breathe or dig its way free, and she quickly withdraws her mind rather than feel its suffocation, the trainer too busy fighting another wild to save it.

She sends a pulse of mental comfort and resolve to her, a holding-shared-grief-for-later, and then there are other threats to face. Sabrina sends out attack after attack through her bronzong for another minute, then guides it higher. The bell-shaped pokemon slowly rotates beneath her feet as it ascends, giving her a wider view of the battle.

The stampede is staggered, each wave coming from a different direction and composed of a varying mix of pokemon. The perimeter they’ve set up is between the city’s proximity sensors and the most dense portion of its suburban borders, as tightly knit as they could make it while leaving as few buildings unaccounted for as possible. All have been evacuated, but the property damage would still be substantial.

Luckily, with the whole island turned out and extra assistance from various gyms, there are enough people at hand to keep each other in line of sight. The dark makes it harder to coordinate which parts of the perimeter need extra help, but that’s what watchers like Sabrina are for.

“Another cluster heading east. Reduce to one trainer per ten meters, everyone else head there.”

“Two growlithe heading west, form a wall.”

“Trainers by the grocery store, weaker pokemon out first. If you’re out then rotate with others.”

There’s too much happening at once to stay on top of it all, and she alternates between going high enough to see the pools of light beyond the perimeter and low enough to help with the battles again, trying to keep her attention on the big picture. Every few minutes she wonders how the other sections are doing, if they’ve already broken or let some of the transforming pokemon through, before she pushes those thoughts away with long practice to focus on what’s in front of her.

Trust is hard for you. I understand. I’ll never be able to prove myself with my mind, but neither will most people in the world; there isn’t enough time to merge with them all. So you’ll have to learn to live with that uncertainty, if you want to be part of a society that trusts each other to try and keep everyone safe.”

They fail. Often.”

Yes. At many things. If people didn’t, trust wouldn’t be necessary.”

High again. “Incoming group of magmar, prepare for a few changers among them!”

Low again as a trainer is killed to disorient the group of identical magmar until others can catch them.

High again to scan the line and say, “Another mixed wave, return to standard.”

Back to low, then high, again and again, until her bronzong is moving slower with exhaustion and the trainers are down to their last few healthy pokemon when she finally sees nothing coming in the furthest lights.

“I think we’ve got a breather,” she says as she guides her pokemon down to settle on the roof of a tourist shop. “Rest up and heal, prioritize Water types.”

She hops off her mount, legs a little wobbly, and sprays some ether onto its metal body. The dim light makes it hard to tell how quickly it’s absorbed, but she can sense when Bronzong’s thoughts quicken and clear. Its body is too alien to feel as though it’s her own, but she can still sense the thrum of energy that goes through it, and decides to give it a minute of real rest rather than immediately climbing back up to start patrolling again..

She uses that time to meditate, slipping quickly and neatly into the calm, quiet place that’s always waiting for her inside, when she looks for it. For some it’s a grassy field, for others it’s their bedroom, but for her it will always be a memory more than a place; an immersed and complete sense of love between her parents and her.

Sometimes, particularly when she was younger, she would wonder if she only imagined it. But when she’s reliving it, it feels as real as anything.

Her muscles begin to relax, and her racing heart is just beginning to slow when her phone chimes an alert for a high priority call and kicks it back into high gear. She lets out a frustrated sound and quickly opens a new channel on her earpiece. “Yes?”

“Hey Sabrina. Word from the boss.”

Archer. The last time she spoke to the administrator it had been to browbeat him for the way his subordinates in the Casino started killing civilians who fell into it; Giovanni said he already dressed him down, but she felt that one of her students nearly getting killed also gave her the right, and she didn’t have much sympathy over the fact that he lost a number of people he worked with daily there, and nearly died himself.

Just thinking about what happened that night brings up a flash of anger, but she controls it with long practice. She doesn’t know everything Giovanni has going on around the region and beyond it, but he’d assured her that Tahu was helping weed out the truly dangerous renegades, rather than just those who were unlucky or made mistakes.

She didn’t touch base with Giovanni before coming to the island, but he would know this is where she’s needed, just as she knows he’s likely been busy coordinating his people to learn as much as they could about what’s happening however possible. Having one of his top administrators reach out to her at a time like this is like having him reach out directly, given how busy they both are.

“Is everyone at the mansion safe?”

“For now.” She lets out a breath, but the next words make her suck it in again. “The pokemon can imitate humans, but not clothing, and according to Naoto they don’t get much smarter.”

Sabrina tries to control her expression before remembering that there’s no one around. If Naoto has access to one of the new pokemon, and they’ve already been experimenting with them… “Archer, was this us?”

“Don’t know any more than you. Boss wanted to coordinate letting the secret out ASAP.”

She grits her teeth, then lets another long breath out. Now isn’t the time to pursue this, the priority has to be getting the information out. It wouldn’t be the first time they had to invent a reason for her to know something Giovanni deemed valuable to the public, but it would be tricky in a situation with such a new threat, particularly since all her movements on the island have been fairly public… unless… “There’s a ‘rescue’ planned?”

“Yep, a guy named Kota is riding to your part of the perimeter on a gogoat.”

Sabrina knows Kota; most of the lab workers would only leave the grounds for vacations, but Kota’s a Cinnabar native, and would regularly travel to the island’s various towns or the city on errands. When she first visited the lab a decade ago he was already in his mid-40s, and she’s worried about someone his age pulling a stunt like this.

But after a moment’s thought it’s obvious why they chose him. A ruse like this would shine the spotlight on whoever’s involved for a bit, and they’d want to keep scrutiny off everyone else at the mansion and lab. So she just says “I’m on it” and hops onto her bronzong, hoping another wave doesn’t arrive meanwhile.

Luckily her section of the perimeter is spared, and after a few minutes she spots Kota riding up the main street. She sets down in his path, far enough that they won’t be seen by the defenders on the perimeter, and he slows to a stop beside her.

“Good to see you again, Sabrina,” Kota says with a wan smile as he takes his cap off and scratches his short white hair. “You know the plan?”

They’ve never exchanged more than a dozen words, but the familiarity doesn’t bother her; Kota was never one for formalities or titles, and even acts like Giovanni and he are old friends. “The basic gist. You have one, then?”

He pats a pokeball on his hip. “Rhea caught it. They did what experiments they could on short notice, took samples, all that.”

“What do we know?” How much she’d be able to find a reason to share is a different matter, but it’ll help to learn as much as possible. Plus, she’s curious.

“They can transform once they touch something, and they can transform into people, but they don’t get smarter, just stare and smile and babble a bit. They tried teaching it basic language, but nothing worked, and Naoto said it’s basically still a pokemon.”

“Basically?”

“He said it’s also kind of like a baby, but…” Kota shrugs. “Seemed uncomfortable, didn’t want to talk about it much.”

Kota doesn’t seem uncomfortable, which is interesting given it’s presumably him that it copied, or soon will, but since he’s a deft hand at psychic shielding she can’t tell how much of his calm is a mask. “How long can they hold a form?”

“Not sure. Once this one pulled at its restraints a few times it transformed back into the jelly and slipped out of them. Also, there’s almost no cooldown on switching, a few seconds, maybe.”

“Does it have to switch once it touches something new?”

“Ah, no, they tried forcing them to transform into weaker pokemon. Mostly didn’t take, though the boss said they might be ‘judging by size or something like it,’ which, yeah, we only used stuff like caterpie and rattata. There’s testing, and there’s being stupid, am I right?”

Sabrina absently nods, mind already racing through all she’s learned and what she can do with it. “Let’s keep this simple, then. One breaks through as some kind of flier, dives at you. Transforms, doesn’t seem like a threat right away, gives you time to call it in. Less coincidence of me finding you, and I’ll have an excuse to merge with it while it’s in human shape.”

“Sure thing, just tell me when and where. Oh, and Naoto did say if you plan to merge with it to warn you that it can be, ah, ‘unsettling’ is the word he used. Like I said, he seemed uncomfortable talking about it.”

“And you? Did you get the chance to merge with it?”

“Oh, sure, but I’m not in the same class as you two, you know. All I got was surface stuff.”

She just nods, unsure how to react to Naoto’s warning. On the one hand, she’s had much more experience merging with pokemon than he has. On the other, he knows that, and he warned her anyway. “There are buildings people are using to act as spotters nearby. You have a flier?”

“Nope, scared of heights,” he says matter-of-factly. “The roof of that motel isn’t too high though, and I think I can make it up there from the inside.”

Sabrina follows his gaze, worried about cameras but also feeling an itch to get back to the perimeter before another wave hits. “Make sure there’s no surveillance up there, and if there are then find another place nearby.”

“Not my first mission, girl.” When Sabrina turns back to him in surprise, he just winks. “Don’t you worry about me. I’ll listen in on the chatter, and when the next wave starts to quiet I’ll call out. Work for you?”

She nods, more amused than chastened. “Works for me.”

“Righto. C’mon boy.” He squeezes his thighs and tugs on its reins to guide it toward the motel, and Sabrina guides her bronzong up and toward the perimeter. She looks back in time to see Kota withdraw his gogoat at the motel entrance, then walk inside.

She spends the next few minutes floating along the perimeter, occasionally touching down to check in on trainers and make sure everyone is okay. She trusts most to have called for support if they weren’t, but it also helps improve morale, and she can tell by the intermittent brushes with the many minds below her that tonight morale is in high demand.

She reaches one end of her section before doubling back, listening as new waves hit the other parts of the city perimeter. By the time she reaches the opposite end her people have spread out twice to cover new gaps in other sections. “Command, my line’s looking pretty thin,” she says after switching channels. “We should retreat to close up more.”

“Copy that, Sabrina, we’ll put out the order as soon as the latest wave hitting the western perimeter is over.”

And if we get hit meanwhile? “Understood.” She swaps back to her local frequency and tries to think of ways to plug the gaps, but every alternative to the straight line she considers would have the opposite effect, or leave other parts randomly exposed…

Ten minutes later another alert goes out, and this one is headed between her section and the one to its west, which is being headed by Ariya. Cerulean Gym’s second is already in the thick of it when Sabrina arrives, and the sight of the oncoming pokemon through the pools of light outside the perimeter makes her swear under her breath, heart hammering despite her efforts to focus on deep, steady breaths.

It looks like the whole island is coming at them.

“Command, we need support now. There’s no way my people will be able to keep this wave from breaking through!”

“Local sectors are moving in to reinforce now.”

Sabrina doesn’t respond, already heading off the attack by landing between two trainers and summoning every pokemon on her belt: kadabra, barrierd, xatu, hypno, swoobat. Nothing too strong, nothing that would be disastrous if turned against them, but hopefully enough to buy them some time… particularly with her merging with them all at once.

The experiments with exeggcute that led to Red’s new partition had other effects for her and her people; each time they practiced merging with the exeggcute together, it became easier to do alone, and that in turn made it easier to merge with multiple other pokemon at once.

She links with each mind one at a time, incorporating their thoughts without merging senses, which feels strange to do with so many relatively smart pokemon, like having six sets of awareness without six sets of senses to feed them information. It’s not her preferred way to do battle, but she can’t handle even three full mergers at once, let alone six, and all she needs them to do is synchronise their actions.

Only a few seconds have passed since she summoned her team, but the first pokemon in the wave are nearly in striking range. REFLECT, she sends, and a dome of force propels a leaping raticate back through the air. LIGHT SCREEN, and the pokemon around her team are coated in a shimmer, the closest thing that humans can detect of what Mazda sees.

The rest crash into the barrier, some immediately spilling around while others try to crawl under. She has her bronzong snipe those while leaving the rest to the other trainers, particularly Ariya, whose pokemon surgically focus on taking out the fire types before they get too close.

For the third time today at least, Sabrina wishes she had her strongest pokemon with her. Not just for their power, but for the familiarity of their minds, the ease of impulse and response and reaction that all blends nearly seamlessly together.

But she has to make do with pokemon from her 4-badge teams, and so the barriers start to falter after just a dozen seconds. She disconnects from her kadabra just before he gets attacked, trusting him to defend himself or die trying, and instead focuses on finding the not-right minds, the doubled-instincts that give away the transforming pokemon.

There, and there, and a third under…

She almost misses the one above, a simple pidgey that flies lower to the ground than any normal one would. It’s passed the perimeter and almost out of range before bronzong slaps it down so hard its wings break, and she knows with resigned certainty that others will have made it past where she’s not as close, let alone other parts of the perimeter without powerful gifted.

Trust them, even though some will fail. If you crave certainty so much, then be certain, but certain in different things; that they will fail your trust, that you will fail your trust, but also that you will only ultimately succeed if you trust them anyway. Not individuals who betray you, but the masses who haven’t, yet, and the ones who you think might have.

Words that helped her when she was young and in despair. Words she hoped would help Mazda, when they felt even more isolated than she ever did.

It was enough for her. Clearly it wasn’t for them.

“Pidgey on the ground behind us,” she calls out. “It’s a transformer, capture it before it shifts!” She can already feel its thoughts changing, the second layer of instincts melting away. She needs to go capture it, before it gets away—

Its thoughts suddenly vanish, and she almost turns around in alarm and surprise—did it transform into a Dark pokemon?—before someone calls out, “I got it!” and she realizes no, it was just a dark trainer doing as she asked, keeping her and Ariya free to focus on the battle in front of them.

She’s lost two of her pokemon now, but thankfully she’s been able to single out the transformers enough that none of them got copied. A scream of pain to her far left indicates that not everyone was so lucky, or maybe they’re just breaking through on the strength of the stampede alone; Ariya leaves to attend to it, and Sabrina realizes she’s been down on the ground too long, lost sight of the overall battle.

A few more precious seconds spent stabilizing the area, then she withdraws her pokemon (even the dead ones, in case the enemy can transform from corpses, no one’s tested that yet as far as she knows) and lifts off again. The perimeter seems secure, though it’s thinner where the scream came from, and she urges her bronzong in that direction despite its renewed weariness.

Later, she wordlessly promises through her own growing fatigue. Rest later.

Bronzong’s thrum beneath her is mournful, but it continues on.

Once Ariya’s section is stabilized Sabrina returns to hers, and though it was hit less directly, she ends up losing three more trainers before the wave is done. She only sees one of them fall, the rest just candles in the sea of minds that get snuffed out.

The gaps between each of them have grown to the point that most are exhausted running back and forth to any area new clusters approach, and when she finally feels safe enough to call for rest, a few of the trainers sag into sitting or kneeling positions before they start summoning their pokemon to let them rest and heal too.

Sabrina almost forgets Kota in her own desire to be still a minute, but his voice on the general channel snaps her back to attention. “Hey, I’ve got one here! On the motel roo-SHIT!”

Despite knowing it’s an act, she feels a kick of adrenaline as she commands Bronzong back into the air. “I’m on my way,” she barks on the open channel. “Everyone else hold position!”

Even expecting it, the sight of the extra Kota on the roof beside the real one is disturbing, though she’s not sure if it would be more or less so if he wasn’t naked. Its expression sends a deep unease down her spine to settle in her stomach, and its thoughts are a strange mix of instinctual impulses to search and touch things, and… simply put, arousal, or rather, searching for things that would be mateable.

She doesn’t waste words once she arrives, simply hopping off her bronzong when it gets close enough and unclipping a great ball from her belt before realizing that it wouldn’t work.

She freezes, long enough for the copied Kota to turn to her, eyes wide and mouth flapping open and closed, and she can faintly hear the wet babbling sounds it makes as it takes a step toward her, arms reaching.

Sabrina immediately takes a step back and cuts her mental link from it, almost sending an impulse to her bronzong to attack it before remembering that this wouldn’t work either. We should have thought of this, we were too distracted—

The real Kota suddenly steps up to the copy with a folding chair and slams it over the head with a crack.

Sabrina jumps, and it takes a moment to remind herself that it’s not a person, as evidenced by its reaction; rather than crumple or fall, the copied Kota sways for a moment, skull visibly dented as blood starts pouring down its neck. Its expression goes from a mindless smile to a slack puzzlement, then screws up and puckers until it looks alarmingly close to bursting into tears.

Until Kota smashes the chair down again, and this time it collapses into a pile of purple goo about as high as her knees and wide as a coffee table. Sabrina stares at it, then quickly holds the ball out toward the goo until she hears the ping, and throws.

She half expects the greatball to get stuck in the gelatinous form, but instead it bounces off, sending a ripple through it for the brief moment before it all disappears in a flash.

She looks up at Kota, who’s examining the chair, expression calm. The blood that was on it a moment ago has turned into a cloudy pink stain that’s flaking off even as she watches.

“Was worried I dented it,” he says matter-of-factly as he sets it down. “So, what did it feel like? The inside of its head, I mean.”

She feels her neck grow warm and climbs back onto her bronzong. “I have to get back.” As soon as the bronzong is in the air, she clicks through each channel to get a sense of what’s happening and hears—

“—too big,” Taira says. “Scouts say this is the final wave, but it’ll be bigger than the rest.”

“If they hit us, we’ll collapse,” Misty says, voice frank. “We weren’t prepared to take on the whole island.”

“Us too,” Sabrina adds. “My trainers struggled with the last wave, and I’m sure some have been getting through.”

“Bring the hammer down,”Blaine says.

“Leader, are you sure—”

“Nearly. All points, confirm no sightings of long-range transformation.”

“None,” Sabrina says. “Contact only.”

“Same here”

“And here.”

The confirmations come from every sector, and finally Blaine says, “Good enough.”

“Understood,” Taira says, voice crisp. “Stand by for aerial bombardment.”

Sabrina feels a mix of relief and dread, and switches to the local channel.”Hold fast everyone. Help is on the way.”

They wait together in the dark, the wind swirling her hair around her face as her gaze stays on the distance, straining to make out any sign of movement. If the horde comes first… if the support doesn’t make it in time… everyone below her would likely die. And so would she, if she commits herself to helping.

Trust them anyway.

The first sign are the flashes of light. She turns to see lines of energy illuminating the sky, raining death down in blooms of yellow and orange. More and more of them umbrella up, and before she can register how close they’re getting, a trio of dragonite fly by so fast that they strip leaves from trees.

A moment later the Draco Meteors start to land closer by, the explosions demolishing houses and stores… and pokemon by the dozen. Some of the explosions are in thick enough clusters of pokemon that she can make out the survivors at the edges who scatter in every direction.

A trio of salamence goes by next, and then another three dragonite. By the time the last explosion fades, Sabrina has remembered to breathe, and it’s in relief as much as anything, even as she prepares to fight, because now that no dragonite spontaneously arose from the wilds she knows they’ll be okay.

The remnants of the stampede are far fewer, and less coordinated than before, and are repelled without much difficulty. Once it’s all over, Sabrina informs command that she’s caught one of the new pokemon and will give a debrief soon.

Once that’s done, she uses her secure line to Shaw.

“Something go wrong with Kota?” he asks by way of hello.

His voice sounds rougher than usual, but as he dispensed with pleasantries she decides to get to the point too. “No. What’s going on over there, Shaw?”

He pauses a moment. “You talk to the boss?”

“He’s busy.” Probably. “I’m on my way, just thought I’d ask first.”

“Might not be a good idea.”

“I won’t be missed—”

“No, I mean your teleport point might be over rubble right now.”

Sabrina pauses, surprise mixing with her growing anger. “This was us, then?”

“What? No. Not on purpose, at least.”

She shakes her head. “I’ll teleport elsewhere and fly over.”

He sighs, says “Right,” and ends the call, which surprises Sabrina. Despite her confident words, she’d expected more pushback, and technically Shaw outranks her when it comes to the mansion and lab.

Your teleport point might be over rubble.

She shakes her head, then starts searching for a working PC to refill her belt. She also calls Naoto, hoping her fellow gifted will fill her in along the way.


The first thing she notices at the mansion are the hooded light posts set up around the new, massive, rubble filled hole where most of it used to be.

That’s the second thing she notices.

The posts keep the area illuminated without making a noticeable glare from a distance, allowing those stationed around it to remain vigilant for new signs of the transforming pokemon. There are precious few non-dark, non-psychic people left on-site, but Sabrina can sense the worry threading through their thoughts as she searches for Shaw.

She finds him and the rest of the remaining mansion residents set up in a series of storage structures, each just barely large enough to accomodate the people or things in them.

“Expect a massive hunt over all of Cinnabar,” Zach says. “The Rangers were talking about dividing the island up into square-kilometers for thorough searches of any nests.”

Shaw grimaces, flexing the fingers of one hand in a way that makes it clear it’s the one he temporarily lost. The doctors weren’t able to reattach his eye, apparently, but while the older man isn’t particularly handsome, the eyepatch does add a dashing flair to his strong, square features. Or maybe she’s just looking for bright spots; the news of what happened here tonight still leaves her feeling off-balance, her earlier anger evaporated. “Even pulling strings, there’s a lot of risk someone outside the know will be assigned the land containing the mansion.”

“Depends how they divide things up,” Sabrina says as she steps forward, the others making room for her. “Gym members and rangers will make up most of the search parties. Between Erika, Blaine, Giovanni and I, we can probably get this sector.”

“Probably isn’t good enough, but we’ll hope for that and plan for failure.” He studies her a moment. “Is there something else you needed here, Leader?”

Using her title means he’s pissed with her, or just feeling in need of distance. She can understand, given the night he’s had. “No. I’m just… I wanted to see it.” It sounds so frivolous, said out loud, but she spent ten years traveling back and forth to the island, and it’s hard to wrap her head around it all just being… gone. Not just in disrepair, temporarily vacated, but wiped out, nothing but the ruined remains of the mansion above crushed rock and concrete…

Shaw seems to understand, however, and simply nods. “Don’t worry, we’ll leave someone here for it, just in case it comes back.”

Mazda wasn’t on her mind just then, and she stares at him, unsure what he meant by the comment. She and Shaw were never close; her own familiarity with Mazda saw to that. She understands it, understands his professional opposition and distrust of her, but this seemed almost cruel.

Unless it wasn’t meant to be.

Trust them anyway.

Sabrina forces herself to nod back and step away, walking until she finds herself at the edge of the rubble. Once she’s there, facing the hard reality of what happened and what it means for the future, she realizes that some part of her really held out hope that, somehow, things might go back to the way they were… or maybe, a better way. That she and Mazda could move freely about together, and travel back to the mansion or lab once in a while, for old times’ sake.

As she lets the last of the fear and tension of the night’s battles go, weariness and sadness take their place, and the memories start to wash over her. The first time Mazda flew. The first time they walked out into the sunlight, hand holding hers, and cried, as human as any of them. The first time she named them, and their gratitude and fascination at having a name rather than a label. Their fear and anger and grief, when Dr. Fuji left. Their pain at being stuck for so long in one place, only accessing the wider world through memories and screens.

The first time they spoke together, mind to mind. How thrilled and nervous she was, how in awe of the strange creature that could only communicate through psychic connection.

The kinship she felt, for this being that was so like her younger self.

How much of that was a lie?

She closes her eyes against the tears until the burn fades. She can’t know when Mazda first learned how to hide his true feelings, but she has reasonable guesses. Sometime after his desperate threats, almost certainly. Sometime before their last meeting, obviously, unless he formulated his entire escape plan and decided to go through with it spur-of-the-moment, once the opportunity presented itself.

Why didn’t you trust me?

A stupid question, but one she can’t help thinking time and again. The more she’s relived those final months, the more she thinks Mazda developed the ability to lie around the time they became more optimistic about the future, more positive in general. At the time she thought it was just the increased freedom the suit provided them, the increased time spent outside, the proof that the lab was, little by little, working toward their freedom.

But of course that’s exactly when such a ruse would be most beneficial to begin. She thinks everything that came before was genuine, but she also wants to believe it, and she knows better than to put too much trust into such a pleasant theory. For all she knows, Mazda was never her friend at all.

Trust them anyway…


It takes three days to do a complete, sector by sector sweep of the island. Three days of teleporting to Cinnabar as soon as the sun rises, then back home after a nightly debrief. Once again she suspends all her duties and classes to attend to the emergency, and tries not to think of all the work that’s continuing to pile up without her. At least she has a public excuse this time.

They do manage to have Erika’s gym cover the sector of the mountain with the mansion on it, which the Leader personally oversees and reports finding nothing on. Sabrina could tell Erika had questions about it, but they’re all in the dark about some things.

Two more nests are found, but after the last section of the island is swept and no new outbreaks of the transforming pokemon are found, they feel confident that, for now at least, the situation isn’t about to explode. The island stays on high vigilance, however, and a region-wide League meeting is scheduled to discuss next steps.

They’re rare enough that Sabrina only remembers it happening once in her past six years as the head of Saffron. All eight Gym Leaders are present, along with Champion Lance, Ranger General Taira, and Professors Elm and Oak. The latter looks simultaneously more tired than he did at the Lavender Tower debrief, and more excited. She can sense it more than see it, a buzzing energy that lifts her own spirits and sharpens her focus, but he has a spring in his step as he and Elm set up the computer and projector for his presentation. Without any Seconds, assistants, or other staff in the room it feels almost empty compared to how often each of them has their own people around.

“Hello everyone,” he says once everything is done, and what little chatter there is between Brock, Misty, and Erika fades. “Since it will get annoying to keep referring to the new pokemon without a name, the first order of business is semantic.” He sighs. “As usual, the race began on the net before anyone even fully knew what we were naming, but on the bright side the most popular ones aren’t too bad.” He clicks on the first slide, which shows trendlines for a dozen different words on the net. “As of now the leading three are ‘metamorph,’ ‘metamon,’ and ‘ditto.’ That last one is pulling ahead, so I’m going to abuse my power over this meeting and try to normalize my own preference.”

A light chuckle makes its way around the room as the Professor clicks to the next slide, which is labeled “Metamon Biology.”

“Metamon are, in almost every way, a defiance of classification. Their entire bodies appear to be made up of cells that follow basic instincts: copy, mate, feed, reproduce, and that last part is different from the second. But rather than each cell being independent, they make up individual organisms; one piece of a metamon that gets cut off will wither and die, though we’re not entirely sure why, as they don’t have a circulatory system or consistent organs that would indicate why separation would be deadly.”

“But the reports say they reproduce by separating bits of themselves,” Lance says, brow furrowed. “What makes those bits different?”

“Still unknown. It’s not just lack of organs that make them a mystery; their bodies seem to be made up of stem-cells that they can repurpose at will once they’ve sampled the DNA of another living organism, but that alone is an insufficient explanation for how they can so precisely mimic their targets. When transforming into, say, a blastoise, parts of them simply liquify into something that resembles water as close as their biology will allow, ready to be weaponized through their attacks. This costs them mass, of course, but seems to have no effect on their overall health.”

“Where did they come from?” Giovanni asks. “Not geographically, I know we’re still searching through those caves, but do we have any idea what substance they arose from?”

“None,” the Professor says, and sighs. “Their own DNA is an absurd, impossible, chaotic mess that we’re still trying to understand, with fragments of plant, mammal, reptilian, avian, and even mineral life forms. At first we thought that was just a result of their transformations, but even freshly born metamon are like that… though the parent may be passing the accumulated DNA of its transformations down.”

“The science of all this is fascinating,” Koga says, sounding sincere. “But I hope you will forgive me moving to other matters, such as the likelihood that this pokemon will be trainable.”

The Professor runs a hand through his hair. “We’ve only had a couple days, but what we’ve confirmed is that we’ve found a true nightmare scenario, worse than falinks and even exeggcute. These things have one mind, such as it is, but their copied form introduces an entirely new set of instincts that their original ones get channeled through. There’s little enough for the training programs to build on when they’re in their basic form, and trying to get them to retain it once they transform is going to take a while.”

“But it’s possible,” Sabrina says, not quite a question.

“I’m not ready to declare it impossible, but it would take a major breakthrough to do it anytime soon. Luckily Bill has grown fascinated by the challenge, but he said it’s too soon to give estimates… which, knowing him, means it’s on the order of months at least.”

“Containment,” Blaine says, voice hard. “I want my island back. What do we need to do?”

“Catch them all,” Oak says, face devoid of humor. “A single metamon could potentially start duplicating if it can find a mate, though thankfully not just any mate will do, which is why we have some chance of actually doing it.”

“Meaning?”

“Remember what I said about mating and reproduction being different; from the two small nests we found in the wild, we can confirm that the eggs created by the copied pokemon appear to create normal children of the species the metamon mated with. Their own reproduction only occurs afterward, in a parasitic process of separating a portion of themselves into the eggs to absorb the embryo and grow into a new metamon.”

“So they can only reproduce if they mate with egg-laying species?” Erika asks.

“That’s our current guess, though they can mate with others.” He clears his throat. “In fact, when placed in a contained habitat with a single pokemon, as long as no other pokemon of the opposite gender were around, the metamon first copied the pokemon, then transformed into the opposite gender of the same species.”

The room is silent for a moment before Misty mutters, “The net’s going to have a field day with that one.”

“Say again, Misty?” Lance asks from the other side of the table.

“Just thinking of the possibilities, Champion.”

A chuckle works its way through half the room, and Professor Elm raises a hand. “Just to clarify, they can probably be impregnated or impregnate non-egg-laying species as well. But if so, their transformation almost certainly keeps any children from coming to term, which is why laying fertilized eggs would be their fastest method to duplication.”

Ranger General Taira leans forward, face thoughtful. “There are plenty of those, to be sure. While obviously a threat to the local wildlife, this species represents boundless potential opportunity. The implications for breeding alone… under careful monitoring and observation, the destructive post-mating behavior could be interrupted such that each ditto—sorry, Professor, metamon—doubles our breeding stock for rare pokemon.”

“Good as that is, the real prize would be using these things against legendaries,” Erika says. “They’re equalizers the likes of which we’ve never seen.”

The room is quiet again, but Sabrina doesn’t detect any real surprise this time. No one in the room would be where they are if they weren’t the sort that would already have considered it.

“It would be hard to get one close enough to touch a Stormbringer or Beast,” Misty muses. “But the Titans…”

“Surely they couldn’t become that bi—”

Blaine claps his hands together, and everyone turns back toward him. “Doesn’t matter. Too dangerous without knowing how long they can stay transformed and whether they copy abilities like Pressure.”

“Aren’t they weaker than the copied pokemon, though?” Misty asks. “Can we confirm that yet?”

“We can,” Professor Oak says. “And reasonably predict it. They retain the same mass when they transform, and so copies of smaller pokemon are more likely to be tougher than the original, while larger pokemon are less so, sometimes drastically less. A copied snorlax collapsed after a single hit that barely fazed the original.”

“But they can obviously mimic the properties of other pokemon,” Koga says. “Fire, electricity, claws as sharp as any genuine pokemon. A group, all wielding these metamon, might be able to take a titan down.”

Surge stirs. “If their mass stays the same no matter how big they get, they’ll be able to be returned to their ball, and if the transformations persist… you’ll have trainers with legends on their belts.”

“Leaders and Elites, surely,” Brock says, brow furrowed.

“You think that will matter to their neighbors once those legends are used to expand their borders?”

“Gentlemen,” Erika says before Brock can respond. “While this debate is arguably long overdue, perhaps we should table it until we have a better idea what we’re dealing with. If these metamon can transform into pokemon that powerful, and they can persist in that form for long, then we should definitely have that conversation, but meanwhile there are other things we need to discuss.”

“One in particular,” Blaine says. “Had my people check outposts all over the island, spotters, ranger cams, looked over everything. Unown were spotted flying patterns near the caves a week ago.”

“Shit,” Misty mutters.

“Experiments are still being done in controlled settings,” Professor Oak adds. “But combined with what Wallace reported after Hoenn, at this point the odds of coincidence are shrinking.”

“What experiments? Where?”

“Independent, mostly. The What Comes Next initiative has been bearing fruit, or rather in this case, has grown branches from which fruit can grow. The researcher that assisted in Lavender, Artem, took it upon himself to study an unown Red purchased in isolation with objects for weeks at a time.”

“So far there has been no effect,” Elm says. “But this kickstarted a community effort; people have been collecting different number of unown with a variety of objects to see if any of them result in abiogenesis, and if so how many were required, what sorts of objects, how long it took…”

Blaine frowns. “Even if none do, it would not disprove the hypothesis.”

“Worse,” Giovanni says. “If certain letters are needed, there will be millions of combinations untested. If letters relate to objects, billions. If environments outside the lab are needed—”

“—it’s even worse than that,” Oak interjects, voice wry. “Maybe only wild unown can do it, and even with the right combination of letters and objects we won’t see anything. All that is why no lab could justify such an expensive and time consuming line of research, not while being thorough. But people are doing it anyway, because it’s important, and someone has to, just in case.”

There’s a contemplative silence, and then Erika stirs. “A bounty. Collectively paid by multiple institutions, for the first individual or group that demonstrates it with sufficiently scientific documentation.”

“Hmph.” Blaine shakes his head. “Less a bounty and more a lottery.”

“And yet it will encourage more to try, at no cost if none succeeds.”

“It’s a good idea,” Elm says. “Though we should be cautious not to incentivize it too much, and draw excessive time and effort away from more promising avenues.”

“Something that can be decided later, by those with the knowledge and interest,” Lance says. It’s the first time the Champion speaks besides his question to Misty, and his strong voice always takes Sabrina by surprise for how deep it is. His gaze sweeps the room before he adds, “Assuming it’s allowed at all.”

A third silence, contemplative, approving, surprised, disapproving, a medley of subtle undercurrents combined with each. She can feel Professor Oak struggling to hold himself silent, though his face has gone blank.

No one else speaks, either out of deference or curiosity, and after a moment the Champion continues. “With respect to the Rangers’ ethos,” he nods at Taira, “by my perspective the world has too many pokemon in it already. The ability to purposefully create more could lead to massive destabilization, particularly if any of them lead to the creation of new pokemon as strong as legendaries. Hoenn should stand as a reminder, as Giovanni said afterward, of our fragility.”

The words are delivered well, but underneath it there’s something pained and angry. Sabrina wonders if any of the others suspect just how much their Champion has been struggling with his helplessness in Hoenn. She knows others there that day feel some portion of it too, herself included, but not like Lance.

It cracked something in him. Resulted in something other than change or growth, something destabilizing.

She’s no therapist, but she recognizes it from her own feelings ever since she learned that Mazda left.

For now he’s hiding it as well as she is, however, and so she hasn’t mentioned it. If another few months pass and he doesn’t seem to be improving, she will. Maybe visit Steven and Cynthia, get a sense for how they’ve been.

“I agree with your caution,” Taira says. “While our mission includes the protection of pokemon ecosystems, few rangers are happy when new species arise, as they tend to destabilize habitats until some new equilibrium is reached. That said, knowledge is power, and we don’t like being surprised either, as happened in Lavender Tower. If we knew for sure that wild unown can create new species, it would make sense to put effort and resources into tracking their movements, maybe disrupting swarms.”

“Won’t matter if we disrupt them in the wild while people are churning new pokemon out in labs,” Surge says. “The habitats will be safe, sure; up until a region uses it to expand their territory or something breaks free.”

Sabrina doesn’t look at Giovanni, though she badly wants to know what his expression is. Probably blank, or thoughtful, but she still itches for a glimpse, however misleading, into his true self.

“It’ll make little difference if we disrupt them within our regions if they’re still creating new mons out in the wild,” Misty says. “Assuming the Hoenn incident is what ‘woke’ them, we need to figure out how to put them back to sleep.”

The fourth silence, and this one goes on the longest. Lance’s expression is thoughtful, and when he looks at Professors Oak and Elm, he sighs. “I imagine you have things to say.”

“Only,” Professor Oak begins, then pauses, tone thoughtful. “Only that it would be a mistake to believe that if we do not pursue this knowledge, no one will.”

Professor Elm nods, but Giovanni shakes his head.

“It’s another clock,” he says, voice dull. As always Sabrina isn’t sure how much of what he shows is what he wants to show, but news of Mazda’s escape was the only time she heard his tone hold such… defeat. “Another race against time, and each other. Sam, what if this is it? Not the legendaries, not the myths, not even these new transformers. If unown are the source, or close enough to be the same, and we let that power out into anyone’s hands… it would be a new age, beyond anything we could predict. We haven’t even found the tools to survive this one, and you would have us leap into another before we even know what it would mean?”

Professor Oak has listened with brow furrowed as he watched Giovanni. Now he clasps his hands, staring down at them. “And you propose we study them in secret first? Look before we leap, or slide, into that new age?”

“I propose we not give a power to everyone that is beyond anyone’s ability to predict.”

“Some might have said the same of pokeballs.”

“And for all the lives they’ve saved, uncounted more might never live if we fumble now.”

Sabrina listens quietly, as fascinated as anyone in the room. This is the closest she’s seen Giovanni come to justifying his methods in public, not counting that sufficiently vague What Comes Next video.

“And who would lead this secret research?” Sam asks, sounding genuinely curious.

But Sabrina senses something more.

He knows.

No, he suspects… something. She can’t tell more without a merger, but Misty’s in the room, and she’s not one of theirs.

Giovanni doesn’t need any warning from her, however. “The League. They’re the only ones who are trusted enough by the public, and who might take things slow enough to avoid catastrophe.”

Everyone looks to Lance, whose gaze is distant. She can sense him dipping further into the memory of Hoenn that ever hovers in the back of his mind.

He shakes it off with a shake of his head. “For now, we have to focus on Cinnabar. Further research into the unown will be halted until we have a more firm plan on what it might lead to.”

Various people look disappointed or relieved, but before anyone can say otherwise Lance turns to Blaine. “Let’s go over our plans to secure Cinnabar, and track if any of the new species has left the island…”

Sabrina listens with only half an ear, thoughts on the argument Giovanni made. Keeping dangerous knowledge secret is what he’s worked so hard for, but all the while he’s tried to, carefully, use it for good.

And he has. Inventions through his collaboration with Bill and Silph, secret as those are and rocky as the latter has become lately. Research that’s been leaked from dangerous methods, made clean by independent, “lucky” breakthroughs. Targeted interventions around the region, putting people where they need to be, rehabilitating renegades…

But they’ve also resulted in the deaths beneath the casino, and probably more. She suspects he had some hand in the Hoenn incident, though she knows(?) he also genuinely tried to stop it. And Mazda…

She can’t regret that they exist. And any blame for how things ended were as much to do with her as Giovanni. She should have done more, showed more trust, argued more on their behalf…

Sabrina’s gaze stays on Giovanni as he listens, also seemingly distracted, to the containment plans. Sooner or later they would have to reveal the secrets Red shared with her, and she wouldn’t be able to hide behind the fact that Giovanni told her it was the right thing to do.

She has to be able to believe it herself, argue it herself, and if necessary, reflect back his own words: Trust them anyway.


Once all is said and done on Cinnabar, she heads back to her Gym to see that Tetsuo and Keiji have managed her schedule for her, bless them both. She thanks them sincerely, reminds herself to give both another raise, and goes to her first meeting of the day.

“Good to see you again, Mr. Oak.”

“Good evening, Leader. How was Cinnabar?”

His voice is a mix of sympathetic and fascinated and frustrated, and she smiles despite herself. “I was wondering if you would show up, actually. Riding your arcanine, maybe trailing an army of extra recruits.”

Blue shrugs, looking both embarrassed and pleased. “We were in the middle of celebrating Leaf’s birthday when the alerts went out. Ended up crowding around the TV to watch the battle for the city, spent the night stressing and worrying about what would happen next. Wanted to help, of course, but Zephyr isn’t ready to fly that far, and all the commercial transport was busy.”

She nods. “Well, while the sentiment is appreciated, it wasn’t pleasant. There will be plenty more opportunities for heroism in your future, I’m sure. In any case, what did you want to speak about? I can’t assure you complete confidentiality, of course, but I’ll do my best within what I deem reasonable.”

He’d specified in his request that he had a potentially dangerous question involving training his abra, which had of course intrigued her Second, but the request for confidentiality had made it hard to insist he discuss it with one of those lower in the gym’s hierarchy first. If whatever he’s considering needed to be kept private, he’d of course want to reduce how many people he told it to.

If she hadn’t already invited Blue to speak with her when he arrived in the city she would wonder if he’s just angling for private training lessons or tips, but entitled as he might have become through fame and glory, she doesn’t think that’s his style, and his group has done enough novel things that she immediately took the request as a serious indicator that he might have discovered something new, and dangerous.

Inside, some small part of her protests that she’s holding enough secrets, that one more may just be too many, that the more she takes the higher the chance she lets one slip. A year ago she would have said she was the best psychic in the world at shielding and keeping secrets; even mergers rarely led to glimpses of anything she didn’t want to let out. But Red, Mazda, even Rei were all humbling reminders that there’s always someone more capable. Rei managed to focus her attention so powerfully on what she wanted that Sabrina couldn’t read beyond what seemed obvious, and Red’s empathic reception was so strong that she’s sure he got a glimpse of her feelings toward Mazda when they met, even if he didn’t understand the context… and as for Mazda…

She shakes off the line of thought to dull the stab in her chest. If she can learn to mold her partitions the way they and Red did, she can hold as many secrets as she needs to.

“First I should probably check… do you know that Koichi is in the city?”

Sabrina feels her brow rise, and takes a moment to reorient her thoughts. “I did, yes. Mr. Sabien came to me when considering whether to allow him to teach at the dojo.” It only takes a moment for her to connect the dots. “Ah. He’s tried spreading his ideology again, then? And you’re considering trying it for your abra.”

“Considering is a strong word…”

“I’m sympathetic, Blue, truly. But even if you can get your abra to grow stronger, faster, what’s the point if you’re still struggling to get it to protect you?”

“Well, I was thinking about that, and realized maybe I don’t have to.”

Now she doesn’t try to hide her surprise. “You want to train a pokemon explicitly for trainer battles?” It’s not unheard of, of course, but is frowned upon enough that she doesn’t expect it of someone so high profile. It also can revoke a trainer license, in rare cases where the person’s focus turns more to gaining money or status than becoming a stronger trainer; the League decided long ago not to subsidize those simply trying to game the system.

But it makes sense to do for a particular pokemon, if he doesn’t expect it to easily acknowledge his presence enough to protect him against wilds…

“I think I can get it to follow its own instincts in wild battles well enough.” He sounds a little offended. “I don’t plan on being dead weight.”

“Of course, I apologize for the implication,” she says, and means it. “Even still, you’d never be able to use it to its full potential.”

“You mean as well as a psychic could.”

It’s such a strange thing to say, a redundant thing, that she just raises a brow, waiting for him to elaborate. But he doesn’t break his gaze from hers, and eventually she just sighs. “I’m not here to coddle your ego, Blue. Everything I’ve experienced has shown that psychic pokemon are most effective when used by psychics. What other explanation do you have for why they’re so rare among non-psychic Leaders and Elites?”

“I’m not doubting it’s easier to get a psychic pokemon to its peak fighting power, as a psychic. But if everyone gives up because they’re told to, how much should I really care about what others failed to do?”

She considers this a moment, then nods to acknowledge the point. “It’s not my place to tell you what you can and can’t do. Part of every generation’s journeys is to ascend beyond the expectations of what came before. So long as you abide by the rules of my gym, you can continue to train here on whatever you wish.”

“Is that an answer to my question, then?”

“You never actually asked it.”

Blue frowns, but nods and breathes out. “Is it true? Do pokemon get stronger, faster, when they believe they’re fighting for their life?”

She was wondering if he’d also imply the accusation she’s sure Koichi levelled against her using such methods in her meteoric rise to topple him, but as far as she can tell he sounds simply curious.

She’s not one of those psychics (like Tahu) who will claim to be good at “reading people” even without use of their gift; for her, dark humans have always been an endless enigma, some part of her still insisting there’s nothing inside them but autonomous meat (the thought brings an image of the copied Kota’s empty smile, and she flinches away from the memory of its mind before swiftly hiding it behind amnesia for now). Even Giovanni isn’t an exception; rather, he’s the one person that proves how capable of guile and subterfuge humans can be, the epitome of why dark people are untrustworthy.

Except she does trust him, because she has to. Not to be “good,” but to have things that he cares about, things that he will do anything to pursue, behavioral trends that she can model and predict with some accuracy. That she happens to agree with his goals and not mind his methods is beside the point; she knows he’s a liar, that he’s likely lied even to her. But everyone lies, and most do it for far lesser purpose.

She plans to look afresh on Giovanni’s goals and methods regardless, and wonders suddenly if she should do the same of Blue.

“Do you know how I lost my parents?” she asks, seized by a whim.

Blue’s expression shifts from surprise to caution, and whether that’s sincere or not, she finds herself modeling his reaction as wary. “Only that they were killed by pokemon. Your bios don’t have much info on your childhood other than that you were raised by your uncle, and were a psychic prodigy from before you could even speak.”

Her lip quirks. She’s tried a few times to correct the public record on what she was like as a child, but ironically she’s never been able to find the words. “Not just any pokemon. It was Raikou.”

Blue’s eyes narrow, for a moment. “I’m sorry.”

She simply nods her thanks, as is expected, and wonders, as always, what the tell signified, senses reaching reflexively, uselessly out. “I’ve heard about your goal. Your real goal, beyond becoming Champion.”

The way his body goes still is another tell, but it’s not tension so much as… relaxing, she thinks. “And you understand.”

It’s not a question, though it should be. For all he knows she’s bringing it up because she wants to warn him off a path of vengeance, or caution him against overly ambitious goals. Blue doesn’t spend time with her the way he reportedly did Erika and Surge, and she hasn’t spoken to Red about anything like this.

“I do,” she says, and tries to imagine what Blue Oak would be like in ten years. Or even five.

Strong enough to beat Lance?

Maybe.

Willful enough to keep trying until he does?

Yes. And she wouldn’t be the first to underestimate the young Oak. In five years, the unown question would likely be resolved, one way or another.

But what if he reaches Victory Road in three?

Or two?

Or one?

She’s one of the few things in his way. What if she decided not to be? What would Blue do with the power and prestige of a Champion?

“I’m glad to hear it,” he says, sounding more cautious than anything. “But you still haven’t answered my question.”

“So I haven’t.” She spends a minute studying the young man in front of her, which he seems unbothered by, weighing possible choices, possible futures, before saying “I’m afraid it’s not one I can answer, as I haven’t tested it myself.”

“Ah.” He nods, and dark as he is for once she can understand what he’s feeling as well as if she could see the barrier rise between them. “Of course.”

“But maybe I will, in time.”

He blinks.

“After all, the world is becoming more dangerous. We might need every edge we can get.”

“Yeah. So then—”

“I also want to apologize for not going through my backlog of challenges as quickly as I’d originally estimated.” She feels even more guilt over that now, maybe because of the mention of Koichi. Is she being as neglectful of her duties in Saffron as he was? Putting too much onto her subordinates, rather than not enough?

She’s been spending some of the time she could have been catching up on her backlog searching for Mazda. She’d teleport to various places around the island and fly around, casting her mental senses as wide as they would go in the hopes of finding them.

A hopeless plan, and one that would likely end badly if she found them; it’s not as though they couldn’t find her, if they wanted to.

And still she continued, hoping she’d sense them, even if they fled after. Just to know for sure that they survived. That they’re okay.

No more. She has to come to terms with what happened, even if she never gets closure. “I’ve been busy,” she says, but “How about this. You keep training here, if you’d like, until I finally get through my backlog. Or, you can go down to Fuchsia, and challenge Koga.”

He’s frowning at her, but not, she thinks, in anger. “I guess I could do that.”

“You think you could beat him, I take it.”

“Of course.”

“Then do so. By the time you come back, maybe I’ll have had time to not just work through my backlog, but also try out Koichi’s crazy idea. Sound good?”

And there’s that smile, which she knows as sure as anything her gift has ever shown her is real; not just hungry, but grateful. The smile of someone who has found an ally in their life’s goal. “That sounds perfect, Leader.”

Chapter 98: Interlude XIX – Remnant

At first it seems to be a stampede like any other.

The rangers are assembled and outside nineteen seconds after the first wave of assorted forest pokemon trip the proximity alarms, more than enough time to summon their pokemon and watch the approach. Ira and Rashard summon their fliers and take off, Rashard in the direction the pokemon are coming from so he can give advance warning of what else is on the way, Ira straight up and then in a circle around the outpost in case more are moving past it beyond the sensors.

Outpost C17 is situated on one of the plateaus on the side of the volcano facing Cinnabar City, its sensors spread out to the slopes on every side. All the trees and brush within the perimeter have been cleared, but the various paths leading up and down the mountain have more growing beyond them, and it’s from between the dense pines along the western slope that a variety of pokemon are streaming toward them.

Ira looks around to make sure nothing else is surrounding or moving past them and waits for his bird to make a full circle before tapping his headset to swap to Rashard’s private channel. “Swarm coming from the northwest, looks like the front of the wave.”

“There’s some muk and magmar coming,” Rashard responds on the general line, and Ira sees the rangers below start swapping a few pokemon to prepare for them. “Not just a couple, there’s… a whole cluster of magmar moving together!”

Ira frowns even as he gently guides his charizard into a slightly wider circle. Magmar are rare, and territorial; they barely tolerate their own hatchlings sticking around too long. What’s a whole group of them doing moving together in a swarm?

And what caused a swarm of such mixed pokemon? Cinnabar only grew from a town to a city once the island was declared mostly safe from any particularly destructive or temperamental species… they didn’t feel an earthquake, and if a magma pocket is seeping out somewhere the magmar wouldn’t be running…

He shakes off the line of thought; it’s Rashard’s job to figure that out. His is to focus on the area around the outpost, and get the word out.

He sets his earpiece to the local CoRRNet channel. “This is C17 to adjacent posts, we’ve got a possible Tier 1 in progress, anyone else seeing anything?”

“Confirmed C17, stand by… C16’s not picking anything up on proximity.”

“Ditto that for C18.”

“C19 here, we’ll send eyes out just in case. Do you want preliminary support?”

Ira is already completing his first lap now and sees that the fighting has started, tanks in front keeping the front line engaged and turning those that come after against each other while a few others contain those that try to go around… but the next wave coming looks even bigger. “If you guys are clear, we can use the help.”

“You got it, sit tight Ira.”

“Thanks man.” He spots a family of rattata dashing past unchallenged, but doesn’t swoop down until an arcanine leaps around a blast of water from Steven’s blastoise and just keeps running past; if it gets to a more densely wooded area and starts a fire, it would start a whole new wave.

It takes just a few seconds to catch up to the arcanine, but that’s enough time for it to start bounding down a narrow mountain road. As he closes in, Ira considers his options. It’s not advised to fight while mounted on a pokemon unless you don’t have any choice; the weight of the rider tends to disrupt their ability to maneuver and dodge, and of course you might get killed by attacks from the wild pokemon.

Instead he looks ahead until he spots a relatively straight part of the path, then uses his legs to guide his mount into a silent glide as he expands a greatball and holds it out, leaning over as far as his saddle straps will let him. As long as the arcanine doesn’t change directions it’ll be captured in fifty meters… thirty… twenty… ten…

The ping of the lock makes the arcanine’s head jerk around, fire already dripping from its fangs as Ira throws the ball and slaps Brightwing’s back to send them into a dizzying bank and climb. He feels the heat through his boots for just a moment as Brightwing roars, more in challenge than pain; her wings keep flapping smoothly and he judges the damage not too bad. When he twists around to look, the arcanine is gone.

He sees the glint of the greatball bouncing down the path and sends Brightwing into a dive, one hand held up to catch the ball as it rolls off the cliff and into the open air. It lands in his palm with a satisfying smack, and he tucks it into a saddlebag as he guides Brightwing back up toward the plateau, one hand stroking the shoulder bone at the base of her wing. That’s my girl.

As he climbs he continues the sweep around, checking to see if anything else got by while he was distracted. All he spots are more field and forest dwellers, and when he returns to the scene of the battle he sees more rangers are there now, another couple flying in from nearby even as he circles overhead.

But even with the reinforcements, the rangers are being beaten back.

“What the hell…?” Ira cranes his neck for another look at what looked like Steven’s blastoise fighting another blastoise. Where would it have come from? “Rashard, we’ve got a blastoise here.”

“The fuck did that come from?”

“You didn’t see it?” Is it possible it came from somewhere else while he was chasing the arcanine?

“They’re kind of hard to miss, man.”

Renegade attack? No, there’s no one on the ground but rangers.

He changes direction anyway and swoops closer to the sparse trees at the edge of the plateau, but just sees more of the same pokemon coming. When he wheels back around, however, he gets another shock; there are now two araquanid fighting each other.

There are no wild araquanid in Kanto.

“Hey, there’s a wild araquanid here now!”

“Are you shitting me? You sure that’s not David’s?”

“It’s fighting David’s!”

“Well it didn’t come from this direction, all I’m seeing are natives!”

Ira curses and swaps to the general channel, then winces as his ear is assaulted by the frantic voices of those below.

“I’m telling you it changed right in front of me!”

“Must be a zoroark!”

“In Kanto?!”

“It’s not reverting!”

“Electric types out, now!”

“Left side is being overwhelmed!”

“Hey, hey, I just saw it, that rattata turned into a raichu!”

Steven watch out!”

The wild raichu(?!) sends a burst of electricity out in every direction. Steven’s blastoise and the one it was fighting both get shocked, and Ira reins his pokemon into a hover, wings flapping hard to keep them airborne as they watch the chaos unfold below. He can barely believe what he’s seeing even as he watches it happen; about a third of the pokemon brought out to counter the wild opponents swiftly end up facing copies of themselves, seemingly just as strong.

The other wild pokemon are still trying to rush through while attacking everything in their path, and within a few wingbeats, Ira sees the first ranger fall. The sight snaps him out of the shock, and even with the reinforcements still on the way he realizes with a chill that this situation isn’t in their control.

Protocol is clear: they’re facing something completely unknown, and even small surprises can be catastrophic, let alone whatever the fuck this is.

When he finally gives the order his voice is loud and strong, immediately silencing everyone else on the channel.

“Code White! Retreat to Cinnabar City!” He swaps to the local outpost channel. “All points, retreat to Cinnabar City, we have a Code White!”

The rangers below shift to a fighting retreat as they make their way back to the relative shelter of the outpost. Ira sees that the hopefully-only-injured ranger is being carried by two others, then trusts those below to take care of themselves as he swaps back to just Rashard’s channel. “How far out are you?”

“Midway up and they’re still coming. Think I see signs of spread, too, mostly south.”

Ira turns Brightwing that way. “Still nothing unusual?”

“Nothing Code White worthy, just some odd clumps. What are you thinking?”

“Honestly man, I have no idea what I just saw. If it was an illusion it was a damn convincing one, and if not then…” Then what? What did he actually see? “Somehow pokemon are changing into others as they fight. If that’s true…”

“Anything we throw against them, they’ll just turn into. Damn. You know what that means?”

“That we need to keep our strongest pokemon away from them,” he says as the thought occurs, heart sinking into his stomach. Without Blaine and the others at the gym being able to go all-out, there’s no easy end in sight.

“That too, but look… the pokemon we’re seeing below, how many of them have already changed into whatever they fought?”

Ira feels another chill, this one reaching all the way up to the nape of his neck. He looks down to watch a family of rattata race through some undergrowth, far from the outpost and anyone that would stop them.

Or what looks like a family of rattata.

“New plan,” Ira says. “We’re going to search until we find something that’ll help command figure out what’s going on. Rest when you need to; it’s a marathon now, not a sprint.”

“Aye aye, Sir.” Rashard has a few years on him, and ever since they were growing up together has tended to act as an older brother. Even after they moved to Kanto to do the gym circuit together, he’s never taken Ira too seriously, doling out any praise with an ironic or patronizing tone.

Despite that, there’s no irony in his tone now, and for some reason it reminds Ira of a night a few years past, not long after they both stopped chasing badges to start families. His friend, slightly tipsy as they shared drinks on his porch, put an arm around his shoulder and confided that he knew Ira could have reached the top if he kept going. That he’s got the heart and mind of a champion, even if he never has a plaque on Indigo Plateau.

That’s what Ira thinks of as he flies Brightwing in the direction his friend went, hoping whatever storm has come to the island is one he and his people are ready for.


At first, the fact that Shaw got to keep his job after Mewtwo’s escape seemed too good to be true. Part of him even wanted to argue with Giovanni, do the honorable thing and resign, but the smarter part told him to shut up and accept it, especially since he did everything he could short of breaking the chain of command to keep the experiment from leaving the island alive.

It was only in the weeks that followed, when he wasn’t assigned another position and the lab repairs remained a low priority, that he considered the idea that keeping this position may be the punishment.

If so, it’s not one Dr. Light shares, though for a while after the escape her position seemed even more perilous than his. By the time Shaw returned from searching for the experiment (or its drowned corpse) her physical injuries had long since been treated, and she was just sitting in the mansion staring ashen-faced into the distance. He knew Giovanni only reserved extreme punishments for failures in character rather than competence, but Shaw imagined she shared his uncertainty over whether the situation counted as one or the other. Sabrina was no help, seeming too shocked and upset over Mewtwo’s escape to care much about what Giovanni’s response would be. Privileges of her station as a fellow Leader, he supposed.

Instead, when the boss finally had the chance to come to the island, he just calmly listened to their reports, gave curt feedback, praised them for doing the best they could in an unforeseeable circumstance, and left with the most basic of instructions: keep the location secure and recover any data left over. Once the latter was done, Dr. Light and her staff, along with most of his, were transferred to other facilities.

That was months ago, and the remaining skeleton crew in the mansion above the ruined lab still hasn’t received news of what they’d be doing next. Giovanni said there aren’t spare resources for a full repair operation, which Shaw took to mean that without Mewtwo there the lab had lost most of its value.

The payments for him and his people are still coming through, however, and they have more free time to visit the city, so it’s not all bad. Sometimes Shaw wonders if they’re just there in case Mewtwo returns, and other than a sense of restlessness and vague ongoing worry, things could have been much worse.

So of course they eventually become much worse.

“Report.”

Giovanni’s voice and expression are as calm and collected as ever. Shaw used to wonder sometimes if the man ever feels anything, but after the experiment escaped, before he came to take their full reports, he saw it on the video call: the anger that made the Leader’s jaw rigid, the futile frustration that had his hands clenching and unclenching. Worst of all was the way one hand kept going up to rub over his short hair; seeing Giovanni Sakaki make such obvious self-soothing gestures was a bit like seeing the Leader without his clothes on.

But the loss of the experiment was (probably) the worst day of Giovanni’s life, and whatever is happening on Cinnabar now doesn’t warrant any of the tics Shaw observed that day. At least, not yet.

“What do you know so far?”

“All that’s reached us is that some new pokemon is creating a threat of unknown proportions. Is it Mewtwo?”

“No, not from what we’ve picked up on the CoRRNet radio chatter; they’re saying pokemon are transforming into other pokemon. Called for a ‘Code White,’ whatever that is, and are evacuating to the city.”

Giovanni’s hands steeple, brow furrowing as he stares down at the table. “Newly formalized protocol following the Lavender incident. Code White means more than just encountering an unknown pokemon; it’s for circumstances that go entirely against any expectation or plan. A blank canvas… which this circumstance would fit. They’ve confirmed the transformations? Multiple eyewitnesses?”

“That’s what they’re saying. So what are the protocols, exactly?”

“The rangers will do everything they can to protect people in the local area without engaging. They’ll call for experts immediately, and formulate a plan with at least one Leader, one Professor, and one Ranger of at least rank 7 or above present.”

Pretty weighty, then. Shaw approves. “Should we assist?”

“If a dozen trainers might tip the balance, yes. Continue to monitor the situation, but your priority is still keeping the mansion and lab secure.”

“Yes Sir, though…” Shaw’s hand below the table counts the pokeballs in his pouch through the leather. He doesn’t try to stop his own nervous tic; whatever’s happening on the island has the feel of something big, and he doesn’t like not knowing what to expect. “The two may be related.”

Giovanni’s surprise is only expressed in a heartbeat of silence. “How?”

“Remember that weird activity Min reported over the past few days?” He doesn’t actually know if Giovanni reads every single report he gets in that short a timespan, but it feels polite to start with that assumption; the seismographer was pretty insistent that her readings were important, so Shaw flagged the report as such. He trusts his people, or they wouldn’t still be on his team, even in potential exile.

“The increased amount of pokemon tunneling?”

“Right. From tracking subterranean movement, her thought was that some sandshrew were using the labs as a nesting site.”

There’s a beat of silence before Giovanni says, “From what I recall she was worried that the more sandshrew dig around the labs, the higher the chance of widening cracks and destabilizing the structure. What’s the connection to the Code White?”

“It’s not the worry I’m second-guessing, it’s the initial hypothesis itself. It was based on the fact that a larger number of pokemon have been recorded tunneling away from the lab than toward it.”

This time Giovanni’s response is immediate. “You think a new pokemon might have appeared in the lab and began transforming into wild sandshrew that they encountered there.”

“We left a lot of blood, tissue, and bone samples down there. I know the experiment never showed any sort of shapeshifting abilities, but… you pay me to be paranoid, Sir.”

“I do.” His boss studies his interlaced fingers for a moment, then looks up. “Have Min review the data again, this time comparing intensity of the vibrations. If a portion are smaller—”

“Already done, Sir.” Shaw knows his boss used to hate being interrupted, but he encourages people to do so if they have a good reason, and only reprimands them if they don’t. “There are smaller readings, so there are at least some newly hatched sandshrew, but there are also more large readings than there should be.”

Giovanni’s fingers squeeze for a few breaths, then relax. “More than just paranoia, then. Which means we need to move to confirm or falsify this quickly. Take a preliminary repair crew down to bring power back online, specifically for the lights and cameras. You have two psychics still there, correct? Take one to scan for danger. Do not bring any pokemon down with you.”

Shaw’s stomach clenches for a moment at the thought of one of his pokemon being turned back against him. “Yes, Sir.”

“Any direct observations would be useful, and if you can capture a specimen then do so, but don’t engage any groups, and retreat at the first casualty.”

“Understood.”

“And Shaw… nice work, and be careful. I’ll be awaiting your report.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

Giovanni ends the call, and Shaw quickly relays their new orders to his people, picking those with the most non-pokemon combat skills to form the away team of the 15 people left under his command. Once they’re gearing up and Min has started reviewing the data, he goes to visit the closest thing to a peer he has left at the mansion.

Zach’s room in the mansion is dark, with curtains drawn over all the windows and the only light coming from the monitors. Shaw’s Chief Information Officer was one of those who lived in the lab below, and had to give up a lot of personal equipment when they abandoned it. He spent a lot of time after relocating to the mansion making sure his room was just right, and only recently stopped sending a new request for more computers, furniture, monitors, and various other things every day. The last few times Shaw was here things even seemed to stop subtly moving from one place to another.

When Shaw enters the room/office, the balding young man is walking on a treadmill set beneath his standing desk as he types, gaze moving between four monitors; two horizontal ones flanked by two vertical. Shaw would like to blame their location for the fact that the man is wearing pajamas as he works, but he regularly did so while they were in the lab as well; the one time Shaw brought it up, Zach got (or acted) offended and insisted they were his “work pajamas.”

He’s good enough at his job that Shaw decided not to raise the issue again, particularly since he didn’t have a good answer to Zach asking who, exactly, he was supposed to be trying to impress; they both knew Giovanni wouldn’t care.

“Here about the Code White?” Zach asks with barely a glance. “It’s a mess, isn’t it? Think it’s our fault? Told you we should have burned the whole place out if we weren’t using it. Not because I thought this would happen, but it’s the principle of the thing, you know?”

“I do, but it wasn’t my call.”

“Sure, of course, I get it. Sucks when a higher up won’t let you do what you know is best, right?”

Shaw resists the urge to sigh. “If this is about having everyone switch to your operating system—”

“It’s not mine, it’s open source—”

“—the answer is still no. It would require too much retraining, and meanwhile the loss of efficiency and increased errors aren’t worth the benefits.”

Zach shakes his head, and the treadmill speeds up as his frustration makes him walk faster. “That attitude is exactly why it’s so important to break the hold Bill has on commercial PCs, not to mention, you know, closing the security risk of using an OS created by one of the world’s best hackers—”

“If Bill wants to screw with us he’d be able to do it in a dozen different ways I know about and probably a hundred more I don’t. And,” he quickly adds as Zach prepares to respond, “This isn’t what I came to talk about. We’re heading into the lab to see if it’s the source of whatever’s out there.”

That slows the CIO’s steps. “Damn. You bringing the power back on?”

“Floor by floor, so I need you to shut things off as we go and give us warning if the cameras pick anything up in rooms besides ours.”

“Right. Yeah, you got it, just give me a minute to prepare.”

“You’ve got ten.”

Zach is already focused on the task, and Shaw leaves him to it so he can finalize his own preparations. The mansion’s armory isn’t too dissimilar from the type you’d find in a ranger outpost, with a wide variety of suppression tools like sleep powder bombs, stun guns, and net launchers, but there are a few more dangerous tools available too.

He picks up a tactical crossbow and tests the string tension. Its 60 kilo draw power might stop a sandshrew with a single broadhead bolt, but not a sandslash… the real reason he’s thinking of bringing it is in case it helps against whatever might be turning into sandslash. Is it just a visual resemblance, or does it perfectly imitate their tough hide?

He puts the crossbow back and picks up a powdergun instead. A dead specimen might still be valuable, but a live one would be their best way to find weaknesses.

Shaw meets his assembled team at the hatch above the stairwell they used to escape the lab: Leon, an ex-ranger who started looking for more lucrative work; Rhea, a renegade from some impoverished region she doesn’t like to talk about; Naoto, a psychic psychologist and police consultant from Hoenn that Shaw used to work with before he got into some trouble with the law; and Kit, the only electrical engineer from the lab that was left behind. Like most of the tech folk, he’s one of those in Giovanni’s employ who joined up because he wanted to be part of something greater than himself.

Lopez and Min are also there, the former to guard the door and close it if anything looks like it’s coming up and the latter to watch the seismometer for them and act as coordinator. Shaw makes sure everyone is ready, though they look practically naked with empty pokebelts. He has Naoto do one last check for any minds below, then sprays his own repel on and tells Kit and Leon to open the hatch.

A pitch black square greets them, and Shaw snaps some glowsticks and tosses them in. As they bounce and roll their way down, Leon heads down alone with a netgun in one hand and an air quality monitor in the other.

“We good?” Shaw asks once he reaches the lowest glowstick.

“Oxygen is a bit low, but still safe to breathe for now.”

“Alright, let us know if it noticeably dips any further so we can re-evaluate. Rhea, watch our back and ceiling. Naoto, maximum spread, call out any changes at all. Same to you, Min. And Lopez…”

Shaw is quiet for long enough that his second raises a brow. “Boss?”

“When any of us come back up… ask us something only we would know.”

“Shit. Tell me that was a joke.”

Shaw looks around at the others and notes the extra signs of fear or nervousness. Other than Kit, whose eyes are wide as pokeballs, the rest are good at hiding theirs, but Shaw has had a lot of experience judging body language, and some are automatic. “There’s no report of them copying humans yet, but I’ve got no reason to think they can’t.”

“Wait, wait,” Naoto says. “You think copying a human would make them sapient?”

“I’d rather be prepared for the possibility.”

“What if they get our memories too?” Rhea asks, voice calm despite her ashen face.

Leon gives a brittle laugh from below, the stairwell making the sound echo slightly. “Then we’d be pretty fucked, wouldn’t we? They could already be impersonating any of us.”

It’s not often that Shaw realizes he hasn’t been paranoid enough. “Clothes. They may not be able to copy that, not without making it part of them. Everyone take off a shoe.”

“So we’re going in with full horror-movie logic?” Kit asks as he sits down to pull a shoe off. Others start to unlace their boots or tug one off while standing, Leon coming back up to join them.

“Right, and we assume whatever can go wrong might go wrong.” Shaw examines each shoe one by one, not really sure what he’s looking for but assuming that the transformed body parts wouldn’t be able to maintain their shape if detached. “My premortem for how we’re most likely to fail are that they’re dark in their natural form, so we won’t detect them until they’re already on us. But we have no idea what they’re capable of, so past the initial encounter any number of things might happen, and we have to be prepared for each.” Shaw finishes running a nail along Lopez’s shoe, watching a faint white line appear in the material. If it’s an exact molecular copy of the object then that doesn’t mean anything, but there’s only so much he can do in that case anyway. He hands it back, then takes his own off for them to pass around. “Any last questions?”

“Priorities?” Leon asks.

“Personal safety, team safety, team member safety, power regeneration. That’s until we find something useful; if we manage to capture something we’ve confirmed is one of them, then getting that ball back up here will become the top priority.”

“Damn. Don’t think I can remember when personal safety took priority.”

“Situations like this, if something goes wrong the chances are it goes very wrong, and one person escaping to report what they saw matters.” He gets his shoe back and laces it on. “Anything else? Let’s move, then.”

They descend, passing from one island of bright white light to the next as Shaw steadily throws a new glowstick down every half a minute. The path gets claustrophobically tight at some points where temporary repairs they made on the way out have eroded over time. Luckily they only need to make it to the first floor before they can leave the stairwell, and once they reach the doorway Shaw cracks two glowsticks at once, then tosses both through as soon as Kit opens the door.

Naoto still hasn’t detected any minds nearby, and so they file through afterward and take their first look around. Everyone is silent, perhaps remembering the entrance to the lab back when they used to travel through it every day or two. A thin layer of dust has settled over everything, and the floor is littered with various objects displaced from the security desks by the quakes.

As they approach the scanners, Shaw sees Kit reflexively start to put his gear onto the non-functional conveyer belt. “Nothing wrong with keeping good habits,” he says to alleviate some of the young man’s embarrassment. “Zach, how’s the signal strength?”

“Fine,” Zach says through his earpiece. “Four by four, maybe four by three?”

“We’re passing by entrance security now, let me know if I drop to two on either.”

A few more glowsticks and the rest of the floor is fully lit. Shaw feels a knot of tension release once they confirm that there’s nothing on the floor with them, and only then do they make their way to the next floor, where the first backup generators can be accessed.

There were a lot of conversations, debates, and arguments about the lab design back when it was being built, and even afterward as it was expanded. While he didn’t quite get what he wanted (an admittedly extremely expensive and space consuming full power station on each floor that could supply energy to the whole lab) he’s glad that Giovanni at least agreed that an independent grid on each floor would come in handy. Using batteries instead of pokemon is a tradeoff in efficiency and longevity, but in a situation like this it turned out to be a lucky break that he’s grateful for.

“Bringing power back on floor one now,” Shaw says as Kit installs the battery. It takes a few seconds for the lights to start turning back on, followed by various appliances and, unfortunately, an alarm—the one for a structural integrity warning.

“Zach!”

“Yeah, yeah, most subsystems are booting back up! One more sec… okay!”

The alarm shuts off, leaving merciful silence behind. The others relax, and Leon mutters, “Hope that didn’t spook whatever was below us.”

Shaw looks around until he spots a camera dome. “You have eyes?”

“Just got them, though a few cameras aren’t working. Do a quick tour to make sure nothing’s on fire, would you? Water system’s got nothing, and that alarm went off because of cracks in the foundation; any more damage to the structure might bury you guys in there.”

With that cheerful thought they walk the first floor again, more quickly this time but with a careful eye toward the walls and ceiling. There are cracks, but nothing big enough to signal imminent danger yet.

Once they finish Shaw takes out a container to restock on glow sticks, then leads them to one of the internal stairwells to head down to the next floor. A drop of sweat traces a brow, and he wipes it away knowing that more will follow, both because of the hot, stale air and the ongoing tension. If they make it as far as the main generators it would be a relief to get the climate controls back online, assuming it’s still functional.

The second floor goes much like the first, though there are more cameras broken here and one of the stairways has filled with dirt, the pressure of which was enough to spill through its door to fill a hall. They head back to the one they used and go down to the door that leads to the third floor, which is when Naoto pauses.

“Pokemon are about two floors below us.”

“Inside, or out?”

“Both. Sandshrew family for sure, but… a few of them are… strange. Twelve in total.”

“Strange how?”

“It’s hard to describe. Wild pokemon are all sensations and instincts and emotional reflexes at once, but for these they all seem… layered.”

“Alright, let us know the moment one is heading upward. Weapons ready everyone, and step softly.”

Leon opens the door, and they immediately notice the difference in air quality. “Oxygen’s getting low,” he says, holding the monitor through the gap.

“Masks on.” Leon closes the door and everyone spends a few minutes taking out and equipping personal air masks. Shaw sets a 40 minute timer to give them some warning for when their tanks will start to get low, and Leon, seeming happy to have a hand free, waits for a confirming nod before he opens the door again, more fully this time.

When Shaw tosses the glowsticks through, they immediately see the difference in this part of the lab. Desks and chairs have claw marks on them, some completely broken by whatever roughhousing they were subjected to. There’s scat on the ground and more holes in the walls, as well as the floor now, broken concrete and soil scattered around each.

“Watch your step,” Leon says, voice dry even through the muffle of his mask. Shaw takes care with his next set of glowsticks not to drop any down to the next level, but as they travel further it starts to get difficult to find even footing.

“Running through this would be dangerous,” Rhea notes.

“There’s a supply closet nearby,” Kit says. “Should be mops and brooms in there.”

Leon shakes his head. “If we start cleaning we’ll be down here for hours.”

“It’s a good idea,” Shaw says before a debate begins. “And it doesn’t have to take that long. All we need to do is clear a path for now; we’ll have more people with us if we need to turn this floor into a staging ground.”

So they detour to the supply closet and Shaw, Leon, and Kit begin to sweep while Naoto and Rhea keep their hands free and eyes outward. It should feel ridiculous, or at least surreal, but all Shaw feels is vulnerable; his gaze keeps getting drawn to the holes in the ground, and he gives them as wide a berth as possible, spraying more repel along the floor by each. Even with Naoto on lookout, he can’t help but feel like they know too little about what they’re facing to really be safe.

“Zach, how are the floors above us looking?”

“Zero activity. Which, you know, is why I haven’t said anything.”

Shaw does his best to suppress his annoyance. “I’m making sure we’re still connected.”

“You’re still coming through about four by three.”

I never checked Zach’s clothes. Or the others in the mansion, but now’s not the time to indulge such a tail risk, particularly since he doesn’t even know whether a sapient clone is possible, or whether clothing can’t be copied and separated. He feels the paranoia rising up and focuses it on what he can control right now. “Min?”

“Nothing new yet; a couple small vibrations leaving, one that entered, but all still below you.”

“Any news from Cinnabar?”

“Blaine has mobilized the gym,” Lopez reports. “The island has almost fully evacuated to the city, and some rangers found the origin point for the stampede that started all this. It’s not far from here, near some caverns.”

Shit. “If any sandshrew tunnels connect them to the lab…”

“It’ll be a while before anyone’s ready or willing to explore inside it,” Lopez says. “But yeah, it might be a problem. Is there anything we can do about it right now?”

“No,” Shaw admits after a moment as he rubs a hand over his forehead. One thing at a time. “But let Giovanni know.”

As they sweep a path to the power room they near the cafeteria and start to find empty food bags and cans scattered all around. “This explains why they’re nesting,” Leon says as he sweeps some ramen bags to the side. “There was enough food stored to last us for a month if we got stuck down here.”

“Does that mean they’ll abandon this place when they’ve eaten it all?” Rhea asks.

“Maybe, but we have a bigger problem meanwhile.” Distant and muffled though Naoto’s voice is, the worry in it still makes Shaw tense. “This much available food would put most pokemon in a prolonged breeding mode.”

Shortly after that ominous pronouncement they reach the power room and bring the floor power back online… except this time most of the lights don’t switch on.

“Zach?”

“I’m barely getting any cameras either. Some of the lines must have gotten cut.”

“It might be safer to shut it down,” Kit murmurs. “Though we haven’t seen any exposed wires…”

Shaw considers it, but just for a moment. “I’ll take what I can get for now, and the battery won’t last long anyway. Just be careful what you touch, everyone.”

“Still, this changes things,” Rhea says. “Without power this floor isn’t particularly safe as a fallback point, and if the one below it is similar then there’s less reason to go floor by floor.”

“I’d rather confirm that each floor is clear before we go below it.” Shaw’s fingers start counting pokeballs in his pouch again. “Even a few extra cameras might help Zach spot something useful.”

Still, the lack of a secure fallback point would be a problem if they need to run. Shaw starts tossing glowsticks through the holes in the floor as they make their way back along the path they cleared to the stairs, and when they go down and open the door there’s already light waiting for them.

“The ones below us can sense us moving now,” Naoto warns.

“Any coming up?”

“No, but I can faintly sense the ones below them now too… there are a lot, Shaw. Dozens, two or three floors down, maybe in between floors too.”

“Would playing predator sounds keep them away?”

“No,” Leon says. “Not with their nest below and so many of them. It’s more likely to prompt a mass attack.”

He figured as much, but had to make sure. “Alright everyone, keep walking slow and gentle. The glowsticks should keep them away, but we’re going to walk wide around any holes in case some get adventurous, or in case copied versions don’t share the same aversion to light.”

They’re passing through the major labs now, broken glass littering the floor along with more signs of sandshrew habitation. It takes a few extra minutes to sweep a weaving path wide around the various holes in the floor, especially because Naoto keeps pausing, which makes Shaw’s pulse jump as he prepares to order them to flee.

But they make it to the backup generator without incident. Unfortunately once the battery is removed from its container ball and plugged in, they once again only get a handful of lights, along with another alarm.

“Which one is that?” Leon asks, voice barely audible over the din.

“Insecure containment of hazardous materials!” Kit yells back before Shaw can answer. “We should be fine with the masks!”

Shaw leans his broom against the wall, hands itching to hold more useful weapons as he looks to Naoto, whose eyes are closed in concentration. “Zach?”

“I’m working on it!”

The generator room’s light is on, but beyond it is darkness broken only by glowsticks in the hall beyond and some of the rooms they passed through. Shaw watches that darkness until his eyes burn from lack of blinking, only letting his lids drop once the alarm cuts off.

“Got it! The damn thing was—”

“Not now! Naoto?”

“They’re on high alert,” the psychic says, voice strained. “Lots of… vigilance and panic… they’re worried about their eggs and hatchlings…”

“No one move,” Shaw says, wishing for the dozenth time at least that he had a pokemon on his belt, just one… “We wait until they relax.”

If only he could do the same. Every minute that ticks by has his muscles grow more tense rather than less, particularly after Naoto comments, “They’re moving, but not toward us yet.”

“Where?”

“Just… wandering. Restless.”

Another drop of sweat stings his eye. Shaw does his best to blink it away, then checks his oxygen. About half gone, meaning the 28 minutes left on his timer has less of a buffer than he initially wanted it to. “Slow, deep breaths everyone.”

Another five minutes pass before Naoto lets a slow breath out. “I think… they’re starting to relax. But not all of them.”

“We’ll wait another five minutes.”

It only takes two before Min speaks up. “Incoming vibrations on your level.”

“Which side? How many?”

“Northeast, at least two big ones, at least three small, maybe as many as seven in total.”

Not where they are, but close. “If we wait here and they come through, we might get surrounded. We’re making our way back to the stairs. Quick and quiet, let’s move.”

They start to walk, Shaw leading the way from one glowstick to the next as he tosses more of them out. Behind him he hears someone spraying repel along their path, and they reach the stairwell just as they hear the scratching of claws against concrete.

They close the door and spray more repel along the floor, then take a moment to catch their breaths. “See anything, Zach?”

“Yeah, new hole just got dug in the wall not far from the second chemical lab. Four sandshrew, two sandslash.”

“Do they look… normal?”

“So far as I can tell.”

So nothing conclusive yet. He turns to the others. “How much air does everyone have? I’m at 31%.”

They sound off, Kit being the lowest at 27 and Rhea the highest with 35. Shaw resets his timer to fifteen minutes. “Alright, new plan. If they leave we head down one more floor, otherwise we head back up to rest and resupply. Naoto, you said the majority of minds are two below us, on the experiment’s floor?”

“Yes, I think that’s where the nests are, unless there’s more below that.”

“Then we’re going to go down one, find a hole, and take a peek through it before running back up. Giovanni said to be careful, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to catch any by surprise down here.”

No one says anything, but Shaw can tell they’re relieved even through the masks. After a couple minutes Naoto says, “They’re heading down, somewhere in the middle,” and Shaw leads them to the next floor.

“This is it everyone. Weapons ready, prepare for engagement.” Shaw waits for everyone to hold up their weapons, then nods to Leon.

The ex-ranger opens the doors, and Shaw throws twice as many glowsticks through as usual, all four in different directions and distances. They spot a sandshrew right away thanks to the farthest glowstick, and it immediately retreats, scurrying away from the light.

Shaw spots a hole and heads straight for it, sweeping away more broken glass, loose paper, and pokemon droppings. He kicks aside a chair that’s in the way, then drops his broom and steps right up to the hole to drop a glowstick in as the others set up a perimeter around him.

What he sees takes a moment to register, and as his eyes widen and his breath stops, a visceral horror claws up his stomach and out of his throat in a sound of fear and disgust he wouldn’t recognize as coming from him if he didn’t feel the lingering desire to shut his eyes and turn away.

“Incoming!” Naoto yells, snapping Shaw out of his paralysis. “There, there, and there!”

“Move!” Shaw releases a pair of pokedolls, then follows the others back the way they came. A sandslash rushes out of the dark from their side until Leon’s netgun sends it rolling across the ground in a tangled heap, claws slashing at the thin steel chains until they start to snap. Another crawls out of the hole Shaw was looking down and immediately attacks the pokedolls he left behind, while a third starts tunneling out of the floor by the stairs, only to get blasted in the face with sleep powder from Rhea.

“Capture it!” Shaw yells as he stops by the netted sandslash, blasting it with his own sleep spores before holding a greatball out. It’s just pulling free when the powder kicks in, and his greatball snatches it out of the remains of the net.

“Move, Shaw, more coming!” Naoto yells as he tosses his own empty netgun aside and pulls out a pair of stunspore bombs, tossing both down a corridor that looks empty to Shaw.

He snatches his greatball up and runs for the stairway, where Kit releases another pokedoll to give Rhea cover as she captures the sandslash slumped in the new hole.

Once he’s through the door Leon slams it shut, and they’re all racing up the stairs as Min calls out seismic activity warnings.

A minor quake sends them all stumbling to the sides of the stairwell, and sends an ominous groan through the concrete around them. “Up, hands on the railing!” Shaw hooks his weapon to his belt and holds onto the rail beside him as he pumps his shaking legs up the stairs.

Once they get to the top floor, gloriously well lit and relatively free of debris, they start running for the main staircase out. “Vibrations in pursuit, passing through the third floor now!” Min yells.

“Lopez, we’re coming up!” Shaw makes sure everyone is on the stairs before he shuts the lab doors behind him and follows. “Open the hatch!”

For a moment they’re still running in the dim light of the stairwell, and then bright sunlight is shining down around them. Once he’s through he collapses beside the others in the grass, tearing his breath mask off and gulping in lungfuls of clean air.

Lopez bangs the trapdoor closed behind them… then turns on Shaw with a stun gun aimed for his chest. “What’s something only Shaw would know about me?”

Even through his lingering horror and exhaustion, pride and relief are enough to make him grin. “That you… got reprimanded twice… for late reports… during the last Interregional Coordinator Contest.”

Lopez frowns, then lowers the stungun. “Shit, all of the answers are going to embarrass me, aren’t they?”

Leon laughs, and that sets the others off. Still breathing hard, Shaw pushes himself up to face the only one who’s still looking worried, gaze on her screen. “Are they still coming?”

“I think they stopped at the second floor. A couple might have gone up from there, but no more are moving further.”

“I’ve got them on camera,” Zach says. “They’re milling around, but don’t seem to be about to pursue.”

Shaw lets himself relax even more, enjoying the cool air on his sweaty face as Leon asks if Lopez is going to ask the rest of them questions.

“None of us lost sight of each other while we were down there,” Kit says.

“Still, orders are orders.”

Lopez frowns, then holds his stungun up again, aimed at Leon this time.

“Orders rescinded,” Shaw says, and pushes himself up. “Kit’s right, and we need to report in. Anyone injured?”

They shake their heads and start rising too. Rhea’s gaze studies his face as she brushes grass off her pants. “What did you see, Shaw?”

The question brings him back to that moment, and his stomach clenches. “It looked like a sandshrew nest, but… wrong. A second after the glowstick landed, they all started… changing. Melting into some pink and purple goo, even some of the babies. It… or maybe they… were everywhere, surrounding the eggs… inside the eggs, one of them was feeding on the yolk of one while another detached some of itself into one…”

He trails off while the others stare in shock and horror and disgust. “You saw all that in a few seconds?” Leon asks, voice low. He doesn’t sound skeptical.

“I saw it all in a moment. The rest of the time was… processing.” Shaw thought his time working homicides and watching the results of all the failed experiments that came before 3.14 would have kept him from feeling what he’s feeling now, but the queasy disgust only grows the longer he thinks about it, and he starts walking toward the mansion, shaking his head to clear the images away. “Come on. Giovanni needs to… know about this.”

Giovanni needs to do something about this is what Shaw almost said, holding his tongue at the last moment. He trusts his boss with a lot more than his life, but he knows the cold and ruthless pragmatism that drives him. There’s a chance the Gym Leader would see this as an opportunity, but if he orders Shaw to do anything other than destroy what’s down there to the best of his ability, then for the first time in over a decade Shaw would have to disobey.

He hopes the loss of the experiment taught Giovanni some humility, some understanding that he can’t control everything, and for some things shouldn’t even try. He knows Giovanni has to reach further than anyone else dares to do what has to be done.

But after what he saw, and what it might mean for the world if it isn’t stopped, Shaw won’t let him make the wrong call a second time.


Cinnabar City is home to about 90% of the island’s population, and it doesn’t take long for the shelters to fill with the other 10 (or at least, the other 9.999). By the time the rangers have finished corralling people from the various tourist lodges, pokemon centers, farms, and fishing villages around the island, the sun is a few hours away from setting, and Ranger Wendy has had a chance to fully examine the city’s defenses, as well as evaluate its preparation for the first official Code White.

It is, she notes for her report to the Ranger Union, probably one of the best places to have encountered an unknown phenomenon of this scale.

She’s only been stationed in Kanto for a few months as part of her regional exchange training and she’s fairly impressed with the local talent. They’re not as good as Almia’s rangers, of course, but the ones on Cinnabar are a cut above the rest. Being so uniquely isolated means everyone stationed here needs to be more than fairly impressive; when substantial backup is at best a few hours’ flight away, the locals end up handling most things on their own.

Fortunately, it seems they can. Unfortunately, the point of a Code White is they have no idea how to compare what’s happening to “most things.” With wild pokemon transforming into the ones they fight, including full access to their abilities, the usual tactics and strategies go out the window.

But the isolation is probably also what led to Cinnabar Gym’s unique culture; there aren’t many places with a mandatory draft for times of emergencies, but without neighbors to turn to, Leader Blaine asserted decades ago that those who want to live on Cinnabar have to be ready to defend it, and the city’s mayor and population agreed.

“All of which is to say,” Wendy summarizes to her phone as she joins the crowd of rangers, gym members, and others making their way into the meeting hall, “Whatever happens here, I think they’ll have the numbers to deal with it.”

On the screen, Principal Lamont tugs at his beard, brow creased. Normally Wendy would be reporting to her mentor, but with the seriousness of the situation she was transferred directly to the head of Almia’s ranger academy. “That’s assuming numbers end up being what’s needed. Are Oak and Taira there yet?”

“Yeah, he teleported straight in, so we’ll be good to go with whatever plan they’ve got. Honestly though, I’m not sure what they’ll be able to add. Seems obvious that we have to avoid using any strong pokemon, and let the newbies step in on this one.”

“Well, sounds like you’ve got it all figured out. Ditch the uniform and grab a coat, Professor. Unless of course you’re just motivated to show off what you can do?”

Wendy rubs her neck as she feels it grow warm. “I know, I’m just here to help with small stuff and learn from the locals, but this is too big to sit aside on!”

Her old principal chuckles. “And the best way you can think to help is by fighting?”

She bites her lower lip as she heads up the stairs into the meeting hall. Principal Lamont has been teaching rangers since the Union first started; she knows that question was meant to get her to think about what her actual mission is. “Only if there’s no way to coexist with them. So… I should probably be thinking of that, first.”

He smiles. “Good luck, Wendy. I know you’ll make Almia proud.”

“Thank you, Sir. I’ll report back soon.”

“See you then.”

He ends the call, and Wendy tucks her phone away to enter the building. The location doubles as a pokemon contest hall, which means there’s plenty of seats for everyone; she runs up to the balcony level and squeezes through bodies until she reaches one near the front so she can see which big names are already on stage.

Leader Blaine is there, along with Professor Oak and Ranger General Taira. It’s Wendy’s first time seeing the Kanto Ranger General, who stands a little taller than the Professor, and nearly as tall as Blaine, while his shoulders are hunched at least. Her short black hair combined with her black and red uniform makes her an imposing contrast to the two older men.

Particularly Leader Blaine, with his bald head shining in the bright lights and the cane planted between his feet. She’s heard it’s just an affectation, that he can move as quick and limber as the slightly younger Professor. Others say one of his legs was incurably injured and continues to pain him, but that he just powers through it when he needs to. Either way, combined with his white coat and round spectacles, and the knowledge that he was an accomplished researcher before heading Cinnabar Gym, it’s hard not to see him as more of a professor than a gym leader.

Until a few minutes pass, and the seats are nearly full, when he raps his cane against the floor once, twice, three times. By the third, the hall is so silent that Wendy can hear her own breaths.

“Code White protocols have been met,” Blaine says, voice leathery but strong. “There’s new data to share.”

With a gesture behind him, where a dark skinned ranger standing to the side of the stage approaches, greatball in hand. He seems a bit nervous, or maybe just taken aback by the Leader’s abruptness. Wendy certainly is; she heard Blaine didn’t like to waste words, but she expected at least a small introduction or speech.

“Hey everyone, I’m Ira,” the ranger at the front of the stage says. “I was at C17 when—”

“Speak up, man,” Blaine says. “And get to it.”

“Yes, Sir.” Ira takes a breath, then holds up the greatball. “When I threw this ball, it caught an arcanine. Once I got back to the city I had a chance to scan it. It looked like an arcanine in the dex, but there was something wrong. It was classifying it as a new species, with lots of the genetic—” Blaine clears his throat, and Ira glances at him, then shrugs. “Point is, this is what it turned into a few seconds out of the ball.”

He braces his arm and releases the greatball’s contents in a flash. When it clears, there’s… a puddle of purple goo on the stage.

Wendy leans forward, along with half the hall, trying to understand what she’s looking at. A baby grimer? No, it’s too light, more of a pinkish-purple…

A moment later it quivers and swirls, forming a vaguely lumpy blob. There are murmurs throughout the hall now as the blob seems to wag its upper half around, and the cameraman at the foot of the stage steps right up against it to get a closeup.

“For those that can’t make it out, it’s got a pair of small black eyes, something like a mouth, and that’s it. As far as I can tell it has no internal organs, and while it didn’t try to attack me, it doesn’t follow basic commands or do much of anything, really.”

“Technicians are working with another specimen already,” Professor Oak says. “We’re hoping to push a pokedex update by the end of the night so it can identify these things when they’re caught, but the training algorithms might take longer, since we have no idea how its physiology works, let alone the neurology.”

Wendy feels a bit of jealousy that some people have already caught the new pokemon while she’s been sitting in a safe outpost by the coast, but reminds herself of what Principal Lamont said. She’s a ranger, not a trainer; she should be focusing on more than capturing and battling.

If she stops viewing the strange blob as a threat or battle resource, what else could it be? Well, obviously it would be massively valuable scientifically… that company that’s been trying to perfect cloning technology must be pulling their hair out right now.

She’s still thinking of it as a resource though; rangers are supposed to value pokemon for their role in the ecosystem, and ways they can enhance human lives. I guess it’s kind of cute, in a living plush-doll sort of way? She’s not sure what hugging one would feel like, but as long as it’s not cold and slimy…

“Tactical data is limited,” Blaine says. “For now, assume this thing is anywhere on the island. Assume it can get off the island. Any trainer engaging in any battle against a wild pokemon has to be ready to swap to a counter to whatever they send out, then swap to a counter to that, until we know how quickly or often they can change forms.”

“Also,” Professor Oak adds, “To answer the question I imagine is on everyone’s mind… we don’t know yet if they can turn into humans. But from what we’ve studied of the data so far, the transformation is not perfect. It would be a mistake to call it superficial; so far they’ve mimicked every power their targets possessed. At the same time, once injured—or for those who’ve transformed into tougher pokemon, once their hide is pierced—they seem more frail than their targets.”

“That may not be consistent,” Leader Blaine says. “Data is too limited to jump to conclusions.”

Professor Oak holds a conciliatory hand up. “Of course. But combined with the logic that a complete transformation would result in them losing their ability to change further, I’m advising against paranoid speculation. Our next test once we have a new subject is to cut some fur or nails from it before it transforms back to this state, to see if it reacts with pain, or if the removed matter reverts sooner. In addition, the fact that the copied pokemon do not act like their trained counterparts suggests that they copy our pokemon’s instincts, but not their memories.”

“At this point we’re considering a full quarantine for Cinnabar,” General Taira says. Her voice is velvet wrapped around an iron fist, bringing to mind the ancient clan of warriors and leaders she shares a name with. “But less drastic methods are still being debated. In the meantime, all efforts are going to be aimed at city patrols and perimeter defense.”

Wendy is only half-listening. Transforming pokemon that share all their target’s instincts… the transformation isn’t permanent so they aren’t really clones like that company wants to make…

People are talking among themselves all around her while the Ranger General shares instructions on how to form groups and receive orders for local defense, then the tentative plans for moving outward once they’re sure the city is safe.

“One last thing,” Ranger Ira says. “My friend and I tracked the first stampede that we know for sure had these things in it to a series of caverns. We’ve marked it on the map; it may have come from somewhere else and moved there, or came into existence at more than one place at the same time, but we’ve sealed the caverns off by collapsing the entrances and there’s a rotating shift watching it to make sure we know if anything else comes out. If you have a strong flier and want to sign up for that, come find me.”

“Dismissed,” Leader Blaine says, and people start standing and streaming out. Wendy, however, has a sudden thought, and dashes down the stairs and to the stage. Nothing gained by being timid she reminds herself when her worries catch up with her feet, and moves faster against the outflowing tide of bodies.

Oak and Blaine are talking about something while Ira and Taira talk about something else. Neither pair seems to notice her, probably because a lot of others are milling around the stage talking or looking for an opportunity to speak with them. Instead Wendy climbs onto the stage and approaches her fellow Rangers, which gets their attention.

Taira’s gaze is like a pair of legweights, and Wendy falters for a moment before taking a deep breath and soldiering on. “Good evening, Ma’am.” She gives her best salute.

The Ranger General’s response is casual, almost dismissive, but her voice is only curious. “Yes, Cadet?”

“Wendy, Ma’am,” she says, though the Ranger General’s tone didn’t invite details. “From Almia. I had a thought… why are we concerned about these pokemon?”

It’s Ira that answers, tone quizzical, but also serious. “I saw what these things can do against a prepared line of trainers. It might be easier when we know what we’re facing, but unless they have a weakness they’ll always be nearly as strong as anything we send out against them.”

“Yeah, I get that. And, Sir, I’m not trying to minimize how rough that must have been for your people… but these pokemon seem like they’ll naturally adapt to any ecosystem. We don’t know what set off the stampede today, but it might not have been because of them. Is it possible that the best move here is to just… let them be?”

The two are silent for a moment, and Wendy realizes that the Professor and Leader are also watching her, now. She feels her neck grow warm again, but doesn’t lower her gaze.

Eventually Taira’s lips quirk into a slow smile. “Almia, you said? Is Principal Lamont still there?”

“Uh, yes Ma’am, he is.”

“He taught you well, Cadet. It’s certainly something we’ll keep in mind… but first, we need to make sure they aren’t disrupting the ecosystem, and we need to make sure everyone is prepared to face them.”

“Of course, Ma’am.” Well, she said her piece. Now all she can do is try to help out. “Um, also, you said for Ensigns and below to report to their direct superior, but I’ve been here on exchange and have just been rotating…”

“I’ll take her, if that’s alright with you, Ma’am.”

Taira nods to Ira, then looks back at Wendy one last time. “Take care, Cadet Wendy.”

Wendy salutes again, then follows Ira off the stage, heart soaring. She did her duty as a ranger, and now she’ll get to see some action; whatever the days ahead have in store, she’ll make Almia proud.


“That was when we decided to retreat and consider our options. Any suggestions as to what we do now would be appreciated, but it’s my assessment that this location is no longer defensible without a coordinated effort to reclaim and rebuild the lab… or, barring that, purge it entirely.”

Naoto listens as Shaw’s pronouncement is met with silence from the various heads of the other departments in the organization. Maybe it’s taking them a moment to absorb what they’ve heard, or maybe they’re waiting for Giovanni to speak first. The teleconference is without video, so none of them have any body language to go off of, but the quality of the silence feels weighty, and Naoto imagines Giovanni staring down at his steepled fingers, brow slightly furrowed.

Or maybe he’s muted himself so he can shout some curses or smash a chair. Surely at some point enough setbacks would provoke a passionate response from their dark leader?

Naoto was a psychologist before he attempted one too many studies that skirted the ethical line. He was fascinated by the way people’s thoughts and feelings changed from little things in their environment, slight differences in tone or expression. Being able to share his subjects’ thoughts and moods gave him unique insights into what they really felt, rather than relying on absurdly noisy self-report surveys, or clumsy and time consuming brain scans.

He’s grateful that he was able to find employment with Giovanni’s organization after his curiosity got the better of him a few too many times. It’s all thanks to Shaw; the security chief vouched for him to the Gym Leader, said they’d worked together before, which they had, and that Naoto would be “invaluable.” After the nightmare of seeing his career and life descending into ruins, the word was like a shot of pure hope through his veins. Getting the job, in the end, was more; a rebirth, in a lot of ways. A change of name, some changed physical features, a new history, a new life.

And not a bad life, for all its limitations. The work has been fascinating, in its own way, even if the constant presence of dark colleagues, not to mention their utterly opaque leader, has been a constant itch that he’s found hard to live with at times. Right now, other than two people on perimeter watch and one to keep an eye on the hatch, the remaining dozen people at the mansion are gathered in the meeting room, all of which are dark. Combined with the lack of visual stimuli, the itch to know what everyone is thinking is nearly unbearable.

But he has borne it, and resisted the urges to return to his previous experiments. After Shaw put his own dependability on the line for him, Naoto knew he couldn’t let him down, nor the Leader they both serve that he’s come to respect as well, in his own way.

“Can we fill the air system with spores?” comes a suggestion at last. Dr. Light, of course, is familiar with the lab.

“Same problem as trying to just burn them out,” Shaw says. “We might catch some, but the rest will retreat into the surrounding earth.”

“Flood it?” comes a voice Naoto doesn’t recognize.

“Might work, if we had a lake we could redirect.”

“What if we use their transformation properties against them?” someone asks. “Send in nothing but voltorb and electrode?”

“A chain reaction?” Giovanni muses. “Risky. Even assuming it works for some, others might survive and escape… not to mention it would probably bring the whole lab down on anyone in there. Perhaps as a last resort.”

“We could drop poisoned food on the lower levels?” Kit asks, voice low, and Shaw nods and repeats the suggestion.

There’s silence for a moment, then Giovanni says, “A good idea if we had more time, and if we already had a sense of what poison wouldn’t be detected by sandshrew while being potent enough to incapacitate whatever these things are for a prolonged period. The one you caught, Rhea, will be thoroughly examined, but in the meantime we need other options that ensure their destruction.”

“So you agree with purging the lab entirely, Sir?” Shaw asks. If Naoto was forced to guess (and he can’t help himself anyway) he’d say Shaw is… relieved.

Not that he blames him. From what Shaw reported seeing, Naoto can’t imagine sleeping soundly in the mansion ever again.

“I do. Regardless of how the battle for the island as a whole turns out, we cannot allow more of these things to breed in secret. There are a number of ways we could potentially contain them, but not quickly and not quietly; with the island on high alert, new construction or renovation below the mansion would be noticed.”

“I agree, Sir,” Shaw says. Yep, definitely relieved. “Which is why I’d like to suggest we use the lab’s failsafe.”

Silence again from the telecom, while everyone in the room goes still. Naoto wonders if they’re finally going to learn what doom was hanging over them all those years…

“Shaw.” It’s Dr. Light, and she sounds… frightened? “Are you sure?”

The chief of security’s lip twitches. “I am, Doctor. What’s down there is… worse than the experiment, I think. Maybe worse than anything else humanity has faced.”

“Can someone explain what they’re talking about?” another voice Naoto doesn’t recognize asks. Not surprising given how segregated their cells are; he wonders how many people are in other research labs, if any, and how many are just on Giovanni’s personal staff or part of the Viridian Gym.

“There’s enough explosive packed into the walls of the lab to utterly demolish it,” Giovanni explains. “And probably collapse the mansion into the ground.”

Silence again, and then, “Okay, seems like a good option. How does that work, exactly?”

“Dr. Light and I both have keys that could trigger it,” Shaw says.

“Then why not just evacuate and… wait. Are you talking about a literal key?”

“I am.”

The call is silent again as Lopez swears under his breath, and Rhea’s hands clench into fists. “Shaw,” Leon mutters, only for their boss to cut him off with a sharp chop of his hand.

“It was meant to stop whatever the lab created from escaping,” Shaw continues after a moment. “This feels like it qualifies.”

“Don’t jump to conclusions, Shaw,” Dr. Light. “We still don’t know for sure what from the lab might have caused it to appear, or if it even originated there at all. If you blow up the lab we may never know!”

“Then maybe we shouldn’t know.”

“That’s the most thickheaded—”

“Doctor.” The word comes out almost tenderly, and if Naoto didn’t know better he’d think there had been something between her and Shaw. “Thank you. But it’s the only way to be sure.”

For his part, Naoto feels an odd tearing in his chest. If Shaw is serious, and he’s understanding the system right, he plans to walk down there and just blow himself up.

The man who gave Naoto a second chance would go to his death to keep the island, and possibly the world, safe. Of course he would; that’s what his job has been all this time.

It’s not fair.

“Before things get any more dramatic,” someone says, voice holding a slight drawl. “It sounds like those things are basically loose on the island at this point. It’s unfortunate for the local ecology, but destroying this ‘nest’ will not stop the spread that has already begun.”

“Just because it won’t eradicate them doesn’t make it worthless,” Shaw says. “It may slow the spread to a manageable level, give the rangers a fighting chance to contain it entirely.”

“I still think—”

“Hey, it doesn’t matter!” Zach explodes, voice definitely loud enough to be picked up on the call. Naoto was so focused on himself that he didn’t realize how much tension the CIO must have been holding in. “Whose dumb idea was it not to make the damn thing remote? Give me an hour and I’ll whip up a way to do it from a distance! No one has to die!”

If anyone else had spoken out of turn, let alone (probably) insulted Shaw or Giovanni, they would probably have been swiftly led out of the room, but Zach can get away with more than most. Probably because he’s still wearing those damn pajamas, and getting mad at him would just feel strange. “It was a tradeoff,” Shaw says. “The risk of external trigger was too high. I don’t want to die, but I would be pretty surprised if you could make this thing work remotely in a week, let alone an hour.”

“Oh please, a little servo to turn a key—”

“Is just the last step. The key has to be turned within seconds of a password being put in, a lever being cranked, and a living-body-temperature handprint being placed on a scanner, along with a voice command and a retinal scan.”

Coming from anyone else, Naoto would think Shaw was exaggerating. Zach practically vibrates with mixed feelings that he would normally be fascinated to try to dissect, but after a moment he just sags back, hand over his eyes.

“You’re sure about this,” Giovanni says in the ensuing silence.

It’s not spoken like a question, but Shaw still nods. “Yes, Sir.”

“If this is from some sense of guilt, I want you to know that I am ultimately the one who—”

“No, Sir. With respect, it’s just… the right call. It’s our mess. We need to clean it up, no matter what.”

No one seems to know what to say to that.

“The stampede has spread through a quarter of the island, and will reach the city soon,” Giovanni finally says. “Once all eyes and ears are on it…”

The Gym Leader just trails off. Maybe even he has never asked someone to literally sacrifice themselves before, or had to find the words to accept it. Or maybe he just feels guilty. Naoto’s heard how ruthless Giovanni can be, but he and Shaw go way back, and by all accounts their boss doesn’t like wasting good talent.

Good talent. Like that’s all Shaw is.

“Wait,” Naoto says, throat dry and voice low. Too low for anyone but Rhea beside him to hear, let alone Shaw or Giovanni.

“That will give you time to evacuate the mansion,” Giovanni says. “And perhaps time for us to come up with an alternative—”

“Wait!” This time everyone turns to him. He swallows and takes a deep breath. “Wait, just… hold on a fucking minute, alright? If there are explosives in the walls, why don’t we just… you know, set them off with other explosives?”

“They’re secured against that,” Shaw says, voice patient. No, controlled. He’s hiding what he’s feeling, Naoto knows he can’t be this accepting of his own death, no matter how he’s acting. “The chance of them going off by accident was reduced as much as possible, and even if some of them are set off, the rest will just vaporize rather than explode.”

“How do you even know the explosives will all work, then? Half of the security cameras and lights were down!”

“It can be set off from three different floors, including the third, where damage was just starting to get bad. Ultimately I don’t know for sure, but even if some were damaged I think enough will work.”

“You hope enough will work, so you’re going to bet with your life. Well fuck that! I’ve got a better idea: let me do it.”

Shaw stares at him, neck muscle jumping.

“Weren’t you listening?” Zach asks, voice a mix of bitterness and contempt. “You need a—”

“Yeah, I heard, I need his hand and his eye, right? And some codes or whatever.” He turns back to Shaw. “Fine, so tell me the codes and give up a hand and eye. Not your life, you noble ass. Hell, if I get them back to you fast enough you can probably even get them reattached!”

“This is getting morbid,” someone on the call mutters. “Who is that, anyw—”

Their voice gets cutoff, and a moment later Giovanni says, “Continue, Naoto. I take it from that last remark you’re not talking about trading your life for his?”

“Of course not. I’ll just do what you dark people can’t, and teleport out.”

He almost smiles at the stunned looks on everyone’s faces.


It takes all the ground pokemon they have half an hour to dig a hole straight down into the top floor of the lab. It’s enough time to evacuate the mansion, though they end up leaving much behind, and enough time for their local doctor, with assistance from some others who teleport in, to set up a makeshift hospital nearby and perform some quick surgery.

“Once we remove the hand, put it in this pouch to keep it warm,” one of them explains to Naoto, who’s feeling a little light headed after being handed a small glass jar with his friend’s eye floating in it.

“Right, pouch. Sure.”

“You alright? If you need to throw up, or some medication for lightheadedness, say so now.”

“No, I’m good,” he says, like a fool, then, “Yes, actually, that would be great.”

He says his “goodbyes” once they get word that the city is fighting off the stampede, which mostly comes in the form of everyone wishing him good luck while not saying that there’s a high chance he fucks up and gets himself killed. Rhea hugs him, which comes as a surprise, as does Kit, which doesn’t, as does Leon, which does even more. Zach grabs his hand and shakes it, once, without saying anything, then walks away. At least he changed his clothes.

Finally he’s standing beside Shaw’s bed, fully geared out, ready to run to the trapdoor and down the stairs. “The eyepatch looks pretty cool,” he offers.

“Come here, you idiot.” Shaw pulls him into a hug sitting up from the reclining chair. “Thank you,” he whispers, and Naoto squeezes him harder.

“You bet. See you soon, huh? I’m looking forward to your applause.”

Shaw shakes his head, but he’s grinning as he pulls back. There’s one last minute of waiting as Zach swaps between all the cameras on the first few floors, then says, “You’re clear.”

They’ve numbed Shaw’s arm, so he doesn’t feel it when they cut his hand off. Naoto doesn’t even look, just holds the pouch out until he feels the weight of it inside, seals it, then runs for the square of darkness in the grass below the darkening sky while everyone else rushes away from the plateau the mansion is on.

At first it’s easy; down the main stairs, into the first floor. Through the first floor, no sandshrew or weird blobs in sight, around the big hole in the ground that’s his ticket out of here.

Assuming there’s at least half a second of delay between the key turning and the explosives going off, anyway. No one actually seemed to know, or at least they weren’t saying if they did.

Down the inner stairwell, past the second floor, and into the third, where the air is much clearer thanks to the giant hole in the ceiling that lets in the beautiful colors of the sky above. May be the last time I see it, he uselessly thinks as he follows the directions to where Shaw told him the secret compartment would be.

He’s just approaching it when he feels the two sandshrew and the sandslash approaching, their minds sharp with focus… on him. They heard his rapid, heavy footsteps, and are coming to fend off the intruder.

He releases a pokedoll, then summons his tangrowth. It was given to him as part of his job, years ago; he’s never been a real trainer, but Giovanni expects nearly everyone in his employ to at least have some capability to defend themselves. Despite his lack of diligence, he’s done his duty with Moss over the years, and feels a sharp pang of regret as he summons her for the last time.

“Defend,” he yells, voice cracking, and then he’s using the key to open the heavy plate guarding the interface to the explosives. Once it’s off and falls with a clang, he sticks the key in the final spot so it’s ready to be turned, summons his abra, and says, “Ready!”

Zach starts reading commands to him, and he types them out into the keyboard embedded in the wall. Once that’s done he carefully takes out the glass jar and turns it so that the eye gets scanned, then starts typing the next part.

It’s around then that the sandslash arrives. He doesn’t look back as he feels the ground tremble and crack beneath his feet, knowing Moss will take care of him, and if she doesn’t they’re both likely dead; more are coming.

He hears the fighting intensify behind him as the two sandshrew arrive, and despite himself looks back as he opens the pouch and takes Shaw’s hand out, trying not to think about how it feels.

Instead he’s greeted with the sight of Moss being savaged by her three attackers, though she’s holding her own all the same, vines keeping them restrained and regrowing almost as fast as they cut and chew.

One of them, however, is rapidly turning pinkishpurple.

Naoto looks away and shoves the hand against the pad, his own fingers holding Shaw’s in place so it gets scanned. Meanwhile his other hand triggers the recording of Shaw’s verbal command from his phone. Once the screen asks for the last command, he shoves the hand and phone into his pouch and starts typing…

…just as a vine wraps around his ankle.

He doesn’t stop, each finger moving slow and steady to make sure he doesn’t mess up as his whole body twitches with adrenaline and fear, distantly wondering if he’d have freaked out by now if not for the drugs.

The final command finishes just as the vine around his ankle loosens and fades away. Naoto grabs the key, puts his hand on his abra’s head, and looks back one last time, unable to help his curiosity.

What he sees makes him scream, twist the key, and send the impulse to teleport to his abra.


His teleport point is close enough that he hears the explosion almost immediately, and it’s the first real sign that he survived.

The next is his gorge rising, causing him to throw up on the grass, eyes shut against the last image he saw. His whole body is shaking, and he lets himself collapse beside his puke, letting himself not care about anything for a while.

The sound of running feet makes him grope for the jar, afraid suddenly that he crushed or forgot it, but there it is, cool and solid. He hands it to someone without looking, feels them take the pouch off his waist, and lets another pair of hands lift him up and wrap a towel around him as he just shakes and breathes.

Some time passes before he feels well enough to notice that he’s surrounded by people who are just sitting with him. Most are staring at the dust cloud, which is mostly invisible in the rapidly darkening sky.

“It worked?” he croaks, and someone hands him water, which he eagerly drinks.

“It worked,” Leon says. “Half the plateau sank in. Mansion’s still standing, somehow, but it’s wrecked to hell.”

“Half the plateau,” Naoto distantly repeats. “Good.”

He prays that will be enough to kill it, but knows he’ll still see the copy of himself in his dreams, staring at him with wide, blank eyes, mouth twisted in a strange, wide smile.

Chapter 97: Raw Data

“You’re coddling it.”

Blue turns away from his abra and the pokedoll it’s attacking to frown at Koichi, who’s watching them from the edge of the arena pit with a passive expression. The ex-Gym Leader has clearly just finished showering and changing into his streetwear, duffel bag slung over one shoulder.

Blue spends a few seconds deciding whether he should dismiss the statement with a simple “thanks for the advice,” or just ignore it altogether. Koichi is clearly on his way out of the rapidly emptying dojo, and as far as Blue has seen in his time at the dojo, quickly backs off from any indication that his presence isn’t wanted.

But the bait is too strong, particularly since Blue is still having trouble training Tops; the abra is growing, but not quickly, and still hasn’t shown any real connection to Blue. Just a set of stimuli that sometimes gives him food is what Red said, and so far that still seems to be the case. They solved the orientation problem by buying a device that emits a constant, high frequency sound that Tops can hear, then training Tops to keep himself between the sound and enemy pokemon, but it would involve a lot of movement on Blue’s part if he needed to use it in a real battle.

“What do you mean?” he finally asks.

“I watched your battle, earlier. You’re not letting your abra get hurt. Just hit and swap.”

“Of course not, it can barely fight!”

Koichi seems about to say something, then closes his mouth, shrugs, and starts heading for the exit.

Blue watches the broad shouldered man leave, fighting his instinct to follow. In his first week at the dojo he attended one of Koichi’s fighting lessons (in part out of curiosity and in part because he wanted the ability to ask for him to leave the dojo), but it was pretty tame; the ex-Leader taught a range of jiu jitsu kata, ramping up in speed and complexity until the veterans were warmed up and the novices (including Blue) weren’t able to match them. After that Blue was paired up against other novices so they could try and disable each other’s ability to either reach for their belt or move away.

It didn’t go well. Blue would bet on his reflexes over nearly anyone else’s, but few of the motions he learned were familiar, and muscle memory has to be trained. As a result he ended up getting knocked on his ass a lot, or hitting the mat face first while one of his arms was forced into some painful position.

Before long he was struggling to keep his anger and frustration off his face, and thought of pretending he had somewhere else he had to be so he could leave early. He tried to justify the urge by convincing himself that the “novices” he fought were enjoying humiliating him… but as they all swapped partners, he couldn’t see any difference in how he was being treated compared to the others; if anything, a couple of his sparring partners were overly apologetic and concerned after they took him down.

Blue was also distracted by the way Koichi himself went from pair to pair to give pointers and occasionally demonstrate something. In his place, Blue would have avoided any contact with others rather than risk someone claiming injury and using it as a reason to boot him from the dojo. Instead the ex-Leader seemed focused on his work, and though he didn’t appear to take pleasure in it, he also showed no impatience or anger. Each movement seemed, to Blue’s untrained eye, to use just the right amount of force.

After his lesson Blue begrudgingly recognized that he had no grounds to ask for the ex-Leader’s removal. He also better understood why learning to lose is such a valuable thing to do; he saw it in the other students, the way their acceptance of their failures allowed them to keep trying things they knew they would fail at, again and again, until they succeeded.

Blue used to be like that. He can’t remember when, exactly, he lost it, but he’s determined to get it back.

Still, he doesn’t trust Koichi, and he’s kept an eye on him just in case he spots something that, even if it’s not reasonable grounds for removal, would give some hint to what he’s really doing here. This could be another opportunity to do so.

“Wait. What were you about to say?”

Koichi turns back to him, then asks, “What do you know of adverse improvement?”

“It’s what makes pokemon grow faster when they fight.”

“That’s a definition. I asked what you know about it. How it works.”

Red might know, but Blue only studied it for a bit before concluding that the practical effects were pretty straightforward. “No.”

“It’s not just about fighting, and not just for pokemon. Humans experience it too.”

Blue raises a brow. “Uh. I feel like I’d know about that… or are you actually only, like, 20?”

Koichi shakes his head. “This is the problem. You learn part of the whole, and misunderstand. You’ve journeyed for a year now, yes?”

“Almost.” About a couple months short, which reminds him that it will be Leaf’s birthday soon…

“And yet some of your pokemon, those you’ve had since the beginning, are nearly as strong as those who have been training for years. Why?”

Blue crosses his arms, starting to get impatient. “Because they’ve seen a lot of battles and spent a lot of time in training, like I said. What’s the part I don’t understand?”

“That part. Your answer is incomplete; you’ve been fighting with your abra a lot, and yet it is not growing. Most abra do not grow quickly from battle. What makes them different?”

Blue finally starts to actually consider what the ex-Leader is saying, and remember that he’s speaking to someone so good that they nearly had to be dethroned by an Elite.

What does he know that I don’t?

“Just to be clear, how obvious is this supposed to be?” Blue asks after a moment. “I can say stuff like ‘they usually run from battle’ or ‘they don’t naturally know any attacks,’ but it sounds like you’re talking about something most trainers don’t know.”

Koichi considers a moment, then puts his bag down and walks over to lean against the wall around the arena’s edge. “It’s not a conspiracy. People just don’t like to talk about it, and when they hear it most will reject it out of hand. People who talk anyway become… unpopular. But it weakens us when we train pokemon that aren’t aggressive.”

Blue lowers himself to sit on the edge of the balcony, feet dangling above the pit of the arena as he tosses some berries down to Tops. The abra sniffs, then begins to crawl around to find them. “So being aggressive? That’s the secret?”

“You were skeptical that it works for humans too. What do you think?”

Blue bites his lower lip, thinking of all the times he fought with Red or some others at school. It wasn’t often, maybe half a dozen times, but he didn’t notice any growth spurts after…

Oh. You’re coddling it. “It’s about being injured? Badly?”

“It’s about life-and-death struggle. Triumph against something that seeks to kill you.”

Blue frowns. “I dismissed that, it’s too common. Beating wild pokemon—”

You don’t beat them. Your pokemon does.”

He remembers his shiftry (with the usual painful flashback to that moment in the tunnels, the crunch and snap of woody flesh) and the way he had trouble training it right after capture. The pokedex has been updated now so that information is front and center, but it’s an unusual enough situation that he’s not sure how often it might come up. Still, he can’t remember feeling afraid for his life even then, though he does remember the weary triumph once his plan to catch it worked.

“How do you know it works on humans?”

“Grew up in a rough neighborhood. The point is, abra are hard to train because they have no fighting instinct. They need to learn what it’s like to get hurt, and not run away. To be in a real fight for their life, then overcome it.”

Blue wants to reject the idea out of hand, but he knows that’s coming from his personal dislike of Koichi. He’ll have to check what the ex-Leader is saying, maybe ask Gramps, but… he hasn’t been able to get much help from Red lately since he’s been working on his teleportation thing, and if true then this is a solid lead.

“You said trainers pretend this isn’t true? Not just keep it secret, I know many would do that for an advantage, but you were openly trying to talk about this and no one listened?”

“Yes. I saw the new mentality spreading during my own journey, the idea that pokemon should be treated as friends, not hurt more than necessary—”

“That a problem for you?” Blue asks, feeling a shadow of Leaf and Aiko’s imagined anger.

Koichi’s already neutral expression goes flat. “Meaning I like hurting things?”

“Or don’t care. You didn’t just beat your challengers’ pokemon, you were brutal to them.” Blue wonders where Duncan is, and whether this conversation is only happening because they’re mostly alone. There are a few others spread out around the dojo practicing on the various equipment or courses, but no one’s within earshot.

“I was—” Koichi cuts himself off, then takes a breath. “I was wrong to do that. But I’m not a sadist.”

Blue watches him for a moment. The first time he spoke there was something else there, the first real emotion Blue’s heard from the ex-Leader. “So why did you do it?”

Koichi takes another breath, letting it out more slowly. “Told myself it was because I needed to show people I was right, that more dangerous battles would make their pokemon grow faster. It’s why I fought my way to Leader to begin with. Thought I could learn the political stuff, the city strategizing, the logistics, all the rest of what came with it. I was wrong, and I was too prideful to ask others to help. Pride was at the root of it all. I wanted to show everyone, the Leaders, the Professors, the Elites, that they weren’t as strong as they could be.”

Blue just listens, rapt. As far as attempts to justify himself go, this isn’t as self-sympathetic as he expected, and it’s fascinating just hearing the other side of such an infamous story, true or not. “Until Sabrina showed up.”

Koichi’s jaw tightens, just for a moment. “Yes.”

Looks like storytime is over. “That’s it? Just ‘yes?’ You wanted to prove a point, and she proved you wrong. Or are you going to blame type disadvantage for your ace?”

“She didn’t—” Again Koichi cuts himself off, and Blue catches the anger there before the ex-Leader’s face goes blank again. “I am grateful to Sabrina for putting an end to my destructive spiral.”

“Come on, just say what you wanted to say.”

“You would not believe me.”

“Then why are you bothering to talk to me at all?”

Koichi doesn’t seem to have an immediate answer to that, and after a moment he sighs. “I have no evidence. But Sabrina’s alakazam was far more powerful than it should have been given her age and experience as a trainer. I believe a skilled enough psychic could train their pokemon more quickly by projecting the necessary feelings onto them during battle.”

Blue’s eyes widen even as he shakes his head. “No way. If that were true the strongest psychics would dominate all the Leagues. Even if Sabrina’s in the top percent…” He trails off as he remembers that most psychics don’t become trainers at all, making the actual number who might try this out fairly low. And there are six of them currently in the Indigo League… the thought feels less crazy the more he thinks of it, but he pushes against it anyway.

Koichi must read something in his expression, because he shakes his head. “Told you. People don’t want to believe it.”

“It’s not that.”

“You weren’t thinking of how doing this might make people turn on you?”

This time it’s Blue who doesn’t have a response. He still remembers the reaction from his training partner in Cerulean Gym, when Maturin got a little too bloodthirsty. While most people aren’t as against trainer battles as Leaf, no one looks kindly on pokemon being badly hurt in a trainer match, whether their own or someone else’s, even when the stakes are really high…

Which, if Koichi is right, would put him in an impossible situation. Some might listen, test it themselves, and find it true… but anyone who admitted to putting their pokemon through harsher battles for strength might get huge public backlash… even agreeing that it’s possible would make people suspicious.

If word gets out that Blue even thinks this might be true, most people would assume he’s been doing it from the start. Especially combined with rumors of him hurting his shiftry or opponents’ pokemon… It could destroy his reputation.

Red can probably do it.

Blue’s breath stills for a moment. Red may not be as good as Sabrina yet, but he can do things she can’t, and he’s smart. If Blue had to put money down, he’d bet on his friend figuring it out, assuming he’s driven to… and he would be, it could be a huge discovery…

…but he also might not understand the damage it would do to try and publish it. It would make him a powerful trainer, might make Blue’s pokemon even stronger, but even without pokemon getting excessively hurt when a psychic does it, just publishing a paper on it could damage Red’s career if people thought he was advocating for it, or even if he was making it more likely for people to do in secret…

Blue’s eyes close. He can’t do it. His friend has no sense for PR or navigating the social side of the world, if Blue suggests something like this to him it could ruin him. He has to think things through to protect his friend from himself… also, Leaf would be pissed at them if it leads to people letting their pokemon get more hurt on purpose. It would be even worse if people learn the idea came from Koichi.

Speaking of which…

Blue opens his eyes. “Why are you telling me all this?”

Koichi regards him with a slight frown. “You asked.”

“No, originally you came to me and told me I was doing it wrong.”

The older man shrugs. “I can’t unknow what I know. You’re struggling with something, and I’m here as a teacher.”

“That’s it? You just wanted to help?”

“Yes. I understand that might be hard to b—”

“Stop, spare me that stuff. I’m not even saying it’s not true, let’s just take for granted that I distrust you but am willing to listen and am not just looking for excuses to get you kicked out of the dojo, alright? Saves time.”

Blue might be imagining it, but it seems like some tension leaks out of Koichi’s stance. “Fine. You pressed me because you didn’t believe my answer, and now want me to give you another. But I have nothing else to say, whether to convince you or not. Believe what you want.”

Blue watches Koichi and tries to decide whether the ex-Leader is trying to manipulate him. Erika would say to follow the status differential; if Blue were to follow his advice, champion it (whether before or after becoming Champion), and weather the storm of public opinion afterward, Koichi would be vindicated. Blue would essentially be gambling his own status to redeem the ex-Leader, to some degree at least.

But Koichi isn’t doing a lot of talking. He could try to convince Blue that of anyone out there, an Oak has the best chance of surviving the social backlash, especially if he can get Gramps on board. He’d play on Blue’s goals, point out how much stronger trainers would be if they used this knowledge. But maybe he recognizes that talking too much and trying to convince him too hard would be a bad move against someone as suspicious as Blue.

And, of course, the older man might just be sincere. More bitter than he’s letting on, but not trying to do anything but live out a quiet, useful life with the skills he has.

Duncan would say he should split and commit to both possibilities; that Koichi is just trying to help, and that Koichi is trying to manipulate him. In the latter case, he shouldn’t be too credible about this, or indicate whether he’ll follow the advice, or else Koichi might use his openness to the idea as blackmail. Hell, this whole conversation could be recorded. But he also shouldn’t close himself off to the possibility of future help… Koichi is, ultimately, a great teacher, and if he has some bits of unpopular or hidden truth among many other bad ideas, Blue wants to learn them.

“I’ll think about it,” is all Blue says. “I don’t believe it, something like that would be talked about more even if it’s wrong, but thank you for trusting me with it.”

Koichi’s surprise is as subtle as his other expressions, a mild lift of his eyebrows. Then he simply nods, and picks his duffel bag up to leave again.

Blue watches him go, then turns back to the arena pit where Tops is, the last piece of food uneaten beside him. The abra, like most of his kind when sitting still, looks like he could be asleep. When he evolves he would stand on his hind legs, his tail would grow and thicken, and he would become swift and dangerous, particularly given the metrics Blue had analyzed when he picked him out from among all the other abra they caught. If he can get Tops to become an alakazam, he would truly be a monster, probably stronger than Sabrina’s.

But for now he just looks like a child napping after a meal, chin drooping down toward his chest, so passive and unwilling to fight… no human in history has ever been killed by an abra, and the thought of ensuring Tops gets hurt more during training just to strengthen him faster makes something twist in Blue’s gut.

He would truly be a monster…

Maybe he could test it with a different pokemon…


Red wakes about an hour before his alarm to rapid knocks on the door. A quick pulse of psydar tells him it’s Tatsumaki outside, and once he gets his bearings, pulls his clothes on, and opens the door, she barrels in, rubbing her hands together and pacing his room, looking simultaneously more exhausted and animated than he’s ever seen her.

“I feel it,” she says without preamble. “It’s a, there’s a… a field, a remote projection of the telekinetic sense. It’s like it’s accessed through some extra mind or something, or like an environment separate from air—”

Red’s alarm quickly shifts to excitement, tiredness fading as he takes her words in. “Wait, slow down. You felt what, exactly?” He reaches for his notebook, remembers it’s by his bed, then invites her to sit as he gets it. Instead she just keeps pacing.

“The field! But not a field, just the kinetic… ugh!” She throws her hands up. “I don’t know why I came here first, you’ve never felt it!”

“Aaand we’re breathing,” Red says, hoping it works as he takes a deep breath himself. Not because he’s annoyed, he’s too excited to be. He slowly lets it out, then breathes in again, and this time Tatsumaki matches him, slowing her steps until she’s standing still. After a third breath she’s still frowning slightly, but she seems calmer. “Okay, just… describe it.”

She does so, using terminology Red has studied but never experienced. From what he understands she’s talking about something like the field that psychics use to guide the telekinesis they then empower, the imagined shape in reality that they want to push force through.

By the time she’s done, Red’s barely contained excitement is close to spilling over, and he’s grinning wide. “Okay, this is it, this is exactly what I thought might happen! Thank you so much, now we need to do it again just to make sure, then see if you can teach someone else to do it, and—”

“Verres, wait! There’s more, I already did it more than once, I first felt it a few hours ago.” Tatsumaki begins to pace again, and Red realizes she’s been working through the night. “I’ve been playing around with it since, trying to see if I could find the extra space myself, and I can, it’s like it’s been there the whole time and I didn’t even notice it because it’s so sideways!

“Is that…what does that mean?” Frisson races over him as his excitement and awe mix. “Are you saying you can teleport?”

“What? No, it’s unbound psychokinetic sense! Look!”

She leaves the apartment, closing the door on a baffled Red who stares blankly at it for a moment… then realizes what she’s about to do a second before the lamp on his desk scoots a finger’s breadth closer to him.

Red still startles, but he’s grinning by the time she comes back in. “That’s awesome!”

“It’s more than awesome, it sets a new precedent! Sabrina mentioned knowing someone who could do it, but I didn’t think I could actually learn it. I tried for a year before giving it up as just some individual quirk… but now, who knows what other special abilities might be transferable?”

Red feels a nudge through the partition. “Have you told anyone else yet?”

“No, Sensei needs her sleep and no one else here has as much a right to know as you.”

The words warm him, but he’s already thinking of what to do next, scribbling down his thoughts as soon as they form. “Okay, so we’ve confirmed that psychokinetic senses are used to teleport… but that would imply pokemon have massive telekinetic range, and yet—”

“No, distance still reduces the force you can fill the field with, remember? Personally I can’t make sense of things further away than I used to, there’s something out there but it’s like fumbling through the dark with thick gloves on. But when I have a fresh memory of what’s nearby it’s easier, and through glass it’s no problem at all. Well, not no problem, it took me hours to manipulate the field once I could even sense things, that’s what I’ve been working on this whole time, but it’s not harder once you know how.

“Huh. So… they’re all different, distinct abilities, then? One to sense minds, another to sense things, and another to project force… but we’ve been confusing the sensing things with the projecting force up until now?”

“Something like that, sure. That’s why I’m going to focus on trying to extend my clarity of things far away. It probably has nothing to do with the ability to teleport, but still, what if it’s a piece of the puzzle?”

Her excitement is contagious, and for a moment they just grin at each other before she says, “I’m going to compare what I sense with what my pokemon do next, and when Sensei is up I’m sure she’ll have more ideas. You get to work on whatever this does for indoor teleportation.”

“Right. Wait, shouldn’t you, uh, sleep first?”

The look she gives him is answer enough, and then she’s gone like her namesake, the slam of Red’s door probably loud enough to wake someone else. Red sits on his bed and wonders why he’s not happier. His hypothesis just got a massive part of it validated, he feels vindication and excitement but… something’s off…

A nudge reminds him of the question his unpartitioned self had him ask, and a moment later…

…it’s down, and he lets out a slow breath. One more step toward figuring out how to teleport indoors, and another potential jostle to the house of cards.

It’s been two weeks since his meeting with Giovanni, and most of his “free thinking” time since then has been spent alternating between replaying the Leader’s words over in his head to try to figure out what they meant for the future, trying to focus on how he can maximize the odds of the best outcome.

He talked to Dr. Seward about it without revealing anything specific, and she took the idea of him having dangerous knowledge that might lead to massive changes in society with what would be flattering equanimity if he wasn’t sure she’d have the same reaction to him saying he learned how to turn into a pokemon.

Do you know what a good outcome here actually looks like?” she asked. “Imagine you wake up tomorrow and this problem is completely resolved. What does that look like? How would you first notice?”

He recognized the “miracle question” from previous sessions, but this one was harder to answer. He wouldn’t notice it upon waking up; it wouldn’t affect his morning routine, or what he’s doing with his life, or who he interacts with. He would just be…

Safety,” he finally realized. “I would feel safe about the future, about doing my research and not worrying about the outcome.”

She slowly nodded, gaze sympathetic. “It’s a tall order, and hard to achieve in a world like ours. I know you’re talking about social safety more than anything, and that’s something you don’t yet have a good sense for. So what can you do to improve that?”

The memory sends Red to get his laptop. As Leaf’s project continued to find new successes in the Safari Zone, more people have been talking about it. He knows that sooner or later someone else might make the connection, that the house of cards might fall before Giovanni and Sabrina and others are ready for it, and premorteming what happens then led him to recognize another area he’s failed to take into consideration.

Other psychics.

He doesn’t know what the world will look like once the truths get out, but he remembered reading in history how dark humans used to leave towns and villages together to form their own if the persecution got bad enough. It twists his gut to think about ways this might play out today, even if things don’t get that extreme, but it’s possible he’ll need to rely more on other psychics than his friends and family, or if he assumes that they’ll stick by him, that other psychics will need him after being unable to rely on theirs.

So Red opens his contact list to find the psychics in Indigo that he hasn’t yet reached out to, does a bit of research on their social media, then starts a new message:

Hey there! Sorry to bother you out of nowhere like this, I saw that you do verification work for a number of cities and wondered if you’d be up to chat about it? I haven’t learned much about what that work is like, and am curious to know what your day to day is like…

Not everyone responds, and he knows fewer would if he wasn’t famous, but he’s still surprised how easy it’s been to make new friends.


Leaf wakes on her birthday to warm sunlight seeping in through the curtains, and allows herself a luxurious stretch and a few minutes of peace before she reaches for her phone. She looks around the room, and realizes how much more it feels like her room now. Aiko feels present without filling the space around her, and the mix of their aesthetic tastes more in harmony than discord.

It’s just a number, but she’s Aiko’s age now. It’s a number they never would have shared, and by next year even that will be gone.

She smiles at the slight sound of Raff snorting in his sleep, then reaches for her phone at last. Two lovely messages from her mother and grandpa are at the top of her notifications, as they’ve already been up for half a day back home. She basks in their love for her, sends them thank you messages, then finds the well-wishes from strangers that have already poured in.

Most are short and to the point, but some are longer, and every so often a new one pops up. There are quite a few direct expressions of appreciation from people who have benefited from the abra catching trick, as well as messages from those whose lives she helped save in Vermilion, or their friends and relatives. Many of the crew at Mount Moon send her a message as well, the longest by Ryback, and she even gets one from Mayor Kitto and Dr. Brenner.

She reads all of the ones by people she remembers meeting, then the longer ones from strangers, then starts to skim the rest, chest filling with warmth until she feels like she’s overflowing. Reality is waiting for her outside the door, but the outpouring of affection makes her feel, for the moment at least, like everything is right in the world.

A year ago today she’d woken up determined to leave for Kanto, no matter what her mother said. She hadn’t been sure it was the right decision; only that it was the decision she would be the most disappointed in herself for not making, in the years to come. The months since then have been filled with fear and pain and grief, but whatever the future holds, reading everyone’s messages of gratitude for her existence, she feels confident that it was the right choice, and worth the hardships.

When she feels like she can’t hold any more positivity, she swings her legs out of bed, showers, changes, and heads downstairs to start the chores…

…only to find that the supplies are missing.

Leaf frowns, wondering if Mr. Sakai started without her (he does that, sometimes, particularly if he wakes up early and has trouble going back to sleep), but all the supplies are missing, despite the therapy group not being scheduled for today. She hurries outside, only to stop as she steps on the porch, grinning so wide her face hurts.

Spread out around the ranch are half a dozen people with bags, summoning the pokemon into their pens and then filling the new feeders that were placed in the ones that have already gone through the first version of the “release” program. She spots Maria right away, thanks to her wide black hat and the honchkrow flying above her like a shadow given wings; the quiet girl spent a week surrounding it with duskstones once it grew too big to roost on her shoulder or head. Leaf identifies the others through their pokemon too; Zephyr is flying a wide circle around Blue, and she spots various other flying pokemon above Elaine, Glen, and… Jason?

She looks around but doesn’t see Red, then realizes he might be in the back of the ranch. She starts walking to the nearest person to help, then decides she’d just take the gift and instead moves around the building to see who else is here.

Red is indeed there by the pond, as is Lizzy. Mr. Sakai is there too, watching them with one hand loose on his hip and a puzzled expression.

“Leaf, did we hire new workers?”

“No, Mr. Sakai, it’s Red, Blue, and the others.” Her sympathetic smile suddenly fades, and she looks at him side eye. “I wonder how they got in to take the supplies…”

He manages to keep the act going for another moment, but then the corner of his lip hitches upward. Leaf hugs him, and he slowly wraps his arms around her. “Happy Birthday, Leaf. Thank you, for everything.”

She feels her eyes burn, and they stay together for the few minutes it takes for Red and Lizzy to finish and approach.

“Happy Birthday, Leaf!”

The synchronized chorus makes her grin again, and she hugs them one at a time. Afterward they travel around the barn collecting the others for more of the same, and when she returns inside she sees that Mr. Sakai has been setting out breakfast.

The eight of them talk as they eat, catching each other up on their various projects and future plans. The gifts come out after, all from one big container box except for Elaine’s, which is an improv Coordinator Contest party game stored in its own container ball. Each is wrapped up in such fancy paper that Leaf takes her time unfolding it from the boxes, the first of which contains a pocket-sized book of puns from Glen, the next some incense from Jason, then a long coat from Maria (black, of course), and from Lizzy a machine she’s never seen before.

“It’s basically a low level EM emitter,” she explains, beaming. “Well, the prototype for one, with some tweaks. From my tests it should be like a soothing bath for most nearby electric pokemon.”

Leaf grins as she looks it over, noting the basic switch and painted on settings by the dial. “Lizzy, this is awesome! Thank you!”

“Don’t forget to send me data on how well it works. And for which pokemon. And for how long!” Blue elbows her. “You know, if you want.”

“Me too,” Red adds.

“Of course I will.”

Blue meanwhile is lifting out a bigger box than the rest, and she carefully opens it to reveal an incubation canister… with a pearly white egg inside. “From Gramps and Daisy and me,” Blue says with a smile. “You’ll have to wait to see what it is.”

There are a couple dozen pokemon that have already come to mind. “Ahh, this isn’t a gift, it’s torture!” She slaps his arm, then gives him another hug before turning at last to Red, who holds out a smaller package than the rest.

“From my mom and me.”

The box is too thin to be anything she can think of, and she curiously peels back the layers, noting that Red is studiously avoiding eye contact. The box beneath is fancy, and she quickly opens it before sucking in a breath. Inside is a thin gold chain with three gems; a firestone, waterstone, and leafstone, each the size of her pinky nail.

“They’re pretty cheap when they’re that small,” he says before she pulls him into a tight hug.

Leaf can feel his heart beating against her chest, and kisses his cheek before pulling back. “It’s beautiful.”

His whole face is pink, but he manages to meet her gaze and smile. “Figured it would look good for the next Cruise Convention.”

She grins. “Has Bill asked us to go again?”

“Nah, but I figured we can try to get on without him.”

“Ahh, there’s the status swing,” Blue says as he slings an arm around his friend’s shoulder with one arm and uses the other to wipe a “tear” from his eye. “I’m just so proud…”

Red struggles out from under his arm as the group laughs, and Leaf turns to the others. “Thank you, everyone.”

“No problem,” Elaine says, scooting her chair to give Red and Blue’s ongoing struggle more space. “What do you want to do next?”

“Hmm.” Leaf picks up the ball for the improv game and studies the decorated lid with a smile. “I wouldn’t mind trying this out?”

They head to the front of the ranch and set it up; inside the container ball is a huge unfolding foam stage with various equipment for tricks and performances, as well as a foldout “judge’s table.” A brief debate ensues over who would be the first three judges, and to Leaf’s surprise Maria doesn’t volunteer; instead she, Leaf, Red, Elaine, and Glen are the first contestants while Blue, Lizzy, and Jason end up sitting at the table.

Mr. Sakai is their lone audience member, sitting on the porch and holding up a sign provided by the game that simply reads “You’re the best!” There are others too, all of which he has stacked beside him, and after a moment Leaf decides to start releasing some of her pokemon to sit with him. Soon the rest of them do too, and they have a small “crowd” gathered to watch, though most are more interested in exploring the porch. Mr. Sakai looks happy with Joy snuggled up to one side of him and Raff on the other.

For their first contestant, Maria has her honchkrow catch balls out of the air as she juggles them, then drop them back down for her to catch again and keep juggling. The juggling is more impressive than anything the pokemon does, as she sometimes manages seven balls at once and the number keeps changing, but her pokemon seems to be well coordinated in taking the balls and dropping them at each of her whistles. Leaf applauds hard once she’s done and the judges hold up scores of 7, 7, and 8.

“That was great, I had no idea you juggled!”

“It’s how I taught myself coordination, before my journey,” Maria says, looking embarrassed but pleased. In the bright sunlight, without her hat to hide under, it’s easier to remember she’s a few years older than Leaf.

“How have you been?” she asks as they watch Glen summon his dodrio, then begin attaching colorful streamers around each head. “Are you still studying with Jason?”

“Yes. It’s been a fascinating challenge to develop a new sense.” They watch the dodrio start to twist its necks around in hypnotizing patterns until the colorful tassels tied to them start to form a whirling rainbow. They applaud as the judges show 9, 7… and 5 from Blue. Glen sends a rude gesture to him, who shouts back “Function over form!”

“It’s just receptive though, right?” Leaf asks as the two begin bickering over whether the maneuver would be useful in confusing enemies while Elaine takes the stage. “Isn’t that what being sensitive—sensitive? A sensitive?—means?”

“Jason doesn’t agree with the implications of the label. He says sensitives might not be able to do the more ‘external’ things that a full psychic or medium can, but that I can learn some of the rituals he does, if I’m willing.”

“I assume you are?”

“Yes. His religious beliefs are very different from what I was raised with, but I find his sincerity… calming.”

Leaf files the potential subtext away for later. “You do seem more relaxed than I’ve ever seen you.” It’s a tactful way to put it; Maria seemed to be opening up before what happened at the Casino, but afterward returned to the reserved girl Leaf first met… worse, she had a frazzled energy, and seemed to be missing a lot of sleep. The boys didn’t seem to notice, but Elaine admitted to being worried too.

She’s looking worried again as she takes a glance around the green lawn. “Uh, just to check, is it okay if this place gets a little dug up?”

They all turn to Mr. Sakai, who shrugs. “Grass regrows.”

It’s a simple statement, but Leaf still feels an echo of grief.

Elaine flashes a thumbs up, and summons her dugtrio. Leaf shakes the pall off and watches as Elaine’s dugtrio leaps into the ground, grass and dirt flying for a second before it disappears beneath the soil. Elaine starts to stomp her feet, and soon her pokemon begins to dig a pattern out, pausing every so often to dig deeper before coming up at another spot.

It seems random at first, but Leaf realizes after a moment that it’s spelling something. She starts to move, and the judges get up and start to walk around as well, until they’re more or less gathered in the right place to see the letters T I N.

“What does it say?” Mr. Sakai calls. It’s always odd to hear the otherwise quiet man raise his voice.

“Trainer in need!” Glen calls back as he studies the globally recognized acronym. “This could be really useful if you’re stuck underground, though I guess it would only work if you’re close enough to the surface for your pokemon to hear you…”

“Could use speakers against the wall? Might attract wilds though…”

The judges at least seem fairly impressed, and hurry back to their table to hold up a 9, 8 and 10. The applause goes on for longer than ever, and Elaine’s face is red by the time she returns from the stage.

“I was processing a lot,” Maria says as Red moves to take her place, and it takes Leaf a moment to remember what they were talking about. “Maybe most of what’s helped has been the meditation, the time to just sit with my thoughts and the ability to slow them when I need to. But it feels easier to think through the fears.”

Leaf wants to ask what fears, but isn’t sure if this is the right setting to get into something potentially heavy. So she just says “I’m glad to hear it,” as Red mounts the stage and calls Pikachu over before turning to the judges.

“Remind me if psychic powers are allowed in coordinator competitions?”

Blue cups his hands around his mouth. “You know they’re not!”

“But we’ll allow it!” Lizzy adds.

“What?!”

“I want to see what he does!”

Jason murmurs something, which prompts an “Of course you’d say that,” from Blue, and as they argue it out Leaf watches Red play with Pikachu, letting him run up and down his arms, bouncing off the ground to come back to Red and race to the other side as he spins.

He also looks more relaxed than ever, and it suits him. He could be quiet and thoughtful when they were starting their journey, but those times were rarer than the nervous energy that seemed to be his norm. He still gets it sometimes, along with the passionate zeal that sends him scribbling in his notebook or talking too quickly about all sorts of things, but from where she’s standing he seems more in control of himself.

It feels good watching him play with Pikachu, a warm, buzzing ball in her chest, similar to how she felt upon seeing his gift. She’s not sure what to do with the feeling, but she enjoyed the way his face flushed at her kiss.

It was also a huge relief to be able to call him after David asked to be looped in. The meeting with Sabrina seemed to help ease David’s concerns, and the next day he told her that Giovanni even sent him a message complimenting him on his discovery and thoughtful response. That part gave her a mixed feeling, but it seemed to further reassure her friend, and things have gone back to normal between them. The project’s success with tauros has galvanized the team like none of their previous ones did, and they’ve moved ahead to kangaskhan since, which David’s been a great help on.

She and Red have helped each other out in so many situations that it seems obvious that she’d feel like she can rely on him, but there’s something extra comforting about the memory of how quickly he was able to bring such powerful people in to help them. It’s something she would have expected from Blue’s social skills, but thought Red wasn’t deft at. Or rather, knew Red wasn’t deft at… but he’s grown.

His and Pikachu’s movements become more energetic, and Leaf wonders if he’s actually doing his performance already before Red suddenly strikes a pose, subtly different from the others. He crouches down, arms in a reverse V, and Pikachu runs up the left, past his head, then down his right just as Red jumps up and lifts his arm, his pokemon leaping off his upraised palm as Red launches him skyward.

The argument at the judge table stops as the yellow rodent flies through the air like an emolga, limbs and tail outstretched, and halfway through the arc a blinding flash of electricity hits the ground beneath it, paired immediately with a (relatively) quiet clap of thunder.

There’s a moment of surprise, and then Leaf whoops and applauds along with the others. Beyond the difficulty of teaching Pikachu such a powerful attack, it was a simple trick, but it must have taken some practice… and it looked cool. Leaf could imagine Red developing it after picturing some obscure situation where it would be exactly the sort of thing he needed.

Lizzy and Jason give it a 9 and a 7, but Blue looks torn between being impressed and suspicious. “I used my powers!” Red admits with a smile. “But just to get the timing right on the attack!”

Blue sighs and holds up a 6. “This is with a penalty!”

“I’ll take it!”

It’s finally her turn, and she calls Raff over and takes a pokeball out, expanding it before holding it out to her ivysaur.

He stretches his vines out to take it, and when she points he turns and starts to stretch them further in front of him until the ball is being held a solid four meters forward.

It’s not quite steady, and there’s no wild pokemon to test it on, but it’s approaching something close to what the best trained rangers can pull off with theirs. She bows to their applause and the 7, 7, 9 she receives, and then she, Glen, and Red take the judge seats.

Jason’s exhibition is hard to judge, as it involves two gastly swirling together and blending into what looks like one, a spinning dark ball with too many staring “eyes” and shining “teeth” and hanging “tongues.”

“I have no idea how hard that is,” Red admits, looking a little queasy. Glen gives an 8, and Leaf shamelessly copies him, followed by Red. Jason seems happy enough with it.

Lizzy takes a minute carefully positioning two of her magnemite around her, then stands between them, says a command Leaf can’t hear from here, and suddenly what looks like a cage of electricity surrounds her. Leaf isn’t the only one to cry out in alarm, but Red is grinning, and after a moment Leaf realizes Lizzy is too. Somehow the electricity seems to be arcing around her like a hundred glowing hairs without touching her.

It only lasts for a few seconds, but it’s enough to earn her three 9s. Blue starts to set up as everyone talks about what she did and how.

Leaf notes that Blue looks more serious than he has so far, or maybe just nervous. As they quiet down to watch, he stands at one end of the stage with Maturin, takes a deep breath, then barks a command.

His pokemon spews a stream of water out in front, strong and heavy enough to create a long line of it along the ground. She then shoots out an ice beam, freezing the water along the ground, and Blue takes a running start and leaps onto it.

He holds his arms out as his shoes skid along the ice, body balancing first one way, then the other as he slides nearly to the end of the stage… then stumbles and falls off it.

It’s not a far distance, just enough for him to tumble once before he comes to a stop, but everyone starts toward him before he sits up, hands out to show he’s alright.

Leaf sighs in relief as she sits back down, and Glen is frowning beside her. “Well I was going to give him a 1 as payback unless he clearly beat Elaine or Lizzy, but now it would just feel mean.”

“Hey, maybe it was supposed to happen,” Red suggests, and holds up a 7. “Still looked cool.”

“Cool,” Leaf repeats and nudges him, then holds up a 6. “But impractical.”

“Eh, I guess it deserves a 5.” Glen holds his card up, and people applaud as Blue finishes brushing himself off and calls Maturin to him and heads toward the pond.

They decide to follow him, leaving the game out for now, a small herd of pokemon following and chatting until they’re all spread out beside the water, watching as their various aquatic pokemon swim in it while some others go to drink. Blue seems subdued, and Leaf eventually decides to ask if he’s really okay, which quiets everyone.

“Yeah.” He looks around, grimaces, then shrugs. “Just annoyed. I did it once perfectly, wanted to practice it more, get it so I could do it three times in a row… but also wanted to be okay with failing. Still feels bad.”

“You knew it might fail, and you tried it anyway,” Glen says, voice firm. “I think that’s progress.”

“Feel like I’m missing some context,” Jason muses, and Mr. Sakai nods, though his gaze is on the pokemon.

“Been struggling with public failure lately. Learning to fight at the dojo helped, I think, and the whole vibe there is pretty good for not judging people who fail at things.”

“What does that feel like, anyway?” Red asks with a slight frown.

“What?”

“Judging people for failing.”

“What kind of question is that? Everyone does it.”

Red shakes his head. “I know people don’t get prestige if they don’t succeed. I get why success matters to how you see someone. Accomplishments matter to me, too. But why would someone be judged for trying something hard and failing? I just don’t get it.”

Blue shrugs, looking peeved. “I don’t know what to tell you, Red, that’s just how it is.”

“Not for me.”

“Well sorry we can’t all be as smart as you.”

The words come out sharper, and Leaf’s heart starts to pound. This is it, they’re going to get into another fight…

But when Red speaks, his voice is more curious than angry. “Do you respect people less when they challenge for a gym badge and fail than if they never challenge at all?”

Blue seems too thrown off by the question to hold onto his scowl. “That’s… no. If they’re at least trying… I get why you don’t, Leaf, I’m just saying that if someone puts themselves out there, to most people that’s worth respecting.”

“So everyone doesn’t look down on all failure.”

“Gym Battles are hard,” Glen says. “They get more respect from trying than they lose from losing.”

Red nods. “Seems like the same thing to me.”

Leaf’s pulse has relaxed, and she enjoys the conversation and breeze as she watches the pokemon play in the pond. At one point she takes out her phone to see what messages she’s missed, and spots more birthday wishes from Natural and Laura and some of the Safari rangers and programmers, and as the warmth fills her again she feels it replace the lingering panic that came from Blue’s sharp tone.

For today, everything’s fine.


It isn’t until after lunch that the alerts come, almost simultaneously, something like five then six then eight shrill tones all at once.

Most of them freeze. Blue twitches, then catches the glass that Maria drops when she jerks in surprise. Glen is walking with the birthday cake, which they voted to eat now instead of after dinner by a slim margin, and stumbles, which almost sends it flying until he lunges his arms out and bends his knees to stabilize. Red has a moment to appreciate the look of surprised pride on his face, and then he registers what he’s hearing and sees everyone else do the same.

The knowledge plunges his whole body into dark, cold depths, erasing all the warmth of the day from his skin, snuffs it out within his chest, washes it from his cheek where Leaf’s lips imprinted some. Dark and wet and cold, aching feet and a hoarse throat and the feel of cloth slipping from his fingers.

“No,” Mr. Sakai breathes from where he’s sitting. “No.”

It unfreezes some of them, and Leaf reaches out to take the thin man’s hand as Glen straightens and Blue puts Maria’s glass down, taking his phone out with the other hand.

“No,” Mr. Sakai repeats again, and Red realizes he’s not afraid or despairing so much as confused, looking around at them all as if asking why they don’t understand. “It’s Spring.”

The words bring both relief and confusion. Had they all assumed it would be another Stormbringer? It was the highest alert, and as he looks around again he sees that most of them had…

But not Blue, who’s already frowning at his screen.

Zapdos was late, maybe this time it’s early…

“Is it local?” Glen asks, and steps behind Blue to look. “They would use that alert if we need to evacuate…”

“It’s from Cinnabar Island,” Blue says, which makes everyone stare in surprise.

“The volcano?” Elaine whispers.

“No, it’s… it says pokemon attack, but there’s no tier estimate.”

“What pokemon?”

“They don’t know.” Blue drags his gaze from his screen to look around the table. “It’s a new species.”


Apologies to everyone who woke up without the story today, and everyone east of Moscow for the late update! Been traveling around the Czech Republic all month and things have been great but hectic.

Also, congrats to /u/blasted0glass and /u/davidgretzschel (and probably some others I missed/forgot) on Reddit for correctly figuring out the essentials of why teleportation didn’t work indoors 🙂

Finally, since people still occasionally ask, I do indeed have a p/a/treon, which you can find by going to my site, DaystarEld . com

Chapter 96: Moral Reasoning

A spike of alarm sends Red’s pulse thudding through his ears as Rei turns to fully face him, then offers a respectful nod. He stares at her across the short hallway between the central corridor and where she’s standing in front of his door, and all he can think to say is, “Hi.”

“Hello, Red.” She’s no longer dressed in the elegant kimonos she used to, instead wearing a formal suit that, combined with the pokebelt at her waist, makes her look more severe and professional. Despite that, a pair of colorful kanzashi still accessorize her hairbun. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Uh… yeah.” Is it? “What are you doing here?”

She raises a brow. “Sabrina didn’t tell you?”

He blinks, then takes out his phone and checks his messages. There is indeed one from the Gym Leader:

I’ve informed Giovanni, who wants to speak with you. He’s sending a familiar face to bring you to the meeting; after Rei left my school she began working for him. Don’t be alarmed, and let me know when you’re back.

“Yeah, she did.” Red didn’t wonder much about what happened to Rei after she left, mostly just relieved that she didn’t get a renegade brand. “How did you…?”

“End up working for Leader Giovanni? Sens… Sabrina recommended me.”

“Huh.” I notice that I am confused. “And you’ve been happy with that? I thought you’d want to continue your psychic studies.”

“I’ve found other ways to do so. What I really wanted was to learn Sabrina’s secret, as I told you.”

“Right.” Red remembers that day clearly, when they were walking toward the gym together to propose the idea of merging with people who entered the cafeteria. The way she so casually admitted it to him, someone she’d previously admitted to not trusting. “So… does that mean you have?”

Rei just smiles. “Are you ready to go?”

Fair enough. “Uh, give me a minute.” He walks past her to enter his room (feeling a little awkward about closing the door behind him without inviting her in) and quickly changes into warmer clothes, still thinking about the last time he saw Rei. She seemed willing to accept her fate so long as she got to talk to Sabrina before leaving the school, and if Sabrina actually recommended she work for Giovanni… well, it seems Rei’s trust in her was rewarded even more than he originally thought. It’s one thing to forgive someone for working against you, but to then recommend them to a prestigious job?

He notices his confusion again, and wonders what Rei might have offered for a chance to learn her secret, and what it has to do with the Viridian Leader.

Maybe he’s about to find out.

Red grabs his pokebelt and snaps it on before rejoining her. “So, where are we headed?” he asks as he locks the door behind him.

“I know you can do free teleportation now, do you have a strong enough memory in Viridian?”

He thinks of his rooftop meeting with Donovan. “I think so.”

“Good.” She heads for the elevators, and he follows. “Congratulations, by the way, on that and the indoor teleportation.”

He glances at her. “So you believe I did it?”

“From what I remember, the pursuit of knowledge was as close to a sacred value as you hold. Unless you’ve changed radically since I left, I don’t believe you’d lie about something like that.”

“Uh, no. I wouldn’t. Thanks.” As they enter the elevator it starts to really sink in that Rei is here, beside him. Instead of what happened afterward, he flashes back to the look she gave him when she realized that he had outed her, so calm and accepting, only to turn pale with fear as Tetsuo accused her of being a renegade… “Rei, listen—”

“It’s alright,” the blonde says, voice and face serene as ever. “I told you before that you were free to tell the others, and you still kept my intentions private until my actions spurred you to share them. I can’t say the resulting house arrest was a pleasant experience, with what was hanging over me…” She trails off, for a moment, before taking a breath. “But I was mostly confident that if I made my case, after such an extreme act, Sabrina would listen. I hold no grudge against you; in a way you were my backup plan.”

“I… what?”

“If I approached her directly, she might have just denied everything. My hope was that her discovering that I was willing to tell someone else about my suspicions would make her too worried about what else I might have told others, who I would have even more reason to trust than you.”

He can’t help but stare at her as the elevator doors reopen. “That’s… really manipulative.” A coal of anger starts to burn in his chest when he thinks of how much he agonized over whether he should tell the others…

“Do you hold a grudge against me? If you didn’t before, does this change things?”

“I…” They’re walking on the roof, now, and could really stop at any point to teleport. So he stands still to consider the question, searching his feelings for nearly a minute. She doesn’t rush him, though her outfit doesn’t seem particularly suited to the cold.

What did Rei do to him, really, that he should be angry with her? She didn’t lie, even if she didn’t tell the whole truth. She put him in an awkward position, but not out of malice, and if asked ahead of time whether he would want to know something true even if it makes him uncomfortable he would have said yes. So in the end…

“I guess I don’t. Even knowing this. Though,” he admits after a moment’s further thought. “That may be because of leftover guilt.”

“Or maybe you just lack the confidence to hold a grudge. Have you ever?”

Red thinks of Blue, and the months he spent angry with him. “Yes.”

“Truly? Someone’s apologized to you for a harm they’ve done, and you refused to forgive them?”

Red blinks. “Is that… what a grudge has to be?”

“It’s the only way I know to differentiate it from feelings of justified anger, though some grudges may be justified as well. I suppose it depends how sincere the apology is, or how unforgivable the harm.”

Red eyes her, unsure where she’s going with this. “You haven’t apologized.”

“And you haven’t expressed anger. In any case, we’re allies now, so I’m glad to hear you don’t hold any ill will. If an apology would help, then I’m sorry I disrupted your exeggcute experiment.”

Allies? Red supposes it’s true, given the risk to all psychics, but he feels like she means more. Wait, does she even know about that? How much did Sabrina or Giovanni tell her? “Just for that?”

“I assumed you would want sincerity.”

This has been a weird day, and it’s probably going to get weirder, so Red decides to just nod. As he said, he can’t bring himself to feel angry with her anyway. “Apology accepted. I still managed to learn a lot from it, in any case.”

“I would be happy to hear more about it, sometime, as well as other ways your powers have developed. Are you ready?”

“Yes.” He unclips his abra’s ball and summons it. “We’re going to Viridian Gym?”

“Have you been there before?”

“No, but I can teleport to the roof of the southern Trainer House.”

“I’ll meet you there, then. Our final destination is in the city, but not the Gym.”

With that she summons her kadabra and teleports away. It takes Red a minute to feel through his memory of those moments when he met Donovan’s skarmory. It’s difficult at first because his remembered fear gets in the way of communicating the safety his abra needs to teleport, but eventually he can concentrate enough on the triumph and safety he felt afterward that…

…and with a brief wrenching sensation, they’re suddenly there.

Red looks around and finds himself alone on the trainer house roof, admiring the city for a moment. Back when he first became able to teleport, it took him a while to get used to how awesome it was to be able to instantly travel to another city, and after his first free teleportation he’s been too focused on reproducing it to enjoy the ability. Now, however, knowing he has a few minutes at least until Rei meets him here, he closes his eyes again, focusing…

And a moment later he can smell the ocean. He opens his eyes to find himself at the Pallet Beach, just a fifteen minute walk from his old home. The piers are still being repaired after the incident, and the water line is higher than it used to be, but the boardwalk is the same, and he’s still filled with nostalgia as he looks around and takes in the sights and smells. After a moment he returns his abra and makes his way toward a colorful stall along the winding path that divides the shrubs and grass to the north from the sand dunes.

He waits in the short line behind a young woman with a growlithe at her side, its red coat covered with a yellow jacket that declares it an emotional support pokemon. Her hand never leaves its fur as she steps forward and orders a drink in a hesitant tone, and once they’re both gone and Red orders a hot chocolate, he summons Pikachu. The two walk over to a bench, and he spends a minute petting and playing with his pokemon’s ears before just sipping his drink and looking around again, noting all the things that have changed since he was last here with his mom and dad.

It doesn’t hurt as much as it used to, thinking about it. He wonders if it’s the partitions keeping him from feeling the grief, and after a note of reassurance from his unpartitioned self, lets them drop.

The world shifts, but not by much. The memories grow edges, but not sharp ones. He thinks of riding on his dad’s shoulders while walking toward his smiling mom, and finally feels… okay.

Not great. But instead of the debilitating emptiness of a hole in his chest, his sadness feels less sharp, and mixed with a bittersweet joy.

Red takes a deep breath, then lets it out, deciding to keep his partitions down for a while longer, just getting used to being in full control of himself again after his brief but intense chat with Sabrina. In a way he’s enjoying the fruits of months of private, lonely labor.

If a year ago someone had offered him the ability to think about two things at once, he would have promised virtually anything as payment. Being “awake” behind his partition every day, riding around in his own head as his partitioned self interacts with the world, isn’t quite that… but it’s nearly as good. He doesn’t think as quickly or as efficiently, for one thing, and the two “threads” can’t communicate with each other particularly well when the partition is up. He also gets bored fairly easily, with nothing to read or do besides think and revisit his memories, and ends up spending a number of hours each day just coasting along with his partitioned self, almost like playing a full-body sim that he has restricted control over.

So, nearly as good… and good enough, for what he needed. Enough to let him spend hundreds of hours over the past couple months processing his memories, his life, his feelings, without interrupting his day to day life. Enough to better understand his grief, both over his dad and Aiko, and the differences between them.

The most important difference is that he has more today than he had when he lost his dad. Tomio Verres represented one of the three pillars holding up Young Red’s reality, and what Red finally realized after his grief over Aiko reopened the same wound is that the pillar was more than Tomio himself, both as an individual and in his role as Red’s father. It meant more than just safety either.

The pillar was confidence that the world made sense. It was the bedrock belief that the world was understandable, that danger in it could be studied, planned for, and warded against. When it fell, when even his father’s seemingly endless font of knowledge and preparation and strength wasn’t enough, it showed him that no one’s was, that the world was intrinsically a random and dangerous place, and that his mother or Blue or the Professor or even all of Pallet Town could disappear next, and that there was nothing anyone could do about it.

The counterswing he went through was entirely too strong an update, given that it resulted in him essentially giving up on learning or doing anything ever again. Once his partition unknowingly developed, and he started attending sessions with Dr. Seward that helped keep the worst of it at bay, he had space to think again. It was easier to regain an interest in the world, and his passion to learn everything he could about not just pokemon but everything could be seen as, in part, a desire to avoid having the same thing happen again.

Red runs his fingers through Pikachu’s fur as he sips his chocolate and thinks over the structure of his life now. He has more pillars, for one thing, and though few are as thick and sturdy, the multitude of them make for a more robust structure. Thinking of losing his mom, or Professor Oak, or Blue or Leaf, or his other friends and mentors, all make his stomach clench and his breath come shorter… but the world would keep spinning, and there would still be more to it. His desire to know the world wouldn’t be any less. His curiosity over pokemon, how they work, where they come from, wouldn’t disappear. His passion to understand his own mind, how it works, how it fails and how to improve it, wouldn’t feel any less important. If anything it might get stronger.

All these pillars might wobble or crack if enough of the other supporting structures in his life changed. But the weight would resettle again, over time.

Unfortunately, realizing all this doesn’t help him understand whether he swung too far after accepting Professor Oak’s offer, particularly since one of those new pillars is what’s being shaken now. What would his younger self say if he knew that his need to understand and learn more about how reality works might cause all psychics to be shunned from society? No more trusting them for determining renegade guilt, no more psychic trainers with their unique abilities and flexible traveling, no more psychic doctors…

If young Red had reason to believe it, he might well have turned down Professor Oak’s offer.

And Red knows—or rather, he feels—that that can’t be the right answer either. Whatever the consequences, he rebels at the very idea that wanting to learn more about the world, for any reason, is wrong.

But it scares him. The thought of facing Giovanni, of owning up to what he’s done, of being told by the Leader what the consequences would be, feels more frightening than anything he’s ever done in his life, dulled by the passing of time as they’ve been.

And in part that’s because he knows that the Viridian Gym Leader wouldn’t say something thoughtlessly or without due confidence. If Giovanni says he has crippled psychics throughout society, turned people against them, made them unlikely to ever be trusted as trainers again, or worse…

He takes a deep breath, rubs Pikachu’s head, and sips his hot chocolate again, guiding his attention to the taste of it spreading over his tongue and the feel of his pokemon’s fur. The grief and sadness over Dad and Aiko may never fully leave him, but he has finally managed to come to terms with them. In one sense it’s too bad he’s just replaced them with another crisis, but in another way it’s just in time. He’ll need to spend more time moving forward as his whole self, and the lessons he’s learned along the way to reaching this point are the same ones that he has to use to keep himself from falling apart again.

So he enjoys his hot chocolate, for a minute, and practices relaxing his pulse each time a spike of stress sets his heart to pounding, grounding himself in the flow of breathing the familiar scents in… and out. In… and out.

When he feels more stable, he swaps Pikachu for Abra and teleports back to Viridian. Even knowing it will happen, he marvels over the fact that the flimsy thermos cup and the hot chocolate in it came with him, and spends his elevator trip down thinking over the obscure and convoluted rules of teleportation, and whether the others are working on testing his hypothesis yet… until that train of thought is soured by recognizing how proving indoor teleportation might just make things worse. Would psychics not be allowed into people’s homes anymore if people knew there are some who can teleport through walls? Should he tell Sabrina and the others to stop trying to prove it?

No, Sabrina’s thought about that already, surely. But she didn’t know about the perfect lying or sakki then… for all he knows she’s already told the others to hold off on their tests.

The lingering taste of chocolate is suddenly cloying, and he tosses the cup in a nearby trashcan. He wants to stomp his foot and scream over the unfairness of it all, and is tempted to bring his partitions back up, but instead he just closes his eyes and focuses on what he’s feeling, trying to get a better handle on why the thought of calling Sabrina and telling her they shouldn’t test his hypothesis makes him feel so conflicted.

Cold air against his skin… the press of the ground against his feet through his shoes… his hair brushing his forehead… and a vague, wriggling cloud in his torso, somewhere between his stomach and his heart. When he asks himself if it’s on his side or against him, neither feels quite right. He tries speaking out loud, muttering some prompts under his breath as he stuffs his hands in his pockets to keep them warm.

“I don’t want to set people against psychics.”

He feels the words resonate, but not in a strong sense.

“I don’t want people to get hurt.”

Same reaction, maybe even a little more faint.

“I don’t want people to be scared of me?”

No reaction. He says it again, surprised, imagining people’s frightened reactions… but no, he doesn’t think this is something they’d react badly to. In retrospect that’s obvious, since they’ve already heard his claim and haven’t. Maybe if they see it happen, feel it’s more real, that would change.

He’s not sure what else to ask, for a moment, and then imagines making the call again, feels the cloud expand, the wiggling sensation strengthen.

Red swallows, and whispers, “I don’t want to stop the research.”

The cloud “tightens,” turns into a ball of lead in his stomach, and he knows that’s it. He doesn’t want to give up on knowing if his hypothesis is right, doesn’t want to give up on whatever other secrets might come from this discovery. Proving the distinction between telekinetic and telepathic powers? Better understanding the Lavender ghost’s abilities?

And he’s already claimed to have done it. If he gives up now, people will think he’s a liar… or someone else will discover it anyway, and keep it secret.

He’s still mulling over how reasonable this is when a car pulls up to the sidewalk with Rei inside. Red enters beside her, and she inputs a new address that sends the car back onto the street.

Despite her sitting quietly, Red’s thoughts are derailed by her presence, old curiosities returning (and acting as a welcome distraction). “So what do you do, these days?”

“I’m afraid I can’t say much about my work for Giovanni.”

So much for allies. “But you’re still interested in research, right? Or, I mean, developing your abilities?”

She smiles slightly. “I am, yes. And part of my work gives me the opportunity to do so.”

“Anything interesting you’d be free to share?”

“Screening,” she says, and shrugs. “I have a talent for beating psychic shields, and I’ve been training it further.”

Red remembers her desire to sneak through the Saffron Gym Second and Third’s shields, and how Tetsuo dismissed this as expected. “Who have you been testing yourself against?”

“Some other Viridian Gym members. Outside of Saffron, this city has the most psychics in the Indigo League.”

Red knew that thanks to the networking he did for his research, but… “Are they a challenge, for you?” Most psychic trainers don’t spend as much time developing their abilities as non-trainers.

“Some are. Perhaps you’ll meet them.”

The car leaves the city proper and enters the suburbs to the east, more and more space growing around each building until they’re passing some of the larger homes surrounded by rolling green hills on every side. The car turns toward one, and follows a winding path up a hill, past the perimeter sensors, and to the front of a three story manor built in the traditional style. Once the car parks, they step out and up the patio steps, passing a pair of people trimming the hedges on either side. Red almost fails to register them, gazing up at the house in a mix of worry and anticipation, but for the fact that their belts have ultra balls and they don’t register to his psydar, which is when he belatedly realizes he’s been taken to Giovanni’s private home.

He sends his senses out further and finds a few others spread out through the building, but sees no one else as Rei leads him down a hall and up some stairs. Eventually she stops at some double doors and silently gestures him past. Red takes a breath, then walks past her and opens the doors.

The room feels like a blend of Professor Oak’s home and lab offices, with a dark but colorful patterned rug, and round, cushy brown seats, but mostly unadorned walls and much of the room taken up by various computers and a couple different replicators. A single portrait is hung on the far wall, and when Red gets closer he sees with some surprise that it looks like a real painting.

Within the frame is a mature woman with short grey curls, dressed in an elegant kimono and just enough jewelry to make her look rich without seeming ostentatious. The painting itself seems like enough for that; the background makes it clear that the portrait is modern, being set in the current room, which must have been quite an expense considering its size and how much easier a photo would have been. The woman’s gaze is piercing, mouth set in a grim line, as if impatient for the artist to finish their work.

She also bears a resemblance to the man below it; the Viridian Gym Leader is seated in the same functional leather chair as the one in the painting, though it’s set behind an open leg desk made of some dark wood. The other similarity is the cream-furred persian lounging at their feet; it’s hard to tell its age, but thanks to pokeball tech it could be the exact same one. Red wonders if the woman is Giovanni’s mother, or perhaps grandmother, and notes his own surprise. The Leader doesn’t seem like a particularly sentimental person, and while Red’s never heard anything about his family other than that they were old money, and in retrospect that makes it more curious how absent they’ve been in the public eye.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Leader,” Red says once he’s standing before the desk. “Properly, I mean.”

“I’d hoped it would happen sooner rather than later.” Giovanni gestures to one of the two chairs in front of his desk, and Red sits, finding the seat as comfortable as it looks. “I meant to speak with you more after the event in Lavender, but as usual something got in the way. I believe we have briefly spoken before, however.”

“Right, when I was in Viridian Forest.” Red sent him a thank you message for that the next day, but hadn’t gotten a response, and wondered if he’d even remember it. It’s hard not to fanboy and start babbling about how much he admires Giovanni, but the intimidation he feels from speaking with the Leader so privately helps keep him in check, along with the knowledge of what they’re here to discuss. “So… um. How much do you know? I mean, what can I do for you?”

“You’re wondering why I invited you here after you already told Sabrina everything. It’s an understandable worry, but in case it helps you relax, it’s not because I intend to interrogate you. If you could lie to her, you could lie to anyone.”

Giovanni’s smile is faint and wry, but Red feels himself relax a little. He’d also been wondering, briefly, if he’ll feel anyone try to skim his surface thoughts or emotions like Leaf accused Giovanni of doing to her, but even aside from the point just made, it would be stupid to try that on a trained psychic.

Unless the ability to merge with someone without them feeling it is another secret psychic technique that’s been carefully concealed from the public.

Red can hardly argue with that possibility, and resolves to keep his shield up. “So… what did you want to talk about?”

“A number of things, starting with…” Giovanni turns back to his monitor and drags the mouse around for a moment, clicking, then rotates the screen toward Red, who sees…

A breathtaking sight. Low quality as it is, the view of the earth from space, or rather a portion of the southern hemisphere from what must be a satellite in moderately high orbit, makes Red forget where he is for a moment, lost in the whirls of cloud over ocean and the peeks of brown and green land beneath them. It’s a sight that always fills him with wonder, an engrossing sense that there’s so much more to the world than what he’s seen, a tantalizing reminder of all the unexplored places and undiscovered pokemon still waiting beyond the reach of civilization.

He almost misses the thin, wavy line above the nearest cloud, dismissing it at first as a hair on the screen or an artifact of the photographing process. When he recognizes what it is, for a moment he feels a surge of horror until he remembers that the distance to the camera is what’s making it look so relatively large; according to the reports Rayquaza’s body is longer than any other pokemon’s, but not visible-from-space long.

“When…?”

“Three weeks ago. There are only a few hundred satellites with cameras in orbit, many of them less than a decade old and each immensely valuable to all sorts of different goals and projects. But since the incident, for the first time in history each one of them, controlled by regions all over the world, have been coordinating on this one task. We needed to know where it went, and whether what happened in Hoenn is really over. It hasn’t been spotted below cloud cover since then, however, and seems content to just… float around in the upper atmosphere. Perhaps that’s where it’s been all this time, but we’re still hoping to learn more about it, particularly in case it’s been permanently re-awakened in some sense that we haven’t yet seen.”

Red wonders why he hasn’t heard about this, then realizes the connection. “This is being kept private?”

“As best we can. It was considered… better, for morale, that people move on with their lives rather than stay in fear of death dropping from the sky at any moment.” Giovanni shrugs, tilting the monitor back toward himself and staring at it for a moment. “More than they already do, at least.”

Red can see the argument for that, but… “But you don’t believe that. That’s what you were warning about, in your speech. What comes next.”

The Leader’s lips curl in a slight smile. “Hard as this may be to believe, I am not as confident as I may often appear. I try, in fact, to only act as confidently as I feel. Any more or less would be deception of one sort or another, and while deception can be useful, in this case… I genuinely do not know. Perhaps a reprieve from fear will allow people to better recover and rebuild. You and your friends’ efforts, for example, have turned my words into more of a reality than I’d dared hope at the time. But perhaps that absence of fear will lead to complacency, sooner or later.” He clicks on his mouse again, then folds his hands and turns his full attention back to Red. “You see the problem.”

Red does. “Sometimes secrets are kept because we’re not sure if the truth will cause more harm.” It’s a relief to get more confirmation that, while he can’t know for sure if his secrecy was the right choice, he at least doesn’t know for sure that it was the wrong one either. “So how do we tell which one is which? Isn’t the default inaction going to bias us toward secrecy? Especially if it comes at a cost to ourselves?”

Giovanni’s smile doesn’t grow, but it does seem a bit warmer. “I see why Sabrina trusts you, and I’m glad you trusted her.” His smile fades as he steeples his fingers and sighs, and Red suddenly realizes something a bit alarming. From what Leaf described, and what Red saw at the Lavender meeting, the Gym Leader is constantly reading and responding to messages through his phone. Having Giovanni’s full attention adds even more pressure and import to a conversation Red already thought was maxed out on both. “That is to say, you’re asking the right questions. I wish I had better answers. I’ll pose another question to you in return: if there is something that will do much good, but carries some risk, should you do it?”

“Uh… that’s what trainers do every day, isn’t it?”

“Indeed. But what if the risk is to others?”

Ah, right. Psychic research that might get all psychics driven out of society, for example… He feels a renewed stab of guilt. “I guess it depends on how much risk, and how much good. Leaf clearly feels that what she’s doing is the most value that the sakki can do—”

“Hold that thought. The name, you chose it?”

“Oh. Uh, no, Blue did. There was actually a lot of argument about what it should be called, but the first applications were seen in battle, so…”

Giovanni nods. “It’s certainly… intimidating. But for the purpose of reducing people’s fear of it as much as possible, why not pick another?”

Red blinks. He hasn’t even considered renaming the sakki… but it makes sense. “Do you have a suggestion?”

“You don’t want it named after yourself, I take it?”

“I… guess that depends on how it’s perceived? But of course I can’t know that ahead of time…” Red shakes his head, feeling more regret than he feels comfortable with. “Better not. It’s not like my name is famous enough to help it be less scary.”

Giovanni nods. “The work Miss Juniper is doing with it seems promising, if we can connect it to that instead of battling. Though the technique is psychic in origin, its mass-produced state will make its most common occurrence and association the capability of releasing pokemon back into the wild… something to do with ‘freedom’ or ‘instinct’ seems appropriate.” He sees Red’s smile, and raises a brow. “Yes?”

“Nothing, just… one of the suggestions when people were talking about it was ‘ultra instinct.'” Giovanni doesn’t seem to get the reference, and Red feels heat creep up his neck. “Not that I think we should call it that… um… nothing really comes to mind.”

Giovanni nods. “Something to think about. I apologize for the interruption; you were saying, about risk and value?”

It takes Red a second to remember through his embarrassment. “Right. Leaf would probably say, if it works to help people safely release pokemon, it might be worth the suspicion it puts psychics under. But… she doesn’t know about the ability to lie, which would also keep psychics from being cleared in suspicious circumstances.” He lets out a slow breath. “I guess if it leads to her ultimate vision coming true, and most wild pokemon actually become tame… then that would be worth it. The amount of lives it would save…” He thinks of Dad, and Aiko, and the boy in Viridian whose name he’s already forgotten. “Even if it leads to psychics being unable to become trainers anymore or something, it’s hard to imagine that leading to more death or suffering for people, not to mention the pokemon themselves.”

“You say ‘if.’ But many things are possible, and—”

“Rational beliefs are based on what’s probable,” Red finishes, and shares a brief smile with the Gym Leader. “I’m not really a math person, but even if I was I’m not sure how I’d calculate the odds of her plan working against the risks. It’s not like she’s inventing, like, a megapotion or something that is guaranteed to save lives if only she can get the formula right.”

“Let us take some straw examples, then. I presume you would balk at sending one person in to save nine if there was a less than 10% chance of success?”

Red stares at Giovanni, trying to decide if he made that comparison in ignorance or not. The Gym Leader’s expression hasn’t changed at all, and after a moment Red wonders if it matters. It’s an important question, and the presumption is correct, as he proved with his own actions. “Yes,” Red says quietly.

Giovanni nods. “Is 11% enough, then?”

“I… on paper, yes.” Red’s heart is beating faster, and he feels Aiko’s shirt slip from his fingers as she pulls away from him…

Focus. He uses his partition, just a little, and takes a deep breath, grounding himself. “Yes, it makes sense to take that risk if there was a way to know the numbers that precisely.” When trying to put a number on his past self’s confidence that he couldn’t save Aiko and the others, it had been much worse. But then, he was deliberately grading himself harshly, knowing he had no real experience in recognizing when a building might collapse due to earthquakes and fire. “But I wouldn’t force anyone to do it.”

“Ah, but would you agree to the risk if there was a chance of collateral damage?”

Red blinks. “What do you… like, on top of the risk to the person doing the saving?”

“No, perhaps the person doing the saving is at risk, but at no higher a rate than others who would normally not be in danger. So let us suppose that if nothing is done, the nine will die, and if something is done, the nine will likely die, but may not, and the one who must act to try and save them has an 89% chance of costing someone their life in the attempt, evenly distributed among all people in the city.”

“That’s… harder. I get that in some situations you can’t really ask permission, and… I mean, if it’s a risk to everyone then what do you do if even one person says no? There’s no way Rangers could function if every rescue attempt they made with any risk at all to others couldn’t be done.” He hesitates. “Though… 89% is really high.”

“How low does it need to be, before the risk is acceptable?”

“I’m not sure.” He tries to think it through. “To be clear, whether there’s collateral damage is only dependent on whether they try to save the nine, but those dice are rolled independently?”

“Correct. It is not a guarantee that nine lives will be saved, only a near guarantee that an additional person will lose their life if the attempt is made, and a guarantee that nine lives will be lost if no attempt is made. If you want the full odds, it would be a slightly more than 1% chance that both the nine are saved and no collateral life is lost, and a slightly less than 80% chance that both the nine lives are lost and the collateral life is lost if the attempt is made.”

“And a roughly 10% chance that either the nine die but the one doesn’t, or the one dies but the nine don’t.” He sighs. “It’s still worthwhile, on paper, but even if each person in a city has a low chance of being the unlucky one, it may be unreasonable to ask them to be okay with the risk, for such a low chance of saving the nine… there would be externalities, like, people would be afraid of rangers and scared of cooperating with them out of worry that being more involved increases their own chance of death, whether that’s true or not…” Red rubs his temples, not wanting to admit defeat but not wanting to babble and waste the Leader’s time. “I… don’t know.”

He feels like he’s failing an important test, an opportunity to prove himself… but Giovanni simply nods. “There aren’t always easy answers. Let me propose another alteration: what if no one in the city is safe?”

“You mean… instead of putting one person at risk to save nine… anyone can be one of the nine? I’m not sure how that… hm. I guess no one would feel ‘safe’ even if the chance wasn’t taken… so now there’s an 11 percent chance that only one person dies, and people might feel more okay to risk the 80% chance of one additional death, since it’s unlikely to be them, while the reduction from nine to one death feels more likely to save them… Yeah, I guess… that does change things.”

“From the way you reasoned, it seems it only changes things because it changes how people are likely to decide for themselves. But would you make this decision for them, if it was up to you instead of them?”

Red thinks it over, and after a moment identifies the hesitation he feels. “Would they know it was me?” He hates himself for asking, but it feels relevant to the reason he’s here.

“Yes,” Giovanni says, and while his voice is as confident and strong as ever, his gaze is sympathetic. “Each time nine people die, some portion of the city might blame you for not taking the risk. When an extra person dies, all their families might hate you for taking the risk that killed their loved one, wondering whether they were the tenth. And while people might celebrate those rare occasions where only one person dies, or the even rarer full victory, the gratitude would be impersonal. No one will know for a fact that you saved them or their loved ones, only understand in a vague way that their lives had been in some minimal danger.”

Red’s heart is beating faster again as he thinks of Mr. Sakai. In a way, Red is really very lucky that Aiko’s father is the way he is. If he had been more… present… if he had a stronger reaction, blamed Red… it might well have shattered him completely.

“It is a difficult decision,” Giovanni continues, voice slightly quieter. “And the margins are awfully low… over a hundred iterations of this, the choice to take the risk each time would save roughly ten people over simply standing back and letting the nine die each time. If nine hundred people are going to die over the years anyway, would ten lives saved matter so much? Especially if it might cause people to hate you?”

Red clenches his hands, staring down at the floor as he thinks of what he told Leaf their first night together. That each death isn’t just a single event, that they send cracks throughout families, friend circles, communities. Depending on who it is, a single death can ripple out through the years, leaving children lying in bed and staring up at the ceiling all day, spouses crying into their arms at the dining room table when they think their child is asleep…

“Yes,” Red whispers. “They would matter. It would be… worth it.”

Giovanni is silent for a moment. When Red glances up, the Gym Leader’s gaze is on his own hands, still steepled. “So I believe as well. For good or ill, the thought of just standing aside… it is not in me.” His gaze rises to Red’s. “Nor is it in you, I think.”

Red’s heart clenches, suddenly feeling he’s misrepresented himself, that Giovanni didn’t know… “I… no, I… in Vermilion, my friend was…”

“I know what happened to Miss Sakai and Mr. Riley. It was a small part of a rather exhaustive post-incident debrief, but it’s not every day that a Second dies, and Leader Surge was understandably distraught.”

Red has trouble imagining the tall, muscular Unovan that way, but he knows that’s stupid of him. Even Giovanni probably cries now and then, as hard as it is to imagine. “Oh.”

“You weren’t blamed, if that’s what you’re thinking. ”

It hadn’t been, but his next breath still comes a little easier. “That’s a relief to hear. But then, why do you think I wouldn’t…?”

“I could mention your style of thinking and argument, but in truth it’s your actions that speak the loudest. Not just your other activities during the storm, which I looked into after you arrived at the cafe to become Sabrina’s apprentice, but something from even further back. Can you guess what it is?”

Red thinks back over his journey, a little bewildered. Could it be something he did in Viridian Forest, or on Mt. Moon? But no, that’s just more of the same and less impressive than the night of the storm…

Giovanni’s lips quirk. “If it helps, I’m cheating, just a little.”

Cheating? He thinks of Leaf’s accusation again, and feels a moment of panic—can his mind be read through his shield and without him noticing, then none of his secrets are safe—until he remembers that he already revealed all his secrets.

But that’s not quite true, is it? Or rather, he didn’t reveal everyone’s secrets.

Red feels his eyes widen, and Giovanni nods and reaches out to activate the holo-phone on his desk. “Call Masaki S.” There’s a brief ringing as the projectors light up and display a hovering sphere with the symbol of a phone on it, which rapidly shifts to a nearly-full hologram of Bill’s head. Red can only see the back of it, or at least most of the back of it; the hologram fades to a bluish fuzz for the actual back of his head and shoulders.

Bill appears to be looking down at something, shoulders moving in such a way that Red can imagine his arms busy typing, which makes sense given that he can faintly hear the clacking of keys. “What’s up, G?”

G?

“Hello, Sonezaki. We have a guest; say hello, Mr. Verres.”

Bill looks up at Giovanni, then around, and finally turns; the base of the projector rotates with him so that the camera is pointed up at Red, who realizes Bill can see him through his eye screen.

“H-hello, Bill.”

“Red, hey. You’re getting looped in, huh?”

The words slow the shock that had still been spreading through Red as he wondered how Giovanni knew about Bill’s secret, instead revealing the obvious. He hadn’t known through Red, but through Bill.

“I… uh…”

“Figured you might be eventually. By the way, don’t even think about porting indoors here uninvited, if you can really do it. I’ve got security systems, you know?”

The words are said mildly, even carelessly, but Red feels his neck flush. “I won’t! I would never—”

“Yeah, yeah. You know there are bets on whether you really figured it out? I’m going to make bank on you being right, which would be nice if not for the fact that I expect I’ll have to spend more than that rebuilding my lab if someone invents a material that blocks it. I was tempted to work on it myself but thankfully I don’t let people walk around here, let alone psychics, and there are others who are going to be motivated to figure it out, and I’ve got more important shit to do. Speaking of which, what’s the call for?” he asks as he turns back to Giovanni, not giving Red time to respond to the stream of new revelations and thoughts.

“I just wanted to confirm that, as far as you know, Red still hasn’t revealed your work on human capture.”

“Yep, not a bit of it’s shown up anywhere online, not even rumors. And that’s a bit surprising given all the rumors there are about me, or the team of people pretending to be me, or the mental upload I supposedly did after dying years ago, or whatever. Far as I know he hasn’t breathed a word, unless it’s in those written journals of his, which would be the safe way to do it, but I’m not sure he’s that sneaky. Also he still lacks any motive.”

“Thank you. I’ll let you continue your work.”

“Late- wait, there was something I… Eva, any memo for G? Right! You still owe me that schematic.”

The Gym Leader’s lips purse slightly, though Red can’t tell if it’s amusement or irritation “I’m working on it.”

“I’m sure you are, but a timeline would be nice.”

“Six months at the most, on pain of a donation to the DS.”

“Ha, that’ll do it. Cool, later then.”

The hologram vanishes, and Red is left blinking and full of questions. He settles on the last one. “DS?”

“Disciples of the Storm. A cult that worships the Stormbringers.” The disgust in his voice is dry, but pronounced.

Red has vaguely heard of them; apparently their numbers have swelled beyond Kanto after the Hoenn Incident, new branches reviving worship not just there but in various other regions, whether they have weather affecting legendaries or not. The “storm” is metaphorical for some, apparently. “Why would you—oh! A deterrent for future you?”

“Quite a powerful one. I’ve found donations to good causes less motivating as a punishment to myself; it’s too easy to think, well, the money is going to a good cause, and so my failure feels less punishing.”

Red is still working through the implications of Giovanni knowing about Bill’s research, and now he’s additionally surprised by the knowledge that the Gym Leader needs to make these sorts of deals with himself at all. He always seems so driven, so iron-willed… “Who else knows?”

“A few others among the rich and powerful. Does that surprise you?”

“A little. It seems like the more people know the secret, the harder it would be to keep.” And Bill seemed adamant that anyone else knowing would put the project, not to mention himself, at risk… why would others deserve to be stored upon their death, and not Red’s mother?

Probably because they’re helping fund or research it.

Giovanni, meanwhile, is once again giving him a wry smile. “You might be surprised how big a secret can be kept, if everyone involved has aligned interests and sufficient motivation. A higher purpose can be a powerful thing, and for those unmoved by such, selfishness is often sufficient. Granted, extreme measures are often necessary; Bill’s ability to police virtual communication, or rather his assistant’s, is invaluable in ensuring certain people don’t heed the very human desires to confide in their loved ones or boast to improve their status. Still, there’s always a chance of disaster. Like all things, it’s a matter of balancing risk with reward.”

“But… how do you know others don’t also have the technology, and use it less ethically?” It’s one thing for Bill to create his own safety measures, but Red reminds himself that there’s a reason the research has been banned so far.

“We don’t.” Giovanni shrugs. “All I know is that some things are too important to do recklessly, and should be stopped when that recklessness is identified, while others of importance carry risk inherently. But which is which… you see? It’s the same problem, just worded another way. How many lives could we save, if we solve this particular problem? Should we still take the safest route? How many must be at stake to take riskier ones?”

“I get it,” Red says, voice low. “And because I didn’t tell anyone about Bill’s tech… you decided I could be trusted?”

“I decided it was safe to let you know that you are not, in fact, the first person to discover something potentially destabilizing about our society who decided to keep it secret,” Giovanni says. “Whether research is done in secrecy because of stigma attached to the methodology, or because of the potential outcome, it would be absurd to believe that all the things which would benefit society also happen to be things that are publicly acceptable.”

Red stares at the desk for a moment, thinking through the Leader’s words. It’s hard not to find truth in them, but… Trusting some people to make these calculations and take these risks only makes sense in theory. In reality, people do things for selfish reasons, and it would be foolish to assume that everyone is like Bill and Giovanni. “And if there are psychics influencing people’s thoughts? Or research that was doing more harm than good, or might lead to discoveries that would be used unethically? Who decides if that’s worth revealing to the public or not?”

“Those of us who know,” Giovanni says, palms out to the sides as if it’s the simplest thing. “Any one of us can blow the whistle if we believe the world should know.”

Of course. Red didn’t consider that, though it’s the most obvious answer in retrospect, and makes him feel better the more he considers it.

It also, however, drives home the fact that he’s now part of a real conspiracy. It’s not a psychic conspiracy, since people like Giovanni and Bill know, but he’s not sure Leaf would feel too reassured by that. Giovanni is dark and Bill isolates himself from the world, so he doesn’t really have to worry about someone making him enjoy hummus. Which isn’t to say they don’t have other reasons to worry about that sort of thing, but it’s not likely to feel as immediate a worry for them as it is to others. Anyone else in the conspiracy may be similarly shielded.

On the one hand that feels like it might make them more objective, but on the other it also might make them underestimate the risk. Their priorities are different, and while he trusts people like Giovanni to have good ones, that’s not the same thing as having the best ones, or the “right” ones.

“You’re still troubled.”

“Yes, Sir. I understand that he’s not psychic or dark, so the risk of him leaking info to a psychic is too high, but… does that mean there are no plans to tell Professor Oak? How long should I expect to keep secrets from him? Not Bill’s, I mean mine.”

It strikes an off chord in Red that the Professor would be excluded from knowledge like this. Not just because he knows the Professor would love to know it, and not just because he knows the Professor would feel hurt that he didn’t tell him. The truth is that he trusts Professor Oak, and his mother as well, to do what’s right.

Giovanni sighs. “Believe me, Red, when I say that I have deeply regretted not being able to recruit Sam to help with some of these problems, or at least to hear his thoughts on them. But the security risk is just too great; he spends much of his time meeting people around the region, and is too much in the spotlight for any major change in behavior to go unnoticed.”

“Right. That makes sense, but what about certain rangers or police? In Saffron I was helping look for more renegades hiding in the city, and while I don’t think there are any there, there’s no telling how many other secret labs there might be, doing research that people feel so protective of they’ll use renegades to keep it secret.” He wondered if some of the missing researchers his mom has been investigating would be found among the dead there, either held against their will or hired by whoever was running the lab, but if so he hasn’t heard about it.

Giovanni simply nods. “I do in fact plan to let the right people in law enforcement know. As for your friends, Blue and Leaf… do you trust them enough to share this?”

“I do,” he says, relieved that Giovanni isn’t asking him to keep it from them, too. “Though I’m not sure if Blue would be okay with not telling the Professor, and Leaf isn’t dark or psychic…” He rubs his face, feeling lost again.

The day Red reported Rei, he hid in the bathroom to try to reason out what he should do and invoked his internal models of the people he respected and trusted… and they gave him good advice. He did it again a few other times, and each time it felt like it helped, even if just to reassure him that his lack of confidence in what he should do was understandable and that making a mistake would be okay.

But while he was preparing for all this from behind his partition, as Partitioned Red went about his normal life, he found the mental models of others fell silent. Whether because the stakes are so big, or because his actions are too unlike any other he’s done before or can remember others doing, or something else, it seems he’s just utterly unable to model their reactions.

He never realized how much he depended on those inner models until they’ve gone so silent. Even thinking about abstract principles or guidelines they’ve reminded him of before, like be prepared or ask for help felt inapplicable or limited to what he’s already done.

The thought of what his parents, mentors or friends would say in a situation like this is just too inherently unthinkable. Maybe because he imagines they would find the idea of him doing what he did unthinkable. And that felt worse than even condemnation.

His thoughts trail off as he remembers Maria, and what happened under the casino. “I… forgot, there’s someone else… when I told Sabrina that some of the trainers traveling with Blue know about sakki, I forgot to mention that one of them knows what I did under the Casino.”

Giovanni’s eyes narrow, but he doesn’t respond. Red’s stomach starts to do flips and somersaults as the silence stretches out, the Gym Leader’s expression revealing nothing of his thoughts. One hand reaches down to scratch his persian’s back, causing its tail to curl and sway, and he gazes distantly past the wall to their side with a slight crease between his brow. It strikes Red, suddenly, that the room has no windows. Not that all rooms need them, but he always imagined rich people setting up their offices in rooms with good views whenever possible.

Red finally feels like he has to speak, but when he opens his mouth Giovanni holds up a finger and Red keeps his silence. It takes another tense minute before the Gym Leader stirs.

“I can’t guess which of the girls it might be, and so doubt any others could without more information. The police who interviewed them might, but they haven’t raised any flags that I’m aware of. Who is it?”

“Maria.”

“Hm. The quiet one with the hat, yes? She seems to have held the secret so far. Well enough that I think it will keep, for now.” He resettles in his seat. “Back to your friends. It’s understandable to feel conflicted, even guilty, for not sharing things with them. I feel it often myself, when keeping things from my fellow Leaders.”

Red’s curiosity kindles. “Do you… do that often? I mean, is it always about dangerous research, or…?”

It takes a moment for Red to realize how presumptuous he’s being, but Giovanni just smiles. “One thing I can share is that there is a project I attempted that might have defeated the Stormbringers. It required me to keep a number of connected scientific discoveries secret, as I didn’t trust others with them.”

Even now, Red feels a flare of indignation at the idea of keeping novel research private, especially given the potential scope of the discoveries if they made the Leader believe they could stop a legendary pokemon. It takes him a moment to remember how hypocritical he’s being, and by the time he does Giovanni has already registered his reflexive outrage.

“I know this flies in the face of your deepest values, and I have to admit that the project backfired… but not as badly as it could have, and I still believe I was right to keep the discoveries secret.”

“But how could you know that was the right call? There’s no way to know what millions of other researchers and trainers might be able to do with something you discover… if the discoverers of pokeball tech had kept it secret, we might all still be in the dark ages!”

“A solid point, but the counter-example is experiments for human storage. The risk of misusing technology is bad enough, but combined with the risk of causing new research to be banned and handed to criminal elements makes it seem obvious to me that some discoveries are better kept secret, for a while at least.”

“How long is a while?” Red says, worry doing more to tone down his indignation than his conscious attempts. He considers just shutting down his emotions to have the conversation rationally, but knows better; once the feelings returned, they would clash all the more with whatever he thought.

“I honestly don’t know,” Giovanni says, and leans back in his seat, gaze distant. “The world has become too attached to the status quo. Humanity was so weary of losing lives just to reach a relatively safe stability that, upon reaching it, it has turned timid. Rather than risk losing what we’ve gained, we look away from the cost to keep our slow and steady growth, and tell ourselves it will inevitably lead to a better world. The current rate of death and suffering is not accepted because we think it is correct, but because it is safer and more convenient to us than the alternatives.”

“What alternatives?”

“For one, the way we send our children out on journeys, somewhat prepared but unguarded. Why do you think we do that, instead of sending an adult with each?”

“I asked my dad that, when I was younger… I mean, I asked him if he would be coming with me when I became a trainer. He said he would do his best to prepare me, but that I would have to rely on my friends and myself, and that the rangers were out there to help in emergencies…” Red remembers feeling afraid, when he asked, and then reassured, and even excited. The idea of being away from home, adventuring with friends… he’d heard so many stories of people like Professor Oak and Giovanni himself doing the same thing. “Now I know it’s also from a lack of available trainers. There just aren’t enough people available to guard every group starting out in their journeys.”

“And did you ever consider whether that might itself be solved, if we take extra care for a generation or two and reduce the rate of new trainers but increase our population? Cede some territory to the pokemon that would encroach in that time, retreat from a few towns, and focus on retaking them later?”

“I… no.” It’s odd, now that it’s pointed out to him, how much he took for granted that trainers should start young. Even now some part of him rebels at the idea of having been thought incapable of going on his journey with Blue and Leaf without an adult watching.

Survivorship bias. Quite literally. “So… you’re saying society is focused too much on traditions?”

“Not just tradition for its own sake. It’s focused on maintaining a way of life that is nearly a paradise compared to what my grandparents experienced, and thus rejects any risk of losing it, even if it means literally feeding some portion of our children and siblings and parents to monsters.”

Red rubs his face again, feeling unprepared to argue this. He knows he can’t win a debate with Giovanni, a third of everything he knows feels like it came from him. But the twisty felt-sense in his stomach is hard to ignore, particularly since he knows what it means, or something like it. It’s how he felt when he thought of Rei’s plans to learn Sabrina’s secrets.

“I think it’s hard to predict what will happen with new research,” Red says, picking his words carefully. “So I don’t want to blame someone for getting a decision wrong, one way or the other. I don’t think I can tell someone if they’re choosing right or not, but if you don’t trust society as a whole to make the choice, then… it feels like society has no reason to cooperate with you? Bill can afford to live in his secluded home and focus on research because society as a whole is protecting him and creating things he needs. He’s definitely contributing back, maybe more than anyone else, but… it feels wrong to benefit from the group’s efforts while secretly undermining the agreements that make the group function.”

Giovanni is quiet for another minute, and Red starts to worry again that he’s said the wrong thing. What if Giovanni thinks he’s having second thoughts about reporting Bill’s secret?

Red reminds himself that this is the man who wrote about how curiosity should never be penalized, and how asking questions should never be taken as an indication of beliefs.

Unless, of course, that’s just how he wants to be seen in public. If he’s willing to break some principles, why think he won’t break them all?

But no, people can have values opposed to public laws. It took people of personal principle to stand up to the laws requiring all city inhabitants to follow any orders by Leaders and develop the civil branch of government.

“Another fair point,” Giovanni finally says. “But it does not change my lack of trust in the public’s ability to choose the path of least harm.”

Red latches onto that last phrase and rifles through his memory. “I know you’ve written about this, that reducing total harm and maximizing good as best we can is the ultimate moral imperative, but… isn’t that the sort of reasoning that leads some people to become renegades? We need certain unbreakable rules, right? How do you decide which to follow?”

“It depends what you mean by ‘unbreakable rule.’ For deontologists this is how all moral structure is built, whether the rules are from society or divinity or some inherent logic they believe leads to the most consistently moral world. By contrast, someone who follows virtue ethics has only their own internal moral compass as a guide, and determines what they must never do by the virtues they endorse… but neither can give particularly compelling arguments for why some laws or virtues should trump others.” Giovanni shrugs. “Personally, I’ve found that when you dig deep enough, all the most widely followed moral systems are ultimately not just consequentialist, but utilitarian. Even a religious deontologist, when pressed, will insist that their rules are those that will maximize well-being and minimize suffering, if only on a spiritual level or in another plane of existence. Both they and virtue ethicists are simply establishing shortcuts to guide them to what they believe will lead to the best world, particularly if everyone follows the same methods… and I find the idea of taking shortcuts in moral reasoning lazy at best and cowardly at worst.”

Did he basically just admit that he doesn’t see anything wrong with going renegade?

No, he just said that he would determine if it was wrong on his own, in each situation. After all, if Indigo went to war with another region the label would basically just be determined by whom you were using your pokemon to attack. Red distantly remembers reading about protests that occurred back when Surge became Leader, as some considered those who fight in wars to be little better than renegades.

“I don’t know if I could live like that,” Red admits. “It’s been exhausting trying to constantly determine if I’ve been doing the right thing on just a handful of occasions over the past year. Doing it with everything… don’t you worry about being wrong?”

“Of course, but one hopes the same can be said of any conscientious deontologist or virtue ethicist. It can be tiring to constantly wonder what truly constitutes the ‘most good’ and the ‘least harm,’ and when I was younger I struggled with decision paralysis many times. But I have learned to allow myself to be human; I reserve most of my deliberation for decisions that are the most important, and acknowledge that I will make mistakes. I commit to learn from them and update my understanding, so that I can do better. I do not see how the other moral systems, whether rigid or similarly flexible, are superior in any way other than convenience, and in maintaining a desirable status quo rather than risking change to it.”

It’s Red’s turn to quietly think for a minute as he tries to process what he’s heard. He’s not sure why he’s trying so hard not to be convinced; in essence what he wanted was to be told he’s done the right thing. But this feels like something more, a swing that might be too far.

But rather than acting as an authority, Giovanni is instead telling him not to accept someone telling him he did the right thing, even Giovanni. To instead think for himself and make his own determination.

But is accepting that argument itself just trusting an authority figure in another way? Especially if he’s already made this decision beforehand?

This is ridiculous. If he told us to just accept his word that it was okay, we’d probably be doubting that too.

Red acknowledges this, and also knows that Giovanni has been pushing for people to take on moral responsibility for their actions for years, and so is not just tailoring his response to Red’s situation. Still, this is the first time Red has felt so unsure about what that actually means, and if he ultimately can’t trust himself to make the decision…how can he trust himself to know that he can’t?

The thought threatens to send him into another spiral of meta-doubt, so he takes a deep breath and does his best to put the thought aside as he reaches for his curiosity, finds it, and wraps it around himself like a cloak. As long as he stays curious, stays open to learning, he believes he can move forward.

Where does this philosophy potentially break down? Where has it broken down for him? Or better yet…

“Is there anything you’ve seen or heard of that made you doubt this model?” he asks as he returns his gaze to the leader sitting patiently in front of him. The thought that he’s taking up a lot of Giovanni’s valuable time occurs, and he quickly reminds himself that the Leader asked him to come and could end the conversation whenever he wants. “Or a situation you’ve thought of that you’re still struggling to reach a decision on, even allowing yourself to make mistakes?”

“Of course. One thing that must be said for deontology and virtue ethics is that they make coordination problems much easier, assuming you can trust the other person to follow their code or virtues.”

“So… you’ve had trouble coordinating with other consequentialists?”

“I have, but notably less, I think, than two opposing deontologists would, or even two virtue ethicists with different virtues, though I’m less sure about the latter.”

“I think I get it, but… can you give an example?”

“I would prefer to keep such dealings private, but I can provide an impersonal one.” Giovanni holds up two hands, palms up. “The leaders of the two renegade groups in Hoenn faced their own coordination dilemma. Both knew that the other was researching a mythical pokemon. They had a commitment to leave each other alone, but it was dependent on both sides agreeing not to seek the actual means of reviving those pokemon. However, once they did discover the how, both also didn’t want to leave the means lying around for anyone else to take… and didn’t fully trust the other to honor the agreement. They hid how far along their research and efforts were from even their own teams, as they knew any apparent effort to secure their discoveries would be seen as defection from the ultimate agreement and invite retaliation.”

Red listens in rapt fascination, wondering why the motives and actions of the two renegade groups are still largely a mystery to the public if Leaders already know this much. “Why didn’t they just reach out to…” He trails off as the realization hits him. “If they contacted the League or Rangers about their enemy, the other side would have done the same.”

“And both would have been hunted down rather than listened to, as they had already defected from the overarching rules of society.”

“But it still would have stopped the incident! I can understand not wanting to destroy your research even if you know it can lead to a catastrophe, and can even understand not trusting it to the public… but if their calculation led to the incident, it’s hard to imagine a worse outcome!”

Even as he says it he knows it’s not true, and Giovanni raises a brow. “I believe your imagination is now supplying you with many counterexamples. As I said, this seems to me a failure of consequentialist thinking, when two people with power individually believe they are doing the right thing and have no common rule or virtue to turn to. It’s hard to know how close to true catastrophe we really came… but we did survive. Had someone else found the means to summon Groudon, would they have joined the effort to subdue it once they lost control? If the Hoenn League had the power of such pokemon at their apparent command, do we know they wouldn’t attempt to use it against a neighbor? Hard to imagine, perhaps, of those we know and trust… but they will one day be replaced, and sooner or later someone else might have seen them as weapons of war.”

Red takes another minute to process this before Giovanni speaks again. “Now I present the question back to you: is there any truth you could learn about the origin of species that would make you hide it?”

Red blinks at the sudden turn in the conversation, and tries to imagine that scenario. What comes to mind is the reaction in Pewter, after Leaf’s article came out. What if he learned something so shocking to people that they violently rejected it, or it caused some regions to go to war with each other? It seems bizarre to him, but he knows better than to assume that no one would have a strong reaction over a big enough truth.

“I’m not sure. I want to know it for my own sake, and think the world would be better off with the knowledge. There’s no telling what we might learn along the way, or how such a deep truth might affect our technology or training habits… I think something that fundamental might help us learn enough to be really safe from pokemon, even the legendaries.”

“So you believe it could, in fact, save the world.”

Red feels heat creep up his neck, but he knows Giovanni isn’t making fun of him. “I do.”

“Then nothing would persuade you not to release that discovery?”

“I guess it depends on what the implications might be, or whether the knowledge itself is dangerous. If someone learned how to make their own pokemon, for example… they might create a legendary, or a dozen.”

“So if the potential for destruction is too high, compared to ways to help humanity fight or subdue pokemon…”

Red reluctantly nods. “Then… yeah, I might keep it secret. Also, if Leaf gets her way, or Blue gets his… maybe it won’t be as necessary, and it would just be knowledge for its own sake.”

Giovanni nods, and Red finally feels like he has, at last, passed some sort of test.

So why does he feel so hollow?

“There are projects that I’m working on that you may be able to assist with,” Giovanni says, confirming Red’s suspicion. “And I believe you would benefit from them as well, if you are interested. You would, unfortunately, have to commit to secrecy about anything you learn unless cleared by others first.”

Red wants to ask how Giovanni can trust such a commitment, since Red might change his mind at any time if he thinks it would do more good, but then remembers his earlier comment about how anyone in the conspiracies can just speak out if they wanted to. “I… can I think about it?”

“Of course. I know you’ll be busy for the near future, in any case, and I’ll have to factor your new revelations into my plans as I decide how to safely disseminate the information and come up with a plan for eventual public knowledge.”

Red feels such immense relief at the Leader’s words that he sags back against his seat. There’s fear, too, and he wants to ask how Giovanni will go about it, wants to be more reassured… but he doesn’t want to seem as insecure as he is, and it’s enough to know that someone else, someone older and wiser and with good intentions, is handling it. “Thank you.”

“The gratitude is mutual. I know that, unlike your friends, you would prefer a less public life if it meant you could pursue your quest for knowledge, and respect you immensely, not just for keeping the secrets as well as you have, given your values, but for putting your desires aside to do what’s right, even if it costs you everything. I for one hope that it does not, and that you can someday enjoy the life of research you desire.”

Red feels his cheeks warm at the effusive praise, and finds his gaze returning to Giovanni’s. “What would you do, if you could? I mean, if you didn’t have to be…” He gestures vaguely around, meaning not just the office but the city and region beyond. “All this?”

Giovanni’s brow rises, and his gaze falls to his persian as he reaches down to scratch it again. The large cat begins to purr, and for a minute the deep, rhythmic thrum is the only sound in the room.

“I wonder that myself, sometimes,” Giovanni finally says. “What I would be in a world at peace. A world without any remaining uncharted wilds, where every god has been captured or killed, where people can live as long as they’d like. I’m not sure I have a good answer, but… I think, in another life, I might have been an explorer.”

Red smiles, imagining it for a moment before his confusion hits. “But if all the wilderness is charted…?”

“Oh, I think there will always be more to explore, don’t you?” Giovanni smiles. “After all, if pokemon really do come from another world… who’s to say we couldn’t reach it ourselves, someday?”

Chapter 95: Eliminate the Impossible

“So I think I’ve got it,” Red says to Sabrina and her students as soon as she enters the dining room where the rest of them are gathered.

Everyone’s attention sharpens on him as she smiles and takes her seat at the head of the table, but no one’s thoughts feel particularly surprised; they probably assumed as much, given this is the first time he called an “urgent meeting” and they all know what he’s been working on.

But lack of surprise isn’t the same as lack of skepticism, and he feels Daniel’s as he asks, “You’ve replicated it?”

At one point it might have irritated Red, but he understands it, and is too excited to be annoyed. He can tell that excitement is having an effect on the room overall. “No, but I have a hypothesis that fits all the facts, and I know how to test it. But I can’t do it myself, which means I need you guys.”

All of us?” Tatsumaki asks as she orbits a variety of lollipops around her head, occasionally guiding one into her mouth for a moment. “I can’t even do free teleportation.”

“We don’t know for sure that it’s necessary,” Satori comments. Her torracat has grown since he arrived in Saffron, and now that it’s unable to fit in her lap while she sits in a chair, she instead sits on the floor so it can curl around her.

Red nods. “I don’t think it is, and the more people are willing to try the higher the chance of the test working.”

“Uh… I don’t think that’s how science works,” Rowan points out, and a moment later his expression shifts from skepticism to avarice. “But if there’s a chance we can get it to work, we’re in!”

Red waits before responding, and sure enough the young man’s expression changes again, this time to an aloof disinterest. “Assuming your explanation makes any sense, of course.”

Jason gives Rowan a concerned look, but doesn’t comment. It’s become normal for the partition specialist to do this even in public now, and Jason told Red that when he expressed his concern to Sabrina, she simply shrugged and said that as long as he doesn’t become dysfunctional or dangerous in some way, it’s his mind to evolve as he sees fit. “I’m also curious by what you meant,” the medium says, attention shifting back to Red. “Why can’t you test it yourself, given that you’ve done it already?”

“Why don’t you just explain your theory?” Sabrina interjects. “In case that answers the question, and potentially others.”

Red nods and uncaps one of the markers for the whiteboard against the wall. “When I first learned about the inconsistencies in teleportation, it didn’t make any sense to me that an abra wouldn’t teleport somewhere they’d already registered and teleported to if someone built something there, even if it wasn’t an enclosed space. It felt particularly weird to me because they could teleport from spaces that are more enclosed than the places they’d teleport to. The problem was with my mindset; I was stuck on teleportation as a mechanical process that I could observe. But why think that when I can’t even observe psychic phenomena?” He’s writing as he talks, and feels the pulse of interest from Sabrina. “Noticing my confusion wasn’t enough, I had to really boggle at what I was ‘seeing’ when teleportation occurred.” This time it’s Jason whose mind touches the room with understanding. “And once I did, I wrote out every factor I could think of that might contribute to the process of teleportation.”

He finishes the last assumption, then steps back for all of them to read.

Assumption 1: Pokemon will only teleport to places they have been before, imprinted as “safe,” or that their trainer has been before.

Assumption 2: Teleportation is a single discrete action: either it works or it doesn’t.

Assumption 3: Pokemon teleport by simple memory of locations.

Assumption 4: The melded psychic experiences everything their pokemon experiences.

The room is quiet. Even those that seemed the least invested are intrigued by the puzzle he’s challenged them with, and Red feels it when Sabrina gets it. It makes sense, given their interview.

But she doesn’t say anything right away, letting the others think it through as well, and within a minute Satori speaks. “They’re checking for safety?” Her hand brushes her torracat’s back, and she nods before he can confirm it. “Yes, it makes sense. I should have thought of that.”

She says it without any particular self-recrimination, but Red feels enough for both of them. It’s so obvious in retrospect, the sort of thing he bets Leaf would have figured out right away if she was psychic, or if he’d explained the process and problem in detail to her. “Exactly. Every teleporter develops the ability as a safety response, the entire process of ‘registering’ a location is a deliberate check for safety. Of course they won’t teleport somewhere that’s significantly different from when they registered it, and we should know that from the way they won’t teleport into space that’s already occupied.”

Daniel frowns. “That’s a mechanical limitation, a physical impossibility. We don’t sense any fear when they fail… or refuse, I guess… oh. But you’re saying either way, you think there’s a sense that the abra is using to check.”

“A sense that humans can’t recognize,” Sabrina adds, smiling. “Just like the ability to see psychic light.”

“But you didn’t sense any deliberate check when you returned to your old bedroom?” Jason asks.

“No, I didn’t sense anything unusual.” He’s gone over and over that memory, those brief few seconds between recognizing something was odd, understanding what was different, hoping he could freely teleport, then attempting to… but though he spent the entire time fully merged with his abra, he just got the customary check of familiar safety for a teleportation that, this time, was coming from his own memory instead of the abra’s. “But there’s another thing that I keep thinking of. The way you described teleportation’s psychic colors, Sensei, that it shifts to galo before emitting a burst of it. If I’m right about the way the colors reflect distinct psychic abilities—”

“Then psychokinesis is involved,” Tatsumaki says. “And you believe you didn’t sense it because you’re ‘missing’ that ability.”

“Right. I think my memory of my room as a safe place was strong enough, as the only reference frame, to overcome my abra’s instinct. Once it got there, though… I mean, I probably freaked it out with my celebration, and then there was a stranger there… or maybe it’s as simple as realizing it was teleporting to an indoor space, which I didn’t focus on as part of my memory of it. Or something else I’m not thinking of, because I’m still not sure what exactly abra prioritize. But it makes sense, right?”

He looks around the room. Everyone seems thoughtful, and finally Sabrina nods. “As a hypothesis, yes. Still, as Jason said, you’re the one who did it. Why would we succeed in sensing something you haven’t?”

“For now I want to confirm this hypothesis. If I am, doing it again should be easier for everyone.”

“Should it?”

Daniel frowns at Sabrina. “What, you think only Verres can do it?”

“Why not? He has a unique psychic ability, and he has done a few things that no other psychics have. It’s reasonable to tie each of those accomplishments to that ability—not to say you haven’t worked hard, Red—and it’s highly unlikely that he would be able to do yet another seemingly impossible thing that’s unconnected to that uniqueness.” She folds her hands, gaze meeting Red’s. “Is there any reason to believe we could do this without your absolute mirroring?”

Red caps the marker and puts it away, then sits. “Well, for one thing, I think you might be putting too much weight on the ability over the mindset. I know this is an argument we’ve had before,” he says with a glance at Jason, who smiles. “But even if my quirk isn’t learnable, we shouldn’t assume that everything I can do with it is only able to be done through binary capability. I believe you, Jason, Daniel, and Satori have all become almost as good as I am at mirroring, Sensei.”

Sabrina considers this a moment, then nods, and looks to her students on either side of the table. “As of now, this is our collective priority. Whatever else you’re working on, do it in your off hours. Yes, that includes you Tatsumaki and Rowan. That you can’t do free teleportation yet is just a matter of practice. If it’s possible for a human to recognize what their pokemon is doing at the moment of teleportation, I believe it will likely require the same level of deep merge that leads to free teleportation, so just consider it a bonus benefit to work you’d have to do anyway.”

Jason rotates the beads around his neck. “We should record all our attempts, just in case each psychic can only do this once.”

“Better yet, carry one of these in a pocket.” Red takes out small tracking devices, copies of the one Professor Oak gave him after learning about Red’s feat. “It’s hard to determine pokedex location by height unless it’s extremely high or low, so unfortunately mine’s record could be explained by me teleporting onto my roof. With these there will be digital records of the exact coordinates you teleport to. Combined with video footage, it should be easy to prove that you ended up indoors at the moment of teleportation.”

Everyone takes theirs, some putting it into their pocket right away while others, like Sabrina, examines it. “Are they always on?”

“Uh, I think so, yeah.”

Tatsumaki’s orbiting candy falters for a moment, and she immediately takes hers back out of her pocket and puts it on the table with a frown. Sabrina smiles and sets hers down as well. “For the sake of privacy, then, let’s leave them in this room. Just come to pick one up if you’re going to try indoor teleportation. Any questions?”

Red looks around, but everyone seems lost in thought. Jason is the first to stir and look at him. “So we are simply going to be attempting to merge fully with our pokemon as they teleport, and search for any sense being used besides those we’re familiar with?”

“Essentially. Or maybe approach it from the other direction, and try teleporting somewhere unsafe while merged with your abra to see what it feels.” He hesitates. “I did this a lot for my other experiments, but I can’t recall feeling anything from mine. Still, replication would be good.”

Another silence descends, and after a minute Sabrina nods. “Dismissed.” People begin to leave, the last of which is Sabrina, who smiles. “Well done, Red.”

“Thank you, Sensei.” It’s a relief to finally have something to show for the days of agonizing over this, even if it’s not a full replication yet. He feels good about this hypothesis, though… “You’ve been teleporting longer than anyone else here, so if you don’t end up sensing something while deliberately looking for it, I may have to consider the idea that it’s not something they consciously do. Do you know anyone who can merge with a pokemon so deeply that even their subconscious thoughts are felt?”

“Isn’t that a contradiction? Surely it would be mirrored in the subconscious as well.”

Red sighs. “Probably. Still, maybe upon reflection someone would notice.”

“Perhaps. I’ll reach out to Elite Agatha, as well as Leader Morty.” And with that she’s gone, and he’s alone.

Red sinks his head on his arms, letting himself rest for a minute. The meeting went well, and he finds himself hungry; he hasn’t really eaten much lately, and particularly didn’t eat much during dinner at the ranch last night.

He feels a wave of sadness just remembering it, and forces himself to stand and walk to the fridge. He might as well eat now, and figure out what he should do while the others test his idea… maybe get back to finding a way to merge with wild unown…

Red barely has time to assemble his sandwich, however, before he gets a call, and smiles as he sees Leaf’s name. “Heya! How’s your—”

“Red, how soon can you come to Fuchsia?”

It takes a moment for Red to register her words, but her tone is enough to have his smile fade and his heart leap. “What’s… I’m not sure, the flights take… no, I can teleport to Vermilion and fly from there… thirty minutes?” He feels his pulse in his neck as adrenaline spreads through him, thoughts of Stormbringers or lower Tier events racing through his mind. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”

“Sorry, it’s… not that kind of emergency. But, um. There’s someone here who wants to talk to you, and it’s probably best done in person.”

The words should calm him, but his mind is already racing through all the sorts of conversations that might have her sounding like this…

He feels a moment of disorientation as the partition weakens enough for his hidden memories to surface, all the secrets he’s keeping hidden even from himself popping up alongside his fear and worry about being discovered. He ignores it as best he can and brings all of his attention to bear on figuring out how much trouble he might be in.

That Leaf is the one who called him narrows it down pretty fast; it can’t be Bill’s secret, or his ability to lie, or what happened under the Casino, and that only leaves one thing. They talked about what might happen if someone gets suspicious about the part of Aiko’s code that originated from sakki, and if Leaf is asking him to come talk then whoever brought it up must not have been satisfied…

Which means it’s time to enact some of the plans he made while pre-morteming this eventuality.

“Can you speak freely?” he asks.

“More or less.”

Meaning she’s probably not around someone right now, but she doesn’t want to trust anything to the phone. “How much do they know?”

“Nothing, just suspicious. And it’s not everyone, just one guy, David.”

“He needs an explanation?”

“Yeah. A good one.”

Meaning not just more evasions. “I’m in the middle of something,” Red says after a moment of thought. “Could it wait until tomorrow afternoon?”

“Yeah, I think so. Are you… okay?”

“Fine.” Is she picking up on the partition being down even over the phone? No, probably just predicting that he would be panicking. “Worried, but we’ve been lucky it hasn’t happened sooner, really. How about you?”

“I don’t know. Also worried, maybe more than worried. The project is showing such promise… plus I have no idea how people will react. Red, is there something I’m forgetting?”

He hesitates, realizing what she’s really asking is whether he has a plan she doesn’t know about. “No, but can you trust me to hold off on explaining for now?”

“I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.”

And that our stories match. That’s a reasonable worry that he didn’t consider, since he assumed… “You can’t avoid talking about it for a day?”

“I think it would be easier without a complete brush-off.”

“Okay.” Shit. “Alright, so… does he know you’re reaching out to me?”

“I just said I had to make a call.”

“Right. So you can confirm that he’s not the first one who knows, which is true, and he’s probably guessed, and you can let him know that he’ll get the full story tomorrow, but past that it’s probably best to just say it’s classified.”

There’s silence on the other line, for a moment too long, then another.

“Leaf?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah. I mean, no, obviously, I just…guess I’m still wrapping my head around this…”

There’s something in her voice, not quite an uneasiness, but enough hesitation to make him reevaluate how his confidence and words must seem to her. Like there is a conspiracy, maybe, that she’s been kept out of. “I already got my panicking out of the way when I premortemed this. I sound more confident than I am, and if you have a better idea I’m open to it, but I’m going to talk to Sabrina.”

“Oh.” There’s a pause. “And you think she’ll…”

“I hope so.”

“Right. I don’t have a better idea, so… good luck.”

“Thanks. I’ll let you know how it goes.”

As soon as the call with Leaf is done, he calls Sabrina, hoping she hasn’t left the building.

“Yes, Red?”

“Hi, uh, I need to talk to you. It’s important.”

“Is everything alright?”

“Right this moment, yes.”

There’s a pause. “I’m on my way back down.”

“No, I’ll come to you, if that’s alright? You’re in your rooms?”

“Yes. That’s fine, come on up.”

She sounds distracted, even worried, so Red says goodbye and closes the call with one hand as the other grabs his sandwich. He eats it as he walks to the elevator, and it’s gone by the time he reaches Sabrina’s room, untasted and forgotten as soon as he’s sitting on her comfortable couch while she sits on the other end, watching him with worried, searching eyes.

“So, yeah, like I said, there’s something I need to tell you.” His heart is beating fast and hard, and he takes a calming breath. “Part of me wishes I’d told you sooner, but I was hoping it could wait until you learned how to perfectly lie.”

Before he first met Sabrina, when her amazing psychic abilities and trainer skills were just abstract things to him, what he most admired about her was how quick she is. “Like you have.”

She says the words with just a faint undercurrent of emotion, surprise without shock, curiosity without disbelief. When Red simply nods, Sabrina takes a breath, expression wavering a moment, then firming. “Show me.”

Red knew this day would come, and made the partition he needs weeks ago. He closes his eyes, dropping his shields and setting it up in just the right way as he brings all the other partitions up…

His next breath is easier, and he opens his eyes to find Sabrina watching him intently. What was she waiting for again?

Tell her to ask you where you met.

Red blinks, then frowns as the thought from his unpartitioned self automatically sends his thoughts toward his first meeting with the Gym Leader. What’s so strange about that?

Tell her.

“Uh. Ask me where we met?”

He feels her thoughts touch his, senses her curiosity and trepidation, and underneath them an even deeper worry that borders on fear, which she’s doing her best to control and doesn’t show at all in her face or tone. “Where did we meet, Red?”

He does his best to ignore her shared feelings and just focus on the truth. “Here in Saffron.”

He feels her shock, so strong that her expression actually shows it, eyes wide as she sucks in a sharp breath. The merger deepens, and he feels his hands tighten on the arms of his seat… no, her hands on her seat, even as his own confusion starts to blend with the worry he felt.

She doesn’t believe him, but why? He can clearly remember their first meeting here, the way he bowed to her and thanked her for having him as a student… wait, how did they… right, text messages. She texted him before he went on the S.S. Anne, and…

…something’s missing. He can’t remember his decision to accept. He can’t even remember their conversation, the details of the agreement… and still he can feel Sabrina’s surprise, feel it shifting to calculation and admiration and even her own worry, all combined with a deep bitterness over—

The merger ends, leaving him with vague impressions of her friend, the one she lost during the incident. He can’t make sense of them beyond the understanding that she was both afraid of and for her friend, and that she assigned them to learn how to lie to a psychic for his sake. There’s more, her friend wasn’t normal…?

Then it hits Red that he amnesia’d his memory of meeting Sabrina away, and it’s hard to think of anything but what else he’s forgetting, before suddenly the memories all flood back, each partition dropping until he’s his full, unpartitioned self again. He lets out a heavy breath as he puts his shields back up.

Sabrina just watches him for a moment longer, slowly regaining control of herself. Eventually she slumps in her seat, looking more tired than he’s seen her since just after she got back from Hoenn. “When did you learn how to do this?” she asks, voice soft, and Red suddenly gets the sense that a wrong answer here might ruin everything.

“Not until after Rowan taught me how to use my new partition to induce amnesia.”

It takes her a moment. “After the incident.”

It’s not a question, but he still says, “Yeah.” She seems relieved, but… “Though—”

“There’s no way to know that for sure, yes. But I believe you. I remember how your thoughts felt, upon my return, and if you could do this then, and only pretended to need to learn from Rowan… well, perhaps you would have in order to throw off suspicion for just this moment, but such thinking is virtually endless.”

Red swallows, then nods, deciding not to question it. Her gaze is distant, and he instinctively lowers his shield to touch her thoughts, but her own shield is firmly up.

She’s learned enough about his sensitive shield to feel it, however, and seems to shake herself as she refocuses on him. “I have many questions, of course, but this isn’t what you actually wanted to talk to me about.”

“No. But uh, it could probably be talked about first? If it needs to be?”

“Let me hear the rest first. If it’s important enough to derail this, then it should be derailed.”

“Right. So um. I can… psychically… make a pokemon lose all its conditioning.”

Sabrina stares at him a moment. She seems about to speak, pauses, then asks, “When you say all its conditioning…?”

“The actual mental state,” Red says, pulse painfully quick, “Is a total freedom to do anything. No limitations, just… acting on instinct.”

Sabrina closes her eyes, lets out a deep sigh, and covers her eyes with one hand as she rests her head against it. She doesn’t speak for nearly a minute, and Red just quietly watches her, feeling more and more like this might have been a mistake. He tries to think of what to say, but his thoughts are circling uselessly, and he has to resist the urge to take his notebook out to try and give them a direction to move in.

“Who else knows?” the Gym Leader finally asks.

“Blue, Leaf, and a handful of others who were training with him in Vermilion.” He feels a touch of unease giving up their names, but he understands why she’s asking. “I’m honestly surprised it hasn’t gotten out by now.”

“Battle trainers are almost as good at keeping secrets as psychics.” She finally lifts her head up, face weary but gaze calculating. “You used it under the casino?”

Part of him had hoped she wouldn’t guess that, and yet again he’s not surprised by the speed of it. Their survival against trained renegades must have looked miraculous by most experienced eyes. He takes a breath, then says, “Yes.”

“I appreciate your candor, especially knowing that you could convincingly lie about it if you chose.”

She doesn’t seem shocked or horrified. “And I appreciate that you asked, knowing that I could have.” He clears his throat, wishing he’d asked for some water. Well, no reason not to get it now. “Could I have something to drink, please?”

The question has some effect on Sabrina that Red can’t quite place, and she nods and goes to the fridge to fill a pair of glasses. He shifts, uncomfortable in the near-silence. It’s one thing he appreciates about these apartments, the whole building set aside just for them to ensure enough distance for both audial and psychic privacy.

He wonders if he’ll be asked to leave, like Rei, then reminds himself that he’s risking much worse than that and feels his stomach flip. He starts to second guess himself for admitting what he did to the renegades’ pokemon, but no, he can’t “come clean” now and risk it coming out later.

Sabrina returns with a glass for him, which he takes with thanks and begins to drink from. Once she’s seated and sipping from her own glass, he wonders if he should say anything else. Her expression is still deep in thought, and he decides to let her process this at her own pace.

Perhaps a minute passes before her gaze returns to him, and she simply asks, “What do you want from me?”

It’s a strange thing to ask, given what he revealed, but at the same time Red understands why she’s asking it. “I’m not sure,” Red admits. “I’m not asking for protection, exactly. I just thought… this is something that’s going to affect all of us, and I trust you to know better than me what the best way forward is. I figured you had a plan for something like this—”

“What makes you say that?”

“Well, you were asking us to figure it out, the perfect lie I mean. You must have been prepared for the knowledge to leak in case we did?” Unless she expected to compel them all to silence, somehow, which… might not have been too difficult, come to think of it.

Sabrina watches him a moment, then gives a slight smile. “Yes. But this is… rather different.”

“I know. I hope it’s not too much at once.”

“It may very well be. That psychics can lie to other psychics will destabilize a pillar of society, and turn suspicion against many powerful people who are in part where they are because of that lack of suspicion.” He almost asks if that includes her, but no, she won her position through battles. “The ability to turn pokemon against humans will turn that suspicion into fear. Given the circumstances that force this topic to come up, I believe the best option, for now, is to share the latter without the former. Is there any way to plausibly make it so that your ordeal beneath the Casino is when you first discovered the full extent of this ability?”

“I don’t think so,” Red says. “The others who saw it—”

“In Vermilion, yes. But surely they didn’t understand the full implications? Or else Blue Oak commands far more respect and loyalty than I imagined.”

“Um. Maybe it’s a bit of both? I haven’t asked about it, really, to avoid drawing people’s attention to it.”

“Understandable. But the program?”

“Yeah, that’s hard proof I’ve been doing this for a while. But… it is true that the Casino is the first time I actually used it on someone else’s pokemon in battle. I didn’t know what it would do, how guidable they would be once the sakki was on them… I was just… desperate.”

He relives those moments again, the pain and darkness, the fear, both his own and Lizzy’s and Elaine’s and Leaf’s and—

“I understand,” Sabrina says. “And it will help that you used it explicitly in self defense, against renegades.”

Hope and fear tug at opposite ends of his stomach as he imagines actually telling people what happened. “Then… you think I should go public?”

“Perhaps. This is not a decision to be made lightly, and I’ll probably spend the rest of the week speaking to some other trusted…” Sabrina trails off as he fidgets, then sighs, face resigned. “Unless you have more bad news to share first?”

“There’s… someone who might need to be talked to by tomorrow.”

“Ah. The real reason you decided to speak to me now.”

She still sounds more resigned than upset. “Yeah. One of the coders working on Leaf’s new program doesn’t buy the idea that our friend Aiko wrote it anymore, or thinks it’s potentially dangerous… I’m not sure what to do, but I figured if a Gym Leader told him it was being looked into and handled…”

“You want me to mislead him into thinking this was all sanctioned. To imply that those at the highest levels of the region know about it, and to set his worry aside.”

Red forces himself to meet her eyes as he nods, feeling cold sweat on the back of his neck. Her tone was flat, and he can’t help but think that this is it, the moment she’ll tell him no, that this isn’t right, that he’s on his own…

Instead the Gym Leader merely continues to speculatively search his gaze. “How long have you been thinking about this?”

He tries not to let her curiosity make him too hopeful. “Ever since I could do so while hiding it from my partitioned self.” For weeks he essentially rode around in his own head as a mostly-silent passenger, observing and adding the occasional thought or suggestion in reply to his partitioned self’s thoughts or concerns while the majority of his focus was on what to do about all this… not just for his own sake, but for all psychics. Part of his planning included worst case scenarios, including using all his money to flee the islands, undergo disguising surgery, and live out his life in another part of the world.

Desperate, foolish thoughts. But some were also constructive, and eventually he reached a conclusion that was difficult to accept, and frightening, but inescapable.

“First I thought of what the main problem is with us, psychics I mean, having these new powers, and the answer is it makes people feel unsafe. What makes people feel safe are governments and leagues, rangers and leaders. I think people may not be sure how to react, but will take their cue from those they already trust to keep them safe. So we mostly don’t have to worry about convincing the average person to not worry about psychics… I mean, I think they will anyway, and that will still cause problems, but… mostly we just have to convince those in charge?”

“I see. A reasonable plan, though it raises the crux of the problem. Do you know what an infohazard is?”

“Yeah, Giovanni talked about them. Something that, once you know it, causes you harm.”

“Essentially. What do you think of the concept?”

“To be honest, I didn’t really agree with him. It’s largely theoretical, right? Like, I know some argue that certain lines of thought can qualify by leading people into an existential crisis, but… there’s nothing we know of that will reliably cause people, in general, harm through simple exposure. Maybe we could call certain lies infohazards, like if people are led to believe something will heal them that ends up hurting them, but the implication, from what I remember, is that infohazards are about real knowledge, or knowledge that could be real.”

“And you don’t think real knowledge shouldn’t be known.”

Red hesitates, recognizing the trap. “I guess I haven’t acted like someone who believes all truth should be known. I… used to believe that. I think I still do, but…” Bill mentioned that he’s sabotaged other projects that he worried might create a general artificial intelligence before they figured out how to align it properly. That would make knowledge of how to build one, without the proper safeguards, an infohazard, wouldn’t it? “It’s not that I think the truth would harm people, it’s that I’m worried about how they’ll act because of it.”

“Is that terribly different?”

“Yes!”

“Even if they’re right to act that way?”

Red’s breath hitches, and he sinks his face into his hands as he’s forced to confront the thought he’s put off again and again.

What if society would be right to fear psychics?

It was bad enough when the possibility of perfect liars was raised. At worst that would just make psychics as untrustworthy as darks; Blue told him about the ex-Fighting Gym Leader being at the dojo he’s training at, and that he felt guilty for thinking that if only the man wasn’t dark he could more easily trust him by just getting a psychic to tell Blue if Koichi is sincere.

But the sakki is different. And Leaf’s fears, about influencing people’s beliefs… he can’t just pretend to know that it’s not possible, or that everything would turn out alright.

What if psychics shouldn’t be allowed to be Leaders, or trainers, or even researchers?

And what if he’s responsible for ending all of that?

There’s a tearing sensation between his ribs, and the sob that escapes him feels like it rips a hole in his chest. He begins to block the flood of emotions, to cut himself off from them and keep himself from breaking down in front of Sabrina, but a moment later he feels her hand on his hair and he’s lost, fear and dread and grief washing through him.

“I d-didn’t… I-I didn’t m-mean to—”

“Shh, I know. I know.”

She pulls him against her side, and for a time he just cries out all the fear and loneliness and dread he’s kept behind multiple partitions since he killed the renegades.

There’s no hiding from it anymore. He may have used their pokemon to do it, they may even have deserved it, but he used pokemon to kill them, sure as if he’d given the verbal command. If he’s not branded a renegade, it would only be by technicality.

And it’s worse than that, so much worse, because he has the potential to do more harm than any renegade that ever lived. He doesn’t even need to train a pokemon to break its conditioning, doesn’t even need to leave evidence.

And if he has the ability to teach others how to do the same thing… people who might actually use it for evil purposes… hell, if just knowing it’s possible leads to a psychic renegade figuring it out themselves and using it to secretly kill people, maybe dozens of people, maybe hundreds…

Maybe he should be feared.

Maybe they all should.

Please, I’m sorry, I just wanted to do research!

What keeps coming back to him, again and again, is Yuuta’s face as the votes for his branding were voiced, his pleading as Red first hesitated, then gave in and sealed his fate.

Counting him, Red’s killed three people. He failed to save Aiko, and the people in the apartment building, and all of that pales in comparison to how many psychics he’s condemned because he didn’t stop to think about the consequences of what he was doing. Because he found something new and exciting and he experimented with it in front of others, released an infohazard into the world with no way to contain it.

I just wanted to learn!

“Shh…” Sabrina strokes his hair as he tries to apologize again, which only results in him crying harder, face buried in her shoulder as he clutches her tight. “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. I promise.”

The words are a liferaft that he clings to along with her, and for a time the fear and grief consumes him, all of him but the shard that holds onto her, feeling her hand in his hair. He wants his mother, but she’s not here, and he’d be afraid to tell her even if she was. So he accepts Sabrina’s comfort, and lets himself believe her words.

Little by little he calms enough to even his breathing, and by the time the tears have stopped he feels embarrassed. He loosens his grip, and Sabrina gently pulls away, then returns with some tissues, which he takes to wipe his face, cheeks burning.

She sits across from him again, seemingly unconcerned by the wet patch on her shoulder, and takes another sip of water as she lets him finish resettling himself. Once he drinks from his own glass he feels ready to continue.

“Thank you, Sensei. If there’s… I’ll do whatever you suggest, if…” He clears his throat and drinks again before setting his glass down. “What should I do?”

Sabrina is quiet for what feels like the longest minute of Red’s life, and when she finally speaks it’s only to say, “Nothing.”

Red raises raw eyes to stare at her. “You mean…?”

“Just that. I appreciate your trust, and am glad you came to me. There may be some hard days ahead, and some difficult choices, but… right now, anything else you do has to be incredibly, carefully, extensively calculated.”

“But… the programmer—”

“I’ll speak with them,” she says, and for the first time since he heard from Leaf, something in his chest unclenches. “Your plan, generally speaking, is a good one. I would like to make it as true as possible, however, which means we’ll be speaking with some others about this.”

Some of the tension returns as he considers what that might entail, but of course he expected it even if Sabrina agreed with his plan. “Other than you, the second safest person I considered telling was Professor Oak—”

“The Professor?” Sabrina asks, brow furrowed. “Really?”

“Uh, yeah. He’s always been very supportive of me, and I know he’d want to help.”

“Ah.” Sabrina’s face clears. “That’s understandable, but…”

“What?”

“If your criteria in telling me is that I have just as much to lose and am already comfortable with keeping potential truths hidden for safety, the Professor fits the opposite profile. He’s not gifted, has no gifted family, and is dedicated to seeking and disseminating truth. Worst of all, he’s not dark, and might reveal the information at an inopportune time… to a psychic, it’s true, but we can’t assume all of them would be as careful as we need to be.”

Red bites his lower lip. He had worried about whether the Professor would feel duty-bound to spread the knowledge… and whether he would judge Red more for not sharing what he learned to do more than for what he did with it. “It’s been hard to justify not telling him already. Keeping him out of the loop while pretending it’s an official secret feels… wrong.”

“I understand. How about this; we ask another, similarly respected leader first, and see what they think?”

There’s only a couple others who Red can think of, in Kanto at least, who meet that bar. “Who…?”

“Leader Giovanni. I plan to tell him regardless, but I think you should meet with him as well. In fact, I was considering introducing you to him before the Hoenn incident derailed so many plans.”

What? Is that what Sabrina meant when she spoke about rewarding loyalty? “But… I mean, I would be honored to meet him of course, but… he doesn’t have any psychic family either, and… he also seems committed to spreading the truth.”

“He’s committed to spreading reason,” Sabrina corrects. “Which often involves spreading truth. But I’m very confident he will see the reason in withholding this particular truth, for now, and being strategic in how it’s spread.”

It takes Red a moment to realize where that confidence likely comes from, but when he does it’s enough to make him feel like he’s fully waking up, finally, from the emotions that overwhelmed him:

There are other secrets the Gym Leaders know that they keep from the general public.

Of course there are. It was the height of egotism for him to think he was the only person to ever discover something new and dangerous. Hell, he learned a dangerous truth that he kept hidden before he discovered his own, and he suddenly wonders how many others know Bill’s secrets. The most analogous one that he didn’t even consider was the existence of pokeballs that can hold humans.

But he did consider it to some degree, specifically wondering whether someone else had discovered sakki. It’s part of what made him feel so guilty, imagining that someone was out there using it for evil, and that by keeping his own discovery of it secret he was selfishly guarding his own safety rather than ensuring people could better protect themselves. He just didn’t really believe it, because…

Because it seemed so horrifying? Because it would compel him to act?

He’s not sure, but either way he feels ashamed of the thought, and all he says is, “If you think he’s the right person to tell next, then I’m ready.” Normally the thought of getting to talk with Leader Giovanni would be exciting, make him run for his old notebook to review all the questions he’d like to ask him… but right now, all he feels is a cold stone in his gut as he imagines what the man he respects so much will think of what he’s done. And what Professor Oak would, when the truth finally reaches him and he realizes Red didn’t trust him enough to tell him first.

Sabrina clearly picks up on this, and responds with a wave of reassurance as she stands. “I’ll arrange the meeting. Meanwhile, just try to relax, and let Leaf know that I’ll contact her.”

Red takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “Okay.” He knows it’s a dismissal, and so he finishes his water and stands as well.

“You have a meditation class soon, don’t you? If you need to cancel it—”

“No, I’ll be alright.” Red closes his eyes, and when he opens them again the world feels lighter, his body less tired. He smiles at Sabrina. “Thank you again, Sensei.”

She’s looking back at him with mild fascination. “What exactly are you thanking me for? What do you remember of our conversation?”

“Uh… your help? You said you’d talk to Leaf about the programmer.” He remembers crying, can still feel the rawness in his eyes… “It was a big relief, because… I’ve been worried about how people will respond to sakki.” It is scary to think that they might cancel Leaf’s program or be angry about what Red might do with it, and though his stomach clenches with worry as he imagines Professor Oak’s eventual disappointment or condemnation, he’s a little surprised by the severity of the regret and fear he remembers. Of course, that’s the point of his unpartitioned self using it to keep them productive.

He feels Sabrina probe his feelings, and allows the mild merge before she withdraws. “I see. Very well, then, you seem fit to teach. I’ll speak with you later.”

Red nods and returns to his room, where he calls Leaf. “Hey.”

“Hey, Red. Thanks for calling me back so fast.”

“Of course. How’d it go?”

“Alright. He seemed suspicious, but willing to wait. We’re… friends, or at least I hope we still are. He’s willing to extend a bit of trust.”

“Great. Sabrina says she’ll talk to you soon.”

“Oh, thank the Swords.” Leaf sounds almost faint with relief. “So… does that mean she’s going to be the one revealing the discovery?”

“I’m not sure, actually, but she’s all filled in. She’s going to talk to other people now, sort of feel them out… I have to get ready for a class, but she’ll probably be able to answer your questions better.”

“Okay, thanks for talking to her. I feel better already, though I know it was a lie at the time… ugh. We should talk more, later, I know you have to go.”

“Definitely.”

They say their goodbyes and Red hurries to shower and change for his lesson, which is an intermediate class on meditating where he teaches the psychics and non-psychics how to identify negative thoughts, particularly those with a negative emotion attached, and find related, countervailing positive thoughts and emotion. Then they learn to sit with negative emotions, examining their source and function while practicing calming techniques until, little by little, growing comfortable with them before switching to the positive, then back, and back again, until it’s easy and effortless, until they can hold both feelings together.

It’s often as useful for him to practice techniques like this as it is for his students, and never before more so than today. By the time he’s done he feels even calmer about everything than he did after his talk with Sabrina.

That calmness lasts right up until he reaches his room, and sees Rei standing outside his door.

Chapter 94: Tilt

After sharing what he learned from Sabrina with the Pallet Labs so they could explore evidence of psychic-color-cones, Red spends an afternoon reading through and typing up a copy of the notebook he’s been writing in since he began his journey, all the way from the beginning. Once he finishes, he begins a new one with a list of experiments he wants to run next.

There are a lot of old ideas that are still appealing and interesting to him, all the way back from the first night leaving Pallet Town where he wondered about the bonds that form between people and their pokemon. But ultimately he has to cut things down to what seems immediately relevant to his psychic research, which leaves him with a handful:

First, what’s up with teleportation and walls? Seriously, does it involve traveling through actual space or not? Own experience with it doesn’t shed any light on conundrum. Experiments are unusually rigorous for psychic research, likely due to practical value, but no underlying mechanism is understood.

Second, medium cleansing ritual? Jason and Agatha’s advantages with ghost may be inborn, a matter of mindset/training, or due to some seemingly random things they both do. Counterexamples are psychics with ghost affinity from cultures without medium practices, but still worth testing.

Third, if psychokinesis particles distinct from psychic ones can the difference be measured? One travels farther? One pierces walls. (Can an object be levitated over a dark pokemon?) Glass limitation mental, according to Sabrina’s report…

Those he can’t test himself, unfortunately, but he’s already enlisted Tatsumaki’s help with it. She seems less standoffish than she used to, maybe because of familiarity, or maybe because of what he’s accomplished since arriving at Saffron. In any case she’s definitely interested in developing her abilities, and seems to regard his experiments as a way to possibly do that, since it was his experiments and practice with Rei in mirroring a state of mind while projecting it at the same time that saved them in Lavender. Even if all the research fails to reveal anything new about the fundamental nature of psychic phenomena, some of it might still produce useful findings.

He knows he could blow through them in a couple days if he wants to, but instead forces himself to formally write a short paper on each, which means a preregistered methodology and hypothesis, recordings of each attempt, documenting the data, and evaluating the outcomes.

At first he’s able to find this an exciting and interesting process, one where he feels proud for embodying the virtues he (likes to think he) holds, eager curiosity coupled with methodical rigor.

By the second week he finds himself procrastinating and putting off new experiments because of the attached process, and almost anything else he can do feels more appealing than writing another damn paper.

After five days of barely getting any work done he has a therapy session, and decides to take a break from grief work to instead bring up his flagging work enthusiasm. Dr. Seward invites him to talk a bit about what motivates him to do it the hard way, and after saying a few things about demonstrating good research practices and appearing “virtuous” to Professor Oak and others, he feels an upwelling of indignation that grows every time he thinks about the body of literature that does exist, and how limited it is. It bothers him how lacking real psychic research is, and how many seem unbothered by that.

Dr. Seward listens to him rant about how few psychics document their experiments and how few scientists are psychic or approach their beliefs about psychic powers with the same attitude they treat other scientific pursuits for a while before dryly suggesting that this might be something he can lean into for motivation. This turns out to be surprisingly effective.

Also effective are more practical ways to reinforce diligent work, such as scheduling calls with other young researchers to work at the same time and then discuss what they did afterward, as well as setting pseudo-public deadlines for sharing his completed work with others. Dr. Seward warned it might backfire and just add more paralyzing pressure, but instead it turned out to be particularly motivating as each deadline approached.

Another thing that slows him down are the requests by others for help in their own research, along with the people who reach out to ask questions about his own work, or just for advice. At first he was more than happy to help share his thoughts or explain something about his experiments, but it starts to get repetitive and tedious to repeat the same things to different people, especially since the volume of them has only continued to rise. He spends some time fretting over it, then remembers the idea they had in Vermilion of hiring a secretary and decides this is another problem that money can solve for him. It takes a while to find one and come up with a system by which he wants his incoming messages filtered and grouped, but once he does it feels like he gained at least an hour a day.

Still, some of the experiments just take time, particularly the ones that can (and should) be split up into stages. Red tests the cleansing rituals by first trying to merge with gastly while in the shower, in case simple contact with running water is what matters. When this has no apparent effect on the invasive emotional spillover, he pulls his thoughts back and leaves the shower, dries, writes out his experience, then dresses in a robe and sits on the floor with a water bowl, censer, and ladle, imitating everything he saw Jason do as best he can without making any attempt to change his mental state. Once the ritual is done he tries again, with no effect, and then repeats the ritual, again to no apparent effect.

After that he tries deliberately invoking the boggling mentality that he developed while trying to mirror Jason’s, essentially emptying his mind as best he can of any preconceptions and just being as receptive as possible. This does seem to make things easier, though it’s hard to quantify, and when he tries to combine it with the ritual he doesn’t notice any difference. Still, he dutifully writes up another separate paper for all five.

The teleportation experiments are the most time consuming, as he first has to get enough large pieces of cardboard to form an enclosure, then keep trying different configurations of walls and ceilings around either himself or his teleportation point. A lot of it involves just replicating what previous experiments have done, but he also tries his own mix of adjustments, such as leaving a shape just big enough for the abra to move through, then just big enough for himself.

He also has to let his abras rest, as they can’t teleport more than a few times in a row without getting exhausted. He cycles through them, bringing everything with him to each location they’re registered at and setting things up all over again, and by the time he ends up back in Saffron he has a small audience of four abra recuperating out of their balls as he finishes up the experiments he planned.

None of it works. Whatever limitation decides that abra can’t teleport into even semi-enclosed places, it seems airtight (so to speak). He knows it’s not just a mental limitation too, there’s an experiment with someone who didn’t know that teleportation isn’t supposed to work indoors that still didn’t work when it was tried, and all this just makes him boggle all over again at how weird teleportation is, and how fundamentally unlike other “psychic powers.” He even catches himself trying to justify why it’s actually a Ghost ability before realizing that he’s just falling into the same “typing” heuristic he keeps criticizing others for; considering it a Ghost ability doesn’t actually help explain anything about how it works.

After a couple days he moves on to another aspect of teleportation that’s been thoroughly experimented on: what counts as “attached” for what gets teleported with a pokemon or person. Plenty of people have tried to break the “one person per pokemon” teleportation barrier (the monetization value of “commercial teleporting” is less now that abra are relatively cheap, but it would still be a multi-billion dollar industry), but no one’s understood yet what the pokemon itself is thinking when it distinguishes its trainer and their clothes or bags and a stranger.

Red thinks he might as well try it, and spends hours merged with his abra as they teleport, both alone and with him, then with him and various volunteers of varying psychic ability. They definitely distinguish individuals with minds; he can hold a potted plant in his free hand and get teleported with it, but not a bellsprout. The best he can put into words, as he writes his paper, is that abra distinguish their trainer as “family.” The familial bond is safe and important, what allows them to carry their children to safety until they’re old enough to teleport themselves.

When he tries it with his mother, however, she doesn’t get teleported with him, and he finally decides to throw in the towel. He’s spent nearly a week on teleportation experiments alone, and the only thing he’s gotten out of it is that full, deep merging with any of his abra now feels completely familiar and effortless.

By the second week of April he has nearly a dozen papers written that cover each of his brief exploratory experiments, all without a single real breakthrough or meaningful result. He stares at them a while, neatly listed in the pokedex under his name beside his few previous studies, and can’t help but wonder if people will think he’s just trying to pad out his list of papers. He decides to take a break from research for a few days and goes to bed early, feeling a little fried and at a loss for what to do next.

Until, that is, his following training session with Blue, when his friend brings Zephyr out to show off his new and final form.

“Congrats, Blue!” Red smiles as the pidgeot has to bend his neck a little to scoop the fruit out of Blue’s palm. The plumage on his head has grown nearly as long as Red is tall, and it’s strange to remember the way he used to fit comfortably on Blue’s shoulder. “Been battling with him a lot lately?”

“Yeah, the dojo we’ve been training at, which you still need to come check out by the way, has plenty of Fighting types. He’s just barely big enough to ride, the learner’s license guy said to make sure he keeps growing as I do since I’m just below the comfort mark.”

“Weight isn’t a problem?”

“Nah, look at those wings! He can Sky Drop a machamp. So long as he grows a few meters in the provisional period, I can get the full license.”

“Nice.” As Red gives Zephyr a pet, he remembers Leaf’s surprise way back when they started their journey that a specific gym leader was responsible for flying licenses in Kanto. That regulation was one of many that changed after the Hoenn incident; after Leader Surge said he was too busy to maintain the duty, Indigo’s interregional government decided to spread the responsibility out to the new Travel Agency it was in the process of rolling out to oversee issues arising from all the added teleportation sites people were registering. “You must be excited to start getting around faster.”

“Hell yeah. It’s no teleportation, but being able to head to Aiko’s ranch, or even swing by home for a visit any time I want, for free? Not to mention exploring new places, since Glen and Sumi already have their license, Sumi is actually an amazing flier already, she’s been teaching the rest of us how to do really tight turns and … what’s up?”

“Huh?” Red asks, torn from suddenly racing thoughts. I could reach out to the network… maybe pay some taxi pilots a retainer…

“You’ve got that look, like you just remembered something.” Blue grins. “Or just had an idea?”

“Yeah,” Red says, and grins back. “Is Sumi’s flier big enough to carry two?”


The answer is no, but it turns out not to matter. Some quick research shows that ever since the unown started randomly flying around the islands, even single riders have trouble catching them. While not particularly fast, they are maneuverable; unlimited by things like mass and wind and the safety of their rider, and able to change directions at the speed of thought, most trainers can’t keep them in range long enough to even get a lock, let alone hit them with a ball.

Which means that while Artem’s coordination of unown sightings pays off in a big way, even if one of the volunteers watching the skies in Lavender or Pallet or Cerulean or somewhere else Red has a teleport registered calls him tomorrow, the hard part would still be ahead of him.

Sending pokemon to injure them until they can’t maintain their flight is what most trainers have attempted, but it’s difficult to get pokemon to consistently target the unown, since their abstract shapes don’t register as threats and they don’t fight back. No one’s ever had to fight unown before, so it’s never been an issue, but even with new programming to train pokemon to attack them it’s hard to reinforce the behaviors in meatspace.

None of which matters for Red, since he doesn’t want to injure or capture the unown; he wants to merge with them while they do whatever it is they’re doing.

“That means no stunning, sleeping, confusing, freezing, not even a big weighted net to keep them in place,” Red says. “What do you think? Is there any flier in particular you’d recommend?”

“Hmm.” Dr. Madi sips his coffee with one hand as the other taps at his keyboard computer to bring up test data that hasn’t been entered into the pokedex yet. In the process of discovering the mechanics of pokemon flight, his old supervisor became one of the leading experts on Flying types (and other pokemon that fly without the particle). He’s continued to run experiments that broaden their understanding of them, which made him an obvious person to ask after his appointment with Dr. Seward brought him back to Pallet Town. It’s a Saturday morning, so the labs are quieter than usual, but it still feels nostalgic for Red to be here again. It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a year since he came to pick up his charmander… “Well, swellow and crobat are pretty agile, though keeping you in range of the unown for a prolonged period may be taxing. How well would you be able to guide them?”

“Honestly, not well once the merge starts,” Red admits. “Which is why I first thought of being a passenger.”

“I’m sure you’ve thought of this, but what about a helicopter?”

“I did, yeah… I could give a pilot a bunch of abra, have them register in the same places I am, have them constantly available for who knows how long so they can drop everything and teleport with me to a sighting, summon the helicopter there, and take off, but as a first option it’s— ”

“Expensive,” Madi acknowledges, voice sympathetic as he continues to scan the spreadsheets showing max speed, acceleration, turning arc, and other factors of various pokemon in various weather conditions and with different amounts of weight. “How close is your charmeleon to evolving?”

“Uh, I’m not sure. It’s nearly my height?”

“That’s a shame. Charizard are pretty fast, and they’re not as slowed by riders as bird pokemon.”

Red frowns, trying to ignore the stab of doubt over his choices. Maybe he should be training his pokemon more, or at least the ones that would be too expensive to buy evolved versions… particularly since he just spent weeks on experiments with nothing to show for them. But that’s hindsight speaking, and he’d still want to perform the experiments at some point if he hadn’t done them now, and doing them sooner means others who are curious might save time not attempting themselves (though a few others should try just in case) and—

“Hey, what about aerodactyl?”

Red blinks. “Aren’t they super expensive?” He expects a ping of aversion from Unpartitioned Red, these days most major expenditures either get a nudge for or against, but this one seems to evoke ambivalence. The impression he gets instead is that having a super-fast flying pokemon might be worth the price, if it stands out from others…

“Yep, and not recommended for first time fliers. But they’re absurdly fast and maneuverable given their weight, so if you can find a pilot with one—”

“—a second passenger wouldn’t affect them much. That sounds perfect.” He hesitates. “Do any trainers with aerodactyl work for taxi companies?”

“I’ve never heard of one,” Dr. Madi admits. “They may be ideal for multiple passengers, but they don’t have the stamina for long trips, and the margins on short ones probably aren’t too high since they take a lot of upkeep. You’d probably make more as a pilot just selling it for a more common mount. They haven’t been around long enough to be with any retired trainers, but there might be some with injuries that make them unsuited to battle? Best I can think of for now.”

Red nods and checks the time, then stands. “I should head out. Thanks for this.”

“Of course. If I get any other bright ideas, I’ll pass them along. Good to see you again!”

Red waves and heads out the door, then through the echoing white halls until he can take an elevator down to the rear exit. Beyond it lies rippling green fields where most of the lab’s pokemon are bred, raised, studied, and trained, and as he walks out into the crisp afternoon air he summons Pikachu and Charmeleon so his pokemon can frolic around the new environment as they walk together.

He didn’t spend much time here before his journey, instead learning to feed and care for the lab’s pokemon in more controlled settings, but he knows the general layout. It takes about ten minutes to find one of the breeders who supervised his basic care training, Sophie, who smiles as he reaches the ramada where her outdoor office is set up.

“Been a while, Verres. Didn’t expect to see you back as a buyer so soon.”

“Still wouldn’t have, but Blue twisted my arm.” He smiles to show that it didn’t take much twisting.

“Sounds like a win-win to me, keeping you in the family business while ensuring you get a good deal. Hey there little fella!” She bends to scratch pikachu’s fur, fingers gentle as they trace the scar along his back. “Not so little, really. And there’s Earnest… or whatever you’re calling him now?”

“Uh, just Charmeleon still. His nickname was Earnest?”

“That’s right, you weren’t around long enough to take care of the rarer pokemon. Yeah, he really got focused on whatever he was doing compared to his siblings.”

Red wonders if he should try the old nickname on, but it doesn’t feel right, somehow. “Is his family out today? Maybe he can visit them.”

“Oh, no, they tend to like staying in their caves during winter, so we rarely bring them out unless it’s time for mating or a new brood.” She stands, and Pikachu skips back over to Red while Charmeleon investigates the wooden pillars of the ramada. “The others are out and about, though.”

He sends a mental nudge to his pokemon to come along as he follows her to the lake first, where various water pokemon swim below and along the surface. A pair of attendants are nearby, one running tests on the water whom Red recognizes and waves to, and a new face who’s running health checks on a poliwag. Among the various pokemon around them, it’s easy to spot the three squirtle playing atop and around the floating brown shell of a blastoise, which draws his attention to the rest of the family nearby; specifically the two wartortles lazing around in the shallows.

“They’re usually more energetic, racing around the lake, but—”

“They get less active when it’s colder,” Red completes with a smile, and Sophie nods.

“It’s been nice to have a few days without groundsnow, so we’re letting them enjoy it while they can. Shelby’s on the left, Snaps on the right.”

“Thanks.” He already received a file on each of them, their history and measurements and stats, the sorts of documents he spent a lot of time writing up as an intern. “And it really doesn’t matter which one I take?”

“From what I understand, your discount agreement would give us first right on breeding and resale, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Then nah, either works.”

Red almost asks which of them seems more attached to their family, but that’s the sort of thing he can check himself, and is part of why he wanted to come meet the pokemon rather than just going off the data. So he sends an impulse to Pikachu and Charmeleon to stay away from the lake (not that Charmeleon needs it, but Pikachu is curious and Red doesn’t want him to alarm the Water types) and walks over to his two potential new partners as he sends his thoughts out, feeling a bit like he did last time he was at the Lab to pick his starter.

Red can tell even without merging that both pokemon are fairly relaxed, in the general mental state he’s familiar with from helping out at Aiko’s ranch. As he gets closer their attention shifts to him, but without any alarm or fear, just curiosity… and from Snaps, a touch of wariness, Red thinks.

He confirms it by doing a proper merge, first with Snaps and then Shelby. Snaps, the senior of the two, is more prepared for potential hostility. Not expecting it, just… prepared. Shelby meanwhile is already just accepting him as part of the scenery, more interested in sniffing for food. There’s none of the protective wariness in him that his brother has, and for a moment Red deliberately focuses on the feeling of family as he swaps between the two. Which is more likely to miss them? Which would enjoy the potential excitement of going off to see new places more?

There’s no clear answer. The pokemon clearly have emotional states, but that kind of abstract imagining is beyond them. There’s only the now, and in the now both are content… one slightly more so than the other, or rather he would be if he had some tasty algae to snack on.

“I’ll take Snaps,” Red says, and as Sophie goes to speak with the caretaker, thoughts of letting Snaps “say goodbye” come and go; he’s not sure even a projection would help communicate what’s about to happen properly, and might just agitate the family without purpose. He reminds himself that the pokemon will be back to visit.

Hopefully.

“Return!”

The wartortle is sucked back into its dive ball, which gets handed to Sophie, and they make their way toward the small grove near the edge of the enclosed area. Red swaps Charmeleon for Butterfree before they start wandering through it to look for the saurs. The parents aren’t currently out to act as a convenient beacon, but Sophie explains that lately the family has found a patch of grass that they enjoy getting sun in and soon they reach a clearing where three ivys and four bulbas are being fed by another caretaker Red doesn’t know.

The oldest ivysaur is a female that’s even larger than Raff, her bud reaching as high as Red’s chin. She’s nearly twice the price as her siblings, not just for her age and gender but also considering her stats; higher agility and less prone to tiredness than the average at her age. Still, he doesn’t want to jump from being too tight with his money to too loose with it, so Red only gives her sleepy mind a cursory merger before focusing on the younger two.

One comes up to Red as their emotions blend, and he shares the ivysaur’s curiosity at the new smells he brings with him. Red hasn’t had enough experience with ivysaur mergers to share the smells themselves, but he can tell that’s what the ivysaur is reacting to.

He holds his hand out for it to sniff while the other ivysaur just continues munching on berries. Neither of them seem quite as playful and curious as Raff, though the one that approached him is closer… but he’s not sure that’s what he should be aiming for; it’s not like he has the time to play with them the way she does. Or rather, it’s not like he makes the time the way she does.

The two are roughly equal in combat capability and price, so he decides to go with the more stoic one, in case someone more like Leaf comes along looking for an ivysaur. Its nickname is Shade (apparently it liked to stick close to its parents when it was younger), and once the caretaker returns it to its ball and hands it to Sophie, they make their way back to her office, pausing a couple times as Butterfree or Pikachu examine some tree or flower bush.

“Do you guys plan on breeding any aerodactyl, by any chance?” he asks. “Ones that would be for sale?”

“Ha! Oh, you’re serious.” She shakes her head with a grin. “Not on my watch. They’re ridiculously fickle breeders. There’s the dedicated hatchery on Cinnabar Island, of course, but they only sell a couple every year at most.”

Red decides not to distract himself by researching aerodactyl more and falling into his massive knowledge hole on pokemon breeding so he can solve an indirect problem that might solve the real one. Not just yet, at least. “Crobat?”

“Already fully evolved? Would cost you quite a bit. What do you need such fast fliers for?”

His explanation carries them all the way back to her ramada, where she sets up the PC for the trades and takes his pokedex to transfer ownership after he signs the appropriate documents. “Huh. Wanting to stay in range of a flying pokemon without hampering it…” She shakes her head. “Definitely not a normal problem, though some of the field researchers might have ideas even if Madi didn’t.”

“Yeah, I made a forum post to solicit advice. When I think back to other field experiments I’ve tried, like using spinarak webs to catch pokemon while I slept in Viridian, or the sounds from Dark pokemon to scare abra into a trap, I was playing off of the natural tools and weaknesses the pokemon had. But unown don’t have any natural predators, and they don’t behave like any other pokemon.”

“Have you tried reaching out to Rangers, see if they’ve had to do things like this before while herding pokemon, maybe?”

“Herding? Huh.” He makes the payment, part of him wincing slightly at the cost, then lines the balls up to begin the new owner training programs. “That’s a good idea… ” He thinks of Blue and his friends maybe all flying together to pen the unown in… but they’d have to keep up with them too, and in the air the unown would be able to evade in three dimensions rather than two.

Still, it is a good idea. “Thanks, I’ll look into it.”

“No problem. Take care, Verres, and don’t be a stranger.”

“I’ll try. I mean, I will, and I won’t—”

She laughs and waves him off, and he clips his new pokemon to the empty spots he left on his belt then returns Pikachu and Butterfree before he waves goodbye and unclips Saffron’s ball to teleport back.

After a moment he changes his mind. He’s not in a rush, with nothing else planned for a few hours, and he should practice free teleportation again, as he usually does when he has some spare time. So he swaps Saffron for Pallet, then prepares to teleport to the roof of the town’s Pokemon Center so he can practice in relative privacy.

As soon as he merges with Pallet, however, he notices something odd.

Abra minds are fairly unique in a lot of ways, one of which is that they’re both the most and least confused upon being summoned out of their balls. Programming helps most pokemon get over the disorientation of going from one location to another in a relative instant, but abra are very used to it, only really startled by abrupt shifts in temperature and light; this in turn is exacerbated by abra’s naturally extreme awareness of what environments are new to them. Their first order of business when in a new environment is to assess for safety, then “imprint” the location in a way that allows them to teleport back to it if needed.

Pallet definitely hasn’t been to this location before, and yet he’s not treating it like a new location. Red almost dismisses this—they’re still within Pallet Town, after all, so maybe the smells and sounds are similar enough—but no, he’s spent too much time looking out for the exact note of confusion he feels to ignore it that easily.

Part of the extreme ease and depth of his merger with his various abra after his experiments came from bringing each to different locations and teleporting back to the same one over and over and over again from just a couple meters away. It made it extremely clear that even slight differences in location register as different, and how. And really, there’s virtually nothing about this place that’s similar to the roof of the Pallet Pokemon Center.

What makes sense to Red, given just how sensitive abra are to location, is that they’re not using familiar senses at all, but rather something else entirely that tracks their position in space relative to a fixed point. Hell, even a higher elevation is enough to trigger a sense of vague unease in the abra until they know it’s safe. He’s not sure what they are using, maybe they’re orienting to something like their first remembered location or the center of the earth itself, but given that teleportation somehow manages to alter not just their location but their orientation and velocity from one moment to the next (objects on the earth’s surface are rotating faster closer to the equator than the poles, and yet teleportation works across continents without negative effect (in fact some of the first experiments with teleportation involved testing farther and farther “leaps,” with synchronized timing to measure whether it took any longer based on distance crossed))…

All these thoughts flash through Red’s mind in a wordless few instants, along with the now-familiar doubled sensations of his and his abra’s bodies, summing up to a simple, clear note of unambiguous confusion.

His abra shouldn’t feel familiar in this location.

But he is.

Which means it’s not the abra’s own sense of location that’s giving it the sense of familiarity and safety.

It’s Red’s.

Which means…

Red grins, and closes his eyes, and focuses on the most clear, most definitively safe environment, the most solid spacial point in his memory.

Teleport, he commands, the thought instantly shared between him and his fully merged abra, and he feels the shift in every sense, from warm sunlight and cool wind on two sets of skin to nothing, from dim light through closed lids to relative blackness, from grass to carpet, from outdoor smells to dust and linen, from faint sounds to absolute quiet.

Even months removed, he knows these smells.

Red starts laughing before he even opens his eyes, and sees his room around him, just as he left it. He picks Pallet up and hugs him, dropping the merger as he spins them around in an excited dance.

They did it. They did it. Free teleportation!

He laughs again, dancing in a small circle as he lifts his stoic abra up and down, so excited that he doesn’t hear the rapid footsteps until his door suddenly gets yanked open and he turns to stare at the shocked and frightened face of a stranger.

Oops. Too late he remembers that his mom rented the house out, sans their bedrooms. This must be the tenant staying in the guestroom.

“You… how…?!”

“I’m so sorry!” Red is still grinning like a fool as he puts his abra down and bows. “I didn’t mean to scare you! I’ll go right away, I just got so excited and didn’t think… I just figured out I can freely teleport!”

The man is still staring at him, mouth hanging open, and Red is about to reassure him that he’ll leave right away and not do this again when the man looks at the window, then him. “But… but we’re indoors!”

Red blinks at him, then looks around, grin fading.

The door was closed. The window was closed.

He teleported into an entirely enclosed space.

Somehow he forgot that he’s not able to do that.


“Oh yes, must have been a dozen of them,” the old man says to Leaf, eyes bright. “Leaping from roof to roof so quick, I thought they were pokemon!”

“A dozen, huh?” Leaf dutifully writes this down, suppressing both her excitement and her skepticism. “You were able to count them?”

“Ah, no, I just meant there were a lot, you know, more than a few!”

“And did they move as a group, or single file?”

“Mm, single file, you know, each leaping one after the other.”

“I see. And I’ve heard they each wore long red scarves, is that true?”

“Oh yes!” The man nods confidently. “That’s why I thought they were pokemon! Scarves were red as a greninja tongue!”

“And did you call anyone?”

“Eh? Ah, no, they were gone so fast. And I thought, well, there’s no law against jumping on rooftops, is there?”

Disturbing the peace, maybe, or trespassing? “Not specifically, that I’m aware. Anyway, I should head out. Thanks for your time.”

“Oh, sure. Come on back if you have any more questions, I’m here most nights.”

David sees Leaf stand and finishes his drink, then joins her at the bar’s doorway. They summon their pokemon together, her ivysaur and his meowstic, and as they walk along the street David casually asks, “You made up the part with the scarves, I take it?”

“Yeah. Something about him made me skeptical.”

“A bit too happy to have someone to talk to, I’d say.” David’s tone is sympathetic. “Older guy like that, sitting alone in a bar, probably used to being the one who strikes up conversation until the other person leaves.”

“Probably.” Leaf sighs. “Still, it’s possible he did see something. After all this time, I was bound to find someone eventually, right?”

“Or you were bound to ask enough people that, statistically, someone’s going to lie about it.”

Leaf nods and glumly follows the middle aged man down the sidewalk toward the next bar. It’s the third week of her almost nightly “tours of the city,” and after starting from the middle and working her way south first, she’s now making her way up toward the northern district, which seems to have a more active nightlife.

Overall, it’s hard to say whether all this time has been worthwhile. As Captain Takara noted, she’s too famous these days to get away with being a “curious foreigner” the way she was in Pewter, which combined with the nature of the investigation means she’s had to bury the questions she’s really interested in among all sorts of others about the city. In the past three weeks she’s heard people grumble about how the city’s reconstruction from the Hoenn incident is taking too long, praise the mayor’s new business initiatives, and whisper all sorts of theories about why crime in the city has been so low.

Not that everyone whispers about it, plenty of people attribute it to some change in policing or random chance, but the ones that do are the most interesting. As it turns out, there are a handful of rumors about people going around chasing gangs out of the city and stopping crime through vigilantism, but no one has claimed to be a first-hand witness until the man she met tonight.

Of course, Leaf could ask the local police about it. But even assuming they’d talk to her, that might draw attention that she’s trying to avoid… and besides, she’s still wary of talking to them after what happened in Celadon.

It took about a week, four nightly trips through the city in total, for Ranger Kyra to figure out what Leaf is really interested in. They’d gotten to know each other a bit in that time, enough for Leaf to trust the older woman and confirm what she’s really looking into. The ranger seemed curious, but not especially so, which Leaf has been grateful for. Her willingness to continue to chaperone Leaf has also been appreciated, and it took another week of Leaf insisting on treating her to dinner before the ranger accepted.

Kyra’s schedule can be erratic, however, and David has come to fill in the gaps for nights when she’s not available. He’s a programmer in his early 30s that attends the daily conferences, one of the people Leaf initially met online as he began to collaborate on her project with Natural and the others. It’s been nice getting to know him in person; he’s not a trainer, is also new to Kanto, and he’s always happy to teach her about anything related to computers or programming, or what it’s like working for Devon Corp. While he hasn’t particularly seemed to enjoy himself in the group’s brief trips into the Safari Zone, he seems happy enough to walk the city with her for a few hours at a time (and plenty of opportunities to rest). He expressed an interest in seeing more of Fuchsia last week, and when she explained that she travels the city whenever Kyra is available to chaperone, he offered to accompany her on the nights when the ranger is busy.

They reach another bar and Leaf spends half an hour talking to another couple people before David suggests they call it a night, which sends a sudden stab of dread through Leaf. “Could we, uh, visit one more?” He raises a brow, and she immediately feels bad. She’s always been worried about imposing on his or Kyra’s time before. “Nevermind, you’re right.”

“What’s up?”

“Nothing—”

“Hey.” Leaf looks back at him to find his patient, kindly gaze on hers. “You were distracted at the meeting today, and looked like you didn’t sleep well. Now this. Something going on at home?”

Leaf bites her lower lip, sighs, then nods. David takes her shoulder and steers her back into the bar, and this time they sit at a table together. “What’s up, Leaf? Is Mr. Sakai having a bad day?”

She closes her eyes, feeling tears well up briefly. “You can say that. Today was Aiko’s birthday.”

“Oh.” He lets out a breath. “Shit. I’m sorry, kid.”

She nods, eyes still closed. Aiko’s aunt reached out last night to see how she and her brother were doing, and Leaf cautiously reported that he seemed to be fine; nothing unusual that morning or during dinner.

He was not fine this morning.

“His sister came to spend the day with him. She doesn’t usually spend much time at the ranch, she’s got her own life, but she said they should mourn together.” Leaf lets out a watery breath. “Anyway, she’s probably waiting for me to get back before she heads home. Maybe even expecting me for dinner, so I should go back.”

“Hold on. If she’s still with him then she probably won’t mind another few minutes. How are you doing?”

Leaf takes a moment to let the question stir her emotions up, gives them a chance to radiate out like spikes from her chest, to sink her head heavily onto her folded arms. “Not great,” she admits in a low croak. It was easy to keep the feelings away, as long as she kept focused on other things. But returning to the ranch… to that room, to the likely sounds of weeping… or somehow worse, silence…

I’m sorry, Aiko…

“That’s understandable,” David says, voice low and soothing. “I’d be surprised if—”

“It’s not that,” she forces out, his sympathy somehow making it worse. “It’s… I feel like I’ve moved on. It’s been five months, and… I can’t forget her, I’m living in her room, having meals with her dad every day, but…” Guilt twists in her, and she forces the admission out. “I forgot it was her birthday. She told us back when we were celebrating Red and Blue’s, and I remember making vague plans around then, but… until her aunt called yesterday…”

She feels hesitant fingers touch her shoulder, then squeeze. “That’s nothing to blame yourself for. Hell, even my dad doesn’t remember my birthday most years unless my mom reminds him. You didn’t even get the chance to celebrate one with her, right?”

Leaf shakes her head, feeling a sob rise in her throat before she pushes it back down.

“Have you spoken to your friends about it?”

“No. They’re busy, Blue’s got to catch up on his training after working on his flying license, and Red’s still trying to replicate the indoor teleport…” It was an amazing discovery, one that only a few people actually believe happened. There’s the one witness, of course, and she trusts Red, but to most people it’s just too unusual to be believed until he can do it again in controlled conditions, especially since the witness might have simply been tricked; she’s seen comments online about how he probably opened the window from outside, snuck in, then closed it behind him. It was his house, after all.

“Mhm. Well, I know your friends are busy guys, but I gotta think they would want to be with you if you were feeling like this. Is there something more to this?”

She shakes her head again. “I don’t want… it hasn’t been that long since…” She’s talked to David about some things, but not this. No one outside of Blue’s close friends knows how bad things got between him and Red. How fragile their rekindled friendship might be. “They haven’t said anything. I don’t want them to feel guilty too, if they forgot.” It’s not a lie, at least, just a lesser reason.

“But you miss her. And the only person you can share that grief with is her father, who didn’t know her the way you did. That’s gotta be a lonely feeling, Leaf. It’s okay not to put others first at times like this.”

Probably. But it’s not worth bringing back that distance between them, that anger and hurt. “Maybe.”

David lets out a sigh and squeezes her shoulder again before drawing his hand back. “We can stay out as long as you’d like, kid. I’m not in a rush to get home.”

“No.” She rubs her eyes and lifts her head up, sniffing. “I should go. But thank you, David. Really.”

He hesitates, gaze searching her face, then nods, and they head outside. “I’ll see you tomorrow. And… feel free to call me, if you need to chat or something.”

“I will.” Maybe. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, kid.”

She brings her abra out and teleports back to the ranch, letting the salty air of Fuchsia out in a gust before taking in a fresh breath of the open fields around her. When she turns toward the ranch, she sees lights on upstairs and wonders if Kasumi is still here. When she goes inside, however, she hears different voices upstairs, and hurries up the steps, heart leaping.

“—think I heard… yep, there she is.”

Red and Blue are setting the table, wearing simple, somber clothes; Red’s usual hat and jacket are conspicuously missing, and Blue is wearing a simple black button up shirt. Neither are wearing their pokebelts, and she remembers that bright colors, particularly red, are considered inappropriate for mourning here.

She turns to see Mr. Sakai and his sister in the kitchen. Both their eyes are puffy, and Aiko’s father is moving slowly, face drawn as he shuffles from place to place, but he looks at her as he sets the food down, and gives a watery smile. “You’re just in time. Don’t forget to wash up before it gets cold.”

Leaf’s paralysis breaks as she nods and hurries to do so, then quickly changes and takes her belt off before joining them. The meal is somber as everyone eats the bowls of simple rice with beans and chopped vegetables, and once they’re done Kasumi lifts her glass, eyes wet.

“To my niece. She always had something kind to say, and worked so hard—” Her voice breaks, and she takes a breath. “I never knew just how hard.”

They drink, Leaf through a tight throat, and then Blue goes next, voice low and intense. “To Aiko, who saved my life, and others’, when we were underground. For teaching us a new way to own our mistakes, and learn from them.”

They drink again as fresh tears line her family’s faces, and Leaf’s vision blurs. She wipes them clear, and speaks as clearly as she can, though her voice is rough, and wavers at the start. “To my friend, who made me feel less alone in what I cared about, and who shared her d-dreams with m-me.”

Leaf can barely swallow, and it’s like a dam breaks in her chest, all the grief of Aiko’s death suddenly fresh again. She can hear the others weeping too, and it takes a few minutes before quiet descends, and Red clears his throat.

“To Aiko. Whose determination moved us all. And was only matched by… by her heart.”

They sip their drinks again, and Leaf has to clear her eyes again as she thinks of the way Aiko broke down and cried when she received her refurbished pokedex, and the quiet patience in her voice when she told her father she was leaving. She knows Red must also be thinking of how she died, and wants to hug him, but holds herself back for now.

Mr. Sakai is quiet for so long that Leaf almost thinks he won’t speak, until he whispers, “To my daughter. She never complained. About the work. Or me. She just wanted. More.” His mouth works, silently, and then he repeats, “More,” and drinks, and sets his glass down, tears slipping from under closed lids.

They sit in silence for a while, and Leaf stares at the table, wishing she could hug Joy, wondering if there’s something else it would be appropriate to do. She’s bone tired, and part of her wants to go to bed, but the thought of whose bed it is causes fresh tears to flow for another indeterminate while.

Kasumi is the first to stir, and starts to clean the table. Blue stands too, and a hollowed-out looking Red, whose partition, she suddenly intuits, has likely been down all night as he lets himself fully be with his grief. Mr. Sakai stands to help, but his sister quickly ushers him to his bedroom, and they hear quiet murmurs, and some brief, joint sobbing.

The three work quietly to clear the table and wash the dishes before Kasumi returns. “I think he’s asleep,” she murmurs, and reaches out to hug Leaf, then Red, then Blue. “I’ll stay on the futon tonight, to see how he is tomorrow. If he follows the pattern of how he was after Ema… his wife… tomorrow he’ll likely be back to normal, more or less.”

There’s a heaviness in her voice, but no bitterness. “Is there anything else I can do…?”

“No, dear, you’re doing more than enough. And you two. Thank you all for coming.”

“Of course,” Blue says, and Red nods before they go to collect their things. Leaf helps her set up the futon, then follows Red and Blue downstairs to say goodbye.

By some unspoken signal, as soon as they’re outside and under the stars, they move for a group hug. For a while they just stand quietly together under the stars, as they did in this same place that night nearly half a year ago before she and Red went off to sea, and Blue and Aiko and the others went below the earth. The last time they were together, before the storm that blew them apart.

It’s Leaf that breaks the hug, not because she wants to, but because she knows the other two won’t. Not as long as they think she might still need it. She takes a few deep breaths, then clears her throat. “When did you guys…?” Another stab of guilt, that they remembered and she didn’t…

“Miss Sakai asked if we were free for dinner around noon,” Blue explains. “Got here maybe half an hour before you did.”

Red picks up on her surprise, whether psychically or just by her expression. “You didn’t know? You weren’t planning on bearing this alone, were you?”

“I didn’t…” Leaf forces the words out. “She’s the one that reminded me, yesterday. I didn’t think…”

“Idiot,” Blue says, but affectionately. She can’t tell if he guessed why she didn’t bring it up to them. “How’s everything down south? Going okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, fine. Another test tomorrow, on tauros.” They’ve been experimenting with a handful of pokemon, each one needing custom code. It still makes Leaf feel ill, sometimes, particularly when she remembers how angry she used to get at pokemon experimentation… but at least she knows this really is for the pokemon’s sake as much as humans’.

“Cool. You guys still going to need us?”

“I think so. That’s still the plan, I mean, last I heard.”

“Well, we’ll be there. Can come down anytime, now.”

“I’ll head down sometime this week,” Red says. “After that, same.”

“How’s the teleporting going?”

Red makes a face. “I know I should just be happy I can do free teleportation now—”

“Or any teleportation,” Blue mutters.

“—that too, sorry. It’s just, figuring out what I did, exactly, and failing to replicate it, has kind of sucked the fun and victory out of it. After duplicating the exact steps and conditions leading up to it failed, even I’m starting to doubt what I experienced, like maybe the window was open and me teleporting in made it fall closed or something, even though I know that shouldn’t make any difference, I tested for stuff like that, so did others.”

“It has to be something with your state of mind, right?”

“That’s what I keep thinking, but I’m having trouble figuring out what it is. My best guess is not knowing for sure it’ll work, so it can only happen the first time someone teleports, but it’s hard to find psychics who haven’t done it at least once these days, ironically, and when I tried it with a non-psychic it didn’t work. Having psychics invoke amnesia also didn’t work, maybe because they can’t do it to their pokemon and that’s important too somehow, but using a new pokemon also didn’t work.”

There’s a threadbare frustration in his voice that makes Leaf reach out a hand to squeeze his arm. “You’ll get it, sooner or later. Don’t run yourself ragged meanwhile.”

“He hasn’t been sleeping much,” Blue adds.

“Hey, that’s not…” Red trails off as they both stare at him, and he sighs, running a hand through his hair before admitting, “…entirely true. Once I fall asleep I get enough hours, as long as there’s no alarm, but I’ve had trouble with racing thoughts at night. It’s hard to move on to anything else, with this kind of discovery teasing me just out of reach. But I found a workaround yesterday, actually.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I just make myself forget I did it, when I want to sleep.”

Blue shakes his head. “I don’t care if it’s sour grapes or what, that will never stop being creepy to me.”

“You should meet Rowan sometime. Speaking of which, I’ve got a meeting to get to.” He doesn’t make a move to leave, however, and neither does Blue. After a moment Red awkwardly asks Leaf, “You’ll be by tomorrow for your session with Sabrina, right?”

They’re reluctant about leaving me alone. She remembers the way she cried upstairs, and feels a prickle of embarrassment… but just a prickle. “I will. Come by again anytime. You know you’re always welcome.”

They take the dismissal, and hug her again once each before Blue summons Zephyr and mounts up, taking off with big, buffeting gusts of wind. Red summons an abra, and Leaf raises a brow. “Now that you don’t need one for each city, have you sold the others off?”

“Not yet, they might still come in handy.” For experiments, she guesses. “You’re going to ask me about the nicknames, aren’t you?”

“Just saying, doesn’t make sense to stick with the labels if you just use one to go everywhere. And don’t you dare stick the one you keep with that!”

“What, Everywhere? It’s a bit presumptuous, unless I take a year or two to travel.” His smile fades after a moment. “You’ll really be okay?”

“I will. And if I’m not, I promise to call.”

“Good. I’m just a thought away, you know?”

That makes her smile for the first time all night. “You are. Come by soon, Raff still hasn’t met your ivysaur.”

“I will. Night, Leaf.”

“Goodnight, Red.”

She watches him disappear, and hugs herself as she lets her eyes slip closed, lets the emotions sink in and fill her for a moment as the tiredness returns. Today took her by surprise, in a lot of ways. Life in the past few months got so busy, so full of new emergencies and new normals, new experiences and new routines, that things like simply mourning her lost friend felt like something that happened to a different her, in another world. Now that she’s here, she wonders how long before the grief feels distant again, and she’s back in the stream of day to day, with just the occasional sad thought or extra long night staring up at the ceiling.

Not long. Maybe it would take a couple days, but things are moving fairly quickly at the Safari Zone, and teaching Sabrina and other psychics her mental state has been challenging, and exploring Fuchsia always brings some novelty even if it doesn’t bring her any new answers. Soon this pain would scab over again, and feel like a footnote of her life again instead of tangible, immediate reality.

Maybe she would even be like Mr. Sakai, back to “normal” as soon as she wakes in the morning.

Leaf walks back to the porch, but instead of climbing the stairs simply sits, rubbing her arms against the chill as she decides to stay out a little longer.


When Leaf arrives at the meeting the next day, there’s just a couple empty seats left, and she quickly goes to the one next to David. “Morning,” she says with a tired smile as she pets the white tuft of fur between his meowstic’s ears. “Before you ask, yes, I’m okay, thanks. And thanks again for the talk last night. Didn’t get much sleep, obviously, but my friends did end up coming over.”

“That’s good,” David says, studying her face a moment before he turns back toward his screen, looking distracted.

Leaf blinks, wondering if she’s being rude. She meant to express gratitude and reassure him, but maybe he thinks she’s giving him the brush off. She really didn’t sleep much last night, and is having trouble trusting self-assessments or thoughts. “How was your night?”

“Fine. Just did some work.”

Maybe she’s misreading him too. Or maybe he really doesn’t want to talk right now. She lets it go until later, knowing he can’t complain if she pokes him to open up a bit after he did the same, and soon the meeting starts.

Warden Takara reviews the plan to cordon off an area of the Zone, release a captured and re-programmed tauros into it, observe its behavior, and slowly but surely give it more freedom as they expose it to more scenarios, including socializing with wild tauros eventually. It’s no different than what they’ve done already with rattata and nidoran and venonat, but tauros are significantly more rare, powerful, and aggressive, which makes the stakes higher and adds additional considerations. The programmers in the room, and those watching through livestream, have a few hours to do some final overview of the code while the researchers and rangers review the planned activities and safeguards.

Leaf is something of a general purpose member of the team, being only somewhat knowledgeable in each of the various fields at play. Sometimes she feels like she’s only really here because the whole thing was her idea, but no, that’s just her tiredness and negative thoughts at work. She’s made suggestions that the others have found valuable, and at the very least is the closest thing to a “manager” the project has, since she knows everyone working on it and has been following all the changes and versions from the beginning.

She decides to review the new changes pushed last night, and finds another thing to bring up to David. “Hey, nice work with this new error-control segment. Looks a lot more elegant and thorough.”

David gives an awkward laugh, “It was nothing. I just… had some free time, thought I should try to do more, you know? Feels like I haven’t been pulling my weight.”

“That’s not true at all.” Leaf hides her frown, though she can’t help but keep watching David, troubled. He’s usually somewhat overmodest, but there’s still an off note in what he said, or the way he said it.

Maybe she should poke him now rather than later. If something’s wrong, she owes it to him to help if she can.

“Hey, mind if we take a walk? I want to talk about something.”

He looks surprised, and hesitates, which only worries her more. Finally he nods, and they slip outside the conference room, taking a brief walk down the hall toward one of the sitting areas by the big windows facing the Zone. They sit in awkward silence for a minute as he strokes his pokemon’s fur before Leaf realizes she’s supposed to say something.

“Sorry. I’m only at like 70% right now, and this seemed like a better idea before I did it. If you don’t want to talk I’ll understand. I just… you helped me last night, so… if there’s anything I can do…”

David’s face is blank at first, the expression sitting oddly in his otherwise easygoing features. He scratches the stubble along his jaw, then lets out a long, slow sigh.

“Right. So. Here’s the thing, Leaf… I didn’t want to bring this up until I had something more concrete, but I noticed something odd about the pokemon you registered at the start of all this.”

It’s Leaf’s turn to force her expression blank, while inside her pulse kicks into high gear, some of the tiredness fading as adrenaline hits her system. “Odd?”

“I think some of the others have too, but no one’s really wanted to talk about it. And when I looked into their code… well, I wondered how you got it to be so similar to wild pokemon’s without the very program that the data was used to create.”

Shit. She thought they covered their tracks well, but… “As I said, Aiko was the one who was working on this before I picked up the torch. It was just an idea, when I thought of it, she’s the one that—”

“It’s a convenient excuse, and I’m not saying it’s not partially true, at least. I believe she was working on it, and somehow found a way to alter the conditioning, or rather gave the pokemon permission to ignore it. But… I’m sorry, I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead. But I don’t care how genius your friend was, a team this big is still struggling to replicate her work? We’ve made strides, done it even better in some ways, but that kind of blanket sidestepping of the conditioning is too clean.” David sets his jaw in a stubborn angle, fingers tight in his meowstic’s fur. “I don’t know who she’s acting as the cover for, if it’s Bill or one of the others on the team or someone else entirely, but what she or they were doing was dangerous. I think you’re trying to make the best of that work, but until I know who was behind it, it feels suddenly like we all might just be getting used.”

Leaf keeps her expression as neutral as she can while thinking over her contingencies. She thought it would be Bill or Natural who first noticed and asked her about this, but as David said, maybe they noticed but didn’t care. Or maybe they’re more willing to believe that a young and determined programming genius was able to pull off what the sakki did. It was always a risk, but one she knew had to be taken if this project would be possible within a decade, rather than however long it would take for her to learn to duplicate the effects on her own without asking anyone else for help. Assuming that was even possible for someone with her programming talent; she’s no Bill. She’s not even Aiko.

“Are you going to quit?” she asks, voice quiet. If he does, he might go to the media, or raise his concern with Warden Takara… or even go to the police.

He lets a breath out. “I’m not sure. But I want to know the truth, and I’m pretty sure you know it.”

Leaf keeps her gaze on the window, trying to hide her fear. Here’s the first card, tilting out of position. What Red feared might happen as soon as the full scope of what psychic abilities can do gets known to the general public, what he realized he’d inadvertently started when the others in Blue’s training group learned about sakki. She thought it might be one of the others that let it slip, or hoped they’d have more time. Time to get farther with the program, show the good it can do.

Maybe it wouldn’t change much. Psychics are already afforded a lot of trust, combined with a lot of careful litigation and oversight to prevent abuse. Maybe this would just cause more of the same.

Or maybe it would bring the whole house down.

Chapter 93: Qualitative Research

“What’s he doing here?”

The words felt hot and spiky in Blue’s head, but come out cold, a controlled burst of contempt that causes the ex-Leader to flinch. Not much, just a tightening around his eyes, a momentary deepening of the perpetual frown his lips seem set in. Or maybe that’s anger of his own, and Blue is giving himself too much credit.

Duncan doesn’t respond, nor does he seem particularly upset. He simply looks at Koichi, as if waiting for the man to answer himself.

After a moment, he does. “Same as the others. I am here to teach, and to learn.” As in recordings Blue watched long ago, Koichi’s voice is deep, coming out of his thick chest with force behind every word… but there’s something else there, too, that he never heard in the old videos. Something almost hesitant.

“There’s nothing you have to teach that anyone should learn.”

Koichi’s eyes tighten again, and this time he drops his gaze. It’s Duncan who asks, “Do you really believe that?”

Blue rounds on him, anger joined by a sense of betrayal. He was starting to like Duncan, but defending Koichi, letting him in here to begin with…

He notices that Glen is back, approaching from the side and looking at Koichi with confusion. As a non-Kanto native his friend probably doesn’t even know who he is, and it reminds Blue that maybe Duncan doesn’t fully understand either. “Of course I do. He’s everything a Leader shouldn’t be, ran Saffron like a petty warlord who conquered it for status and had no idea how to actually rule, and worse, wasn’t willing to share power when it became obvious he needed help from others. The League almost had to step in before Sabrina beat him.”

“You won’t find anyone here who disagrees that he was a terrible Leader in many ways,” Duncan says, voice calm. Of course he knows who he is, others here would have told him… “But you keep saying ‘nothing’ and ‘everything’… you really can’t think of anything of value he might have to teach? Multiple things, even?”

It feels like he’s arguing with Red, suddenly, and the thought shifts Blue from anger to suspicion. He’s set up and walked into enough verbal traps to recognize that tone, and once he’s looking for it he sees what Duncan is getting at. “What, battling? Sure, he’s a great trainer. So what? There are plenty of them.”

“And how much time do they spend training others directly? The ones in Gyms or the Rangers have a lot of other duties, and those outside of them charge quite a lot, if they’re not busy with other things themselves. Koichi has been teaching here for weeks, completely free of charge.”

“And that makes it okay? Free lessons don’t matter if what’s being taught is dangerous, if anything that makes it worse!”

“Dangerous how? You think I’m okay with the things he did while Leader? You think anyone here is?”

The words take Blue aback again, calmly stated but still with an underlying iron. Putting it that way forces him to pass judgement on the people around him, people he’s never met, and forces him to think it through. Does he think that? If not, what is he actually worried about?

“It doesn’t seem likely,” Blue admits. “So why don’t you explain what’s going on here, exactly?”

Duncan seems to relax a little, then turns his body slightly so that he’s not facing Blue as much as he is both him and Koichi. “I’ll let him speak for himself. Just wanted to make sure you were in the right mindset to listen.”

Koichi’s eyes are still tight in his otherwise impassive face, but when Duncan nods at him the older man takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “As I said before, I am here to teach and learn. Not just karate and pokemon battles. I can teach others how to avoid the mistake I made. How to avoid becoming the kind of Leader I was.”

Blue stares at him, then glances at Duncan. Multiple things to teach. Right. “You think I’m in danger of becoming this guy?”

“I didn’t say that,” Duncan says. “Few people would, and I doubt you’re one of them. But different mistakes can still benefit from the same lessons.”

“Your anger is justified,” Koichi says, drawing Blue’s attention back to him. “I do not ask you to release it. It is natural that the things we do will reflect on us, and I did those things, and I do not have… excuses. Reasons, but misguided ones. Nothing that offers mitigating circumstances. I was a flawed person who caused harm rather than accept my shortcomings, and even though I’ve been given another chance, I know I will have to face suspicion and anger like yours forever, as part of the price for what I did. I only want the chance to become someone else. To be the someone else that I have already begun to become.”

Blue studies the ex-Leader, trying to decide if the words are part of some rote apology. His expression is closed, his tone awkward, but Blue doesn’t hold that against him; a smoother speech would have been just as suspect, and Koichi always came off as a proud and confident man.

But it’s not particularly convincing, either. “So you’re telling me you’re not trying to get back into a position of authority?”

“Yes. After I was removed from the gym, I realized that I could let my anger and self-loathing keep me cut off from the world… as I did, for months afterward… or I could try to return to it. So I gathered my money and opened my own school. Even offering free classes, I had no students. I sought battles, went from incident to incident, to show that I still had value, both to others, and to myself. Despite my help, I was given no respect, no esteem. Those whose lives I saved thanked me, but hesitantly, and uncomfortably. I was tolerated at best… useful, instrumentally, but left alone at the end of each day.”

The words still came stilted, with pauses of varying length between sentences, and this one goes on for so long that Blue thinks Koichi will stop despite the way his jaw flexes. Eventually it stubbornly sets, and he continues. “When it became clear to me how far the shadow I cast had spread… to other regions, through new generations, always my past would come out sooner or later… for months, I fell into true despair. I had few family members left who would speak with me, but I was eventually convinced to seek help. I realized my belief that what happened to me was an unfairness in the world, rather than the result of my own mistakes, was keeping me from growing. From acting to atone for the harm I caused.”

“That’s what this is supposed to be? Atonement?”

“Yes,” Koichi says, gaze down. “My leadership weakened Saffron City, and cost its trainers valuable time, and effort, and pokemon. I knew the gym would not trust me, for good reason. But when I saw the call for instructors here… I had to try.”

“Being new to the region, I didn’t know who he was,” Duncan says. “It came up in seconds from a background check, of course, but the fact that he was offering to work for free, to accept any rules imposed, made me take it seriously.”

Blue looks at Koichi again, then away, unsure how to feel. This whole thing feels wrong, but… he can’t argue against the points they raise. It would be a waste for someone of Koichi’s skill as a trainer to not teach, was a waste even before he was ousted.

And if he really is trying to change, to be a better person…

Blue realizes a small crowd has joined Glen in watching from a distance. Not obviously, just a handful of people lingering within listening distance without any obvious activity to do. He wonders, suddenly, if this is a test by Duncan… but if so, is it for him, or for Koichi? Maybe both?

Either way, he said he wanted Blue to learn to lose. He’s not sure if Duncan knows what Surge’s gym is like, but it definitely taught him the value of admitting when someone makes a better argument. Still, Blue’s not sure he’s convinced.

“Maybe this isn’t the right place to have this conversation,” Blue offers.

“It’s alright,” Duncan says. “One of the conditions to his staying here is that at any time, if someone’s been here a week, takes one of his classes, and still wants him to leave, he leaves.”

Blue glances at Koichi, whose gaze is on the floor. “Just like that?”

“Just like that. There’s an exception for people who battled him as a Leader, but I’m the one that carved that out to avoid some understandable attempts to get revenge.”

It seems like a stressful condition to work under, but it does more to appease Blue’s worry than anything else, and it’s not hard to remind himself that Koichi deserves it. “Well, I guess it’s not my business unless I stay, then.”

Duncan smiles and turns to Koichi. “Thanks.”

The ex-leader nods and walks away. Blue frowns at his broad back, then looks at Duncan. “Was that me learning to lose?”

“In part, maybe. The way I see it, he teaches that just by being here, since the first lesson is learning what being humbled looks and sounds like. Not ‘humble’ in the milquetoast way we often say it, the cool humility everyone feels good about, I mean having actively been humbled, and continuing to actively be humble, as a verb.”

“Assuming he’s not just pretending.”

“That’s where split-and-commit comes in. If someone gets accused of something that they deny doing, but no evidence was gathered yet, you could find any number of reasons to either believe or doubt the accusation, and you’ll probably be influenced by things like how likeable they are, or how credible the accuser, or how much pressure you’re under to believe or doubt. I’d rather take both possibilities seriously and commit to either that turns out to be true.”

“This isn’t like that, though. He did do those things, it’s on video, he admitted it!”

Duncan’s eyes flash anger before his expression goes blank, and he lets out a slow breath. “That’s not what you said. The accusation that he’d deny is that he’s pretending about wanting to make amends for what he admitted he did. Like that didn’t occur to me. Like I just didn’t imagine that he might be faking sincerity, or decided to ignore it anyway. You see how that’s treating me like an idiot, right?”

It takes Blue a moment to beat back his defensiveness. It’s possible Duncan made a mistake, of course, but if so he didn’t do it thoughtlessly. “Yeah. Sorry. So… you’re saying that when he showed up, you decided to treat both possibilities like they were true. Maybe he’s being sincere, so you’ll give him a chance, or maybe he’s not, so you’ll watch him carefully and not give him power and put conditions on what he does?”

“Right. I get why some might not want to take the risk, but I’ve got plenty of people here who can watch him and tell me if he’s causing a problem. If I decided to just turn him away it would have been because of fear of public backlash, not because I honestly think he’s one of the actually irredeemable people. Maybe he is, but he’s at least willing to put the work in to make up for it, which is more than I can say for most people who fuck up. Either way it’s been long enough that he deserves a chance to prove himself.”

It is, Blue has to admit, a sort of courage that he’s not sure he has. One he’s not sure he can afford, if he wants to be as widely respected as he needs to be; a single wrong call, and his judgement would be questioned forever.

But if Koichi’s training turns out to save a dozen lives, and those dozen lives save a dozen more… if some of them are the sort of people who sign on to Blue’s goals, or someone with Koichi’s skills can help those goals succeed…

It’s hard to know for sure ahead of time, and he realizes how strange it is that he’s willing to risk his life repeatedly to gain people’s respect, but not his reputation if he might lose it. Dying a martyr is better than the alternative, but it would still make him a failure if he doesn’t take the birds down with him.

Glen approaches at last, looking warily between Blue and Duncan. “So, uh. Guess I missed some stuff?”

The redhead smiles. “Just some trampolining and a challenge. You came in time for the exciting part.” He starts leading them away. “Everything go okay on your end?”

“Oh, yeah, you guys are all set… wait, challenge as in a battle? Now?”

“Yep. We’ve got a second building around the block where our battle arenas are, too dangerous to have them in here.”

As they follow him toward the exit, Glen turns to Blue. “Guessing this was your idea?”

“Kind of a mix. I challenged him, he added stakes. If I win I get one of his pokemon. If he wins I stay for at most three months.” He’s less enthusiastic at the thought than he was before seeing Koichi. What if there are others like him here? Or someone even worse?

“Three months! You expect getting a Challenge match to take that long?”

“Maybe. But this place seems interesting enough to check out in any case, and training my abra will also take a while.” He’d probably lose a lot of Duncan’s respect if he backs out now, but going from “worrying what everyone thinks of me” to “worrying what one person thinks of me” only seems like a minor improvement… and assuming Duncan meant what he said before, he wouldn’t want Blue to stay if he felt he was misled anyway. Plus, if he ends up training here then he’d have the right to ask for Koichi to leave if he thinks he’s out of line.

What decides him, ultimately, is that he already shook on it. Going back on his promise to battle any Stormbringer incident was bad enough, and stepping away from this commitment wouldn’t feel nearly as justified, despite some part of him trying to find similarities in how much he knew what he was committing to beforehand. He’s received far too many trainer challenges to feel bad about not accepting them all, but he’s never backed down from one once he has.

Yes, he’d go through with the challenge, and as he said, if he loses then the dojo letting Koichi in would suddenly be more directly his concern. Duncan at least earned a bit of trust in pinpointing what Blue’s been struggling with so well, and offering good advice.

He considers his friend a moment, and what it would mean to have a more honest relationship. “Think it would be good for all of us, really.”

Glen’s back stiffens, for a moment, before relaxing. He doesn’t respond as they follow Duncan out into the brisk afternoon air, then down the sidewalk.

“They’re doing some cool stuff,” Blue continues, a little more cautiously. “And with the extra focus on physical training—”

“I know,” Glen says. Their voices are low, but not so low that Duncan probably can’t hear them from up ahead now that they’re away from the noise of the dojo. “Already thought about it. Figured, if we’d be here a while anyway… but I don’t want you to stay here just for me. If you were thinking of going on to another gym, you should.”

It feels like a fist squeezing between his ribs, but Blue forces himself to say, “I was.”

Glen lets a long breath out. “Right. I get it.”

“That doesn’t mean I—”

“Blue, you can’t stay here just for me. Let’s be honest, what we did in Vermilion was good, even great, but you didn’t need me in Celadon even before I was… hurt.” Glen swallows. “You can’t stay just for me. You’ve got too much else to do, and I need to find my own way to keep up. You can’t let pity—”

“Stop, Glen. You were a hero in Celadon, I want you with me, it’s not pity.” Blue struggles to find the words, wishing he’d taken some time to think about what he wanted to say… “And what does that even mean? I don’t know why everyone gets so hung up over pity, like who came up with a bad word for caring about each other, like people aren’t supposed to support those they care about, it’s fucking dumb. You’re a great trainer, and if you need some time to get back to a hundred percent, I’d be an idiot to go without you.”

They walk in silence for a minute, passing by more warehouses until they see another one of the dojo logos above the door of a building up ahead. “Thanks,” Glen mutters, voice rough. “But we both know that there are costs to you holding still too long, and we don’t know how long it’ll be before I’m back to normal. I know you’ve got some good reasons to stay, like training your abra, and maybe doing stuff here… but if you put managing my feelings over your goals, I don’t want that, just… don’t you dare lose this battle for an excuse to stick around for my sake.”

They reach the door, and Duncan turns to them as he opens it, smiling slightly. “Puts me in a bit of an awkward spot if I win, now.”

“It’s fine,” Blue says. “You can just say that by losing I’ve learned my lesson, and I’m free to leave whenever.”

“Right, of course. That was my plan all along.”


A gentle chime partially pulls Red out of his meditation, the alarm tone specifically chosen to avoid making the transition as jarring as his morning one. He takes in one last breath, reaches out to lift his pencil over his notebook, and begins to pull his partition down.

Strangely, the clearest mark of his growing psychic skill is that it’s no longer as easy or quick as it used to be. Before, as long as he hadn’t stretched himself too far, it would lower or snap back into place almost immediately, like clenching and relaxing a fist. Now it takes explicit effort to move it either up or down, though not much.

Doing it this slowly, there’s no clear point at which he stops being his partitioned self and starts to be his whole self. Emotions shift first, the world taking on a different “hue,” but he still feels mostly like himself, aware of the changes and confused about why they’re happening, except he knows why they’re happening, they just feel so incongruous to his thoughts that they surprise him every time. Then the new thoughts follow, memories and insights he’s blocked from his partitioned self, and it would feel okay to label this the moment of transition, except there’s still some stability left over, a protective wall that the partition gives him by keeping things at a safe, dissociative distance.

When that ends, it’s always hard to tell if it was fading little by little or abruptly or in stages. Still, he takes a moment to confirm that his thoughts and mood are “stable,” and that he’s still grounded in his breathing, before lowering the partition that holds the Lavender memories away.

Not all of them, and not all at once. Over the past few weeks he’s managed, little by little, to isolate exactly what he’s looking for, so that all he gets when he eases it down is—

twisting, inverted, chaotic swirling glimpses of

Red blows his breath out, doing his best to let the thought go.

mourning

snow

and

sky

and

Deep breath in…

despair, gone, lost

And out.

swarm

see

fade

see

swarm

see

fade

Pain steadily grows in Red’s temples, and he feels the world tilt under him as his thoughts are swept away in the memory. The shape in his mind is clear, but the disorientation pulls until he’s forced to partition the memory away again.

It’s not as hard as it was last time. The steady breathing continues to ground him for just long enough even as he feels his focus unravel. For a few breaths he just lets his scattered thoughts continue to roil and shiver and vibrate along every strand of thought that forms, each one dissolving a moment later, until he starts to feel himself stabilize.

He looks down at his notebook, where he’s written in an untidy scrawl,

twistyinsidesnow skysad maro?lookfade

Then checks the last page from when he tried this yesterday:

look ingfade to worldistorted seefadesad towergroundsky fade

And the one before that:

seeskyfade warpedwhitefade swarmseefade

Nothing really new, but he still takes the time to write out each individual word, then does his best to connect them where they seemed to be part of the same thought, even if they weren’t written back to back. It feels a bit wrong, like he’s trying to force random data to fit a pattern, but it’s possible that the deeper meaning was scrambled in the first place by his own imperfect experience… and it’s not like it makes any real sense as written, or like he’s taking the letters and trying to form new words with them.

Once he’s finished however he still has no idea what any of it means. Luckily, he doesn’t need to figure it out on his own.

After searching online and explicitly asking around, he was able to find other psychics who have merged with wild unown and noticed odd flashes of… something, that they normally don’t get any hint of with captured unown, and doesn’t seem present in any accounts of mergers with wild unown from before the incident. No one else has yet reported an experience quite as difficult as Red’s, but they probably didn’t merge with them through a rampaging ghost either.

Still, with enough people sharing what they glimpsed he’s hoping they can gather enough common points to find some real patterns. If he’s lucky, they might even get some clues to understanding what exactly happened at the tower, and whether it had anything to do with the unown. If it turns out to be a coincidental three-way-merger Red is going to be disappointed, but not by too much given that this seems useful enough. There’s already enough similarities in what the others have reported that they’re learning new things about the unown.

Red can’t remember the experiences himself with his partitions up, but from their collected notes, the impressions of “looking” or “seeing” definitely feel, as much as the various psychics’ human brains can understand them at least, to be purposeful. It makes sense that a pokemon existing as, essentially, a huge eye would primarily be focused on looking at things, but it isn’t as passive as how people experience “looking at the world” to be, while still not quite being the focused searching that happens when looking for something particular. It’s been a hard distinction to draw, but with enough consensus that it’s very clearly there, and all the more startling when compared to the neutrality Red gets from his own tamed unown.

This raises an old mystery: what are they doing, exactly? There’s no apparent feeling of analysis, of evaluation, of checking what’s seen against something else. As one of the psychics put it, ‘”They don’t seem to be looking for something, just actively observing what’s around them… almost like a camera programmed to constantly swivel so it’s taking in as much of its environment as possible.” It would make more sense if they were identifying food or threats, but neither seems to be the case.

And then there’s the feeling of loss, of fading… it’s no wonder they’re untrainable given they have virtually no capacity for memory, not even retention of the things they see. But still, there’s something distinct about the feeling compared to the loss of moment to moment memories his tame unown has. Almost like the memories of the things seen are constantly being lost as they’re being acquired.

It’s hard to consider all this and not want to bring his partitions down so he can re-examine his memories of his own encounter, but treating it like exposure therapy, sampling them while in a relaxed state and processing them a little at a time, seems to be helping his unpartitioned self deal with the memories more easily. Or at least that’s the impression his unpartitioned self is sending him right now… and that he’s not up for another try anytime soon.

It’s a frustrating pace to be forced to investigate something so fascinating, but luckily there’s no shortage of those. Red finishes writing up his observations until another alarm goes off, then gets dressed and returns his various pokemon to their balls except Pikachu, who walks beside him as he heads to the gym for his appointment with Sabrina.

He’s been there pretty frequently in the week since Blue and his friends came to town, but Red’s been too busy to join them as often as he did in Vermilion. They also apparently found a “dojo” in town that Blue won a hitmonlee from in a battle against its pseudo-leader, and despite Blue insisting it’s “your kind of place,” Red hasn’t found the time to check it out just yet. He still remembers his first conversation with Sabrina, and is wary of taking on too many different projects. He already has plenty, some of which are too important to drop, like teleporting to Celadon to accompany the police now and then as they search for more renegades in the city.

It’s not as stressful as he thought it would be, probably because he’s gone out a dozen times already and they still haven’t found anything. He’d feel worse about dropping his guard if he didn’t get the same impression from the officers; one even commented over lunch that after what happened at the casino, anyone else hiding labs or renegades in the city would be an idiot to keep them there, and Red doesn’t think whoever hired them was an idiot. Well, not that kind anyway.

It’s also been strange seeing the effects of that night continue to play out. Once people’s attention began to shift from rescue to recovery to prevention, there was some to spare for ‘lesser threats,’ and as it turns out secret renegade organizations are not something people feel particularly less threatened by than giant world changing legends.

Red can see their point, given his own journey. He’d read that most trainers only encounter renegades once or twice in their whole career; for his group to have had direct contact with two within their first year is a hell of a statistical anomaly, and fits in with a broader uptick in Renegade judgements across the island. Given what happened in Hoenn and Celadon, the question of whether something big is going on, something that’s causing more and more people to encounter renegades, is hard to avoid asking.

And the idea being floated as an answer, that renegades are organizing and fighting together, is almost completely novel, more familiar as the plot of some action film than reality… until now.

So there’s been a push in multiple cities within Kanto and Hoenn to relax regulations on weapons for self-defense. Red knows that Maria and Lizzy and Glen have avoided attempts to pull them into advertisements or interviews aimed at pushing certain products, but sooner or later someone’s going to offer something they can’t refuse.

No one’s calling for allowing civilian pokemon to use subduing attacks, but grey areas exist for unaimed attacks like Sing (which Red finds rather frightening given what the consequences of being judged to have misused it might have been for Leaf) and the price of jigglypuff, and others who can disable with singing, already fairly high, have skyrocketed. Red wonders if another renegade attack would tip things over the edge toward non-police pokemon having such training.

Meanwhile a revolution in self-defense weapons has accelerated; stun guns and sleep spray have new designs that give them longer effective range, with commercials explicitly billing them as a way to target a renegade from behind one’s own pokemon. The obvious question, of course, is why a renegade wouldn’t just use one themselves, but Red still bought his own pair just in case. They might even be effective against certain pokemon, though in an actual battle it’s hard to imagine something more useful for his hands to be holding than balls, either in preparation to capture or swap his own.

He’s not really expecting to face another Renegade anytime soon, but he wasn’t the first time either, and it’s a small expense compared to the stronger pokemon and items he’s been watching the auctions for.

Before long he’s back out of the cold and inside the gym lobby. As he’s about to head upstairs, he sees on one of the monitors that Sabrina is still in a Challenge match. He joins the small crowd to watch as her opponent sends a houndoom out against her exeggutor. Rather than swapping away from the double type disadvantage, she has her pokemon set up Reflect and Light Screens as it tanks a flamethrower, then sends it on a stomping tantrum that results in a dual-KO. When another Dark pokemon comes out, this time a shiftry, Sabrina meets it with an alakazam that starts to use her signature battle technique: rapid dodges that seem almost precognitive, while sending back attacks from every direction.

Focus Blast after Focus Blast is shot at the shiftry as it dances from foot to foot, trying to get an attack of its own in while avoiding defeat. It doesn’t last long, nor does the next pokemon, and within minutes Sabrina has won the match.

Red dutifully claps alongside the other onlookers, then heads for the elevator rather than sticking around for the post-match speeches; he’s heard enough of them by now. Some of the other students have speculated that she’s just trying to get through the backlog as quickly as she can by ensuring each match is over quickly, only using three pokemon at most and fighting aggressively without quite tipping over into recklessness. It’s hard for Red to blame her after seeing how tired she is all the time, but he wonders whether those at the gym who come to battle her feel cheated of a “real match,” and reminds himself to ask Blue next time he sees him.

He leans against the wall beside her office door and reviews the questions he’s prepared as he waits. Ten minutes later Sabrina arrives, and Red raises a hand in greeting. “No rush if you want some time alone first?”

“I’ll live. Come on in.” She unlocks the door and enters, and he follows her in before moving toward the more comfortable sofa chairs to the side of her office rather than her desk. After sitting he watches her unlatch and hang up her pokebelt before joining him with a slow sigh.

“Long day?” Part of him is worried about asking such a personal question, but over the past month he’s become more comfortable with Sabrina. She surprised him after the incident, and again in Lavender, with her seemingly genuine concern for him, and has treated him less like a student and more like a friend since. Actually, if he thinks further back to just before the Hoenn legends awoke, the change really started after her return from the hiatus, when he told her about Rei. “Or another long night?”

“The latter. I seem to have lost the ability to influence my dreams, which is a problem when so many are nightmares. Thankfully I can still end them quickly, but that leaves me awake more often than not.”

“I’m sorry. I wish I could help, but I rarely dream. That I remember, at least.”

She smiles. “It’s alright, I appreciate the thought. So, you said you had some questions that might help your research?”

“Yeah.” It was Dr. Madi, still mentoring him from Pallet Labs, who suggested he try some qualitative studies into his confusions and curiosities if he’s stuck on what experiment to run on next, and he has been meaning to circle back to some of the things Sabrina mentioned when they first met. Reviewing all the information available left him with a lingering dissatisfaction over the way the other psychics have studied things, and that means he needs to start at the basic observations and see if he can’t ask the right questions to point him in a new and interesting direction. “Before I try designing new studies, I figured I should make sure I understand what we know as best I can. Could you tell me more about the colors you’ve seen when observing psychic phenomena?”

Sabrina considers him a moment, then nods. “Alright. Keep in mind that the experiences are brief and inconsistent, and impossible to accurately record. I’ve tried categorizing what I see, but it’s… difficult, even after I studied some color theory while trying to make sense of it. Do you know any?”

“Uh… blue and red makes purple? That sort of thing?” An old memory hits him, suddenly, of Blue’s mom once calling that out to get them to come to dinner. “Well, what I learned in school. Pigment primaries are magenta, cyan, and yellow, and represent the colors we see when light bounces off something. Light primaries are red, blue and green, and represent colors from directly luminous sources. For light, white is the combination of all colors, while black is the absence. For pigment, it’s the opposite.”

“A good enough place to start, but as is often the case with the things we learn as children, the truth is somewhat more complicated. Ultimately, light exists as various different wavelengths, and our eyes have ‘rods’ that detect brightness of light, and ‘cones’ that detect the wavelength… or more accurately, the proportion of different wavelengths, independent of intensity.”

“Wait, explain that?”

“Intensity of light affects the signal our cone sends us when we perceive a wavelength. It’s an imprecise analogy, but think of heated metal. As you heat it, it will shift from dark, to a dull red, to a brighter red, to orange, to yellow, to white, and even to bluish white if it’s sufficiently hot. The same way heat intensity changes the color of light given off, light intensity affects the signal our eye sends us when it perceives a wavelength, and those signals are how we actually perceive color. That’s why we need two cones, at least, to have any consistent perception of color.”

Red nods, hand moving automatically to take notes. He’s not sure the relevance of this yet, but realizes that researching light should have been one of the things he did as soon as Sabrina told him how she sees psychic phenomena. “Is that why monochrome is called that, despite being black and white?”

Sabrina smiles. “Perhaps. So, to be more accurate, it’s not the signal that our cones send us that truly represents color; it’s the proportion of signals. Each cone can perceive limited, but overlapping, sections of the full light spectrum, and sends a signal for each wavelength it perceives depending on how far from its most sensitive, optimal wavelength it is. The first cone may send a strong signal when a wavelength closer to its optimal is received, while the second cone sends a faint signal, and that proportion is, ultimately, color. Most humans have three cones for red, blue and green light… that is, three cones which are optimally attuned to react to three specific wavelengths of light, and to a lesser degree will react to similar wavelengths on either side of those three. Purest red is seen when the ‘red wavelength’ is sending the ‘red cone’ the strongest signal, and the other two cones are barely responding at all to that wavelength. Colors outside those our cones are attuned for are seen as mixtures, which is why yellow can be achieved by either perfectly mixing red and green light, or by overlapping a circle of red light and a circle of green light. The same signal proportion is sent to our brain, and so the same color is seen. Where the signals are most oddly mixed, we occasionally see colors that don’t ‘exist’ as independent wavelengths, such as purple.”

“Wait, what do you mean?” Red asks. “Purple isn’t a real color?”

“As a ‘color,’ purple exists as much as any other, since all colors are just our attempt to classify perceptions of different combinations of wavelength intensity. But there is no individual wavelength of light that we perceive as purple; the closest, as seen when observing light split by a prism, is blue, followed by violet.” Sabrina holds a hand up to stall his next question. “It is easier, remember, to think of wavelengths, and wavelength combination proportions, as being perceived as colors, and not think of colors as ‘having’ wavelengths.”

Red slowly nods. “Wavelengths are the territory, colors are the map. So if we only see purple when given a signal proportion of, say, 3-0-3 from our three cones, but there’s no single wavelength that will give that signal proportion, a combination of two different signal proportions, like 0-0-3 plus 3-0-0, or 1-0-2 and 2-0-1, will turn into what we see as purple.”

“Precisely, and this is why the color spectrum is often depicted as a circle, with red and blue wrapping back toward each other to show purple between them. To us, nothing else exists past those wavelengths, but the combined wavelengths at either edge is how pure purple is achieved.”

“Huh. So does that mean you have a fourth cone? Or is that impossible?”

“Tetrachromats do exist—”

“They do?! What color is their fourth cone attuned to?”

“Yellow.”

“Oh.”

She smiles. “Not as exciting as you expected?”

“Yeah, I mean… I can already see yellow, so… or at least I think I can? Wait, no, I get it,” he says as her smile widens. “If they have a yellow cone, that means they can see a single wavelength signal proportion as yellow, instead of only being able to see yellow as a combination of red and green? So they can better differentiate more shades of yellow than I can, and probably more combinations of colors where yellow is included.”

“Correct, though it’s worth noting that this ability is limited by technology. If you and a tetrachromat look at any image on a phone or computer monitor, you would see the same things, as they all are made to work by displaying some combination of red, blue, and green light. The test for tetrachromacy must be done in person, and the benefits are minor; ultimately they can see all the same colors we can, but some will be more ‘vibrant’ than they are for us. Only a small percent of women have the yellow cone, and of them an even smaller percent have it active. I am not one of them, nor do I have any other fourth cone myself. But my mind has learned to recognize the signal that those brains attached to the appropriate cones do receive.”

Red blinks, finishes writing, then looks up. “What do you… pokemon?”

“Yes. Many pokemon, primarily psychics, have a fourth cone that detects a wavelength of light we not only have no name for, but which exists outside the spectrum of light we can perceive.”

“Like ultraviolet?”

“Actually, humans have a lens in our eye that explicitly blocks ultraviolet light. It’s not particularly safe, but some who have had it removed due to cataracts reported seeing ultraviolet light, which they interpreted as a whitish-blue-violet color… which we might be mistaken to assume is one we can observe as well, if rarely. Again, it’s hard to really know without having the subjective experience ourselves.”

“But what they see… it’s just their blue cone lighting up?”

“More or less. An attempt to interpret a new wavelength proportion that activated on the edge of its receptive limits, such that the other two cones were not active at all. This leads me to the hard part of what I’ve tried to do, which is make up new words for the colors I’ve seen.”

“So they really are entirely new colors.”

“You’re striking at the heart of the problem already. What does that mean, a ‘new color?’ Think of the color spectrum again, as it’s often depicted. Where would you place ‘gold’ on it?”

Red stops writing for a moment, frowning. “Dark yellow? But no, that’s not really it. It’s… a ‘deep’ yellow… I mean, I’m trying to use words to describe it, but if I saw a full spectrum I could probably point to it? Somewhere in yellow-brown… but the material itself adds something that light probably can’t imitate.”

“Brown is another good example. When painting you can mix all three primary colors, but brown light is like purple in that it doesn’t exist as a single wavelength proportion cone signal. To create it you’d have to play with what colors do exist until you have something our eyes see as brown, but that still does not make brown a distinct wavelength.”

“Okay,” Red says, writing quickly. There has to be a shorter way to say single-wavelength-proportion-signal…

Non-imaginary color? Unpartitioned Red suddenly offers.

No, that would imply that purple is made up…

Numbers can be imaginary and still be ‘real’ enough to solve equations involving negative square roots, don’t see why colors can’t be “real” and “imaginary.”

Red blinks, feeling an odd mix of indignation and excitement. He’s heard the term, but doesn’t actually know what an imaginary number means… Have you been studying math without me? Are we better at math now than we used to be?

Later, focus.

Right. Sabrina is watching him patiently, but he’s aware that he’s using up her valuable time. “So the distinct wavelengths are hard to describe without using common color reference points. And you tested to ensure they weren’t ultraviolet or infrared light? Oh, this led to that research on testing psychic emissions, right?”

“Yes, other than a very slight heat change that was incredibly hard to detect from background fluctuations, we couldn’t discern psychic light at all. The closest thing I could find to try and put a name to the colors I was seeing came through studying chimerical colors. Just like our rods can get overloaded by bright lights, leaving an afterimage, our cones can become fatigued from oversaturation, leaving colored afterimages in opposing shades. In this way we can see impossibly saturated and dark colors, or add an illusive glow to colors, that don’t properly exist in any spectrum. It’s hard to describe, but if you search online you should find some images to stare at for long enough that you’ll see them yourself.”

“Got it.” Red finishes writing, then reviews what he’s written to make sure he isn’t missing anything. “So here’s the first main question I have, that I don’t think needs an answer to whether the colors are really ‘unique’ or not… did you notice any marked difference between the colors around someone when they were using telepathy, and the colors around an object being kinetically manipulated?”

Sabrina nods. “The names I’ve come up with for them, telo, galo, and kino, are as similar as, say, blue, indigo, and purple, but still distinct, and of course there are other shades between them.”

Red hurries to scribble the answer down so he can jump to his next question, excitement kicking his pulse into high gear. “And did you have any guesses for why the colors were different?”

“No, though I did notice patterns for which is produced when, if that’s what you’re asking. Kino tends to be visible around objects being manipulated by kinesis, as the name implies. Similarly, telo can be seen around creatures using projection. And galo surrounds ghosts nearly constantly, but is also sometimes emitted by other pokemon.”

“Have the number of different cones in the species you’re merged with been identified? Are we sure that psychic pokemon only have one extra cone?”

“No, even if I merge with a psychic, we don’t have a reliable way to emit single-wavelength light that matches those colors directly; we can only activate psychic phenomena and notice the blends.”

“But biologically, we could study those cones and determine how many different ones they have, right? How are different types of cones counted, there must be a way to distinguish them…”

Sabrina spreads her hands. “I’m afraid that’s outside my area of expertise. ”

Red makes a note for the Professor. It should be easy, right? Either by dissection or looking at a pokemon’s code… Based on what she explained about cones and color, his guess is that there are two “psychic” cones, and the ghost color, galo, is the combination of telo and kino, because ghosts are almost constantly using both kinesis and telepathy…

But he can’t jump to conclusions just because they fit his hypotheses. Even if he’s right, there are still other potential explanations besides the idea that the two forces are fundamentally different. “Okay, so… what would you say to the idea that you’re seeing different colors because you’re seeing entirely different phenomena?”

“It feels like a leap,” she says, seemingly unsurprised by his hypothesis. “They’re two very different types of abilities, it makes sense that they emit different energy signatures. And ghosts, of course, are a different sort of being entirely, that sometimes uses these abilities, similar to other pokemon. But no color is unique to a Type, as far as I could tell.”

“Just imagine that I’m right, for a second. Does anything you’ve seen disprove that? Do you have alternative hypotheses?”

Sabrina frowns slightly. “Every gifted can…” She trails off, gaze softening. “I’m sorry, most psychics have access to both types of abilities, and I still believe you could with more time and practice, or a new learning technique. If your model was correct, shouldn’t there be two distinct types of people, with only a few with access to both?”

It always comes back to labels, Red muses as he thinks over the conversation about Types he had with the others on their first day, and the debate online about whether “sensitives” count as psychics or not. After putting out a general question online, he’s found two other “real” psychics like himself, able to project and use partitions and everything, who don’t seem to have even a bit of telekinesis. It felt good to commiserate with them, and they were intrigued by his hypothesis of the two powers being entirely separate. When he suggested that they might find themselves having an affinity with Ghosts, one confirmed that he already works as a consultant for his region’s ghost troubles, as they don’t have a culture of “mediums” there, and the other seemed wary but willing to try interacting with them. “I’m not saying the powers are… ‘unrelated,’ exactly. But what if I just can’t use psychokinesis, at all, and never can? What else would you want to know, suddenly?”

“I would want to know if the opposite exists, people who can use only kinesis but have even less awareness than a sensitive.”

“There are pokemon like that,” Red points out as he writes. “How do you factor them in?”

“I don’t,” Sabrina says, voice frank. “Even setting aside the question of whether we should be categorizing humans together with pokemon, our strongest kinesis isn’t even a match for their weakest. Telepathically we’re a little more evenly matched with some, while still being vastly outstripped by most. That some pokemon can use kinesis but not telepathy seems more related to the fact that some pokemon can levitate without obvious methods of flight.”

“Heh. I’ve started calling that the ‘pokemon are just weird’ explanation.”

Her lips quirk. “It’s not a satisfying scientific response, I know, but there are too many mysteries remaining for the comparison you’re drawing to feel justified, to me.”

“But you think we can learn some things about ourselves from studying them, right?”

“I think you’ve proven that we can, and I don’t mean to dismiss the comparison out of hand. Obviously my own ability to see these colors came from enough mergers with psychic pokemon. But again, we understand so little about how pokemon use even their non-psychic abilities… until I observe someone with only telekinetic power and understand what the experience of using it is like, it feels premature to call it a distinct ability altogether.”

“Well, I didn’t even realize I was psychic until my journey started. I know that was due to special circumstances, but the tests are clearly fallible. Would someone with only kinesis even know they are psychic, if they were the reverse of me?”

“That… is an interesting point.” Sabrina tucks some hair behind her ear, gaze distant for a minute as she thinks. “With the standard set of tests we have now, I’m not sure. The kinesis specific tests should theoretically work for someone who hasn’t experienced any telepathy yet, but… first, they might not even be tested at all in that case, and second, it’s hard to imagine what it would feel like to manipulate things telekinetically without being familiar with telepathy already. Perhaps I shouldn’t assume that it would come instinctually to anyone without the latter. I’ll have a word with the Indigo testing organizations, make sure we’re being more deliberate. Thank you for highlighting that, Red.”

“Happy to.” He sees her check the time, and guesses, “That could be it for today?”

“If that’s all your questions on that topic, yes, I think I’d appreciate some time to rest before my next appointment.”

“Of course, though… I mean, I have a lot more questions. They can wait though! Actually… if it’s easier, I can just leave them with you to answer in your own time?”

Sabrina considers. “I think that’s doable, yes.”

Red smiles and tears a page out of his notebook before handing it to her. He watches her brow rise as she looks down the list of questions, and quickly adds, “No pressure, of course, and if any of them are too complex to write out that’s fine.”

“It’s very thorough, and some of these I don’t have an answer to, while others I might be able to check. I can answer this one now, at least: teleportation starts as telo but shifts to galo just before leaving a burst of it.”

Red blinks. “But… you said ghosts all show galo most consistently, right? But no ghosts can teleport… though that marowak ghost did shift around the room… no wait, that was just its image following the ‘bone’ body… right? I have to check with Blue again…” He sees her smiling at him and quickly bows. “Thank you for your time!”

“You’re welcome, Red. It was interesting, and I hope it leads to some new discoveries. I’ll send you my answers when I can.”


The sun is setting over Fuchsia City as Leaf flies over it, but there’s still enough light to see how different it is from the others she’s been to. Being so distant from the other major cities in the region gives it far less of a need to cater to tourists than Cerulean, and makes it less of a port city than Vermilion. There still are some docks and tourist spots, but they’re intermingled with residences, and there’s wide stretches of public access to the beach.

Perhaps that’s also because there’s so much beach. The city clings almost like an afterthought to the peninsula’s northwestern coast, sprawling densely along it in both directions while the wilderness covers the rest. Where normally the tall buildings might give way to suburbs, however, here they just stop, with perhaps a kilometer of more clear space before the massive wall begins.

Normally, fences and walls are the things Leaf expects to see in small towns. Some strategies help them work better, such as shaped funnels to guide pokemon that wander nearby into guard posts rather than resort to their claws or teeth, but with all the pokemon that can dig under or fly or climb over them it’s often considered more trouble than it’s worth to concentrate forces rather than keep them spread and react to proximity alerts from sensors.

And while she can make out the different Ranger stations here and there, colored panels arranged to form numbers on the rooftops so they can be identified from the air, even without knowing about the Safari Zone beforehand it would be clear to Leaf that she’s looking at something designed to stop people, not pokemon.

The ranger in the saddle ahead of her taps his mount, and Leaf’s stomach lurches as the pidgeot tips its wings and starts to glide down in a wide, exhilarating loop. She closes her eyes for a dozen rapid heartbeats to keep from growing dizzy, then feels the bird lurch as it hops off the ground, glides a bit more, then lands, kicking up a plume of dirt as it shakes its massive wings one last time, then folds them.

Leaf slides down the back of the bird, then waits for the pilot to join her before helping her unlatch the saddle. Ranger Kyra smiles in thanks and lets her finish, moving instead to getting the pidgeot some food and water. Once it’s back in its ball they move together toward the nearby two story border checkpoint.

The wall is even more imposing from the ground, as is the knowledge that on the other side is mostly untamed wilderness. The rare pokemon discovered here, combined with the way the peninsula is shaped, struck some Ranger General as a unique opportunity to create a piece of wilderness that can be more-or-less preserved, its population more purposefully regulated. As long as they control the relatively narrow connection to the rest of the island, the only new pokemon that enter are those that can fly, burrow, or swim.

It’s the perfect testing ground for Leaf’s program.

The inside is nicer than she expected, more like a Trainer House lobby than the Ranger outposts she’s visited, maybe because there’s less expectation that they might get destroyed. One of the rangers is even stationed at a wide reception desk, and doesn’t seem surprised to see her.

“Miss Juniper is here to see Captain Takara,” Kyra says anyway, and the man nods and picks up his phone before confirming they can go up. Two short flights of stairs later and she’s being led through some hallways and to a wide meeting room. On the other side there are glass windows (one-sided, she read) that show the open fields on the other side of the wall. A moment later another door opens and a tall woman walks in wearing the special insignia of the Safari’s chief officer.

“Good evening, Miss Juniper,” she says, and holds out a surprisingly calloused hand for Leaf to grip. “Welcome to Fuchsia, and the Safari.”

“Thank you, it’s nice to finally see it. This is where we’ll be hosting the conference?”

“Yes, it gives us a bit more control over who might try to listen in. Word got out, as it often does, and it’s starting quite a buzz. Are you staying in the city, or…?”

“No, I’ll just set up a teleportation point for tomorrow.”

“Better that way, I think. If you get recognized, expect to be hounded. In fact, I’d like you to set your teleport point on our rooftop.”

Leaf looks at the sober captain in surprise. “Is the media coverage that intense?” She thinks she can handle a few reporters, she’s been dealing with them for long enough…

“It is, but that’s not the main reason I’m being cautious. You’re a celebrity in your own right, and anything involving the Safari tends to attract extra attention from those who want to learn its secrets. I don’t exactly expect you to get kidnapped, but you’ve attracted enough trouble that I’d rather stay on the safe side. I was going to suggest, if you were to stay the night, to just use one of the rooms here.”

“Oh.” Leaf isn’t sure how seriously to take all this, but she’d appreciate the concern more if it didn’t interfere a bit with her plans. “I uh, was actually planning a trip to the city tonight before I teleported home.”

Takara’s brow furrows. “Visiting someone?”

“No, no, just… exploring.”

“Hmm. It might be better to wait until the conference and experiment to be over.”

Leaf tries not to look like a spoiled kid by insisting otherwise, and ducks her head for a moment in thought. She could wait for all this to be done, but (if things go well) that could take weeks. She’s already learned all she could remotely for Laura’s investigation, and waiting even longer would just be wasting time.

“I hate to ask this,” Leaf says, tone apologetic but firm, “But could someone accompany me to the city if it’s that big a concern? I appreciate that you want to make sure I’m okay, but I don’t intend to live in fear, and unless you’ve heard of some specific threat…?”

“No, nothing specific. But the last time some researchers visited the Zone one had his computer stolen, and the time before that a breeder had her drink at a bar spiked. She was physically fine, but couldn’t account for a few hours of time.”

“I see.” So much for the city’s lower crime rates, though for something this targeted she supposes the usual criminals and deterrents aren’t a factor. “I have to admit that’s a bit more worrying. Still, it’ll be dark soon, and no one knew I was coming tonight. I might not get another chance like this once the conference starts.”

Takara sighs, then nods and turns to Kyra. “You’re relieved for the night, other than to accompany her through the city. Ensure she teleports home by midnight.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Satisfied?”

Leaf smiles. “I am, thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

The captain nods and shakes her hand again. “Tomorrow, where we’ll see if this crazy idea of yours really works.”

Leaf goes to the roof first, enjoying the sight of the Safari’s fields and forests and lakes in the golden light of sunset, then sets her teleport point and heads back down and toward the city, chaperone in tow, to see what she can learn about its potential resident ninja family from a bit of casual conversation.

Chapter 92: Authenticity

Blue hoped that riding on Soul would get less uncomfortable with practice, and while it has to some degree, his legs are still sore and his back still stiff when they arrive in Saffron.

But when he dismounts people stare, particularly nearby kids, and maybe they still would have if he’d ridden his bike once they recognized him, but it’s much easier to notice him on the arcanine in the first place compared to on a bike wearing a helmet.

So he does his best to stand straight despite the aches and pains until he finishes removing Soul’s saddle and rubbing him down, the big red mutt panting hard as he looks around, gaze sharp and nose twitching. As Blue runs the brush over Soul’s heaving sides, Bretta and Liz finish packing their bikes and gear away and enter the Trainer House first, followed by Sumi and Slava, who are arguing over when to take their day trip to Johto via the city’s magnet train station.

Elaine seems to linger, moving purposefully slowly to match Glen’s pace, and Blue tries to ignore the stab of sympathy that guts him. For as long as he’s known him, Glen could bike farther and faster than any of them, and would barely be winded by the time they arrived wherever they were going.

Now he’s moving like he has to think through every action, and there’s a slight tremor in his hands.

If Glen notices that Elaine is going slowly for his sake he doesn’t say anything, simply withdrawing his container once his bike and pads are in it and then following Slava and Sumi. Elaine gives Blue a look he can’t quite decipher, but he nods to her, recognizing the pain at least.

A young girl whispers something to her parent, who nods, and she runs over. “Excuse me, can I brush him?”

She’s staring at the arcanine with wide eyes, but she seems absolutely fearless of it, and Blue smiles. “Go ahead.” He hands her the brush, and she uses both hands to run it along his fur as he directs her. “Do you like Fire types?”

“Yeah! What’s his name?”

“Soul.”

“Is he your sweeper?”

Blue grins, recognizing a future competitive trainer. “More of a bruiser. He helped me beat Erika.” He opens his jacket to show the four badges within.

“Cool!”

Once Soul’s fur is gleaming, and he’s had a chance to catch his breath, Blue takes the brush and tells her she can pet him, if she wants to. She grins wide, and Blue laughs as she sinks her whole body face-first into the arcanine’s fur, seeming to enjoy the heat he gives off. Blue feeds his mount some strips of steak and lets him lap at a container filled with water until the girl’s mom recognizes that he’s done and tells her it’s time to go. They both thank him as he withdraws Soul and waves goodbye.

His legs feel like two pieces of aching rubber by now, but he manages to keep it together long enough to walk into the Trainer House and casually lean against the wall beside everyone where they’re lined up to get their room assignments.

A lot more work than riding a bike, but worth it.

As he lets his wobbly legs rest, his gaze tracks the people in the lobby, most of whom take a moment to look them over. But while a few linger on him, many of the looks are perfunctory, gazes quickly returning to the screens around the room. Blue glances at the nearest one, which shows Brendan and May helping with the resettlement and construction work that’s still ongoing in the Sevii Islands.

Blue knew they were coming to the region, showing off the speed of their legendary pokemon… no, that’s not charitable. It’s a mission of unity across the islands, a thank-you tour for the help the other regions gave to Hoenn… symbolic, mostly, but he can’t exactly judge them on that.

It still depresses him, watching them fly around on such powerful and unique pokemon, though he’s as riveted as anyone else in the room. New info about Latios and Latias is sparse, even all these weeks later. Apparently Brendan and May never caught them in balls, and claim that they’re not “tame” so much as “curious, sometimes playful, and occasionally in a helpful mood.” The psychic dragons won’t do certain things no matter how much they’re “asked,” including let anyone else approach them; the two trainers are still trying to understand what they’re willing to do and what they’re not, with the help of various researchers and professors.

Eventually the segment ends, transitioning to a review of the trainers currently making their way through Victory Road. Blue checks the names that show up, and smiles as he sees Donovan has hit third place, with Reza now in first with only a couple losses on his record. His legs feel a little more up to walking, and he steps behind Glen at the back of the line.

“Well?” his friend asks. “Meeting with Sabrina today, or tomorrow?”

“No plans yet. Haven’t even reached out.”

“You going to just say hi when we visit Red?”

It crossed his mind. “If she’s there, sure. I plan to check the gym classes and everything first, though.”

Glen snorts. “Sure, don’t want to seem too presumptuous. How’s the movie deal coming?”

“Gave my interview to the writers the day before yesterday.”

“Congrats, man. How much did you exaggerate?”

“Hey, Red and Leaf are going to give their side of the story too, remember?”

Glen nods. “So just for the parts they weren’t there for.”

Blue grins. “Those are the parts you’re there for, so we can agree to overlook each other’s exaggerations if you want. Who do you want to play you?”

“Myself, obviously. No one else is handsome enough.”

“Now who’s being presumptuous? You don’t know what kind of talent we can pull in.”

“Alright, if you can get Daniel O’Clery, he can play me.”

Blue recognizes the name from some movie Leaf and Aiko wanted to see back in Vermilion. The pain there is briefer and duller than it might have been a month ago, and doesn’t completely drain his amusement. “Isn’t he like, 25?”

“Eh.” Glen shrugs, accent growing thicker for a moment as he reaches the counter and hands over his ID. “I’m strangely fine with it.”

Once they’ve all gotten their room assignment, they make plans to meet for dinner and break toward the boy and girl dorms. Blue drops his things off in his bed, then enjoys a long shower, thoughts still on the first thing Glen asked him before they started talking about the film. Despite how lighthearted the exchange was, Blue can’t help but wonder whether his friend is jealous.

Blue remembers his justifications for Challenging Erika ahead of everyone else, and for going to Lavender while they finished getting their own badges. He still thinks they were the right call.

But then Glen failed to get his fifth badge.

For the first few days after waking from his coma, Glen was still sleeping a lot, and when he was awake he was often confused, not remembering the earthquake at all. He threw himself into physical therapy like a man possessed, and regained a lot of his coordination and stamina… but not enough to beat Erika.

His decision to move on from Celadon without trying again, even though Erika said she would allow a rematch within a week, shocked Blue. Glen insisted that he could return easily and get his badge later, and that meanwhile he didn’t want to slow everyone down. But despite his words, Blue noticed him withdrawing into himself more than he used to, not joining in with the friendly ribbing as often.

Blue tried to talk to him about it a couple times, but his friend brushed it off. It’s Elaine who helped him understand; from Glen’s perspective, he’s glad he helped save Maria and the rest of them, even if he can’t remember it, but he lost weeks of his life, weeks in which the whole world changed around him, critical decisions made and groups formed, and worst of all…

Worst of all, he fell behind. When they met, Glen had three badges to Blue’s two. They earned Surge’s more-or-less together, but when he woke, Blue was finished with Celadon Gym and Glen wasn’t. If he hadn’t stuck around, if he hadn’t gone on his trip to Lavender, if he’d just shot straight for his next badge, Blue would have overtaken him entirely by now.

Instead Glen is stuck needing to rematch Erika, and there’s a non-zero chance Blue will have beaten Sabrina by the time he gets his fifth badge. If their roles were reversed, it would be eating at Blue.

And while Glen isn’t quite as competitive as Blue is, he’s close enough that Blue can guess that he’s worried he won’t be able to keep up.

Worse than that is Blue’s hidden worry that he won’t.

Blue sighs and turns the water off, then dries himself and changes before heading back to the room. “Message came in for you,” Slava says from where he’s sitting on his bunk. Glen is lying in his bed, eyes closed, and Blue does his best to ignore the drawn look on his friend’s face.

“Thanks.” He hangs the wet towel on the bedpost, then checks his phone.

“Well?”

Blue turns to Glen, whose eyes are still closed. He briefly debates playing dumb, then says, “She asked if I’m free within the hour.”

Glen holds his hand up, eyes still closed, and Slava sighs and fishes some bills out of his wallet before handing them down to Glen. “Bet every gym leader has you on watch, now. Soon as someone sees you enter the city alarms start going off at the gym. Emergency meetings get called, protocols laid out…”

“Ha, ha. You make me sound like a Stormbringer.”

“About as disruptive,” Slava says. “Going from the last two gyms.”

“But less destructive,” Glen allows. “You’ve only destroyed one arena.”

“When did I… Oh. To be fair Brock did the destroying himself, I just showed him why it was necessary.”

Glen snorts. “Bet Misty feels relieved you didn’t try anything there.”

“Or left out,” Slava adds. “Could send her a shirt. ‘Blue Oak came to my gym and all I got was a lousy badge challenge.'”

Blue rolls his eyes, but he’s grinning. “I’m gonna go, hopefully I’ll be done in time to make the meetup.”

“Right, see you later.”

“Good luck.”

“Thanks.” Blue starts pulling socks and shoes on. He realizes how nice it is to get off his feet for a moment, and mutters, “Shit.”

“What?”

“Nothing, just not looking forward to getting back in the saddle.”

Glen tosses him the money Slava lost. “So take a cab!”

Blue tosses it back. “I can’t take a cab the first time I show up at the gym.”

“You’re right, what will the history books say?”

Slava shifts his voice to resemble a documentary narrator. “‘The Young Oak, butt still sore from his journey—'”

“Bye guys.”


Blue takes a cab, but only until he’s a couple blocks away from the gym. Then he finds an alley to summon and saddle Soul in, puts on his riding gear, and rides the rest of the way. He arrives at the gym with a flourish, Soul skidding to a halt in a patch of snow, and Blue waits until his pokemon has melted it before he dismounts and strips them both down again as people who stopped to stare continue walking by.

Keeping his gaze straight, as if unaware of the looks he draws, Blue strides in and toward the front desk. He doesn’t even have to introduce himself before the receptionist gives him directions toward Sabrina’s office. He takes the elevator to the top, walks down a fancy hallway that reminds him of a high class hotel, and after a “Come in,” he enters to see the Gym Leader at her desk typing on her computer. It’s a fairly lavish room; nothing that can match Erika’s outdoor office, of course, but not as utilitarian as Surge’s either.

“Good to see you again, Leader,” Blue says, and represses a sigh of relief as he sinks into a very cushy chair in front of her desk.

“And you, Mr. Oak,” Sabrina says, gaze still on her monitor. “First things first; this is a courtesy meeting. What you’ve done at Vermilion and Celadon make it so that not meeting you would seem like a snub, and after how long you spent with Erika in particular, I don’t imagine that was unintentional.”

Blue isn’t quite sure how to take that; it works in his favor, obviously, but if she’s highlighting that it’s just a courtesy… “Well, I appreciate you playing along.”

“I don’t mean to imply you’re not special, this isn’t a power move,” she says, still focusing on her paperwork. “It feels strange being formal with you after everything that happened in Lavender. I’m just explaining why I’m not going to accept a Challenge from you anytime soon.”

“Ah.” Shit. “Even for membership?”

“You don’t need membership to do what I assume you’re planning to do here.” Her gaze flicks toward him. “Do you actually want it?”

“Dunno, actually.” In some ways it would be a downgrade from what he was at Celadon Gym, where he operated in a unique and unstructured unofficial capacity, but he didn’t really expect other gyms to let him have the same status. “Depends how long I’ll be here, and it might help to understand how your gym works from the inside. I figured you’d be too busy to work together more closely.” And from what he’s heard this gym is more traditional, like Brock and Misty’s; a primary focus on pokemon training, with special classes for Psychic types, and some extra unique classes for the trainers themselves based on what Sabrina and her people value or are specialists in.

Sabrina’s virtue is supposedly Discipline, but he’s always thought that felt among the more tacked-on ones… though being in her presence has him thinking twice, as she continues to work even as they converse. He remembers Leaf saying Giovanni does something similar, and wonders why Erika didn’t do it; it’s very effective at making him feel less special than he did before, despite her frank acknowledgement otherwise. Though maybe that’s just from knowing he’s not going to get an early match.

“Whatever you do, I’m afraid it won’t involve me. I still have a lot of work to catch up on, and what happened in Lavender didn’t help things. If you want to change the culture at my gym, I trust Tetsuo and Keiji enough to curtail whatever you might do that concerns them, or that they think would concern me.”

“Right.” Damn it, that means he’d have to answer to and negotiate with two people rather than one… and they would be deferring to a hypothetical Sabrina rather than asking the real one. No matter how well they could predict what she might say, they’re going to be extra conservative, and his charisma in arguing his points will be much less effective.

She’s watching him rather than her monitor, now, probably guessing at his thoughts even without her powers working on him. “Not that I’m trying to drive you away, but you still need three more badges aside from this one. You could always come back later.”

“The others I have left are all pretty far, and other than Viridian, this is the last badge that everyone in the group is missing.” And I can’t teleport. He largely feels that he’s left behind his bitterness about being dark, especially given the advantages it’s given him, but if he could just register an abra here he could pop back over whenever Sabrina might have an opening. As it is…

“Well, you’re also welcome to save me for last,” Sabrina says with a brief smile, focus back on her computer screen. “Most dark trainers do.”

“I’ve considered it,” he admits. “But—”

“That’s all the more reason not to, for you. Making your most difficult badge any easier isn’t your style, which means it’s Giovanni you’ll be challenging last, right?”

“Heh. Guess I’m not that hard to read, dark or not.”

“You’re definitely part of a type, and it’s not about being dark. I’m sorry I can’t do more for your aspirations, at the moment, but I think you’ll manage well enough.”

It sounds like a dismissal. Blue tries to think of something else he can say, then just nods, suppressing a sigh. “Thank you for the meeting.”

“You’re welcome. I look forward to our match, whether it comes sooner or later.”


The next few days pass quickly as the group attends some basic classes at the gym, along with some low level challenge matches. Red meets up with them on occasion to catch lunch and do some training, and a couple days after they arrive Jason and Maria return from Lavender. The group seems happy to see Maria again, who has changed somewhat; after the casino it was like she lost a lot of the confidence she’d gained over the months of journeying with Blue, but there’s a new serenity to her, or rather an old one gained anew.

The classes are interesting, a lot of them about how to better anticipate an opponent’s moves when they can read your pokemon’s thoughts and feelings, or even yours. The latter parts apply less to Blue, of course, but to offset that advantage, he starts attending Dark classes to train his abra and the gastly he received in thanks for his help at the tower.

It doesn’t go well.

He tried a few times on his own, following some guides online. An abra’s second strongest sense is sound, followed by smell, so he named his Tops and began taking him out of his ball to wear in a back harness when he’d walk around the Celadon gym on occasion, letting him get used to Blue’s smell, the sound of his voice, and the feel of his body as a physical thing. It worked, to some extent; Tops doesn’t startle when touched by Blue, responds to commands pretty well, and will sniff around to find him if Blue sits quietly in the same room with him… though Blue suspects that’s mostly just for food.

But he doesn’t orient to him at all. The ‘dex says that abra don’t instinctually act to protect others, and having a protective orientation—the kind of passive, automatic inclination that results in things like shifting to stand between a trainer and any sensed enemies—is difficult for them. Without that, in real combat, even the much suppressed instinct to flee simply leaves Tops paralyzed with fear no matter how gentle and encouraging Blue tries to be, or how much of his own fear he tries to inject into his voice.

“Yep,” Red confirms on Blue’s fourth day in Saffron. “To Tops’s senses, you’re not really there. You’re just a set of stimuli that sometimes gives him food… sorry, sometimes means food is going to appear.”

“Great,” Blue grumbles. They’re sitting in Red’s apartment at the building Sabrina’s students live in, both of their abra sitting on the rug using their weak kinesis to push a ball back and forth between them. Pikachu and Eevee are napping in the corner, and they can distantly hear Maturin splashing around in Red’s tub. “So what do I do?” Tops is the abra he chose to keep from the dozens he, Leaf, and Red caught north of Cerulean; in the top percent of all the pokedex metrics. He could grow into an incredibly powerful pokemon… but none of that matters if he won’t fight for Blue.

Thankfully Red knows him well enough not to suggest training a different psychic pokemon instead, one less dependent on its sixth sense. “Well, there are classes at the gym specifically for this sort of thing…”

“I know, I went to one.”

“Just one?”

“Yeah. I don’t want to show up again and still have no idea what I’m doing, you know?”

Red blinks, brow furrowed. “It’s… a class specifically for this, though. You think you’re going to look bad in front of other dark trainers struggling with the same thing?”

“I might not look bad, exactly, but I won’t look good. At least Tops will follow my voice commands; my gastly won’t even do that half the time!”

“What happened to not wanting to discourage others? I’d say seeing Blue Oak struggle a bit would be very encouraging to a lot of people with the same problem.”

Blue runs a hand through his hair. He’s right, Blue knows that, but… things have changed. “Struggling is fine. But if I try and fail…”

Red is frowning at him. “See, this is what I was worried about. You’re more worried about PR than you are the truth.”

“What? No I’m not, I’m not lying to anyone.” He remembers his trip to the gym, suddenly, but no, that’s different, all he did was show what people would have seen if the summon had just come a couple hours later… “I’m just making sure I’m prepared, so I don’t fail.”

“So you don’t fail publicly.

“What, I’m supposed to just parade around my failures?”

“That would be pretty awesome, actually. Just record the whole process, from start to finish, and show how you learn from it. It would probably help a lot of people.”

Blue watches Tops invisibly nudge the ball back toward Red, who uses his hand to roll it toward Bill, who shoves it back toward Tops. Blue is sitting in the third point of the triangle behind Tops, hoping to get him used being between Blue and danger. “I’m being stupid, aren’t I?” It feels like a tug-of-war is going on between his chest and stomach. Sabrina’s decision, understandable as it is, has been bothering him, probably more than it should have.

“Yeah, but you’re smart enough to know it, which is the first step toward wisdom. Now use your wisdom to tell me what you think of my new prospective purchases.”

“Right.” Blue takes his phone out to pull up the list of pokemon Red sent him as candidates to round out his belt. “Okay, so first off, your Grass and Water choices are obviously solid, but they’ve got to be expensive, even if Gramps is giving you a discount. Is he?”

“Didn’t ask for one.”

“Now who’s being dumb? In any case, for a lot less you could get pokemon almost as good. Gloom are going for like, a twentieth the price of ivysaur, and a poliwhirl would make a decent land Water replacement for wartortle.”

“I already have a weepinbell and kingler, so I’m not just trying to fill slots, but focusing on getting stronger additions that I’m not likely to catch myself. I’m fine with paying more for things I’m unlikely to ever replace, and as a plus to getting these in particular, I’d have you and Leaf to help give me advice on training and raising them.”

Blue nods. “Well, see if you can get a discount anyway. As additions to your team they’re definitely good ones. Can’t say I wouldn’t like having a set myself.”

“I thought you were over not buying pokemon?”

“I am, this is just a price thing as I weigh what I’ll need going forward. I’m happy enough with Soul, and don’t particularly need Fire types for anyone else coming up, nor Grass until Giovanni, and for him I’d want something that can deal with Steel too.” Giovanni would almost certainly use excadrill.

“Can’t you use some Ground TMs on venusaur?”

Blue’s brow shoots up. “You really have been looking into their battle potential, huh?”

“I mean, yeah, if I’m going to spend this much money…”

“I get it, no need to get defensive.” He grins. “Was just impressed. You’re right, you could, but torterra’s would be stronger, and it could set up more field hazards. Nothing against venusaur, it’s got its own strengths, I’m just talking about team comp… but this is off topic, the competitive scene’s a different world from what you’re prepping for.”

“Yeah. So any objections?”

“Nah, your reasons are solid.”

“Cool, because I had one more bonus reason.”

“What’s that?”

Red smiles, rolling the ball back and forth between his palms, then sending it to Blue’s abra. Tops’s ears twitch as he hears the ball approaching, and he holds his paws out to send it away with a burst of kinesis. “Long term investment. I won’t be using all my pokemon often, which means I can rent them out to breeders.”

Blue chuckles. “Putting your money to work, huh?”

“Yeah. I figure they’ll pay for themselves within a few years.”

“Clever.” Blue scrolls down the list of pokemon Red’s considering buying, as well as evolution items. He spots moonstone, probably to help Red’s nidorino evolve, but… “I don’t see thunderstones for Pikachu?” The pokemon in question twitches from where it’s napping, looks over at them, then curls up again.

“Right, I was thinking I’d keep him in this form and start ordering some food from Alola.”

“Ah.” Yeah, the islands’ psychic raichu would serve Red better, but… “It might take a while, considering he’s gone his whole life without it so far.”

“I know, but I figure it’s worth a try, and a year of it isn’t much more expensive than the thunderstone would be.”

Blue nods and keeps looking down the list. “Nothing in the real top end, that I’m seeing?”

“Yeah, goes back to the whole variety thing. Strength is nice, but I can’t get both if I blow the whole budget on a dratini or larvitar.”

“I get it. Hm. Having trouble with your tanks?”

“Yeah. Nidoqueen is bulky, and venusaur would be too, but—”

“They’re still more bruisers, yeah. Well, how about tangrowth?”

“I already have enough Plant types.”

“Shuckle?”

Too tanky, unless you disagree?”

“Nah, you’re right, against wilds most pokemon will just ignore them once they’re in their shell… you could get a forretress, or steelix, or, of course, a chansey or snorlax, but not sure if you have the budget for one on top of the ivysaur and wartortle. Maybe if you get a bulba and squirtle and raise them yourself?”

“Maybe. I don’t do as much training these days, and part of the point of this was to spend money I have a lot of to save time that I don’t.”

Blue nods, and then there’s a knock at the door. “Come in,” Red calls, and Leaf enters with a smile.

“Hey Leaf! Shit, is it time already?” Red gets to his feet and withdraws Bill, and Blue does the same with Tops.

“No, but I figured it’s better to be early than late.”

“Right, yeah, hang on, let me go get dressed…”

He disappears into his room, and Leaf goes over to pet Pikachu, who twitches an ear. “Heya Blue.”

“Heya Leaf. Is this your first time here for the, uh reflection lessons?”

“Mirroring, yeah.” She frowns as she hears the splashing. “Is someone else here?”

“Maturin.”

Leaf grins. “Not much chance for bathing in trainer houses, huh?”

“Yeah, she enjoyed swimming at the Celadon Gym, figured she’d miss it.”

“Where’s everyone else?”

“At the gym, if you want to say hi later.”

“Maybe, depends how long this takes. I’ve got a question, by the way… any idea how long before you’ll be in Fuchsia?”

“Uhh, no. That’s… up in the air, actually. Sabrina said she won’t be taking my challenge anytime soon.”

“Oof, sorry.”

“Why?”

“Weeeell… there’s been a bit of a breakthrough with my program.”

She’s grinning, and Blue stares. “Wait, really? What? When?!”

“Not long ago, I wanted to tell you guys in person…” Red emerges from his room, expression making it clear he heard everything. “More and more people have been working on it, sharing code and building off each other’s work, and my friend Natural pushed an update that I tested out on Dewy a few days ago.”

“Dewy?” Blue asks. “One of the ranch pokemon?”

“Yeah, a rattata that was so strongly conditioned by its capture program that it basically stopped doing anything unless it’s ordered to. Just stands there, waiting for a command to eat or follow or fight.”

“And it worked?” Red asks, voice low with awe.

Leaf swallows, eyes misting. “It worked. Dewy started… started moving around, and sniffing… sniffing the others… and when I put food in his pen he ate it, all on his own…”

“Leaf, that’s amazing!”

“Congratulations!”

Leaf waves them off, smile watery. “I hardly did anything compared to all the people who’ve been working on it lately. But, oh, it gave me so much hope…”

“So could Dewy be released, now, theoretically?”

“Theoretically, yes. There’s still a lot of testing to do, to see how much of his wild behaviors are back… and it’s not a general program, it was specifically built for Dewy. From what I understand of Natural’s code he just took what we needed from new scans of it after you used sakki, Red, and slotted them in.”

“Ah,” Blue says, and turns to Red. “So you’d need to do that with every pokemon that they want released, so they could design a new program for each one…”

“Uh, I’ve kind of already been doing that,” Red says a bit sheepishly. “But don’t downplay this, Leaf, it shows it’s possible, proves that it works, that pokemon can be not just permanently unconditioned, but quickly and cheaply!”

Leaf nods. “The Rangers are very excited, and want to try it out in the Safari Zone in a couple weeks.”

“Why the Zone?” Red asks.

“Only ‘controlled’ wild environment, I’m guessing,” Blue says, and Leaf nods. “Is that why you asked when I’ll be in Fuchsia?”

“Yes. They want to keep it an internal matter, for a while, but from the conversation I had with them, a few trusted trainers could be called in as supplemental assistance.”

Blue tries not to get too excited, but… “Protected access to Safari? Hell yeah, I’d help.”

“You’d still have to follow the rules.”

“I know, I know. Still, if it means getting a shot at the inner zone, I’d be crazy to pass up on it.” Then he remembers… “What about the others?”

Leaf looks apologetic. “I’m not sure. I asked, and they said they’d let me know later… they know who you are, obviously, but maybe if you vouch for others… I think it might depend on how many. It can’t look like we’re taking advantage.”

“Right. Of course.” A leaden ball forms in his gut as he thinks about going on yet another adventure without the others… without Glen, who might not be up for it.

In the beat of silence that follows, Red clears his throat. “We should probably head out.”

“Yeah.” Leaf smiles. “I’ll let you know when I hear more.”

“Great. Thanks, Leaf. And congrats again.”

They collect the rest of their pokemon and head out, parting ways at the elevator. Blue wraps his scarf around his neck as he walks out of the apartment building, feeling snow drift down onto his hair, and walks aimlessly down the street for a while, just letting his thoughts wander as his feet do. The sun is directly overhead, keeping Blue from getting too cold, and after a few minutes he decides he’s hungry, going to a nearby cafe and ordering a sandwich and smoothie.

As he waits for his food, a few people recognize him, and one even comes up to ask for his autograph. Blue gives it with a smile, and soon a couple more people approach. He chats with them about their day; one works at Silph and has a son who’s on his journey, another is a trainer with two badges who’s been following his journey “from the start,” and the third is an artist and avid League fan who shows him some shirts she’s designed, one depicting the entire island chain united under the words What Comes Next, another showing his win in Celadon, Soul glowing on the field as his head tips back in a roar. It’s surreal, in a way, but by the time he leaves with his food his feet feel light as air.

Once he finishes eating he decides to call Glen, who picks up after a couple rings.

“Hey, how are things at the gym?”

“Not bad when I left, but I’m not there, actually.”

“Want to head over?” Blue was thinking of taking another class for dark trainers, but despite what he said to Red the idea robs him of most of his good mood. He’d rather do a class with Glen.

“Uh, maybe a bit later? I’ve actually got a meeting first…”

“Ooo, a meeting, huh?” Is Glen being vague on purpose? He doesn’t sound embarrassed, exactly… “What kind?”

“One of the groups I met through What Comes Next. They do training, both for people and pokemon.”

“What, here in Saffron? Why aren’t they part of the gym?”

“Apparently they, uh, have a different philosophy.” Blue can hear his friend’s shrug. “Anyway, it seemed worth checking out. A big focus on self-development and supporting each other, not too different from what we do. And what we did at Vermilion.”

Blue frowns. “How did I not hear about this before?”

“Well, they only formed up after the incident. They reached out to me about my energy drinks once I linked my site to the forums, and I only got to know more about them in the past few days.”

Right, and Blue’s been busy with other things since then. He vaguely remembers Glen boasting about someone being interested in his formula, before Lavender, but he never followed up on it. “So you’re going to see them now?”

“Yeah, I figured while I was in town, why not, right?”

“Right.” He thinks about the classes he could go to, particularly the one for dark trainers, then makes his decision. “Well, want some company?”

“You sure?”

“Sure I’m sure.” He needs to reconnect with Glen, get more involved in his side projects. Blue unclips the container ball with his bike in it. “Just tell me where to meet you.”

The address Glen gives leads him to a wide, unmarked two-story building in the warehouse district that seems to take up an entire block. Or at least it appears unmarked at first; when he gets closer he sees a small banner above the door showing a vaguely draconic silhouette wrapped around a fist.

“Dragonfist?” Blue asks. “Sounds like a superhero. What did you say this place was, again?”

“A place to train. The guys in charge use a lot of Dragon and Fighting types.”

Dragon and Fighting? Weird combo, Fighting pokemon can cover Dragon’s Ice weakness while the Dragon pokemon cover everything else, but the same could be said for Rock, or even better, Fire… but this place might be important to Glen, to his continued recovery, so Blue keeps his thoughts to himself as Glen opens the wide double doors.

Blue is immediately hit with a unique combination of smells; floor polish and sweat, metal and wood and foam, and over it all the faint aroma of some lemon-scented cleaning product. Blue walks in and finds the temperature not much warmer than the outside, and looks around to see the entirety of the warehouse is open around him, with just a few sectioned off rooms at the corners and along the walls, and no second floor.

Blue feels a wave of nostalgia for Surge’s gym as he sees people moving through obstacle courses or training their pokemon. A door opens to Blue’s left as someone walks into the corner room, and through it he catches a glimpse of people deep in some discussion as a pair of them stand in front of poster boards. It really does feel like he entered a small gym.

Except there’s less pokemon training than in a gym, and more the sorts of things he’d expect to find in a fitness club. Exercise weights, for one thing, and the obstacle course isn’t being run with pokemon, just people moving in a uniquely efficient and fluid way…

“It’s called parkour.”

Blue turns to see a vaguely familiar Unovan boy approaching, not much older than himself, with bright red hair and lean, muscular build. “I think I’ve seen a few videos of it online.”

The boy grins. “Yeah? Which ones?”

It’s the grin that completes his memory. “I think I’ve seen you in one or two of them, actually.”

“If any were in Lumiose City, probably. I spent some time in Kalos before I came here.” He clasps hands with Glen. “Thanks for coming by.”

“Thanks for inviting me. Hope you don’t mind me bringing my friend.”

“I’m—”

“Blue Oak. I’ve seen some videos of you, too, specifically Glen and your Vermilion matches, after I found his site. I’m Duncan Sabien.” He holds his hand out, and Blue grips it. “Kiyo is in that office, Glen, if you wanted to talk to him about the bulk orders before anything else.”

“Right.” Glen turns to Blue. “It’ll just be some boring stuff about ingredients and shelf life… why don’t you hang here till I’m back?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll keep him company,” Duncan says, and Glen nods and jogs off. As Blue watches him go, his gaze once again starts to take in the sheer variety of activities being practiced. His heart leaps as he sees movement above, and cranes his neck up to see people walking and climbing along the beams that crisscross beneath the roof.

The motion was someone falling until just their hands grip the suspension bar, and his heart leaps into his throat as the figure swings back and forth, then releases herself forward in a somersault.

Before Blue can cry out the woman plummets… then bounces back up into the air and catches hold of another scaffold, applause breaking out as she pulls herself back up.

“Trampoline,” Duncan explains, seeming to enjoy his shock.

“That was intentional? Why?”

Duncan seems about to respond, then pauses. “That answer has layers. The surface one is that we get a lot of people here who work as stunt doubles in movies, or who want to.”

“Huh.” He watches as someone else drops down, then bounces back up. “Okay, that makes sense. What’s the second layer?”

“Some are working to get over a fear of heights.”

Blue blinks. “And that works?”

“Sometimes. The third layer is preparation. I’ve been pushing for trampolines to be included in more standard trainer kits.” He sees Blue’s raised brow. “I know, there’s already a lot of competition for what’s worth the mass to carry. But even large trampolines are relatively light, and just think of how many times you’d have benefited from having one to get somewhere higher!”

Blue purses his lips. “Honestly, can’t really think of a time.”

“Really? What about helping people get down from a high place more easily, or saving them from a bad fall?”

“Uh… my friend fell out of a tree once, but there wouldn’t have been time to take a trampoline out and set it under him.”

“Oh.” Duncan shrugs, seeming a bit disappointed. “Well, it still might come in handy someday. Plus, there’s another layer.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s sooo fun!”

Blue laughs. “I’ve actually never even been on one.”

The other boy turns to him with sudden wide-eyed intensity, and Blue abruptly knows what’s going to happen next.

A minute later they’re at a big trampoline, waiting for a couple people in line ahead of Blue to finish some impressive mid-air twists, flips, and corkscrews, sometimes multiple in the same jump. Blue starts to get excited, and once it’s his turn he slips his shoes off and braces his legs before carefully stepping out onto the taut elastic mat. It barely sags beneath him even once he reaches the center.

“Okay, so what do I do?”

“You know what to do. Don’t worry about the stuff you saw, just enjoy yourself first!”

Blue hesitates, then bounces his weight a bit, then a bit more, until his feet start to leave the mat with each movement.

Feeling a little more confident, he bounces harder, then bends his knees and leaps up, stomach lurching as he hangs in the air for a second, then drops back down and does it again, then again, until he’s purposefully trying to go higher each time.

It is fun, engaging muscles he doesn’t often use and evoking a feeling of freedom that’s hard to understand. Maybe it’s just something about being able to jump so high, higher than he ever could on his own no matter how hard he trained…

He decides to try a maneuver someone before him did, angling himself to fall onto his back so he can bounce back up onto his feet. He doesn’t bounce as high as he thought he would, however, and ends up half-falling awkwardly onto his side.

“Keep your back straight when you fall,” Duncan instructs as Blue pushes himself back up and starts bouncing again. “And lift your legs, knees slightly bent. Right, like that. Arms to the sides… there you go. You want your whole back to hit the mat at the same time.”

It takes Blue a few tries, during which he lands in awkward crouches or stumble-bounces to the sides, but ultimately this is nothing compared to the fine motor control he developed learning his pokeball tricks. Soon he shifts every muscle of his body until he gets them just right, bouncing effortlessly from back to feet, then even swapping to do it with his chest and stomach, understanding that he wants to do the opposite and spread-eagling just right to bounce his torso and hips all at once.

“Nice! Want to try a kaboom next?”

“A what?”

“Backflip from the back drop.”

“Sure!”

“Okay, this time slap your heels down and tuck your knees to your chest just after your back lands, and use the momentum of your feet bouncing up to flip yourself over.”

Just then, however, Blue notices the small crowd that’s gathered to watch. He thinks of how he tumbled around during his mistakes and is tempted to stop instead… but no, that would look bad too.

Instead he brings all his focus into his body, feeling the way it shifts as he bounces onto his back, then again, not trying the kaboom just yet as he imagines the timing…

…then drops his heels and tucks his knees as they flip up and over, arms pinwheeling as he lands on his feet. His balance is off, and his next bounce sends him toward the edge, but he manages to catch himself and vault onto the pads around the trampoline rather than faceplant.

There’s some scattered applause, and Blue grins and bows before he goes to put his shoes back on.

“Not bad for a first try,” Duncan says.

“Thanks.” There’s something in the other boy’s gaze, though, something assessing. Blue almost asks if everything’s okay, but the redhead is already turning to take a water bottle and a towel from a cubbyhole beneath the trampoline and handing them to Blue, who thanks him again and moves to sit as he wipes his face and drinks.

His legs feel a bit rubbery, but not as bad as when he was riding on Soul. As he recovers, he looks around the warehouse again and notices large words stencil-sprayed above the entrance in block-letters. It’s written in Unown, but he doesn’t recognize the words. “What’s that?”

“Être fort pour être utile,” Duncan says in a Kalosian accent. “Be strong, to be useful.”

“Personal motto?”

“The motto of a man I admire. For us it’s more of an oath, kind of the base layer under everything here; what we do to improve ourselves is in service to society.”

Blue grins. “I like it.”

“I thought you might. Of course, there are other ways to be useful, which is why we focus on learning too, on knowledge and wisdom and reason. But if a Stormbringer hits this city, every extra person who can defend themselves is one less person that will need to be defended… and who can help defend others.”

“I couldn’t agree more. The only thing I don’t get is… why this separate club? Why not join a gym, or train as rangers?”

“Eh. Rangers serve a very specific set of roles, and gyms have their own rules and cultures. I wanted to make my own, let others experiment more, try things really outside the box if it seems like it might work. Some gyms are more open to that sort of thing, but this seemed easiest.”

Blue looks around, brow raised. “I doubt anything about setting all this up was easy. And you did it in what, two months?”

“Easiest to get what I really want, rather than a facsimile.” Duncan clarifies. “Besides, the League hierarchy has enough power as it is. You never know when parallel structures might come in handy.”

Blue grins. “So this is a gym, basically.”

“Oh, no, the League charter is very clear that there can only be one gym per city.” Duncan smiles as he looks around, then points, and Blue sees a small group of men and women practicing kicks and punches, even sparring in hand-to-hand combat. “As far as the city is concerned, this is a dojo.”

Blue laughs. “Does that mean you aren’t going to challenge Sabrina, someday?”

Duncan shrugs. “Maybe. If I prove my methods are better. She’s in charge during a major crisis, of course, but as long as we can still respond to nearby incidents on our own and she’s not making major mistakes…”

Blue nods, suddenly excited about something new. “You must be a pretty strong trainer, given your philosophy.”

“At least strong enough to pull my weight.” He smiles. “You want to battle.”

“I would love to battle.”

“One question, first.”

“Shoot.”

“Why did you freeze up, before you tried the kaboom?”

Blue turns to Duncan to find the other boy watching him with that assessing gaze again. “What do you mean? I just wanted to practice the backfall a bit more first.”

“You wanted to get it right the first try.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

Duncan nods, eyes weighing him a moment longer before he looks away. “I see.”

“See what?” Blue asks, starting to get a bit irritated.

“Before you saw the crowd you were… happy. Playing. You were focused on getting things right, too, but it was fun for you. Once you saw people watching, it was like a light went out. You did it on your first try, but not perfectly, and instead of trying again, trying until you got it right, you just stopped.”

“I was tired.” The words come out automatically, defensively, and the look Duncan gives him is so scornful that Blue’s anger flares until shame at his own evasion extinguishes the flame. “But you’re right, that’s not why I stopped.”

“The stuff you’ve done, it’s clear you’re cultivating a legend. I don’t know what for, or what the ending to the story you’re trying to tell is. Most obvious guess is being Champion, but in a way where that’s just a step rather than the goal. And you probably can become Champion. You’ve clearly got the talent.”

“Thanks,” Blue says. “Though I feel a ‘but’ coming.”

“That’s quite a gift,” Duncan says, lips quirked, then nods toward the obstacle course nearby. “See that girl there?” Blue watches the indicated young woman vaulting up and down a series of low walls. Her body seems to almost float above hands and feet that propel her up and down from one side of the wall to the other as nimbly as a mankey. “She was panting and struggling for weeks, and ended up on the ground more times than I could count. You’re a natural athlete with amazing coordination, but you’re not good enough to do what she’s doing now without kissing the mat a few times, and if that would stop you from trying then your talent isn’t as valuable as her grit.”

“You think I can’t do hard things?”

“No, but I know fear when I see it. I doubt it’s just stage fright, not with how you act on camera. So it’s got to be fear of fucking up when you haven’t had time to prepare, to practice. Or, to be more specific, to rehearse.”

Blue’s anger returns, along with a trace of bitterness. “It’s different, for her. People aren’t going to remember how much she messed up.”

“I literally just told you about it.”

Blue waves his hand. “You know what I mean. Three people came up to me for an autograph just an hour ago while I was getting lunch. This is… it’s not the same.”

“It’s not the same because you’re trying to get people to think a certain way about you. You’re cultivating an image, a pseudo-relationship with you as their future Champion.”

“Sure, I guess.”

“Just one problem: if you’re not being honest with someone to preserve a relationship, it already doesn’t exist.”

“What?” Blue looks at him, pulse speeding up. Did Glen mention something…?

“The relationship, the one you think you’re preserving with the lies or evasions, it’s already gone. Maybe it never existed at all, and all you’ve ever had was a front. You have to look for the natural overlaps between you and others, and build from there. Nothing else is sustainable. Whatever you ask has to be asked freely, openly, and whatever people give you, the same.”

Blue drops his gaze, studying the pattern on the black rubbery ground. “I know.”

“Do you?”

“Yes! I just… I can’t meet everyone, one on one. I can’t spend time with them all, show them—”

“Doesn’t matter. One person or a hundred, it’s the same thing. Was I right before? About you wanting to be Champion, not just for the title, wanting to do something with the position?”

“I… yeah.”

“Then as long as you’re afraid of the region seeing who you truly are, whatever you hope to get is already beyond your reach. If you just want fame and fortune, sure, people will throw that at you whether you wear a mask or not. But if you’re actively keeping an illusion going instead of building from what’s real…” Duncan shakes his head. “You’re rolling the dice, again and again. On a long enough timeline, they won’t come up in your favor.”

Blue’s stomach twists. “What I’m trying to do… it’s important. And hard. No one’s done it before. What if I’m not good enough?”

“Then you have to really look at whether you should be the one doing it. Or else you’re just sabotaging the thing you claim to actually be fighting for.” He nods at the people doing parkour again. “We make videos, sometimes, showing off all the cool stuff we do here to put online, like the ones you saw. But we also make videos of people messing up as they learn. It doesn’t look as cool, so they don’t get as many views. But if we don’t show both sets of videos, we’re not being honest about what we’re asking of people.”

“And you want the right sort of people to come,” Blue guesses, smiling slightly. Red would like this place.

“Right. Other places I’ve been part of would get people who just saw all the cool stuff, came to try it, got frustrated, and left. We get a lot fewer of those. And sure, maybe some people get scared off, think it’s too hard for them, when if they had come they might have stuck it out. But it’s a tradeoff either way, and I care more about not wasting the first group’s time, and ours, than scaring off the second group. If they’ve got the heart for it, they’ll come.”

The words are like a bucket of ice water on Blue’s head. If they’ve got the heart for it… Isn’t that what he tried to do when Zapdos came? He thought he’d learned this lesson, from Amy, and TaroChie, maybe Vlad and the others… But it’s not quite the same.

“Ever since the incident, everything seems… too much,” he murmurs. “My goals were big even before then, I knew people would think I was insane for what I planned to do, but I was determined to do it anyway.”

“Seems like you still are.”

“Yeah. But it doesn’t feel like enough, after what happened. don’t feel like enough.” Blue turns to Duncan, who’s still watching the people in his dojo. “Is this, for you? Enough?”

The redhead is silent for a while, scratching at a scab on his knee. When he finally answers, his voice is low too. “I wonder that myself, sometimes. I don’t have all the answers, and what you asked earlier, about challenging Sabrina… becoming a real Leader… I’m not sure if it’s what’s right, for me. I could be wrong, but I suspect it would just feel like more of the same. Quantitatively bigger but… not enough to become something fundamentally more, or meaningfully different. But if there is something bigger I should be doing, I don’t know what it is, yet. All this…” He gestures at the dojo. “Raising the competence waterline… it feels like the best I can do, for now, while I figure it out. I still mess up. Still learn from it. As long as that’s true, maybe it’s the best I can do for now.”

“It’s already more than most.”

“One person doing more than most won’t fix the world.”

“Right. For that you need others.” Blue takes a deep breath, then slowly lets it out as something eases in him. “I’m glad I came here.”

“Me too. You can buy a trampoline at the entrance on your way out.”

Blue laughs. “That’s what all this has been about, huh?”

“Trampolines won’t fix the world either, but they’re still worth carrying around.” Duncan’s smile fades to something more serious. “You’re welcome to join us here whenever. You and the rest of your people.”

“Heh. Looking to absorb us?”

“Would that be a bad thing?”

“No. It might be just what we need. Or maybe just what I need. For a little while, at least.”

Duncan is watching him. “How about this: if I win our match, you don’t leave until I say you’re ready to leave, or three months, whichever comes first.”

Three months?! Well, he might have to wait that long to face Sabrina anyway… but it would be longer than he’s stayed in any city before, and if Leaf is right about the Safari Zone… “And if I win?”

“You get one of the pokemon I fight you with, your choice which.”

Blue blinks. It’s an elegant wager, ensuring that the harder he makes it for Blue, the more he puts on the line… “One of your dragons?”

“Fuck no,” Duncan laughs. “I’m not crazy.”

Blue laughs too, and holds his hand out. “Deal.”

They shake on it, and stand to walk toward the open arena at the center of the stadium. Along the way they pass some trainers all dressed in karate gi beside their fighting pokemon, listening to a tall, muscled man instruct on something. As they get closer the students all bow, and the man bows back before everyone begins to disperse, and Blue frowns, then slows to a stop as he catches sight of the side of the man’s face. “Is that…”

“Oh, perfect timing. Let’s put our match on hold for a minute… hey, Koichi!”

Blue stares in growing anger at the man who failed utterly in his role as Saffron Gym Leader, but brutally clung to it anyway until Sabrina bled him of his supporters and dethroned him.

“Koichi, this is Blue Oak,” Duncan is saying, and despite the heat in his chest Blue has to resist the urge to step back as the man’s stony expression turns toward him. He’s in his early forties, but looks older, deep lines creasing his face and grey hair starting to lighten the black at his temples. Despite that, his body is as thickly muscled as a machamp’s, and he looms over six feet tall as he approaches. “I’d like him to learn how to lose, and I can’t think of a better teacher.”

Chapter 91: Interlude XVIII – Discoveries

The memorial service for the fallen rangers and pokemon takes about an hour. Laura sits beside Red and his friends throughout it, and waits at a respectful distance afterward as he says goodbye to Blue, Leaf, and Jean. The quiet girl, Maria, has apparently decided to stay in town for a while and learn more from Jason, who in turn is spending some time with his family. She gives Blue a hug before he climbs onto the back of his arcanine, then Leaf, who hugs her back and gives Red one last smile before teleporting away, and then it’s just her and her son, walking back to her apartment through the snow.

She’d be a lot happier about Red asking to stay with her for a while if she wasn’t involved in such a potentially dangerous investigation.

But he wants to stay close to the tower while research continues on whatever new ghost they discovered, and after yet another close call, she can’t send him away. She eventually got used to waiting for Tom to heal after he was injured in the line of duty, but she isn’t sure she’ll manage it for Red. Maybe it’s different with children, or maybe because losing Tom made it clear that she could lose her son too. But at least the physical injuries Tom and Red endured up until now were understandable.

Red’s latest injury was whole new territory for her, and for him, and for other psychics as well, according to Agatha. After they first brought him to her place, Leaf and Blue sat with Red in his room while Laura cried silent tears into her hands and the Elite made tea for her in her own kitchen (which she would have been more embarrassed about at any other time).

Thankfully the symptoms weren’t worrisome, so far at least, but the cause was mysterious even to psychic doctors, and that made it extra frightening. In the end, everyone’s made of blood and bone, tissue and ligaments, cells and atoms. According to Agatha, Red’s injury was to his “soul.”

“Or his mind, if you prefer that word. According to the brain scan his hardware’s fine, but the software’s got a bug in it,” the Elite said in her usual blunt tone, then handed Laura a tissue along with her tea before putting a hand on her shoulder. “Just keep his thoughts off it as best you can, Laura. I’ll check in on him from time to time, make sure he’s healing right.”

She didn’t have the words to express her gratitude, and still feels a mix of hope and shame that the Elite would take such a personal interest in her son’s wellbeing, old friend of Sam’s or not. They’d only met a few times over the years, and never had particularly long or intimate conversations. But selfish as it felt, she didn’t even consider turning the offer down, simply nodding and drying her tears so she could put on a brave face for the children.

Children. More than their official emancipation months ago, it’s their accomplishments that make the word feel like it no longer quite fits.

That, and other things.

“So,” she says as they walk, trying to keep her voice casual. “I’m glad you and Blue are getting along so well again.”

Red gives her a surprised look, but nods. “Yeah, since Celadon things feel mostly back to normal.” He shrugs. “We still haven’t talked about it, but I don’t feel like we need to.”

Laura shakes her head, remembering Leaf’s exasperation when they discussed it once. Boys. She might normally caution against letting things like that stay buried where they might blow up again at an unexpected moment, but she has another focus right now… Keep his thoughts off it, Agatha said. Easy enough, while they’re together at least. “You and Leaf seem to be getting along well too.”

She’s sure she kept her tone the same, and she didn’t feel him brush her thoughts with his psychic senses (though she knows that’s unreliable), but the look he gives her is still one of cautious resignation. “Mom…”

“She’s a very smart young woman.”

“Mom!”

“You disagree?”

“Of course not.” Now he’s blushing, much to her delight.

“You should have invited her over to lunch. We can get some fishless sushi.” Laura worries sometimes about Red’s decision to follow Leaf’s diet; much as she respects Leaf’s beliefs, it’s hard to trust that supplements could really cover everything a growing body needs, so she’s happy that Red is willing to eat pokemon as long as she’s already buying it anyway. But she’s happy to cater to Leaf’s preference if it gets the two to spend more time together.

“She has stuff to do at the ranch.”

“Of course.” Laura nods approvingly. “A very hard worker, too. Why not ask her to come by for dinner then?”

She sees him hesitate, considering it, and innocently adds, “I’ll be busy after dinner anyway, if she wants to stay for longer.”

“Maybe tomorrow,” he says, cheeks still pink, and she takes it as a victory.

Once they get home she fixes some lunch for them, surprised by how much she enjoys it. She’s never been much of a homebody, and was always happy to let Red make food for himself once he resolved to learn how. Still, for an hour at least it’s like they’re back in simpler times, and she cherishes it while she can.

Then his plate is clean and he’s off to the guest room to work on his research with a quick “Thanks!” and that’s also like old times. She makes sure there’s leftover food in the fridge in case he gets hungry, then goes to put her pokebelt back on.

“I’m heading out to meet a friend, I’ll be back in a few hours!”

“Okay! Love you!”

She smiles, says, “Love you too,” and holds onto the warm feelings until she’s fairly sure she’s out of his psychic range. Only then does she let her thoughts shift to her upcoming meeting.

In the time since she arrived in Lavender, she’s only gotten one communication from the mysterious researcher. A few days after she paid a courier to slip the initial message under his door, she saw a slip of paper on his porch and waited until the dead of night to get it while wearing a mask, worried all the while that some neighbor would report her to the police for robbing him. Once she circled the town a few times to make sure she wasn’t followed, she checked the note to discover it was the same one she’d left, and turned it over to read:

Thank you for your concern, but I am fine. My only wish is to be left alone.

This was not the worst potential outcome, not even close, but it also wasn’t a great one, as it means she can’t get more information without violating his stated preference… and because it doesn’t actually distinguish his situation from one where he’s forced to live that way. Maybe he really is an extreme loner, or maybe he wants to be left alone because of some threat.

She had a courier slip one more note under his door with the contact information of a specially purchased burner phone on it, “in case you change your mind,” then went back to watching his house from afar. Maybe he would try to leave town, disappear somewhere else. That would be informative on its own; wanting to be left alone is one thing, but moving to an entirely different place just based on what Laura has done so far is not, by Laura’s estimation at least, something done by someone with nothing to hide.

But he stayed where he was, and as far as she could tell from some occasional surreptitious monitoring, made no major differences in his routine. Eventually the cost of the hotel she was staying at began to feel excessive, and she had to make the choice between going back to Celadon or finding an apartment in town.

She went with the latter. Without her job to go back to, living in the city would be expensive, and while she could try getting work at another agency, none would be more willing to fight the legal and financial pressure Silph has been focusing on her. The lawsuit she’s dealing with is bad enough that she doesn’t blame them… it’s not often that she has to do anything directly but ask for extensions and go to brief hearings, but even aside from the time and money cost it causes constant stress whenever she thinks about it.

Sure, there are some sites and organizations that have reached out in support and asked her to join them. But all of them are either too small to fund this sort of long-term investigation, or too big for her to trust with such a sensitive one. Sam’s money is helping keep her afloat, but she has to be careful how she spends it to make sure it’s not wasted.

So she left the hotel and got a short lease at an apartment. Cheaper for a long stay, and more importantly, it was a public move. If she’s being tracked, which she has no reason to think she’s not, then Silph will see she’s taken up residence in the same town the secretive researcher is living.

Silph might think that’s a coincidence, but she doubts it. Overall it’s a risky move, but she doesn’t have a lot of options, and if he or the researcher react, Laura might learn something.

And, of course, it let her continue to spend hours outside his place every day, hoping to get a picture.

Laura reaches the cafe and slips inside, wrinkling her nose as she passes under the strong smell of the ofuda hanging above the door. She looks around as she unwinds her scarf, then smiles and walks toward the familiar head of salt and pepper hair.

Sam looks as tired as she’s ever seen him, not counting the times he was recovering from Pressure. The difference is the spark in his eyes, the curve of his outer lips, even while he stares at his computer screen in concentration… like he can’t quite manage a frown while he’s so excited.

“Anything new?” she asks as she bundles her coat and scarf in her lap and sits.

“No, just reading over reports.” He picks up his coffee mug and sips from it without taking his eyes off his screen. “Did you know that proportionally, the Tower and outlying graveyard have more ghosts around them than gravesites with the same or even more buried bodies? Or had, I should say.”

“I did not,” Laura says, and waves off the waitress when she comes by with a questioning look. “Though it seems obvious now that you mention it, since cities would have much bigger graveyards but none are ‘known’ for having lots of ghosts around them. Is that helpful?”

“Probably not for this mystery, but I definitely want to get more eyes on this place to monitor how quickly the population regenerates. Maybe we can learn something about what makes it special.”

“Higher frequency of visitors, maybe? It’s both a cemetery and a tourist site.”

“Mhm. Or it could be the altitude, or something about the material used to build the tower, or maybe it’s all built on some spiritual leyline like Agatha says.” He sighs and lowers his monitor with a click. The cover has some faded stickers of pokemon on it, placed there years ago by Blue. “Still can’t tell when she’s pulling my leg. So, you said you finally got a clear shot? I thought he never leaves, keeps the curtains drawn, all that stuff?”

“Normally, yes, and I don’t mind telling you that it made for some very boring stakeouts. But a little over a week ago…” She finds the photo on her phone, then hands it to him. Sam leans forward to examine the face of the mysterious researcher. “Apparently the one thing he can’t get from home is a dentist visit.”

Laura took the photo after magnifying her camera as much as it could go, but her setup was far enough to not be seen from his house, or anyone else watching his house, so what she ended up with is a photo that still shows the researcher from a distance. The man looks to be a Kanto native in his fifties, mostly bald, with a fringe of white hair that goes around the back of his head. He’s wearing a simple blue button up shirt that outlines a skinny frame.

He has an old fashioned wide brimmed hat on, similar to the one Mr. Silph wears, and his eyes are downcast, as if deep in thought… or perhaps from being unused to the bright sky above.

For a long moment, Sam just stares at the photo. Laura watches his face, the tension in the brow, the narrowing eyes, the press of his lips. It’s a look of both intense examination and hope.

And, as Laura watches, dawning amazement.

“Sam?” she asks after a minute.

“It…” He trails off, licks his lips, takes another sip of coffee. “It could be,” he whispers. “It could be him.”

Laura blinks, then blinks again. Him. Not one of them. “Dr. Fuji?” she murmurs, unable to hide her skepticism. What would the odds be, that among all the scientists and researchers that are supposedly missing, the one that Sam knew best, the one that he specifically mentioned to her at the beginning, would be the one she found first? He’s not the only one from Kanto, and Laura didn’t even know it might be him when she came here…

“Yes. I can’t be sure, of course. If it is him, it’s been at least twenty years since I’ve seen him, and it shows. He hasn’t aged well.” Sam meets her gaze. “But… there’s something familiar about him.”

Laura’s skepticism is joined by sympathy. She understands that Sam wants it to be him. That he blames himself for not doing more to be there for his old friend, for not trying harder to find him when he fell off the radar. She takes his hand and squeezes it. “I hope it is.”

Sam returns his gaze to her phone, then slowly hands it back. “How far is he from here?”

“About a ten minute walk.” Her stomach sinks. “Why?”

“I want to go see him.”

Laura takes a moment to pick her words. “That’s a terrible idea.”

Sam’s brow rises, and then he smiles. “What was the first thing you thought to say?”

“It wasn’t coherent, just a wordless sense of panic.”

“Ah. That bad?”

“Sam, I’ve spent the past months trying to learn as much as possible without risking scaring him off or letting Silph know I’m aware of him. I don’t know if they’ve got the place under constant surveillance or not, but if you show up there…” He’s Samuel Oak, he’s probably not afraid of being targeted, and for good reason. Maybe he could get away with it where she couldn’t. But… “We just don’t know enough about the situation. You might get him killed.”

He looks away, not ashamed or upset, just thoughtful, and sips from his mug. She considers getting some coffee herself, or better yet some tea given the way her stomach is churning, and then he turns back to her.

“Alright. You’re the expert here, and if you think it’s not the right time, I trust you. But what’s your projection for when it will be the right time? Do you have a plan for how you’ll know it’s okay to take bolder action?”

“That’s what I wanted your help with. I did some basic attempts at matching the face online to an identity, but had no luck. If you think this is him, I can try to reach out to people who might have seen him more recently than you, get some extra confirmation.”

“But what does that change? Particularly if he’s there by choice, as I believe he would be. If Silph is hiring scientists to work off the record for them it makes sense to kidnap those no one would miss, or who would be written off… but they might also target those with nothing else to lose, who would welcome a sense of purpose, security, even seclusion.”

“Which includes Fuji.” Not that she blames him. If she’d lost Tom and Red… she doesn’t even want to think about it.

“That’s my guess. What do we do if it’s true? I don’t want to invade his privacy if he’s there voluntarily, but there may be others who aren’t.”

Laura nods. “The way he’s situated it would make sense if different people were siloed so they don’t know anything about each other’s situation… but they still might pass information along to each other, even innocuously. He might not even realize others need help, nor how valuable what he knows could be. But your question was what it would change, and honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe you knocking on the door, strutting the white coat and the Professor title is the safest way to learn more.” She’s smiling as she says it, and can see he’s torn between denying the characterization and feeling caught out. “But I’d like to at least see what I can find out first. Whoever he is, he’s been safe in that house until now, and there’s no reason to think that’s about to change, especially if my note didn’t scare him off.”

Sam takes in a breath, then lets it out with a nod. “Okay. I’ll be teleporting back here every few days for a while yet, so once you’ve done all you think you can, let me know.”

“I will. Just give me as much information as you can about Fuji and those who knew him, and I’ll take care of the rest.”


After Sam leaves she orders some tea to go and heads to the local library, where she spends the next few hours working. She trusts Red, but still doesn’t want to risk him picking up on what she’s working on. The less he knows the safer they’ll both be.

She spends some time refreshing herself on the public information available on Dr. Fuji, especially any personal details that might be on the net that the Professor didn’t mention. Fuji never had much of a social media presence, and if there are any obvious clues that the man in town is him, she can’t find them. She examines the old pictures available and can’t tell if she really sees the similarities or if Sam’s confidence is influencing her. Eventually she moves on to examining the pictures of other missing researchers until night falls (earlier every day, it seems) and heads home through the dark, snow-covered streets, her hands tucked into the pockets of her coat for warmth.

She arrives to find a strange black shape floating around her living room.

“Hi, Mom. I bought an unown,” Red explains. He’s sitting at the kitchen table with his eyes closed, along with the young researcher she met at the funeral, Artem.

“Hello, Mrs. Verres.”

“Hello, and I see that, Red.” Now that it has turned around, at least, its round, unblinking eye facing her for a moment before it keeps turning away. “Is that a G, or a V?” She knows those two look nothing like the written letters, for whatever reason, but she can’t recall which is which.

“G,” Red says. “I keep them straight by remembering that the one with a little sideways V on it isn’t V.”

“Sideways?” Artem asks.

“Well, there’s only one position where it’s oriented like a V, and in all the others it’s either tilted or upside down… you’re right, I should say ’tilted.'”

Laura can see why these two became friends. “So why get a G?” There’s something distinctly creepy about the way it floats aimlessly around… and she can hear it, too, a faint vibration in the air. Or is that just in her head?

“It was the cheapest one on auction at the time. About two thousand.”

Laura blinks. “That was the cheapest?

“They went up in price for a while after the Hoenn thing,” Artem explains. “But have been dropping after that as more of them have been found and caught and people get bored of them not doing anything interesting.”

She watches the expensive pokemon float around some more as a small remnant of her past self worries that she made a mistake in granting his financial independence so young… but no, she knows he can afford this, and likely had good reason to buy it. “And is yours?”

Red sighs and opens his eyes. “Not really.” He rubs his face, while Artem checks the time, then starts writing in the notebook he has in front of him. “It feels different than the ones I sensed at Lavender.”

“Maybe because they were wild,” Artem muses as Laura finally moves to hang her pokebelt by the door and take her shoes off.

“Or maybe because they were with others.” Red stands and goes to the counter to pour some tea into a cup, then brings it to her.

“Oh, thank you Hon.” Her hands are still cold from the walk, and just holding the warm cup is pleasant. “Does that mean you might buy more?”

“It would be a waste if the difference is in whether it’s wild versus captured. I’m going to try meeting up with others who have one, first, then let Artem borrow it for his experiment.”

She turns to the other researcher. “What will you be testing?”

“Whether they create pokemon. Honestly, I’d barely call it an experiment, I just plan to put a bunch of unown in a room with a pokeball, some magnets and screws, a bag of trash, you know, things that some pokemon seem to have originated from, and observe them for a few months.”

She raises a brow and sips her tea. “Months? Continuously?”

“I’ll have help, others to swap with and make sure someone’s always watching the camera feed.” He shrugs. “I know it’s really unlikely, but it seems like an obvious thing to try that no one has.”

“It’s definitely worth testing,” Red says. “I just wish I could be of more help.”

“You’ve done enough, particularly since I know you’re still skeptical of all this.” Artem pockets his notebook, then stands and moves to take his own pokebelt from the hook by the door. “See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, let’s grab lunch.”

“Alright. Goodnight, Mrs. Verres.”

“Goodnight, Artem.” She moves to the door to close it behind him, then slide the deadbolt in. When she turns back around she feels a stab of worry at the sight of Red rubbing his temples. “Another headache?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe you should hold off on using your powers for a few days.”

He shakes his head. “It’s not that. It’s these memories… remember when I told you about the way I kept re-experiencing my spinarak’s attack, in Viridian Forest? It’s like that, and I’m able to protect myself better now, but it’s also a much stronger effect, and… I can’t keep myself totally cut off from the memories when there might be clues in them.”

“Clues about where the marowak ghost came from?”

“Right. I didn’t get the chance to really merge with the unown outside the tower, but touching them at all meant I could recognize when I merged with the marowak that… it was connected to them, somehow. I hadn’t really thought about it because I was keeping the memory away, but the more I let myself remember the more I realize Artem might be right.”

He’s watching his unown with troubled eyes, and Laura feels some apprehension. “You don’t think it’s likely to spawn a pokemon out of my table or something, do you?”

“Hm? Oh, no. Probably not. But look at it a moment… doesn’t it seem…” His voice lowers. “Almost deceptively simple? And that eye, always watching…”

Laura raises a brow, concern shifting in a different direction. “Oookay, Red, I think it’s time to take a break.” She puts her hands on his shoulders and squeezes, feeling the tension there. “Why don’t you withdraw it so we can get some dinner? Maybe watch a movie? I think we can both use a break from work.”

“Yeah, alright.”

As he does so, her phone rings, and when she checks it she sees Leaf’s number. “Hello, L—”

“Hi Laura! Um, are you home?”

“I… yes, Red and I are here.”

“Okay, I’m teleporting over, be there in like, fifteen minutes!”

Laura blinks, then grins. “You’re joining us for dinner?”

“Right! Dinner!”

“Okay, see you soon!”

“See you!” The call ends.

“Was that Leaf?” Red asks, pokeball still in hand. He sounds annoyed.

“As if you don’t know,” Laura says. “Why didn’t you tell me you invited her, Red, I barely have time to figure out what to serve—”

“But I didn’t!”

Laura blinks. He doesn’t sound annoyed now, or even embarrassed. Just confused. “Do you know why she’s coming, then?”

“No, I haven’t spoken to her since she left. I thought you invited her without telling me.”

They share a baffled silence for a moment, and Laura feels a vaguely familiar feeling in her thoughts. “Red Verres, are you reading my thoughts?” It’s times like this she wishes she’d given him a middle name.

“Sorry,” he says as the feeling quickly fades. “I thought you might have been teasing me, but if you’re serious, I’m a little worried.”

“Me too.” She replays Leaf’s tone in her head. Chipper, maybe even excited. She wonders for a moment if someone tricked Leaf, impersonated Red or Laura and told her to come… but why would they?

Then Laura gets it, and sees understanding come over her son’s face a moment later. “The investigation.”

Worry is joined by excitement, suddenly, and chases away Laura’s lingering tiredness. “Has she mentioned anything lately?”

“No, but we worked on it a bit on the day before we came here. We were narrowing down lists…” He trails off, then takes out his phone and starts tapping at it. “Do you think something happened that might have given her a new clue?”

“Let me know if you find something. I guess we’re ordering food in, tonight.”

But twenty minutes later he doesn’t seem to have found anything. Leaf arrives just after the food does, apparently having underestimated how long it would take for her to bike over in the snow. She starts to take off her scarf and coat, then stops to gratefully accept the hot mug of tea Laura brewed, then sets it down after a swallow to keep shedding layers.

“Leaf, slow down,” Laura says as she starts opening the various containers of food and sets them on the table. “We’re not going anywhere.”

“I know, just… excited,” Leaf gasps, still breathless from her ride over. She pulls her boots off, then sits with a sigh and takes a longer swallow of the tea. “Sorry for dropping by like this, but—”

“It’s fine,” Red says before Laura can, and she turns away to hide her smile at Red’s tone, picking silverware out of the drawers. Red joins her a moment later to take them from her and to the table, and she turns to get them plates. “This is about the investigation, right?”

“Yeah! Hang on, let me…” Leaf stands again and takes out a container ball, and a minute later Laura’s old battered laptop with the original files is on the table. “Okay, so I should start at the beginning… um… right, I got to the ranch, and as I started doing some chores, I was thinking about what happened here. Eventually that included wondering about Jason and Agatha compared to Red and Sabrina, and the way we classify them ‘psychic’ or ‘medium’ based on their specialties despite not really having a strict idea of what makes one different from the other.”

“Alright,” Laura says as she sets the plates out. “With you so far.”

“And then I thought about the way we label people’s skills in general, you know? And a sort of joke I made to Red, a few days ago, about how the person who visited you was a ninja hacker spy, or a hacker ninja spy, or whatever. And a thought occurred, something small like ‘huh, what made me start calling her a ninja,’ like I get why but I never really did anything with that thought, you see?”

“I think I’m starting to,” Laura says, hope expanding in her chest.

“I’m not,” Red admits with a frown. “Unless you’re saying… there’s actual ninjas still hanging around Kanto?”

“It’s not as strange as it sounds,” Laura explains. “Once in a while over the past couple hundred years some records would surface of a ninja clan, a group of families that survived since the times of the warlords. For generations they retained secret techniques for assassination, espionage, and pokemon training, until enough descendants just walked away from that life for the clan to die out, or transition to more modern lifestyles. Inevitably someone would decide to sell their family secrets for book deals or something, but there hasn’t been a new one revealed in, oh, thirty years or so. Still, there’s always speculation about how many are still around—”

“—since obviously those that are still ‘active’ are going to keep their existence secret.”

“Exactly.” She turns back to Leaf. “Did my contact do something that matched one of those ninja records?”

“No, nothing that I could find, at least.”

Laura blinks, hope deflating for a moment. “Then you think it is a new one?”

“I’m not sure, but… I decided to narrow the search down to Fuchsia City, just based on the records of where the data first started coming from.” Leaf shows Laura the time and location stamps on the initial files, and she nods. “Could be unimportant, of course, but it seemed worth focusing on for a while at least. So once I had this thought, I started looking through forums and blogs and news aggregators that mention the city, just generally looking for anything that might stand out, you know, but also using the word ‘ninja’ in the search… and look!”

She opens her phone, now, and shows Laura a collection of screenshots. Red gets up and comes around to look as well.

First a snippet on some biker forum warning people to stay away from Fuchsia, describing a “shadowy figure” that attacked him and moved “like a ninja.” Laura swipes to the next picture to see another similar post, and another after that. She goes back to look at the details and sees these are spaced out by months, each by someone different, all light on details or agenda other than to share a general message: stay out of Fuchsia if you know what’s good for you.

A new gang, Laura thinks, until she sees the fourth screenshot, which shows a headline about crime in Fuchsia being down. One that’s keeping outsiders away…? She remembers hearing news about this here and there over the past year, but her assumption had always been that Fuchsia was having a good few months, or a good year, or that Fuchsia’s tourism was doing a PR blitz, or that the media was focusing on some stats over others to make a story. Common crime reporting was never really an interest of hers.

But as she swipes to the next picture (a breakdown of what kinds of crime were lower: theft, robbery, assault) and the next few (a series of headlines on corrupt politicians and businessmen being arrested or exposed) she recognizes this is more than just some criminals policing their own.

“And the dates for some of that stuff? It matches some of the Fuchsia data in the files, or is close to when information sources cut off.”

“How long did it take you to find all this?” Laura asks. It’s only been about ten hours since Leaf left Lavender…

“Not long, most of it is other people’s work. I’m not the first person to notice all this, there’s a conspiracy site where others were already putting it all together… and more, a lot more, but that’s the verifiable stuff once I excluded all the rumors.”

“Rumors?”

“Some of the biker gangs were saying some renegade is going around killing or kidnapping their friends, while others claimed to have been among those attacked, and had their pokemon stolen. Some even claim it’s Koga who’s doing it, though there’s little agreement on the details… each incident sounds more fanciful than the last, with just a couple common themes.”

“So maybe one group got attacked, and the others took the story and added their own details to it?”

“That’s what I thought, yeah. There are also strange stories about why some important people in business or government suddenly quit and moved to another city, but nothing substantial.”

“Wait,” Red says. “Just to be clear, combining all this with our guess that the ninja hacker started her war against Silph in Fuchsia, the new hypothesis is… she isn’t just going after Silph, she’s a general-purpose vigilante?”

“Or she’s part of a group operating in Fuchsia,” Laura says. “One that decided to chase Silph past the borders of their city, and sent her to meet me. Or maybe she’s got more autonomy than that, and decided to chase Silph herself. Leaf, this is an amazing potential story all on its own. A ninja clan living in Fuchsia and cleaning up the city… well, given everything else going on, movie studios might be more interested than news sites, but it’s a great find.”

“Thanks! Like I said though, this is mostly other people’s work, they just didn’t have the other pieces to point them in the right direction. I’m thinking of reaching out to some of the people involved, even the bikers, and see what I can learn that they didn’t put online.”

Laura feels a stab of worry, but Leaf is already raising her palm. “I know, Laura, I’ll be careful. I already bought a burner phone and downloaded a voice modulator.”

Somehow hearing about the precautions makes Laura more nervous rather than less, but… she’s the one that involved Leaf in all this to begin with, knowing that she’d be safer under guided investigation than impatiently trying to find stuff out on her own.

Besides, she’s pretty sure Leaf stole something from the Casino and then lied to the police about it. Laura shouldn’t assume Leaf can’t be cunning on her own… though that particular example makes Laura nervous for different reasons. She hasn’t confronted Leaf about it because she wants the girl to be honest with her on her own… and because if she’s wrong, she imagines it would be terribly hurtful to Leaf that Laura didn’t trust her.

“Alright. Good idea wanting to talk about this in person, and if you’re going to keep an abra registered to the town for a while then feel free to come by whenever to update me.”

Leaf smiles. “I will. You should buy an abra too, Laura. You’re carrying a pokebelt around anyway, and now that the first generation are starting to hatch at the new breeding farms the prices are going to start dropping again.”

Laura thinks about her narrow budget and nods. “I’ll think about it.”

“No, you won’t. I’ll buy you one, Mom, Leaf’s right, it would just be dumb not to get you a couple in case of emergencies. I should have done it earlier.” He looks at Leaf. “Really, we should all have been spending money more freely than we have been.”

“Why haven’t you?” Laura asks.

“I guess I didn’t really internalize how much potential to earn more I have now. Even after the abra sales, it felt like… this one big windfall that I was lucky to get, and had to save for getting rare pokemon for research, or emergencies.”

“I had a similar thought,” Leaf admits. “We were in Vermilion after we got the money, and things were fine until Zapdos attacked. Then I went to the ranch and it felt like I might need the money for my project.”

“I get why Blue tries to avoid it, he doesn’t want people to think he just bought his way through the badges, but really he should be buying more pokemon just to have for traveling safely. Maybe that’s not as big a deal for him now, with the strong pokemon he has and the size of the group he travels with, but I’m definitely going to buy some stronger pokemon to round out my belt.”

Now that’s a use for money she can approve of. She looks at Leaf, who’s packing the laptop back away and says, “You are staying for dinner, right?”

“Oh!” She seems to suddenly notice the third place set for her. “I thought it was just an obvious cover, I didn’t mean to impose on family time…”

Laura looks at Red, who clears his throat. “You’re not imposing at all.”

Leaf smiles and sits, and Laura beams at him as she starts serving food. For tonight at least, her worries about the investigation are easy to ignore.


Two weeks pass while Red stays with Laura, occasionally teleporting away to Saffron for some psychic business or Celadon to help the police there hunt Renegades. Laura wasn’t exactly thrilled with that news, but the fact that he would be constantly with police and gym members reassures her, as does the recognition that he likely wouldn’t be asked to actually help apprehend anyone if they find someone.

He also keeps meeting with Artem and Jason as the investigations into the incident at the tower continue, while Laura does her best to prepare for a confrontation with the researcher. Overall they settle into a comfortable and peaceful pattern, though there are some moments of excitement that send Red in and out of the apartment for days, such as when someone discovers the code for an artificial pokemon in the data that was recovered under the Rocket Casino. Much of it is over Laura’s head, but between Red and Artem’s excited conversation she gathers that it’s an attempt to combine and expand on the process of TM editing and reverse-pokemon-storage to code an entirely new, if incredibly simple, organism into being from scratch.

They also spend some time together doing more pleasant things, like watching movies at night and discussing current events during meals. Sometimes she has to practically drag Red away from his research to give himself a rest, and sometimes he falls asleep with his head on her shoulder halfway through the film while his pikachu curls up on his lap. She doesn’t mind.

There are less pleasant evenings as well. Cerulean City got hit by a Tier 2 incident after a snowstorm displaced a family of dragonite, who killed over a hundred people before Brock, Misty, Sabrina and Erika captured them. She and Red followed the news together, and she could tell that a part of Red wanted to go help. She asked him if he had friends in the city, and he said no, but that Blue and Leaf did. She still remembers his insistence that he’s not like his father, and his actions have shown that more than once. But, glad as she was that he didn’t rush off into danger, there was also a feeling of melancholic gladness in knowing he’s not as different as he thinks.

Her own investigations continue apace, though maybe not swiftly enough to keep Sam from getting a little antsy. And given what might be at stake, she doesn’t blame him. A few times, she almost asks Red to take a walk with her, with the plan to pass by the researcher’s house and ask him what he senses from inside.

It would be unethical. She knows that, just as she knows that involving Red that way would be twice as bad as hiring some psychic without scruples. If she’s willing to do something like that, she might as well have asked her investigator to bend some laws. Using a psychic isn’t even necessarily safer, if the researcher turns out to be a sensitive like her, and notices someone touching his thoughts.

So she keeps that thought to herself, and dismisses others like having Red around when they finally confront the researcher to do for her what Leaf suspects Giovanni had a psychic do for him. High as the stakes might be, she’d never forgive herself if something happened to Red because of her, and there’s no other psychic she trusts. She considers asking Sam if he trusts someone, maybe even someone like Leader Misty or Sabrina, but she’s worried what his reaction might be. They would have to do this the right way.

One day she finds Red just sitting at the table with a round, smooth stone in his hand. She goes about her business, taking a bottle of salsa out of the fridge and getting some chips to snack on while she works, but once she’s finished preparing some dip and he’s still sitting still she feels a bit of concern, unsure if he fell asleep in his chair.

“Taking a break?”

He opens his eyes and sighs. “Not really. I think I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough.”

“Red, that’s wonderful!” She decides to eat here instead, and offers him some chips, which he takes without any real enthusiasm. She studies him closer, concern returning stronger than before. “You’re not acting like it’s wonderful. Are you having one of your bad days?” It’s a question she used to ask him a lot, once he finally started recovering from Tom’s death. Inconsistently, but it was still a huge relief compared to the way he acted before. It feels strange asking that question again after so long, but she knows it fits with whatever he’s going through better than she realized at the time.

“No, it’s not that. I meant it when I said I think I had a breakthrough. I’m just struggling with what it means.”

“Tell me!”

He munches on a chip, then nods. “Remember that psychic particle I theorized existing, hidden in the ‘other’ classification of pokeball data?”

“Vaguely?”

“Someone at Pallet recently noted that unown have a lot of it. She was right, I checked with my own, and it struck me that they’re the simplest pokemon we’ve ever encountered, so simple that they almost feel artificial, even more so than porygon—”

“Porygon?”

“That’s what people are calling the Casino’s artificial pokemon. Its body is really simple, and from some images people generated from the data to imagine what it would look like if given real form, it almost looks like a low resolution image of a creature rather than a real one.”

“Maybe because they didn’t finish it?”

“Maybe. We’ll see if it’s viable soon enough. Anyway, unown are like porygon: the bare necessities for a complex living organism. But they have tons of ‘other,’ even more than ghosts!”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Laura admits. “Unown may be biologically simple, but they’re obviously psychic, right? They move by floating around, and the way they communicate… assuming that’s what they’re doing…”

“But the same thing can be said of gastly. It’s not enough to explain the difference, or at least, not while we know so little about how their psychic abilities work and the relationship with the particle. When I merged with the unown and put it in a dangerous situation, it tried to get away, but didn’t fight back.”

Laura nods, already having learned after they started showing up randomly that unown are one of the rare few pokemon that don’t fight at all. “And?”

“And it should! It has telekinesis. I feel it using it to float around, so it’s not like it can’t, and it clearly recognizes threats… it just doesn’t care. Which struck me as weird when I considered that Charmeleon’s ‘other’ increased when I gave him the TM for Shadow Claw, and all the abra in my experiment also increased theirs when I used the Psychic TM on them.”

“So? Just because unown have the ability to fight doesn’t mean they have the instinct to.”

“Sure, maybe they evolved to use their powers just for evasion, like abra. But the thing is, all those papers that came out noting random correlations between ‘other’ and different things? They found nothing to publish on unown. Because unown are almost entirely uniform. It’s actually incredible how similar they are to each other, even the different letters… some have slightly different mass, but they’re so simple we can actually factor out the differences and compare their abilities incredibly well.”

“Alright.” She dips another chip and munches on it, watching him as he turns the rock over in his hands. “So what does this have to do with that?”

“I can’t do telekinesis. Like, at all. I’ve merged with a dozen different psychic pokemon and even a couple other people as they used their own, and I’m just not able to do it.” He sets the rock down and takes another chip. “The thing is, most ghosts can’t either unless you use a TM on them.”

“Alright. I think I follow all that, but I’m still not sure what it has to do with…”

“Jason and Agatha also aren’t particularly good at it.”

“Huh. Does that mean you’re not actually a psychic? You’re a medium, like them?”

“I don’t know. I glimpsed something fundamentally different in the way Jason and Agatha interact with ghosts, but I think it’s just about their beliefs compared to their abilities. When I met Jason and Maria, yesterday, I could tell that Maria has developed to be more than just sensitive; she has very weak psychic abilities too. Still, she was able to mimic Jason’s mental state when interacting with his ghosts as easily as I could with my mirroring ability. I might be like them, but with such a different frame of mind that I’m more like other psychics.”

“I think I get it. If ghosts and psychics are just different concentrations of a pair of phenomena… and there are some other pokemon that can naturally use Ghost type attacks but not Psychic ones, or vice versa… you’ve been measuring two different things?”

“From the very beginning. It makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean what does telekinesis really have to do with other psychic powers, other than that they’re both controlled mentally? That spinarak outlier in my first experiment must have been one that was really, really weak at kinesis but not weak at projection. So its ‘other’ looked way too small for how powerful its Night Shade was.”

“Do any TMs work on unown?”

“No.” Despite the answer, he seems pleased she asked the question. “That’s part of the problem, they’re too simple, and they have no fighting instinct anyway, so who would bother developing one? So I need to find another way to test my new theory.”

Laura nods, then realizes something. “You don’t seem to be having headaches any more.”

“Getting better. Agatha and Jason have been teaching me some stuff, and Dr. Seward helped me manage some more of my feelings so I don’t need to rely as much on the partitions.”

“That’s great.” She puts a hand on his. “I don’t know if I say this enough, Red, but when I think of all you’ve accomplished in such a short time… well, we’ve already had the conversations about your safety, and I know we still disagree over the incident with the clefairy, but I still wanted to say that I’m very proud of you. Your father would be too.”

He ducks his head. “Thanks, Mom.” His hand squeezes hers back, then he looks up. “Is there a ‘but’ coming?”

She laughs. “No. Or at least, there wasn’t, but now that you ask… how much longer do you think—”

“Oh, yeah, I’m heading back to Saffron in a couple days, I think. Blue is heading there, and—”

“No need to explain at all, I was just curious.” She smiles, relieved and saddened, and that night after they watch a movie and he goes to bed she makes her final preparations.


The day Red leaves it snows over Lavender again. Laura has finished speaking to everyone she can find who knew Dr. Fuji and showed them the picture of the researcher. About a third of them say it might be him. The other two-thirds say they think it is, but can’t be positive. One woman, his old neighbor, starts to tear up as soon as she sees it. “I’m so glad he’s okay,” she says in a watery voice. “That poor man, I thought he’d…”

“You’re sure it’s him?” Laura asked, heart hammering.

“Oh, yes. He’s changed, but those eyes… I’d recognize them anywhere.”

You could hardly make out his eyes in the photo, but Laura thanks her for her time and assures her that she’ll pass along well wishes.

She meets Sam outside the pokemon center he uses as his teleportation point, and they travel together to the researcher’s house. He’s dressed in a hat and trench coat rather than his usual white, and she in a sweater to keep off the chill. His gaze seems to note her backpack, in which she’s stored containers holding all the possessions she brought to Lavender, then snag on her pokebelt.

“New mon?”

“Red bought me an abra. Took a quick trip to Saffron to register it there.” Her feet crunch over the thin layer of ice on the sidewalk. “How’s the research coming? You look better rested, which I take to mean it’s slowing down.”

He grins. “I may have gotten a stern talking to from some of my staff. I wanted us to join the race to create the first living porygon, but was convinced we were stretching ourselves too thin already, and that the fact that I was even seriously considering it was a sign that I needed more sleep.”

“I’m glad you listened.”

“Oh, I still needed some prodding after that, but the point was well made. How about you, any progress with the lawsuit?”

“Next court date is in a week, where the judge will rule on whether I have to show a third party arbiter what I’ve been researching to determine whether it falls under the category of things that need to be turned over. I’m trying not to think about it.”

“I’m sorry. I wish I could help, but—”

“I know, it’s not really your area.”

“And President Silph isn’t my biggest fan at the moment after I built and handed out so many of his company’s goggles, though how much I’ll care about that after this visit depends on what Dr. Fuji has to say.”

Assuming it is him, Laura doesn’t respond. She doesn’t want him to get his hopes up, but it all still seems too convenient, and the thought makes her antsy. Still, they’re going to go through with it regardless, and she’s been as cautious as she could.

When they arrive at the house, Laura sees the car idling across the street. The sight of it reassures her, though she tries not to feel overconfident. If whoever’s in the house needs to be rescued, the car can help them make a getaway. If, however, they react poorly or call for help, she and Sam can teleport away.

Laura hangs back while Sam steps up to the door and knocks. The street is quiet, snow already piled up on the lawns and making an effort to cover the walkways. The sun is still up, giving the day a grey light through the clouds, and Laura’s breaths are loud in her own ears.

After a minute, Sam knocks again, louder.

“Does he ever answer?” Sam asks, not bothering to keep his voice down.

“No.” The ofuda from weeks ago is still above the door, though the ink on it has faded and the cold has sapped any scent that might have remained.

The Professor waits another minute, then knocks once more and says, “Minoru. It’s Sam.”

The world is silent. Laura glances around, heart still pounding as she continues to imagine the person inside calling someone, who sends the police or worse…

“I’m fairly sure it’s you in there,” Sam continues. “And I’m not going away until you tell me to, or prove me wrong.” There’s a beat of silence, and when he speaks again, his voice is strained. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be there when you needed me. I know it’s no excuse, but I—”

The door opens, and Laura, who has been feeling a bit like she should maybe step away and give Sam some privacy, snaps her head around in shock as the researcher stands in the doorway staring at him.

The silence returns, heavier than ever, until Sam sighs, “Minoru.”

“Sam.” The older man’s face creases, and he takes a deep, shuddering breath. “You came.”

And then he seems to notice Laura, and blinks watery eyes at her before he says, “Ah. You’re the one who left the note?”

Laura swallows, then steps forward, hand out, while the other slips into her pocket and presses the record button of her microphone. “Laura Verres. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Fuji.”

He stares at her hand, then breathes in and reaches out to take it. His grip is even weaker than Red’s, like he’s being extra careful not to exert too much force. “The pleasure is mine. With just a few minor exceptions, it’s been a long time since I met someone new… and a longer time since they knew who I was.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Sam says. “To figure out what’s happened to you and the others. Are you alright, Minoru? Is someone keeping you here?”

“Ah. That’s… no, no. I’m here of my own will.” He smiles at them, though there’s something about it that pricks at Laura’s already suspicious thoughts.

“Does that mean it’s safe to speak inside?” Laura asks, and holds up a note she’d prepared ahead of time. Surveillance? If there’s a camera in the doorframe or something they would probably see it, but there’s nothing she can do about that.

But the researcher doesn’t seem alarmed, or even to really take the precaution seriously. “Oh, yes, I’m sorry, I’ve long since lost all my manners… come in, come in out of the cold…”

Laura and Sam exchange a look, then do so. It’s strange being on this side of the door; the small house looks fairly clean, though it has a musty smell that makes Laura want to open some windows.

Well, why not? She does so, looking around for any clues, though to what she’s not sure.

“Can I get you anything?” Dr. Fuji is saying. “Tea? Coffee?”

“No, I’m alright… Minoru, how did you end up here? What happened to you, all those years ago?”

Laura has finished opening some windows a crack, which lets the icy air in but immediately helps the air feel clearer. “Sorry, I have my own question first… Dr. Fuji—”

“Ah, ‘Doctor’ sounds so formal for an old man in a house. I haven’t been a proper researcher in years. Call me Mr. Fuji.”

She’s not sure that’s how that works, and by Sam’s frown he’s unsure how to take the comment as well. “As you wish, Mr. Fuji, I have a question… are you really him? Could you say something that Sam would recognize only you would know?”

“What a strange thing to say. Who else would I be?”

“That’s what I would like to know,” she says evenly. “If you could, please?”

“Ah, very well. A question, Sam?”

“The last time we spoke, by voice, what did you say to me?”

The man frowns and scratches his neck. “You realize that was nearly ten years ago? To be honest, I haven’t the foggiest. Something about not worrying about me, I’d guess… I was in a bit of a dark place, back then.”

Sam looks at her, and she can tell the answer wasn’t quite satisfying, but also didn’t really confirm anything. “Alright, I’ll pick something more memorable. What did you tell me, when I tried to talk to you after Amber died?”

Fuji flinches back like Sam punched him, gaze dropping to the floor and lower lip trembling briefly. “I was out of line, Sam. I was hurting, too much to see that you, you were just… just trying to help…”

The Professor’s face softens, and his voice is gentle as he lays a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “It’s alright. I forgave you for it long ago. Just tell us, so she can be sure.”

Fuji nods, and turns to her, though his gaze stays elsewhere. “I couldn’t think straight, after my Amber died. Sam tried to empathize, told me about losing his own little girl… I said… I said he still had his grandkids, and he didn’t understand. Would only understand when he lost them too.”

His voice has dwindled to a whisper by the end, eyes filling with tears, and Sam grips his shoulder a bit more tightly, then guides him to the small table in the kitchen to sit, while Laura searches for some tissues, shock quickly shifting to sympathy. She makes do with a roll of paper towels, which Fuji takes with a mumble of thanks and wipes his face.

“Thank you for confirming that,” she says. There’s a chance he told someone else, of course, ideally it would have been some minor thing he’d have no reason to tell anyone rather than a big regret that he might have shared while feeling guilty, but the reaction seems genuine enough, and she hadn’t been that skeptical once she saw the way he reacted to seeing the Professor. That’s where her real curiosity, and caution, feels focused. “I have to ask, now… were you expecting us? Or at least, the Professor?”

How are you the one I found? she doesn’t ask, again thinking of the unlikely odds that led her here given the scope of what she’s been investigating.

“Oh, not exactly,” Fuji says, and folds the paper towel into neat squares. “But I hoped! I spread rumors about myself, you see, on the web. Little things, here and there, to remind people of me, to get someone to wonder if I was still alive, to wonder where I’d gone, all without saying it clearly myself. I thought, if anyone like Sam saw them, he might have the interest and the clout to dig me up.”

Sam and Laura stare at him in shock, for a moment, then each other, then back to him. Laura hadn’t even considered that, and she should have, as it’s the obvious reverse question: Why were you the one Sam brought up when he started this investigation?

“Did something happen, then?” Sam finally asks. “You needed help, but couldn’t just message me directly?”

“Yes, you see, I have a friend I’ve been worried about, and I couldn’t risk someone knowing I reached out directly. But now that you’ve found me, that’s all changed. I can tell you about the most horrible thing I’ve ever worked on, in secret, for years.”

Laura isn’t sure she understands why anything would have changed just by them finding Fuji—it sounds like he’s speaking of retaliation, but he said he’s not here under duress—but Professor Oak is already asking, “What is it?”

Fuji leans forward, mouth set in a grim line and eyes gleaming with anger. “There’s no official name yet, but for now it’s just called the ‘Master Ball.'”