Laura Verres ends the call with her son and puts her phone away, gaze distant and a slight furrow in her brow. After a moment the oven chimes, and she goes to extract the roast fearow she’d prepared. Some final garnishing, a light sheen of sauce, and she puts it on a serving platter. She lifts the plate carefully and places the whole thing in the bottom half of a dull metal box. After closing and latching the lid, she stands back and takes a Container from her pocket.
Resembling a plain grey pokeball but with more buttons and a small display screen on top, the Container takes a moment to scan the box as she points the lens at it. When the ball makes a ding sound, she lightly tosses it underhand. It approaches the box containing the roasted fearow, opens and draws in the whole thing, contents and all. The Container falls to the table with a metal clink, and begins to roll toward the edge.
She stops it before it falls and heads upstairs to change, absently tucking the ball in a nook near the front door along the way.
If she doesn’t let herself dwell on it, she can almost imagine that Red is just over at a friend’s house, or out camping with Blue. Less than a day, and the house already feels abandoned. Sounds seem to echo in the silence, the walls hollow and fragile. She knows it’s all in her mind, but she can’t help feeling like a caretaker, getting ready to cover the furniture, draw the curtains, and lock the door on her way out.
When Red had originally approached her about becoming a trainer, it had taken all her willpower to smile and be encouraging. She was so relieved to see his excitement about becoming a pokemon professor… so relieved to see him excited about anything. After Tom’s death, a listless depression had kept him lying in bed all day, reading book after book or simply staring at the ceiling.
Laura was willing to endure anything to keep him from returning to such despair. Tom had lived his life following his passions and doing what he felt was right, even if it was dangerous. She couldn’t let her fears stop Red from finding his own calling in life.
And now that he doesn’t need her at home, she can return to hers.
Once she’s ready, she goes back downstairs and puts the sphere containing the roast fearow into her purse, along with a canister of pokemon repellant. It’s a ten minute walk to the Oaks’ residence, and the breeze is cool as it comes from the bay to the south, tugging at her hair and dress. She passes a handful of neighbors along the way, most walking their pokemon.
“Hello Laura.” She turns to see Mrs. Kiri out with her raticate. The old pokemon’s fur is more gray than gold, and Laura smiles as he sniffs at her familiar scent and rubs against her ankles.
“Hello Ana, hello Swift.” She crouches down to scratch behind the veteran’s notched ear. Not so swift as he once was, Ana’s raticate is a town champion, having fought off a number of particularly vicious wild pokemon over the years. The rodent’s eyes slip half-closed, and he stretches beneath her touch.
“Going for a walk?” Ana asks.
“Off for dinner with the Oaks, actually.”
“Splendid. Tell them I say hi, and thank Daisy again for me would you? Swift’s leg is barely troubling him anymore.”
“I will. Have a good night!”
“You too.” The veteran trainer walks past, and a moment later her pokemon scurries after her, barely favoring the hind leg that had almost been bitten off by a nidorino. Laura watches them fade into the dark, then walks on, enjoying the night air. Though she’d grown up in Celadon, she rarely misses the crowds and excitement of cities anymore. A few years in Pallet and she’d grown to love the quiet nights and star filled skies of the small town. Adapting back to city life would take some getting used to.
Laura had been a writer and journalist before marrying. She still occasionally writes editorial pieces for the local paper, but it’s not the same as the in-depth reporting she used to do. Forming relationships with people at all levels in society, learning how to ask the right questions, find the important, hidden stories… It had been an exciting life, shining a light on corruption or an aspect of the human experience few considered.
And it’s how she met Tom. The Celadon Herald was doing a story on the Rangers, a deeper look into the kinds of men and women who dedicated their lives to patrolling the wilds and defending others. Each of them had been passionate and brave, but Tom had a quiet intensity to him that was hard to forget.
Laura waits at an intersection for a car to pass, then crosses the street, glancing at the pokemon lab in the distance. Its lights are mostly off, but it still stands out as the heart of the town. She would miss Pallet and her friends here, but she knows she’ll come back some day.
She arrives at the Oak residence, a simple two story house much like her own. Far less ostentatious than one might expect of the eminent pokemon expert in Kanto, but Laura knows that Sam would spend most nights at the lab if not for his granddaughter. She rings the bell, and the professor opens it a moment later.
“Laura, come on in!”
She smiles. “Hi Sam.” She hugs the man who has been like a second father to her, then follows him toward the dining room. She and Marian Oak had been inseparable since they were children. The loss of his daughter and son-in-law a few years after Blue’s birth had been a shared tragedy, and years later he and his grandchildren had been there for her and Red when Tom had died.
Blue’s older sister enters from the kitchen carrying some salad. “Hello, Daisy.”
“Hey Aunt Laura!” Daisy puts the bowl to the table. “You’re just in time, everything’s ready. Got the main course?”
“I do.” She takes out the Container and aims it at an empty area of the dining room floor. She braces her arm, then presses a button on the side. The silver sphere scans the space in front of it, then opens with an explosion of light and sound that ends with the box lying on the floor.
Daisy takes the top off, and breathes deep as the scent fills the room. “Mm. Smells delicious!” She lifts the plate and puts it on the table, steam still rising from the cooked meat. “Everyone hungry?”
The next few minutes are spent enthusiastically digging in, punctuated by the occasional compliment of a dish. Once everyone has finished their first serving and begins to slow down, Laura turns to Daisy. “Ana says hello, and thanks again.”
Daisy smiles. “Swift’s recovering alright?”
“I saw him on the way here. He looked great.”
“I’m glad. I’ve been putting off new clients to get Moonlight ready for the contest in a couple months, but I had to make an exception in his case.”
“Oh? How’s she doing?”
“I’ll bring her out and show you after we eat!”
Sam’s voice is proud as he spoons more rice onto his plate. “I think they’re going to reach Master Rank this year.”
Daisy snorts. “Maybe if you bribe the judges.”
“Daisy! I would never abuse my long and deep friendship with the heads of the Pokemon Coordinator Contest to—”
“Yeah, yeah. Don’t try that innocent tone with me: I still remember when you just had a ‘friendly chat’ with Leader Erika on the week of my birthday, and what a surprise, she happens to be in town that day!”
“It’s hardly surprising if one of my old students wants to visit me now and again.”
“And the time when we went to Saffron for Blue’s birthday, where you chose the one hotel and room that the President of Silph happened to be staying next door to…”
“Well if you’re going to turn every coincidental—”
“And the time I got sick for a week and couldn’t go to school, and who should come to teach me at home but Mistress Agatha of the Elite Four…
Laura is grinning as Sam raises an indignant chin. “Surely a loving grandfather can speak of his worries and troubles to—”
“My point,” Daisy says, spearing a chunk of fearow with her fork. “Is that you seem to know just about everyone somehow, and if I ever find out that you’ve used your influence to give me an unfair advantage in the region-wide contest to test my skills as a pokemon coordinator, thus cheating me out of a fair assessment and cheating everyone else in the contest of theirs, I’ll wait till you’re sleeping one night and mail all your pokemon to Professor Elm. Pass the rice please.”
The professor hmphs, but passes the bowl with a slight smile. “Bring home even third place and people will come all the way from Johto to learn under you.”
“So, Laura!” Sam says, turning to her. “I’ve noticed pokedex registrations from Red, Blue and Leaf. It looks like all their preparation is paying off. Have you heard from them?”
“Yes, less than an hour ago. They’re doing fine, arrived in Viridian with at least one new pokemon each.”
Daisy is watching Laura. “How are you holding up?”
Laura takes a drink, then puts on a smile. “Not bad. I’m thinking of going back to work, actually.”
Sam raises a brow. “Really? Is Tom’s pension…”
“No, that’s all fine. It’s for me, mostly.”
“I think it’s a great idea,” Daisy says. “I always enjoy reading your articles. Is there something specific you want to write about?”
“A number of things, actually. I’ve never really stopped wanting to write about current events, I’ve just had a more limited ability to investigate them.”
“What do you think you’ll start with?”
“Something easy, I think. Maybe a look into those recent accusations of sexual harassment by employees at Silph.”
Daisy grins. “Oh yeah, no big deal, just going to start off by taking on the biggest company in Kanto.”
Laura scrapes the last bit of food from her plate. “Maybe I’ll throw in some pieces on gardening,” she says, and Daisy laughs. “In all seriousness though, it’s been hard to listen and watch what’s been going on in the region at times, and not do or say something about it.”
Daisy nods. “We’re pretty isolated here.”
“Not for long,” Sam says.
“What do you mean?”
Laura sips from her glass. “The town council is already thinking of incorporation, and after that it’s just a hop and a skip till we’re a proper city, with our own mayor and gym and everything.”
Daisy absorbs this for a moment. “That would be quite a big change…”
“That’s an understatement,” the professor says. He stands and begins clearing the table once it’s evident everyone is done eating. “You were only five when we first moved here, so you might not remember how different it is today compared to back then, but it’s barely recognizable as the same place. Incorporation would be an even bigger shift.”
“Is it because of the lab?”
“It’s been pulling people and money here for over a decade now, and there’s no sign that will stop anytime soon.”
Daisy and Laura join him in bringing things to the kitchen, and they carry the conversation to the kitchen, where Daisy begins to make some tea as Sam washes the dishes. Laura is waved off when she tries to help, so she and Daisy move to the living room. Daisy turns on the news, and the low volume and sound of running water in the kitchen are a soothing ambiance in the background as they talk.
“—reflect the noticeable drop in prices. Center administrators cite increased efficiency, mostly from the recently implemented standardized practices. When polled, over 80% support expanding the trainer subsidies. Licensing officials have yet to comment—“
“Is our center in that 80%?” Laura asks.
Daisy sighs as she pours them two cups of tea. “Some are, but not enough. Too few trainers pass through Pallet, and enough neighbors grumble about the tax as it is.”
“Until it’s their pokemon that’s hurt.”
“—reported that a swarm of tentacool have been spotted near Cinnabar Island, estimated to pass by the end of the week. Travelers should be aware that such swarms can move at surprising speeds, and are advised to use naval transport to and from the island until the danger is past.”
The screen shows a “cloud” of small red spheres bobbing in the ocean, each pair belonging to a separate poisonous jellyfish. Laura feels an involuntary shudder of revulsion. “So many…”
Daisy makes a face. “Hope they don’t come up here and ruin our beach. The surfing contest is next week.”
Mental images of some trainer and their pokemon caught in such a massive swarm makes Laura feel sick. Soon she’s seeing Red or Blue’s face in every scenario. She turns away from the television. “Weren’t you going to show me what Moonlight can do now?”
“Oh, right!” Daisy goes to the cubby by the door and brings back a greatball, its blue lid marked with a white sphere between its red ridges. With a hard throw, the ball zips through the air, appearing for a moment as though it will crash through a window: then it flies over the empty space of the living room, and discharges a clefairy onto the carpet.
Daisy catches the ball as it rockets back at her. “Hey there Moonlight! Come say hi to Aunt Laura!”
The pink, shy pokemon makes a light trilling sound, and flutters her small wings as she hops toward them, cuddling into Daisy’s arms. The teen brings her pokemon to Laura, who rubs the fluff of hair between the clefairy’s ears.
“—continues to enjoy its lowest crime rate since Leader Koga became head of the gym. Koga has commended the local police for their efforts, deflecting any implications that he might be partially responsible—“
Daisy strokes the pokemon’s tail, then smiles at Laura. “Remember that big debate grandpa was in last year, where the professors were all arguing theories on how the ‘Metronome’ ability works?”
“Vaguely. My main takeaway was that we still don’t quite understand how certain pokemon like clefairy get their energy. Wasn’t there something about the variation in their powers?”
“Right. Instead of just being able to manipulate electricity or temperature, clefairy, who don’t normally seem to be capable of such things, have been observed in rare circumstances displaying wildly different powers. People used to think it depended on the clefairy, but over years of consistent study they observed the same clefairy running the gamut of different abilities.”
“But it’s still completely random as far as we can tell?”
Daisy smiles. “Not completely. I think I’ve figured out how to influence what power they exhibit.”
Laura blinks. “How?”
“Come outside, I’ll show you. It’s about time for our practice session anyway.”
They leave their tea, and Daisy stops at the kitchen to grab a couple water bottles before they go out. Moonlight sings a brief, sweet melody, and flutters from Daisy’s arms into the wide grassy yard in front of the Oak residence. She begins an odd, hopping dance in a circle while gazing up at the moon.
“So most trainers, if they have a pokemon like clefairy, use the command ‘Metronome’ to try and trigger their mysterious powers. If the pokemon is trained well, they’ll go through the motions, but it’s a total gamble: no matter how well trained, it seems to do nothing as often as not, and even if it does something, there’s no way to prevent it from, say, shooting a bolt of lightning at a ground pokemon, or bathing a rock pokemon in fire.”
As Daisy talks, she begins to mimic Moonlight’s movements. Soon the pokemon and human are synchronized, hopping up and down from one foot to the other, fingers raised upward.
Laura grins, covering her mouth to hide it. Daisy looks utterly ridiculous, but the teen seems unselfconscious, completely absorbed in bonding with her pokemon. While not all pokemon coordinators are as good at battling as trainers, they do seem to have a better affinity on average with pokemon’s moods and behavior, which helps them enormously in the medical or training fields.
Once Laura is sure she won’t start giggling, she uncovers her mouth. “Is this what influences it? The dancing?”
“No, I’m just getting her in the mood… any second now…”
Moonlight starts to sing. Her voice is low, but haunting, the high, sweet tune carrying through the still night air.
And once she has the hang of the melody, Daisy begins to sing too.
Laura sucks in a breath, staring. She had heard Daisy sing before, but never like this. The teenager must have been practicing intensely: her tone and pitch are carefully controlled to match the pokemon’s, the two harmonizing beautifully.
And it doesn’t settle there: soon the melody shifts, Moonlight always leading at first. Daisy barely misses a note each time however, and eventually she begins the first shift herself, and the pokemon follows her, the two weaving a song of simple joy and hope and longing.
For what is surely only a couple minutes, but feels far longer, Laura merely watches and listens as the pokemon and human show the depth of their bond beneath the stars and moon. She feels as though she’s witnessing something primal and ancient, even as it’s new and incredible to her.
Abruptly, Daisy lowers one arm and points into the darkness. For the first time, a word enters the melody, and that word is “Met-ro-nome.” Each syllable seems carefully, delicately pronounced, so that it fits the music.
And in response, the clefairy’s arms begin to sway back and forth, and facing the direction her trainer is pointing, Moonlight opens her mouth wide… and emits a howling gale of wind.
When it dies down, the song is still going, and Daisy says it again, with the same deliberate focus: “Met-ro-nome.”
Moonlight completes its revolution in the small circle she and her trainer form, and then turns again and sways her fingers back and forth through the air. For a brief moment, nothing happens, and then, on the clefairy’s next hop, the ground suddenly bucks, and a cone of rock juts outward from the ground beneath the pokemon.
Again, the song continues, and again the word: “Met-ro-nome.”
The gust of wind returns, making the grass rustle and tear free.
Daisy has been maintaining the same song for almost a minute now, face glistening with sweat. A few seconds later: “Metr-ro-nome.”
A bolt of electricity briefly illuminates Moonlight and arcs off into the sky where Daisy is pointing.
Again: “Metr-ro-nome.” Nothing seems to happen.
Still the song, and again: “Metr-ro-nome.” The leaves of grass around Moonlight abruptly begins to grow, one inch, two, three inches, flowers blooming among them.
A few seconds of singing, and again: “Metr-ro-nome.” The gust of wind returns.
And again: “Metr-ro-nome.” For the second time in a row, the wind.
Suddenly Daisy’s dancing slows, and in the space of a blink Moonlight’s does too. The song continues for a few seconds more, dwindles, then peters off, both pokemon and human seeming to end near the same instant and coming to a standstill.
Daisy drops to the ground, and Moonlight falls back, her curling, fluffy tail lying limp. Both are breathing hard, eyes closed as they recover.
It takes Laura a moment to recover as well, and when she does she breaks into applause. “Oh Daisy! That was incredible! You too Moonlight, my goodness… how long have you been hiding such an amazing talent? You could be stars!”
Daisy smiles, voice a bit weak. “Thanks Aunt Laura.” She opens one of the water bottles, then helps Moonlight drink some before taking a swallow herself. “It took me a year to even match Moonlight’s melody. But did you see? She did it! Four times out of seven, the same ability! That’s got to be a record, and twice in a row at the end? I’ve been trying to get her to do that for a month! I’ve never heard of a clefairy doing that before, and neither has grandpa.”
Laura speaks slowly. “It’s the tone, isn’t it? The tone you pronounce the command in, how much emphasis on which syllables…”
Daisy nods. “In the wild, pokemon like clefairy and togepi only exhibit these surprising and random abilities on rare occasions, always while waving their arms and singing. Not always the same song, but not always completely different either. To an untrained ear, there seemed to be no correlation, and most people think that the arm waving is what’s important. Maybe it still is in its own way, I’m not sure.”
“But you found a tone that’s linked to a specific power,” Laura marvels. “Even more, you can duplicate it!” Her wonder is renewed by the significance of what she just saw. She can’t wait to tell Red, and again feels the pang of his absence. It takes her by surprise, and she realizes she had been completely absorbed in the music and dance, the first thing to have completely taken her mind off Red’s leaving all day.
Daisy breathes deep and takes a long drink from the second water bottle before letting Moonlight finish it off. The pokemon is looking somewhat recovered, and Daisy gets to her feet. “I’m sure others have considered it, but as far as I know no one’s practiced and experimented long enough to isolate one. Most trainers can get their pokemon to link the command with the action of swaying and singing, but volume, pitch, emphasis and lengths of which syllables and consonants… it’s hard to control so exactly, and the possibilities are endless. The slightest change seems to bring about a wholly different power.”
“Have you tried using a recording device?”
Daisy grins. “First thing grandpa rushed off to grab as soon as we thought of it. Didn’t work, which almost made me give up then and there. But it seems like we need to build up to it every time, get in sync enough to get it just right. Even when we record it in the middle of the song, it doesn’t come out the same when we play it. Grandpa says something about the sound is different, but we haven’t had time to consult with an acoustics expert yet. Maybe we’ll figure it out after the competition.”
Laura nods. “I’m sure you will. Either way, it’s still pretty amazing.” She grins, feeling a burst of pride for her oldest friend’s daughter, overriding even the sadness that Marian isn’t around to see what kind of woman Daisy is growing up to be. Eyes stinging with sudden moisture, Laura folds the teen into a hug, one hand brushing at her eyes. “Congratulations, Daisy.”
“Aunt Laura, I’m all sweaty!”
“I couldn’t care less. I think Sam’s right, with an act like that, I can’t imagine any other coordinator getting a higher score in August. You’ll reach Master Rank for sure.”
Daisy hugs her back, voice a bit embarrassed, but determined. “Well, we’ll be trying our hardest, in any case.” She picks her pokemon up, and they head back toward the house. Laura wonders briefly what the Oaks are going to do about the spike of rock sticking out of their lawn, and whether the back yard is full of similar oddities.
When they enter the house, Laura is prepared to call out to Sam about how amazing his granddaughter is when she sees the professor standing behind a chair in the living room, staring at the television. The words die in her throat at the grim set of Sam’s face. She turns to the television, a cold shiver racing up her spine.
“What happened grandpa?”
“—unexpected at this time of year. The low precipitation supercell is sweeping northward, and Rangers insist that it’s too early to tell if this is a precursor to an attack. Nevertheless, CoRRNet representatives stress that everyone should periodically review their city’s evacuation and defensive procedures as a matter of course. The most recent standard response protocols can be found online, at—“
The tension in the room is palpable, and Moonlight makes a low trilling noise. “Where was it?” Laura asks, stomach cramping slightly with fear.
Sam pours himself a cup of tea, still watching the television until the news anchor shifts to another story. He finally sits down, face troubled. “Near Pewter.”
Fingers of ice brush her racing heart. Her hands grip the back of the couch, knuckles white. “Sam… that’s where Red and Blue are traveling, they’re going north after Viridian—”
“Don’t worry, Laura. The storm is headed for the mountains, and they’ll have plenty of warning if it changes direction.”
Her pulse begins to slow back down, and she lets out a low breath. Daisy is quiet, still staring at the screen. Thinking of her parents, no doubt.
The loss of Marian Oak and her husband James had almost broken the Verres household, resulting in the biggest fight she and Tom ever had. He refused to quit his position as a Ranger when she asked him to, insisting that tragedies like that were exactly why he was needed. His passion for helping people had always been one of the major reasons she loved him, but at that moment grief and fear had been stronger than love. All she could think of was that she would lose him. That Red would have to grow up without his father, like Blue and Daisy and so many others.
She had never wished so hard to be wrong about something. In the end, the universe took no mind.
“So, did I hear singing outside?” Sam says, breaking her dark thoughts. He’s watching his granddaughter, who still has a faraway look in her eyes.
“Yes,” Laura says, forcing some cheer into her voice. “Daisy showed me something remarkable.”
“Hm?” Daisy blinks at them and seems to come back to herself. “Oh! I was showing Aunt Laura…” She smiles and sits down with Moonlight in her lap. “You missed it grandpa, Moonlight did the wind gust twice in a row!”
“That’s great!” Sam grins, and the dark mood recedes from the room a bit. He pours a new cup of tea for Daisy and Laura and hands it to them. “Tell me all about it.”
Laura sits down as she and Daisy explain what had happened. The rush of cheer they had brought inside doesn’t completely return, and each of them glances at the television perhaps a bit more often than they normally would, but the news remains relatively mundane for the rest of the night, and their conversation eventually shifts on to other, similarly lighthearted things.
The three talk late into the night until silences and yawns begin to lengthen the switches between topics. It’s almost midnight by the time the second pot of tea is cool, and Laura decides to head home before she falls asleep here. It’s tempting to sleep in a house with other people in it, but she wants to spend the night at home, if for no other reason than to prove to herself that it’s not a big deal. She’ll have to get used to it soon enough.
“Thanks for everything, Sam, Daisy,” she says as the teen retrieves her serving plate and places it back in its box. Laura withdraws it back into the Container and tucks the silver sphere away before putting on her shoes and coat.
“Goodnight, Aunty,” Daisy says, hugging her. “Feel free to come by anytime if you get lonely.”
Laura smiles and kisses her hair. “I will.”
Sam waits by the door, his pokeball belt on. “I’m going to walk her home, Daisy. Be back soon.” Laura gives Moonlight a farewell rub, then follows him out the door.
The town is dark and still, most inhabitants long since gone to bed. Laura wonders if Red is asleep. She can almost feel the empty echoes from her house, waiting for her, the way it seemed after Tom’s death, when Red was little more than a ghost in his room. Tom was often gone for weeks at a time on duty, but even when she felt his absence like a physical ache, he was never more than a phone call away. Now she can’t even call him to talk about their day, to just hear his voice. At least she can still call Red in the morning.
“When do you plan on leaving, Laura?”
She looks at the professor. “Not for a couple weeks at least. I need to get my affairs in order and talk to some people, maybe find an apartment, depending on what I end up doing.”
Sam nods, and is quiet again for awhile. When he speaks again his voice is low, almost as if he doesn’t want to be heard, though there’s no one around. “I don’t mean to impose, but I have a favor to ask.”
“Don’t be silly. What is it?”
“In the course of your investigations, whatever they may be and wherever they may take you, would you mind terribly keeping an ear out for any mention of a Dr. Fuji?”
Laura blinks in surprise. She wasn’t expecting something like that. “Of course. Is he a medical doctor?” She reaches absently for her notepad before remembering that she isn’t carrying one, hasn’t for years.
“Yes, among other things. He was—is—a biologist who specialized in genetics, and an old friend of mine.”
“Did something happen to him?”
Sam sighs. “I don’t know. We kept in touch until about ten years ago, when his responses began to slow. I tried contacting him numerous times during a particularly large stretch of silence. His eventual reply was rather curt: some new project was taking a lot of his attention, the specifics of which he never mentioned.
“It was the last I or anyone I know heard from him. I resigned myself to thinking he simply… faded away. Withdrew. He lost his daughter, almost fifteen years ago. Shortly afterward his wife left him. It made him more absorbed by his work than ever, and I guess I just assumed he finally ran out of whatever kept him going. I tried to get in contact with him, help if I could, but no one seemed to know where he went.”
Laura is silent as they walk. “What changed?” she finally asks.
“A rumor. Not even that. A suspicion, grown from disconnected bits of information noticed over the years. Random remarks in online forums. Old news reports. Offhand comments. Whispers in the dark.”
“Whispers of what?”
“Other scientists and engineers from every region who similarly faded from the public, most within the same span of years. I don’t know if anyone else made such a connection, or if it’s mere coincidence. There are enough conspiracy theorists on the net to make me think I’m being paranoid.”
Laura shakes her head. “Maybe. Maybe not. You can’t really know without looking, and it’s hard to look without knowing what you’re looking for. What are your theories?”
“Hardly anything as substantial as a ‘theory.’ Not even a hypothesis, I’m afraid.”
Laura smiles. “What are your best completely unscientific guesses?”
Sam raises a hand, fingers moving to tick off each one. “First, some top secret government or company research project. Perhaps they’re all alive and well, and merely in deep seclusion. Many seemed to be those who had few tethers to keep them in public life.”
“Sounds reasonable. We know there are a number of projects that have been hidden from the public eye, and not all for questionable reasons.”
“Perhaps not, though Fuji’s studies tended toward pokemon research. Assuming that’s what the project is about, the name ‘Oak’ was apparently not fit to be included.”
Laura chuckles. “I always knew you’d get around to developing an ego some day.”
Sam smiles slightly. “My second guess is foreign interests have been poaching them for their own purposes, and none of their absences are related at all. I may simply be falling to confirmation bias, and forgetting all the data that doesn’t fit the pattern I’ve already formed in my head.”
“That second part should be fairly easy to figure out, with some research.”
He nods. “I’ve done some looking, but far from extensive. And the third possibility I’ve seriously contemplated is perhaps the most frightening, the thought which makes me wish to be wrong, dismiss my suspicions as crackpot.”
Laura frowns. “I know you love being wrong, but not without good reason.”
“I want to be wrong, Laura, because if I’m right it would mean my friend is very likely dead or imprisoned, as are all the others who faded so similarly.”
“An organization,” Sam says, voice quiet. “One that operates between regions, could identify and hire, kidnap or coerce multiple researchers and technicians into secret work that they have no intention of allowing the public to be aware of.”
Laura doesn’t laugh. She’s never known Sam to joke about something like this, nor would he bring it up if he were really as unsure as he claims. The night suddenly seems chiller than it had a moment before. She draws her coat tighter around her as they approach the path to her house, and begin walking up toward the light hanging over her door.
When they reach it Laura turns to face Sam. His salt and pepper hair is somewhat disheveled, a bit like the perpetual mess of his grandson’s, and his blue eyes and face are lined from a long and exciting life. Even without his lab coat, Professor Oak still looks every inch the deeply kind, extraordinarily intelligent man she’d known since childhood.
“I know,” Sam says in the silence. “I’m being a paranoid fool. It’s almost a relief to hear how ridiculous it sounds out loud.”
When she meets his gaze, the usual spark of boundless curiosity and enthusiasm isn’t there. Despite his words, his expression holds no levity, and Laura realizes he is offering her an out. Playing down his beliefs and self-deprecating, so she can dismiss his suspicions as overly imaginative without offending.
But he doesn’t believe they are. He’s as serious as she’s ever seen him, through tragedies shared time and again.
“I’ll keep an ear to the ground,” Laura says at last. “If I can manage it, I’ll keep both.”