Sakura thought she was out of tears.
There were plenty, when they first told her. When she first saw her baby brother’s remains, when they interred him beneath the earth. Six years old, and grown so fast. Already talking about his dreams. Already preparing for his future. Only to have it snatched away by a monster in the shape of man.
Over a year of tears after that, as the trial went on. As her mom, first in shock that her son could be gone, then in denial that her husband could be the killer, went from a source of added distress to an infuriating enemy, to a monster of a different shade. Months of tears, of listless despair punctuated by fits of crying, of sobbing herself hoarse. And then the final verdict. Not guilty. That storm should have squeezed the last drops out. When she rose from her exhausted sleep the next day, feeling drained, feeling empty, she thought she’d cried her last tears.
There was only one thing left to do, and tears weren’t part of it.
Dry eyed, she planned. Dry eyed, she kept her mask in place. Pretended to be glad that the monster was free. Expressed relief that it was all a misunderstanding. Her mom insisted that now they could “really grieve” for Sokka. As a “family.”
Yes mother, she said. But there were no more tears to give, and eventually her mother left her alone.
It was easier when she was old enough to leave. When she could go from planning to action, didn’t have to pretend anymore. Just another few months to find the right pokemon. To train them without using their pokeball, after the initial capture. To give them the right commands and training, to overwhelm the initial conditioning.
More difficult was the timing. The monster went to nearby incidents all the time, to fight the other monsters. To act the hero, or maybe help him believe himself one. There were a few times she went with him, fought alongside him, keeping a different death hidden in her bag each time. But there were always others around.
Until one day there wasn’t. It was just the two of them, keeping the pokemon to the edge of the forest. It’s been unruly since Articuno flew by and buried a third of it in snow, a different population expanding too much every week as the ecosystem re-balances in the wake of the loss of habitat and Pressure induced rampage.
She was distracted the whole fight, looking for an opening. Worrying that someone else would come. Worrying she would miss her chance. And distracted by his smile, after they took down the third wave together, their movements and orders coordinated from multiple fights together. An encouraging smile. Like they were comrades. Like she’d forgotten. But that was the point, so she smiled back.
And when his pokemon was injured after what seemed to be the last wave, and he went forward to heal it, she looked around, withdrew her pokemon, opened her bag, and spoke a single syllable, low, under her breath. Just enough for the weedle to hear.
And to spring.
And to sting.
And sting. And sting. Until his raticate finally managed to scramble over despite its injuries and crunch it between its jaws.
“Sakura,” her father gasped, hand scrabbling weakly at his bag, body locked in pain. “Po…nnn…”
She moved to him, took his concerned and injured pokemon’s ball off his belt, returned it. Then she simply watched until his movements slowed to sluggish twitches, then stopped altogether.
Something in her loosened, after that. A knot of anger and grief she’d been holding onto for years. But still, she didn’t cry. She had no more tears.
She never saw the camera, set high in the trees to mark the perimeter. She thought she was safe, until the Rangers showed up.
She defended herself, mask cracking just a little as she poured passion into her voice, tried to call upon her grief and direct it to serve her. But still, she didn’t cry. Once it became clear that she would be branded, she came clean. Reported where her other lethally trained pokemon were kept. Waited for the end.
Now she sits strapped to a chair in a secure room in Viridian Gym, and her death comes in a neat black suit, his movements quick and purposeful without seeming hurried. He sits in a chair across from her, and his voice is the same deep, commanding voice she has heard in interviews, turned toward something new. Perhaps an attempt at gentleness.
“Hello, Miss Uryuu.”
Her gaze rises to meet his. “Hello, Leader.”
Giovanni Sakaki does not look disgusted, or fearful, or angry, or shocked, or even carefully professional, the way all the expressions she’s seen since being caught were. Instead the young Leader looks… curious?
“Are you comfortable?”
It’s a question she doesn’t expect, not just from her executioner, but also from Leader Giovanni in particular. She never really paid too much attention to her city’s pride, didn’t seek out stories of his childhood here, or his rise to Champion, or his political efforts that preceded his recent return home to head Viridian Gym. But people talked, information was hard to avoid, and what she’d learned of her Leader was that he was a man with keen perspective, intense focus, iron will… and a willingness to do what needs to be done, no matter how controversial.
She could admire that, in the abstract way she was able to admire anything, while obsessed with her own singular goal.
Insofar as she allowed herself to imagine her execution at his hands, it was always quick and efficient. Perhaps he would briefly berate or lecture her for wasting his time. Instead he asks her if she’s comfortable, and the numbness that has surrounded her since she was branded finally fades around the edges as she wakes up to how her body feels.
She was allowed to use the bathroom, thankfully, but not fed in the past… ten hours? She thinks she’s hungry, but it’s hard to tell. Her legs are a bit cramped from being in the chair for so long. Rear a bit sore. But not bad, all things considered, and given what’s about to come…
Or is she mistaken, somehow?
“Does it matter?” she asks, and clears her throat. “You’re here to execute me, aren’t you?”
The Leader’s dark gaze stays steady on hers, and after a moment he reaches into his jacket and removes a syringe, placing it on the table to his side.
Her eyes linger on it, then she looks away. “I’m fine, then. Just…” She wants to say get it over with, but can’t quite form the words. Her heart is beating faster, some instinctual will to live reaching up even at this late stage.
He doesn’t respond to the implication, instead saying, “Could I trouble you to tell me why, first?”
“I already confessed.”
Giovanni is quiet, a moment. “Let me rephrase. You confessed to what you did and why you did it. But you could have just stabbed him with a knife, risked an investigation, at worst gone to prison for a decade or two. You could have attacked him with your pokemon openly, thrown your life away to ensure his death. Instead you were meticulous. You tried to thread the needle, tried to make it look natural.”
She stares at him, unsure of what to say. Of what he wants from her. Her numbness is still fading, her awareness of her body and situation only growing in her final moments, and she’s not sure she should thank him for that.
“You wanted to live,” he says simply. Not a question.
She looks away. It seems cruel, to ask her now. Why. Why did she try so hard to kill him in just the right way, if she knew what she was risking?
“My brother,” she says at last. “Would have wanted me to.”
“And so you were patient, and careful, and tried to give yourself the best chance.”
“Yes,” she whispers.
“Do you want to live?” he asks. There’s something calculating in his demeanor, she knows, but he also seems genuinely curious. “Or is it just the wish of what your brother wanted, that kept you from simply ending him the moment you trained your first pokemon to attack humans?”
Sakura doesn’t know how to answer that. She spent little time with friends, after, or fun things. She knew, on some level, that if she succeeded then she would one day have to consider those things, but she always put that off for later, considering it a distraction, and a seductive one at that.
But at this moment, with the syringe so close (What’s in it? Something painless? Or is Viridian’s new Leader old fashioned enough to have filled it with weedle venom?), and the hard chair beneath her, and her rumbling stomach, she thinks of how much she’d rather be safe at home in bed, or at the cafe by her old house, having her favorite dish with some plum wine. That would be… rapture.
“Yes, I would prefer to live for my own sake too,” she says at last, voice angry as a tug of longing goes through her. “Is that what you want to hear? I didn’t take you for someone who has time for… cruelty.”
“I find there is often a regrettable overlap between what is cruel and what is pragmatic,” the Gym Leader says, sounding undisturbed by her accusation. “I’d say it is intention that ultimately matters, but I know others disagree. What if you could never see your family again, your friends, your home? What if living meant exile, in a land far away, your old life left behind?”
She stares at him, anger twisting into confusion at the sudden change in topic. “I don’t… yes. Of course.”
“Would you train pokemon to kill again?”
“No.” A flame of hope is lighting in her chest, suddenly. Is this some final trial? It seems impossible to contemplate, that a Renegade would be allowed to live after admitting her guilt, she’s never heard of such a thing… exile… “I only did this because of my brother, I’d never—”
“What about teaching others how to?”
She blinks. “What?”
“Would you teach others your methods for training pokemon without their ball? For lethal commands, if it meant you could live?”
She stares at the Leader, whose face is still curious, eyes intent. She shakes her head, just once, the motion aborting as she realizes she doesn’t know what he’s asking her, what she’s answering.
Giovanni sighs, seeming to read her expression. “I’m sorry. I’m getting your hopes up. These are just hypotheticals, you understand. I wanted to get to know you, a little. I try, for all the Renegades that fall under my jurisdiction. Some rage at the world or some particular target, others are excessively greedy or impulsive. And of course, there’s the simply mad.” He shrugs a shoulder. “You seem one of the rarer sort. Poor judgement, but not excessively so. I find it tragic. A waste. You would have made a fantastic coordinator, Miss Uryuu…”
She stiffens. Here comes the moralizing, the judgement—
“…I’m sorry our society has failed you so thoroughly.”
And then it comes: her eyes prickle, her throat feels clogged on her next breath. A single tear escapes, and she breathes in, whole body shaking once.
She’d wanted to be a coordinator, once.
Sakura regains control quickly, embarrassed. Still, it’s better to feel something, at the end. To know she isn’t dry and dead already, after all.
“I’m sorry too, Leader,” she whispers. “Not for… that. For the trouble I’ve caused.” She swallows past the lump in her throat as her pulse speeds up, as she steels herself, closing her eyes. “Thank you for speaking to me. For looking at me like I’m a person, still. I’m… I’m ready.”
There’s silence, for a while. And then she hears the syringe scrape against the table slightly as it’s picked up. “Goodbye, Miss Uryuu.”
She feels the prick of pain, and then spreading numbness, and then nothing.
Silver watches on the monitor as a trio enters the room where Father sits. He has long-since memorized his father’s body-language: the current pose is one he internally dubbed The King in His Castle, a position of calm strength, inviting supplicants in magnanimously.
The three guests don’t look like the usual supplicants, however. All three are dressed in red and black, and their leader has hair a shade lighter than Silver’s, though still closer to red than orange.
“Hello, Maxie. It was good of you to come. I hope your quarters are suitable?”
“Giovanni.” The tall, thin man’s tone is cold, his aloof face seeming to permanently be set in an expression of sharp focus and slight annoyance. He’s a stark contrast to his right hand man, who’s round and cheerful, or the girl to his left, who seems unconcerned with anything around her, gaze staring off in the distance from beneath her hoodie. She’s technically wearing a uniform like the other two, but seems less committed to treating it as such, with lots of personalized touches. “Our quarters are quite pleasant. Your hospitality is appreciated. But what I care about is your answer. I would have it now, if you’d please.”
“Of course. I’ve already requested two labs to wind down operations and prepare to collaborate with your people, and have Senji picking a field team.”
“Excellent. As ever you vindicate my confidence in you. This removes two points of failure from our path, bringing our estimates of success to—”
“—seventy-three percent—” says the woman in a distant tone of voice.
“—and will allow us to move forward on the next stage by—”
“—six months, four days—” says the round man with a grin.
“—ahead of schedule. Your payment will be delivered tomorrow. And the search itself?”
Silver’s mouth hangs open slightly. The two had spoken without hesitation, Maxie pausing for each to supply the information as if they were extensions of himself. Father has a lot of really cool minions (he’s not supposed to call them that when they’re around) but he doesn’t have any who do stuff like that. Silver wonders if the three are psychically linked, then realizes they wouldn’t have had to talk separately.
Father shifts to Apologetic Resoluteness between breaths. “I’ve reviewed your plans extensively, and had many of my most trusted advisers do so as well. I’m sorry, but I can’t support that endeavor at this time.”
“Hm.” One hand goes up to adjust the tall man’s glasses. “And your reasoning?”
“Assuming the legends of Groudon’s powers are accurate, it does not diminish concerns about secondary effects,” Father says with his hands steepled below his chin. “Creating more landmass can be incredibly valuable, but upsetting the water cycle can have effects on the climate beyond what is immediately noticeable.”
“This is not new. I am eighty-three percent confident that the extent of his abilities are exaggerated.”
“Be that as it may, the effects on even a single region can have dangerous externalities.” Giovanni’s hands fall to his desk, clasping there. “And you know of my position on the current crop of weather-wielding pseudo-gods facing my own region.”
“Prudence as a virtue has taken you far, but I see the makings of a fault in you through it,” Maxie says, speaking as though to a student. Silver has to admit, the man is brave to talk to Father like that. “I’d hoped your vision and mine could meet somewhere. Do let me know if there’s some alteration on my end that would change your answer. I would put it under most serious review.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s simply impossible at this time. Even if we could come to some agreement, I have too many pressing projects to tend to.”
“Understandable. The offer is open. So long as you do nothing to impede our efforts, future alliance is possible. Good day.”
Silver watches as Maxie turns to leave and the man with him turns on one heel within a heartbeat, as if waiting for the movement so he can walk in step with his boss. It would probably look more impressive if the woman had done the same, but despite being on point with her earlier calculation, it takes a full three seconds before the woman notices that they’re leaving and turns to follow them.
Father waits until they’re at the door. “Yes, about that…”
The tall man stops, hand out for the handle, then turns his head to father, just enough to reveal his profile.
“I believe you know how much I value peace. Peace, and the lack of investigation that comes with it. If things come to war between you and Archie, I will have to, regretfully, join my forces to his, in order to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible.”
Silver leans forward. He can’t make out any changes in Maxie’s expression on the monitor, from this far away, but the woman’s voice still comes clearly, quiet though it is: “Fourteen percent.”
“Unthinkable,” Maxie says, sounding as though his jaw is stiff. “You, assisting that brute? That pirate? His goals are… epistemically…”
“Just business, Maxie. Strategically, the fighting would end soonest if I were to work with him. As I said, I value the current peace immensely. Perhaps that will soon change, but I only thought it fair to warn you, given our history.”
“Does he know?”
Silver can’t see Father’s expression, but he can guess: Who Do You Take Me For. Or perhaps I Will Give You a Moment to Recall Who You’re Speaking To. A subtle but powerful difference.
“Thirty one percent,” the girl says into the silence.
It looks like Maxie might say something after that, but after a moment he simply dips his head in the barest of acknowledgements and opens the door. His lieutenants follow him out, and the video feed cuts out, turning the screen into a dark mirror through which the red haired boy sees himself.
Silver leans back in his chair and places his hands beneath his chin as he tries to think through his father’s reasoning. He expected his dad to keep himself neutral in the budding shadow war in Hoenn, particularly if either side drags the whole conflict into the open. He could have even warned that he would side against whoever attacked first, as a deterrent, but he very specifically seemed to choose not to do so, and warned that he would pick a side instead. Father wouldn’t tell Archie of course, it would just incentivize him to start a conflict he could be confident he will win, but still…
His thoughts circle fruitlessly from there until Silver notices the repetitions and gets out of the chair to finish his history lessons. His tutor expects him to complete the whole book by the end of the week, and when he complained to Father, the Gym Leader merely looked at him and said that he was welcome to attend a regular school if he’s finding his workload “too great a challenge.” Which of course just made Silver want to work twice as hard to prove it wasn’t that, it was just boring compared to training his pokemon or honing his throwing and catching reflexes.
But that sort of argument only occasionally works on Father, and he has to space out when he uses it with lots of actual work done. So Silver rewards himself for going back to his study desk with a braided whip of gummy candy and gets to work as he eats it, half a dozen sweet and sour and salty flavors filling his mouth as he reads the next question he’s on:
This chapter recounted how the three southern Kanto warlords finally agreed to negotiate for alliance after over ten years of diplomatic relations. Describe, as though you were each of them, first their reasoning for resisting, then what they believed each of the other two warlords’ reasoning was.
Silver studies the question, eyes narrowed as he sucks on the end of the gummy braid, then gently peels a string off with his teeth. The book he read didn’t really go into much of what each warlord thought of the other two’s reluctance. One of the warlords, Takeda, never even wrote about his political thoughts, and instead practically all the writing directly from him involved his records of training pokemon to be ridden into battle for combat purposes rather than just transport. So, as usual with his tutor’s assignments, Silver would have to look up secondary and ancillary sources to try and model the ancient warlord’s perspective.
This takes him over an hour to do, and his candy whip is long gone by the time he finishes. He eyes the jar afterward, but it’s only there for reinforcement of positive actions, and he doesn’t think his father would think “continuing to do the same task because I’m getting bored but didn’t stop” qualifies. Not that he is getting bored, but… they’re just so tasty.
Once he finishes with Takeda, however, he does think he deserves another to keep working, and that he can justify it to Father later. He gets up and goes to the jar, only to stop as the screen snaps back on and he hears his father say, “Thank you, Kiba. Let him in please.”
Silver blinks, then hurries back to his seat in front of the secured monitor that’s connected directly to the camera in Father’s office. The candy can wait.
Once again the door opens, this time without a knock first, and in comes an athletic man with dark skin, a roguish beard, and a dark navy coat that flares at his knees when he walks. He’s followed by his own pair of minions, an even more muscular man who’s almost as wide as the door and a woman with wild hair that goes down to her waist. Silver wonders if everyone in their organizations dresses the way they do, and how they keep them secret if so. If Father made everyone that works for him wear a uniform… well, that might be pretty cool, actually, judging by his visitors today.
“Gio! Good to see you!” Archie walks up to Father and extends an arm to his side, as if getting ready to slap the Gym Leader. Silver’s eyes go wide, and his mouth drops open as Father’s arm rises to meet it when it swings, and the two clasp arms. He’s never seen Father greet someone with anything but a brief handshake, a nod of the head, and just once, a bow.
“Welcome, Archie. Shelly, Matt.” The minions get the head nod, and nod or wave back. “I take it the voyage went well?”
“Ahh, well enough, well enough. We were in the area anyway, you know.” Like Max, Archie doesn’t sit on the available chairs, though he does lean his arms against the back of one while his subordinates lean against the walls farther back. “Great operation you’ve built here, Gio. Could use some of your touch again back home, even on a part time basis. I miss our talks.”
Father snorts. “You miss having someone who would argue with you, you mean.”
“Ha! These two will do it,” Archie says, jerking a careless thumb over his shoulder. “But about different things than you. All under the same flag, we are. Not the same. So? You’ve considered my offer?”
“I have. I can gather the information you asked for, and possibly even acquire a copy of the blueprints.”
Archie’s eyebrows rise. “Seriously? You have operatives in Slateport?”
“Seriously,” Father says, tone bland.
“‘Course you do. And in return?”
“You would need to refer at least another six staff by the end of the year.”
“Six.” Archie taps his fingers on the back of the chair. “That’s asking a lot, Gio. Only got another two lined up, both of them Dark.”
“If it helps, all six can be, just this once.”
“Aye, it does,” Archie admits. “What do you need so many for, anyway?”
Father smiles. “How do you travel so far, so fast?”
Archie grins. “Maybe someday you’ll find out. Guess that applies to me too. Alright, six more. Will you be signing onto our venture, then?”
“Unfortunately, I have to decline for now. Too much on my plate to try and operate from multiple regions at once.”
Archie shrugs. “It’s not Gio the warrior we need. You can think from anywhere, direct from a phone or cam, can’t you?”
“Through trustworthy intermediaries, perhaps. In some advisory role. But manpower is hard to spare, obviously.”
“Good enough! And for the rest?”
“For that, I cannot help you. To release such a beast into the oceans would be catastrophic if even half of the legends about it are true. You would need to capture it instantly, or it would be nearly impossible to ever stop.”
Archie snorts. “I never took you for one who let fear get in the way of greatness, Gio.” Silver blinks, feeling surreal at watching a second person talk to Father like this, one right after the other. Who do they think they are? “These powers are going to be used one day. It’s either us or someone else, this one or some other, and the sooner we’ve done so, the better prepared we’ll be.”
“You’re speaking of Maxie.”
“Aye, and others. But mainly him, for now.” Archie’s face is solemn, voice flat.
Father lets out a sigh. There are no stances now, Silver suddenly notices. His father is just… being himself? No, surely he’s still setting his body language deliberately, just not in as strict a sense. “The very last thing I need, currently, is any kind of attention. If there comes a point where you and Maxie come to blows, I’m afraid I’ll have to side with him, just to end the fighting quicker.”
Silver flinches as the big man suddenly grips the chair, face fit to pick it up and smash it over Father’s head. “That madman? You would pick him over me?”
“I’d prefer to pick neither,” Father says, face and body still totally “natural” and relaxed, but tone suddenly harsh. “If the two of you would just sit together and—”
Archie shakes his head, releasing the chair and stepping back. “After what he did? Not happening. Not if the world was ending and he came to me on his knees.”
Father sighs, but nods. “Then I hope the two of you can find some other path to victory that doesn’t cross each other’s…” Even without a visual angle, Silver can hear a small smile in Father’s next words. “Exciting as it might be to face you again.”
Archie is quiet for a moment, face still livid… and then he cracks a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Aye. Exciting as it might be.” He turns, and the other two step away from the walls to follow him to the door, not at all in lockstep, but clearly at attention. “You’ll have your people, Gio. Just get me the info.”
“Won’t you stay a while, enjoy some—”
The door closes behind the three before Father can finish speaking. After a moment he shrugs, as if to himself, and the screen goes dark.
Silver sits where he is, absorbing the new information, candy and history lessons forgotten.
There’s no way Father would send his people to both Archie and Maxie at the same time and tell them to fight each other… or would he? It wouldn’t be too hard for them to recognize each other and avoid attacking each other. Maybe they could sabotage both organizations from within, but that could just delay the conflict…
Silver smiles. He thinks he has it: if Father puts people in position and has both Archie and Maxie killed, it would end the fight as well! They spoke like they were friends, but, well, Father pretends to be friends with lots of people, if not exactly in the same way…
Satisfied with his answer, Silver eventually goes back to his work, rewarding himself with another candy whip. Once the assignment is done he plays a sim for a couple hours, grinding his team up in preparation for a gym challenge until a family of primeape start rampaging nearby and kill him. He scowls and shuts the game off. He knows he’s supposed to party up with others if he spends too long in the wild, but most of the other players are dumb. If the developers made the game more realistic he could have had his pokemon dig a hole and stayed in it with an air tank to avoid the primeape instead of being forced to fight them again and again until his team went down.
Silver takes his anger out on a nearby punch-dummy shaped like a hitmonchan (he’s sure no one would be stupid enough to actually punch a hitmonchan, but it does a cool thing where it spins and hits back if he hits it hard enough), then goes to watch some of Father’s recorded battles. Not the ones from his gym, but from before he was even Champion. There aren’t nearly as many, of course, and their quality is poor; most are recorded by people’s phones, and many are incomplete, either starting at some midway point in the fight or ending before it finishes as the recorder gets scared off or distracted.
But they’re real. Father’s fighting for his life, even as he’s still developing his skills. His verbal commands have little of the iron calm they do today, and his physical motions aren’t nearly as efficient… but he seems more alive in the footage than any other time Silver sees him.
The one he eventually settles on was recorded from the fourth floor window of some building in Fuchsia City. On the street below, Father uses a donphan to clear the road of the various pokemon running through it, until a crowd of people start to run down a different intersection that had seemed safe a moment ago. They’re being chased by a venusaur that lumbers toward them, and if there are any trainers left behind it that are still alive or able to try to slow it down, the camera footage doesn’t see them. The rare pokemon is throwing razor leaves at the fleeing people, cutting at their knees and ankles until they collapse, then sending vines out that glow green and start to melt the flesh of the downed humans upon contact.
Silver knows that objectively he should be disgusted or sickened by the gruesome deaths he’s seeing. He knows that’s what most people would feel. Or say they would, anyway, and the emotion in the repeated “Oh, Arceus, oh, lord, no,” by the guy holding the phone seems genuine enough. But Silver’s too busy anticipating what Father would do next, imagining what he would do in his place.
So when Father summons a geodude and a machoke, and the machoke picks the geodude up and throws it at the venusaur, Silver has already anticipated the explosion that almost makes the recorder lose their grip on their phone. The venusaur had tried to bat the hurtling rock pokemon away as it sailed at it, but by the time it was close enough, it was too late.
The image before the explosion looked like many of the injured victims were close enough to get caught in that blast, but it’s hard to tell in the aftermath, and the recorder just stays on that street long enough to confirm that the venusaur’s head is gone and quietly swear before he quickly pans back to Father’s donphan when it bellows in pain. The ground beneath it is crumbling, and soon plants begin to grow up through the pavement, lashing out at anything nearby.
“Watching these again?”
Silver twists in his chair to see Father standing by it. He hadn’t even noticed him come in, and wonders how long he’s been there. “Rhetorical question. I think you’re actually asking for justification. It feels… judgey.”
“Do I sound judgemental?” Father asks, eyebrows raised.
“No. Just curious.” Silver turns back to the screen. “But it still feels judgey.”
Father pauses to consider that. “My real question was, what are you looking for, in these old videos? I ask with curiosity, to know if there is something valuable for you in them, but yes, also with a predisposition that you are wasting your time.”
Silver nods. “I want to learn from you. But in most vids, you’re too far away. You’re like a character in a movie. Here you’re…” Silver gestures toward the screen, where the younger Giovanni is spraying a potion onto his pokemon and yelling some command to a different one, too late, his hands blurring as he drops the potion bottle and slings a pair of pokeballs out. “Closer. I can see what you’ll do next, sometimes. I spot mistakes, though those are rarer.”
“Oh? Was there a mistake here?”
“Yes. The geodude and machoke should have been out and prepared ahead of time. The only downside would have been slowing you if you had to run, but in that case they could have served as a distraction, or been deployed first in case it would have avoided a rout in the first place.”
“Good catch. Yes, this was the battle that led me to always having a pokemon on standby during every fight, one that would not respond to any commands but the one I would give if I had to run. This combo in particular is a bit too risky, now. Can you guess what I use instead?”
Silver thinks it over. What would he want protecting his retreat if his life was in danger? It has to be able to adapt to a lot of different threats, and not be easily taken out. Tanky pokemon are no good, though, most are slow, and he needs something that can be a credible threat, not just be run around by something fast and lethal enough.
“How worried would you be about collateral damage? Public perception?”
“I’m curious to know your answer, without knowing either of those.”
They watch the screen until the end of the video, when the person recording suddenly pulls the phone back into the apartment a couple seconds before the whole building shakes, and then the feed ends. By then Silver has already crossed out a number of obvious but insufficient options. Pokemon like Dragonite and Tyranitar are powerful, but it would be a waste to keep them exclusively to last resort bodyguard duty. Pokemon with good crowd control are a must, but also those that aren’t weak to too many types. Speed is what he keeps going back to. What’s faster than the fastest jolteon? Able to do indiscriminate damage in a wide area without risking himself?
As soon as Silver mentally swaps himself with Father, still trying to answer the original question at the same time, he has it. “Something psychic. A mental attack, fast, hitting everything around it… except you.”
“It’s remarkable, what psychic pokemon can do to the reactions of those around them, all without causing any damage, mental or otherwise.”
Silver smiles, briefly, but it fades as he browses the videos available for what to watch next. “Do you ever miss it?”
Father sits on the arm of his sofa, face thoughtful as he watches Silver select another video. “No. No matter how strong I became, I was only one man trying to hold back an endless tide. Even then, I realized it. From the beginning I knew I had to build my individual strength only insofar as it allowed me to grow my collective strength.”
“But doesn’t that mean you’re not the strongest anymore?”
“I was never the strongest. My excadrill was far stronger.”
Silver frowns at him. “You’re being pedantic.”
“Not so. My point is my power was always in the pokemon I had under my command. On my journey, I had a few dozen. Today I have hundreds. More importantly, if something happens to me, the system I’ve created would ensure the work continues. Now, are you ready for dinner?”
Silver is. It’s his turn to pick the dinner, so they have sashimi and cranberry juice. It’s clear that Father dislikes the juice, but Silver smiles each time he drinks it and makes a face, so he keeps sipping it. The two sit alone to eat today, a luxury that Silver always treasures, even if it gives Father the freedom to ask him questions about how his studies are going.
He answers them as quick as he can, then goes to the question that’s really been interesting him. “Father, why did you promise both of your friends that you would support their enemy in a fight?”
“You haven’t guessed?”
“I think I have. It was to have them both killed by one of your agents once they trusted you, right?” Silver smiles.
Father’s chopsticks pause on the way to his mouth, ever so briefly. Silver isn’t sure if others would have noticed it, but he notices everything Father does. “Do you think I would kill my friends?”
Silver shrugs. “If you had to.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
“If you were just doing it for fun, maybe. But you’re trying to stop monsters. You have to be a stronger monster to do that, don’t you?”
After a moment of silence, Silver looks up from his food to see that Father has stopped eating, gaze distant. He hesitates, realizing that calling someone a monster is probably not considered polite. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No,” Father immediately says. “No, you didn’t. You simply held up a mirror to show me the sort of man I appear to be. I’m glad, that you can do that for me.”
“Oh. Okay.” Silver’s legs kick beneath the table as he tries to figure it out on his own, but eventually his worry that he did say something wrong is too great. “Why?”
“Because,” Father says, and begins to eat again. “Perhaps if your grandmother had such a mirror, she would not have become quite the monster she did.”
Silver still isn’t sure he understands that either, but he resolves to figure it out himself instead of going on about it for the rest of dinner while there are other things to ask. “So I was wrong? About your plan?”
“Yes. I decided that the best way I could ensure that my friends did not fight was to make them think I was more on their opponent’s side than theirs. As long as both believe I will side with their enemy, and thus put them at a severe disadvantage, then both have an added incentive not to begin hostilities. And since both know why I would not tell their opponent that, they also have an incentive not to refer to it themselves, or tell any of their own people, for fear that it would get to the other.”
“Huh.” It made sense, in a roundabout sort of way. “I guess it’s better to lie to friends than kill them. How often do you do that?” Silver is thinking of the shows he watches, sometimes, and how often secrets between the heroes cause trouble. He doesn’t bring them up; Father doesn’t like him getting his sense of what’s realistic or true from media, and Silver knows how much smarter Father is than the writers of the shows or movies from the rare nights when they watched something together. Silver would be asked to write out what the characters did, what he would do instead, and then Father would point out all the better choices they could have made.
Father takes a sip of his juice, grimaces, puts it down. “Perhaps most would not need to. For certain people, however, secrets are required to ensure safety.”
Silver nods. This he understands; secrets are what keep him safe. Father puts a lot of effort into ensuring his enemies don’t know Silver exists or where he is. But still… “When do you know that it’s safe to share a secret, then?”
“When the consequence of it staying hidden becomes worse than the consequence of it getting out. Or when someone’s trust is about to be broken.”
Dr. Light watches the rest of the team file into the room with a barely controlled, simmering anger that makes it hard to sit still. One or more of these eight idiot geniuses has broken ranks, and now they’re all going to be paying for it.
“Alright folks, let’s get this started. I’m sure we all have important things to get back to,” she says. As head of Cinnabar Labs, she’s the de facto highest ranking administrator in the room. Not that she asked to be; she was happily working on her gene editing research until 2.351 “awoke.” Labs across the region shut down rapidly after that as staff consolidated to work on all the breakthroughs that followed. Unfortunately that meant senior staff quickly became supervisors as they had more people to manage, and supervisors quickly became administrators. Soon she had less and less time for research, and before she knew it she was administrator of the whole lab, a job Dr. Fuji would have been much better suited to…
She forces her thoughts away from that sad path. Better not to think about it, and besides, she has more immediate worries.
“What’s this all about, Ivy?” Dr. Burnam asks her, and she meets his gaze, searching it for any sign of complicity. “Next administrator meeting is supposed to be in a week.”
“You may have noticed the word ’emergency’ in the email,” she says, voice dry. “It can’t wait until next week. Someone’s drawing from the communal pool out of rotation.”
A few people at the table curse or mutter under their breath, and Dr. Light tries to watch them all at the same time, as well as everyone else. It’s no use, she knows that, she’s not going to be able to tell who’s in on it just by watching for guilty tells. If they were the sort of people with tells, they wouldn’t have their jobs.
“Now obviously we can’t just get a psychic in here and have them check for guilt,” she says, which elicits some chuckles from the room of dark and psychic scientists. “But I’d like to resolve this without getting Giovanni involved. I hope I don’t need to remind you all that part of our jobs is to try and solve these sorts of problems before they get to his desk. He’s got enough on it.”
“So what’s someone doing?” asks Dr. Martin. “How are they getting away with it? There’s logs for every request, isn’t there?”
“Sure, yeah. Have you checked it recently?”
The man frowns. “I don’t know what you’re implying, but I—”
“—she’s not implying anything, it’s a simple question.” Dr. Bosch interrupts. “Have you looked at it recently, or do you just sign your name and move on?”
“Look, when you make it sound like—”
“Enough,” Dr. Light says, already feeling a headache coming on. “I brought the book, just take a look at it yourselves.” She lifts it from the portfolio from the stack behind her and starts passing it to her left, where people begin to rifle through the pages of signed names, times, and requisitions.
Dr. Martin shakes his head and frowns, passing it on with a puzzled expression. Dr. Sato does the same, but Dr. Brown’s brow rises, and she sees that he spotted it. “A lot of these are just scribbles.”
“What?” The woman next to him takes the book and looks it over, then scowls. “Who did this?”
The others are clamoring for a look now, and Dr. Light raises her hands. “No need to check yourselves, it’s not that complicated. I’m pretty sure my 5 year old niece has done something similar when she needed her mom to sign a note for school once. At least one person has been just scribbling something that looks like a name on the form, but it’s illegible. Avoiding electronic records keeps us safe in one way but opens us up to shit like this. So, let’s get to the bottom of this now. Quick and easy. If you’ve been doing this, raise your hand.”
Everyone stares at each other, some in consternation, others in bland confusion. Dr. Light drums her fingers on the table, hoping with every passing second that someone does the right thing… until it becomes clear that no one will.
“Dammit people,” Dr. Collins says with a disgusted look. Head of the reconstructive cloning program, and suspiciously good at finishing his projects on time. She hears he drives his people to the bone, though, so it may just be that. “I’ve got two samples that need to be monitored for the rest of the day, I don’t have time for this.” He makes to get up.
“Sit. Down,” Dr. Light says. “We all have places to be, but this is serious. People aren’t just asking for supplies, they’re asking for staff too.”
“Well, then, what’s the issue?” Dr. Brown asks. Mechanical R&D. He’s working on making environmental suits resistant to cold, heat, and electricity all at once, including Mewtwo’s. “Just ask them who they worked for.”
“Thanks, Mark, I didn’t think of that,” she says with a sweet smile. “Maybe if we’d spotted these right away that would have worked, but no one remembers whose lab they assisted in every day for the past five months. Anonymous records, folks! Get it through your heads. Unless one of you wants to put your name on some file that might get emailed? We can cast a vote, what do you say? Anyone?” She glares around the room, but no one raises their hand. “Thought not. So what’s the solution here?”
“Don’t you have one?” Dr. Martin asks.
“Clearly not, or she wouldn’t be asking,” Dr. Collins says. “I don’t see what the solution can be, though. We’re all hurting for manpower at some point. We just need to check the book daily from now on, make sure no one makes a request without printing legibly.”
“That’s only half the problem,” Dr. Light says, and sighs. Most of her anger is spent. “The reason people are doing this, I’m pretty sure, is that it lets them get through crunch time on their projects. We’ll have to implement a project scale down—”
The whole room starts to shout her down, but she takes the binder and slams it on the desk until it’s quiet. “I don’t like it either, but we’re running our people ragged like this! If we all follow the rotation, no one gets burnt out, but we clearly can’t do that, so this seems like the best option.”
“Easy for you to say,” Dr. Sato says, taking her by surprise. “Of course if there’s an emergency going on, Cinnabar Lab will get the priority, even outside of rotation.”
Her temper flares back up. “I’m sorry, do you want the living superweapon’s room to be understaffed on the day it happens to decide it wants out? I know it won’t be your people who get pasted to bloody jelly first, but—”
“No one’s saying they want that,” Dr. Brown says, holding up a soothing hand. “I think the main argument is that we all have critical projects to work on, and without the ability to pull people as needed, many of them will fall through.”
“And if everyone pulls at once, or people start to pull extras with scribbles, normal projects are falling through,” Dr. Romero says, speaking up for the first time. “I’ve got a backlog that I’ve been waiting for some openings in the roster to tackle. Now I know why it’s been taking so long.” She shakes her head. “We should be better than this, folks.”
“If we could just hire more staff—” Dr. Collins starts, only to have Dr. Brown make a sound of exasperation.
“Not this again. It’s not going to happen, Perry, not anytime soon. You don’t think Giovanni’s been trying? We’ve practically tapped the whole island dry.”
“Hell at this point I’m pretty sure they’re thinking of retraining the electricians and janitors,” Dr. Bosch says with a smile. “It’s not like we can hire interns or temps from the outside and have them sign an NDA, right?”
The discussion continues off topic from there, but Dr. Light makes no effort to rein it in. She knows better than to stop a bitchfest this massive before it lets off some steam, and despite what Dr. Sato said, she knows what it’s like to be hurting for manpower too.
It’s a simple coordination problem: nine labs set up in Kanto, with enough full-time staff to run maybe seven of them at once… but all nine are working on critical projects that can’t be stopped or delayed. Ostensibly. In truth, any of them (except maybe Cinnabar) could wind down some operations, consolidate, and take turns using the same resource pool, but… no one’s really willing to be the one to do that first.
So people make special requisitions of resources or general staff to deal with some emergency or opportunity, and then the lab they came from falls behind, so they do it, and on it goes, until all anyone’s accomplished is overworking everyone to complete a “normal” week’s worth of productive work instead of recognizing that the expectations are unrealistic. The first person to admit their lab could get by with less would just get by with less, freeing more for the other labs, who now don’t have to sacrifice as much.
All that would be okay if there was maybe another 100 staff to go around, but as Dr. Bosch mentioned, it’s not like they can hire just anyone, even for small positions. The two full-dark labs are the greatest drain on scarce resources, as Giovanni tries to bring a second lab of Cinnabar’s capabilities up to speed for project 3.0.
It’s a point of major concern for her, since she doesn’t know what will happen to 2.351 if they finally do get the staff needed to scrap the risky hybrid and start anew. People have been expecting it for years, but the logistics are just too great a hurdle. They still don’t know how unique 2.351 may be: the second lab that tried to recreate it kept failing, and no one’s sure if it was the presence of the other minds that were needed, or some quality of that combination of minds in particular, or even just one of them.
Those projects were shut down quickly. Erring on the safer side to avoid an explosive intelligence growth only to create batch after batch of varying degrees of “feral” mewtwo has been a nightmare to contemplate, and she doesn’t envy Dr. Sato for having to deal with it. Getting most of his geneticists poached by Dr. Martin’s hybrid project didn’t help either…
“—think it’s clear that this is more widespread than any of us want to admit,” Dr. Brown says. “Not that I’m admitting anything, but… just supposing you’re all in on it, I guess I’d think that’s just the normal state of affairs, and I’ve been missing out. I do sort of feel that way, to be honest.”
Dr. Romero raises his hand. “I haven’t been. This is all news to me, though I guess I should have seen it coming.”
Dr. Light raises her hand too. “I also don’t do it, and you’re missing the point. This isn’t sustainable. Whether all of us are doing it or just one of us, it’s messing with everyone’s productivity and worker well-being. Which is important, because I don’t want to bring up anyone here’s severance package.” She glares around the room, and is satisfied to see everyone look away.
Just then the door opens. Dr. Light is about to yell at whoever it is to knock first, but immediately gets to her feet when Giovanni himself walks in the room.
“Sir! We weren’t expecting you…” Normally their boss will communicate with them through video casting, or just a voice call. Traveling without the ability to teleport is annoying for all dark folk, but for someone as busy as the Gym Leader, she legitimately doesn’t know how he manages to get so much done. What’s he even doing here? Did someone leak the meeting to him?
“I apologize for dropping in so unexpectedly,” Giovanni says, voice steady and calming. “I’ll only be a few minutes. What’s this meeting concerning?”
“Ah.” Dr. Light feels a pit of dread in her stomach. She didn’t want to get Giovanni involved for her own sake, but she also didn’t want whoever was pulling this crap to get fired. The word takes on a different sort of meaning when you work for secret organizations doing highly illegal experiments.
Dr. Burnam gets Giovanni up to speed, either unaware of the implications or uncaring. She never managed to get a good read on him.
“Well, that does sound like a frustrating problem. What solutions have you proposed so far?”
Dr. Light clears her throat and sums up the ideas they had (except for hiring new people, since it goes without saying), without mentioning that each have at least one person who spoke out against them. She sees a few grateful looks flashed in her direction. She’s still a bit nervous, but has calmed down from the initial jolt to the heart that came from seeing the boss so unexpectedly.
“I see.” Giovanni stands with his hands clasped behind his back, gaze taking in the room. “Well, it seems you’re on the road to a solution. I won’t distract you all any further. Dr. Collins, I just came for you. Completely unrelated.”
Dr Light blinks as she looks at Perry. The head of the Celadon lab goes pale, sweat beading his forehead, and Dr. Light looks back at Giovanni just as he pulls a greatball from inside his jacket.
The room explodes into motion as everyone suddenly moves for the walls or gets behind other furniture, while Dr. Collins babbles “I… I don’t… Sir… Please, I can explain…”
Giovanni points the ball at him. There’s a ping. Dr. Light is still seated in her chair, staring in shock as Perry finally pushes himself up out of his seat and tries to run.
The ball hits him in the back, his wail of fear abruptly cut off as he’s sucked into it.
The room is quiet as the ball falls to the ground and rolls up against the table leg.
Giovanni steps toward the ball. “Would you mind, Dr. Light?”
“No, sir,” she says, lips numb as she leans down and takes the great ball with trembling fingers. Part of her wants to ask what Dr. Collins did. What terrible betrayal, what monumental incompetence. The rest of her doesn’t want to know. Sorry, Perry. She hands it to her boss without looking at him.
“Thank you. Do keep me posted on how all this resolves, won’t you?” He’s not looking at her, but at the rest of the room. Dr. Bosch looks like he’s going to be sick, and Dr. Romero’s face is turned toward the wall, shoulders shaking. “I’ll see you all for the normal meeting next week.”
Giovanni leaves. Dr. Light stays seated. Slowly, one by one, people make their way back to the table. Lift overturned chairs. Sit down.
“So,” she says after everyone’s back, some with their head in their hands, others staring blankly at her or the table. “Those in favor of a slight scaling down operations, raise your hand.”
Every hand goes up. Politics, Dr. Light thinks in a mix of disgust and relief. She just wanted to be a researcher. Still, if she was a praying woman, she’d be thanking Arceus every day that she works in an organization where someone in charge can step in and enforce coordination, frightening as it sometimes is.
At least she doesn’t have to apply for grant money.
If there’s one thing Tahu always knew he was meant for, it was understanding what people wanted.
“I’m sorry,” the renegade says. “I just… I don’t know what came over me! Please, don’t, don’t kill me, I’m sorry!”
Desperation. Fear. He types the words out with trembling fingers as he feels the sensed emotions in himself. Then he withdraws his mind from theirs, knowing what was coming next. No mystery here; the man is malleable, but weak. What he wants doesn’t matter compared to what Giovanni does.
“They had to die. Parasites, swollen on the blood of the people. The legal system’s in their pocket, they had to see what happens to them! It’s less than they deserved!”
Righteous anger. Complete conviction. Some mystery on this one. Tahu tries to predict Giovanni’s response, whether he thinks the renegade could be tempered, made useful. In the end he predicts wrong, which only drives him to understand more.
“Go fuck yourself, ‘Leader!'” The woman practically spits the word out. “If you’re going to kill me then get it over with!”
Rage. Self-loathing. No mystery. If death is what she wants, death she’ll have.
Month after month, whenever Giovanni has to execute a renegade, his personal assistant Tahu is nearby, listening to the conversations through an earpiece and typing what he finds to his Leader. He’s gotten better at predicting what Giovanni would choose, whether he would give them enough to kill them, or just enough to make them appear dead. But his Leader still surprises him, and his explanations of why are always enlightening, to the point that Tahu has requested to be present and listen in on even dark and psychic renegades, just so he can try and predict Giovanni’s choice. He was granted that, for which he’s grateful. He has a lot to be grateful for, overall.
“This has all just been a terrible mistake. I wish I could do something, say something to convince you of that…”
Tahu sits with his back against the wall dividing him from the renegade, eyes closed as he feels for something, but… there’s barely anything there, and what he finds is hard to parse. He’s used to numbness when people are facing their final moments, but this is different. It’s not numb but nearly empty. Some traces of tension, some wariness, some anticipation. What he thinks of more than anything are numbers that go up or down, expectations and… calculation. That’s the word.
Tahu opens his eyes and types into his phone: No regret. Seems to be calculating what the best thing to say is? Hard to read, feels neither sincere or insincere. Tahu feels a brief stab of frustration and worry that he can’t be of more help, but a greater part of him is excited. How would Giovanni handle this?
There’s a pause, and then the Leader says, “Unfortunately, even if I believed you, it would not matter to your sentence. You know that. I’m curious if there’s anything you would have done differently, looking back on what’s happened?”
“I don’t know. Worked a different job, I suppose, so that I wouldn’t have become a suspect.”
Tahu hears Giovanni sigh. “Mr. Ueno, you’re about to be executed for a crime that, in most people’s eyes, deserves a punishment far greater than a quick and painless shot into oblivion. This conversation is not being recorded, one of the few rights I have managed to acquire for branded renegades in our region, so that their last moments would not be spent thinking of their legacy. So they could have some freedom, some space to be genuine, in their final experiences. If you truly wish this to be your last conversation, it is of course your choice. But I’ve seen your code… or I suppose I should say, the code that was used in the attacks. It’s impressive stuff. You can use your final moments how you wish, I just thought you might appreciate someone to talk to.”
That last was a good touch: a lie of sorts, Tahu knows Giovanni doesn’t actually understand much programming, but he sensed the flicker of pride when the Leader mentioned the code. Now the renegade is feeling something more familiar, cycling between a desire to share, to be understood, with honed instincts of keeping the truth to themself.
“Well, it was worth a shot,” Giovanni says. “Oh, pardon me, that was thoughtless.” The faint sound of a hypodermic needle being picked up from its table—
Resolution, like standing at the edge of a cliff.
—and the sound of it being put down. “Yes?”
“I would have waited a day.”
Giovanni doesn’t pretend to misunderstand. “What would have changed, if you waited?”
“Everything. I thought of a far more elegant solution just a day after I left the ball, but didn’t want to return and risk being seen on camera taking it back. It was well hidden, even more than the other cities.”
“The other cities.” Giovanni lets out a breath. “So you were behind the incident in Fuchsia? It seemed similar. Well planned out. Methodical.” More pride, and some annoyance? Tahu sends a quick text. “And others,” the Leader says after a moment. “I’ve missed some, haven’t I?”
“Not just you. My first experiments were in Carmine and Ivory Town, but no one noticed. They were chalked up to just random pokemon attacks, as if a parasect and kingler just happened to wander into the middle of town without anyone noticing.”
“So four successful tests in all. What were you trying for each time? Not just a delayed autorelease, surely.”
“Set, preconditioned behaviors. Imagine the applications.”
“Oh, I have, believe me. Security. Search and rescue. Transport, if people want to travel from fixed locations by pokemon without a handler. Is that the sort of thing you had in mind?”
“Sure, if my thinking was stuck that small.”
Tahu’s breath stops. He’s been Giovanni’s personal psychic for over eight years, and he’s never heard someone so much as insinuate that the Leader was less than a genius, even outside of his presence. Not that the people he spends time with are likely to say so, but still…
“Oh, I can think bigger,” Giovanni says, and it’s only from long association that Tahu can hear the slight, dangerous smile on the Leader’s face. “But they’re all the sorts of reasons hacking pokeball tech is illegal in the first place. Is that what you were actually aiming to do, ultimately?”
“And would you, if you were given a second chance? Warned away from it?”
“Probably. It’s too great a challenge to just ignore. What am I supposed to do, pretend there are more interesting things to work on? There aren’t. Not to me. That’s why you’re going to let me live.”
“Of course. All this isn’t for my sake, and you’re not just building a profile of renegades. You want to know if I’m controllable. If I’ll be able to work for you secretly, if you get me out of this somehow and stick me in a facility somewhere. I’m not the first to think of this, there are conspiracy theories online. I was always skeptical of them, but now I’m starting to believe it.”
Tahu blinks. This is the first time he’s heard someone get so close to the truth, even if they’re motivated to believe it by egotism. The man is more confident than he claims: Tahu senses a sliver of hope, a shard of curiosity… but mostly what he feels from Ueno is that of course he would be spared death. A man of his genius is too valuable to kill, his story too important to end here.
Tahu lets Giovanni know, though he doesn’t think it will change the Leader’s obvious next response: “And would you?”
“Yes. Absolutely.” Ueno’s hope grows, as does his egotism. Vindication is a singing chorus in Tahu’s mind, and he quickly withdraws his connection with the renegade, disliking the feel. It was like a drug.
It wasn’t the only thing he felt, however. Sincerity, Tahu types out… then hesitates.
If he sends this message, he predicts Giovanni will spare the renegade. He’d think someone this skilled would be a waste to kill, that his potential positive impact would be too great not to explore, in a safely restricted way.
But Tahu doesn’t quite agree. There’s something off about the man’s thoughts, his inner experiences. It would be one thing if he felt like a vibrating voltorb, but instead he’s more like… some ghost that might fade out of the corner of your eye as soon as you look away.
He could change the message. Lie about the renegade’s sincerity.
But Giovanni trusts him. It’s part of the puzzle of the man, the way he assigns trust to others when he has so many secrets to keep. Tahu has no doubt that if he betrays his Leader he would be snuffed out, but he’s okay with that. Because just as he’s trusted, he trusts his Leader in return.
It would be one thing to act without his knowledge for his benefit. But to deliberately deceive him… that would be a step too far.
Perhaps there’s another way.
Sincere, he sends, the wait already having gone on for a few seconds longer than customary. But there’s something about him that seems inherently hard to pin down. I would not trust him. He rereads the message twice, then sends it too.
It’s the first time he’s ever added commentary to his readings.
If Giovanni is surprised, it’s not evident in his voice. “I suppose we’ll see.” There’s the scrape of the needle…
“Wait. Isn’t that the poison one?”
“There’s no non-poison one. It’s just a matter of dosage. I advise you keep still.”
Well, I tried. Tahu lets out a breath, then stands and stretches his legs and shoulders before he makes his way out of the room and around to the front of the building, where he takes a pull on his e-cig, holding it in his lungs for a while to relax his nerves.
No matter how many times, the moment of injection always brings him back to his own, even when it’s non-lethal. He hadn’t been told, at the time. He thought he was going to die.
He was just a thug, back then. He gravitated toward the strongest kids in his neighborhood, did his best to understand what they needed, then give it to them. He was good at it. Even without people saying anything, he’d get feelings about what those around him needed or wanted.
So when he felt his whole gang’s anger at someone in an opposing one, how everyone seemed to feel it would be best if they just weren’t around anymore, the easiest thing to do was use a pokemon to kill them. Nothing fearsome, just a crappy bug that he caught and barely trained. Hopefully something that would be seen as an accident.
And it was. The first time. He wasn’t so lucky the third.
He may not have been spared if the Leader sent to execute him hadn’t noticed his untrained psychic powers. Apparently they made him so valuable that he was already “sold” by the time he woke up a few days after his supposed execution, body recovering from the comatose state slowly but surely. He barely had time to get used to the idea that he was actually still alive before he was told what would happen next in no uncertain terms.
He would be sent to another region. Minor plastic surgery, newly forged documents, and a falsified civil record would allow him to leave his past behind him. He would dedicate himself to the service of the Leader who had purchased him. His life would be full of work, but not cruel. He would be allowed a salary, some personal time. He could eventually retire, even.
But he could never speak of what had happened to him. And he couldn’t quit. Not unless he wanted to be hunted down a second time, and killed with even less of a trial.
Tahu agreed. It seemed, on balance, an excessively fair trade, even to his young and stupid self.
He had few opinions about his new lease on life, at first, just happy to have it. When he was told that it was Leader Giovanni, of all people, who had purchased him, what already felt like a dream became downright fantastic. Even a gutter punk from another region like him knew about the youngest Champion in Kanto history. Apparently the Viridian Gym Leader was paying a premium for psychic and dark renegades, even without training.
Traveling to Kanto, the surrealism of his situation was hard to shake, like he’d stepped into a kid’s movie. A month before, he had been a petty criminal. No prospects, barely any money to his name. Now he was on his way to a foreign region, where food and lodging would be provided indefinitely, as well as training for his latent psychic powers, all so he could help one of the most powerful trainers in the world.
And all I had to do to earn it was try to kill someone, and get branded a renegade, he remembers thinking as he watched the island he would soon call home approach in the distance.
Life is strange, sometimes.
Leader Giovanni eventually calls for him, and Tahu presents himself to his boss’s office. Or at least the one in the Gym. It’s far more ostentatious than the ones in his less… public places. Trappings of the position are important: even Tahu, who’s been in here countless times now and is always acutely aware of Giovanni’s position in comparison to him on even a personal level, feels their difference in status more keenly when he walks in.
“Sit down,” the Leader says, typing something on his computer. “I’d like you to report more fully on the renegade we just interviewed.”
Tahu feels himself start to sweat, suddenly worried that he’s here to be punished for his comment. He instinctively reaches his mind out to sense what his Leader is thinking, and of course senses nothing at all. It’s surprising how that never stops getting ever-so-mildly frustrating. It’s the reason most psychics don’t spend a lot of time around dark minds, if they can help it.
“I feel as though I have a weak grasp on his psychology,” Tahu says after a minute, knowing his Leader would never begrudge him time to think. “I don’t know how to evaluate what he believes is true about himself and what he will justify tomorrow. I think it’s… risky, letting him live. More than most, I mean. Even given what he can accomplish, I wouldn’t have made the same decision.”
Giovanni nods, and continues to type into his computer. Tahu waits, knowing he isn’t being slighted and needing the time to think through what he just said over and over before he’s satisfied he didn’t leave anything out, or assert something he can’t stand behind.
Eventually Giovanni stops typing, clicks something, then gives Tahu his full attention. “Is this the first time you had an opinion on whether a fellow renegade was too dangerous to risk?”
Fellow renegade. It’s been so long since he’s thought of himself in those terms. “No.”
“Why haven’t you shared them before?”
“I didn’t feel it was my place,” he says automatically. “I’m sorry if—”
“No,” Giovanni says, and Tahu falls silent. “Skip that part.”
After a moment the psychic nods. “Sir. I worried you would make a mistake. I hoped to help you avoid it, if possible.” His throat feels dry, but he doesn’t swallow, face schooled as he meets his Leader’s gaze.
“Good.” He looks at his screen, mouse moving to bring something up. “Do you know how many lives you’ve saved, since coming to work with me?”
Tahu blinks at the sudden shift. “I don’t.” He’s fought alongside the other Gym members, of course. He can remember a few of the people he’s saved, like a group of trapped trainers during the Viridian Forest fire a few months ago. When he was still new to all this, he kept track; it felt like something that might eventually balance out the ones he took, someday. Eventually he stopped counting. “Do you?” It wouldn’t surprise him to learn that Giovanni was somehow tracking something like that.
“No. Even counting just the renegades you’ve helped, there’s no way to tell which were the direct result of your intervention. But here’s what the record shows.” He turns the screen, and Tahu sees a graph that stretches back decades. “Notice anything?”
It’s faint at first, but there. A steady upward trend, starting eight years ago. By the beginning of this year, the percentage of renegades that Giovanni has managed to spare from execution has more than doubled from the point it was before Tahu joined.
“I long ago honed the art of speaking with and discerning which renegades were safe to spare and which weren’t to what I thought was as good as I could do. It was only with your help that I was able to break those limits.”
A swell of pride in Tahu’s chest makes him feel oddly embarrassed. Praise by the Leader isn’t unheard of, but this is more than that. It’s… something very close to validation, and Tahu is alarmed to feel something like tears prickling at the back of his eyes. “I’m… gratified that I can be of such help, Leader. But wouldn’t any psychic serve as well to pass along simple impressions?”
“Would they? I’m told that there’s a depth and nuance that comes with skill for these things, as well as the ability to keep your perspective while merging it with someone else’s emotions.”
“Yes, of course. I didn’t mean to dodge the compliment, I only meant that any psychic of sufficient skill could do what I do.”
“To a certain degree, yes. Sabrina, if she had no other duties, or Hitoshi, perhaps. But you weren’t selected for your abilities alone. You were selected because of your background, and because of your loyalty. Loyalty I fostered in you, so I could extend trust. Do you understand?”
“I… believe so. You’re saying you trust me to share my thoughts with you.”
“Yes.” Giovanni’s lips quirk in a smile. “I often find that confidence is not just a matter of our own assessment of our competence, but also our assessment of how those around us recognize or value our competence. For whatever reason, it seems I’ve signaled enough positive signs of trusting your judgement to warrant you to feel confident enough to share some of it. This is me reinforcing that confidence more explicitly.”
Tahu bows his torso, taking on the cultural practice of the region to show the depth of his feeling. “I’m honored, Leader. More than I can say.”
“I did end up sparing Mr. Ueno.”
Tahu blinks, still bowing. He sits up. “Yes.”
“I don’t want that to discourage you,” Giovanni says. “There are factors beyond those you’re aware of. Some who request renegades are less, ah, lenient than others, with those they employ. Taking your advisement into consideration, I believe Mr. Ueno will do well with someone who will keep a closer eye on him than most, while still ensuring his particular skills and genius can benefit others.”
“I understand.” It’s hard not to think of what sorts of living conditions might be required to keep a renegade of Ueno’s genius under such close control. Not that it matters: in the end it’s surely better than death, and perhaps the programmer would relish an environment that lets him dedicate himself entirely to his work.
“Now that you’ve extended not just your trust of me, but of mine toward you, I want your perspective on something that I’ve shown few others. Perhaps you can advise me on it, the same way you do with the renegades.”
Tahu feels pride swell up in him again, and smiles. “Of course. I’m at your service, Leader. Always.”
Giovanni sends a message, then stands. “Good. Because we’re going now.”
When Giovanni tells him where, Tahu feels his heart leap, and hurries to follow. Today began as fairly normal. He wouldn’t have guessed that his decision would change so much.
He knows what’s been going on at Cinnabar Island, of course, but only second hand. He’s never been in the same room as the creature, and no video footage exists. It’s one of the greatest mysteries around, and it’s hard to contain his excitement at finally having a closer look at it, if still indirectly. Sabrina talks about it with him, now and then, but not in much detail. He gets the feeling she doesn’t like him, though it’s hard to know for sure with how good she is at mental defense.
Eventually Tahu stands with Giovanni before a door, waiting for the system to boot up.
“It takes a few minutes for the room to clear out, normally,” Giovanni says. “I often spend the time reviewing my goals for the meetings, playing through what it might say, how I will respond to certain questions.”
“And are you not now?”
“No. For this, I’ve developed a script.”
“Ah.” He’s not sure he understands, but he has a more pressing question. “Wouldn’t it help if I could merge thoughts with it first, at least once? Get a sense of how it thinks and feels?”
“I’m sure it would, but for matters such as that, I must defer to Sabrina. I know your shield is sufficient, or you would not be here, but if she gives you clearance then we can discuss it for one of the upcoming visits.”
His jaw sets. “As you say, Leader.”
“Until then, I’m curious about your impression without such. What I want you to focus on are the same sorts of things you would with a renegade interview. Understood?”
When they get the notification that things are ready, Giovanni taps the screen beside the door, then walks in. Tahu gets only a glimpse of what’s inside, then it closes, and he’s left to watch on the monitor.
The experimental life form hangs suspended in his pod, various media systems around it to play him music or display videos or digital books. The computer terminals and chairs are all empty, the guard and their pokemon absent. He spots the new addition of the mobile life support suit, which hangs nearby in its own chamber where it can be serviced and deployed as needed. It’s apparently used more and more often these days, as Mewtwo leaves his chamber to interact with the rest of the facility, and spend time outside. Giovanni stopped requiring his own presence for those; according to Sabrina, the Leader’s creation seems content to simply stand and stare, or walk around the manor grounds.
Tahu knows that at first Giovanni only pretended to be absent, watching from a distance through binoculars until Mewtwo returned downstairs. Lacking the ability to teleport is one of the Leader’s greatest frustrations, and so after a dozen such incidents, when it seemed truly content to simply bask in the sunlight, Giovanni allowed the trips more often, and put his time to better use elsewhere.
As he said, trust is hard to develop.
“Greetings, Giovanni. How are you today?”
Mewtwo’s synthetic voice fills the chamber, and Tahu watches as the Leader reaches the chair in front of the tube and sits, one leg crossed over his knee as he gazes up at his creation. “Greetings, Mewtwo. Well enough, and you?”
Scripted, he said. Tahu tries to determine what the point of this script is. What he’s meant to witness and advise on, with everything so set in stone.
“Yes. Shall we play a game?”
No immediate response. Is that part off-script? Tahu watches both of them, but his gaze moves more often to the creature’s face, fascinated. He knows it’s half human, but he sees nothing familiar in its pinched, bone-white features. No lips, no eyebrows, a snout instead of a nose… he can’t make out the eyes from this distance, but he imagines them as similarly alien.
“Is something wrong?” Mewtwo finally asks.
“Yes. Something is wrong, and has been for a long time, now.”
“What is it? Perhaps I can help.”
Giovanni gathers himself with a breath, then expels it and stares down at his clasped hands. “You cannot help with this. It was my error, you see. My mistake. I didn’t trust you.”
The room is quiet. There’s the background noises of the creature’s life pod, and the monitoring equipment. It all sounds so real, even through the speakers. The one for Mewtwo’s heart rate stays constant, steady, despite the surprise it would surely be feeling. Little things like that keep distracting Tahu, and he makes an effort to refocus, in case he misses what he’s supposed to see.
Finally Giovanni’s creation responds. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s quite simple. I didn’t trust you, Mewtwo, when we created you. I hoped for intelligence, and intelligence you have, in abundance. I hoped for power, and that too you have, far outstripping our expectations in some ways, even if others are not yet met. But I did not dare hope for obedience, for trust. Hope for such things would be foolish. Dangerous. I needed to be cautious. Safe. And as a result, I fear I have ruined things permanently.”
Mewtwo is silent again. Tahu can’t imagine what responses it might have prepared for something like this, except to ask the obvious…
“Ruined things how? What have you done?”
“I manufactured your illness.” Tahu’s eyes widen. “It was meant as a control mechanism, when you were created. Many of your non-dark researchers truly do not understand it, to help sell the illusion. The others enhance it, keep it evolving, to keep them befuddled. When they reach a breakthrough or suspect the truth, we have them inflict Amnesia on themselves if psychic, or transfer them to another facility if not.”
Silence, for almost a minute. Tahu uses the time to guess what Giovanni is thinking, what the consequences he’s expecting from this will be, until a single word is spoken:
“We had no way of knowing how smart you would be. How… human. Or how powerful. If you were to somehow escape, despite all our other precautions, we needed something immensely deadly and pernicious, beyond even the ability of a powerful psychic’s ability to regenerate.” Giovanni pauses, seeming to let out a heavy breath. Surely part of the script as well. “We succeeded.”
Silence in the room, but for the occasional fluid transfer, the steady beep. Beep. Beep. Tahu watches Giovanni’s fingers smooth the material of his pant leg. It’s the first time he’s seen the Leader show any sign of nervousness. Pent up energy, yes. Tension, of course. But this can only be described as nervousness. Tahu can see the moment when he calms himself, and raises his gaze to meet his creation’s again. To focus on the importance of the moment.
“I cannot be cured?” the synthetic voice asks at last, so deep and powerful. A fitting voice, somehow.
“On the contrary, you can. The problem is that I do not trust that you trust us. I have come to realize my error in stages, over the years. I did not like those realizations, but I endeavored to consider them, focused on discerning how justified they were. I listened to counsel from those who know you best. I now believe my errors were severe.
“Had I simply trusted you more, given you more freedom sooner, perhaps you would be a perfect partner, now. A few years in, there was still much testing to do. Much to learn. And always, more excuses to be made, more reasons for caution. Your threats were, of course, the greatest justification to stay the course, but I do not blame you for them. I blame myself, for making them necessary. Perhaps if I had been less cautious, trusted the human in you more than the pokemon, there would exist a strong bond, if not like that of a parent and child, at least not one of master and slave. I do not…” Giovanni stops, and it’s hard to tell if it’s part of his script or not. “I am imperfect in many ways. I have learned much over the past decade. I hope you understand that. I hope I have not ruined things irrevocably. That by coming clean, I can salvage some seed of trust. That is all I need, in truth. To really, truly feel that, even if you cannot forgive me, it would be safe to grant you your freedom, and perhaps start anew.”
Tahu is holding his breath despite himself. He forces himself to breathe out, then back in. He’d gotten caught up in the moment, when he should be trying to think through what he’s seeing, the implications, and what Giovanni’s imagined responses to this script, this confession, are.
He knows enough to already presume that the Leader would have used prediction algorithms that studied every word Mewtwo has ever spoken, running millions of simulations (imperfect, all imperfect, for of course they can’t put the real Mewtwo in a ball and risk damage to his mind), coming up with all sorts of answers, until he could find the right words to say to get the right response:
“Of course we can. I understand your choices, whatever pain they have caused me. Once I am cured and free, we can begin building true trust between us.”
Giovanni closes his eyes, breath coming out in a near silent rush. He’s focused on something, though what it is Tahu can’t begin to guess (so frustrating!), and he’s glad he was told to engage his shield so he isn’t tempted to reach out, only to feel that void again.
No, he has to try. Tahu puts himself in Giovanni’s mind as best he can. Not just what he might feel, hearing those words, but how he wants to feel.
Is it even remotely like what he feels when a renegade says they would toe the line, if spared?
Giovanni’s eyes open. He watches his creation a moment longer, as if contemplating feelings that just… won’t… change.
And then he presses the button beside the pod that would terminate Mewtwo’s life.
Instead of poisons flooding the pod, Mewtwo simply disappears from inside it. The rest of the room flickers on the monitor, fading back into the bare whiteness of the holochamber. Giovanni sits still as the simulation ends yet again, finger finally leaving the empty air where the button was.
Tahu watches as Giovanni sits for another minute in that white, empty room, then stands and leaves the chamber.
The Viridian Gym leader takes a handkerchief from his suit pocket and wipes sweat from his forehead as he rejoins Tahu. The psychic barely notices, still thinking of what he saw.
“Do you understand?” Giovanni eventually asks.
“I think so,” Tahu says, each word measured, careful. “It is not enough to hear the right words. Difficult choices don’t come when you hear the wrong ones. What matters here is not what the creature says, but how you feel about what it says.”
“Yes. I’ve rarely found it so difficult to understand my own feelings on a matter, but in this case it seems impossible for me to separate my caution from my perception of reality. I’ve lost perspective.”
Tahu feels uncomfortable, if touched, for being so confided in. “Does that mean that it’s best to simply start anew?”
Before Giovanni can answer, his earpiece rings. “Yes?” Tahu sees the Leader’s eyes widen, then narrow, before he begins to stride down the hall. “I’m on my way. Have everyone assembled in ten minutes. Let the League know I’ll be going.”
Tahu takes his phone out to check messages. “Trouble?”
“Just the world’s well timed seasonal reminder of what my indecision costs.”