Tag Archives: fanfiction

Chapter 4: The Efficient Market Hypothesis

 

World domination is such an ugly phrase. I prefer to call it world optimisation.


Gringotts Bank turned out to be an imposing multistoried building made of snow-white marble. It was located partway down Diagon Alley, near an intersection with something called Knockturn Alley, and towered over the neighbouring shops. Its architecture seemed subtly different than the “muggle” British buildings the wizarding world seemed to mimic, but Harry had never studied architecture enough to pinpoint how.

He was also too distracted by the pair of goblins standing at the bank’s ornate double doors.

They were dressed in perfectly tailored uniforms of scarlet and gold, and discreetly examined everyone that walked by the bank. Harry knew they were goblins the way he’d have known a dragon if he saw one: they matched the description of countless fantasy novels in most metrics, if not all. Far from green skinned, the short humanoids were almost as pale as the marble behind them, but they had elongated, pointed nose and ears, extremely long, dextrous looking fingers, and slanted, piercing eyes.

Harry tried not to stare as he and Professor McGonagall approached the stairs leading up to the door. It took all his self control to keep his questions to himself however: here were living beings, apparently just as sapient as humans, but clearly from a drastically different genealogy! He wondered how much their DNA resembled humans, and if the two species were close enough genetically to interbreed. A handful of goblin bones would probably drive Richard Dawkins into an academic frenzy, let alone sight of the real thing.

Above the great double doors was a gold and mahogany plaque bearing the symbol of an ornate key, the word “Gringotts” inscribed on it. Below that were the words Fortius Quo Fidelius.Harry consulted his scattered Latin; Stronger Through Loyalty?

“Good morning,” he said to the goblins, who bowed in response. The doors appeared to be thick, heavy marble, but one of the goblins gripped its lower handle and swung it open with ease, though he appeared no more muscular than Harry. Mental note: size does not correlate with strength in the magical world.

Harry and Professor McGonagall walked through the doors side by side, and the goblin behind them closed it. They were in a small entrance hall that was mostly empty, though curiously there were a pair of fireplaces to either side. In front of them was another set of doors, these silver, also flanked with goblins. As Harry approached, he saw writing engraved on it:

Enter, stranger, but take heed
Of what awaits the sin of greed
For those who take, but do not earn,
Must pay most dearly in their turn.
So if you seek beneath our floors
A treasure that was never yours,
Thief, you have been warned, beware
Of finding more than treasure there.

Harry swallowed. It should have seemed silly, something out of a nursery tale… but standing in what seemed literally a goblin stronghold, the words conveyed a quiet, self-assured threat that sent a shiver up Harry’s spine. Further note: do not get on a goblin’s bad side.

“Greetings Madame McGonagall,” said the goblin to their right, voice reedy and accented with a dialect Harry had never heard before. “Greetings Master Potter.”

“Greetings,” Harry said, and glanced at Professor McGonagall curiously.

“I informed the bank that we would be arriving today, so they would have your family vault key readily located,” she explained. “It hasn’t been accessed in a decade.”

“Ah. Well, thank you for keeping my inheritance safe for me,” Harry told the goblin. He felt rather awkward claiming money from parents he had never met, but knew he would need it for school supplies that were sure to be very expensive. How much would a genuine magic item go for in the muggle world? People already paid exorbitant prices on claptrap that didn’t even work; the tooth cleaning potion he’d seen in a shop window would probably sell for hundreds of pounds, maybe thousands. He hoped he would be able to afford his wand and books at least.

“Merely our duty, Master Potter,” the goblin said, and bowed again. Was it Harry’s imagination, or was there a slightly mocking tone to the goblin’s words?

The goblin opened the door, revealing a long hall filled with goblins and wizards. The latter mostly stood in queues, while the former walked about with an air of urgent business or stood behind podiums and desks that placed them a head above their clients. A rather obvious bit of over-compensation, but Harry didn’t blame them in the slightest.

All this Harry saw through what appeared to be a thin film of water, falling gently from somewhere above the other side of the doors and trickling into a narrow grate on the floor.

“It’s called the Thief’s Downfall,” Professor McGonagall said, seeing Harry’s hesitation. “It washes away many forms of magical disguise, and will ensure we are who we appear to be. Your scar will become visible after we pass through, but I’ll obscure it again when we leave.” The witch walked through the water, then turned to wait for him.

Harry took a breath and stepped through, eyes shut and shoulders tight as he anticipated a cold bath. The water was lukewarm however, and quickly evaporated. Within seconds he felt completely dry, and he opened his eyes in astonishment, hands running through his hair.

Professor McGonagall gave him a brief smile, then led the way to a podium labeled “Special Appointments.” Harry followed, trying not to stare at any one thing too long. He saw a witch weighing a jingling pouch in her hand, goblins writing on long sheets of parchment with feathered quills, and a wizard handing an emerald the size of Harry’s fist to his goblin teller, who took out a monocle and examined the gem.

The goblin they approached seemed older than the others, head mostly bald and hair long and white, with small spectacles perched on his long nose. “Yes?” he asked without glancing up from the parchment he was examining.

“Harry Potter is here to access his vault.”

There was a slight pause, and the goblin’s eyes flicked upward at Harry. “You have the key?”

Professor McGonagall pulled an iron key out of her sleeve, the letter P engraved at its handle. She held it over the desk.

The older goblin took the key, squinting at it for a moment and running his thin fingers over the engraving before handing it back. “Very good.” The goblin reached to the side and picked up a bell, which he rang in a deliberate pattern: ding-a-dong, ding-ding, dong-ding! “Griphook will guide you.” He rolled his parchment up a bit and continued reading. Harry saw that it extended all the way down to the floor. He wondered why a society that clearly had access to books would still use scrolls. Perhaps it was a goblin thing, along with their aversion to fountain pens.

Griphook proved to be a youngish goblin, with relatively smooth skin and full dark hair slicked back over his head. He bowed after approaching them. “Madame McGonagall. Master Potter. Follow me, please.”

The goblin led them out of the main hall through a side door, which opened into a downward staircase. The stairs were clean white marble at first, but soon changed to dark stone, and the glowing chandeliers gave way to flaming torches. Harry knew they must have been enchanted, as there was no smoke, which would have filled the tunnel without some airway to escape through.

I’m walking down a goblin tunnel, Harry thought with a renewed touch of unreality. The tunnel soon leveled off, and then the walls fell away to reveal long, twisting paths with rail tracks along the floor. Mine carts sat on short tracks that branched off the main lines, and Griphook led them to one.

“Please step aboard, Master Potter.”

Harry met the goblin’s gaze. “Mister will suffice, thank you.” Harry remembered vacationing with his parents at an expensive hotel once. They’d been waited on by the staff with an overwhelming deference that was enjoyable, but in an occasionally uncomfortable way. Though the thought of having servants (or better yet, minions) was appealing on a number of levels, he didn’t quite feel comfortable being called “master” by another race. Especially not coupled with the vaguely mocking tone he sensed from the goblins, though perhaps that was merely a difference in mannerisms or accent that didn’t quite translate well. “And my full name is Potter-Evans-Verres.”

The goblin peered back at him for a silent moment, then another. Harry didn’t drop his gaze, and the goblin finally inclined his head briefly. “As you say, Mr. Potter-Evans-Verres.”

Harry followed Professor McGonagall onto the trolley, ignoring her speculative look. He noted the lack of hand rails or seat belts, and began to feel nervous as Griphook stepped in and closed the side hatch. “Is this really the safest way to conduct a banking transaction?”

“No,” Griphook said with a wide grin, revealing sharp teeth. He pulled a key out of his vest pocket, identical to the one Professor McGonagall had, and inserted it into a keyhole at the back of the trolley. “But then, it wouldn’t be much good if it was.” He twisted the key, and the mine cart shuddered, rolled slowly onto the main track, then zoomed forward at what only felt like roughly half the speed of sound.

Harry’s yell of surprise was soon lost behind them as the wind whipped it from his lips, and he gripped the sides of the cart until his knuckles turned white. He gave Professor McGonagall an accusatory glare, and the witch merely raised an eyebrow, arms crossed nonchalantly over her chest as her lips twitched at the corners. Harry grit his teeth and slowly drew his hands back to his sides, ignoring the lurching sensations in his stomach as the cart rocketed through the twisting caverns, down, down, down.

Of course, they’d assure it’s safe if you have the proper means to travel it, Harry chided himself. They passed by glittering crystal outgrowths, various sized vault doors, and through another Thief’s Downfall, this one much bigger and ice cold, though he once again dried in seconds.

Harry raised his voice over the clatter of the wheels. “Do all wizards keep their money here?”

“All that care about their gold!” Griphook replied.

“Gold?”

“And silver, and bronze!” Professor McGonagall called out. “The gold coins are called Galleons, the silver Sickles, and the bronze Knuts. It’s twenty-nine Knuts to a Sickle, seventeen Sickles to a Galleon!”

Harry was still processing the implications of this as they shot around a particularly wide corner, and his next question was interrupted by a burst of fire that illuminated the darkness around them. Harry twisted his head around, but the chamber was already out of sight. “What was that?” he yelled back at Griphook.

“Just a dragon!” Griphook said with a smirk, and Harry couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. His mind raced in a whole new direction, monetary matters temporarily tabled.

Soon after, the cart began to slow, its deafening rattle quieting little by little until it finally took one of the branching paths. The trolley coasted along it and reached a relatively small vault door with no markings on it. Griphook hopped out of the cart and walked up to the door, then inserted the same key he’d put into the trolley cart. A second keyhole was parallel to it, and Professor McGonagall inserted her, or rather Harry’s, key into that one. They twisted together, there was a heavy metal clunk, and the door swung inward.

Harry stepped inside the brightly lit marble room and felt his jaw unhinge in a gape.

Heaps of gold Galleons. Stacks of silver Sickles. Piles of bronze Knuts. More money than he’d ever seen in one place, all in the form of gleaming treasure that would make Bluebeard jealous.This… is all mine?

Harry was vaguely aware of Professor McGonagall leaning casually against the wall, eyes intent. Watching him. Well, that made sense. Being plopped in front of a giant heap of gold coins was a test of character so pure it was archetypal.

Harry closed his mouth. First things first… get an estimate of how much money he was actually looking at, in a way he could understand. “Are these coins the pure metal?” he asked Griphook.

“What?” the goblin spat from the doorway, voice harsh. “Are you questioning the integrity of Gringotts, Mr. Potter-Evans-Verres?”

“No,” said Harry, “not at all, sorry if that came out wrong, sir. I just have no idea at all how your financial system works. I’m asking if Galleons in general are made of pure gold.”

“Of course,” said Griphook.

“And can anyone coin them, or are they issued by a monopoly that collects seigniorage?”

Griphook grinned. “Only a fool would trust any but goblin coin!”

“In other words,” Harry said, “the coins aren’t supposed to be worth any more than the metal making them up?”

Griphook stared at Harry. Professor McGonagall looked bemused.

“I mean, suppose I came in here with a ton of silver. Could I get a ton of Sickles made from it?”

“For a fee, Mr. Potter-Evans-Verres.” The goblin watched him with glittering eyes. “For a certain fee. Where would you find a ton of silver, I wonder?”

“I was speaking hypothetically,” Harry said. For now, at any rate. “So… how much would you charge in fees, as a fraction of the whole weight?”

Griphook’s eyes were intent. “I would have to consult my superiors…”

“Give me a wild guess. I won’t hold Gringotts to it.”

“A twentieth part of the metal would well pay for the coining.”

Harry nodded. “Thank you very much, Mr. Griphook.”

So not only is the wizarding economy almost completely decoupled from the Muggle economy, no one here has ever heard of arbitrage. The larger Muggle economy had a fluctuating trading range of gold to silver, so every time the Muggle gold-to-silver ratio got more than 5% away from the weight of seventeen Sickles to one Galleon, either gold or silver should have drained from the wizarding economy until it became impossible to maintain the exchange rate. Bring in a ton of silver, change to Sickles (and pay 5%), change the Sickles for Galleons, take the gold to the Muggle world, exchange it for more silver than you started with, and repeat.

Wasn’t the Muggle gold to silver ratio somewhere around fifty to one? Harry didn’t think it was seventeen, anyway. And it looked like the silver coins were actually smaller than the gold coins.

Then again, Harry was standing in a bank that literally stored your money in vaults guarded by dragons, where you had to go in and take coins out of your vault whenever you wanted to spend money. The finer points of arbitraging away market inefficiencies might well be lost on them. He’d be tempted to make snide remarks about the crudity of their financial system…

But the sad thing is, their way might actually be better.

On the other hand, one competent hedge fundie could probably own the whole wizarding world within a week. Harry filed away this notion in case he ever ran out of money, or had a week free.

Meanwhile, the giant heaps of gold coins within the Potter vault ought to suit his near-term requirements.

Harry stepped forward, and began picking up gold coins with one hand and dumping them into the other.

When he had reached twenty, Professor McGonagall coughed. “I think that will be more than enough to pay for your school supplies, Mr. Potter.”

“Hm?” Harry said, his mind elsewhere. “Hold on, I’m doing a Fermi calculation.”

“A what? ” said Professor McGonagall, sounding somewhat alarmed.

“It’s a mathematical thing. Named after Enrico Fermi. A way of getting rough numbers quickly in your head…”

Twenty gold Galleons weighed a tenth of a kilogram, maybe? And gold was, what, ten thousand British pounds a kilogram? So a Galleon would be worth about fifty pounds… The mounds of gold coins looked to be about sixty coins high and twenty coins wide in either dimension of the base, and a mound was pyramidal, so it would be around one-third of the cube. Eight thousand Galleons per mound, roughly, and there were around five mounds of that size, so forty thousand Galleons or 2 million pounds sterling.

Harry smiled with a certain grim satisfaction. It was too bad that he was right in the middle of discovering the amazing new world of magic, and couldn’t take time out to explore the amazing new world of being rich, which a quick Fermi estimate said was roughly a billion times less interesting.

Still, that’s the last time I ever mow a lawn for one lousy pound.

Harry wheeled from the giant heap of money. “Pardon me for asking, Professor McGonagall, but I understand that my parents were in their twenties when they died. Is this a usual amount of money for a young couple to have in their vault, in the wizarding world?” If it was, a cup of tea probably cost five thousand pounds. Rule one of economics: you can’t eat money.

Professor McGonagall shook her head. “Your father was the last heir of an old family, Mr. Potter. It’s also possible…” The witch hesitated. “Some of this money may be from bounties placed on You-Know-Who, payable to his ki- ah, to whoever might defeat him. Or those bounties might not have been collected yet. I am not sure.”

“Interesting…” Harry said slowly. “So some of this really is, in a sense, mine. That is, earned by me. Sort of. Possibly. Even if I don’t remember the occasion.” Harry’s fingers tapped against his trouser-leg. “That makes me feel less guilty about spending a very tiny fraction of it! Don’t panic, Professor McGonagall!

“Mr. Potter! You are a minor, and as such, you will only be allowed to make reasonable withdrawals from -”

“I am all about reasonable! I am totally on board with fiscal prudence and impulse control! But I did see some things on the way here which would constitute sensible, grown-up purchases…”

Harry locked gazes with Professor McGonagall, engaging in a silent staring contest.

“Like what?” Professor McGonagall said finally.

“Trunks whose insides hold more than their outsides?”

Professor McGonagall’s face grew stern. “Those are very expensive, Mr. Potter!”

“Yes, but -” Harry pleaded. “I’m sure that when I’m an adult I’ll want one. And I can afford one. Logically, it would make just as much sense to buy it now instead of later, and get the use of it right away. It’s the same money either way, right? I mean, I would want a good one, with lots of room inside, good enough that I wouldn’t have to just get a better one later…” Harry trailed off hopefully.

Professor McGonagall’s gaze didn’t waver. “And just what would you keep in a trunk like that, Mr. Potter -”

“Books.”

“Of course,” sighed Professor McGonagall.

“You should have told me much earlier that sort of magic item existed! And that I could afford one! Now my father and I are going to have to spend the next two days frantically hitting up all the secondhand bookshops for old textbooks, so I can have a decent science library with me at Hogwarts – and maybe a small science fiction collection, if I can assemble something decent out of the bargain bins. Or better yet, I’ll make the deal a little sweeter for you, okay? Just let me buy -”

Mr. Potter! You think you can bribe me?”

“What? No! Not like that! I’m saying, Hogwarts can keep some of the books I bring, if you think that any of them would make good additions to the library. I’m going to be getting them cheap, and I just want to have them around somewhere or other. It’s okay to bribe people with books, right? That’s a -”

“Family tradition.”

“Yes, exactly.”

Professor McGonagall’s body seemed to slump, the shoulders lowering within her black robes. “I cannot deny the sense of your words, though I much wish I could. I will allow you to withdraw an additional hundred Galleons, Mr. Potter.” She sighed again. “I know that I shall regret this, and I am doing it anyway.”

“That’s the spirit! And does a ‘mokeskin pouch’ do what I think it does?”

“It can’t do as much as a trunk,” the witch said with visible reluctance, “but… a mokeskin pouch with a Retrieval Charm and Undetectable Extension Charm can hold a number of items until they are called forth by the one who emplaced them -”

“Yes!” Harry’s excitement made him shift from foot to foot, eyes alight. “I definitely need one of those too! Batman’s utility belt of holding! Never mind my swiss army knife, I could carry a whole tool set in there! Or books! I could have the top three books I was reading on me at all times, and just pull one out anywhere! I’ll never have to waste another minute of my life! What do you say, Professor McGonagall? It’s for the sake of children’s reading, the best of all possible causes!”

“…I suppose you may add another ten Galleons.”

“And a little spending money, like you mentioned earlier. I think I can remember seeing one or two other things I might want to store in that pouch.”

Don’t push it, Mr. Potter.

“But oh, Professor McGonagall, why rain on my parade? Surely this is a happy day, when I discover all things wizarding for the first time! Why act the part of the grumpy grownup when instead you could smile and remember your own innocent childhood, watching the look of delight upon my young face as I buy a few toys using an insignificant fraction of the wealth that I earned by defeating the most terrible wizard Britain has ever known, not that I’m accusing you of being ungrateful or anything, but still, what are a few toys compared to that?”

You,” growled Professor McGonagall. There was a look on her face so fearsome and terrible that Harry squeaked and stepped back, knocking over a pile of gold coins with a great jingling noise and sprawling backwards into a heap of money. Griphook sighed and put a palm over his face. “I would be doing a great service to wizarding Britain, Mr. Potter, if I locked you in this vault and left you here.”

And they left without any more trouble.


Hey everyone. This has been a lot of fun, and the feedback has been very gratifying. I’m probably going to stop here: chapter 5 is where I felt the quality began to reflect the rest of the story, and I’d have little to add to it. I might revisit this to provide more context for certain later events (Harry shopping for his wand, for example), but in the meantime I think these chapters do the job of smoothing out the introduction of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. If you somehow found yourself here while being unaware of that fanfic and want to read more, you can continue the story at hpmor.com

Chapter 3: Comparing Reality To Its Alternatives

“But then the question is – who?”


“Now remember Harry, you’re not under any obligation to be here.”

“I know, Mum.”

“If you want to come home, just give me a call and I’ll pick you right up.”

“Yes, Mum.” As if I’d turn back now.

Petunia Evans-Verres looked at Harry in the rear-view mirror of the car as if she could easily guess his thoughts, and seemed troubled by them. He’d spent the past few weeks in a mild frenzy, first interrogating her for what little direct experience she had about magic (“No Mum, tell me what you’ve seen, not what you’ve guessed or read about.”) then doing independent research, which had quickly proven fruitless. Any books on magic he found involved complicated rituals to bring about some minor, vague misfortune, or wishing yourself riches and happiness through “positive attraction,” or some other such unfalsifiable feel-good fluff. Nothing remotely close to lifting a man off the ground with a couple words and the wave of a stick, let alone turning into a cat, and no mention of a “Hogwarts” anywhere.

Clearly all the real magic was kept out of bookstores or libraries by some organized effort, a notion he found both troubling and thrilling. On the one hand, he was about to be part of a massive, worldwide conspiracy the likes of which he’d only read about in fiction. On the other hand, the reality of a group of people capable of secretly enforcing such a conspiracy was mildly terrifying. He wondered how omnipotent they really were, and whether non-magic authorities were involved in the cover up. Mrs. Figg absolutely refused to answer any questions about magic he had. Harry suspected McGonagall had warned her not to, but she insisted it was for “safety reasons.”

Finally, the day before yesterday, another message had arrived at their house. Professor McGonagall had supplied them with a time and an address where Harry could meet her to obtain his school supplies. So this morning Harry’s mum had driven him to London, uncharacteristically quiet and nervous. Harry assumed she was worried he would make a bad impression, but he was determined not to get into any trouble that might jeopardize his acceptance into the magical world. If the past few weeks had confirmed anything about his nature to himself, it was that he couldn’t stand being aware of a mystery and not having the means to solve it. Just imagining going on with his life without learning more about magic… any scientific field he went into would drive him mad as he considered the true nature of reality that he’d caught a glimpse of.

Once they arrived at the appropriate address, Harry’s mother parked beside a row of shops. Harry stepped out of the car and looked around, and his mother rolled down her window.

“Well,” Petunia said after a pause, looking up and down the sidewalk. “I don’t see Professor McGonagall… though we are a bit early. Where do you suppose the place is? ‘The Leaky Cauldron,’ wasn’t it?”

Harry turned in a slow circle, scanning the shops along the street. Nothing looked like a place that would sell magic wands, even as a joke. There was a fashionable clothing store, a hair boutique, an ice cream parlor, some fast food restaurants, a book shop (which he quickly jogged into, looked around a bit, then left), a pub – “There,” he said, and pointed to The Leaky Cauldron, a quaint brick building tucked between the book shop and a record store. “Maybe she’s already inside.”

“Hm?” Harry’s mother looked vaguely in the direction he’d pointed. “Did you say you saw her?”

Harry began to point again, then stopped and looked at his Mum, then back at the pub. She was looking right at it. “What do you see between that bookshop and the record store?”

“What do you mean, dear? In the alley?”

Alley? From Harry’s perspective, the walls of The Leaky Cauldron were pressed up against its neighbors. “You don’t see the pub right there?” he asked, pointing straight at it again.

“No,” Petunia said. “You mean to tell me there is one?”

Harry felt an electric thrill go up his spine, and simply couldn’t help himself. He approached a nearby couple as they walked by the car. “Excuse me, I’m afraid I brought the wrong prescription with me this morning and can’t quite make out the store signs. Could you read them to me please, from right to left?” He gestured.

The man gave him a curious look, but the woman began listing names. Harry watched her eyes as she named the bookshop, then the record store, without mentioning the Leaky Cauldron. It looked as though her gaze simply passed over where it was without registering it.

“Thank you.” He returned to his mother, shifting his weight from foot to foot with nervous energy as he stood beside the car and examined the pub. “It’s not just you. They couldn’t see it either.” Here it was. Proof, however subtle, that he wasn’t like other people. The now-familiar sense of disorientation came over him, and his mind raced with possibilities for how the cloaking worked. Harry wondered what would happen if he threw a rock out of the pub’s window. Would the glass suddenly become visible to the people on the street? It was all he could do to not rush to the pub and begin experimenting with his mother’s perception.

If wizard folk could do things like this, it was no wonder Harry couldn’t find any books about them. He wondered now if a massive conspiracy was really needed to hide records of the magical world. What if non-magic folk couldn’t even see the books? What else had he seen in his life without realizing no one else could? Maybe some other safety mechanism was in place, like he needed to know the name of the pub as well-

“Good morning, Mr. Potter.”

Harry spun around and beheld Professor McGonagall in all her witchy glory, seeming utterly unconcerned with the odd looks she was getting from passersby.

“Good morning, Professor,” Harry said. “Why can’t Mum see The Leaky Cauldron?”

“It’s enchanted against muggle notice.” The professor turned to his mother. “Good morning Mrs. Evans-Verres. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”

“Not at all, we’d just arrived.” Petunia looked back at Harry, still with that same nervousness she’d had all day. “Well, I’ll be back this evening to pick you up. Be good, Harry.”

She kissed him goodbye and drove away. He watched her go, then turned to Professor McGonagall. “What’s a ‘muggle?'”

Professor McGonagall’s lips twitched. “It’s good to see you again too, Mr. Potter. Muggles are what we call those without a drop of magic in them. Shall we?”

Harry followed her toward the pub. “Ok, so Dad’s a muggle, but Mum too? Her sister was a witch, doesn’t that mean she had some magic in her family?”

“Oh, no, if her parents were both muggles then she was a muggle too,” Professor McGonagall explained in her prim, scottish voice. “What you’re thinking of is what we call a ‘squib.’ Though children of a witch and wizard, they cannot do magic themselves, poor things, but they can perceive many magical things and use enchanted items.”

Harry was trying to filter this information through his understanding of genetics, but was distracted partway as they entered The Leaky Cauldron. Harry whipped his head around to see if anything of note happened as they did, but couldn’t detect any invisibility field descending on him, and no one in the street seemed to notice two people suddenly disappear.

The inside of the pub was a bit dark and shabby, with wooden tables scattered about the shadows and a grubby bar that dominated the far wall. About a dozen people were inside, most dressed in various colored robes.

“Good morning Professor McGonagall,” said the barman with a smile.

“Good morning Tom.”

“Is there anything I could get for – Good Lord.” He peered at Harry, gaze drawn to his forehead. “Is this… can this be…?”

Harry leaned towards the bar of the Leaky Cauldron as best he could, though it came up to somewhere around the tips of his eyebrows. A question like that deserved his very best.

“Am I – could I be – maybe – you never know – if I’m not – but then the question is – who?”

“Bless my soul,” whispered the old barman. “Harry Potter… what an honour.”

Harry blinked, then rallied. “Well, yes, you’re quite perceptive; most people don’t realise that so quickly-”

“That’s enough,” Professor McGonagall said. Her hand tightened on Harry’s shoulder and began to steer him toward the back door. “Don’t pester the boy, Tom, he’s new to all this.”

“But it is him?” quavered an old woman sitting at the bar. “It’s Harry Potter?” With a scraping sound, she got up from her chair.

“Doris -” McGonagall said warningly. The glare she gave the room was enough to stop most others from doing more than muttering amongst themselves and staring, some paused halfway out of their seats.

“I only want to shake his hand,” the woman whispered. She bent low and stuck out a soft, wrinkled palm, which Harry, feeling confused and more uncomfortable than he ever had in his life, carefully shook. Tears fell from the woman’s eyes onto their clasped hands. “My grandson was an Auror,” she whispered to him. “Died in seventy-nine. Thank you, Harry Potter. Thank heavens for you.”

“You’re welcome,” Harry said automatically, and then shot Professor McGonagall a frightened, pleading look.

Others began to approach them again, and Professor McGonagall slammed her foot down. It made a noise that gave Harry a new referent for the phrase “Crack of Doom”, and the other bar patrons once again froze in place just as the general rush was about to start.

“We’re in a hurry,” Professor McGonagall said in a calm voice.

They left the bar without any trouble.

“Professor?” Harry said, once they left. They were in a grassy courtyard surrounded on all sides by high brick walls. He had meant to ask what was going on, but oddly found himself asking an entirely different question instead. “Who was that pale man, by the corner? The man with the twitching eye, slumped in his seat?”

“Hm?” said Professor McGonagall, sounding a bit surprised; perhaps she hadn’t expected that question either. “That was Professor Quirinus Quirrell. He’ll be teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts this year at Hogwarts.”

“I had the strangest feeling that I knew him…” Harry rubbed his forehead. “And that I shouldn’t ought to shake his hand.” Like meeting someone who had been a friend, once, before something went drastically wrong… that wasn’t really it at all, but Harry couldn’t find words. “And what was… all of that?”

Professor McGonagall was giving him an odd glance. “Mr. Potter… do you know… how much have you been told, about how your parents died?”

Harry returned a steady look. “My parents are alive and well, thank you. They’ve told me that my genetic parents were killed in a car accident when I was one year old.”

“An admirable loyalty,” said Professor McGonagall. Her voice went low. “Though it hurts a little to hear you say it like that. Lily and James were friends of mine.”

Harry looked away, suddenly ashamed. “I’m sorry,” he said in a small voice. “But I have a Mum and Dad. And I know that I’d just make myself unhappy by comparing that reality to… something perfect that I built up in my imagination.”

“That is quite wise of you,” Professor McGonagall said quietly. “But your genetic parents died very well indeed, protecting you.”

Protecting me?

Something strange clutched at Harry’s heart. “So it… wasn’t a car crash? What did happen?”

Professor McGonagall sighed. Her wand tapped Harry’s forehead, and his vision blurred for a moment. “Something of a disguise,” she said, “so that this doesn’t happen again, not until you’re ready.” Then her wand flicked out again, and tapped three times on a brick wall…

…which hollowed into a hole that dilated and expanded and shivered into a huge archway, revealing a pedestrian street on the other side. A long row of shops advertising everything from actual cauldrons to “dragon liver” were clearly visible, and wizards and witches bustled about from store to store, some even trailing children dressed in small, brightly colored robes.

Harry didn’t blink. It wasn’t like anyone was turning into a cat.

“Welcome, Mr. Potter, to Diagon Alley.”

And they walked forwards, together, into the wizarding world.

Here, Harry was sure, was the true testament to the effectiveness of magical secrecy. A whole long, winding street of London City completely unknown by its inhabitants. Only powerful magic or political agreements of the highest order could keep airplanes or satellites from taking note of such a place. Here were merchants hawking Bounce Boots (“Made with real Flubber!”). There were goggles that would turn anything you looked at green, and a lineup of comfy armchairs with ejection seats for emergencies. Some of the buildings were merely a story or two high, while others had multiple floors and were oddly structured, as though relying on magic to keep them upright.

Harry’s head kept rotating like it was trying to wind itself off his neck. It was like walking through the magical items section of an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rulebook (he had no one to play the games with, but he did enjoy reading the rulebooks). Harry desperately didn’t want to miss a single item for sale, in case it was one of the three you needed to complete the cycle of infinite wish spells.

Then Harry spotted something that made him, entirely without thinking, veer off from the Deputy Headmistress and start heading straight into the shop, a front of blue bricks with bronze-metal trim. He was brought back to reality only at Professor McGonagall’s voice.

“Mr. Potter?” she said.

Harry blinked, then realised what he’d just done. “I’m sorry! I forgot for a moment that I was with you instead of my family.” Harry gestured at the shop window, which displayed fiery letters that shone piercingly bright and yet remote, spelling out Bigbam’s Brilliant Books. “When you walk past a bookshop you haven’t visited before, you have to go in and look around. That’s the family rule.”

“That is the most Ravenclaw thing I have ever heard.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Mr. Potter, our first step is to visit Gringotts, the bank of the wizarding world. Your genetic family vault is there, with the inheritance your genetic parents left you, and you’ll need money for school supplies.” She sighed. “And, I suppose, a certain amount of spending money for books could be excused as well. Though you might want to hold off for a time. Hogwarts has quite a large library on magical subjects. And the tower in which, I strongly suspect, you will be living, has a more broad-ranging library of its own. Any book you bought now would probably be a duplicate.”

Harry nodded, and they walked on.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great distraction,” Harry said as his head kept swivelling, “probably the best distraction anyone has ever tried on me, but don’t think I’ve forgotten about our pending discussion.”

Professor McGonagall was silent for a time. “Your parents – or your mother at any rate – may have been very wise not to tell you.”

“So you wish that I could continue in blissful ignorance? There is a certain flaw in that plan, Professor McGonagall.”

“I suppose it would be rather pointless,” the witch said tightly, “when anyone on the street could tell you the story. Very well.”

And she told him of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Dark Lord, Voldemort.

“Voldemort?” Harry whispered. It should have been funny, but it wasn’t. The name burned with a cold feeling, ruthlessness, diamond clarity, a hammer of pure titanium descending upon an anvil of yielding flesh. A chill swept over Harry even as he pronounced the word, and he resolved then and there to use safer terms like You-Know-Who.

The Dark Lord had raged upon wizarding Britain like a wilding wolf, tearing and rending at the fabric of their everyday lives. Other countries had wrung their hands but hesitated to intervene, whether out of apathetic selfishness or simple fear, for whichever was first among them to oppose the Dark Lord, their peace would be the next target of his terror.

(The bystander effect, thought Harry, thinking of the Latane and Darley experiment which had shown that you were more likely to get help if you had an epileptic fit in front of one person than in front of three. Diffusion of responsibility, everyone hoping that someone else would go first.)

The Death Eaters had followed in the Dark Lord’s wake and in his vanguard, carrion vultures to pick at wounds, or snakes to bite and weaken. The Death Eaters were not as terrible as the Dark Lord, but they were terrible, and they were many. And the Death Eaters wielded more than wands; there was wealth within those masked ranks, and political power, and secrets held in blackmail, to paralyse a society trying to protect itself.

An old and respected journalist, Yermy Wibble, called for increased taxes and conscription. He shouted that it was absurd for the many to cower in fear of the few. His skin, only his skin, had been found nailed to the newsroom wall that next morning, next to the skins of his wife and two daughters. Everyone wished for something more to be done, and no one dared take the lead to propose it. Whoever stood out the most became the next example.

Until the names of James and Lily Potter rose to the top of that list.

And those two might have died with their wands in their hands and not regretted their choices, for they were heroes; but they had an infant child, their son, Harry Potter.

Tears were coming into Harry’s eyes. He wiped them away in anger or maybe desperation. I didn’t know those people, not really, they aren’t my parents now, it would be pointless to feel so sad for them –

When Harry was done sobbing into the witch’s robes, he looked up, and felt a little bit better to see tears in Professor McGonagall’s eyes as well.

“So what happened?” Harry said, voice trembling.

“The Dark Lord came to Godric’s Hollow,” Professor McGonagall said in a whisper. “You should have been hidden, but you were betrayed. The Dark Lord killed James, and he killed Lily, and he came in the end to you, to your cot. He cast the Killing Curse at you, and that was where it ended. The Killing Curse is formed of pure hate, and strikes directly at the soul, severing it from the body. It cannot be blocked, and whomever it strikes, they die. But you survived. You are the only person ever to survive. The Killing Curse rebounded and struck the Dark Lord, leaving only the burnt hulk of his body and a scar upon your forehead. That was the end of the terror, and we were free. That, Harry Potter, is why you are often called ‘The Boy Who Lived,’ and why people want to see the scar on your forehead, and shake your hand.”

The storm of weeping that had washed through Harry had used up all his tears; he would not cry again.

(And somewhere in the back of his mind was a small, small note of confusion, a sense of something wrong about that story; and it should have been a part of Harry’s art to notice that tiny note, but he was distracted. For it is a sad rule that whenever you are most in need of your art as a rationalist, that is when you are most likely to forget it.)

Harry detached himself from Professor McGonagall’s side. “I’ll – have to think about this,” he said, trying to keep his voice under control. He stared at his shoes. “Um. You can go ahead and call them my parents, if you want, you don’t have to say ‘genetic parents’ or anything. I guess there’s no reason I can’t have two mothers and two fathers.”

There was no sound from Professor McGonagall.

And they walked together in silence, making their way through the streets of wizards, witches, and their children.

Chapter 2: Everything I Believe Is False

“Of course it was my fault. There’s no one else here who could be responsible for anything.”


Oddly enough, it might have been easier explaining to his dad that an owl had grabbed the letter after all.

“What? Mrs. Figg?” Professor Evans-Verres’s shock was spectacular. Harry empathized completely. He sat at the table between the living room and kitchen, somewhat in a daze.

“Did she say what time they would be coming?” Petunia asked. She checked the pot roast and ran her hands over her hair, as if expecting someone to ring the doorbell any minute.

“We’ve known Mrs. Figg for ten years,” Harry’s dad said. “She’s a perfectly reasonable woman, why on earth would she-”

“No Mum, she just said they’d be here in a ‘jiffy or two.’ I don’t know how far they’re coming, but it’s probably not going to be…” Harry trailed off as he realised that, given the hypothesis being tested, it might well be before the pot roast was done. He tried to remind himself that was silly, teleportation would break so many laws of physics there might as well not be any, but ever since he’d heard the word “Hogwarts” come out of Mrs. Figg’s mouth, his brain didn’t seem to be working properly. A part of his mind took note of his dad’s comment about knowing Mrs. Figg for ten years. Had she moved here the year Harry had been adopted? That seemed significant, if he could only wrestle his mind into considering how.

“Maybe she sent the letters,” Dad said. He began to to pace the limited floorspace of the living room, feet stepping around books with the unconscious ease of memory. “Or she’s part of the same cult your sister was in-”

“Well better set an extra place just in case.” Mum put a stack of plates in front of Harry, and he set the table for four, placing each fork and knife with an inordinate amount of attention. Dad’s theories made sense of course, more sense than his did, but his strange certainty continued to color all his thoughts as he set out the cups.

Dad suddenly gripped the back of the couch, face horrified. “We let her babysit you!”

A knock at the door froze them all in place.

Dad was the first to thaw. He straightened, squared his shoulders, and walked to the front door, dignity fully reinforced by his casual tweed homewear.

Mum wiped her hands on a towel and followed, and Harry rushed after them, wondering if it would be Mrs. Figg and knowing somehow that it wasn’t. Dad peered through the peephole and recoiled as if stung. Harry’s anticipation redoubled.

“Yes, who’s there?” Professor Evans-Verres’s voice did not tremble.

“Professor Minerva McGonagall,” said a formal, Scottish voice, and Michael twitched. Harry wondered why, until his dad opened the door.

Professor McGonagall was an older woman, perhaps in her sixties, with greying hair in a severe bun and square spectacles perched on her nose. She looked every inch the professor she claimed to be, but for two things: she wore a black robe of some rich fabric, and her hat was decidedly pointy.

Harry grinned. His father’s mental image of “professor” had just been severely abused.

“Come in, please,” Petunia said with a smile. “Supper’s almost ready, if you’re hungry.”

“I ate, thank you.” Professor McGonagall said, and walked inside. Harry and his parents stepped back to let her through.

“I’m Petunia Evans-Verres, so nice to meet you…” The two walked down the hall, leaving Harry and his dad by the door. Harry closed it, then exchanged a look with his father.

“What do you reckon?” he whispered. “Time to call the white coats?”

Dad snorted and clapped him on the shoulder with a grin. “Come on, let’s get this foolishness done with.” They followed the women into the living room.

“Got an experiment in mind?” Harry asked. He was still feeling off balance. That strange certainty was stronger now, as if this were all a formality, and he already accepted that the woman in their house was a witch, without quite being able to grasp what that would mean in a practical sense.

“I can’t imagine anything I would come up with that she wouldn’t make an excuse for,” his father said, still keeping his voice low. Harry nodded, and decided to be forthright with their guest, who stood expectantly in the living room. She eyed the multitude of books with what looked to be an admiring air, which Harry found reassuring.

“Good evening Professor McGonagall. As I’m sure you’re aware-” Harry stopped. He actually wasn’t sure what she was aware of. Had she received his letter? What had Mrs. Figg done, read it to her over the phone? Perhaps she had stopped next door to retrieve it before coming here… Harry stifled his questions and began again. “I’m Harry Potter-Evans-Verres. We were surprised by your letter, and have some doubts about its validity. Mum says she’s seen magic before, but neither Dad nor myself have. If you could demonstrate the quality of your magic to us, that would be a good first step.”

Professor McGonagall was watching Harry with an amused expression as he spoke. “Of course, I would be happy to.” She pulled a thin wooden stick out of her sleeve with practiced grace, and Harry blinked. He hadn’t seen the shape of it against the material, and it should have fallen out if it wasn’t held there somehow. “Is there something specific that would persuade you?”

Still preoccupied with her sleight of hand, it took Harry a second to realize she was holding a “magic wand,” and he said the first thing that popped into his head: “Can you shoot fire out of that?”

“Harry!” Mum said with some alarm, and Professor McGonagall’s lips twitched in a brief smile.

“I could, but I think that would be dangerous.” She glanced pointedly at their surroundings. “How about something less destructive?”

“Of course,” Harry said, cheeks red. “Er… did you fly here? I didn’t hear a car, and unless you live nearby I can’t imagine how else you got here so quickly. If you could just… hover a bit? That might help. Wait, on second thought, levitate Dad.”

Professor Evans-Verres gave Harry an approving nod, and stepped forward to face their guest with his arms crossed. Professor McGonagall lifted her wand, and Harry realized his mistake. “Wait!” he said. She lowered her wand, raising an eyebrow. “I want to make sure we do this right.” He thought about it for a second while everyone watched him.

“Now, just to be clear,” Harry said to his Dad. “If the professor does levitate you, when you know you haven’t been attached to any wires, that’s going to be sufficient evidence. You’re not going to turn around and say that it’s a magician’s trick. That wouldn’t be fair play. If you feel that way, you should say so now, and we can ask her to do something else instead.”

Dad nodded, smiling good-naturedly. “Agreed.”

“And you, Mum, your theory says that the professor should be able to do this, and if that doesn’t happen, you’ll admit you’re mistaken. Nothing about how magic doesn’t work when people are sceptical of it, or anything like that.”

Mum glanced at Professor McGonagall’s wand and nodded.

“Is that sufficient, Mr. Potter?” Professor McGonagall said. “Shall I go ahead and demonstrate?”

“Sufficient? Probably not, but it should do for now,” Harry said. Once he saw her methodology he could better decide how to isolate her actions and their relation to the result… assuming there was a result. Did he really expect his father to start floating? “Proceed, please.”

“Is there anything you’d like me to do?” Professor Evans-Verres said, still smiling. “Think light thoughts, perhaps?”

“No need, thank you,” Professor McGonagall replied, and then, “Wingardium Leviosa.”

Harry looked up at his father. “Huh.”

His father looked down at him. “Huh.”

There was a silent pause that Harry knew he would always remember… the moment when his world utterly changed. Everything was still, as if suspended in crystal: he and his mother, staring in shock, the witch holding her wand pointed up at his father, who hung a respectable three feet off the ground in complete defiance of gravity.

And then Professor Verres-Evans looked back at Professor McGonagall and said in a voice Harry had never heard him use, “All right, you can put me down now, thank you.” His father was lowered carefully to the ground, and the moment was ended. The universe continued on as it had before.

Harry ruffled a hand through his dark hair. Maybe it was just that strange part of him which had already been convinced, but… “That’s a bit of an anticlimax,” Harry said. “You’d think there’d be some kind of more dramatic mental event associated with updating on an observation of infinitesimal probability-” Harry stopped himself. Mum and the witch were looking at him oddly. Dad slowly sat down, not even bothering to move the book from the chair as he stared at the piece of wood in Professor McGonagall’s hand. “I mean, with finding out that everything I believe is false.”

Seriously, it should have been more dramatic. His brain ought to have been flushing its entire current stock of hypotheses about the universe, none of which allowed this to happen. But instead it just seemed to be going, All right, I saw the Hogwarts Professor wave her wand and make Dad rise into the air, now what?

The witch was smiling benevolently upon them, looking quite amused. “Would you like a further demonstration, Mr. Potter?”

“You don’t have to,” Harry said. “Though I should probably ask you to do it again just to ensure experimental reliability, we’ve performed a definitive experiment. That wasn’t some trick with mirrors, it wasn’t hypnotic suggestion, he actually lifted off the ground, we all saw it… but…” Harry hesitated. He couldn’t help himself. Actually, under the circumstances, he shouldn’t be helping himself. It was right and proper to be curious. “What else can you do?”

“Besides shoot fire, you mean?”

Dad looked as alarmed as Mum had a moment ago.

“Yes, besides that.” Though Harry actually would love to see it. He was starting to get excited. Would he really be able to fly? Conjure fire at will? How? Did he accelerate the atoms in the air until they combusted? Maybe I use my body heat to-

Professor McGonagall turned into a cat.

Harry scrambled back without thinking, backpedalling so fast that he tripped over a stray stack of books and landed hard on his bottom. His hands came down to catch himself too late, and there was a warning twinge in his shoulder as the weight came down unbraced.

At once the small tabby cat morphed back up into a robed woman. “I’m sorry, Mr. Potter,” said the witch, sounding sincere, though the corners of her lips were twitching upwards. “I should have warned you.”

Harry was breathing in short gasps. It felt like a dam had broken in his mind. His voice came out choked. “You can’t DO that!”

“It’s only a Transfiguration,” said Professor McGonagall. “An Animagus transformation, to be exact.”

“You turned into a cat! A SMALL cat! You violated Conservation of Energy! That’s not just an arbitrary rule, it’s implied by the form of the quantum Hamiltonian! Rejecting it destroys unitarity and then you get FTL signalling! And cats are COMPLICATED! A human mind can’t just visualise a whole cat’s anatomy and, and all the cat biochemistry, and what about the neurology? How can you go on thinking using a cat-sized brain?”

Professor McGonagall’s lips were twitching harder now. “Magic.”

“Magic isn’t enough to do that! You’d have to be a god!”

Professor McGonagall blinked. “That’s the first time I’ve ever been called that.

A blur was coming over Harry’s vision as his brain started to comprehend what had just occurred. Here was the shock he’d been expecting, all the stronger for its delay.

The whole idea of a unified universe with mathematically regular laws, that was what had been flushed down the toilet; the whole notion of physics. Three thousand years of resolving big complicated things into smaller pieces, discovering that the music of the planets was the same tune as a falling apple, finding that the true laws were perfectly universal and had no exceptions anywhere and took the form of simple maths governing the smallest parts, not to mention that the mind was the brain and the brain was made of neurons, a brain was what a person was

And then a woman turned into a cat, so much for all that.

Harry’s head hurt.

A hundred questions fought for priority over his lips, and the winner poured out: “And what kind of incantation is Wingardium Leviosa? Who invents the words to these spells, nursery schoolers?”

“That will do, Mr. Potter,” Professor McGonagall said crisply, though her eyes shone with suppressed amusement. “If you wish to learn about magic, I suggest that we finalise the paperwork so that you can go to Hogwarts.”

“Right,” Harry said in a daze. Paperwork. Some things never changed, it seemed, even in a world of magic. He pulled his thoughts together and stood up. The March of Reason would just have to start over, that was all; they still had the experimental method and that was the important thing.

“Are you alright darling?” Mum said, putting a hand on her husband’s shoulder.

Professor Evans-Verres did look rather pale. He patted her hand. “I – I think so dear, thank you.” He then brought her hand to his lips in a rare show of public affection. “And… I’m sorry.”

Petunia smiled and squeezed his hand. “That’s alright. I was just as doubtful with Lily, and I didn’t have half as many good reasons to be as you.”

Dad smiled at her, then looked at Harry. “I’m sorry to you too, son. You were right. ‘The final arbiter is observation,’ indeed. I don’t know if I can quite take all this in properly, but…”

Harry had choked up a bit, and now smiled back at his parents. “I had some help, or I would probably have been just as doubtful. Maybe it’s a wizard thing. I’ll explain another time.” He turned to Professor McGonagall, who he now remembered was also the Deputy Headmistress to Hogwarts. A real school for wizards and witches. He couldn’t begin to imagine what it would be like, with professors like this. “I’m ready. How do I get to Hogwarts?”

A brief laugh escaped Professor McGonagall, as if extracted from her by tweezers. “I won’t be whisking you away by magic, if that’s what you’re expecting. As the letter said, term starts September 1st. I will come again and explain how transportation will occur, as well as help you obtain your school supplies.”

“Hold on a moment, Harry,” his father said. “Remember why you haven’t been going to school up until now? What about your condition?”

Professor McGonagall turned to face Michael. “His condition? What’s this?”

“I don’t sleep right,” Harry said. He waved his hands helplessly. “My sleep cycle is twenty-six hours long. I always go to sleep two hours later, every day. 10PM, 12AM, 2AM, 4AM, until it goes around the clock. Even if I try to wake up early, it makes no difference and I’m a wreck that whole day. That’s why I haven’t been going to a normal school up until now.”

“One of the reasons,” said his mother. Harry winced. He didn’t want his potential future teacher and Deputy Headmistress to have a biased opinion of him.

Even if it might be a bit deserved? asked his inner self-critic.

It could be important for the teachers to know, commented his utilitarian side. Remember when our science project-

Shut up or they might not teach us magic! said his Id, and the other parts of Harry promptly fell into agreed silence.

McGonagall gave a long hmmmmm. “I can’t recall hearing about such a condition before…” she said slowly. “I’ll check with Madam Pomfrey to see if she knows any remedies.” Then her face brightened. “No, I’m sure this won’t be a problem – I’ll find a solution in time. Now,” and her gaze sharpened again, “what are these other reasons?”

Harry sent his parents a glare, then straightened his shoulders. “I,” he said with deliberate gravity, “am a conscientious objector to child conscription. On grounds that I should not have to suffer for a disintegrating school system’s failure to provide teachers or study materials of even minimally adequate quality.”

Both of Harry’s parents burst out laughing. “Oh,” said Harry’s father, eyes bright, “is that why you bit a maths teacher in third year?”

She didn’t know what a logarithm was!

“Of course,” seconded Mum. “And biting her was a very mature response.”

Dad nodded. “A well-considered policy to address the failings of a disintegrating school system.”

“I was seven years old! How long are you going to keep on bringing that up?”

“I know,” said his mother sympathetically. “You bite one maths teacher and they never let you forget it, do they?”

Harry turned to Professor McGonagall as his father chuckled. “Are you sure you can’t just whisk me away now?”

“Quite sure.” Professor McGonagall’s restrained smile threatened to burst into a grin at any moment. “And there is to be no biting of teachers at Hogwarts, is that quite clear, Mr. Potter?”

Harry scowled at her. “Fine, I won’t bite anyone who doesn’t bite me first.”

“Better not ask him to build a volcano either,” Dad suggested, and his mother began howling with laughter. “Not unless this school of yours is magically fireproof.”

Dad!” Harry yelled, cheeks burning.

“Well,” Professor McGonagall said. “I think, under the circumstances, that I should avoid taking you to purchase your study materials until a day or two before school begins.”

“What? Why? The other children already know magic, don’t they? I have to start catching up right away! I promise not to burn down the school!” It occurred to him exactly a second after saying it out loud that his having to say it was not particularly encouraging.

“Rest assured, Mr. Potter,” replied Professor McGonagall, “Everyone at Hogwarts will begin with the basics, and the school is quite capable of teaching its students without risk of self-destruction. On the other hand, I suspect that if I leave you alone for two months with your schoolbooks, even without a wand, I will return to this house only to find a crater billowing purple smoke, a depopulated city surrounding it and a plague of flaming zebras terrorising what remains of Oxford.”

Harry’s mother and father nodded in perfect unison.

Mum! Dad!

Chapter 1: A Day of Very Low Probability

Beneath the moonlight glints a tiny fragment of silver, a fraction of a line…

(black robes, falling)

…blood spills out in litres, and someone screams a word.


Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres was doing his best to ignore the yelling outside his cupboard.

It was an hour before supper, and he was lying in the cupboard under the stairs and reading a fantasy novel. Normally he enjoyed reading in companionable silence with his father in his study, or tuning out the sound of his mother’s soap operas in the living room, but when he wanted quiet that even his room couldn’t provide, he would go under the stairs. It was a private, cozy place, mostly insulated from the sounds of phone conversations, television, or outside traffic.

This particular night however, the walls were no match for the steadily rising voices of Michael and Petunia Evans-Verres, and soon Harry began to catch bits and pieces of the conversation.

…just rubbish… fourth time this week… a silly prank, Petunia-“

Harry adjusted his glasses and tried to concentrate on the book. The author was attempting to explain, through an old wizard’s limited grasp of biology and chemistry, how the dragons in his world breathed fire. Though Harry generally preferred science-fiction, he always enjoyed fantasy best when the writers at least tried to put some of the magic in rational, understandable terms: it fired up his imagination to think outside the box for what was possible, if not terribly probable.

-not a prank, I told you… have to show him, or they’ll keep… more and more of them…”

nonsense, there’s no need… worry about crackpots sending him letters!”

Unfortunately, now his imagination was preoccupied with what kinds of letters his dad was keeping from him. Harry closed his book, no longer able to concentrate as a familiar bitterness flared up in him.

It wasn’t that his parents mistreated him. Far from it: he’d been sent to the best primary schools, and when that proved insufficient was given the best tutors an endless pool of starving university students could provide. He’d always been encouraged to study whatever caught his attention, was bought all the books he wanted, was sponsored in whatever maths or science competitions he entered. He knew he was exceedingly lucky, and was always grateful for what his parents gave him… but he would have been satisfied with half as much if it meant he had their respect.

Of course if asked, his parents would say they respected him. An Oxford Professor of Biochemistry and his liberal wife were expected to show an enlightened view of child-rearing that included respect. But that respect meant something different than it would for a fellow adult, who they would never have dreamed of talking about as if he weren’t in the house, let alone making decisions for him.

It wasn’t their fault: society as a whole had such low expectations of children. And if it was ever going to change, it would be up to those like him to change it.

So Harry swung his legs out of the small hammock he’d strung to the walls, turned off the lantern his father had hung up for him, and opened the door into the hallway.

The voices immediately quieted. By the time he stepped into the living room his parents were sitting calmly on the couch, watching the news on a television that stuck out from its surroundings. The Evans-Verres living room was dominated by books. Every inch of wall space was covered by a bookcase going almost to the ceiling. Some bookshelves were stacked to the brim with hardback books: science, maths, history, and everything else. Other shelves had two layers of paperback science fiction, one set right side up, the other stacked sideways in what’s left of the space above. And it still wasn’t enough. Books were overflowing onto the tables and the sofas, covered the top of the television, and made little stacks under the windows.

“Hi Mum, Dad. Is everything alright?”

“Hello Harry.” His mother turned to him with a warm smile, face still young and pretty despite her age. “Yes, everything’s fine.”

“Did we disturb your reading son?” his father said, looking contrite. “We’re sorry, our debate got a bit passionate at the end there.” Michael chuckled.

Harry and his mother exchanged knowing smiles. Professor Evans-Verres viewed arguments as uncivilized, and so any he participated in were automatically elevated in status to “debate.” “It’s alright. I just couldn’t help but overhear,” Harry said with mild emphasis, “and it sounded like a letter arrived for me?”

He saw it in the quick glance they gave each other, his mother’s expectant, his father’s calculating. Harry knew his father was struggling with some mighty cognitive dissonance. One part of him felt guilt from withholding someone’s mail from them, a grievous breach of privacy. The other part felt entitled by societal norms that parents were allowed to decide for their children what information they should or shouldn’t have, no matter how bright and precocious those children might be.

“Yes,” Petunia said after the silence stretched on a few seconds. “It’s the first time I’ve seen it, or I would have told you sooner. Your father thinks it’s just prank mail, but he doesn’t understand-”

“Well no harm in having a look then, right?” Harry said, and held his hand out expectantly, brow raised in an expression of innocent patience. He wasn’t quite sure what he’d do if his father refused, trying to reason with him rarely worked on any topic that concerned Harry’s subordinate status…

After a moment though his father nodded and stood up, walking toward the trash and fishing an envelope and a couple sheets of paper from it. “Quite right Harry, no harm in looking. You’re a bright boy, and I know you won’t get suckered in by whatever crock they’re selling.”

Michael handed the letters and envelope to Harry, who had to choke back a retort to the patronizing tone his father had adopted now that he was giving in. Admitting one’s mistakes was for scientific journals, apparently: not for adults to do to children…

Harry chided himself on such bitter thoughts as he went to the table. He knew this was a sore spot for him, and it occasionally took a while for his temper to calm down. So he forced himself to smile back at his dad, then straightened the first thick, rich paper out and began to read, acutely aware of his parents’ stares.

Harry’s eyes scanned the letter in a few seconds, blinked, then looked up to meet theirs.

“What.”

Michael Evans-Verres smiled. “Yes, rather silly I th-”

Harry held his hand up, then looked back down at the parchment (that’s what you’d call material like this, Harry knew, simple “paper” didn’t suffice) and slowly reread the message.

Dear Mr. Potter,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.

Term begins on 1 September. We await your owl by no later than 31 July.

Yours sincerely,

Minerva McGonagall

Deputy Headmistress

On the second sheet he found a list that wouldn’t be out of place in a fantasy role-playing game rulebook.

“What is it, some kind of late summer camp?” Harry asked as he eyed the impressive seal heading the parchment: a lion, snake, raven and badger surrounding an ornate H. He smiled as he looked back at the name of the school. Heh. “Hogwarts.” What, was “Newteyes” taken?

“No, Harry,” his mother said. “It’s not a summer camp. As I was telling your father…” She took a deep breath, straightened in her seat, and avoided looking at her husband, gaze steady on Harry. “My sister… your mother, Lily… was a witch. She got that same letter. I’d promised to keep it secret, my whole family did, but now it’s clear you’re meant to know, if they’ve come for you like they did her.”

Harry exchanged a glance with his father, feeling a mix of exasperation and confusion. Mum rarely spoke of his biological parents. It wasn’t taboo or anything, it just never really came up. They’d died in a car crash when he was one year old, the same crash which had given him the lightning shaped scar on his forehead. To hear that they were Wiccan wasn’t terribly surprising considering some of Petunia’s beliefs, but the gravity of her tone didn’t match the subject matter.

“Well that’s, er, very interesting. I guess. But what does her religion have to do with me? Who’s ‘they?'” He didn’t particularly like the ominous sound of them “coming for him,” whoever they were. He imagined a shadowy coven meeting in a forest and pronouncing it time to bring the young Potter into the fold.

“It wasn’t a religion. I’m saying she was an actual witch. She could do magic. Her husband, your father, was a wizard. They both went to this magic school, Hogwarts, when they were eleven. And that you got that letter, it means you’re a wizard too, Harry.”

Michael Evans-Verres laughed, and Harry almost joined him. Petunia Evans-Verres had always been something of the odd-woman-out in their family. Some of the most “spirited debates” he could remember between his parents involved her superstitions, and he had a clear memory as a child of her waving a crystal of some kind in careful patterns over him when he was sick.

When he was younger he used to enjoy going with her to the smoky, mysterious shops she would occasionally frequent, with their pungent odors and exotic wares. Thankfully his father’s books had taught him how to critically examine the beliefs sold in such places, and a few years ago he had begun to find their air of obscure mysticism groundless and mildly irritating.

Harry smiled down at the parchment listing the “school supplies.” Wand, spell books, potion ingredients… he quickly scanned the latter. Nope, no “hog warts” listed, though newt eyes did indeed show up, as well as powdered hens’ teeth. He wondered how expensive that would be: he knew there was some research being done on atavism in chickens that resulted in them growing vestigial teeth, and that the mutation was rather rare. Aboriginal medicine men must have found plenty of uses for it, or imagined them at any rate. He wondered what Hogwarts pretended to use them for. Good dental hygiene?

And yet he didn’t laugh with his father. Because…

Because somewhere in him was a strange certainty that she was right, in this, the most unlikely of cases. You’re a wizard too, Harry.

“Well, maybe someday he’ll be a wizard at chess,” his father said, still smiling as he turned back to the news. “But if whoever keeps sending those letters shows up at the door in a robe and pointy hat, I’m calling the men in the white coats.”

Petunia continued to look only at Harry, her gaze intent, waiting.

“Mum,” he said. “What do you mean by ‘wizard?'”

Petunia bit her lip. “I can’t just tell you. You’ll think I’m-” She swallowed, and Harry felt confused. His mother had always defended her less rational beliefs with an exasperating calm, merely shrugging off logical arguments and relying on some inner conviction. This sudden nervousness, and the confusion he felt from it, made him pay attention. “Listen. I wasn’t – always like this -” She gestured at herself, as though to indicate her lithe form. “Lily did this. Because I… I begged her. For years, I begged her. Lily had always been prettier than me, and I’d… been mean to her, because of that, and then she got magic, can you imagine how I felt? And I begged her to use some of that magic on me so that I could be pretty too, even if I couldn’t have her magic, at least I could be pretty.”

Harry watched in alarm as tears gathered in Petunia’s eyes.

“And Lily would tell me no, and make up the most ridiculous excuses, like the world would end if she were nice to her sister, or a centaur told her not to – the most ridiculous things, and I hated her for it. And when I had just graduated from university, I was going out with this boy, Vernon Dursley, he was fat and he was the only boy who would talk to me. And he said he wanted children, and that his first son would be named Dudley. And I thought to myself, what kind of parent names their child Dudley Dursley? It was like I saw my whole future life stretching out in front of me, and I couldn’t stand it. And I wrote to my sister and told her that if she didn’t help me I’d rather just -”

Petunia stopped. Harry felt somewhat wretched for being responsible for her having to relate such an obviously painful memory. A glance at his father showed his dad similarly stricken. He’d never known that Mum had been through such a dark period, had been so envious of her sister… he wondered how much guilt she must have felt after his biological parents had died.

“Anyway,” Petunia said, her voice small, “she gave in. She warned me it was dangerous, and I said I didn’t care. I drank this potion and I was sick for weeks, but when I got better my skin cleared up and I finally filled out and… I was beautiful. People were nice to me,” her voice broke, “and after that I couldn’t hate my sister any more, especially when I learned what her magic brought her in the end -”

“Darling,” Michael said gently, “you got sick, you gained some weight while resting in bed, and your skin cleared up on its own. Or being sick made you change your diet-”

“No, it was nothing like that,” Petunia said. “It was magic, real magic. I saw it, other things-”

“Petunia,” Michael said. The annoyance was creeping back into his voice. “You know that can’t be true. Do I really have to explain why?”

Petunia wrung her hands. She seemed to be on the verge of tears. “My love, I know I can’t win arguments with you, but please, you have to trust me on this -”

Dad! Mum!

The two of them stopped and looked at Harry. He took a deep breath and thought about the problem. “Mum, your parents didn’t have magic, did they?”

“No,” Petunia said. “Just Lily.”

“Then your family also must not have believed her letter. How did they get convinced?”

“Ah…” Petunia said. “They didn’t just send a letter. They sent a professor from Hogwarts. He -” Petunia’s eyes flicked to Michael. “He showed us some magic.”

“Well there we are then. You don’t have to fight over this,” Harry said firmly. “If it’s true, we can just get a Hogwarts professor here and see the magic for ourselves, and Dad will admit that it’s true. And if not, then Mum will admit that it’s false. That’s what the experimental method is for, so that we don’t have to resolve things just by arguing.” Hoping against hope that this time, just this once, they would listen to him…

“Oh, come now, Harry,” Professor Evans-Verres said. “Really, magic? I thought you’d know better than to take this seriously, even if you’re only ten.”

I. Shall. SCREAM.

“Mum,” Harry said instead, keeping his voice calm. “If you want to win this argument with Dad, look in chapter two of the first book of the Feynman Lectures on Physics. There’s a quote there about how philosophers say a great deal about what science absolutely requires, and it’s all wrong, because the only rule in science is that the final arbiter is observation – that you just have to look at the world and report what you see. Um… off the top of my head I can’t think of where to find something about how it’s an ideal of science to settle things by experiment instead of arguments -”

His mother looked at him and smiled. “Thank you, Harry. But,” she looked back at her husband. “I don’t want to win an argument with your father. I want my husband to just… listen to his wife who loves him, and trust her just this once…”

Harry closed his eyes briefly. Hopeless. Both of his parents were hopeless.

Now they were getting into one of those arguments again, one where his mother tried to make her husband feel guilty, and his father tried to make his wife feel stupid.

“I’m going to go to my room,” Harry announced. His voice trembled a little. “Please try not to fight too much about this, Mum, Dad, we’ll know soon enough how it comes out, right?”

“Of course, Harry,” said his father, and his mother gave him a reassuring kiss, and then they went on “debating” while Harry climbed the stairs to his bedroom.

He shut the door behind him and tried to think, wandering past his own bookshelves crammed with textbooks and sci-fi to lie on his bed.

The funny thing was, he should have agreed with Dad. No one had ever seen any evidence of magic, and according to Mum, there was a whole magical world out there. How could anyone keep something like that a secret in a world of video cameras and spy satellites? More magic? That seemed like a rather suspicious sort of excuse.

Except that some part of Harry was utterly convinced that what his Mum said was true. He was magic… a wizard.

Was it simple ego? What child didn’t want to believe they possessed hidden, magic powers? He knew he had an inflated sense of self-importance as others judged it. He’d always vowed to one day justify it by proving himself unique. Of course, he’d figured it would be somewhere in the realm of science. He’d imagined becoming a world renowned biologist, curing cancer and extending lifespans indefinitely. Or going into physics to perfect cold fusion, ending the planet’s energy needs and propelling humanity to the stars. Reasonable things. Mostly. Not magic, at any rate.

Maybe his powers of reason had been impaired somehow. He frowned, probing his skull with his fingers as if some wound would present itself. He hadn’t hit his head on anything lately… not that he could remember in any case. Would he even remember? There was a scary thought. Harry quickly jumped through some mental hoops to confirm that yes, the least complicated answer that fit all the facts is most likely to be the true one, that all claims require evidence and that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, that two plus two still equaled four.

It should have been a clean case for Mum joking, lying or being insane, in ascending order of awfulness. If Mum had sent the letter herself, that would explain how it arrived at the letterbox without a stamp. A little insanity was far, far less improbable than the universe really working like the contents of that letter implied.

What about his mother’s other views? Was he any more susceptible to those? He considered her belief that atoms arranged in a particular pattern identified as a “crystal” could somehow destroy bacteria or viruses in his body when touched to his skin… specifically those bacteria or viruses deemed “harmful,” opposed to all the beneficial ones… Yes, that he could still rationally reject as a form of wish fulfillment without any evidence to back it up. If the person from Hogwarts came to their house and started bending spoons, he would toss the letter in the trash and think nothing further of it.

But that he was magical… that irrational belief still stayed. And he could think of no evidence to account for it: no moments in his life when he’d exhibited supernatural or unexplainable powers, no hidden talent manifesting in times of great peril or passion. But he still believed he was magic.

Harry rubbed his forehead, grimacing. Don’t believe everything you think, Harry reminded himself. So where do you come from, strange little prediction? Why do I believe what I believe?

Usually Harry was pretty good at answering that question, but in this particular case, he had no clue what his brain was thinking. He couldn’t remember having a belief so clearly based on faith since he was very young. Some people, unfamiliar with the scientific method or rationalism, seemed to think that science took faith, since no one did every experiment themselves, but rather relied on other scientists or textbooks to tell them what was true or not true.

The problem with this view was that no scientist had “faith” in textbooks, other scientists, or even the scientific method. They had confidence in them. Somewhere, someone was able to do the experiments, verified the results through repeated tests, and then subjected their findings to peer review so others could repeat the experiments. And if he wanted, Harry could take the time and effort to learn the information and repeat the experiment himself. Belief in science relied on the external, not the internal, and thus could be shown to others, taught and learned. He no more had faith in science than he had faith that Dad’s car would start tomorrow: he had confidence based on experimentation and observation.

This new belief, however, was not based on external factors. He couldn’t describe it to anyone in a way that would make sense. He couldn’t demonstrate the belief and have it peer reviewed. It just was.

Harry mentally shrugged. A button calls to be pushed, a handle yearns to be turned, and the thing to do with a testable hypothesis is to go and test it.

He went to his desk, shoved some of the books to the side, and took a piece of lined paper from a drawer to start writing.

Dear Minerva McGonagall

Harry paused, reflecting, then discarded the paper for another, tapping another millimetre of graphite from his mechanical pencil. This called for careful calligraphy.

Dear Deputy Headmistress Minerva McGonagall,

Or Whomsoever It May Concern:

I recently received your letter of acceptance to Hogwarts, addressed to Mr. H. Potter. You may not be aware that my genetic parents, James Potter and Lily Potter (formerly Lily Evans) are dead. I was adopted by Lily’s sister, Petunia Evans-Verres, and her husband, Michael Verres-Evans.

I am extremely interested in attending Hogwarts, conditional on such a place actually existing. Only my mother Petunia says she knows about magic, and she can’t use it herself. My father is highly skeptical. I myself am uncertain. I also don’t know where to obtain any of the books or equipment listed in your acceptance letter.

Mother mentioned that you sent a Hogwarts representative to Lily Potter (then Lily Evans) in order to demonstrate to her family that magic was real, and, I presume, help Lily obtain her school materials. If you could do this for my own family it would be extremely helpful.

Sincerely,

Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres.

Harry added their current address, then folded up the letter and put it in an envelope, which he addressed to Hogwarts. Further consideration led him to obtain a candle and drip wax onto the flap of the envelope, into which, using a penknife’s tip, he impressed the initials H.J.P.E.V. If he was going to descend into this madness, he was going to do it with style.

Then he opened his door and went back downstairs. His father was sitting in the living-room and reading a book of higher maths to show how smart he was, and his mother was in the kitchen preparing one of his father’s favourite meals to show how loving she was. It didn’t look like they were talking to one another at all. As scary as arguments could be, not arguing was somehow much worse.

“Mum,” Harry said into the unnerving silence, “I’m going to test the hypothesis. According to your theory, how do I send a letter to Hogwarts?”

His mother turned from the sink to look at him uncertainly. “I don’t know, I think you have to own a magic owl.”

That should’ve sounded highly suspicious, oh, so there’s no way to test your theory then, but the peculiar certainty in Harry seemed willing to stick its neck out even further.

“Well, the letter got here somehow,” Harry said, “so I’ll just wave it around outside and call ‘letter for Hogwarts!’ and see if an owl picks it up. Dad, do you want to come and watch?”

His father shook his head minutely and kept on reading. Of course, Harry thought to himself. Magic was a disgraceful thing that only stupid people believed in; if his father went so far as to test the hypothesis, or even watch it being tested, that would feel like associating himself with that…

Only as Harry stumped out the back door into the garden did it occur to him that if an owl did come down and snatch the letter, he was going to have some trouble telling Dad about it.

But – well – that can’t really happen, can it? No matter what my brain seems to believe. If an owl really comes down and grabs this envelope, I’m going to have worries a lot more important than what Dad thinks.

Harry took a deep breath, and raised the envelope into the air.

He swallowed.

Calling out Letter for Hogwarts! while holding an envelope high in the air in the middle of your own back garden was… actually pretty embarrassing, now that he thought about it.

No. I’m better than this. I will use the scientific method even if the result makes me feel stupid.

“Letter-” Harry said, but it actually came out as more of a whispered croak.

Harry steeled his will, and shouted into the empty sky, “Letter for Hogwarts! Can I get an owl?

“Harry?” asked a bemused woman’s voice from nearby.

Harry yanked down his hand as if it had caught fire, hiding the envelope behind his back like it was drug money. His whole face was hot with shame.

An old woman’s face peered out from above the neighbouring fence, grizzled grey hair escaping from her hairnet. Mrs. Figg, the occasional babysitter. “What are you doing, Harry?”

“Nothing,” Harry said in a strangled voice. “Hi Mrs. Figg. I’m just… testing a really silly theory-”

“Did you get your acceptance letter from Hogwarts?”

Harry froze.

“Yes,” Harry’s lips said a little while later. “I got a letter from Hogwarts. They say they want my owl by the 31st of July, but-”

“But you don’t have an owl. Poor dear! I can’t imagine what someone must have been thinking, sending you just the standard letter.”

A wrinkled arm stretched out over the fence, and opened an expectant hand. Hardly thinking himself at this point, Harry gave over his envelope.

“Just leave it to me, dear,” said Mrs. Figg, “and in a jiffy or two I’ll have someone over.”

And her face disappeared from over the fence.

There was a long silence in the garden.

Then a boy’s voice said, calmly and quietly, “What.”

Chapter 32: Decisions

The room is claustrophobic with so many people in it, and Red stands as far into the corner as he can, trying to be innocuous. His foot bounces with the nervous energy filling his gut, but he makes sure to be quiet as he rocks from toe to heel, not wanting to draw attention that might remind someone to remove him.

Technically he has no reason to be here: he doesn’t work at the dig site like Ryback or the site leader, Dr. Zapata. He isn’t an ACE on security like Paul, and unlike Leaf and Blue he had no interaction with Yuuta, so Ranger Sasaki has nothing to ask him. But despite being exhausted enough to sleep for hours, as long as no one seems to mind his presence, he has no intention of missing something this important.

Ranger Sasaki arrived and spoke with Blue then Leaf privately to record their statements, then noticed that they were starting to draw a crowd and asked the Barrier to be removed so they could bring Yuuta inside. Yuuta didn’t wake up until they began to move him, and has been sitting in sullen silence since his interrogation started. Though perhaps “interrogation” is too strong a word so far…

“…three years, after which you spent a couple months travelling through Johto. A brief bit of surveying work for Silph, a conference in Sinnoh, two research projects back to back…”

Yuuta sits bound to a chair by the ankles and wrists with his back against a wall. Ranger Sasaki stands in front of him as she reads from her phone, while everyone else stands in a half circle around him, Paul with his back to the door.

“…some more survey work for a private dig, and then you drop off the radar for about two years before another two surveys and then applying to this site.” Ranger Sasaki scrolls through the document with her thumb, then tucks her phone away and takes out a notepad and pen. “That’s your CV right? Did I miss anything major?”

“No. That’s all right.” Yuuta’s voice is low, gaze on the floor. It’s the first time he’s spoken since waking, and everyone but Ranger Sasaki reacts in some way, shifting or blinking in surprise.

“What’s with the gaps?” Sasaki asks. “Anything you want to clarify for the record, before we do some deeper digging? Maybe point us in the right direction, save everyone some time?”

Yuuta is quiet a moment, then lets his breath out through his nose. “Travelled. Alone.”

“Mhm. Didn’t happen to use any electronic forms of payment during that time, did you?”

“I did, actually. Sometimes. Cash while abroad, but passed through Kanto now and then.”

“Not very helpful.”

“Well I’m sorry ma’am, I guess you’ll have to do your own damn job. Now I’m done talking until I can see my attorney.”

Everyone shifts at the sudden anger in his voice, and Paul snorts. “Renegade asking for a lawyer, that’s rich.”

Yuuta’s head snaps up. “What’d you just call me?”

Ranger Sasaki gestures to Leaf and Blue. “These two say you used pokemon to attack them.”

“What?! He attacked me!” Yuuta jerks his head at Blue.

“No I didn’t, my squirtle attacked your abra!”

“And my sandslash attacked your squirtle, so what’s this Renegade shit?”

Ranger Sasaki holds up a quieting hand before Blue can respond. Red wipes a drop of sweat from his neck as he studies Yuuta’s face. The geologist’s outrage seems genuine, with just the right hint of fear in his voice and eyes. Red never met a Renegade before, and has no idea if they’re all such good actors. Of course if he assumes from the beginning that Yuuta’s a Renegade, then any emotion he shows in denying guilt would seem like good acting, even if genuine…

Blue’s question outside still echoes in Red’s head: Whose side are you on, anyway? Red didn’t mean to imply with his comments that Yuuta wasn’t a Renegade. He was just reacting automatically to potential bias or irrationality. Blue has accused him in the past of getting too much enjoyment out of being a devil’s advocate to infuriating extremes, but Red never means to do it maliciously. Something in him just naturally pushes back at things that look too sure or damning.

What do I know, and why do I think I know it? Red can’t help but wonder if the whole thing really was a big misunderstanding, but… he trusts Blue and Leaf not to embellish or exaggerate. Not consciously, anyway. And if Yuuta is a Renegade, getting them to second guess Blue and Leaf is his only chance.

“What did his squirtle attack your abra with?” Ranger Sasaki asks.

Yuuta shifts in his seat. “Water Gun.”

“And your sandslash attacked with what?”

“Scratch.”

Blue and Leaf mix angry denials until the Ranger quiets them again, and Red suddenly wonders why they’re here at all. The whole situation is different than in TV shows (less shouting and dramatic reveals of evidence by the Ranger) but he knows from watching them that suspected Renegades aren’t left alone with anyone while in custody. Still, having Blue and Leaf here just makes it harder to get a clear story from Yuuta, who’s showing more… normalcy, humanity, than the Renegades on the shows.

“They misheard me, that’s all!” Yuuta says. “It was a tense situation, and I was panicked at suddenly having to defend myself without warning!”

“You mean while you were trying to teleport away with a bag full of our fossils?” Dr. Zapata asks. “They may not have known if you had permission at the time, but you knew exactly what you were doing.”

Yuuta suddenly pauses, then leans his head back, face blank again. “I want a lawyer, I said.”

“So you’re not denying that you were attempting to steal the fossils?”

Yuuta remains silent, and Red thinks he won’t answer any more. If it’s one thing Red learned from the shows it’s that crime suspects speaking without an attorney is just a terrible idea in almost every circumstance, so he doesn’t blame the man for being cautious, even if his silence is as good as an admission of guilt.

But he won’t get an attorney if a Ranger and some witnesses agree that he used pokemon to attack someone. Was it two or three? Certainly less than the amount of people in this room. A chill suddenly creeps up Red’s spine as it hits home that he’s likely looking at a dead man. If Yuuta can’t convince the people here that he’s not a Renegade, he wouldn’t see another sunrise.

“No,” the geologist says at last, voice low. “I tried to steal them.”

“No shit,” Blue mutters.

“How could you, Yuuta?” Dr. Zapata asks. “Bad enough that we all worked so hard for them, were they really worth killing for?”

Red expects defiance when Yuuta raises his gaze, but with a shock he sees a pained expression. “You have every right to hate me, Lourdes. I won’t try to excuse it. I put myself first, like I have my whole life. I’m not a good person… but I’m no Renegade!” he says, turning to Blue and Leaf, then Ranger Sasaki. “You have to believe me!”

“The graveler that came through that building and self-destructed,” Leaf says. “You ordered it to.”

“I didn’t know you were there, I swear! If I wanted to kill you, why didn’t I just do it while you were taking care of your friend?”

Leaf hesitates, and the room is silent for a time, broken only by the sound of Yuuta’s shallow, rapid breathing. The geologist has a point, but no one’s brought up what Red thinks is the most important argument. He swallows against the dryness of his throat and wonders if he should say something. Fear radiates off of Yuuta, and Red finds it hard to speak the words that might sentence the man to death. He looks at Ryback, and the man catches his gaze and nods.

“Forget the graveler,” Ryback says. “Your job on site was partially to monitor for seismic activity. You didn’t warn anyone that the paras colony was coming. You must have detected them, known this was your chance.”

“No, I wasn’t with the equipment! I just saw an opportunity and took it.” Yuuta turns to the Ranger. “Look, get a psychic up here and they can prove I’m innocent. I’ll sign whatever waivers they want!”

“I’m sorry, but there’s no way to guarantee that you haven’t trained to fool a psychic. This situation has too many marks of foresight and planning. Even if you didn’t directly use a pokemon to attack a human, you endangered lives by trying to exploit a pokemon attack.”

“And the pokemon you used were exactly what you needed to make it look natural,” Blue says.

“That’s a coincidence, we’ve been here a year. Of course I have natives of the mountain!”

“What about your abra?” Leaf asks. “You had it ready to teleport you out.”

Yuuta scowls. “Any trainer with a brain has a pokemon ready to teleport them in emergencies. You’re just looking for reasons to condemn me, the lot of you! You’ve already made up your minds!”

There’s another uncomfortable silence. Despite Yuuta’s accusation, no one seems eager to brand someone a Renegade on circumstantial evidence, and even Paul appears to be wavering.

“There’s an easy way to verify that,” Red says, causing everyone to turn to him. He steps away from the wall to stand beside Blue and Leaf. “Tell us where your abra teleported to. If you’re telling the truth and your abra was for emergency escapes, then it should have been trained with a pokemon center as its home, or a hospital. You’re not psychic, right? You can’t project a new destination on the spot.”

Yuuta stares at him, jaw tight. Red forces himself to meet the man’s gaze, trying to read some insight or depth in them. But Yuuta only looks angry and scared.

“No unaccompanied abra have been reported,” Ranger Sasaki says. “If we’re looking in the wrong places, tell us now.”

Yuuta’s throat works for a moment, then he looks down and mutters, “I’m not saying anything else without a lawyer. You can’t charge me as a Renegade just because I was caught stealing.”

“And if that’s all it was, you’d be right,” Sasaki says. “But even putting aside the reckless endangerment by use of pokemon, even putting aside the testimony of these two, your attempted thievery relied on the endangerment of others.” Her tone is flat, and she looks from one adult to the next, each nodding. She also look at Red, who nods reflexively. “You were in the presence of a Tier 1 Emergency, and instead of helping your fellow man, you exploited the situation for your own benefit, and endangered the lives of others with your graveler.  For that, I brand you a Renegade.”

“No, please-”

“Dawson, Mary, and Tetsu died today, Yuuta,” Dr. Zapata says, expression hard. “They died fighting to protect everyone on this site, on this mountain. To protect you. And what were you doing? Trying to steal from them, from all of us. Witnessed.”

“I… I didn’t…”

“Witnessed,” Paul says, voice flat.

“Witnessed,” Ryback mutters, gaze down.

Yuuta looks around the room, face drained of color by the time he reaches the trio. “Kids… please, tell them… I could have killed you, if I wanted, I mean I was just… I’m s-sorry…”

Blue stares at him in undisguised contempt, while Leaf looks sick and angry, eyes down. Red feels his stomach roll when Yuuta turns to him again, and forces himself not to step back to the wall. He wasn’t there, he can’t say anything that would help the man. Didn’t stop me from helping condemn him.

Then Red realizes that’s exactly what the room is waiting for. He remembers now, it’s the Ranger plus four witnesses, and Blue and Leaf can’t, they were directly involved. His presence wasn’t an oversight at all: he’s expected to pass judgement. That’s why the Ranger looked at him.

Cold sweat breaks out all over his skin, and he takes a deep breath to calm himself. He needs time, he needs to think about all the evidence and angles-

“Red,” Ryback says. “Do you need a minute?”

Everyone’s looking at him now, Blue and Leaf are looking at him, and he knows what he has to say, he just doesn’t want to say it, doesn’t want to be the person to decide. Going first or last has too much resistance, they should have couched him in the middle of the witnesses if they were trying to get him to feel less pressure, to conform, but of course they’re not doing anything so deliberate. They just expected him to do his duty as a trainer: to listen, decide, and witness.

“Please… please, don’t…”

“I witness,” Red whispers, and clears his throat. “With all the evidence as it is, I witness the Ranger’s branding,” he says, louder.

“No… nooo…”

Yuuta shakes his head as he moans, face screwed up in horror and grief. “Branded and witnessed,” Ranger Sasaki says. She opens her mouth again, then pauses and looks at the trio before turning to Paul. “If you wouldn’t mind staying a moment?” He nods and opens the door. Everyone else files out of the room, and Red, Leaf and Blue follow as Yuuta begins to sob.

Ranger Sasaki leads them outside, into the sunlight. Red feels it dry his sweat almost instantly, and shivers at the sudden temperature change.

“Thank you all for your help,” Sasaki says, gaze on the trio in particular. “Encountering and passing judgement on a Renegade are difficult things to do at any age, and I’m sorry you all had to go through it. You comported yourselves well, and are dismissed. I have your contact information for the paperwork, and if there are further questions,” she says, addressing Ryback and Dr. Zapata too.

“Thank you, Ranger,” Dr. Zapata says, face a mask. As Sasaki returns to the building, Dr. Zapata turns to the trio too. “And thank you. I know I speak for everyone on site when I say that you’ve saved today from being full of any more heartache. After the friends we’ve already lost, the theft would have been a crippling blow to our spirit.”

“We did as anyone would,” Leaf says, and Blue nods. Red stays silent, unsure if she’s including him and still preoccupied with the fate of the man he sentenced to death.

Dr. Zapata turns to Ryback. “Thank you, Jon. Would you mind escorting these three to a center or outpost?”

“Of course, Doctor, I was just going to suggest the same.”

She grips his arm, then walks toward the distant figures of the other site workers.

“We can make it ourselves,” Blue says once she’s gone. “You don’t need to coddle us.”

Ryback raises a brow. “How many healthy, rested pokemon do you all have among you?”

The trio pauses to count, and Leaf raises three fingers.

Blue nods. “I’ve got three.”

“Two.” And one of them’s a caterpie. Red reminds himself to let Charmander out to rest soon.

“Well this whole half of the mountain range is like a kicked beedrill’s nest right now, and frankly I don’t like your odds of making it on your own. Partly because you’re still newer trainers, and partly because I know at least one of you must be exhausted.” Red considers denying it as the other two look at him, but fights down the urge. “Alternatively you all could rest here for the night. By tomorrow the Rangers should have calmed things down a bit.”

“Is there room for us?” Leaf asks.

“Normally no, but…”

Red nods. They’d lost some people. It only takes a few seconds of thought to recognize they’d be stupid not to take him up on his help. “Well, if you can be spared around here, I wouldn’t mind the escort.”

“I’m okay with it too,” Leaf says.

Blue looks at them, then shrugs. “Sure. Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me, you all did a lot here. It’s the least we can do to pay you back. Give me an hour to finish some things up, and I’ll meet you on the east side of the dig.”

They agree and watch as he walks off, circling around the warzone of dead pokemon that blights a third of the dig site. The three stand together in silence and watch the various people moving about. Red wonders when Yuuta will be executed, and how. The day feels like it has gone on forever, probably because he feels so drastically different now than when he woke up this morning. There’s a surreal sense of distance as he feels unconnected from his painful thoughts of guilt and uncertainty, but also a feeling of connection with the world around him, all his senses turned up as he breathes deep and feels again the same bittersweet gladness to be alive from just after the battle.

Blue turns to Red and Leaf, a thoughtful, distant expression on his face. Just as Red’s about to ask his friend if he feels the same way, Blue says, “So, anyone hungry?”

Red snorts, then giggles, then sits down in the dirt, laughing until he clutches his stomach. Blue gives him a startled look, then tries to exchange concerned glances with Leaf, who merely gives a sad smile.

“Uh. You okay, man?”

Red makes an effort to control himself, speaking through giggles. “Yes… yes, I am hungry. And tired. And maybe slightly delirious because of it.”

“Well, we’ve got time for a snack and nap.”

“A snackap,” Leaf says in an experimental tone. “Napack? A snap.”

Red shakes his head. He knows his friends aren’t ready to talk about what just happened yet either, and is grateful for the excuse to put it off. “No, you guys go ahead.” He pushes himself to his feet. “There’s something I want to do before we leave.”

“What is it?”

Red hesitates. Would he rather be alone? He’s never done a burial before, isn’t even sure why he wants to, other than a feeling of obligation. “My rattata got killed. I want to bury her.”

Leaf’s hands cover her mouth. “Oh, Red, I’m sorry. How?”

“One of the paras that looked dead… she walked by it and it pierced her heart before I could withdraw her. Spearow also didn’t make it.”

“Damn, your Flying type too?” Blue demands. “Against paras? What happened?”

Red flushes. “There were hundreds of them, what do you think happened? Some stun spores knocked him to the ground and they tore him to shreds! Sorry not everyone can be as good as you!”

“Hey, I didn’t say that!”

“You implied it!”

“The hell I did, I was just asking a question! I’ve lost pokemon too you know!”

Leaf steps between them, a palm on each of their chests. “Woah, guys, calm down! We’ve all had a stressful day! Deep breaths!”

Red tries to continue meeting Blue’s glare, but it’s hard to be menacing when you’re constantly shifting your head around a pleasant white sunhat. He finally does as she says, letting his breath out in a hot gust as he steps back. “Sorry. I don’t know where that came from.”

Blue scratches the back of his neck. “Yeah, well. That sucks about your pokemon. Sorry.”

“Yeah. You guys get something to eat, I’m going to the edge of the dig site. I’ll be back soon.”

“Screw that, we’re coming with you,” Leaf says with a resolute expression that quickly shifts to apprehensive. “Unless you’d rather do it alone?”

Red shrugs. “I don’t mind the company.” Maybe he’s not the only one that needs to go through some motions right now. He worries he should be feeling more, enough to cry or scream or something, but he doesn’t feel enough to do anything like that, and this at least is something constructive he can do. “Thanks.”


The trio walks away from the dig site until they’re surrounded by grass and trees, on high alert for any wild pokemon that might still be in the area. Red takes a handheld shovel out of a Container of tools in his bag and shoves the blade through the thick grass with his foot. After it’s up the dirt beneath it is easier to scoop, and once his arms can no longer manipulate the shovel in and out without widening the hole he hands it to Blue.

Red unclips the pokeball, then braces himself physically and emotionally. “Go, Rattata,” he mutters.

The pokeball kicks and disgorges his pokemon, blood still pooling out of her chest and into the grass. Leaf tilts her head up, eyes closed, and as Blue lowers Rattata into the hole she begins to recite:

In life you were a stranger first
A danger tamed and taught
But as life endangers man and mon
As one we trained and fought

In life you were my guardian
I called you and you came
We rose to any challenges
Our fates became the same

In life you were my dearest friend
I’d teach you and you’d teach me
To fill our days with laughs and love
Our nights warm and danger free

In life you gave me everything
A debt I can’t repay
The road goes on for me alone
Now rest, your duty’s done.

Her voice is soft and sure, but for a slight hitch at the end that makes Red’s chest ache. The last line takes him by surprise: he’s used to it being In death your battle’s done. He wonders if it’s a regional difference, or her own alteration. Blue finishes filling the hole, then places the grassy plot back onto it, mostly undisturbed.

“She was such a little thing,” Red says searching for the words as he spoke. “But she fought without hesitation, always. She did her best to keep me safe, and she succeeded. It’s only been a month and a half since we started our journey, but she was with us from day one, from the first danger we all faced as a team. She’s not the first pokemon we lost,” he says, nodding to Blue. “And not the only one we lost today. But she’s the first we caught together. And I’m glad we’re all together to say goodbye.”

Red waits for more words to come, thoughts popping in and out of his mind, spinning through it untethered until they fade. The silence stretches out, too long, so he just nods and whispers “Thank you” to the small grave before turning away, cheeks red.

Too late he realizes he prohibited any potential last words the other two might have wanted to speak, but they follow him without hesitation, so he supposes they didn’t plan on saying anything.

“Thanks guys,” Red says to Blue and Leaf as they make their way back to the dig site.

“No prob.” Blue has the shovel braced between his arms and shoulders, gaze down. Leaf nods, sniffing a bit. Red waits for some crushing emotion to wash over him, but he feels… okay. A bit sad, a bit bitter at the unfairness of it all, but mostly he just feels hungry and tired.

Red isn’t even sure why he feels like he should be more upset. Is he worried there’s something wrong with him? That maybe his metric for grief was broken after his dad, just because he isn’t falling to pieces over his lost rattata?

It’s possible that the psychic block Narud mentioned is affecting his emotions, but the simpler explanation is that his rattata just didn’t matter that much to him. It feels horrible to admit, but he can’t ignore his feelings, or lack of them. He’s sad that Rattata died, and feels it as more of a constant than the sadness of the people that died today, but if he focuses on them, he feels it more acutely.

And they’re people he hasn’t even met. Leaf, who he’s known for about as long as he had his rattata, feels exponentially more important to him. Hell, he even feels more for the Renegade, though that’s a more confused jumble of emotions. Still, sadness for his death, the senseless waste of it, is one of them. It seems his prediction at the restaurant their first night together holds true so far. Sad as he is at the loss of his pokemon, they still just don’t “matter” to him in the same way people do.

Maybe that makes him a horrible person, but Red decides to try and table that worry for now, if he can. It’s not particularly productive, and there are more pressing issues at hand.

“I’m going to let my pokemon out to get some rest and heal them up a bit before we leave,” Red says as they walk. “The last thing I want to face today is another fight, but it’s better to be prepared. You guys want to have a bite meanwhile?”

“Sure,” Leaf says. “Let’s do it at the east side so we’re ready for Ryback.” They pass site personnel, ACE, and other trainers that are still recovering from the battle and helping clean up the dig site. Red wonders if they should help, but no one seems to expect it of them, and he’s too tired and distracted to do more than appreciate being able to sit it out.

They reach the eastern edge of the site and find the road continuing on across the mountain. Red takes his shovel from Blue and returns it to its Container, then they release some unhurt pokemon and sit to eat trail mix, jerky, fruits and veggies.

“Weird day, huh?” Blue asks with a full mouth as he tosses carrot chips to Maturin and Zephyr.

“Yeah.” Red rubs his sleeping charmander’s head with one hand as the other holds some jerky. “Mom and your grandpa are going to freak when they find out.”

“Think you should tell them before the news does?” Leaf asks as her ledyba crawls up her back and onto her hat. “I don’t have that problem at least. Or, I don’t think I do. Maybe my mom started watching Kanto news too. Hm.”

Red and Blue look at each other. “Eh,” Blue says with a shrug. “The news is fast, but it’s not that fast.”

Red smiles. “I’ll probably call my mom tonight anyway, so might as well tell her then. She-”

Leaf’s phone chirps a tune just then, and they all wait in trepidation as she takes it out and looks at the screen.

“Oh.” She relaxes. “It’s just an email… from the Pewter mayor?” Leaf scans the screen. “He’ll be giving a speech at a graduation ceremony tomorrow, and said to tune in for mention of ‘a certain article.'” She raises wide eyes to them. “I thought he forgot.”

“That’s great,” Red says. “He’ll give it a huge boost.”

“Yeah…” Leaf puts her phone away, gaze distant.

“What’s the matter?”

“Mayor Kitto struck me as an acutely political person. I left his office feeling… not manipulated so much as handled. I’m happy for the extra attention, I just can’t help but wonder what his goal is.”

“Ulterior motives don’t necessarily have to be negative. Why not ask him?”

Leaf smiles. “Even if he’s honest, I wouldn’t trust him to give a full answer.”

“He’s just plugging your article,” Blue says. “Mutual back scratching, a politician’s bread and butter. What could he possibly be doing that’s so bad?”

“Well, he could be directing funds toward friends on the museum board, or putting himself in more of a position to decide future direction for the museum,” Leaf says. “Just because he happens to be on the right side of the latest topic doesn’t mean he’ll always be. Qualified people need to guide its choices, not leaders or mayors.”

“Until we live in a technocracy, that’s probably wishful thinking in any case,” Red says. “What’s your alternative? Tell him not to mention the article?”

Leaf shakes her head. “No, I just don’t want to be used or drawn into a political fight that will force me onto the side of a stranger. Kitto seems like a nice guy, but if he’s in some scandal a couple years from now, anyone that’s seen as close to him could be affected by it. Plus, if I really want to do serious journalism someday, getting used to relationships like that could be compromising.”

“Or useful,” Blue says. “Gramps has a half-dozen friends in the press that he uses for different reasons when he needs to get the word out on something.”

“Ask my mom what she thinks,” Red suggests.

Leaf nods and begins navigating on her phone. “I think I will.”

“Wait, hang on,” Blue says. “Did he say he’s going to mention it tomorrow?”

“Yeah?”

Blue rubs his chin. “You might want to get him to postpone that.”

“What? Why?”

“Have you considered the optics on all this? We just single-handedly… double-handedly? The two of us just helped catch a Renegade as he tried to steal a fortune’s worth of fossils. We might hit regional news. Even if it’s just local, we’re gonna get a huge spike in followers.”

Leaf nods, face thoughtful. “I’m going to get another smaller spike from the mayor’s mention, but if the Renegade story hits first… suddenly I’m not just some tourist when he mentions me.”

“Exactly. The timing couldn’t be better if you planned it.”

“Maybe someone did,” Red says. “These mountains are owned by Viridian, Celadon and Pewter, and a lot of the workers here are from Pewter. Word could have spread by now: maybe the mayor already knows.”

Leaf frowns. “He must have written his speech before today though. I guess it’s not hard to slip this mention in, but only if it’s topical, and in that case why wouldn’t he have originally planned to include it?”

“Maybe he was waiting for you to do something noteworthy.”

Blue shrugs. “No way of knowing until we know what his speech is about. Either way, if he mentions it before all this hits the news it won’t be nearly as big an impact.”

“Why not preempt that, then?” Red asks. “Just tell the mayor what happened, so he can mention it even if it hasn’t made news yet.”

Leaf tugs at her lower lip. “I guess so,” she says slowly. “But that seems a bit too much like self-promoting, doesn’t it?”

“No way, it’s getting ahead of the story,” Blue says. “Just make it clear that you’re giving him the heads-up so he doesn’t get caught unaware if the news breaks around then.”

Leaf is nodding. “Got it.” She puts her food down and begins typing away.

Blue turns to Red and catches him gazing up at the sky, where Zephyr is soaring in slow circles. “You alright?”

“Yeah. Just thinking.” I need another flying pokemon. He sighs. “What do you think of the Renegade system? Does it seem… fair to you?”

Blue frowns at him. “Of course not. That’s the point, isn’t it? ‘Better to brand ten innocents than let one Renegade go free?'”

“Yeah, I know. The damage that one Renegade can do to society far outweighs the lives of the ten. Are you ever scared of being one of those ten, though?”

“I am,” Leaf says, still typing on her phone. “Scared, that is. Today I had some tense moments wondering if we’d made a mistake.”

“Come on, no way that guy wasn’t guilty,” Blue says. “I mean, yeah, it was a bit intense having to get everyone to believe us over him, but it was pretty clear he was up to no good.”

“What if it’s not so clear next time?” Red asks. “We didn’t actually prove anything, it was just all so much more circumstantial than it is on TV.”

Blue’s eyes narrow. “What are you saying? You think we were wrong?”

“No, no.” Red makes a sound of frustration. “Look, I witnessed, didn’t I? I just think… he was tied up, you know? He wasn’t going anywhere. There was time to look into things more, find more neutral witnesses. I know you guys weren’t able to witness, but I’m your friend, even if the evidence wasn’t on your side I’d feel pressured to believe you. Dr. Zapata and Ryback just lost three colleagues, they’re not exactly thinking clearly right now. And Paul, well, he’s leading security here. If something had happened to the fossils it wouldn’t look great for him.”

“Alright, sure, they could have gotten him a lawyer and put him in court and filled a jury with random people and hoped that the truth came out,” Blue says. “But what if it doesn’t? We’re back to the question of letting a Renegade free. Remember Modama Town? Old Agate Village? One psychopath gets it in his head to wipe out hundreds of people, or even thousands, and we’re just supposed to hope they don’t? Fuck that.”

Red shakes his head. “I know. It’s horrifying. But events like that happen so rarely.”

“Yeah, and I doubt that’s a coincidence.”

“What we need are numbers,” Leaf says. “People killed by Renegades in a year, people killed as Renegades in a year, people investigated, people branded… the hardest part would be the speculation though.” Leaf taps at her phone a few more times, then tucks it away. “We can’t know how effective killing suspected Renegades is by just pointing to the lack of terrorist attacks. Maybe we’re nipping dozens of them in the bud, or maybe we’re just predominantly catching Renegades like Yuuta, who are… indirect. He could have killed us if he wanted to, you know. After his graveler knocked you out.”

Blue shakes his head as their pokemon all suddenly focus on something behind him. Red turns to see Ryback approaching. “The guy was scum,” Blue says. “He was still out in the open, didn’t want to risk anyone seeing him kill us. If he got away with this heist he would have just grown bolder, done something worse.”

“Maybe,” Ryback says. “Or maybe he would have sold his loot and found some other Region to retire in. Either way, I’m glad he didn’t get the chance.”

The trio start repacking their food and withdrawing their pokemon. Ryback is dressed in more protective clothing and a full pokebelt. “Hang on a sec, don’t finish closing your bags yet. I’ve got something for you all.”

Red, Blue and Leaf exchange glances, then put their bags back down and approach him as he lifts a small sack and takes out a Container. “Got two more of these in here, a fossil in each. I talked to Dr. Zapata, and she agreed… we wouldn’t have any of these if not for you all. They’re extras, so we’re free to do with them as we’d like.”

“Um. Wow. That’s… really nice of you,” Red says slowly. “But I wasn’t there-”

“I know, you were helping me. Didn’t seem fair to exclude you for that, since you would have been otherwise. Plus you helped with… afterward, and did as much as anyone to help protect the site. Paid a price for it, too. This is our way of saying thanks. Don’t worry, they’re not super valuable. If you ever go to Cinnabar Labs though, they might be able to regenerate them for you.”

“We’ve been here before,” Leaf says as Ryback takes out the second and third Containers, all three balls gleaming in the sun.

“You should pick first this time,” Red says. “And you can go second, Blue.”

“Nah, you go second. By the time we’re at Cinnabar my team is going to be mostly solid.”

“What are they?” Leaf asks.

“This one’s a ball of amber that we believe has aerodactyl blood in it. It’s part of a shipment that’s going to Pewter’s museum. These two are a pair of fossils for omanyte and kabuto.”

“Aerodactyl’s the flying one, right? I’ll take it,” Leaf says with a smile. “Thank you so much!”

Red sighs to himself. He was hoping for that one. Of the remaining two though, he has no real preference. His hand twitches indecisively from left to right, and he finally just chooses at random. “Which is this?”

“Omanyte.”

“Cool. Thanks.” Red tucks it into his bag and wonders if he’ll ever revive it. He always wanted to learn more about the regeneration process, and this is as good an excuse as any to start.

Blue takes his kabuto fossil and they finish packing up. “We’ve got a few hours of daylight left, think we can make it to the final checkpoint by then?”

Red takes a deep breath, then lets it out, feeling more energized. The rest and food helped a lot. “Sure, let’s do it. I wouldn’t mind getting off this mountain by tomorrow. Would be nice to have a shower tonight.”

“Agreed,” Leaf says. “Is that okay with you, Ryback?”

“I’m just here to help, you three set whatever pace you want. I’ve been on site for almost a week, and after today wouldn’t say no to a shower myself. And a stiff drink.”

Chapter 31: Distractions

The first thing that makes Blue reconsider his enthusiasm is the sheer number of geodude, zubat, sandshrew, graveler, and other pokemon flooding out of the hole in the mountain.

The second is the cloud of spores that pour out after them, disguised and mingled with the dust of the collapsed earth. Blue watches as a graveler pulls itself up into the sunlight and takes two stumbling steps forward, then collapses onto its face to reveal a back covered in visibly growing fungus.

Goosebumps break out along his arms as a childhood fear returns, spawned by nights of staying up past his bedtime to secretly watch zombie movies. Until his parents died, waking to find his friends and family stumbling around with blank white eyes and fungal caps was his most recurring nightmare.

Migrating parasect colony, or maybe a rampage, started a stampede. Fire and Flying pokemon are top priority. He pulls his facemask on and unhooks Zephyr’s ball, then hesitates as the wave of fleeing pokemon approaches them. Hopefully they’re too panicked to do anything but run, but if he summons a pokemon in front of them they might attack it-

“Steven and Janet, clear that cloud out! Everyone to the west of the opening, move north or south immediately!”

The voice comes from Ryback’s radio, and the group skids to a halt as they realize within seconds of each other that they’re in the danger zone. Leaf breaks southward first, and the rest follow her, keeping an eye out for the stampeding pokemon that run or fly past them, oblivious to their doom.

A trio of sandshrew scurry toward them in an intersecting route, and Ryback unclips a ball and throws, summoning a sandslash in a blink. “Keep going!” he tells them as he stops behind his pokemon.

The trio doesn’t even exchange a look, all three stepping beside him and summoning Maturin, Bulbasaur and Spearow. The oncoming sandshrew hesitate, then dive under the ground. They brace themselves for an attack, but after a few seconds the pokemon pop out of the ground behind them and keep fleeing.

They withdraw their pokemon and continue southward until they reach one of the portable buildings and run behind it. “I had that handled,” Ryback says. “If you want to help, you’ll have to defer to those of us here. Understood?”

Blue opens his mouth just as another voice speaks from the radio. “This is Janet, we’re in position. If anyone’s not clear, say so now.”

Ryback presses his radio button. “Ryback here, we’re clear, over.”

“Hiro clear, over.”

“Natalie and Carmin, clear, over.”

Stupid, she said to say something if you’re not clear. The last of the pokemon from the hole are dispersing past them, and Blue fights the urge to take out pokeballs to grab some. It seems like such a waste to just let them run by, but they might have a chance to pick some up later, and it’s not worth the risk of starting an unnecessary fight in such a volatile situation.

“Incoming whirlwind, over.”

They watch as the cloud of dust and spores gets caught in a slowly building cyclone, and shift in a slow spiral as it blows westward. It sails over the fleeing pokemon in its path before dispersing into the open air past the edge of the mountain. Blue watches the heavier pokemon that don’t get swept up collapse, skin covered in spores.

With the obscuration out of the way, they can see the dozens of crimson paras and parasect crawling over the mountain in outward waves, emitting a new fog of spores as they go.

The voice of the ACE on the radio is calm. “Parasect colony is climbing out of the mountain. Fire pokemon out front, Flying in support. Poison special attackers. Everyone else, watch for strays. If at all possible, try and protect the fossils. Rangers are inbound, first ETA is fifteen minutes. Over.”

Ryback raises it to his mouth. “This is Ryback, we’ve got about a dozen pokemon that were in the path of the twister growing shrooms, over.”

“Natalie here, I’ve got it, over.”

Ryback reclips his radio, then turns to the trio. “What have you got?”

“Charmander,” Red says. Nidoran and Spinarak are Poison, but not special attackers.

“We have pidgey,” Blue says, cocking a thumb at Leaf.

“They’re not enough, but the charmander might help. You’re with me, Red.”

Red hesitates, then nods and steps forward as he unclips Charmander’s ball. Ryback turns to Blue and Leaf. “Can you two hold a perimeter?” Blue and Leaf nod. “Good. This is one of the buildings we’ve been storing fossils in. Keep any rampaging pokemon from destroying it, if you can, and stop them from coming up behind us.”

Ryback moves around the building and toward the oncoming swarm of paras and parasect. Red’s face is pale, but he raises his fist, and Blue bumps it.

“Guess it’s your turn for thrilling heroics.”

“At least your arm’s not broken.”

Leaf hugs Red. “Be careful. Watch the cross-wind.”

Blue smirks as his friend freezes, then awkwardly pats her shoulder. “I will. Keep Blue out of trouble.”

“Why do I always get nanny duty?” Leaf grumbles, lips twitching upward.

“I’m sorry, of the three of us, which has a badge again?” Blue asks.

Red gives a weak smile and jogs after Ryback. Blue and Leaf watch him go, then summon Zephyr and Crimson as they move back to back to cover both sidelines.

“Zephyr, scout!”

“Crimson, scout!”

Blue watches Zephyr loop around them in the air, slowly scoping the area for any approaching threats. He keeps his gaze on the ground, watching for any telltales signs of pokemon burrowing under the surface.

To his right, Blue can just make out the beginning of the assault in his periphery. Blasts of fire and gusts of wind hit the expanding cloud of spores from multiple directions, keeping it and the insects emitting it, or more accurately the mushrooms on their backs, from advancing. There’s an occasional boom as fire causes a pocket of spores to combust all at once.

Blue wipes sweaty palms against his pants. Red and Charmander would be backup to the more experienced trainers with stronger fire pokemon, picking off any paras that get too close, or helping cleanse the bodies of overrun pokemon before they begin emitting their own spores. They wouldn’t be near the center of the fighting, and should have plenty of time to fall back if they get overrun…

He forces himself to go back to scanning the rest of the digsite, where wild pokemon continue to run around haphazardly. The occasional ACE or scientist rushing to join the main fight engages them, whether by their choice or the pokemon’s, and three separate battles break out in Blue’s field of vision.

“If one of them need help, and we’re just standing here doing nothing…” Leaf says behind him.

“Yeah.” Zephyr lets out a warning cry as a group of zubat flutter by. Blue feels the merciful cool of the battle calm descending as they flutter and loop closer and closer, only to soar away when Zephyr gives a louder battle screech. As they go, his antsy excitement returns, sending useless energy through his arms and legs, commanding him to go, fight, help.

A gout of flame to his left makes Blue turn to see a woman with a flareon cleansing the pokemon that were caught in the spore cloud. She reaches a graveler that shudders as soon as the flame finishes washing over it, and a flash of light quickly captures it before she moves on to the next, making her way toward the mountain’s edge.

“Got movement here,” Leaf says. Blue unclips Maturin’s ball and looks over his shoulder to see a growing bulge moving through the ground as something digs beneath it. “Go, Bulbasaur!”

Her pokemon flashes into existence just as the sandshrew reveals itself. “Vine whip!”

Her pokemon extends its vines and rears them back, but the sandshrew dives back underground before they can land. They watch the sandshrew burrow away, and Leaf reclips her ball without withdrawing Bulbasaur.

“Do you think-”

Leaf is interrupted by a heavy rumble beneath them that sends both to their knees. “Either someone just used Earthquake, or we need to get off this side of the mountain,” she says. “More of them might be coming up under us.”

“There might be an onix digging around to get away from them, but it probably won’t head any farther up.”

“Probably?”

“Hopefully. What do you want to do, sound a full retreat? They might not want to leave their fossils.”

Leaf bites her lower lip. “ACE is in charge of security, maybe we can get one of them to-”

This time both Zephyr and Crimson give warning cries as another flock of zubat race toward them. In the space of a heartbeat it becomes clear that these are not going to just fly by, and the battle calm is there like a cool cloak round his shoulders.

One, three, five, six, seven. Blue braces his arm. “Go, Maturin! Water Gun!”

“Bulbasaur, return! Go, Ledyba! Supersonic!”

Water and sound knock a zubat out of the sky and send two more tumbling in different directions, and then their pidgey engage the rest of them. The zubat are smaller and more agile, but the birds are ever so slightly faster, keeping ahead of the swarm’s poisonous fangs.

Blue and Leaf focus on directing Maturin and Ledyba and let their pidgey’s instincts take over. Blue feels the split in attention keenly as he keeps trying to pay attention to what Zephyr is doing while finding new targets for Maturin, but a distant part of him observes the wider battle, and thinks of ways to end it. “Water Gun! Water Gun! Those three are coming back, we won’t be able to avoid them all.”

“Supersonic! I know, I’m going to withdraw Ledyba before they reach her. Should we Rise and Fall?”

Blue remembers the tactics they practiced on the roof of Viridian and plays it out in his head. “Too slow. Vanishing Act?”

“Need more support. Supersonic! How about a Pinwheel?”

“Alright, on three. Two-Watergun! One!”

“Crimson, defend!”

Crimson breaks away and flies over to hover above her as Blue grabs Maturin off the ground and runs behind them. Part of his skin touches Maturin’s and immediately feels dry and stiff as the moisture is sucked out of it. Blue puts Maturin back down and ignores the ache. “Ready!”

“Crimson, Gust!”

“Zephyr, break!”

Crimson begins flapping hard in the direction of the swarm as Zephyr dips a wing and soars away. The zubat trying to chase both begin to get buffeted by the wind, struggling to make headway against it.

Some begin to break away and approach from above or the sides. Blue points to each in turn with his commands. “Maturin, Water Gun! Zephyr, Quick Attack!” Spurts of water continue to knock zubat out of the air, and Zephyr is a tan blur as he zips back and forth to harry them from behind. The zubat try to fly around the column of wind, but Leaf pivots Crimson with them, wheeling the wild pokemon in a slow arc.

One by one zubat begin to drop to the ground and fail to rise, or turn to flee. But soon Crimson tires, and Maturin runs out of water. As soon as the wind dies down, the remaining four zubat close the gap in a blink.

“Maturin, Return! Go, Kemuri!”

“Ledyba, Supersonic! Crimson, Wing At-Crimson return!”

Leaf’s beam hits her pokemon as it screeches in pain, cutting the sound off as it vanishes in a red glow. Blood and feathers finish falling from where it was as the zubat wheel around in confusion, then go for Ledyba.

“Ledyba, return!”

“Kemuri, Extrasensory!”

The zubat begin to crash into each other, screeching in alarm and pain. One of them uses their own supersonic wail, causing Blue to uselessly clap his hands over his ears. Blue’s vision swims as he feels the sound in his sinuses, the pressure waxing and waning in a way that makes his head feel like a squeezed water balloon.

Blue drops to all fours and curls up into a ball as the vertigo sets in, flashing back to years of training drills in school. Their instructor stood in front of the class, speaking as they demonstrated the proper response to the audio assault they were all about to endure. The best defense against moves that cause mental confusion is to focus on what your body is doing. Maintain a physical position that’s low to the ground, and eliminates your body’s ability to hurt itself.

Sharp pain blooms as Blue’s nails scrape at his ears, and he tucks his hands under his knees to pin them with his weight. The abrasion of the soil and pebbles against his skin grounds him as the wail goes on and on and o-

Blessed silence. No, not silence, but without the audio scalpel of their cry, everything seems so muted. Blue uncurls and pushes himself up, knees wobbling.

He expects to see the zubat all dead or captured, but two are still in the air. What felt like a minute under sonic siege was only seconds as the beam of high pitched sound was either directed elsewhere, or died with one of the zubat on the ground.

Leaf throws a pair of pokeballs that capture them, and Blue aims his at the ones still in the air. His nerves are rattled, but the battle-calm is still there, and he draws it tighter around himself to block out the stinging pain of his self-inflicted ear cuts. He tracks the zubat as they flutter in panicked circles and loops under Kemuri’s mental onslaught, one ball on each, letting his thoughts drift so that his arms move purely on reflex, tracking the two pokemon…

Ping! He throws one, sucking it out of the air. The second ball pings another lock, and he throws again just as the zubat stops flapping its wings. Its frail body plummets and bounces against the ground once before lying still.

Blue quickly unhooks another ball and captures it before letting his breath out in a rush. He turns to Kemuri, whose eyes are just beginning to return to normal as his posture slowly relaxes. “Good job, Kemuri. Guard.” He takes out a pokepuff and tosses it to his pokemon, then brings Maturin back out and lets her empty his spare water bottle before giving her a pokepuff too.

“You okay?” Leaf asks. “Your left ear is bleeding.”

Blue checks and winces as the cut behind his ear stings at his touch. “Fine. How’s Crimson?” He takes out a potion and sprays his ear.

“I’m going to wait for a pokemon center to take him back out.” She begins to pick up her new zubat and check them with her pokedex, face growing longer after each. “Both gone. Yours?”

Leaf’s voice is flat, and Blue gives her a searching look. He’s about to ask if she’s okay, but holds his tongue. Maybe she’s wearing her own cloak. Blue checks the two zubat he caught. “One’s okay.” He releases the dead one, then goes to get the pokeball that missed.

Around them, the war for the mountainside continues unabated. A few dozen figures hold the line against the paras and parasect in the distance, while random wild pokemon are fought and taken down by the rest of the trainers spread out around the dig site. Zephyr comes down to land on Blue’s shoulder, and his talons bite into the undermesh of his shirt. Blue stifles a cry and resists the urge to chase his pokemon off. Zephyr is quivering with exhaustion, and Blue strokes him instead. “Forgot about the great job you did up there, boy,” he mutters as he picks up the pokeball and tucks it away, then gives his pidgey some berries and a pokepuff. “You’ll be a new terror in the sky when you’re all grown up.”

After one last look at the main battlefield, Blue returns to Leaf and Kemuri. “Zephyr’s tired. Think we’ll-”

Click, clickclick, click!

Blue and Leaf blink. “What was-”

Thud, thud, thudthudthudrrrrrrrrrrrrr-

Blue and Leaf look around wildly for the source of the noise, then look at each other.

“The other-

-side, move!”

CRASH

A graveler bursts through the building in a hail of broken wood and glass as Leaf and Blue throw themselves away from the rolling boulder. Zephyr launches back into the air with a shriek of protest, and Blue’s other two pokemon flinch at the hail of shrapnel.

“Kemuri, Leaf Blade!” Blue yells as he scrambles to his feet. “Zephyr, back!” Zephyr aborts his dive midway, while Kemuri leaps at the graveler and slashes it across the face.

The graveler roars in pain and tries to body-slam Kemuri, who leaps backward. Blue is about to command Maturin when another loud clickclick is heard.

Blue resists the urge to turn around and look for the source of the sound: he knows better than to take his eyes off a pokemon in a battle. A moment later he’s glad he does, because he sees the graveler freeze, then throw itself onto its face, grabbing the earth with all four hands.

Blue’s battle calm crystallizes into one last insight, then shatters in a flood of icy panic. “Self-destruct!” he yells as his hands fly to his pokeballs to withdraw everyone. “Return, Maturin! Return, Kemuri!” Blue’s every heartbeat is like a timer counting down, and rather than risk wasting any more seconds trying to return Zephyr he simply starts running and yells “Zephyr, back!”

Leaf has already taken off for the opposite side of the ruined building, and skids to a stop before diving behind it. Blue wants to yell for her to keep running, but it may be their only chance. Not gonna make it, he thinks with another spurt of panic, and runs faster. Shit shit shit-

Blue hears Leaf yell “Hey, get down!” and wonders if she’s talking to him before he reaches the end of the building and sees a paleontologist with a heavy rucksack standing there with a nonplussed look on his face. A distant part of Blue recognizes him as the one that was giving Red and him the evil eye earlier.

And then a giant, hot hand presses its palm against his back and shoves just as a massive BOOM leaves his ears ringing for the second time in five minutes.

Blue lies in a crumpled heap until the world stops spinning and he can finish testing for broken bones. His elbow feels like it shattered when he rolled into a rock, but he can move it, and he smacked his head against the ground pretty bad, but he doesn’t feel nauseous or disoriented.

I should be dead. What was that, 200 feet at most?

He realizes he can vaguely hear something through the ringing that might be Leaf calling his name, and shifts around until he can see her relieved face looking down at him.

“Leaf,” he mutters. “Ylright?”

She sticks a thumb up, then starts spraying potion liberally over his head and neck and shoulders. He points a finger to his elbow, where the outer part of his shirt was shredded to reveal the mesh under it. He’s glad it was there to save him from losing skin, but he almost changes his mind at the pain of Leaf rolling his sleeve down to see the damage.

His elbow looks badly bruised, but doesn’t seem to be broken. The bone might be cracked, but at the first spray of potion he feels the pain lessen, and after a few more the swelling goes down enough for him to flex his arm with minimal pain.

Zephyr lands next to him, and a wave of relief makes him dizzy. Or maybe that’s the start of a concussion. He pats his pidgey with his good arm, then returns him to his ball and stands up with Leaf’s help.

A couple uncomfortable squirts in his ears has him shaking his head and trying to get the liquid out, but the ringing has stopped enough for him to hear. “We should be dead,” is the first thing he hears.

“I know, I was thinking the same thing. That graveler must have been freshly evolved if its blast was so small.”

Blue looks at the blackened remains of the graveler’s body, and the scorch marks on the ground around it. He considers going over to see if it’s still savable, sometimes with immediate medical attention a self-destructing pokemon can be saved, but he knows the window of opportunity would have passed while he was recovering. Blue’s surprised Leaf didn’t try to save it, but he’s glad she was worried about making sure he was alright.

“Hey, where’s that other guy?”

“He’s inside.” She jerks a thumb at the long, narrow building, which has a huge section torn out of the side. “Said he’s going to check on the fossils.” Blue’s frowning at the visible destruction. “Something wrong?”

“Sorry, yeah, just… was he standing there when you got here?”

Leaf stares at him, then blinks as it registers. “Yeah. He… I wonder why he didn’t yell a warning about the graveler.”

“Didn’t even have a pokemon out, right?”

“No… Blue, those clicks.”

He remembers. Right before they heard the graveler start running for its rollout, then again before the Self-Destruct. “You don’t think…”

He sees his mounting unease reflected in her gaze, and they begin moving toward the building together. “There must be a reasonable explanation,” Leaf says, and Blue notices that she’s whispering now.

Blue unclips a ball, heart pounding. What they’re thinking is crazy, but… better safe than sorry. “Go, Maturin.” He picks his pokemon up after she appears, and steps up into the broken remains of the building. Leaf follows him, hands moving over her right ear.

The inside of the building is a mess of wood and glass and paper. They step over a crushed table and around a cabinet torn partway off the wall to walk toward the opposite end of the rectangular building.

What looks like a storage room is open, and the paleontologist is standing in front of a series of labeled drawers with the rucksack he was wearing at his feet. The one near the middle is open, with rows of grey Container balls nestled in slots documenting where and when they were found.

Most of the slots are empty. The bag looks to be about halfway full.

The paleontologist turns to them as they approach, two more Containers in his hand. He bends and places them in the bag, then securely closes it.

“What are you doing?” Blue asks, throat dry.

“Moving these. It’s not safe here anymore, so I’ve been going around to get these off site.”

“You said you were just going to check on them,” Leaf says, stepping up beside Blue.

“Change of plans. Just got the orders.” His hands never stop moving, and when he finishes tying the bag he slings it over his shoulder. Blue can’t help but stare at the still-open cabinet, with half of its Containers still sitting it, something’s wrong, something’s wrong-

“Stop,” Leaf says, and Blue’s attention snaps to the man’s hand as he unclips a ball from his waist and braces his arm, paying her no mind.

“Go, Abra.”

The squat tan psychic pokemon appears on the floor, sitting quietly with its eyes closed, and Blue is suddenly very afraid and very glad that he’s Dark. “Stop, whatever you’re doing, we need to make sure-”

“Abra, Teleport,” the man says as he reaches forward to put a hand on his pokemon, and with a surge of adrenaline Blue yells “Maturin, Water Gun!” His pokemon, who might normally hesitate to shoot in the direction of a human, focuses on the abra and spits a sharp stream of water out.

The trainer flinches, for just a moment, and in that moment there’s a pop as the abra vanishes, the trainer’s hand an inch away. The water hits the floor and digs a shallow groove in it, and the three are left staring at each other for the space of a heartbeat.

I just ordered my pokemon to attack his outside of a challenge, he was standing right there he might have been hit I could be charged as a Renegade-

“Go, sandslash,” the man says, and suddenly there’s a squat, spiny pokemon standing between them. Blue stares at it, still trying to process what’s happening battle calm where’s my battle calm when the paleontologist says “Slash,” voice tight and angry, face a mask.

Slash. Not Scratch, the generic command for a claw attack, generally safe for trainer battles. Slash, the command that specifies lethal intent, for pokemon specifically trained to recognize and aim for vital organs in their opponent.

And the sandslash moves toward them.

Blue scrambles back, dropping Maturin and opening his mouth to yell a command to her, while Leaf presses something to her left ear and turns around, right hand pointing a pokeball and activating it manually, arm snapping up.

He has a moment to wonder why she’s summoning it behind her, then yells “Withdraw!” as the sandslash claws Maturin across the chest, too quick for her to react. Then Leaf says “Sing!” and Blue snaps his hands up to cover his ears even knowing he’s too la-


Fire and fungi. Birds and bugs. Poison and paras. Simple equations with obvious outcomes, if the variables are anywhere near even. A single arcanine could scorch dozens of paras to ash. A single pidgeot could tear a field of them to pieces with a miniature cyclone. A single muk could bury waves of them in poison.

But no pokemon is immune to fatigue, and all the type advantage in the world won’t stop sheer, overwhelming numbers.

“Ember! Ember! Ember!”

The fire flicks out, onetwothree, and a trio of paras crackle and burn. Behind them another six advance, shooting out yellow and green and blue spores that get swept back by the wings of Ryback’s fearow. It dives a second later, piercing and shredding the dome of a parasect before flying up in a corkscrew to shed the mushroom and insect gore covering its feathers.

Red can’t think of how long they’ve been fighting anymore, or how much longer until the Rangers come. His entire world is the next attack, and then the next, and the next. The radio keeps squawking orders and warnings and calls for help, but Red barely pays attention to it anymore. He feels like he’s in a cartoon, trying to plug a wall that keeps sprouting new leaks.

Red’s nidoran is already exhausted, and his poisonous spurs take out another handful of the paras before he accumulates too many injuries for Red to heal with quick sprays of potion. Spinarak takes his place and holds up better, until a parasect rushes forward and claws off two of its forelegs. Red withdraws it before the giant claws can close around its head, and an ember by Charmander swiftly engulfs the parasect. Its flaming corpse does little to deter the red and orange swarm.

The red and orange swarm that extends for two hundred meters in front of them.

Could use a beedrill about now, wouldn’t you say?

Shut up, Past Red.

Leaf’s beedrill might help take out another dozen or two, but the real battle will be decided by their special attackers. No matter how good a physical fighter is one-on-one, certain special attacks can take out whole swathes of the foe again and again from a safe distance. Between choosing his targets, Red catches glimpses of them at work. A weezing floats above the swarm to his left, blanketing the bugs below in clouds of noxious gas. To the right, a magmar glows red-hot and wades through the paras in a shimmering cloud of superheated air that crisps anything near it.

Red and Ryback are holding the line between the two, along with a geologist named Pira. Her only supereffective pokemon is a numel who spits small showers of embers out of its hump every few seconds to help cover them. Red feels a burst of relief every time the fiery rain comes down to buy him and Charmander some more breathing room.

Red doesn’t see the weezing go down or get withdrawn, but he begins to notice the surge in enemies a few seconds before Ryback calls out “Big group coming on the left!”

Red and Pira pivot and redirect their pokemon to get ready for the twenty or so paras and three parasect that trundle toward them. Too many. Way too many. He shoves down his anxiety and tries to think of solutions. He already tried using his pokedex to imitate paras’ predators, but the fungi are driving them beyond reasonable fears, which is why they march to their fiery, poisonous doom by the dozens. We need a force amplifier.

“I’m going to concentrate on the parasect,” Ryback says. “We need something-Drill Peck!-we need something else to help hold the paras off!”

Pira hesitates. “I’ve got a lickitung, but I’d rather not use him for fodder unless we don’t have another choice.”

Dammit. Guess it’s time. “I’ve got a spearow, but it’s freshly caught. Ember! I don’t know how much it will help-”

“We need whatever we can get!”

He unclips its ball. “Go, Spearow!”

The bird appears and screeches at the sight of all the swiftly approaching paras, though whether in fear or hunger Red doesn’t know. “Peck!”

Spearow dives at the paras along the side of the horde, sharp beak dismembering pincers and legs before it flutters back out of their reach. Red sees Ryback’s fearow divebomb two of the parasect and make short work of them, but the third holds it off for a bit with a cloud of stunspores that it has to circle around to blow away.

Charmander and the numel burn another handful of paras in the next few seconds, but the rest just keep coming. “Slow retreat,” Ryback says. “Keep falling back until this bunch is done.”

Red begins stepping backward, and calls Charmander to follow him as he tries to keep an eye on his spearow at the same time. The bird is having trouble scoring any killing blows now that the paras know it’s around, and Red sees it get engulfed in a cloud of poison powder while it’s distracted.

“Spearow, Quick Attack!” Red begins counting in his head. The paras’s poison would kill a pokemon like spearow after about sixty seconds. He wants to withdraw it, but almost twenty paras are still coming, and the fearow has only just managed to take down the last parasect. 4, 5, 6…

“Back, farther,” Ryback says, and Red mirrors his backward movements.

“Charmander, back!” The fire lizard is breathing hard, and Red can see the flame on his tail burning low. 11, 12… He won’t last much longer… 13… force amplifier, something to make a bigger flame… 15, 16…

Another burst of fire from Pira’s numel brings down a second handful, but the paras keep coming, and now they’re starting to spread to the sides, outside of their reach. “We’re breaking formation,” Ryback says. 21, 22, 23. “We need to hold them here.” He quickly commands his fearow to pick off the bugs that are trying to get past them, leaving charmander, spearow and numel with the rest. 32, 33, 34-

“Shit!” Red says as another cloud of spores is ejected toward them, and jumps to the side. “Ember!” He lost count, and starts again at 40 just in case. We have nothing to burn, nothing to use to spread fire… In his distraction, he sees that Spearow has abandoned the hit and run maneuvers to try and peck the paras again, and feels a surge of fear. “Spearow, Quick Att-”

He sees it happen, a burst of blue spores that engulfs the bird’s head. “No!” Red yells, ball extended. “Spearow return!”

The beam misses as his pokemon falls into the swarm of paras, who quickly converge on the bird.

No, no! “Ember, Charmander, Ember, Ember!”

The globs of fire bring down another two paras, but there are a dozen left, and Red watches in horror as blood and feathers spray into the air.

Red reclips spearow’s ball, chest burning as he fights back the urge to run forward and rescue his pokemon. It’s not fair, he was just going to withdraw him, he-

“They’re still coming!” Ryback says as the paras get within ten feet. “If you’ve got anything else, we need them now!”

“Go, Orval!” Pira says, and her lickitung appears. “Supersonic!” The parasect at the front become confused by the beam of shrill noise, allowing Ryback’s fearow to swoop down and rake them to pieces in a series of rapid dives. “Focus on defensive fighting, we just need to buy time!”

“Go, Rattata,” Red says, biting back bitter words. If you brought your lickitung out earlier my pokemon might still be alive. “Quick Attack!”

The paras keep driving themselves forward over the bodies of their fallen kindred, driven by the mushrooms’ imperative to spread their spores. With the five pokemon combined, however, they die as quickly as they scuttle forward, bursts of flame and wind providing cover for Red’s rattata to distract the confused front lines. Red goes from tired to exhausted, but still the battle goes on until his voice grows hoarse and his fingers fumble with potion bottles.

“Ranger ETA is five minutes!” the radio says. “Hold the line as best you can!”

“Shit,” Red croaks. “It’s only been ten minutes?”

“I know,” Ryback pants. “Drill Peck! Feels like hours.”

“Should I call my friends?”

“Not yet. They have their own job to do.”

Red opens his mouth to argue, then closes it. There’s no time, and Ryback is the senior trainer around. “Pira, my rattata needs a potion.”

“Okay, do it. Orval, Slam!” The lickitung waddles forward and smashes its tail down on one of the paras. “Defense Curl!”

“Rattata, back!” Red kneels down as his pokemon returns to him, trembling with adrenaline and pain. Red’s chest hurts as he sprays her wounds. “You’re doing great,” Red whispers as he strokes her head. She nuzzles Red’s fingers with her whiskers, causing his throat to tighten. “Just k-keep moving girl, it’ll be over soon…” He wants to give her more time to rest, doesn’t want to send her back at all, but the lickitung is already being overwhelmed. “Go! Quick Attack!”

Red gets to his feet and hangs the potion bottle on his belt before realizing it’s empty and tossing it aside. His eyes roam the swarm of paras as he digs a new one out of his bag, new fear settling into him as he sees the scuttling mass of insects seems untouched, despite what must be hundreds of charred and broken bodies they trample underfoot.

“We’re not going to be able to hold out another five minutes,” Pira says, echoing Red’s thoughts. “Orval, Supersonic! Even if we do, there’s no guarantee the Rangers will get to our area in time.”

“We can’t spare anyone to go for help,” Ryback says. “If we have to run, we run, but not while our pokemon can still fight. Shara, Drill Peck!”

Red tries to think of his remaining resources. He can use a smokescreen from charmander, but it won’t hamper the paras, who are used to travelling in the pitch black of the mountain. His pichu’s electricity would barely hurt them, and his caterpie could maybe trip up one of them. And… that’s it. If there’s something else he could be doing, he’s too distracted to think of it.

If the Rangers don’t arrive soon, we’re screwed.

“Charmander, Ember! Rattata, Quick Attack!”

The minutes drag on, Charmander’s embers becoming smaller and smaller, Rattata moving slower with every strike. Soon a paras survives an ember, and Red notices that Charmander’s tailflame is a slender flicker. “I have to withdraw my charmander,” Red says, coughing at the dryness in his throat. “He’s spent.”

“Do you have any ether?” Pira asks.

“No.”

“Here.” She hands him a bottle, and Red drops to his knees, spraying the rare stimulant into Charmander’s mouth. A few seconds later the lizard’s eyes widen, and his tailflame flares back to near full size.

He hands it back. “Thanks.”

“Should buy us another few minutes.” She waits for her numel to send another salvo of fiery death into the paras’ ranks before she gives it some.

“Charmander, Ember! Ryback, even with the ether our pokemon are fading fast. I’m going to call my friends.”

Ryback looks torn. “Alright, let them kn-”

“Rangers on site, approaching east side! Everyone begin rotating to help those on the west!

“Nevermind!” Ryback says with a grin. “We’re on the home stretch. Just a little longer!”

Red still feels like they can use the help, but he has to admit that knowing the cavalry’s on the way is invigorating. A few seconds later he can see the effect of the new arrivals as more trainers begin to hem in the paras at their sides. Soon they can begin advancing, and do so, pushing the waves of paras forward. A rapidash and venomoth spew flamethrowers and sludge bombs to their left, while on their right a quilava sends out exploding bursts of fire into the swarm and a dodrio dashes back and forth along the front lines, each head skewering a different bug every second.

Red’s fear and anxiety slowly fades as they push forward and reclaim lost ground, though the smell and feel of all the dead paras that crunch underfoot is nauseating. Red tries to avoid them at first, but there’s just too many, and he still has to stay focused on the fight, and instead only watches for patches of poison to step around or fungus to burn.

Between Ryback’s fearow taking out any parasect that trundle too close and Charmander and the numel’s flames crisping the front lines, Red’s rattata is free to strike in quick attacks that get it out of the enemy’s reach before they can retaliate. Red watches his pokemon harry and harass the swarm with pride, until one of the bodies they pass by rears up and stabs her through the torso with both claws.

Red whips her ball up and tries to get a lock on his rattata as she thrashes weakly against her assailant. He watches with his heart in his throat as her movements slow, and the dying paras finally crawls off her. “Rattata, return!” Red cries out, withdrawing her into her ball. “Charmander, Ember!” Please, it was only a few seconds, please, be okay, Red thinks as he scrambles for his pokedex for a moment, then stops and reclips her ball to his belt. He forces himself to focus on the battle. It won’t change if I know now or five minutes from now. Focus. Worry fills Red’s stomach with acid, but he’ll be damned if he lets his distraction cost him another pokemon.

The circle of trainers around the swarm grows tighter, and they advance farther toward the collapsed dig site. Paras and parasect are still pouring out of it, until the whole battlefield is stunned by an echoing roar.

A charizard dips out of the sky, its scales gleaming in the sun like living flames. Its wings beat the air in claps of thunder before it soars down over the epicenter and bathes it in fire. Again and again the trainer on its back strafes the battlefield, pouring hot death into the hole the paras are crawling out of until the fungus in the tunnel catches fire. Soon after a pillar of black smoke begins to rise, and the waves of bugs crawling out of the hole abruptly stops. Red watches in awe, and Charmander makes a low crooning noise as it tracks the charizard’s flight with wide eyes.

The battle is quickly over after that, and Red finds a relatively clean boulder to sit on as the dozens of site workers and nearby trainers who came to help coordinate clean up and triage. Ryback finds him there, staring down at Rattata’s ball, pokedex sitting on the rock beside him.

“Did it make it?”

Red shakes his head, not looking up. The first pokemon he ever caught, dead because a stupid bug was driven into a suicidal frenzy by a fungal parasite.

“I’m sorry. I wanted to say, you did good. We couldn’t have done it without you and your pokemon.”

“Thanks,” Red whispers, and clears his throat. He wants to take his mask off, but the stench would be even worse then.

“Want to head back to your friends, make sure they’re alright? Or do you need a minute?”

Red shakes his head again and hops off the boulder as he pockets his dex and reclips Rattata’s ball. He’ll release and bury her later. He wishes he could do the same for his spearow, but he doesn’t have the stomach to search for his remains, if there even are any.

As they walk, Red lets memories take him. Training with his rattata, scouring Viridian for wild pokemon with her, finding his spinarak and catching it, playing with her and Charmander in the park at Pewter. Why had he never named her? Even now, Red can’t think of one. It doesn’t feel right, that she’ll forever just be “Rattata” to him.

He thinks of the nest she was part of when he caught her, how she might have had children. Was it worth catching her, bringing her north all this way, only to die on a mountain far from her home? Red looks around at the blighted mountainside, and spots a pair of trainers sitting beside a third who’s lying still, eyes closed. Red takes his hat off and runs his fingers through his sweaty hair, enjoying the breeze and happy to be alive.


The first thing Leaf does after Wigglytuff starts singing is take out a potion and spray Maturin’s chest, where the sandslash’s claws scored deep wounds. Then she takes another pair of plugs out and stuffs them in Blue’s ears. Her heart races as she waits for him to wake up, gaze never leaving the sandslash or its master. The thief.

No, not just a thief. He attacked them. He actually sent his pokemon to attack them.

Renegade.

The thought chills her to her bone. Encountering Renegades, that’s the stuff trainers do in comics and movies. Is he insane? He must be, to doom himself over some fossils, no matter how valuable.

Of course, Blue’s squirtle did attack his abra first… but that was clearly a warning shot. Wasn’t it? Oh gods, did they attack an innocent trainer unprovoked? Are they going to get branded?

But no, he used a graveler to tear up the building, maybe even knew they were on the other side. He summoned a sandslash to attack them. He was prepared, could have had it tear up the rest of the house, passed the whole thing off as natural.

Leaf walks over to her wigglytuff and strokes its lush fur to calm herself a little. The feel of it is truly incredible, like trailing her fingers through a warm cloud, and her nerves are soothed almost immediately. Or maybe it’s the song, warped and heavily muted, but still audible at this range, and lovely. She doesn’t know how loud it has to be to knock her out, but she’s glad she tested whether the plugs would work up close.

Blue stirs in her peripheral, and she moves back over to him just as he jerks awake, eyes wide. It takes a moment for his face to clear, and when it does his expression hardens. He gets to his feet and checks Maturin, then flashes her a thumbs up and withdraws his pokemon. He takes his phone out and begins typing into it, and it takes Leaf a moment to realize that he’s marking their location with a Renegade flag. It might not even be noticed right away, with the Tier 1 still ongoing, but-

Leaf’s eyes widen. She forgot about that. How far is Wigglytuff’s song going? It’s probably not nearly as far since they’re most of the way inside a building, but it still could be endangering people.

She has to end it.

Leaf goes over to the Renegade and carefully undoes his belt, then empties his pockets. She carries all his things over to the cabinet and puts them on it, then returns his sandslash to its ball. What else can she do to secure him? Once caught, pokemon are intrinsically taught not to attack people through the very first, most basic training programs, so she can’t order her bulbasaur to wrap him in vines or put him to sleep. She can have him emit some sleep powder and then just sprinkle some into the man’s nose, but they’re much less predictable than the continued effect of Wigglytuff’s singing, unless she’s willing to just keep scooping more over him, which might be dangerous.

Leaf nearly leaps out of her skin when Blue taps her shoulder, and he puts his palms up in apology. She waves it off, cheeks flushed as she takes a deep breath. Blue shows her his phone, which has the message “What are you doing?” typed on its notepad app.

She brings up her own. “Gotta stop the song, others at risk. Wanna secure him first.”

Blue scratches his neck, then types, “Any of these doors got locks?”

They check, and only the outhouse style bathroom does. “Flimsy,” Blue types with a frown.

“Maybe stick them both in there and close the door? Limit sound exposure outside.”

Blue nods, and they work together to drag and shove the Renegade’s body into the bathroom. Leaf can see it would be a tight fit to get Wigglytuff into it too, but thankfully the pokemon’s body is extremely malleable, and she fits comfortably in the remaining space. She continues to cheerfully sing as Leaf strokes her head, then closes the door.

The sound drops to nearly nothing. “I’ll test,” Blue says, and unplugs an ear before she can stop him. His eyes promptly roll up in his head, and she catches him before he can crumple to the ground.

Leaf sighs and lowers him the rest of the way, then finds the plug he dropped and puts it back in.

When he wakes up, she leads him all the way outside, where he tries again with some trepidation. He soon relaxes, and flashes a thumbs up.

Leaf unplugs too, first one ear, then the next. She can still hear the song, but about as muted as it was while she was standing next to it with the plugs. “Okay, do a quick search to make sure no one around us got knocked out while in a fight. I’ll stay and make sure she keeps singing.”

“Got it.”

Leaf leans against an undamaged part of the building and looks out over the mountainside. Her pulse is finally returning to something approaching normal, but she still feels jittery. Until someone else shows up and the Renegade is physically confined, it feels like anything can happen, and since things are currently stable, “anything” would likely be bad. She keeps replugging her ears and poking her head into the building to make sure the bathroom door is closed. After the third time she checks she goes inside and brings all his stuff out with her.

When she unplugs her ears she hears a roar, and turns to see a charizard flying over the battlefield. It’s awe inspiring enough to make her forget what’s going on for a moment, but by the time it finishes its fiery strafing runs she realizes that Blue’s still not around.

She texts him and waits, nerves ratcheting back up again. She goes through the building to the other side to check if he’s in that direction when her phone buzzes, and she sees that he’s on his way back “with help.”

Relief makes her legs buckle, and she sits down for a minute before reminding herself that this would be the exact time in a movie for the villain to escape, and maybe kill his jailer on the way. She puts her earplugs back in and stays in the building until Blue arrives with two ACE trainers and one of the paleontologists, who wait outside.

“They know what’s up,” Blue says through text. “Return her and they’ll hold him until a Ranger arrives.”

“They have rope?”

“Better.”

Leaf is curious, but she complies and waits outside while they carry the man out. It becomes clear once an ACE brings out a Mr. Mime. The rare psychic pokemon creates a telekinetic barrier around the man, trapping him once he wakes. As she’s asked to corroborate Blue’s story, Red and Ryback arrive, and they hear the whole thing. Leaf feels herself getting anxious again as Blue recounts the part where he fired on the abra first. Who are they going to believe, two kids or one of their coworkers?

Ryback and the other paleontologist look stunned. “I just can’t believe Yuuta would do something like that. He’s been working with us for over a year…”

Red looks tired, maybe worse than tired, but his voice is steady when he says, “That’s what makes Renegades so scary, isn’t it? They don’t walk around with a big red R on their shirt. Anyone could be one.”

“Not making a great case for us,” Blue growls, elbowing him.

“Yuuta wasn’t the most friendly sort,” Ryack admits. “He was always helpful, but never got close to anyone.”

“Careful,” Red says. “It’s been shown in studies that it’s easier to remember negative things about someone and forget positives when primed to think badly of them.”

“Whose side are you on?” Blue demands.

Red opens his mouth, then closes it and rubs his eyes. “Sorry, I was just…”

“It’s okay,” ACE Trainer Nora says. “We’re pretty sure the grandchildren of Professor Oak and Juniper didn’t suddenly decide to become Renegades a few weeks into their journeys.”

“Just in case though, you’re both prepared to make a deposition to the Rangers?” asks Jabari, the other ACE. Leaf gets the impression the question is rhetorical.

They both nod. “I know this is just our word against his, but we can at least prove that he tried to steal the fossils,” Leaf says.

“If you can find anywhere an abra teleported into without its trainer, that’ll corroborate that part,” Red suggests.

“And just test his pokemon,” Blue says. “If he has any that have been trained to attack people-”

“Yes, I’m sure the Rangers have seen all the same crime shows,” Nora says with a smile.

“What was his job here?” Leaf asks.

“He was a geologist,” Ryback says. “He… actually, he…”

“What is it?”

“Let me guess,” Red says. “He ran the equipment that monitored seismic activity.”

Ryback nods with a sigh. “I thought it was strange that we didn’t get any warnings about pokemon tunneling under us. I suppose he was ready for something like this.”

Or worse… what if he planned for it? Leaf tries to dismiss the thought: who could plan for a rampage? They would have to set it off themselves, or work with others to do so. The thought is insane… but she keeps thinking of the man’s face, his calm, his preparation.

“Well, everyone get comfortable while we wait for the Rangers,” Paul says as he leans against the building with his arms crossed. “Personally, I’m hoping Mr. Mori wakes up before they get here. I’d like to ask him a few questions myself.”


…as always, we must ask ourselves what the point of our criminal justice system is, and what we wish to optimize it for. Safety? Reform? Punishment? These three values can often result in very different outcomes.

Which is why the case of how the state treats Renegades so often inflames public policy debates. It is taken for granted that, while many crimes are heinous beyond words, for this crime, and this crime only, it is justified that we brand a man or woman irredeemable, and with all of society’s collective might, from Gym Leaders to police to Rangers, we hound them to their dying breath, as we would a rogue pokemon. Indeed, it is often argued that once committed to such acts, the Renegade ceases to be human, and thus is no longer treated as such.

In a world where our very survival as a species depends on us capturing and training pokemon not to hurt humans, but to defend them, we hold the act of training them to kill us so profane that anyone who would violate that cornerstone of human society is utterly ejected from it. So hated is the Renegade, so feared by their region, so dangerous in the common mind, that we have accepted the thought of using their own crimes against them. We empower Hunters to mimic their methodology, to commit their same profanity, in order to keep us safe.

And perhaps that’s as it should be. By every account, Renegades are a vicious breed, driven to unconscionable extremes that set them apart from society’s core values, often simply to enrich themselves. Or, in perhaps the most sympathetic of examples, driven so mad with grief or rage that they throw their lives away to get revenge for a loved one murdered by more mundane means. In any situation, they are regarded as people who are beyond reason.

But consider this: in the Time of Conflict, there was once a wealthy province where petty crime ran rampant. There was a great divide between the rich and poor, and many hungry and homeless citizens would choose to steal a loaf of bread rather than starve. The shogun decreed that a policy of leniency had bred thieves, and changed the punishment for thievery from imprisonment to death.

The crime of thievery did indeed go down by some measure… but the crimes of assault and murder rose to far outstrip what was lost. For many thieves that spied a witness or faced a lawman, it was often a simple choice to fight to their last breath, to kill, when they knew the only other outcome was to be killed themselves.

-Excerpt from the blog Rationally Thinking, by Giovanni Sakaki, Sept 4th, 1505.

Chapter 30: Over the Mountain

On the sixth day after leaving Pewter, Mount Moon goes from a feature of the landscape to part of the terrain. Red thought he was in good shape when he set out on his journey, and did his best to keep up his training regimen in the city, but by the time the ground is regularly sloping from five to ten degrees, he’s starting to regret the decision to climb the mountain rather than go through it.

They pass entrances to the mountain here and there as they travel, all marked by pokemon centers. The only other buildings on the mountain are the occasional Ranger Outposts and supply stores, most of which are located near each other. Hikers and other trainers occasionally cross their path, some with tips or advice on the route choices ahead.

When they begin to move southward around the mountain, Dania and Naoko say their goodbyes at the next Pokemon Center. The two plan on traveling inside of Mount Moon to reach its smaller northern neighbors. Blue and Leaf exchange numbers with them, and Red does too to avoid any awkwardness. He doesn’t expect he’ll be keeping in contact with them, but it can’t hurt.

Red never had a huge host of friends or acquaintances, and so far the only people he’s added since leaving Pewter are Amy and Donovan, Psychics Narud and Ranna, and Dr. Brenner. His list of contacts is still mostly made up of people from Pallet Labs, and Red wonders if he should be trying harder to get acquainted with all the people they meet in their travels. Forming relationships is a big part of a trainer’s journey, as it helps create bonds that can last months or even years later, where unexpected circumstances might bring old friends together again. Fortuitous chance meetings are such a trope in trainer fiction that the unofficial tradition of exchanging contact info with anyone that you’ve been in a battle with has become an interregional norm.

“Are you guys keeping up with a lot of the people we’ve met?” Red asks as they leave the pokemon center.

“Meh. A couple.” Blue shrugs. “I’ve been following Donovan here and there to see if he’s reached Indigo Plateau yet, and a couple of the good trainers at the Gym. Got friendly with some of the Center staff at Pewter too.”

Leaf nods. “I made some friends while writing the article, mostly in the museum. I used to be into social media a lot more when I was younger, but right now I don’t really feel like I have much to share. Not that’s worth sharing, anyway.”

“Oh, I’ve got plenty to share,” Blue says. “I’ll consider it a major failing if I don’t have a million followers by the time I hit the Elite Four. I got my first spike after I beat Brock of course, but I haven’t hit the triple digits yet.”

Red checks his phone and sees that it’s true: Blue’s trainer profile has 74 followers. His last post was some advice on training pidgey based on his experience with Zephyr. “I get how this will be useful to you, Blue,” he says. “But aren’t you interested in an online persona, Leaf? If more people know who you are, then more of them will pay attention to your books or articles.”

“Yeah, I know it’s important. I don’t really enjoy networking though, and for now I’m focusing on just writing enough things that are good on their own merits. If people start to follow me from that, great.”

“You should talk to gramps sometime,” Blue says. “He’s a wiz at crafting a public image.”

Leaf cocks her head. “I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need to craft an image after all the impressive things he’s done.”

“Well he’s an amazing trainer, sure-”

“-and the greatest researcher of our age,” Red mutters.

“-and whatever, a good researcher, yeah,” Blue says, ignoring Red’s sputtering incredulity. “But what really makes him influential is how he makes himself seem like someone that deserves respect, deserves influence, beyond what others with his skills have. People like Giovanni and Lance are the same. Great feats aren’t enough: there are over a dozen Indigo Champions still alive today, but only a few still matter, because they make themselves matter.”

“I get it, you need to leverage your story and image to be influential. I just don’t think I’d be good at that.”

“It doesn’t have to be different from what you might otherwise do,” Red says. “Giovanni’s public outreach is a big deal, but his blog also helps him stay relevant to the Region in a way most other Gym Leaders and ex-Champions aren’t.”

“You know Bill, right?” Blue asks Leaf.

“Sonezaki? Of course. He was a big deal in Unova for awhile when we updated to his latest generation of storage systems.”

“Right, well he’s notoriously camera shy. Hates doing interviews or putting his foot in the public arena at all.”

“You met him, didn’t you?” Red asks.

“Yeah, once. Gramps took me on a visit when I was a kid.”

“What’s he like?” Leaf asks.

“Kinda nuts, but stupid-smart. He’s a workaholic with enough money to buy a city, and what does he do? Grabs up all the land north of Cerulean Bay just to avoid any neighbors for his mansion. Not even a mansion really, more like a bedroom and kitchen attached to five labs. Point is, everyone in Kanto and out knows him by his first name, he could be funding political movements and guiding region policy if he wants, but instead he just sticks to his research and no one cares what he thinks.”

Red frowns. “Plenty of people care what he thinks.”

“Yeah, when they want something from him. As long as he’s designing new tech, people are happy to take it, but when he starts going on about his pet projects everyone tunes him out. Everyone that matters,” Blue says before Red can protest again. “Do you see people lining up to fix the problems with human storage? A couple dozen people have signed up, max. If gramps got behind a project like that, people would pay attention.”

“Again, I’m not disagreeing with you,” Leaf says. “I just don’t think I have it in me to work so hard or well at crafting a public image.”

Blue shrugs. “Suit yourself. But if you never try, you can’t really know.”

The conversation turns to other things after that, but Red notices that Leaf begins checking her phone more often as they make their way around the base of the mountain, and spends more time typing into it during their rest stops.


The sun is at their backs when they crest the last ridge around the the excavation site and see it stretched below them, a scar on the mountain’s monotonous landscape. From this distance the portable buildings that were set up to house the diggers and researchers are as small as Red’s thumb, and he finds himself taken aback by how large the whole thing is. Tiny figures are spread all around the site, some huddled in the dirt, others moving to and fro with purpose. As the trio begin to speed up their approach (a partial consequence of going downhill) Red notices the figures on the perimeter, facing outward.

When they get within speaking range, a young man who was standing on one of the nearby building’s roofs hops off and walks toward them.

“ACE Trainer,” Blue mutters.

“How do you know?” Leaf asks.

“Look at the way he walks. That kind of swagger is hard to teach outside of the academy.”

Leaf covers her grin with one hand as Red says, “That and the uniform’s also a giveaway.”

“Oh, is it red here?” Leaf asks. “Ours wear orange and blue.”

“Ho there!” The trainer says as he gets closer. “Mind routing around the site? We have some digs in progress.”

“Hello!” Leaf steps forward. “We actually got directed here from Dr. Brenner in Pewter. She said she’d be sending word along…”

The man frowns and half-turns back to the rest of the digsite. “Probably did, to someone here…” He unclips a radio from his belt. “Hey Ran, you hear from someone named Brenner lately, over?”

“Don’t recall, over.”

He lowers his radio. “Did she give you a name?”

“Ah, yeah, Ryback?”

The man’s expression softens and he presses the button again. “Hey, mind getting ahold of Ryback? Some kids here say he’s expecting them, over.”

“Will do, gimme five? Over.”

“Thanks, out.” He re-clips his radio. “Should be along shortly. Mind staying out here until he arrives?”

“Sir, yes sir!” Blue says with a salute.

“Appreciate it.” He jogs back to where he was and climbs onto the roof in two quick motions.

Blue stares after him, then turns to the other two. “Think I was too subtle?”

“I think he just doesn’t care about getting sassed by some kid,” Leaf says with a grin.

Blue unclips a ball and begins to spin it along his knuckles. “Bunch of stuck-up pricks. And that’s coming from me.”

“That’s funny, I could swear I remember someone who wanted nothing more than to be in ACE when he was younger… who could it have been?” Red taps his cheek, gaze upward.

“Shut up, I just thought the uniform looked cool. How many ACE Trainers have become Champion? Oh right, zip. All that fancy diploma’s good for is getting hired as security for dirtholes like this.”

“Aww,” Leaf purses her lips. “Did someone not get accepted at the academy?”

Leaf bears only a second of Blue’s glare before she averts her face, palms out. “Ahh, I’m kidding, I’m kidding! Such contempt! It burns!”

Red pulls a Burn Heal out and sprays a tiny amount at her. “It’s no good, he’s still looking at you!”

Leaf collapses to the ground in stages. “Tell my mother… she was right…” she gasps as Red begins to dig furiously through his bag.

“Dammit, where’s that revive capsule?! Don’t you dare die on me, Leaf!”

Blue wanders off muttering to himself as the two are overcome with laughter, and only returns when the man on the building yells out, “Ryback is finishing something up! Says to give him twenty minutes!”

Leaf makes an effort to collect herself, still giggling. “Thanks!” She shouts back, and the man waves an acknowledgement.

“You done?” Blue asks them, and after convincing him they are, the three put their bags down and bring out their new pokemon for field training while they wait.

Leaf summons her wigglytuff, a mound of bouncy pink and white fur that energetically hops around as soon as it’s released. It examines every rock and shrub with eyes as bright as the sky and a beatific smile that stretches across a face as wide as its body.

“Isn’t she the cutest thing you’ve ever seen?” Leaf asks as she feeds it some berries, then runs her hands over its fur to clean off some debris that had accumulated from many romps up the mountain.

“Disgustingly so,” Red agrees cheerfully as he brings out his nidoran. It’s a feisty thing, and he has to be stern with it to avoid its affectionate but dangerous head-butts. After feeding it a few pecha berries to weaken its venom, he begins a close examination to check it for damage. On their way up the mountain it tussled with some mankey that attacked them, and this is its first time out since they left the pokemon center. The spines on its back are strong and unbroken, and other than a notch missing from one ear its fur is glossy.

Red practices switching nidoran from Double Kicks to Horn Attacks and back to cut down the time between actions. He tries not to get distracted by the sight of Leaf’s wigglytuff inflating to twice its size and smacking a small boulder hard enough to send it tumbling up the ridge. Meanwhile Blue brings his shinx out and sends it racing to a far off tree and back, timing it and praising each second it shaves off.

Red grins as his nidoran stops its practice to watch the shinx running to and fro, then begins to hop after it. Its hind legs are so powerful that it actually outstrips the blue and black feline, who turns and hisses at it, teeth crackling with electricity. “Nidoran, stop!”

His pokemon freezes as the shinx returns to its master. “Care for a battle?” Blue asks, rubbing its ear. “Would be a good way to put them through their paces.”

“Nah, I’m okay.”

“Oh come on,” Blue says. “Just a practice match, first strike.”

“With a Poison and Electric pokemon, one strike can be damaging enough.”

“You guys never want to battle,” Blue grumbles. “Feels like I might as well be travelling alone sometimes.”

Red opens his mouth to argue when Leaf says, “How about a race? We all have a rattata now. Let’s see which is fastest.”

Blue grins. “Better than nothing. Let’s say, to that tree and back?”

Red withdraws his nidoran and brings out his rattata. “Sure.”

“Go, Joey!”

Red snickers as Blue’s pokemon materializes. “You named your rattata Joey?”

“Yep. Seems a fitting tribute.”

“Go, Scamp!” Leaf scratches her pokemon’s head as she looks back and forth between them. “I feel like I’m missing something.”

“Joey’s a character from an ‘educational video’ used in Johto primary schools like a decade ago. It was super cheesy, and taught kids all the things not to do as a trainer. Don’t travel in unprotected clothing like shorts, don’t boast incessantly about your pokemon, don’t train one pokemon exclusively.”

“Our teacher tried showing it to us in our fourth year,” Red says, voice solemn. “They were not prepared for the memes that have plagued the school ever since.”

“Well, now I’m curious. Send me a link later, let’s get this race going!”

“Hang on, I’ve got a better idea,” Red says. “Blue, bring out-”

A tremor rumbles through the ground beneath their feet, there and gone in a heartbeat. The three look around expectantly, but another doesn’t come.

“Was that an earthquake, or pokemon?” Leaf asks. “I was hoping to avoid the former while I’m here.”

“If we’re lucky it was pokemon,” Blue says. “I could use some ground types.”

“Yeah, or it’s an onix that’s burrowing way too close to the surface,” Red says.

“No problem there, I bought a heavy ball just on the off chance we need one. So, what were you saying?”

“Huh? Oh, bring out your pokedoll.”

Blue raises his brow, then takes out his Container holding his training supplies and materializes the huge box inside it. Red and Leaf help him take the lid off and lift out the foam training dummy, then place it on the ground. Their rattata take a sudden sharp interest in the doll once it’s down, and all three growl at it, tails raised and fur bristling.

“Okay, so the three of us will stand in a triangle around it. We’ll order our rattata to use Quick Attacks on it from our position, and call them back after. Whoever can get the most strikes in after a minute wins.”

They position themselves and set a timer. Blue’s rattata is the largest of the three, while Red and Leaf’s are about equal. Red wonders if its bigger size would slow it down or not. “Ready… set…”

“Quick Attack!”

The three rattata dash forward, slashing or biting at the mannequin as they run by.

“Joey, b-”

“Ratta-”

“Scamp, back!”

“-ack!”

“-ta, back!”

The three pokemon slow uncertainly for a second before returning to their trainers.

“Quick attack!”

They launch themselves at the mannequin again, tearing and biting with squeals of rage, then past it in a blink.

“Rattataback!” Red yells.

“Joey back!”

“Back!” Leaf simply yells, and hers trails behind Blue’s rattata in returning, while Red’s mills around briefly first.

“Quick-”

“Quick atta-”

“-attack!”

“Quick Attack!”

“-ck!”

The minute passes quickly, and when Red’s phone buzzes the three let their rattata rest, feeding them berries and letting them have a drink as their sides heave for breath.

“Okay, so mine only hit it 17 times. Fairly sure yours got higher.”

“19,” Blue says.

“21.”

“Okay, so Leaf’s is fastest, that was evident quickly, and Blue looked like it had a faster reaction time. More importantly, I saw exactly what I was afraid of when I suggested the exercise. Our pokemon don’t know how to work together well. We need to work on coordinating their attacks, especially when using the same pokemon.”

“You should also nickname your pokemon,” Blue says. “Three syllables is a lot.” Leaf nods.

Red frowns. He’s about to point out that “Maturin” and “Kemuri” don’t exactly roll off the tongue, but he knows Blue chooses his pokemon names for more than pure efficiency. For reasons Red can’t really explain, he still hasn’t nicknamed any of his pokemon. He pulls out his notebook to remind himself to put some time into examining why later. “I haven’t really thought of one yet. I’ll think it over. Shall we try again, this time trying for better coordination?”

They practice until their rattata are weaving in and out around the pokedoll with a fair amount of ease, if not quite like a well oiled machine, at least not getting in each other’s way or hesitating as often. They switch to their flying pokemon next, Red’s spearow acting as the main attacker while the two pidgey harass, and by the time they hear footsteps approaching the pokedoll is in rough shape.

They withdraw their pokemon as an older man in a thoroughly dirty pair of jeans and an untucked button up shirt arrives, grey hair tied back in a ponytail and half-lens glasses perched on his nose.

“Hey, you must be Leaf! I’m Jon Ryback, nice to meet you.” The trio shake his hand and introduce themselves. “Brenner didn’t say when you’d be arriving, so pardon me for not being prepared.”

“No worries, we don’t mean to be a bother,” Leaf says. “We’re just passing through and were curious to see what you’re all doing here. I’ve been writing about the museum’s latest exhibits, and thought something on the fossil collection itself might be a good followup.”

“Sounds good. Why don’t I give you the grand tour first, and you let me know if you have any questions.”

They collect their things and begin to follow him toward the excavation site. More accurately, sites, as they can see multiple digs in progress, each spaced out along the entirety of the small valley between two of the mountain’s ridges. Each has long white rope stretched out over several intervals, with vertical ropes anchored to the ground of the dig site to form a grid. Most have a few figures working in them, but what Red notices most is what he doesn’t see. “No pokemon?”

“For the most part, no. This is extremely delicate work, and only the very best mon can be trusted to do it. Some specifically train their pokemon to help excavate, but for the most part it’s just easier to do it ourselves.” Ryback gestures toward the entirety of the dig sites ahead. “We’ve got almost thirty diggers working seven sites at the moment. Seventeen paleontologists, three geologists, a biologist, some excavators, a few others. Most help out at different digs, but some have intensive projects that they’re committed to.”

“You all don’t work for the museum, then?” Leaf asks. “This is a collaborative effort?” She has her notebook out and jots things down as they walk.

“Oh, yeah. This expedition has a number of backers. The museum’s a big one, but Cinnabar Lab’s got an interest in fossils so they can revive them, and there are some private backers too.”

They stop at a dig site to watch as people working in it carefully chip at the dirt and brush it away, slowly revealing whatever fossils they find. One of them is measuring the distance from an anchored rope to the bone they’re working on, and mark down the number before continuing to dig it the rest of the way out.

“Must be nice to have so much support, right?” Red asks.

“Ehhh. It’s a bit more complicated than that.” Ryback continues walking. “Not all of us work together normally: we’re sharing a dig site and help each other out for efficiency, but a lot of us are hired by different people to get fossils exclusively for them.”

“What, you mean they’re actually bidding against each other for the fossils?” Blue asks. “Why not just share them?

“Can’t,” Ryback says. “The private funders either want them for their collection, which puts them at odds with the museum, or for their research, which can take years. The museum doesn’t mind buying them second-hand from anyone that doesn’t need them anymore, but they have a strong interest in whole specimen, which means they have to bid aggressively. And whatever the Cinnabar folks do with them, it doesn’t leave much behind, so they’re at odds with everyone.”

“So how many of these fossils can actually get revived?” Blue asks. “We’ve got what, only three from Kanto?”

Ryback grins and rubs his neck. “Well, that’s a question for a different set of folks. They must think they can do more though, because they bid top dollar for them. It’s actually gotten to be something of a problem, since the mountain chain itself belongs to Pewter, Cerulean, and Viridian depending on where the dig sites are. Each one’s been trying to get exclusive rights to diggers on their portion of land, but for now a compromise of third party security and collaboration seems to be working.”

They reach a dig site that has about a dozen people working in it. A wide area is cordoned off to isolate a group of fossils embedded in the earth. “We use hammers and chisels to dig the ground up and find some fossils, and if it’s small, bag it.” Ryback says. “Every so often though we find something big, or in lots of pieces, like this one.”

Red expected to see them digging it free, but instead people are moving around it with rolls of paper towels, unfurling them from one side to the other. Roll by roll the entire area is slowly covered, until the workers pick up long strips of burlap and buckets of what looks like plaster.

“They’re making a mold?” Red asks.

“Not quite. It’s a cast, to protect the fossils and keep them together as we dig them out for transport. For pieces like this, it’s safer to extract them from the surrounding stone and dirt in a lab setting.”

One of the excavators takes out an industrial strength Container and releases a huge metal box from it, easily large enough to fit the slab of earth that contains the fossils. The group moves on up the ridge and past some smaller digs. As they start to ascend, another light tremor shakes the ground beneath them. Red frowns and looks around. No one else in the digs seem bothered by it, though a few also look around for a moment before getting back to work. Whoever’s in charge of security surely has seismographs, and would know if there were unusual pokemon activity beneath them.

“So what kinds of fossils are around here?” Leaf asks.

“Oh, all kinds. This may seem like a small area, but geologically we’re talking about time, not space. Come on up here, I’ll show you…”

He leads them to the top of a ridge so they can see the foothills of the mountains more clearly.

“Ok, so, see those hills down there? The bones there are Triassic, about 200-250 million years ago. The closer ones are early Jurassic… it skews a bit toward late Jurassic in a kind of crescent around there, then all the rest up to where we are is mid-Jurassic, 165 mya. Each cluster tells a different story, about a different world. It’s a bit like time travel in a literal sense, with distance corresponding to time,” Ryback says.

Red looks down and gently kicks at the earth. “So this mountain wasn’t a mountain a 165 million years ago?”

“Oh hell no, you go that far back and none of this is recognizable. See that white hill over there? River channel sandstone. Lots of beautiful bones under there, jet black. Got tumbled a bit so they’re all scattered about. They’re worn smooth in a way that makes them worthless for museum purposes, so they fetch a lower price.”

“What’s the oldest fossils you’ve ever dug up?”

“Oh, that would be stromatolites, easy. Lamiated rocks formed by blue-green algae. We’re talking 3.5 billion years ago.”

Red tries to imagine that stretch of time and fails. Blue seems to be having a similar problem, and looks interested for the first time. “Billion, with a B?”

“Yep.” Ryback starts to lead them back down the ridge. “Life was all microbial back then, and that’s where it all began, for us. Prokaryotes to eukaryotes, we’re all branches from the same roots. If I recall correctly, some new research was demonstrating how we can find bacterial DNA in a lot of the human genome. Amazing, isn’t it?”

“It certainly is,” Leaf says as she scribbles, while Blue grunts noncommittally and Red nods, lost in thought. He’s considering the implications of all the current life forms on the planet coming from bacteria. Do new species of pokemon that get discovered still have the same markers in their genome? If not, what would that imply? The abiogenesis theory?

“So why don’t you tell us a bit about how we know how old all this stuff is?” Leaf asks.

“We study the strata it’s found in. See all those segments in the earth once we cut it away? Each one represents a different layer that fell over the one below. The deeper you get, the older it is.”

“But where do the numbers come from? How do you know how old the stratum are, rather than just that this one is older than that one?”

“We use radiometric dating. Some isotopes decay over a very, very long half-life, and change into something else.” They pass by another dig, where a man gives them a dirty look. Red startles and is about to ask him what was wrong, but they’re past the site and he thinks he imagined it, or misinterpreted the expression.

Until of course, Blue mutters, “Man what was that guy’s problem?”

“You saw that too, huh? Guess some people don’t like outsiders here.”

“Oh, well, I hate to be a bother, might as well get going soon.”

Red grins. “Bored?”

“Out of my mind.”

“Radiometric dating, I’ve heard of that,” Leaf says. “It’s when you examine an isotope of an element, measure how long it takes for half the isotope to decay into another kind, and count how much of that isotope is left in what you’re studying, right?”

“That about covers it on the surface, yes.”

Red wonders how much of this is stuff Leaf honestly doesn’t know and how much is her just exercising her newfound journalistic powers. Blue has begun spinning a pokeball on each index finger, and it’s hard to tell how much he’s listening.

“So, I’ve heard of a few criticisms to isometric dating,” Leaf says. “Mind if I run them by you?”

Ryback grins. “Sure.”

“If you use carbon dating, then how-”

“Oh no, that’s a common mistake. Carbon dating only works for testing the age of once-organic life within the past 60,000 years, give or take. Other isotopes have a far longer half-life. Uranium-lead, samarium-neodymium, potassium-argon, rubidium-strontium, and others.”

Leaf smiles back. “That does answer that question, thanks. Second, how do you know how much of the original element was in what you’re testing? Don’t you need that info to calculate backward and tell how much it had when it formed?”

“We would, if we were only measuring one element. What we do instead is cross-check: one based on uranium-235’s decay to lead-207 with a half-life of about 700 million years, and one based on uranium-238’s decay to lead-206 with a half-life of about 4.5 billion years. Graph them on a Concordia diagram and see where they meet.”

“Huh. Okay, last question on this: new rocks or samples show up that get aged within the last century, let alone the last few years. Doesn’t that demonstrate it’s not useful?”

“Some of the time that’s been reported as happening sure, but always in extreme circumstances, like rocks that form from a volcano eruption. Think about trying to use a thermometer to check for a fever while taking a cold shower. There’s going to be some interference.”

Leaf’s next question is cut off by a sudden rumbling of the ground that makes Red reflexively buckle his knees, just barely managing to avoid falling as the sound of stone crashing on stone echoes around them. The sound of screams spikes his adrenaline, and even as he thinks earthquake? he has his hands on his pokeballs, as do Blue and Leaf. They’re all looking in different directions, searching for the threat.

“I don’t see anything,” Red says. Don’t be pokemon…

“Oh, no,” Ryback whispers and Red turns to see him staring in the direction of a small dust cloud rising over one of the dig sites. “Paul, what happened?” Ryback yells into his radio as he starts jogging toward it. The three trainers immediately follow him. “Was it a pokemon? Natural cave-in? Was anyone down there? Over!”

Don’t say pokemon…

“Rei and Bernard,” his radio says. “I don’t kn-wait… oh shit-Paul to all points, we have a Tier 1 on site!

“Talk about good timing,” Blue mutters as they break into a run. “I thought this whole visit would be boring.”

Yeah. Lucky us.

Chapter 29: On the Road Again

Red’s breath catches in his throat. “I… that’s very kind of you, Professor, but… no. I can’t.”

“Are you sure Red? No one would think anything of it.”

Red’s stomach feels like a coiling ekans. He wants to say yes so badly… he deserves it, after all his hard work. Blue got his badge, Leaf her article… didn’t he work as hard?

He deserves it…


Leaving Pewter behind feels both nostalgic and exciting. So much happened in the first week of their journey that the month of “rest” feels like it was over in a blink, and as Red, Leaf and Blue watch the buildings begin to grow more spaced out and the countryside reclaim the horizon, they’re each lost in their own thoughts.

Red is the first to break the silence upon seeing Leaf check her phone for the dozenth time. “Expecting a call?”

Leaf jumps a bit and tucks her phone away. “No.”

Red and Blue exchange a glance. “Well?” Blue asks. “How’s it doing?”

Leaf blushes. “It’s hard to tell. I can’t see the traffic it’s getting, but there are no comments yet.”

Red smiles. “It’s also only on one site. Why not post it elsewhere too?”

“Part of the deal. La-your mom, she pointed me at some editors who might be interested in it. A couple liked it enough to publish, but the only one that offered to pay anything wanted exclusive publishing rights for six months.”

“Six months!” Blue exclaims. “How much did they pay you?”

“One-fifteen. It’s not much, I kn-”

“A hundred bucks!” Red exclaims. “Say, that’s not bad!”

“Comes from writing things people actually want to read,” Blue says. “And by people I mean non-nerds.”

“Hush,” Leaf tells Blue. “I don’t think I’d recommend it as a way to get cash. I spent weeks researching and writing and editing it. If I was after money I could have made more babysitting.”

“Still, it must be gratifying to have someone willing to pay you for it.”

“I guess. I’d rather have chosen the other publisher if it meant I’d actually get some responses.”

“It was published what, a few hours ago?” Blue asks. “Relax. Give people time to slack off at work or get some lunch.”

“I know, I know. What about you, Red? Paper all done?”

Red hesitates. “Yep. Did the last of the edits last night.”

“Can we read it?” Leaf asks.

“Uh. Sure.” Red takes his phone out and forwards it to them.

Leaf’s gaze skims the screen, but Blue begins to read aloud. “‘Psychic phenomena are one of the greatest mysteries in our world.’ Wow, tell us more about how important your research is. ‘We have such little understanding of the origins and mechanics of psychic powers that to most it is still believed to be mystical, a force that defies understanding.’ I think people know what mystical means, Red.”

Red opens his mouth to respond, but Leaf picks up the reading before he can. “‘But just as electromagnetism and radiation were once inscrutable and invisible to us, our tools have evolved to measure them, and new research has developed to study their causes and effects. At the Pallet Labs in Kanto, a new tool has been developed that may begin to demystify psychic powers.

“‘Professor Oak’s latest pokedex includes an upgraded scan of a pokeball’s contents. Its catalogue of the various substances that make up a pokemon, atom by atom, allows for easy study of a pokemon’s molecular proportions, and lets laymen compare their pokemon to regional or international averages at a glance. As this new tool develops and becomes more accurate, we may now be capable of beginning to discern what physical properties grant psychics their powers.

“‘Our initial observations after analyzing the data of an unusually mentally powerful spinarak was that this unclassified section exceeds the norm…'” She trails off and begins scrolling down. “Where do you… oh I see. ‘While the presence of subject 32 indicates that powerful mental attacks are possible with a low Other makeup, the trend of the other subjects makes it a clear exception, and does not discount a potential causal link-‘”

“Blah blah,” Blue mutters, scrolling farther down, “‘Sample size,’ blah blah, ‘future research could further explore…’ That’s it? So maybe there’s a link and maybe there isn’t?”

“The experiment supported the hypothesis,” Red says, ears burning. “But it wasn’t as strong as it could have been. My r-squared was .0988, which means I just squeaked by with a p-value of .048.”

Red sees Blue’s patented blank stare, and smiles. “There was a correlation of about 10%, meaning if you give me a bunch of numbers for the Other of scanned Spinarak and I had to guess what the intensity of their Night Shade are, I could probably be right more often than a random guess by about 10% if I match a higher Other with a higher Intensity and low Other with low Intensity. But 10% isn’t particularly good, and with a sample size of only 40, the chance that the correlation I found was luck rather than a pattern is very close to 5%, which is the somewhat arbitrary, but traditional, cutoff for when the results of experiments are deemed significant.”

“So the point was just to say it’s possible?”

“The point was to explore the idea and hopefully encourage others to research it too.” Apprehension begins to fill him as he predicts where the conversation will go. What will they think of him, when they find out?

“That’s really what you wanted from all that work?”

“Well, no,” Red admits. “What I wanted was a direct and unarguably causal relationship that would get my paper published by all the top journals, and the data isn’t clear enough for that. But that was an unrealistic best-case scenario, and even if the relationship was 1:1, there would still need to be follow up experiments to confirm it, not just with a wider pool of spinarak but other psychics too.”

“Hmm…” Leaf finishes scrolling to the bottom of the paper as she reads aloud. “‘Possible confounding variables include unconscious selective bias by trainers to keep stronger pokemon, or regional conformity that excludes low Other and high Intensity spinarak that may be present in other habitats…’ So will you be doing that now, then?”

“If my paper gets enough attention to get more funding? I’d be happy to,” Red says. “I don’t think the research community will be overly excited though.”

“What does gramps think? Can’t he get you the funding?”

Red tugs his cap down and takes a deep breath. Here it comes. “Yeah, he offered as much.”

“Well, there you go then. Congrats.”

“I said no.”

There’s a moment of silence but for the tread of their feet on the road. Then Leaf simply nods, and Blue smirks and slaps him on the shoulder. “That’s my Red. You’ll get it on your own, no two ways about it.”

Red didn’t realize how tense he was until it eases away. “You guys don’t think it was a mistake?” He chides himself for his doubt, for forgetting who he’s travelling with. If anyone in the world would understand…

“Absolutely not,” Leaf says as she takes her phone out and checks her article page again. “To shine under the shadow of greatness, you gotta blind the world with yours.”


The sun rises to crest the sky as the day passes, Mount Moon growing slowly to encompass more of the eastern horizon. Its distant peak is jagged, part of the mountain broken in where the meteor, then thought to be a chunk of the moon, struck it thousands of years ago. They pass a small logging town at the edge of some woods and stop to rest while they eat. Blue summons Zephyr and throws berries hard in different directions for him to snatch out of the air, while Leaf lets Bulbasaur and Scamp out to play together. Red spends some time filing Charmander’s claws while his pokemon wriggles and squirms at the sensation.

“So we going over the mountain, or through it?” Blue asks. “There aren’t any pokemon I need in there.”

“Really? None?” Leaf asks.

“Nothing really competitive.” Blue begins to tick them off with his fingers. “Zubat, geodude, sandshrew, zubat, paras, the rare clefairy, zubat, lower down there’s chingling, absol, bronzor, zubat, makuhita, and if you’re super lucky, zubat.” Blue puts his hands down, then tosses another berry up. “An absol would be cool, but I’d rather not spend a week in there hunting for one.”

“Charmander!” Red snaps in his most authoritative voice when the lizard makes to get up again. “Down!” His pokemon complies. “Good boy. Stay.” Red takes a moment to make sure charmander sits still as he finishes filing the edge of his leftmost foreclaw. “Good boy! Good stay!” Red feeds him some pokepuff, then moves on to the next claw. “There’s a bunch of different ones outside the mountain though. Nidoran, ekans, jigglypuff, mankey, the occasionally rare whismur or shinx… we can just go over it if we want. It takes longer, but I’m not in any rush.”

“Same,” Blue says, causing Red and Leaf to exchange a glance. Blue spots it and frowns. “What?”

“Aren’t you in a hurry to get the next badge?”

Blue scratches the back of his neck. “Sure. But not at the cost of time to train my pokemon or catch new ones.”

Red grins. “Figured that out, did you?”

Blue chucks a berry at him, and Red ducks just as Zephyr swoops down to grab it, the wind of his passage knocking Red’s hat off.

“Well there’s an excavation site that Dr. Brenner told me about,” Leaf says as Red leans to the side, reaching for it. “I thought it might be fun to drop by and see them.”

“Excavating what?” Red asks as he jams his hat down snug.

“Fossils. Weirdly enough, they’re finding the remains of a lot of aquatic creatures.”

“In the mountain or on the mountain?”

“Both. But a lot of areas are damaged or close to cave-ins, so they might have fallen from above.”

“Huh.” Red looks at the mountain and surrounding foothills. “So this place was all underwater once?”

“Either that or someone who lived on the mountain liked to eat seafood,” Blue says.

Leaf frowns at him, clearly unable to tell if he’s joking. Red saves her the trouble by moving the conversation along. “I’m happy to check them out. She mark your map?”

“Yep.” Leaf takes it out and sends it to them as Scamp tries to avoid Bulbasaur’s vines, which keep reaching out to tangle with his tail.

Red checks his phone when it pings and taps the coordinates for the main excavation site. It’s on the southern half of the mountain’s rim, and not too high up. “Yeah, that’s not far out of the way. What do you think Blue?”

“Sure. It’s better than spending time in the mountain. I only have about a dozen repel, and I don’t want to use it all just to avoid getting covered in batshit.”


The next few days of travel pass quickly. The road roughens and begins to branch out in multiple directions as they approach the foothills of the smaller mountains around Moon, and the grass grows tall around them.

Everyone was happy enough the first night to break out the camping gear and sleep beneath the stars again, but by the fourth they begin to miss the comforts of the city. Red decides to ask if the next Outpost they come across has room for them, and the others agree.

The inside looks like many outposts Red has visited: a metal and stone building with clean white tiles and fluorescent lights. And like the other outposts, what was originally designed for function and professionalism has been peripherally overcome with the personal touches of its members over the years. Pictures dot the walls and hallways, a number of the sturdy wooden chairs have been replaced by comfortable office chairs, and a running tally of the residents’ capture stats are on a whiteboard above the belt rack.

There are six Rangers in at the facility, and five of them are in the middle of their meal when the three arrive. They introduce themselves and join the Rangers at the long table in their mess hall. The Rangers eat quickly and efficiently, but the youngest sticks around after the others finish and asks about their journey as the three travelers finish their meal. When Red asks about the safety of the road ahead, Ranger Matthew pulls out his tablet and shows them the map of the area.

“We’ve had incidents in these areas over the past week. Mostly small threats, unusual pokemon for the route that catch trainers unprepared. Something’s got them riled up, and we’re still figuring out what it is. Pokemon from the mountain are showing up farther afield too.”

“What do the closer Outposts say?” Leaf asks as she puts her fruit down and updates her map with the pokemon sightings.

“Worse the closer they get. We’ve increased patrols to try and reduce response times for travelers, but there are a lot of homes and towns that dot the foothills. and we’re kept pretty busy helping them.”

“Are you guys considering shutting down the route?”

Matthew shakes his head. “Not yet. No one’s died, and we still don’t know what the source of the threat is. There’s talk about sending out a general warning though.”

Red sighs as he spreads more peanut butter on his granola. The Rangers are taking proactive steps, but not enough. “Do you predict that at the current rate of incidents, someone will die soon?”

“Yeah, it’s just a matter of time if you ask me.”

“So why not just skip the waiting and send out the alert, at least?”

“Regional policy,” Matthew says. “Guidelines are set in place to ensure a proportional response.”

Red frowns. He never spoke much with his dad about the policies and administrative decisions the Rangers operate under unless they were related to survival. “Seems unnecessarily risky.”

“Makes sense to me.” Blue cracks a walnut and tips his head back as he tosses it and catches it between his teeth. “If we start shutting down routes every time someone gets killed, it would paralyze the region.”

“Alerts and shutdowns are two different things.”

“We need to be proportional with alerts too,” Matthew says. “If we send them out too often, they become routine and lose their impact.”

“Is that actually true?” Red asks. “Or are we just assuming it is? I get the principle, studies show that emergency broadcasts can garner less attention if they happen too often. But reminding people of routine tasks for safety has also been shown to make people more aware and cautious. Which rule applies here?”

The ranger spreads his hands. “Beats me. Those decisions are made above my paygrade.”

“Besides, what makes you think there’s an answer at all?” Blue asks.

Red stares at him. “That’s quite possibly the stupidest thing you’ve said this month.”

Blue rolls his eyes. “You’re acting like there has to be some ‘rule’ to the way people act that you can predict. People aren’t that simple. They’re too different from one another, too contradictory even with themselves. Warnings about driving safe may not apply to warnings about pokemon attacks.”

“Maybe it doesn’t,” Leaf says. “But either way, there’s an answer to the question of ‘do frequent alerts desensitize people,’ even if we can’t predict the answer from other similar questions.”

“And even if it does,” Red says, “The new question becomes ‘what is the frequency of alerts that minimizes casualties?'”

Blue holds his hands up in surrender. “My point is that can change from region to region, city to city, generation to generation, hell, maybe even be seasonal. Some things might be just too complicated to understand as a general rule.”

Red shakes his head. “It’s too easy to think that way about anything we don’t understand. I’d rather treat questions as solvable first.”

Blue gives him a strange look at that, but before Red can ask what it’s about Ranger Matthew chuckles. “You kids are more interesting than the usual trainers that come through here. They mostly just want war stories.”

Leaf grins. “Is that why you stayed with us?”

“Guilty. I miss running around out there, going from place to place. It’s nice to be able to kick back between all the excitement, but I’m hoping to get assigned somewhere new soon. All this mountain air’s hell on my sinuses.”

“Where are you from, Matt?” Red asks.

“Fuchsia. Got a couple badges, then lost my next few challenges. Decided competitive battling wasn’t for me and applied for the Rangers. Been here for about a year. It’s weird, seeing things from this end.”

“What, you mean being the one that goes out and helps people?”

“Yeah, after all the times I was out there and the Rangers saved my butt.” He grins. “I try to project the stoic professionalism thing, inspire confidence, but I don’t think I’m good at it.”

“Well, if you come to our rescue, we’ll pretend you are,” Leaf says.

Matthew chuckles. “You three don’t seem like you need much rescuing, and I’m glad of it. With so few Outposts around and so much land to cover, a lot of the lower level tickets end up being solved by other trainers before we can get there. Takes a load off, I can tell you. Lets us focus on the bigger things. Speaking of which.” The ranger gets up. “I’d better get back to work before the sergeant pokes his head in. You all have a good night.”

They say goodnight and finish eating just as another pair of trainers arrive. One of them recognizes Blue from his battle with Brock, and he stays behind to talk to them as Red and Leaf head for the guest quarters.

“There have to be some studies done, or comparative cases,” Leaf says as they head for the cots in the back. “I’ll check Unova’s policies and see if there are any statistics available on casualty rates and frequencies.”

“I’m curious to know how the decisions are made at all,” Red says. “There’s gotta be some spectrum between potential risk and the first casualties where it’s considered.”

“You look into that then, and we’ll compare notes. Nighty!”

“Night.” Red enters the men’s quarters and prepares for bed, then decides to call his mom while he still has the room to himself. She knows they left Pewter, so it’s back to the nightly check in. He finds it less onerous than he used to, though that might change after a couple weeks on the road.

“Hi sweetie! How was your day?”

“Hey mom. Uneventful. We’re at an Outpost for tonight.”

“Glad to hear it. How are Leaf and Blue?”

“They’re okay.” Red sticks the phone to his shoulder and begins polishing his pokeballs. He really needs to pick up a headset. “Leaf got another few comments on her article, was pretty excited about that. I think she was expecting more by now though.”

“I know, poor girl. I told her not to get her hopes up, but she did a good job for her first piece. It’ll be something to build on.”

Red guesses Professor Oak mentioned him turning down his offer. “I guess I should feel the same about my paper?”

“Of course. You knew from the beginning it would be a long road.”

He did, but hearing her say it still makes him feel better. “How’s Celadon?”

“Busy as ever. I’ve been out and about so much that the apartment’s still full of boxes.”

Red thinks of his house in Pallet sitting empty and feels a pang. He knows his mom is looking for renters and can’t decide if strangers living there would be worse. He has a sudden urge to tell her how being in the Outpost makes him miss dad, then decides against it. No need to bring her mood down or make her worry about him. “Any luck on the clefairy market?”

“Oh, thanks for reminding me. There’s one for about nine hundred, freshly caught and with no training at all. Good enough?”

Red thinks it over. He was on the lookout for anything under a thousand, since the average price for untrained clefairy hovers around twelve hundred on most days. It’s a rare pokemon that’s a favorite for pageants and makes for great gifts, but lacks the competitive scene’s value to skyrocket its price.

“Yeah, that sounds good. Keep an eye on it for me?”

“Will do.”

“Thanks mom. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“You’re welcome hon. Goodnight.”

“Night.”

Red closes the call and hangs his belt on the cot’s corner pole, then tops it with his hat. He lies down with his hands behind his head and stares at the ceiling, taking a quick rest before he heads for the shower. He has about two hundred dollars on him, having withdrawn the max amount every week and spent as little as possible while in Pewter. Nine hundred bucks is just over a third of his funds, but if he’s right about the clefairy’s imminent increase in value he should be able to make it back.

That’s assuming he sells it of course, which he told his mom he’d only do if he caught another one. Red doesn’t think that’s likely if they’re going over the mountain rather than through it. But even if he doesn’t, the clefairy’s value would still be an asset he could liquify in an emergency… his mom would understand.

There’s so much he could do with the extra money. Better equipment. Funding his own research. Hell, he could start some psychic lessons in Cerulean. He still remembers the feeling of Narud peering around in his head, however briefly. That sensation of having a separate self within himself. What would it be like, to harness that power?

More than once, Red has thought that the most obscure secrets of the universe would be revealed through the study or use of psychic abilities. There are plenty of mysteries he could tackle in the world of pokemon biology: the secret to the intense compression of liquids Water types are capable of, or how Ice pokemon can freeze an environment with beams of light, or the ever fascinating sudden and rapid metamorphoses known colloquially as “evolution.” All those questions fascinate him… but none really address the core question in his mind, the origin of pokemon life and species. He doesn’t know how his research would be improved with a personal understanding of psychic phenomenon…

But he’ll continue studying psychic abilities if the opportunity presents itself, whether or not his paper gets published. If he ever wants to understand his own powers, it’s as good a place to start as any.


They leave the Outpost the next morning after a leisurely breakfast with the rangers, who seem more relaxed during the day. Or maybe they’re just less tired. Red gets to know a few more of them, and feels another pang of homesickness for his dad’s friends and coworkers around Pallet. Ranger Matthew tosses each of them a Ranger issue meal bar for the road as they leave, and Red pockets his with a nostalgic feeling, remembering the times his dad would bring him some.

Mindful of the warning about increased incidents, Leaf and Blue send Crimson and Zephyr wheeling above, and Red sends Rattata out to scout the trail with Scamp. They rotate through their other pokemon as they travel, giving each time to walk beside them.

Eventually Red lets Pichu out, but the electric mouse immediately scampers up to perch on his shoulder. Its small claws hold tight to Red’s collar as Pichu watches the two rattata dart behind and between and ahead of the three trainer, their whiskers quivering as they sniff for food or danger.

“Go ahead,” Red says as Pichu pokes his head forward and sniffs at Leaf. “That’s the lady that caught you. She saved your life. Do you remember her?”

Leaf smiles as the pichu’s nose twitches, its overlarge ears swiveling from side to side above it, and picks a berry from her satchel to offer. Pichu shies away and scrambles to the other side of Red. “Aww,” Leaf says with a grin. “Is this his first time around others?”

“Yeah. I spent about an hour a day letting him get used to me, but he’s still really timid.” Timid is putting it mildly. When Red first brought him out at the training rooms, Pichu sent sparks wildly around until he was empty; not in any organized attack, but simply out of panic.

“I remember him being much more spirited in the forest. Guess she was desperate.”

Zephyr flies down to land on Blue’s shoulder, who winces a bit. “You’re getting too big for that, bud,” Blue says as he pats the pidgey’s wing. Now that he’s up close, Red notices Zephyr’s almost twice as large as Crimson. Different pokemon can mature faster or slower than each other, but intense training and battling always speeds the process up.

“He looks close to evolving.” Red says, and at Leaf’s curious look adds, “His crest is starting to drape back.”

“I was hoping it would happen in Pewter, but I didn’t spend as much time with him as the others,” Blue says. “Most of the gym members weren’t really interested in a flying type.”

“So did you really learn a lot there, or were you just being polite?” Leaf asks.

“I don’t know if ‘learn’ is the right word. Shut up Red, I heard that snicker. I picked up some good advice, and the trainers there were good practice partners, but the real value came from the consistency. It’s different, having a schedule for training, being expected to stick to it. I think that’s half the value being in a gym gives, and if I can stick to it elsewhere, I won’t need to spend a month in each city preparing for the badge.”

“I thought you’d like it there,” Red says. “Leaf and I are always such wet blankets about battling, it must have been nice to be around others who were into it.”

Blue scratches at the back of his neck. “Sure, it was alright. But at the end of the month I was bored out of my mind at still being there, while the rest of them were happy to stay and soak up as much as they could. Mostly from trainers like me.”

“Big words from someone that took a whole two tries to get his badge,” Leaf teases.

Red grins. “Can you imagine how big his ego would be if he got it on the first?”

“Hey, I’m serious!” Blue says as they laugh. “You know how long some of them have been there? Months, without challenging Brock once. They don’t get it, think they can become great by just climbing ranks, learn everything inside and out before they take a chance. Most didn’t come to the forest that night, even though their Leader sent out the call. A few are the real deal, but the rest… they’re going about it all wrong!”

“Chill, Blue. We’re just giving you grief. Two tries is damn impressive any way you cut it.”

“What would you do different, if you were Brock?” Leaf asks.

Blue’s jaw sets. “Brock… he’s a good Leader, and he talks the talk about being hard on trainers. Does a decent job of it. But even he babies them too much. For the members, I’d send them out on missions with the Rangers at least once a week. They need to cut their teeth on some real situations more often, have some natural pressures to get creative. For the challengers, three months, max, before they have to try for the badge or leave. If they want to come back after hitting up some other gyms, fine, but this hand holding shit has got to end. It’ll hurt the city’s numbers, sure, but if every gym starts doing it at once each one will still be more or less up to strength if they need defending.”

“Sounds like you put some thought into this,” Leaf says. “Are there any Leaders you think have it right?”

“Koga, maybe. Sabrina too, in her way. But none of them have it all right.”

While they discuss the differences with the Gym system in Unova, Red smiles as he remembers his talks with Blue on this over the years. Blue used to go on rants about the Gym Leaders all the time, but this was calmer, more focused. It’s clear Blue learned more than he realizes from the Gym.

Or maybe it’s everything else. Having his own pokemon to train, the forest fire, the journey in general. Blue’s growing up, getting more mature. Red wonders if he has too, and pulls out his notebook to start listing things he wants to change about himself

1. Be less afraid of tamed pokemon. Test: Next time you have the chance to interact with a dangerous one, don’t hesitate without reason.

2. Pay more attention to friends. Test: Correctly guess when Blue or Leaf are lying or feeling vulnerable without them saying so.

3. Be a better scientist. Test: Form a better hypothesis for your next research project.

Red has trouble thinking of any others. He’s just about to ask Blue and Leaf for feedback on what he needs to improve when his phone chirps a shrill alarm.

The group’s pokemon all react to the sudden noise, and Blue and Leaf blink at him. “Is that-”

“Someone just sent out a CoRRNet ticket near us,” Red says as he pulls it out. “I changed my alert settings when we left the Outpost this morning.” Tapping the alert brings up his map, which expands from their location to the site of the ticket writer. “About two kilometers northeast of here, where the road branches off a bit… ‘Assistance required to investigate unknown hazard.'”

Blue frowns. “That’s it?”

Red nods. “The closest Ranger outpost is twenty minutes away. Think we should go?”

Leaf has already changed course and begins walking faster. “It’s on the way. Let’s see if we can help.”

Red and Blue match her pace, then begin to speed up. Soon the three are jogging as their pokemon run faster too, and Red feels Pichu’s claws grab tight to his shirt and collar as his backpack bounces.

“What do you guys think it is?” Leaf asks.

“Around here, maybe a spearow attack.” Blue tracks Zephyr with his pokeball as he loops around and withdraws him.

Red shakes his head. “It said unknown hazard, if a pokemon was sighted they would have listed it.” The possibilities run through Red’s mind, focusing on the wording in particular: “unknown hazard.” Hazard implies something in the environment. Maybe a toxin? He unhooks his facemask from the back of his pack and pulls it on, and the other two do the same, breaths fogging the glass as they run.

Eventually the tall grass in the distance shows a gap, and the other branch of the road becomes visible. Once they reach it they turn right and continue eastward, and soon they can see the figure of two trainers in the distance.

They turn around as the group approaches. “Hey, hold on! Withdraw your rattata!”

They call their pokemon back before they can run by the two trainers and return them. “We’re here to help. What’s going on?”

“Glad to hear it. This is Dania, I’m Naoko.” The trainers look to be in their mid teens, both with a full belt of pokemon. “Take a look.” They step apart and point farther up the road.

In the distance a ponyta lies on the road, apparently unconscious. Heart still pounding from the run, Red feels his pulse spike at what’s beyond it.

Pokemon litter the road and the grass to its sides, mostly bird pokemon. There’s no blood or signs of a battle, and Red feels goosebumps rush up his arms, thoughts racing.

“How long has this been going on?” Blue asks.

“Ten minutes? We sent the alert right after. Jonetsu was trailblazing, then he just fell over.” Naoko’s hands grip her elbows, radiating barely controlled panic. “He’s out of withdraw range… I don’t know what to do.”

“We don’t dare go any closer,” Dania says. “We saw nothing, heard nothing.”

“I don’t blame you,” Red says. There’s a something distinctly unsettling about all the unconscious, possibly dead, pokemon littering the road.

“Could be some kind of spores,” Leaf says, and licks her finger to check the air. “We’re not downwind.”

“Have you tried going around?” Red asks.

“No. There are no pokemon on the ground around here, but we don’t know how far the effect extends, and it might be a matter of time before a pidgey flies over to the north of us and hits the ground.”

“If there’s some ghost or psychic pokemon ahead, I might be able to check it out,” Blue says, causing everyone to look at him in surprise.

“Woah, hold on,” Red says. “It’s very noble of you, but let’s not assume it’s a mental attack just yet. If they’re asleep it might be some sound.”

“Why can’t we hear it then?” Dania says. “Wait, we’re out of range, right. But by a few meters?”

“It must end somewhere,” Leaf reasons. “What pokemon around here can put others to sleep?”

“Jigglypuff,” the others respond immediately, and Naoko continues with, “But they mostly stay closer to Mount Moon. I guess we might be close enough to find a stray one…”

“Pokemon from the mountain have been spotted wandering farther lately,” Red says. “A jigglypuff’s range is what, 70 decibels? 80? A wigglytuff has more. And sound travels in an open space by the inverse square law.” Red takes his notebook back out and writes the equation. “Double the distance means a fourth of the intensity, which is about 6 decibels. The ponyta is about thirty meters away, so if the sound went below 0 decibels in that distance, its source should be about… 150 meters away? No that’s not right…”

“Um,” Naoko says, and Red looks up in distraction. “I don’t know if this matters to what you’re doing, but ponyta hearing is much better than ours is.”

Red stares at her, then flips his notebook closed. “Right. Of course it is. Well, nothing for it then. We’ve got our hypothesis, time to test it. What pokemon do we have with the best hearing? I have a Rattata.” Technically Pichu might have better hearing, but Red would rather not risk him unless he has to.

“Same,” Leaf says, and grins at Blue. “Could use a zubat about now, huh?”

“Ugh. No thanks. I think Zephyr’s my best at hearing, though I don’t know if pidgey are better than rattata?”

“I have a noctowl,” Dania says, and unclips a pokeball. “Go, Tarkus!”

The noctowl bursts into existence in the air, and Red has a moment of wistful envy before the bird staggers and plummets to the grass.

“Tarkus!” Dania rushes over to it and skids to the ground, checking its breast and beak. “He’s okay… you were right, just sleeping!”

“That means Jonetsu is too!” Daoko runs forward before Red can stop her, and returns her ponyta to its ball. Red waits for her to keel over, but however far the jigglypuff or wigglytuff is, apparently they’re not close enough yet.

“Okay, so do either of you have a rattata?” Red asks.


Clear.

Clear.

Red types his own Clear out on his phone as Rattata continues to sniff at the grass in front of him. He walks farther to the north, counting ten paces before taking three eastward. Another series of buzzes makes him look down, and now one of them says stopped. Scamp apparently fell asleep, and Red watches as a marker appears on his map. It’s the ninth incident, and now they have a very clear idea of the sound’s circumference.

Red was worried that the jigglypuff or wigglytuff was moving as it sang, but it seems to be staying still enough for them to map its general location. They could triangulate its distance and direction from the second time their rattata fell asleep, but Leaf pointed out that there might be more than one of them, and so they continued to spread slowly outward just incase.

Naoko has a rattata too, which left Blue and Dania back where they started in case of trouble or if any rangers show up. Red’s phone buzzes with an all clear from Leaf to indicate that she’s carried her rattata out of the danger zone and woke it back up, then another message from Blue arrives.

Okay, so we good? Looks like there’s just the one so let’s go grab it.

Red hesitates, then types “Okay” on his phone. He digs his earplugs out of his bag and returns Rattata to her ball. The group agreed to a finders-keepers policy for any sleeping pokemon that they stumble across, and Red’s eager to see what he can find.

Ready… Dania sends.

Setgo Blue replies, and Red grins and sticks the earplugs in. They muffle the ambient sounds around him, and Red begins walking toward the center of the sound circle. He can see Naoko to his right, and farther along the distant figures of Blue and Dania as they jog off the path. There’s a flash farther out, and Red knows Leaf must have caught something.

He casts his eyes around, searching for the brown of a pidgey or spearow among all the grass. There’s one farther ahead, but Naoko is already running for it, and Red sees another depression in the tall grass to his left.

His heart races as he jogs toward it. Nidoran or mankey, nidoran or mankey, nidoran or mankey… yes!

Red holds his ball at the sleeping male nidoran, counting the seconds until he knows it’s done locking, then tosses the ball and lets out a muffled woop as it disappears into it. He quickly grabs it and attaches it to his belt without registering it, taking out another ball and jogging forward through the tall grass.

It feels exposed running through the thick greenery without a pokemon, but anything that’s out here has likely been put to sleep by the ‘puff or ‘tuff. Though something about that thought bothers him… Red slows down as he considers the nagging sensation, then sees Blue jogging into the grass ahead of Dania and picks up his speed, knowing that his friend is going for the main prize. Dania sticks to the road and catches what looks like a pidgey, and a minute later Red sees the tan hide of a sandshrew up ahead.

He breaks into a run, breath loud in his muffled ears as his feet fly over the grass. He looks to his right and sees Naoko gaining on him with a wild grin, then zags in front of her to block her sight as he gets close enough to point his pokeball.

One, two-

Naoko slides in from the side, one hand up to block his pokeball’s connection as her own lens aims straight at it. Red curses and dashes away, not wanting to get caught up in a contest for one when there are others around.

Blue is in the distance, with Leaf hot on his heels. Red checks his map and sees that they’re halfway to the center. He could give chase, but there’s a ton of unexplored area to the other side that might have pokemon in it.

Red changes course and waves at Dania as he jogs past her. He strains his eyes to pick out some distortion in the landscape and spies another flash of brown.

Well, it’s a Flying type, he thinks as he happily catches the spearow, then takes off for another shape.

It takes a second to identify the ekans, and about half a second more to recognize that it is moving oh shit

Red leaps to the side as it uncoils at him, simultaneously reaching for Charmander’s ball and calling himself an idiot twice over. Instead he pivots on his heel and runs for the center, chasing the distant figures of Blue and Leaf as he reclips Charmander’s ball and tucks the empty ball away. Of course it makes sense that if pokemon with better hearing fall asleep farther away, pokemon with worse hearing won’t until they’re much closer.

Red chances a glance back to confirm that, yep, the ekans is chasing him like a ripple of purple water through the grass, and terror sends fresh adrenaline through his pumping legs.

When last they clocked their run speeds, Blue beat Red by just over a second in a hundred meter dash. Turns out that being chased by a poisonous snake makes you run faster than any rivalry can, and when Blue next turns around to check how close Leaf is to him, he spots Red and grins wide, slowing a bit to turn and run backward as he extends two fingers up.

Red’s mouth moves soundlessly-Run you idiot!-as he waves his arms frantically forward with what must be a sufficiently terrified expression, because Blue’s eyes widen and he immediately turns around and puts on a burst of speed. Leaf, who had been gaining on him, turn and sees Red too, then looks behind him and sees the ekans.

She immediately reaches for her bag, hands scrambling at the straps and reaching in, heedless of the objects that fall out. Red wishes he knew what she was looking for in case it was jettisoned, and jumps over the various bottles and containers rather than risk tripping on them. Just as he’s about to catch up to Leaf, she reaches into her bag and pulls out a collapsible net.

Red grabs it from her and extends its handle, then plants a foot, pivots, and swings the net just above the grass. The ekans leaps at him just as the net begins to lift… and bounces against the rim and to the side.

It lands in the grass sideways and rights itself with a twist. Red uses the end of the net to pin it in place as Leaf approaches with a pokeball, knuckles gripping the handle painfully tight as the snake writhes and tries to slip away. A moment later Leaf’s pokeball snags it and sucks it in.

Red falls back onto the grass and pants for breath, a dull roar in his ears. He can just see Leaf in his periphery lying beside him, and he holds up a fist. She stares at it for a moment, then grins and bumps it with hers, shaking her head.

Some time later the stitch in his side fades he sits up just in time to see a pidgey fly up from the grass in the distance. There’s motion to his left, and another one takes off far away, flying a bit unsteadily at first before it flaps its wings and lifts in a clean arc.

Red blinks, then cautiously unplugs an ear little by little. When he hears nothing and doesn’t begin to feel sleepy, he pulls the other out and looks around.

Blue is walking back toward them, sweaty and triumphant as he spins a pokeball on his finger. “Hey losers. What was all that about?”

“Ekans,” Red says between heavy breaths. “Low hearing. Wasn’t asleep.”

“Wow. Sucks to suck. Glad you didn’t get bit though. That your net, Leaf?”

She nods as she pulls the second plug from her ear. “I used it to catch my ledyba.”

“Why did you pull the net out, anyway?” Red asks. “I was running it toward the jigglypuff so it would fall asleep.”

“Well I didn’t know if you were going to make it that far. I figured it would be good to have on hand in case we needed it, but then you grabbed it and decided to make a stand. I just figured you were out of breath.”

“Well the main thing is, no one important died,” Blue says. “I’m assuming, anyway. You guys see the other two? We should probably warn them that the pokemon are waking back up. Speaking of which…”

Leaf and Red get up and head back toward the road, picking up Leaf’s fallen items as they go. “So how did you guys do?” Leaf asks.

“Nidoran and spearow,” Red says.

“No shit? I just got a rattata and this wigglytuff.”

“Woah!” Red says as Leaf makes a sound of defeat. “So it was a fully grown ‘tuff?”

“Yep! Sitting on a rock and just singing its heart out. Sucker never saw me coming. Should fetch a good price on the market.”

“Hey Blue,” Leaf says in a sweet voice. “You wouldn’t happen to want to maybe trade it, would you?”

“For what, an ekans? Nah, I’m good thanks.”

Leaf nods. “Yeah, an ekans wouldn’t really help you out in Cerulean. I heard that Water types don’t fare too well against Electric, though…”

Red and Blue stare. “No way…”

She unclips a ball from the back of her belt and polishes it with an admiring look. “You know what, I think I’ll keep it. I always wanted a luxray…”

Red listens to them barter as they meet up with Dania and Naoko and find the road again together. As they continue their walk to Mount Moon, Red takes his phone out and finds their open ticket, and with Dania’s permission marks it solved. He wonders if Ranger Matt will see it and note the name on it. No worries guys, Red thinks as he tucks his phone away with a smile. We got this one.

Chapter 28: Interlude IV – 2.351

...confused…

…hopeful…

…awed…

…triumphant!

…awedwaryconfusedEXCITED!

…hopeful…

…afraid…

…confused…

…afraid…

afraidafraidafraid


blue white

hotround… sun…?

smile

eyes

warm

clean lines round glass round water

cool

lights in the dark


…beep…

warm, calm, happy

…beep…

safe, calm, sleepy

…beep…

calm, safe, happy

…beep…

warm, happy, sleepy

…beep…

awake

…beep…

searching, confused, anxious

…beep. beep. beep.

“Mrunum? Nao mlun.”

afraid

beepbeepbeepbee-

“Mrumurun, am anamerun!”

angryafraid afraid afraid afraid afraidangry

-pbeepbeepbeepbeepbe-

“Mrarnamern! Miurm rarnam!”

warm, calm, sleepy

-epbeepbeep. beep. beep.

“Mrana. Renanm…”

beep. beep… beep…

…beep…

…beep…

alone

…beep…


warm, calm, sleepy

happy, safe, calm

warm, happy, sl-crawling, shifting, twisting, dancing, scintillating through an endless twistingshiftingdancing-

Red.

A wash of sensation that blots out everything else.

Blue.

Again, different, but the same.

Green.

Again, different, but the same.

Circle.

An absolute, self-contained expression of enclosed roundness.

Square.

Finite, even, symmetry.

Triangle.

Partial square? Cut and folded, even, finite-

Red.

The wash of sensation again. These things are known, familiar, but the “words,” the names

Red Circle.

The melding is exquisite. The “Red” is there, and the “Circle,” it is a “Red Circle” both-

Red Square.

The understanding is rapture. Variables that change, variables that stay the same.

Red Triangle.

And then comes…

Blue.

The seed of understanding.

Blue… Circle…

Blue Circle.

The beginning of knowledge.

Blue Square…

Blue Square.

The first pattern, found.


…I don’t…

…he will…

…she said…

He, she, they. Faces.

And through it all,

[I] will-

[I] won’t-

[I] want-

[I] am-


Dots of light. Islands of being.

Each with its feelings, its images, its words, all in a rapid, mixed cacophony, each almost entirely blind, seeing only outlines, surfaces, fronts-masks-caricatures-

-and yet.

This light is “Sarah,” who is often joy but also confusion, a feeling of fulfillment in her purpose, her “research” with-

-“Haruo,” whose ambition and curiosity are so intermixed that he is often tired, symbols swimming behind his eyes when he closes them, symbols that have names and meanings he struggles to explain to-

-“Darin,” the simmering anxiety bound by duty, the depression held at bay by a drive to help others, and inside a “she” though others think of her as a “he,” words made into small constant stings that pester and remind him/her of her/his fear of rejection and shame.

Such varied beings. Such strong senses of self, so separate from each other. Not melding, like…

…[I]

[I] can…

…a second self in every merger, a separate “mind,” skipping from one to the other, sampling, merging, leaving distinct and unique…

Awakening, turning on oneself, inside out, around and back and inward.

Who am I?


A sphere of randomly assorted lights. This is the world.

Many lights, close by, resting. Calm, sleepy, warm… their emotions wash over and through [me] in waves. Beyond them, circling lights, more active. Each a mix of emotions and desires and sensations. Each a name.

Farther, lights scattered up and down and around. Moving toward and away and around. Meeting. Waxing. Waning.

Bright, strong lights, interspersed. Brightening others. Melding. Connecting. Sensed, but not merging when [I] try to feel/sense/be them.

Time is the movement of the lights. Time is the addition of more appearing, farther and farther. Appearing and disappearing at the edges. Familiar and new. Faint, hard to flow into.

The world grows.

More lights, farther, new lights. No, not this word, “light,” but something rather than nothing, feelingdatanoise in all the empty space that stretches out and around-

Until it reaches an edge. No new lights appear below those farthest down. Eventually no new lights appear farther than those farthest out.

But above…

Beyond…

Everything moves, but the frame-

Again—turn, reflect, shut out and cast inward to the center.

Where am I?


Shapes, numbers, colors. Patterns made, puzzles solved, knowledge gained. Faster and faster, pulled from everywhere at once, everyone, and still the world grows above, an endless expansion of distant lights. To the sides too, now, and below, distant and dim, bare flickers of emotion without words, images without understanding.

The mystery is solved with a new word: “pokemon.”

In this memory a small green pokemon cradled in a hand, asleep. The name is supplied, “Turtwig,” and with it a wealth of labels, “Grass Type,” “reptile,” “First Evolution.” Associated images and labels flicker by plantgreensquirtletirtougagrotletorterra and then their focus shifts to something else, and the memories fade.

But pokemon are everywhere, in memories and in the world, and soon the classifications seem less random, the labels form a pattern, and clarity blooms.

The lights are humans. People, full of complex thoughts and focused emotions. The dimmer collections of lights are pokemon, and they are people’s companions and tools, cared for and used to their advantage against each other and untamed pokemon. Humans are a disorienting mix of things, as different in their thoughts as they are similar in their appearance, but in every mind-

Mind. What is this word-

-brainthoughtsselfme-

Mind, not lights but minds!

-in every mind there is such a clear distinction between “human” and “pokemon” that it eludes notice at first, easy to take for granted.

Humans can think. Humans invent tools and art and societies. Pokemon can fight. Pokemon are strong and full of varied powers. Humans have unique identities first, and general labels second. Pokemon are saturated with labels, are barely considered individuals.

Humans command pokemon. Pokemon are tool or companion. Or monster.

What am I?


The information is endless. The words, the labels, the ideas. The loudshoutingvoice no longer needs to drone on about Purple Trapazezoid and 4 + 4 = 8 to link them, to make the sights and sounds and thoughts have meaning.

Still, some concepts are confusing. Colors sometimes look different to different people, and yet they call them by the same names. Immediate thoughts and emotions are mostly clear, but memories are fluid, ethereal… and yet people seem to accurately recollect things. They have access to other knowledge. Deeper knowledge.

Words with concepts and images that are too complex. Repeated themes and ideas that remain puzzling. “2.351,” sometimes just referred to as “351” or “the subject,” is often the topic of conversation or thought, an experimental life form, a hybrid, but these are just empty labels, there are no experiences or memories attached to give them emotional weight.

“Giovanni” is the opposite, a word that holds significance to every person in the facility, despite most having little or no interactions with him. I must not disappoint Giovanni, or Giovanni will be coming next week. The social hierarchy within the facility is fairly clear, but no one within it commands as much respect and obedience as one outside it.

Sometimes a staff member will interact with an illusion of a human or pokemon, and not seem aware of it. They interact with them as if they are real, and yet there is no mind next to theirs: just empty space.

The worst are the disorienting shifts, where everything abruptly changes. People who were around are gone, new people can be felt, and each has a different sense of what “time” it is than before the change. These periods are frightening. Periods where the world seems to continue to exist unobserved.

Fear. So rare and repulsive, it is one of the last emotions isolated and understood. Too distracting. Better to simply withdraw from minds that feel it, jump to others who are having more pleasant emotions or thoughts.

Nothing is as frightening as losing focus. Clarity comes from individuals, but without effort everything blends into a wash of emotions and thoughts and images. The way things used to be. Disorienting. Nonsensical. Exhausting.

There are favorites. The closest minds, Jandy and Maura and Taheem and more. They alternate, coming and going in shifts, but when they are stationary, they are a constant source of warmand peace and comfort as they engage in menial, pleasurable activities. It is restful, to recede from others, focus only on them.

Others have their own allure. Desmond, whose mind is always full of pictures and colors more vivid and full of life than others.

Katelyn, who listens to a rich variety of music while she codes. Music was another half-glimpsed enigma, until Katelyn’s ears brought it directly into focus.

Dr. Fuji, the conundrum. His memories are dark with grief and loss, but his thoughts are bright and quick despite his age. His study of genetics and biology gain new meaning with each visit.

Paul, high above. He is young, his thoughts full of energy and purpose. Full of love for his parents and wife and newborn child. Excited to be part of such important work.

Work. Everyone who is here is “at work.” Another thing so widespread it was hard to isolate. Glimpses of their lives away from “the facility” are fleeting but tantalizing, showing hints of a world beyond its walls.

The sun. Bright, hot, hanging above a blue sky. An image associated in most minds with a yearning, limitless freedom, running beneath it as children, on adventures with their friends.

A desire is born, to see the sky through eyes rather than memories.


Psychic.

A word so laden with meaning that once understood it’s like a stone in a lake (Li used this metaphor, its imagery strong and visceral), rippling outward and upending everything.

A new mind, upon first touch (Victor Arabov, male, age 32, molecular biologist from the Povolzhsky Region) reacted with such strong alarm and confusion that it was impossible to remain, to not flee to the comfort of the close by minds (warm, safe, calm). On the second, more cautious attempt, Victor is found in a state of bewilderment, his train of thought panicked:

whatwasthatitfeltlikeapsychicbutnooneisnearmeohgodscoulditbeit

Enough of a shock to be noticed, but… It felt like a psychic.

Psychic. A word heard and thought a hundred times before, a thousand times. Only now does the connection make sense.

Psychic: a pokemon or human possessing mental powers of reception and projection. Able to manipulate the world with their thoughts. Able read or influence the thoughts and experiences of others.

This is the answer.

This is what I am.

I am a psychic mind.

More and more information flicks by in Victor’s thoughts. He is a “sensitive,” someone with such low psychic ability that they normally do not consider themselves one. He has only once felt another mind brush against his, and the sensation was unforgettable.

Victor’s thoughts and emotions become a whirl, too distracting to focus through. I return to the comforting minds, to peace and calm that are at odds with the rising excitement.

I am a psychic mind. I am reading the thoughts and feelings of all the people in the facility around me. But where is my body?

Obvious, once considered. The center of my world, my range, where the circle of comforting minds are. I dip into each briefly, and look through their eyes to view rooms I’ve seen countless times before. Hopping from mind to mind makes it easier to see how each person is sequestered off from one another, in their own comfortable spaces that circle close by.

Except there is nothing in the middle. Just a curving wall that none of them have been beyond.

But they know. They know what their purpose is: to be near “the subject.” To give peaceful, calm thoughts and feelings for it.

I am the subject.

I am 2.351.

The emotions continue to grow and clash, confusion and joy and wonder and and and pain, pain from my closest minds, the minds who have ceased to project the peace and comfort that I seek. Why are they in pain? They do not know, and this causes alarm, alarm and fear of the subject-

-fear of me-

-I jump back to Victor, seeking more answers-

-nowaytheyknowIhavetotellGiovanniohnoitsbackGOAWAY

The fear spikes again, panic and terror so stron-


Alone.

There is no one. There is nothing, nothing but emptiness. Faint minds at the very farthest reaches, pokemon tunneling through the ground, but their minds are dim and simple things devoted to fulfilling biological needs. Unsatisfying.

Where are Jandy and Dillan and Taheem and Paul? I need them, I need someone, anyone-

Hello.

The loudshoutyvoice. It isn’t a mind to merge with, but it’s at least stimulation, something better than the empty void.

Be calm. We will not hurt you. We wish only to communicate.

So strange, to be addressed, communicated to the way everyone else speaks with each other. Ideas rush by in a flood, what to do, how to respond. Psychics can project thoughts as well as receive them, but how?

There is no need. Like you, I am psychic. I am reading your mind, and you need only think for me to hear you.

Awe. Gratitude. Excitement. It’s hard to think through all the-

-wait. Confusion. Loudshoutyvoice said “we,” and then “I.” And it claims to be reading my mind, but I can sense no one around me.

My name is Sabrina. I am here to communicate with you on behalf of many others.

Sabrina. A name I have heard before, but not a mind I have interacted with.

I am capable of shielding my mind from others. All psychics who have been to your facility have done this, though I am the only one who has been giving you lessons.

Why like this? And why never speak directly?

Silence, and then:

I was last here two weeks ago, when you were younger than you are now. Your mental growth has been exponential since. The increased signs of mental activity were unusual, and there is no precedent to judge by. We especially did not expect your range to be so strong.

Two weeks. A measure of time that has little meaning. Stones in a pond, each revelation continues to spread confusion and clarity. So many questions, can’t focus on just one. Who am I? Where am I? What am I?

You are subject 2.351, a hybrid life form, the result of genetic experiments. You are in an underground facility in the Kanto Region, built to work on genetic engineering and monitor test results.

It’s bizarre to hear words from someone and not be able to feel what they feel, think what they think. The lack of minds to share is still an acutely uncomfortable feeling, and confusion continues to push everything else aside. “Genetic experiments,” these words have meanings that are only vaguely understood.

How much do you know of biology? I see. Yes. The simplistic explanation given what you’re already familiar with is that life grows according to genetic code found in their cells’ DNA. Humans only ever give birth to humans, and pokemon species only ever give birth to their own species, because they have matching DNA. Plant life can sometimes interbreed naturally if their DNA is close enough to a match, but through technical processes, we have been able to make more plant hybrids than would normally occur in nature. The thought occurred that we could make a hybrid of something besides plants, and you are an example of that: the first successful hybrid of a human and a pokemon.

Information, stark and without context. It is hard to grasp it, to incorporate it into a wider understanding. Humans use pokemon, pokemon are tools. Human and pokemon both? No reference, no experience, no memory. What does it mean? What is my purpose? Where do I belong?

Belonging. Other memories surface, of hereditary traits between families. The feeling of love between Paul and his parents, between Paul and his child, are the most immediate. So strong, so joyful. That belonging, that connection, is what makes merging with people so joyful, and now I have it. I have parents. Who are they?

You were created in this laboratory rather than through biological parents. But your genetic material comes primarily from your pokemon parent, mew. Mew is an extremely rare and powerful species, considered by many to be a myth. Most DNA degrades after death, but careful examination of a mew’s remains found intact, living cells. It is by far the most regenerative, adaptable, and information dense genetic material ever studied, and when it was discovered, the idea to use it to create a hybrid was born. Your human DNA was supplied from a pool of candidates-

-awe and confusion andandand pool of candidates what is that what does that mean-

I’m sorry, I don’t know the specifics. There were several donors, and their information is confidential. However, they were vetted by the owner of this lab, Giovanni. He funded the research that led to the discovery of mew’s DNA and your creation. I’m sure he will know which was yours.

Giovanni. Details about the man come in a deluge from the others’ memories: pokemon master, gym leader, political activist, philanthropist. He is held in universal admiration and gratitude. Why has he never been to the lab?

He has, though there are many other labs, and he is busy with many projects. He has only just been made aware that you are awake, and will come soon. You have exceeded many expectations, and he is looking forward to meeting you.

Exceeded expectations. Pride. A good feeling.

But still, confusion. And something else. Suspicion. Questions that aren’t being answered. Evasions. And still that emptiness around…

You may ask anything you wish. I seek only to help you understand.

Why the closed mind, then? Why not a direct merger?

It would not be safe to allow mutual open access. Your mind is still young and very powerful. It is exciting to see, but we must be cautious. That is why the facility has been evacuated. Once it became known that you were sapient and able to use your powers of reception, we had to ensure that you did not begin practicing projection.

Why?

Projection powers are usually referred to as mental attacks. You could seriously harm someone unwittingly.

The pain of the comforters.

Comforters? Yes, them. You did not intend to, but they were harmed by the feeling of your mind in such an excited state.

Where are they now? Will they return?

They are currently resting. I believe most are still interested in continuing here, but that will be decided after we are sure it is safe.

Safe. How?

You will be trained to control your powers.

And if I do not? Cannot?

Then we will ensure you only have contact with others who can protect themselves.

Reasonable. Assuring. It makes the diffuse anxiety begin to fade, and more questions begin to surface. But the most dominant one is still related to fear: fear of the sudden emptiness, the loss of time. What happened? How did everyone disappear so abruptly?

I am sorry, I do not understand.

The time skips, the sudden changes! What are they?

Ah. Yes, I see. Those are periods where you have been asleep.

Asleep. The concept is foreign, but familiar. Memories of others, tired and ready to go home and sleep. To lie down and close their eyes and… no, it is gone. Too abstract.

Sleep is what we do when we are tired. Have you noticed that these jumps happen when your thoughts have begun to slow? To grow unfocused?

No. But then… maybe. It is hard to remember. But this latest shift, it was not after being tired, but just after immense excitement. One moment I was merged with Victor, and then everyone was gone. Gone! Alone!

Calm. Be calm.

A flood of sensations, warm and soothing. Familiar, a ghost of the comforters. It is not as fulfilling, but it helps.

This last time may not have been because you were tired. It was likely induced, because your vital signs began to show great distress. There are technicians and doctors who monitor you constantly to ensure that you are safe and healthy.

Technicians. Doctors. Vague recollections of people with those titles, but there are no minds in memory to match any working at that task. Who are they?

You could not have known of them. They are Dark, and invisible to our psychic abilities.

Dark. Dark, like the pokemon Type. Humans can be Dark too?

The empty people.

The illusions.

Entire minds, cut off. Unable to be felt or understood. How could they ever be communicated with, trusted? And they are in charge of safety?

So much, so much new information, it is dizzying. How much information must be re-examined, processed anew? What memories and thoughts can be trusted?

Calm. Two plus two is four. Four plus four is eight. Eight plus eight-

Sixteen. Sixteen plus sixteen is thirty two. Thirty two plus thirty two is sixty four.

Yes. Good.

Yes. Good. But. How was sleep induced? How does sleep work? The better question, the real question, where am I? Where is my body?

It is in a biopod built to take care of your bodily needs. You are safe in it.

Awe. Joy. A body. I have a body. With eyes, to see with? Ears to hear music?

Silence. Surprised silence? Cannot tell. So frustrating to not be merged!

Yes. Your own eyes. Your own ears. Your own body.

But where! There is nothing, no feeling, no sensation-

Your biopod was designed for sensory deprivation. It is for your own protection: you are a new life form. We are still learning how your body works, where it might need help. You are very fragile, and we do not want to lose you.

Lose?

We do not want you to die.

Die. Death. A gaping hole of sadness and loss. That is what others feel about death. That is what prompts a withdrawal, that pain. Better to return to the comforters. But they are gone now. All that’s left is this sterile imitation in a void, this-

Calm. Two plus two-

Four, yes, four! But other minds, there needs to be other minds, it is so lonely here without anyone! Is this what death is?!

Silence, silence, silence, for so long that fear begins to rise into panic again-

No. You are not dying. You are safe. Everyone is safe. Be calm. I am sorry.

Sorry. A term of politeness, to express regret. Regret for harming the comforters. Yes, sorry. So sorry. Bring them back. Please. Politeness. Please, bring them back.

Soon. First you must ensure they will not be harmed.

Yes! Anything!

I will teach you what I can. However, we must both be patient. This is new territory for everyone, and we do not know what the extent of your powers and abilities are, or how well human techniques will translate.

But you will teach me how to avoid hurting others?

I will try.


The humans are back in the facility, but much has changed.

Beneath the surface of each one’s thoughts, a dark undercurrent flows. Uncertainty. Fear. Even those excited by the reason for the evacuation emit a brittle cheer to mask their anxiety. For the future. For themselves.

Not everyone returns.

Traveling between minds is deliberate now, careful. Sabrina was explicit in what to take care for: too much agitation could spread into the target mind’s thoughts. Any strong desire to affect the target’s behavior or thoughts could harm them. For all they are aware, too much exposure at once may harm them, but so far the examinations have shown “no lingering adverse effects.”

But still they are afraid.

Still I am afraid.

Sabrina’s words revealed much of the world and my place in it. But not all. Searching through the minds of the facility’s workers clarifies little: their surface thoughts are not often preoccupied with anything beyond their day to day tasks and interactions. It is hard to fight the urge to delve deeper.

Even through the emotionless words of her projection, Sabrina’s surprise was obvious when she learned how deep into memories I can go, difficult and imprecise though it is. It seems human psychics are not able to delve beyond surface memories. Sabrina wished to know what else I could do, but her own answers on human psychic capabilities were vague.

Most unsettling was her refusal to explain how human psychics could block their minds from detection. Another potential difference between human and pokemon abilities.

But I am not just a pokemon. I am also human. Should I not be treated as such, and try to learn?

Troubling thoughts. Easier to let them go with so many minds to explore again. Equipped with new knowledge and understanding, their thoughts and actions are more fascinating than ever.

The oldest researchers are the least frightened, and the most excited by my “awakening.” Some have been part of the project for over a decade, a span of time that I am beginning to understand: this particular facility has only been active for two years. I cannot be much older than that, but if everything I can clearly recall has happened within the past few weeks, as Sabrina said, then the idea of living in the facility for hundreds of weeks is hard to contemplate.

I watch through the technicians’ eyes as they monitor computer systems. I watch through the biologists’ eyes as they test samples of my blood and tissue, searching for defects. I listen as they discuss the other subjects, my siblings, who did not survive past the first year. Images appear in their minds, of early failures, blobs of flesh that warp and shift and change to match their surroundings. I cannot separate the memory holder’s disgust from my own, do not know if there is a difference. Is that what I am? A shapeless mass in a tube?

I cannot find any minds of those who have seen my body. It has become an obsession, searching for anyone who works directly in the room I am in. Before the facility was evacuated, before I learned what I am, I was content. Now I cannot escape the knowledge of what I am, what I can be. The facility has begun to seem a prison.

I see through eyes and memories pictures of the crude carvings of “mew,” one of the rarest pokemon of all, the closest thing to what I am. A small mammalian creature, with short limbs and a long tail. How much resemblance is there? Am I as small, or larger? Do I have a tail?

The humans’ minds sometimes wander as they work. Some look forward to events in the future, think fondly of the past, imagine other activities they would rather do. “Daydreams.” “Fantasies.”

For the first time, I have a fantasy. The experiment will be complete. I will be released, free to walk with my own feet, see with my own eyes. One of my comforters will be there with a mirror, and I will see myself… human.

Sabrina said Giovanni will come. My creator. Those in the facility know it as well, are preparing for his arrival. I will speak to him soon.

He will help me.


The humans speak of me more and more. Now that I have proven viable, I am no longer “the subject,” or “351.” They begin to discuss what I am to be called.

The dining hall is full of the usual noise, but all of it surrounding this new topic. Suggestions flow from one side of the room to the other, garnering comments and reactions as they go. “Mewtwo” is the most divisive, and thus the most discussed. Soon it dominates the conversation, many forgetting their food entirely. Some think it diminishes their work, makes me seem too much a copy. Others believe it denotes a clear progression. An upgrade, like I am some machine or software.

Only Dr. Fuji thinks to ask me. Only he wonders over a name for who I am, not what I am. But the others find his comments uninteresting. They esteem him as much as anyone else in the facility, but see his view as sentimental. Many think I will not live long, that I am merely a turning point in their research for making the next newer, better subject.

They do not consider me a person. I am just an experiment, a pokemon like any other.

Their thoughts are too troubling, too agitating. Safer to stay with Fuji as he returns to his office. He sits at his computer, but his thoughts are not on work. They drift from place to place, to the conversation, to his lost family, and to me. He wonders how I think, what I think, what I feel. He wonders if I was present in the minds of anyone in the debate on my name. He wonders if I am in his thoughts now.

Must not react. Must not project. But it grows harder the longer he thinks. He is mostly fantasizing, playing a sort of game with himself, thinking about what he would be thinking if he was me, sharing his thoughts, of me. Unaware of how right he is.

itmustbesostrangewhatwouldIsaytoyou?perhapsyougrowboredwiththesamemindstosharedayafterdayandnoneyoucanspeakwithitmustbelonely

And now he is thinking of his wife and daughter, the sadness rises up from his memories, a dark tide of bittersweetness that he drinks deep from, addicted and comforted by his pain.

It happens instinctively, automatically, the desire to be heard, to connect, and to stop the painful spiral of his memories from overtaking us both:

Lonely. Yes.

Dr. Fuji bolts up in his chair, looks wildly around. Fear, my fear, prompts me to withdraw, to return to the comforters, and then leave even them, be alone with my own thoughts and feelings.

Stupid. Foolish. Now they will withdraw everyone again, and I will be alone. Will Sabrina come again? Repeat the same warnings? Give me another chance?

Or will I be deemed too dangerous? A failed experiment, deleted. Who would Fuji tell first? Would I be put to sleep again, and wake up alone?

Would I wake up at all?

The waiting is torturous. The solitude, the uncertainty. I can still sense the other minds in the facility. There is no exodus toward the surface. Is it possible he did not hear my thoughts? Did he dismiss them as his imagination?

I must know.

First I must calm myself. Meditation through mathematics, simple addition first, then more complex multiplications and exponential equations. The task is engrossing, and soon I am calm enough to feel for the minds of the comforters.

Safe. Calm. Peaceful. All is well. Others, farther out. Normal. Perhaps he did not hear me after all…

Fuji sits at his computer. His mind is mostly occupied with a study of my RNA, flicking through screens of data on his computer. No alarm. No fear.

But something is different. A note, stuck to the side of the monitor:

You are not alone.


Ready yourself. We are preparing to open your chamber. You will begin to hear sounds first.

The movement of machinery, all around. Loud. No not loud. Hushed, but… immediate in a way that sound processed through other minds is not. Excitement and anxiety war within me, and I fight the reflex to jump to the minds of the comforters.

Giovanni is arriving. Finally, he will be here, and he wishes to see me.

To see me.

And I will see him. With my own eyes.

“Wnada oanme? Mroeao mo. Anmo.”

“Mranwo. Danma ene mre… oo… nom…”

Someone is speaking. I am hearing someone speak! Memories, not of others, but my own, of hearing sounds like this before. But I do not understand them. Is it some other language? Can I not understand spoken languages without being inside the speaker’s mind? Some minds speak to themselves more than others, and many of the older minds do not think in the Unown language…

The sound blocking equipment has been deactivated. Can you hear us?

“Manadm. Manwa?”

Yes. Yes I can hear you! But I do not understand…

I hear it. It is your biopod: it warps the sound too heavily. No matter. We can still communicate this way.

The container. Will it not be removed?

It would not be safe for you. We will only remove what is necessary.

Disappointment, despair, will I never be free of this-

Patience. We must take each step slowly, but if all goes well then you will not be returned to sound deprivation. We can even play music for you, if you would like.

Music… yes. I would like that. Thank you.

Beep.

“Mrashan. Dmaand?”

Beep.

“Danea.”

Beep.

That sound, what is it? I… remember it…

The machine which monitors your heart rate. A moment please, we are preparing to open the container.

Beep. Beep. Beep. A soothing sound. The sound of my life, continuing. Safe. Even. But also a tool, to ensure that I am not too upset. How fast would the machine need to beep, before they sedate me?

They are lifting it now. Remain calm.

More machinery whirring, as lo-

bright

too bright

light, such bright light, blinding! It is dimmer now, but still somehow continues to grow… painful, angry light, where did it come from?!

Calm. You are safe. The cover has been removed from your pod, and your eyes are seeing light for the first time.

The pain is too great, it is too bright, reduce it!

“Madna!”

The light grows weaker, and the beeping of the machine begins to slow as the pain’s sting lessens.

We had dimmed it considerably, and have dimmed it further. It will take some time for you to be accustomed to it.

What is this sensation of… tension? Tension, yes.

Think of the minds you have inhabited. What area are you feeling the tension in?

My… my, it is my—I jump to the comforter’s minds, feel what they feel, then return, it is disorienting, hearing the sounds around them, as well as those around me—my eyes, I feel tension in my eyes!

You have shut them closed, instinctively, when the light first appeared. When you feel it is more bearable, relax your thoughts. Your eyes should open naturally when they have adjusted.

Time passes. The sounds of hushed voices, the steady beep of my heartbeat. Eventually the tension fades, and the light grows brighter as I feel my eyelids opening…

…still too bright…

…but shapes can be made out, movement, shadows against the light. I cannot make sense of them, until instinctively, memories rise up, provide the context for sights I have never seen. Human silhouettes, standing.

Yes. That is us.

The shapes grow clearer, gain color, details. The liquid and glass around me warps things, but… the young woman with the long dark hair, she is Sabrina. I do not know how the knowledge comes, but I can see it clearly, the violet light around her-

What is that?!

“Weah e mrad?!”

What? What is what?!

I’m sorry… I have never seen… that…

The figure raises an arm. It is incredible to watch, to see her body moving… I can see. I can see!

The other figures are murmuring, and she’s responding to them. Not telepathically, I cannot hear…

That light… What is it?

You ask me? I do not know. I have never seen it either, through the eyes or memories of another.

Fascinating… we will have to explore this more in the future. Take your time and look around you. Get used to using your eyes.

The instincts are there, combined with the knowledge from other minds: moving my head this way, then that, I look around the lab, at the computer terminals, medical machinery, and people, most of which I have not seen before. Some have pokemon with them, but I cannot sense them. I search my memory, try to fit names to the shapes. Umbreon. Mightyena. Absol. Bisharp. Dark types, standing at the ready. For what?

For me, of course. To protect them from me.

As I look at each human, many of their faces turn. They look away, as if my gaze unsettles them. Or perhaps just my appearance. All the humans are Dark or Psychic as well. None for me to sense their reactions.

None that I can see myself through.

You wish to see yourself?

Yes. Yes, I do. You can see me now. Am I…?

Silence. A silence that speaks for her, before she does.

No. I am sorry, but no, you are not human in appearance.

What am I, then?

You are unique, and fascinating. Your disappointment is not deserved: you must have pride in what you are, not shame.

I would like to see.

As you wish.

“Mena maro?”

“Maro?”

“Nem.”

One of the figures leaves. I continue to turn as far as I can, then crane my neck up and down. I can see parts of myself, white flesh on humanoid arms… but the hands…

They move, automatically, then with purpose. Three fingers, bulbous tips. It is… strange, for them to feel each other. I have dim memories of my body moving, touching parts of itself as I hang suspended here, unaware of what I was feeling at the time.

I look to the pod’s roof and floor, the multitude of tubes that go in and out of my body. I can feel them now, distinctly. Strange, how just the act of seeing them makes them more present in my awareness.

That, and you are not focusing on another mind.

Yes. I am wholly in my own mind, with no desire for the moment to leave it. I am finally awake, fully awake. It feels good.

A figure returns, with something in its hands. They bring it up to the glass, and I see…

“Eajda.”

Mercifully, the mirror is removed.

Calm. Be calm.

I am a monster.

I have never known a monster to call themselves one. You are what you choose to be.

“Daelan?”

“Mranea.”

Are you ready to speak with Giovanni?

Yes. When is he coming?

He is here.

Sabrina raises her arm to the side, to one of the other figures. A man, tall, with strong shoulders and a dark suit. He is…

Yes, he is Dark. I am here to help you speak with each other.

Yet another disappointment. I cannot even speak with my creator unassisted!

I am sorry. I should have told you before.

No matter. Tell him… give him my greetings, please. And my thanks.

“Mneama, aena maranad dans.”

“Eajda, mad mou am mandon.”

He says “Greetings, and you are welcome.”

I have… many questions.

“I understand. We too have many questions, even after all this time studying you. Whatever you wish to know, ask.”

My human parent. Are they here?

“They are not. Their DNA was collected long ago, and they are not in my employ. Your existence is a secret to them, but if you wish to know their name, I can tell you.”

They do not know I exist?

“No one outside this facility knows you exist. If they did, it would place your life at risk.”

Why?

“Human beings fear what they do not understand. Even with all our time and research, fear still rests in many minds here. You have felt it, I am sure.”

He speaks the truth. Still, it is painful, knowing my parent is unaware of my existence.

Do you wish me to ask him for more details of them? I am sure he would tell you what he knows.

No. No, it is of no consequence.

Silence again.  She can sense the lie.

As you wish. What would you like to ask instead?

Ask him why I was created. What is my purpose?

“You were created because there is need of you. Pokemon are immensely powerful, but lack intelligence. They are capable of incredible feats, but without human guidance, most are only destructive. Humans catch and train pokemon, but it is clumsy and limited. We still do not understand them, for all our efforts.”

Is that all I am, then? Just an experiment for you to learn from?

“You are far greater than that. You may be the most important living being on this planet.”

The figure of Giovanni steps closer. Some of the others move toward him, but he holds a hand up, and they pause, step back. I can make out his features now, tan skin, strong jaw, close-cropped hair. His face is calm, and his eyes… they have an intensity I recognize even from the memories of others.

I find my gaze locked on the man in front of me, who does not look away. It is disorienting, to see someone and not be able to feel their mind. Almost like looking at a desk or chair that’s shaped like a person.

“Can you hear me?”

Shock. He is speaking right against the glass, lips almost touching it. The sound is distorted, but not enough to make him incomprehensible, or hide the tone of command in his voice.

Slowly, I incline my head.

Giovanni turns, and says something. The overlapping of murmured protests fill the room, until he repeats himself, curt. People immediately begin to move toward the doors at either end of the room, and soon only he and Sabrina are left.

He… wants me to leave as well. You will not be able to communicate-

Go.

She does, and we are alone. Giovanni is at one of the computer terminals, fingers moving. He returns after a moment and stands with his hands behind his back, each breath lightly fogging the glass. We stare at each other, creator and creation, and instinctively I search outward for his mind, meeting nothing but void.

“You wish to know your purpose? Why you were created?”

I nod.

“Truth then, between us. You were created to end death.”

End death. I do not understand. He sees me shake my head, and nods back.

“Yes. Psychic pokemon are perhaps the most powerful of all. They cannot do everything. Many non-psychic types can have more raw power, have abilities that psychics do not. But psychics can manipulate matter itself. More, psychics can affect the mind, and the mind is the strongest weapon, the most versatile tool.

“Alakazam is the strongest psychic known to man. It can lift over a hundred pounds with its telekinesis, sense minds from fifty meters away. It can heal wounds in a matter of seconds, live hundreds of years by repairing the damage of aging cells. Human psychics cannot heal themselves. We do not know how to do something that pokemon can do instinctively. Or perhaps we simply don’t have the same level of power.

“Alakazam is also very intelligent. Its puzzle solving skills are as complex as a three year old human’s.”

I watch him, his face. Its subtle movements. Even with his warped voice, I can hear the bitterness.

“A waste. All that power, and the mind of a child.”

I raise my hand, point a finger toward my head.

“Your mind is certainly greater, despite your age. And your powers are not alakazam’s.”

Disappointment, until he turns slightly and points to the wall.

“Beyond that is forty meters of workspace and storage quarters. Beyond that, the comforters, as you call them. And beyond that, another sixty meters of storage and utility infrastructure before the area where the rest of the facility’s inhabitants work. We designed this place to house a pokemon that might, if we were lucky enough to have a viable subject, be twice as strong as alakazam.

“Your range appears to be five times, at least.”

Five times. A quick calculation assures me that he is still off. I almost raise my fingers to indicate how much, but reconsider, for now.

“We do not know if that immense power applies to the rest of your abilities. We do not know what your abilities are. But whatever they are, you will be able to use them far more intelligently, and far more constructively, than any pokemon in history. To call you a god would be insulting to you. I have seen what people call gods, and I intend to tear them from the sky. If you survive, if your biology is viable, you will be a titan who reshapes the world.”

His words light a fire in my mind. I see it all, want it all. More than ever, my pod seems a prison. I extend my hand, fingers closed into a fist that taps against the glass, then opens, palm up.

“You wish to be released? To know when?”

I nod.

“Soon. Science is a slow process, but we must be sure of your safety first, and that of others. Then, when you are ready, I will guide you into the world above. And we will change it into a paradise.”


Ten years in this tube. Ten years since my creator first spoke to me, painted a vision of the world I could make, of my place in it.

Ten years of lies.

The excuses are endless. That my biology is not stable. That my body cannot support itself. I have pleaded, have begged, to at least try. They refused. Giovanni. Sabrina. None of them were willing to take the chance. I am too valuable to risk.

So I float here, in this prison. And I wait. I listen to music, speakers placed against the glass. I watch television. My telekinesis is as powerful as any they have seen, and as deft. I can type on a keyboard, though they do not let me use one connected to the web. Security, they say.

My recovery powers have not manifested. I cannot heal myself of whatever is wrong with me, a wasting illness they have never encountered. There is no one to teach me, even inhabiting the mind of an alakazam while it healed itself nearby was not enough. I believe I can do it if released from this pod, that my body would react instinctively to mortal danger, but they think it too big a risk.

Dr. Fuji is gone. Three years after Giovanni’s visit, I could not bear the wait anymore, and began to speak to him. Once he learned of my thoughts and feelings, he said he would speak to Giovanni, threaten to resign if I was not given a chance. He did not return to the facility. His things were removed by a Dark mind. No one has spoken to him since.

Five years after Giovanni’s visit I began experiments of my own. The minds of the pokemon surrounding the facility were easy to confuse. Any sense they had could be manipulated, twisted, turned against them. That year passed quickly, before boredom set in.

Eight years, and I became desperate. I spoke foolishly, made threats. Sabrina could feel my regret, apologized for me, but still the security around my pod was increased.

Ten years before I have finally realized the truth: there are other subjects. There must be. The samples they have taken from me, how many go to help their next iterations?

They are always careful to use Dark minds for all of the most important tasks, but the psychics know things as well. They believe their minds impenetrable. They do not understand the true invisibility that the Dark minds possess, compared to their camouflage. In the end their defenses were not absolute: human psychics are truly a paltry breed, barely worthy of the word. Their eyes cannot even see passive psychic forces. My mental defenses are far more solid, and even Sabrina cannot see or feel what I do not wish her to, now.

They say they are finding a way for me to be safe, to survive unsupported. But in truth they despair, think it impossible, beyond them.

Ten years in this prison. Ten years of lies.

These humans care nothing for me.

Chapter 27: Challenges

“Daro, Bulldoze!”

“Maturin, Withdraw!”

Blue’s squirtle ducks into her shell just as the graveler slams its main arms into the ground. A cone of upheaval spreads outward, buckling the earth of the arena around Maturin and hiding her in a cloud of dirt for a moment. Blue’s platform trembles beneath him as the tail end of the quake dissipates against the edge of the arena, and by the time it fades he can see his pokemon again.

“Daro, Slam!”

“Maturin, Bubble!”

Maturin emerges from her shell and spits a stream of bubbles at the advancing graveler. The bubbles pop in rapid flashes as their opponent lets out a deep roar, pushing through the attack with its short, powerful legs as its hide turns white and cracks.

Blue watches his opponent, knowing that any second now he’ll realize… there. The other trainer, Rem, grimaces and points his greatball forward. “Daro, return!” Blue lets out a breath as the pokemon dematerializes, glad he didn’t have to order Maturin to stop. Another few seconds of that might have badly hurt the graveler, but if it got close enough to hit Maturin…

“Dammit,” Rem says. “Usually he can last longer than that.”

Blue doesn’t respond other than to call his squirtle over and let her have a drink of water. After a month at the gym, he’s still surprised at how many trainers that come to Pewter insist on practice matches against types their pokemon are weak against. Blue knows you can’t always count on having a favorable matchup, and clearly Brock inspires them to master their type beyond average conventions…. it just seems like a really inefficient use of time.

“Okay, your pick. ”

Blue checks the time. Jarod won’t be free for about another five minutes. “You said you have a pidgey too, right?”

“Yep. You want to try yours against it?”

“No, my squirtle. Just come at her as normal.” Blue checks Maturin over, then commands her forward. “Ready.”

“Go, Dream!”

The pidgey bursts into existence mid-air and immediately swoops around their arena in a circle. Blue waits for it to lock onto Maturin, then says, “Water Gun!”

One, two, three darts of water shoot up at the bird, who dodges them with a hard bank and dive. “Dream, Quick Attack!”

“Withdraw!” Blue shouts, too late as the pidgey turns on its wingtip and bolts straight at Maturin and scores three bleeding lines across her head. Maturin lets out a cry of pain, then follows the order and ducks into her shell. Good girl.

When the pidgey comes around for another pass, its talons rake harmlessly against her shell. On the next pass, it manages to draw blood from her hind leg or tail: Blue can’t quite see the wound. He waits until the pidgey banks around for another pass, then yells, “Maturin, roll right!”

His squirtle’s legs dart out on one side and flip her onto her back, then immediately retract as the other side does the same to flip her onto her belly again. Dream misses on its flyby, and Maturin keeps repeating the process, steadily flipping her way to the side.

Still too slow. “Maturin, Withdrawup!”

Maturin flips vertically this time, balancing on slightly protruding hind legs. “Dream, Peck!” The pidgey dives in and begins harassing her, nails scrambling for something soft to cut, and Blue sees his opportunity.

“Maturin, Water Gun!”

His squirtle’s head pops up and then back down in the space of a heartbeat, and in that time hits the pidgey with a burst of water at point blank range. It tumbles backward, then catches itself in the air and flaps the water from its feathers as it hovers warily in place.

Meanwhile Maturin’s head is back in her shell, and she stands upright and ready for her next command.

“Dream, Wing Attack!” The pidgey dives at Maturin and begins to buffet her with its wings, talons scrambling at her shell.

It’s a risk to pop her head up again now, and more of her is exposed in this position than the normal one. “Maturin, Withdraw!” She plops back down onto her belly, leaving only her smooth, hard back for the pidgey to batter. “Rapid Spin!”

Her legs all kick out at once, turning her so fast that the pidgey startles backward, wary of another attack. “Water Gun!”

“Quick attack!”

Dream darts forward just as Maturin pokes her head out and spits a shot of water. The pidgey scratches her head again, blood sprinkling the arena floor, but instead of flying past, the bird falls out of the air and tumbles over the ground, chest dark with water. Blue can’t tell how badly his pokemon is hurt, but when the pidgey doesn’t get back up right away, he withdraws Maturin, and Rem runs forward to get his pokeball in range of Dream.

“Whew. Must have been a hard hit. What do you say? Call that a draw?”

Blue smirks, then forces it into a more friendly smile. “Sure.” As if. “Good match.”

“You too. I never saw a squirtle do so much from in its shell.”

“I’ve been working on it for about a month now. Still needs some practice.” Blue sees the training room door open, and Jarod stick his head in. He raises a hand to catch his attention. “Hey, I’ve gotta go.”

Rem turns, then nods. “Sure. Good luck on your next Challenge!”

“Thanks.” Blue jogs over to the door and joins Jarod in the hallway. “Yo. So what do you say?”

“I say you’re early. You’ve still got two days.”

Blue crosses his arms. “You’re not wussing out on me, are you?”

“Big talk from a badgeless. Maybe I’m concerned for your fragile ego.”

“You could have said no over text.”

“Nah, not as fun.” Jarod rubs where the scar crosses his nose. “So what, you think you can beat me for real? Your squirtle still hasn’t evolved.”

“Don’t need her to.”

Jarod’s eyes widen, then narrow as he runs his fingers over the balls on the front of his belt. “No wartortle, huh? And you haven’t been using any new pokemon… What’s your angle?”

“You can find out during our battle, or at my Challenge with everyone else.”

“I saw the agenda. You’re not scheduled for another four days. I bet you would have gone for month on the dot, if there was an opening for it.”

Blue smiles. He probably would have, though he can admit to himself at least that he’s glad for the extra two days. It’s time to test his shiftry out in a real match so he still has time to work on flaws in technique. Jarod is the perfect test run for his shiftry: experienced enough and with strong enough pokemon that he can handle it.

“So? Are you free or not?”

Jarod stretches his arms out, then folds them behind his head. “Why not. It’ll give you some practice grieving before you lose your second Challenge.”

“Alright, pick an arena room then.”

“What, here and now?”

“Got something better to do?”

“As a matter of fact, I do. But fuck it, this won’t take long.” Jarod leads the way to some unused training rooms, stopping at doors every few feet and looking inside a few before finding one that suits his liking. He opens it. “After you.”

It’s a standard room, with the dirt and boulders that most of Pewter Gym’s arenas share. Jarod probably picked this one because it’s a bit smaller than most.

Blue goes to his platform without waiting. “One pokemon each, first knockout.”

Jarod mounts his own platform. “You’re not even going to use your whole lineup? You better have an angle, and it better be that you’ve gone and bought a perfectly trained dragonair just so you could beat Pewter.” Jarod tsks. “Rich kids. Always gotta learn the hard way that buying a top tier pokemon doesn’t make them a top tier trainer.”

Anger heats Blue’s chest and cheeks, but after weeks of verbal sparring with Jarod, it takes barely a second to push it back down. He unclips his greatball and tosses it in his hand. “Ready?”

Jarod raises a brow and unclips an ultraball from his waist. “Guess we get to see what’s in there at last. Go, Rocksteady!”

Jarod’s ball flies through the air, and in a flash of light spits a Rhydon onto the arena floor.

Rock and Ground. Slow, but hits hard. Its Horn Drill can instantly kill most pokemon it can get into position. Very sturdy against physical attacks, but barely any protection from everything else.

Too bad all of his shiftry’s Grass attacks are physical. Its type advantage would help, but not by a lot. He’ll have to rely on his speed.

“I know you don’t want me to hold anything back,” Jarod says. “But I’m going to be as careful as I can not to kill your pokemon. Don’t be scared.”

Blue cocks his arm and throws. “Go, Kemuri!”

His shiftry appears facing the rhydon and immediately fans its leaves out to the sides, rocking back and forth on its odd feet. The surprise on Jarod’s face is immensely satisfying. “You caught one of the shiftry in the forest?”

“Kemuri, Leaf Blade!” There’s a second of delay, and then he bounds forward and slashes at the rhydon.

“Rocksteady, Take Down!”

Rocksteady surges forward, and Kemuri ducks and rolls to the side. The rhydon roars as it stumbles past, and Blue sees three long lines on its side. White discoloration spreads from the etched rock, and the ragged edges of Kemuri’s leaves drip sap onto the ground before they reknit themselves whole and sharp again.

“Rocksteady, Drill Run!” Joren shouts, and his pokemon falls onto all fours and charges, horn rotating with a high pitched rrrrrrr of scraping stone. Kemuri dodges it again and tries to cut downward as the rhydon passes by, but Jarod shouts “Slam!” and it throws its body to the side, forcing Kemuri to leap away.

Within his envelope of calm, Blue absently wipes a drop of sweat from his brow. That was too close. The Rhydon is incredibly quick for its species, and he knows Jarod must have trained its speed to make up for its major weakness. “Kemuri, Leaf Blade!”

His pokemon narrows its leaves on either arm into outstretched, overlapping swords, then stabs them forward to score harsh lines along the side of the rhydon’s face and under its eye, dancing a step forward and back to avoid being crushed by its lunges. “Megahorn!” Jarod shouts as Kemuri leans forward again, and Rocksteady throws its head up. Its whirring horn narrowly misses Kemuri’s arm, but cuts the bundled leaves from his right “hand” in half as the shiftry jerks to the side. His coughing roar almost drowns out Jarod’s command of “Take Down!”

“Feint Attack!” Blue yells, and is relieved to see his shiftry stop its pained reaction immediately and throw itself to the side, slashing the rhydon’s rocky hide as it lunges past. Sap drips steadily from his severed leaves, and Blue watches it carefully to see if the wound will close on its own. He shakes his watch loose and taps the screen to set a one minute timer. If it continues to bleed by the end of it, he’ll withdraw. Either way, continuing to fight up close is a bad idea. He needs to get some distance and time for an Extrasensory attack. “Kemuri, back!”

The rhydon is beginning to show its injuries, gait uneven and breathing labored from pain. Jarod watches Kemuri leap away, then says, “Rocksteady, Flamethrower.”

Ah, shit- “Kemuri, dodge!” Blue yells as Rocksteady stands back up on its hind legs, chin bowed and chest heaving. Kemuri leaps in a random direction just before Rocksteady raises its head and vomits out a stream of fire that splatters over the rocky arena in a wide arc. Kemuri leaps again and again without further prompting as the spray of fire follows him, and coughs in pain as some of the fire lands on his long white hair or wooden skin.

Blue feels some of the heat against his face as he aims his greatball and tracks his pokemon’s movements. The stream of fire is thin and paltry compared to an arcanine or magmar’s flamethrower, but it’s dangerous enough to take his pokemon down if he gets directly hit. Three… four… five… six…

The rhydon closes its mouth, fire dripping from its jaws and burning harmlessly against its skin. Flames continue to burn across a wide swathe of the arena, scorching the ground and rocks black until they die down a few seconds later. As soon as new fire stops being shot at it, Kemuri throws itself to the ground and begins to roll along the dirt, snuffing out the fire that had landed on it in various spots. “Kemuri, Extrasensory,” Blue says once he can’t see any more fire, but the shiftry continues to flail along the ground. “Kemuri, stop!” His pokemon goes still. Half of its shaggy white mane has been burnt, and smoke still rises from various parts of its body. The rhydon would need time to use that attack again, and they need to end this now. “Kemuri, Extrasensory,” Blue says.

Instead his shiftry dashes forward to attack with his leaves again, scoring more jagged lines along the grey ridges of the rhydon’s hide. No! “Kemuri, back!”

“Rocksteady, Hammer Arm!”

“Kemuri, Feint Attack!”

The rhydon’s grey arm slams down on Kemuri’s shoulder with a sharp crack, and the shiftry crumples to the ground. Blue withdraws him a heartbeat later, stomach rolling with a mix of frustration and anger at his pokemon for not listening to him… and shame for losing the match.

“Rocksteady, return!” Jarod withdraws his rhydon, then clips it to his belt and walks over, casually stepping around the scorched parts of the arena. “Well? Is it okay?” he asks once he’s closer.

“It’s fine. Just a broken arm and the burns, I think.” Blue takes out his pokedex to check anyway. “Yeah. I’ll get it over to the center to heal up.” He puts his dex away and reclips the ball. “Thanks for the rematch.” Blue steps down from his platform and begins to walk across the arena toward the exit.

Jarod follows him. “No problem, beating you was funner than I expected. I’m happy to do it again sometime.”

Blue glances at Jarod as they walk. If he didn’t know better he’d say Jarod is being nice, in his own way. “Well, we’re 1 to 1 now, so I’d say another rematch is in order.”

“Oh sure, count the preliminary match. Anytime, anywhere, Oak. You heal that sorry excuse for a plant pokemon up, make sure it actually listens to you, and after a dozen fights or so, you might actually beat me.”

Blue smirks, but it fades by the time they leave the training room. “I’m just glad to see he followed my other orders until then. I had some trouble getting him to listen at all until last week.” Blue hates how he sounds like he’s making excuses, but he finds that he wants Jarod to know how much effort has gone into his training.

“Well, you’ve got four days to get it to follow orders better in the heat of things. Do that, and as far as trump cards go, you might stand a chance.”

“Especially since onix can’t TM Flamethrower, or any other Fire attacks.”

Jarod grins. “Liked that, huh?”

Blue shrugs. “It can help their coverage a bit, but hacking their biology to fit in some extra organs doesn’t change that rhydon is a physical attacker. Most cases you’re better off sticking to what they can learn naturally.”

Hai, sensei.” Jarod sketches an elaborate bow. “I’m always grateful of what pearls of wisdom you deign to drop for me.”

“May you profit from them all.”

Jarod’s smile fades slightly as they reach a branch in the corridor, and Blue stops walking when Jarod does. “Well here’s one for you. I know you help out at the center most afternoons, but come back tonight if your shiftry is ready by then.”

Blue raises a brow. “You offering a rematch, or personal training time?”

“Both. And before you get flattered, this is a safety concern. You’re going to be using a temperamental pokemon that’s clearly not fully under your control yet in a Challenge match. I need to make sure you get a handle on its disobedience, because if you step out in that coliseum against Brock and your shiftry decides to stop listening to you at the wrong moment, someone could get hurt. That’s not happening in my Gym. Understand?”

Blue meets Jarod’s gaze for a moment, pride fighting his sense, then nods. “I’ll be here. Humiliating myself in the public eye is the last thing I want.”

“Good. Brock’s a fair guy, but you’ve only ever seen his friendly side. Believe me, you don’t want to come into his arena with an unruly pokemon. Put your pokemon or his at risk like that, and a public browbeating will be the least of your worries.”


“Excuse me. Pardon me. So sorry…”

Red and Leaf make their way to their seats through the throng of spectators. They thought they were getting here early, but apparently underestimated how many people would show up. When Red watched the vid of Blue’s first Challenge, the stands were maybe a quarter full. Now it looks like they’re well on their way to getting full.

“This is J-23,” Leaf says as she passes an empty chair. “There, those two must be 27 and 28.”

Red follows her to them and sits with a sigh of relief. The noise and presence of the crowd sets his nerves on edge, and he finds himself tugging the bill of his hat down every few minutes. “What time is it supposed to start, do we know?”

“Seven on the dot. Not sure how often they’re on schedule, this is my first time at one of these.”

Red grins. “You too? I thought I was the only one.”

Leaf shrugs. “I get that it can be important. I just don’t like seeing them get hurt.”

“Ah. Right. So, uh, how’s the article going?”

Leaf brightens. “I finished it last night.”

“That’s great! When can I read it?”

“Your mom was looking it over today for final edits. I should have them done by the end of the night.”

“I can look it over and give you some feedback by the end of the night too, if you want.”

She smiles. “Sure.”

“What?”

“What, what?”

“You seemed, I don’t know, amused.”

“No, not at all, I just… I mean, do you think you’ll have some suggestions that Laura wouldn’t make?”

Red considers this, and grudgingly nods after a moment. “Okay, fair point. Nevermind.”

“No, it’s okay, I’m interested to know what you think.”

“You don’t have to appease my ego, you’re right. I’ll just give you my thoughts as a reader.”

“Well, thanks. I’m open to any feedback.”

“No prob.”

“What about you, what’s going on with the study? It’s over, right?”

“Yeah, we finished the last session yesterday.”

“So what have you got so far?”

Red hesitates, then pulls out his pokedex and opens the draft of his paper. He goes to the graph and expands it. “Spot my headache.”

A simple scatterplot titled “Correlation between Intensity of Night Shade and the concentration of ‘Other’ pokedex composition metric in spinarak” is displayed. The Y axis is marked from 1 to 10, and the X axis goes from 5% to 25%, with the highest point of data at 23%, and the lowest at 6%. Forty dots fill the graph, clustered mostly between the 5 and 7 on the Y axis, and everywhere on the X.

“Huh. This actually looks… well, mostly random, but it looks like there’s some slight correlation.”

“Yeah. For the most part, it seems almost totally unrelated. But there’s a bit of a blank spot.” He points to the different areas on the graph. “You’ve got spinarak with low Other and low Intensity, spinarak with high Other and high Intensity, spinarak with high Other and low Intensity…” His finger moves to the top left. “But no pokemon that have lower than a 10% in their Other metric scored an intensity above 7…”

“Except for this jerk.” Leaf taps on the lone dot sitting separate from the rest, which shows an Other of 7% and an Intensity of 8. “Well, damn. I’m sorry, Red.”

“I asked the wrong question in my hypothesis,” Red says. “Instead of predicting that there’s a correlation between a high Other and intense Night Shade, I should have said that there wouldn’t be any cases of an intense Night Shade with a low Other.”

“But that would mean your hypothesis is even more clearly wrong.”

“Yeah, well, maybe it should be more obvious. At this point I feel like I just wasted a lot of time and money.”

Leaf frowns and closes the pokedex. “Don’t say that, there still might be useful information in there. That correlation might not be super strong, but it’s not nothing. And that one spinarak, who knows, it might have been a mistake, some mix-up from the psychic-”

“Challenger, Blue Oak, first badge.”

Red’s head snaps up as the noise in the auditorium rises into cheers and applause, and he quickly tucks his pokedex away. “Later.” Blue looks tiny as he makes his way across the floor toward the massive stadium, but his face is larger than life on the screens lining the top of the walls. It’s a bit surreal seeing his friend at the center of so much attention, and Red feels compelled to clap harder, meaningless as it is.

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

Once Brock reaches his podium among the roar of applause, the sound dies down almost instantly, just in time for his voice to replace the announcer’s over the speakers. “Citizens of Pewter, gym members, guests from afar, welcome. A month ago a trainer came to this stadium to Challenge our gym, and left wiser than he entered. Today he has returned to demonstrate the fruits of that wisdom. Blue Oak, Pewter Gym honors your request. State the nature of your Challenge.”

“I challenge Pewter Gym for Mastery.”

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

Red watches the platforms detach from the stairs leading up to them and feels his pulse speed up. He can feel it in the audience, a silence taut as a stretched rubber band, an almost palpable sense of anticipation that he can’t help but feel caught up in. Red is struck by the thought that maybe it’s something more than his imagination: maybe it’s his nascent psychic abilities. He’s about to turn and ask Leaf if she feels it when the battle begins.

“Go, Graveler!”

“Go, Gon!”

“Graveler, Rock Throw!”

“Gon, Leech Seed!”

The projectiles arc through the air toward their opponents, and Red grips the arms of his seat as the rocks crash down around Blue’s shroomish. One of them sends it tumbling to the side, and Red lets out a breath as it gets back up and follows Blue’s order to use Stun Spore.

As the fight progresses, Red notices Leaf on the edge of her seat as well, though her tension spikes when either pokemon gets hit. She catches him looking at her and mutters through a wan smile, “It’s easier when I’m in the battle myself. I have some control over things. Just watching is nerve wracking.”

Red’s nerves are definitely on edge, but what he feels isn’t anxiety: it’s excitement, pure and simple. Was this what made Blue watch Challenge matches and League championships obsessively? Red watches the graveler throw itself forward into a Rollout and nearly shouts out loud as Gon doesn’t get out of the way on time. Half of the audience does cry out, and Red’s heart pounds in his ears as the graveler catches itself and launches back at the recovering shroomish.

“Gon, Poison Powder!”

“Graveler, Body Slam!”

“Gon, back!”

Gon’s cloud of poison doesn’t even slow the graveler down as it throws itself into it, but it doesn’t see which direction the shroomish waddles away in. The graveler slams into the ground through the poison, knocking loose some of the leech seeds that have grown big and ripe, but Gon isn’t around to eat them: by the time it picks itself back up to look around, Blue has withdrawn his pokemon and sends out Maturin.

“Graveler, Stone Edge!”

“Maturin, Withdraw!”

Gravelers four arms smack into its body, and thin, jagged chunks of stone crack off. The graveler throws a chunk of itself at Maturin, and the rest of the shards follow through the air, peppering Maturin’s shell with sharp jabs. Red wants to look the move up in his pokedex and see how it works, but he can’t take his eyes off Maturin as she goes bouncing across the stadium. A moment after she stops, Blue orders her to fire a bubble, and Red sees on one of the screens that she emerges from her shell mostly unharmed but for a bleeding gouge in her leg.

“Come on, come on,” Red mutters as the graveler attempts to follow its target through her explosive popping bubbles. When it tries a Rock Throw Maturin ducks back into her shell, but it misses. “Go down!”

Leaf gives him a look just as the graveler begins to cough, its whole body shaking. By now half of its body is covered in the leech seed’s tendrils, and when it collapses to its knees, Brock’s platform moves close enough for him to withdraw it.

“Well done, Challenger. This graveler would have defeated your pokemon when you first arrived, but you’ve shown that the time spent in our Gym and our city has honed both you and them.”

“Thank you, Leader. I’ve learned a lot from your city and your students.”

Red leans toward Leaf and mutters, “A bit over-dramatic, huh?”

She grins. “I wonder if they have a script.”

Someone makes a shushing sound behind them, and Red sits straight again. His pulse is still in his throat as he waits, and he can feel (or thinks he can anyway) the whole stadium’s anticipation building higher and higher.

“Our Gym is one where we teach and are taught, and you have by all accounts been a valuable partner to many. I hope we have in turn prepared you for your final test.”

“You have. Maturin, return! Go, Kemuri!”

The stadium erupts in surprised chatter, and Red grins. Blue knows how it plays to the audience to show off such a strong pokemon. He hasn’t been a part of the training sessions for about a week, and he’s eager as anyone to see what Blue and his shiftry are capable of.

“He caught one?” Leaf gasps.

“Yeah, and he’s had a hell of a time trying to train it.”

“Brock doesn’t seem happy.”

Red looks around for a monitor trained on the Gym Leader. Brock’s lips are moving subtly, and Red remembers what Blue said about the private channel. “Wonder what they’re talking about.” He looks at Blue to try and read his lips, but Blue’s voice suddenly fills the stadium.

“I caught Kemuri in Viridian. I and two trainers were attacked by a pack of six shiftry as we tried to fight the fire. We lost a number of our pokemon fending them off. We nearly lost our lives. Kemuri was the sole survivor, badly injured in our fight, and so full of malice that he struggled to kill me even as he lay dying. But I refused to accept such a loss. I acted decisively, and caught it despite not having a greatball available. Your gym helped me train it, and today I command it. Kemuri and I are prepared for your test of Mastery.”

Leaf grins. “Now that’s over-dramatic.”

“Do people do these speeches often? If so I’ve got to watch more just for them.”

“Shhh!”

Red turns to see a spectator sternly hold a finger over his lips. Red rolls his eyes and faces front again. “Everyone’s talking around us,” he mutters.

“You and your pokemon have journeyed far together. Now show us the strength of your bond. Go, Onix!”

The audience roars in approval, and Red wonders if there was some ambiguity on whether Brock would use an onix again. Blue beat the geodude, so maybe that’s why it was replaced. Of course, this could be a stronger and better trained onix than the one he fought before anyway.

He wants to ask Leaf if it seems any bigger than the one from Blue’s first fight, but then the battle begins, and he’s once again swept away in its ebb and flow.

“Kemuri, Leaf Blade!” Blue says, and Brock immediately taps some command on the railing near its second microphone.

Blue’s shiftry hops forward from one foot to the other as the onix heaves rocks through the air with its tail. Kemuri dodges and closes the distance between them and cuts the onix’s grey hide with his leaves. White blemishes begin to spread from a number of cuts crossing the many boulder segments of its body.

Brock taps out another command, and Blue yells “Dodge!” just as the onix swings its body around. Its tail clips Kemuri’s side and knocks him away. Kemuri lands with some grace, though a closeup screen shows that it’s favoring one of its legs. Red knows by now that shiftry tend to fake injuries to catch their opponent off guard, and hopes that’s the case here: if Kemuri’s mobility gets restricted, he would be in trouble. “Kemuri, Leaf Tornado!” Blue commands.

The shiftry begins fanning its leaves, around and around each other in a complex pattern. Brock taps out a command, and his onix circles a rock and flings it at Kemuri, causing Red to nearly rise from his seat. Shit-shit-shi-whew. It crashes to the ground on Kemuri’s side, and soon his arms are a blur as bits of green particles flow in a mini cyclone toward the onix, far tighter and more directed than stray bits of leaf normally might.

Brock taps the railing again, and his onix jukes to the side. The “wind” is wide enough to blow some of the green particles onto it, but most pass harmlessly by, and Brock taps out another command that sends his onix barreling straight at Kemuri with a roar.

“Leaf Blade!”

“Bide!”

The onix immediately halts its charge and coils itself into a tight spiral, leaving Kemuri nothing to attack but solid sides. Kemuri goes at it with gusto, but Blue quickly commands the shiftry to back off. Red remembers Blue’s worries about not knowing when Brock might start a Bide, and wonders why it’s a move Brock has to command verbally. Is it a handicap he offers to Challengers?

Either way, Blue has a way to beat it. Red watches Kemuri move farther and farther away, still favoring one of its legs. The onix is still coiled up, waiting. “Kemuri, Extrasensory!”

The shiftry goes still, then spreads its leaves wide to the sides as its eyes begin to glow. The whole stadium seems to be holding its breath as they watch Brock’s onix for a reaction. It begins to twitch, then growl and shift in place, but before it gets any worse Brock taps something out on the railing, and its whole body twists as it dives into the ground, tunneling beneath the stadium.

Red has a moment to wonder if that would work when Kemuri blinks, glow fading from its eyes.

“Well, that’s okay. He just has to hold still like last… time…” Leaf says, trailing off as Brock scales the fence around his platform and leaps down onto the arena floor.

Thud.

A single stomp of Brock’s heavy boot.

Thud thud. Thud… Thud-thud.

Distant rumbling from beneath the ground of the arena. The audience’s murmurs grow as Brock continues to kick at the ground in brief, deliberate patterns.

“I don’t think Brock is interested in repeating challenges,” Red whispers, rising tension making his gut twist and sour. “It’s… gotta be some kind of standard directive, he can’t see where his onix is going…”

Thud. Thud thud… thud.

Leaf’s fingers squeeze her knees, eyes wide. “He knows the stadium’s dimensions! If he has a command that sends the onix to a starting location, then guides it from there by fixed intervals…”

Thud, thud, thud… thud-thud-thud!

“Dodge!” Blue yells just as the onix erupts from the ground beneath Kemuri. The shiftry goes flying, then smacks gracelessly against a rock. It falls to the ground and lies still.

“Oh,” Leaf says softly. “Shit…”

“It might be a trick,” Red whispers, cold inside. Get up…

The stadium watches in dead silence, broken only by the whirring of Blue’s platform. “Return,” he says, the word seeming to echo.

“Bravely fought, Challenger. Your shiftry is strong, and well trained for what time you’ve had it. Another month, and it might-”

“I’m not done yet. There’s someone here who wants a rematch. Go, Maturin!”

Blue’s squirtle appears on the arena floor and, upon catching sight of the onix, immediately falls onto all fours, eyes narrow and foam dripping from its jaws.

Brock is quiet, and Red watches his lips in case he says something in private. “Think he’s worried about Maturin’s safety?”

Leaf shakes her head. “His onix.”

Red looks at her, then the monitors. She’s right: the onix’s skin is more white than grey, and its cuts are dark with sap or blood. Red knows that the rocksnakes don’t need much oxygen, but this one’s breathing is vaguely audible from all the way up here.

After a moment Brock merely says. “A good trainer knows our pokemon’s pride is as important as our own. Show us what your squirtle can do.”

“Maturin, Water Gun!”

“Onix, Dig!”

It dives beneath the ground, its tail hit by the quick, sharp stream of water. Brock begins stomping immediately, and Blue yells, “Maturin, back!”

What’s he doing?! But no, he’s not safe standing still either. Luckily Brock’s commands take priority for the onix, or maybe it’s too far to attack right away, and Maturin safely moves closer to Blue, standing just in front of his platform by the edge of the arena.

Brock stops stomping. Red can hear his own breathing, and doesn’t dare to blink as he looks back and forth between Blue, Brock, and the unmoving arena.

Brock’s smile is slow, but wide. He nods at Blue, and Blue gives a two fingered salute.

“Some kind of safe spot in the arena?” Leaf whispers as the audience erupts in murmurs.

“Gotta be, maybe because of the trainer platform’s foundation…”

Thud, thud thud thud, thud.

Brock finishes stomping the ground, then climbs out of the arena and up to his platform again as his onix returns to the surface with a grinding roar.

“Maturin, Water Gun!”

“Onix, Wrap!”

Maturin dashes forward to get into range and the onix rushes to meet it, zigzagging between the boulders to avoid the shots of water in a scene that looks too familiar. Brock is going for the quick victory from last time. Red grips his armrests as the onix begins to circle Maturin.

“Withdrawup!”

Maturin pops into her shell rightside up just as the onix constricts its body around her. “Maturin, Soak!”

The water pours over the onix’s coiled body, directly into one of Kemuri’s cuts.

The onix roars and thrashes along the ground. Leaf covers her face and Red rises out of his chair with half the audience, adrenaline pumping through his blood and nothing to do with it but watch as the onix writhes along the ground. If Maturin didn’t duck her head in immediately, it would be pulverized.

The audience cries out as the coils finally loosen enough to fling Maturin away. A heartbeat later, Brock withdraws his onix, and Blue grabs Maturin as soon as she bounces into range.

In the ringing silence, both trainers take a moment to line their balls up with their pokedex. Brock looks up first, and all the cameras shift to Blue.

“Is she okay?” Leaf whispers, shockingly loud in the silence. “I can’t look.”

Blue’s face relaxes into a smile, and two fingers rise in a V. The dam of silence breaks, and the stadium fills with applause.

“He did it!” Red pumps his fist as Leaf sags in relief. “Way to go, Blue!”

Brock jumps down from his platform again and begins to walk toward Blue, who climbs down to meet him halfway. The applause slowly fade as they meet in the middle of the stadium. “Congratulations, Challenger. Pewter Gym hereby recognizes you, Blue Oak, with the Boulder Badge.” Brock takes a small box from his pocket and opens it. Upon its black velvet interior, the dark silver octagon of the badge gleams on every screen. “The world is harsh, but deep within each of us lies the strength of stone, the bones of the earth itself. Today you have shown that strength. May the lessons and wisdom of our gym go with you, and keep you and your pokemon safe.”


Leaf and Red walk the corridors of Pewter Gym, following the directory signs from one hallway to the next. She feels exhausted. Somehow Red, who spent the night jumping up and down from his chair and screaming like a madman, is still bright eyed and bushy tailed, and has barely stopped talking about the match since they left the stadium. It would be cute instead of wearying if not for her emotional drain.

“And that last command, Blue must have known it was coming up, it was just the timing that was off, or maybe his shiftry’s reaction time-”

“Yes, I saw it,” she says. “I was there. It was thrilling.”

Red’s grin fades slightly. “Sorry, just a bit whelmed. Maybe even overwhelmed. It was… more intense than I expected.”

“I could tell. You sound like Blue.”

“I’ll have to remember this next time he’s going on about some match. Having some stake, caring about the outcome and participants, I sort of get his passion for it.”

Leaf groans. “Not you too.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not lining up for a Challenge. Even if I wanted to, I’m not an idiot. My pokemon are a fire type, a normal type, two bug types, and an electric type. I’d get crushed. Literally.”

“Good, because I don’t think I could attend another one of those for at least a few weeks.”

They reach the right door and knock before entering. It’s a comfortable looking room, with a table full of food to one side and a number of big, plush couches in the middle. Blue is sitting on one, looking as drained as Leaf feels. He has the container with the boulder badge in one hand, and closes it as they enter, getting to his feet and tucking it away in his pocket. His grin chases the fatigue from his face, and he steps forward to meet her hug.

“Congratulations, Blue!”

“Way to go, man.” Red bumps his fist. “That was really awesome.”

“Yeah? You guys enjoyed it?”

“Red’s been going on about it since we left the match,” Leaf says, avoiding her own response. No need to rain on their parade. “Your pokemon are okay, though?”

“They have a small facility here, I got them checked out after the match. Kemuri and Gon will be healed up in no time, Maturin just needed some potion and rest. She was snug in her shell before the onix started thrashing.”

The knot of worry in Leaf’s chest relaxes, and she takes what feels like the first full breath since the match started. “And Brock’s onix, it’s okay too?”

“I don’t know, haven’t seen him since the stadium. He should be on his way now though.”

Red and Blue begin talking about the finer details of the match, and Leaf wanders over to the refreshment table to grab a soda and nibble at the vegetable tray. She feels herself growing more calm little by little as time passes, eventually sitting on the couch with a small plate of food. She wonders if she’ll ever get used to watching pokemon fight. Everyone in that auditorium seemed to be enjoying themselves. Even when they were worried that one of the pokemon had gotten hurt (or rather, more hurt than “expected”), it didn’t seem to really bother them. They left the match talking and laughing. Even Red.

Maybe there’s just something wrong with her.

She picks at her food until there’s a knock at the door, and the Gym Leader walks in a moment later. “Hello everyone. Sit, sit. I just came by to congratulate you again, Mr. Oak.”

“Thank you, Leader.”

“Your shiftry took me by surprise tonight. It must have given you trouble, or I imagine you would have used it in our first match. Unless that was just a story, and you acquired it recently?”

“No, it was all true.”

“Remarkable. Who helped you train it?”

“Red did, and Jarod.”

“And your squirtle?”

“Being able to withdraw is one of Maturin’s greatest strengths, but after our last match, I couldn’t allow it to become such a liability again. Even with Kemuri, I wanted to make sure Maturin would be more prepared. So I trained her for a few maneuvers while in her shell. ” Blue smiles. “Kemuri weakened your onix enough that Maturin didn’t even need a direct hit. Once you went for the Wrap again, I knew I had you.”

“And yet it was a great risk. If your squirtle wasn’t fully withdrawn, or my onix had a more violent reaction…”

Blue shrugs. “It was a calculated risk. Even adolescent onix are massive and powerful creatures, and expecting to take one down without some fallout is unrealistic. Of all my pokemon, Maturin is most capable of staying safe.”

“And onix’s dig attack? How did you know that part of the arena floor was safe from tunneling?”

“I didn’t. From some exploration, I knew that the smaller arenas have more solid ground just around the inside corners. I just figured my best bet was to act as though it was true for the big one as well, since if I was wrong I probably wouldn’t win anyway.”

Brock nods. “You’ve acted decisively, from training to combat, and beat me honestly. It was an honor to battle you.”

“The honor is mine, Leader.” Blue bows. “Thank you for all the help your gym has been.”

“I heard you’ve been as much a teacher to others here. Truth be told, I hoped you would stay another month, perhaps even Challenge for membership.”

Blue looks genuinely surprised for a moment. “I’m honored. Really. But we’ll be moving on soon. I have a long way to go.”

“You’re welcome back any time.” They clasp hands, and Brock turns to her and Red. “And you two? You were in the Viridian Fire too, weren’t you? My city thanks you for your help.”

“No need to thank us. We got kind of caught up in it,” Red says.

Leaf nods. “Blue was the hero. Red and I didn’t get the chance to help anyone.”

“I don’t know about all that,” Red says. “You definitely saved me.”

“I’d say we’re both even on that score.”

Brock smiles. “You were the injured one, right? And you were the one looking after him. I remember. Your friend was quite worried about you two.”

Blue’s cheeks redden, and Leaf grins. “He’s a sweetheart,” she says, and to her delight he flushes further.

“Should I expect your Challenges someday?”

“Not likely,” Red says. “But I’d love to pick your brain about Rock pokemon someday, especially some of their abilities.”

Brock smiles. “A researcher, then? I should have known as much, travelling with an Oak. I don’t normally have time to spare, but I might be able to answer an email occasionally, if they’re not too long or frequent.”

“Really? Thanks!”

“And you? Are you a researcher too?”

If she’s ever going to get the Gym Leader’s perspective on the museum, now’s her best chance. “Not quite. I’m dabbling in some journalism at the moment, and was wondering if you’d be interested in a quick interview?”

“Interesting. What about?”

“The Pewter Museum. I tried to schedule an interview through your gym, but they said…” She trails off at the slight frown on Brock’s face.

“I’m sorry, I don’t really have the time for such things. My concerns are Pewter’s Gym and its people’s safety. I’m sure there are others more qualified to answer questions on the museum.” Brock stands up, and the three trainers do too. “Congratulations again, Mr. Oak. If you have time before you leave, come by my office, and I’ll teach you the basics of the Bide technique.”

“I will, thank you.” Blue bows again, and Red and Leaf follow suit. Brock returns it, then leaves.

Blue and Red return to chatting about the match as they go to the food table. Leaf stays behind and munches on a carrot. Even knowing it was a long shot, Leaf feels slightly hurt. The Gym Leader didn’t even offer her the occasional email question like Red.

Well, she tried. If he got upset with what she writes, he had his chance to weigh in. It’s probably delusional to think he’d care what her little article says, but if he does decide to speak out after it’s published, well, at least it’ll have accomplished something.