Tag Archives: rationalist fiction

Chapter 71: Imposter Syndrome

At first, all he feels is overwhelming hunger in the pit of his stomach, gnawing and burning and growing to encompass his whole being. He feels weakness next, a lethargy that makes him struggle to wake, struggle to open his heavy lids as the temperature grows, heating his skin like he’s a foot away from a bonfire.

He opens his eyes to see his bedroom lit by pale blue flames. The lampent hangs over his prone form, a fixed point in the universe that makes Red feel insubstantial and unreal, an intruder in its dreamworld rather it a part of his.

Because it is a dream, he’s sure of that. It must be, even if he feels his heart pounding, even if his stomach is cramping with hunger, even if his sweat is soaking through his sheets, because the only way this could really happen is if Jason wants to hurt him, and they just started becoming friends, and even terrified and hungry, Red can compare how likely each reality state is and conclude that a dream is more probable.

Or maybe he just wants that to be true, because the alternative would somehow hurt more.

But it’s still a huge relief when Red gasps awake to the chime of his phone receiving a message, his eyes dart around his totally normal room, dimly lit by the warm sunlight streaming in through the shades and the electric glow of his phone..

He rolls over to dry the cold sweat from his face against his pillow, then reaches out and pulls the phone toward him.

The message was Rei letting everyone know to bring their phone or a laptop to their breakfast meeting. Red waits for his heartbeat to slow before he forces himself out of bed to shower. Now that he’s not stuck in the nightmare he can remember that they’re a common symptom of exposure to ghosts too, and he resolves to ask Jason if there’s still some residue from his encounter only if he has another nightmare tomorrow. To keep himself from lingering over it, he focuses on the upcoming meeting.

This is his chance to really push for the idea he came up with last night. He spent almost two hours “boggling” over what minds are and how they work, occasionally stopping to look into some facts and research some theories until he formed a hypothesis that might explain the perfect shield with all the information he has in mind.

The ability to lie without detection could have something to do with partitions or some unique development of mental shields, but when Red followed his confusion down to its central kernel, it led him, as ever, to pokemon biology.

In this case, specifically the way pokemon with multiple brains think and feel and experience the world. Perhaps because of his own internal struggle with Past Red, there’s a sense that understanding that might be the key to both integrating his partitioned self and developing the perfect shield.

All he has to do is convince the others to let him work on it… or better yet, get someone else to help. A difficult task when at least half of the other six students are open about their lack for respect for him.

His moderate success with Jason aside, he can’t help but feel like the lack of regard from his peers is well earned. He doesn’t feel as impressive as them, and he wonders as he turns the shower off and starts to dry himself whether he would have accepted Sabrina’s invitation if he and Blue hadn’t fought. He still remembers what he decided on the SS Anne only to change his mind after his argument with Leaf. Maybe he really did come here too early.

The thought is so depressing that he quickly checks to see if his partition is still up and working. Confirming that it is doesn’t particularly cheer him.

He pulls his clothes on and makes his way down to the building’s third floor, which divides the upper apartments where the students live from the lower ones that serve as public meeting spaces and classrooms, then enters the kitchen to find most of Sabrina’s students already sitting around the large kitchen table or moving among the kitchen counters and cabinets fetching yogurt, cereal, fruit, and other breakfast staples.

He’s briefly distracted by the sight of Tatsumaki floating nuts and berries in an orbit around her head and into her mouth as both hands type on her phone, then goes to one of the fridges and starts pulling out food. They can each buy their own food to stock the cafeteria with, but generic groceries also show up courtesy of the money they make by teaching classes, which is also what covers their rent. This means that, though in some indirect way it is his effort that’s paying for it, he’s not actually purchasing the food that shows up in the fridge, which means Red can eat any unclaimed meat in it (mostly) guilt free.

He’s still layering bacon on his cream cheese, hummus, and guacamole bagel when the last student files in. Satori takes a look around as her torracat walks between her legs, then goes to the fridge to pull out a fruit salad for herself and a can of fish for her pokemon.

“Thank you all for coming,” Rei says as soon as the last of them is sitting at the table. Her own breakfast consists of a fruit smoothie, which she holds in one hand as the other taps at her laptop keyboard. “I hope you’ve all managed to spend some time thinking over the puzzle Sabrina has charged us with solving. Does anyone have any questions before we begin?” She looks around at everyone busy eating. “Great. I’ve prepared a document for us to use to share ideas and suggestions on how to proceed. Please follow the link I’m sending now.”

Red takes a big bite, then pulls his phone out as it vibrates and opens it one handed so he can click through to the shared document as he chews. It already has half a page filled out:

Rei

Hypothesis 1: Sufficient focus on projecting a false emotion or thought while shielding could result in others sensing something that feels real to untrained psychics.

Test 1: Psychic with best projection ability should practice projecting while shielding.

Test 2: Everyone else practices projecting false emotions/thoughts.

Hypothesis 2: Projecting multiple sincere things at once at varying intensity may allow someone to hide emotions and thoughts in plain sight.

Test 1: Everyone should practice expanding their projection abilities to see if others will eventually be unable to process everything they feel.

Hypothesis 3: If others are within range, it’s possible to “relay” something being sensed from someone else in a projection that feels genuine.

Test 1: Chain of 3-4 psychics take turns projecting and reading others at the same time.

Test 2: Psychic being read “assists” psychic projecting.

New words start forming as everyone else begins typing into the common document:

Daniel

With enough understanding of how mental shields or partitions work, the psychic might be able to only let certain emotions or thoughts through. We should

Jason

We don’t know the circumstances, but I’ve wondered before whether an unscrupulous medium could

Satori

Psychic may have unique dark/psychic brain like Inkay line.

A sudden paragraph from Rowan all at once, who clearly already had his thoughts typed out:

Rowan

The psychic may have switched between partitions that split their thoughts entirely from themselves. We don’t know how exactly this was discovered; maybe they induced amnesia to forget something, raised a partition around the emotion of not wanting to forget things, were asked a question about it, answered it honestly, then lowered the partition, which motivated them to remove the amnesia. Did some practice with this, think it may be possible. We should practice doing this and testing what we come up with to see if it would work.

Red has to force himself to stop reading their thoughts and start typing his own. He takes his notebook out and flips it open, then begins summarizing.

Red

Hypothesis: Psychic adapted this ability from a pokemon who has multiple minds.

Plan: Learn more about how pokemon with more than one brain process disparate information and resolve potential disagreements. Separate minds = separate trains of thought? Contradictory thoughts?

“Tatsumaki?” Rei asks, and Red looks up to see Rei watching the green haired girl. Red checks the document and notices she hasn’t written anything yet, despite still being on her phone.

“Got nothing,” the telekinetic says with a shrug, still orbiting food into her mouth every few seconds. “Not where my specialty lies.”

Rei doesn’t seem satisfied with that, but looks back at her screen without comment. He takes another bite of food, savoring the mix of flavors before he goes back to writing.

Test 1) Merge with doduo’s two minds at once, see if multithreading possible.

Red tries to think of what else to write, and gets distracted as one of the nuts floating around Tatsumaki jerks out of orbit and starts bobbing through the air toward Daniel. Tatsumaki frowns in concentration without looking up, and the nut stops and vibrates between them, twitching back and forth, before it suddenly flies at Daniel, only to stop at the last second right in front of his mouth for him to eat.

“Alright, it looks like everyone has written their ideas out,” Rei says, and Red quickly writes out his second test as Rei keeps speaking:

Test 2) Try to merge with separate seeds in exeggcute and figure out how single mind forms?

“…should discuss each, and choose which one to focus our attention on.”

Red feels his heart sink. This is what he was worried would happen; he doesn’t find it too likely that others would agree to work on his idea, but more importantly they shouldn’t all commit themselves to any single idea.

“Satori, would you like to expand on yours first?” Rei asks. Red checks and sees that she had stopped after a single line.

The girl shrugs, not looking up from her bowl as she spears each piece of fruit and chews. “Pretty simple. Think the psychic might be unique. Chimera between dark and psychic parents. Sensei can look into it.”

“What’s a chimera?” Jason asks.

“Mythical pokemon that are combinations of different species,” Red says. “Like, a pyroar’s head on a gogoat’s body with a seviper for a tail.”

“And that’s… possible, for people?”

“Fraternal twins that merge in the uterus,” Satori explains before sticking a piece of melon into her mouth.

Jason blinks, and Red imagines his own expression looks a lot like the medium’s. “What?”

“Wait, back up a step.” Tatsumaki says as she turns to Jason, tone playful. “You know where babies come from, right?”

“I’m a medium, not a monk,” he says, smiling slightly.

“Does that actually happen?” Daniel asks, tone skeptical.

Satori glances up, sees everyone looking at her, and looks down at her fruit again, fidgeting. “Yes. Very rarely.”

“‘When the absorption is incomplete, this results in the child having both complete sets of genes,'” Red reads from his phone, fascinated. “‘Which often results in patches of different colored skin, eyes of two different colors, and if the twins are of different genders…’ Oh.” Red minimizes the page, cheeks flushed.

“So what probability would you assign this particular circumstance?” Rei says, and Red can tell she’s fascinated and skeptical too, even as she tries to regain control of the conversation.

“Low. Dark and Psychic parents are rare, traits are mostly maternal.” Satori shrugs. “Might not be possible. Just an idea.”

“So we probably shouldn’t waste time on it,” Daniel concludes.

“But it is a good idea,” Red jumps in, looking at Satori. “It’s just not something we can test. I can do some research on the potential genetics involved, if you want, and we can present the idea to Sabrina when she’s back?”

Satori looks up at him briefly, then nods as she returns to her food.

“Thank you, Red,” Rei says, and types Red – Research on own time in red letters beside Satori’s idea. “Next let’s—”

“Hang on,” Red says. “I think… I want to make sure, before we discuss the others, that we’re going about this with the right attitude.”

Rei’s brow rises slightly, but she opens a palm in invitation to continue, and Red nods, taking a moment to collect his thoughts. “My mentor at Pallet Labs, Dr. Madi, liked to tell a story about a group of five biochemists were tasked with creating a solvent for different pokemon webbings,” Red says. “They worked together to come up with hypotheses based on each one’s chemical makeup, from caterpie to galvantula, and tried formulating each solvent along the way. A month later they had found only two of them. One of the researchers was married to an engineer, and they vented their frustration over dinner.”

Everyone is more obviously paying attention now, even Satori’s phone is leaning against the table, and he considers asking them if they can guess what the engineer did before squashing that impulse. Not the time to mimic his teachers. “So the engineer decided to fill dozens of bowls with every liquid they could think of, then put samples in each to see which ones dissolve at all. Once they found one, it became much easier to isolate the chemicals that would have a reaction.”

“So you’re saying everyone should just pursue their own ideas?” Tatsumaki asks.

“Nah,” Daniel says. “He’s saying we should just get to experiments, not spend too much time thinking about what might be true.”

“Kind of both?” Red jumps in. “I think we should all come up with something testable for our ideas, like Rei and I did, and give each a try rather than committing to just one that everyone works on.”

“Not all of these can be proven with a single experiment,” Rowan says.

“They don’t have to be proven,” Red says, and has to resist the urge to explain how science works to a room mostly full of people who either already know or don’t care. He briefly wonders if he would have had the foresight to recognize that a few months ago. “Even something small that might falsify them would be a better filter to narrow down ideas of what to spend more time on. If they show promise, we keep going in that direction, but if not we table that hypothesis and focus on the others.”

Daniel shakes his head. “It would take a lot of time to even give that an honest attempt. Just look at your idea; even Satori takes days to fully merge with a pokemon.”

“And some of these ideas require multiple people to test them,” Rei adds. “Your analogy is well taken, Red, but we shouldn’t split our efforts entirely. I’d like to return to considering each idea as a group, and we can at least decide which are worth pursuing to a first stage test?”

Red hesitates, unsure if he should try challenging her again. No one else is speaking up, so after a moment he nods with a sinking feeling.

“Daniel, it looks like your idea is similar to Rowan’s. Do you want to go before him?”

“Sure. I know we’ve already been trying to figure this stuff out, but knowing something is possible changes things. I spent most of last night talking to Tetsuo about shields and how specific he can get with them. If there’s a way to just shield part of your thoughts, a sort of quasi-partition if you will, then that seems like it would do the trick all on its own.”

“Agreed, it makes sense as an avenue to explore.” Rei highlights his idea in the document. “Rowan?”

“Seems pretty self-explanatory. I’m probably the one with the best chance at figuring it out, if this is the way to do it, but if anyone else thinks it’s worth trying, go for it.” He glances at Red.

Red opens his mouth, then closes it. He does actually find Rowan’s idea interesting, but he’s avoided experimenting with new partitions while he’s still having so much trouble with his current one. Explaining that to Rowan led to a similar loss of interest from the older student as Tatsumaki learning that he can’t use telekinesis.

“So long as you don’t need anyone else,” Rei says, “I don’t see why you shouldn’t pursue the idea. But we may need you to test other hypotheses as well.”

The young man shrugs. “Anyone’s welcome to ask, and I’ll help out if I’m free.”

Red sees Tatsumaki roll her eyes and Daniel glance at Rei with a brow raised, but the blonde doesn’t argue the point, merely pursing her lips and writing his name next to his idea. Red wonders if she’s not pushing the matter because she doesn’t think it’s worth the argument or expenditure of social capital, or if she’s just glad for the excuse not to work with him.

“Jason?”

He starts to fiddle with his necklace. “My idea is obvious, given where my skills fall. It’s dependent on certain factors that should be easy enough to check once Leader Sabrina returns, but there are stories of mediums who do not cleanse the influence of Ghosts on the soul, but rather manipulate and channel it.”

“Is that something you’ve tried yourself?” Daniel asks, sounding skeptical.

“No, nor do I intend to.”

It takes a moment for people to understand the implication. Jason bears the surprised looks from around the table with a calm expression, though his fingers continue to move over the prayer beads at his neck.

Red is the first to speak. “Because you consider it wrong, or dangerous?”

“Both.”

Rei is frowning slightly. “Setting aside any modesty, my understanding is that you’re one of the most skilled mediums in the Indigo League. If it’s too dangerous for you…”

“We still don’t know who sensei was referring to,” Tatsumaki reminds her. “For all we know it was Leader Morty, or—”

“Leader Matsuba is an honorable person,” Jason says, calm but firm. “And I did not mean dangerous in the sense you are thinking. You fear the axe to the tree, not the poisoning of the water.”

There’s another moment as the room absorbs that. “You’re talking about morally dangerous?” Daniel guesses, and Jason’s brow creases, but he doesn’t deny it. “Usually that’s covered under ‘wrong.'”

Red can see the frustration on Jason’s face as he tries to explain. “It is more… spiritually dangerous. An eroding of moral safeguards.” He looks around as if seeking understanding, and Red wishes he could support him, but he doesn’t get it either.

“Seems oddly specific to have a religious tenet against imitating the effects of surrealism to fool a psychic reading their thoughts,” Rowan says, not bothering to hide his skepticism. Daniel covers a snort by clearing his throat. “But if that’s written somewhere, that might indicate some precedence…”

“It is not,” Jason says, still clearly frustrated. “It is a personal belief. I have no intention of learning something that could cause such impure thoughts.”

Red suddenly thinks of the cleansing ritual, and it clicks. “Oh! I think I get it,” he says, and everyone turns to him. “Stealing is morally ‘wrong,’ while learning how to better steal is ‘dangerous.’ It may not be wrong itself, but it is a moral danger.”

Jason smiles and nods, and Red smiles back. He’s glad he was able to help clear the communication gap, not least of which because it resolved his own frustration. The table is quiet a moment, and eventually Rei says, “But this is what sensei tasked us to do. If there is a chance that this is the route to the perfect shield, we must explore it.”

“Plus, if someone out there is doing it, knowing for sure and learning how could help us find a way to pierce it,” Daniel suggests, and Red remembers what Sabrina told him about psychic defense and offense being a continuous arms race.

Jason is quiet a moment, then says, “I can assist others in trying to learn it, if they believe it is necessary. I simply will not perform the experiments myself if it may result in me learning it.” His voice is firm enough that no one attempts to further persuade him, and after a moment Rei starts typing.

“Let’s skip that one for now, then, unless we think of a way one of us can test it.” She finishes typing the note next to his idea, then starts scrolling down the page, and when Red realizes that the two of their ideas are the only ones left his pulse speeds up. He doesn’t spot a trap so much as intuit that there is one; Rei is running this meeting very deliberately, and from last night’s conversation Red knows that she not only doesn’t particularly like or trust him, she thought Sabrina might suspect him as having the perfect shield.

If he were in her position… He would keep him from directing plans or research efforts, thinking that his idea would just waste time. And of course she would want her own ideas to get as much attention as possible, but he can’t tell what her strategy is. There are probably psychological biases at work here, something like anchoring or the peak-end rule, but he doesn’t know enough to tell how robust or applicable the research on them are, or how they might apply to Red’s idea going before or after all of hers.

The best he can figure, Rei has three hypotheses opposed to everyone else’s one, and each is detailed, so if she goes last they would probably end up spending more time on her ideas than everyone else’s put together, plus they would be ending on them, which could make her ideas feel more present when it comes time to decide how to assign them…

“Care to go next, Red?” Rei asks without looking at him.

And there it is. He can’t be sure she’s actually trying to be cunning, but one of the few things Red learned from pokemon battling that might be generalizable is not to let an opponent set the tempo of the match. He doesn’t have to know why she wants something to benefit from not letting her have it.

“Actually, do you mind if I go last?”

Rei meets his gaze for a moment, and Red just looks back, unsure if he would or should need to justify himself. After a moment though she just nods and scrolls back up on her laptop.

“As you wish. My first idea is the most straightforward, and too obvious to ignore. I’ve certainly never tried projecting something through my own shield.” She looks around. “Has anyone else?”

Everyone shakes their heads or stays silent, and Red wonders if others are trying it now, like him. It feels strange, like grabbing his own wrists and pulling in opposite directions, or, no, more like biting into his bagel and trying to convince himself it’s chocolate cake.

“Who’s the strongest projector among us?” Jason asks.

Everyone glances at each other until Daniel shrugs and flips his hand up. “I’ll take that title, I guess. We should probably test it to be sure, but I wouldn’t mind working on that.”

“We’ll see. If you can do it on your own time, you may be needed for another idea.” Rei writes his name next to it, but leaves off on specifying anything further. “The next is about, in essence, practicing double-think. Maybe a better way to put it is to hide signal in noise by holding such a wide scope of emotions and thoughts at once that some are hard to pick up in the mix. Would you take it, Tatsu?”

“Why?” Tatsumaki asks. “Not my specialty, and I don’t think it would work anyway. Hiding an emotion in a projection isn’t like hiding sugar in salt, if it’s there it’s because you feel it, and if you feel it they will too.”

“Don’t know if that analogy works,” Rowan comments. “I could see someone mixing just enough sugar in salt that it changes the taste, but not obviously enough that someone tasting it could identify how.”

She gives him a look. “I meant visually.”

“Then you should’ve said so, shouldn’t you?”

Tatsumaki mentally flicks one of her orbiting berries at him, which he stops midair. Five more quickly follow, and he’s forced to use his hands to block all but one, which bounces off his forehead. As always, Red watches these displays with a mix of wonder and envy. He wonders if either feeling will ever fade, especially if he never develops telekinesis of his own.

“Can we focus, please?” Rei asks, and the wobbling berries (which have been crushed by the opposing forces affecting them) suddenly shoot toward Tatsumaki for a moment before stopping in front of her.

“My deepest apologies, senpai,” Tatsumaki says as she guides the crushed berries into her mouth.

Her mocking tone doesn’t seem to bother Rei. “I believe the same multitasking skills that assist in your telekinesis might allow you to hold multiple emotions at once until some become nearly subconscious.” She shrugs. “Of all of us I believe you have the best chance to accomplish this, but if you don’t think it will work then perhaps I should take it.”

“What, you think I won’t give it my all just because I’m skeptical?”

“Yes,” Rei says, serenely unapologetic.

The green haired girl narrows her eyes at Rei, still chewing her berries. “For the record I see what you’re doing, but fine, I’ll take it.”

Rei nods and types Tatsumaki’s name next to her second idea. “My last hypothesis is that it may be possible for a psychic to project other people’s emotions, acting as a sort of mirror redirecting light.” Rei looks around the table. “Has anyone tried this one?”

“Red?” Jason asks, and they all turn to him. “Have you ever attempted to project a mental state you’ve copied to someone else?”

“No,” Red says. “But honestly, I don’t know if that part is necessary.” Part of him is worried that he’s going to be tasked with trying this idea out too, now that he’s set himself up as so helpful, but it is a good idea. Theoretically speaking, modeling someone else’s mental state should fool a psychic; it’s part of why he was interested in mimicking the one Leaf used to keep the abra from teleporting away, and he’s embarrassed he didn’t think of it himself. “If the psychic in question can copy mental states well enough themselves, they might not need a co-conspirator to fool someone merged with them.”

“Wouldn’t they need someone who knows what the right mental state would be?” Rei asks.

“Not… really…?” Red frowns, trying to think through the possible circumstances. “It’s hard to tell without knowing more about how the psychic is interacting with other psychics, and how deep the merger is.”

“You mean like if they’re meeting at a pokemon center, they can cover their thoughts by mimicking those of someone standing nearby with an innocuous mental state they can copy,” Daniel says. “But that would only work if the psychic observing them is doing it passively. Like, checking if they plan to rob the place. If they’re asking questions, the mood and thought content would be a blatant mismatch.”

“Maybe it’s possible to just mimic a mood?” Rowan asks “Like partitioning, someone asks you if you’re angry about something, and you copy just the sense of calm from someone nearby as you say you’re not. Even if the psychic is doing a full merge, they might not notice that the mood doesn’t belong to them, and the lie itself might not even spark any dissonance.”

Rei nods. “Does anyone disagree that this is worth pursuing?”

The room is silent, and Red knows what’s coming next… but to his surprise, Rei highlights it without asking him to work on it, and turns to Red expectantly. “Last but not least.”

Red smiles distractedly as he prepares his thoughts. Now is his chance to sell his idea, hopefully even get some of them to help—

“This one seems the least likely,” Daniel says, frowning at his phone screen. “No offense, Red, but even if we assume you can learn actual psychic abilities from pokemon, which need I remind you no one has done before, it would at least have to be something other pokemon could do. Are there any pokemon besides Dark types that can hide what they’re thinking or feeling?”

Red blinks, taken off guard by the first preemptive challenge to an idea, then mentally flips to the notebook page where he wrote out the counter arguments to his idea, trying to decide which question to answer first. “Well, for learning abilities from pokemon I’ve been able to tell if people are sleepy or not from merging with my drowzee, and—”

Daniel waves this off. “I mean real abilities, something unique, not things others can learn to do in other ways.”

“But that might be a matter of power,” Red says. “If psychic pokemon are just stronger than us—”

“We’ve talked about this,” Daniel says, like their talk was in any way conclusive. “There are few if any abilities besides maybe teleportation that are exclusive to Psychic pokemon, there’s nothing special about their psychic abilities, they’re just another type of pokemon with inhuman powers.”

“You’re drawing an arbitrary distinction between—”

“It’s not arbi—”

“Can I please finish a sentence?” Red asks, louder than he intended. Daniel’s brow rises, and he leans back in his chair, holding his hands up as if to say fine, fine.

Red takes a moment to calm himself, frustrated and hurt by the older boy’s aggressiveness, and what’s worse, the others’ silence. It’s so unfair, no one reacted like this to anyone else’s ideas, and everyone’s acting like this is normal…

He focuses on the sensation of his breaths, and lets his worry that he’s taking too long go as he breathes out. A second breath to let go of his fear of judgement. A third to… nope, the fear of judgement is back, and so he lets that go again, telling himself that if he comes out of this calmer he’d get more respect than if he’s still agitated. A fourth breath to let his mind wander back to his notebook and what he wrote there when preparing for rebuttals.

“So first, the idea of whether pokemon do things like this…” Red’s glad that his voice only sounds a little off. “Obviously we can’t know if they do or not. Most of our interactions with pokemon are after they’re caught and conditioned to be friendly and follow our commands. Very few people study wild pokemon behavior, and as far as I could tell only two of them were psychics. There’s just no way to know if this is something pokemon are capable of, psychic or otherwise.

“Second, we don’t know if this would even be considered a ‘real ability.’ It might be something like a Light Screen, which even our best telekinetics can’t do, or it might be something like Amnesia, which almost every psychic eventually can.”

“There’s a scary thought,” Jason murmurs, then gives Red an apologetic look. He doesn’t mind the interruption though, it wasn’t a challenge and Jason at least waited until he finished speaking. He holds an open hand out, and Jason shakes his head. “No, sorry, it would derail the conversation. There will be time to talk about implications after we know if it’s even possible.”

“You listed both psychic and non-psychic pokemon,” Rei says. “What makes you think a doduo would be relevant? Does merging with them cause some similar effect?”

“I actually don’t know,” Red admits. “Before last night I was curious, but since they’re not psychic merging with them hasn’t been a priority. I couldn’t merge with both minds when I tried.”

He looks at Satori, curious to see if she has, and one by one the others do too. “It’s possible,” she says, fidgeting at the attention. “Same sensorium, distinct minds.”

“And from what I read, pokeball conditioning reduces disagreements,” Red adds. “But in the wild each mind is even more distinct. I thought that might be useful to study in relation to potential partitions, but since Rowan will be covering that already, I would focus mostly on exeggcute. I looked into it, and we have very little comparative understanding of how their minds work. Each seed has a distinct brain, but is barely sentient on its own, like a magnemite, just reacting to its environment. It only reaches intelligence similar to other pokemon when they each merge with each other, but losing a seed results in a loss of knowledge and memory. Last night I read that the team of neuroscientists and coders that enabled simulations to work on multi-brain pokemon spent more time on exeggcute than every other one put together.” He forwards the article to each of them, causing a series of chimes and buzzes around the table. “What if there’s something about the way the different minds interact and divide up functions that we could mimic?”

The table is quiet a moment, and Red braces himself. He doesn’t have to wait long before Daniel begins as if there hadn’t been any interruption to his earlier challenge.

“Another problem with this idea is that psychics have been merging with pokemon since forever. Wouldn’t we have known about this by now, if that’s what allowed it?”

“Exeggcute are difficult,” Satori says before Red can. “Hivemind. Risk of losing self, or dominating the clutch. It’s why Sabrina rarely uses them.”

“Plus,” Tatsumaki adds,”The whole idea of a perfect liar is that, you know, they wouldn’t be found out. We don’t know the circumstances that allowed whoever it was to come under suspicion.”

Red feels a swell of gratitude toward them, even if they’re not directly supporting the hypothesis itself. “Also, there are historical rumors of psychics ‘so powerful’ they can lie to other psychics. I don’t put much stock in them, most also get attributed other fantastic feats like speaking with the dead or levitating themselves, but… I mean if a human psychic started flying, those stories would suddenly warrant a bit less skepticism.”

The table is silent for a bit, and Red barely tastes his bagel as he finishes it, waiting for someone else to object. His gaze jumps to Rei as she stirs.

“What you propose sounds like cultivating the formation of another mind,” Rei says, “I’m wary this task would risk mental unhealth.”

Ouch. He wouldn’t take the implication so personally if she hadn’t already mentioned how much she dislikes his use of partition.

“A valid fear for the ungifted, perhaps,” Rowan says while Red is still considering his own response. “But are we not striving to become masters of our own minds? This sounds like a worthy challenge for those of our ability.”

Rei meets Rowan’s gaze. “I’m trying to be cautious, as anyone should when sailing uncharted waters.”

“If anyone feels uncomfortable attempting it,” Red cuts in. “They wouldn’t be forced to, of course.” It would be difficult working on it alone, but he will if he has to.

The table is silent for nearly a minute as everyone looks around, and finally Rei nods. “With no other comments, I believe we’ve finished what I’ll call our first evaluation round.” To Red’s relief, she highlights his idea. “As it stands, Rowan will be pursuing the use of partitions, Tatsumaki will be trying to drown signal in noise, and Daniel will be trying to project through a shield. That leaves four of us to either work on merging with pokemon that have multiple minds, or attempting to deceive through copied mental states.” She glances at Red. “It seems to me that the optimal division of labor would be for Satori and Jason to work on merging with pokemon, if they agree with that, while you and I work on mental states.”

Red blinks at her, unable to hide his surprise. He had been afraid that no one would want to work with him. Now Rei is offering to, despite what she said the night before…

…and all he has to do is let someone else take over his idea, while he works on hers with her.

It makes sense, and after a moment he realizes that he doesn’t want it to make sense. He can feel his brain struggling against the logic, looking for a way to make it not true, to allow himself to work on merging with pokemon and navigating multiple minds. Is it just because he wants to work on his project and better understand the idea of multiple minds? Or is he also struggling against the idea that he was unfairly judging her motives while running the meeting?

Once he realizes how dumb his brain is being, he forces himself to speak. “Yeah. Sounds good.”

Rei nods, and even smiles at him briefly before turning to Jason and Satori. “Objections?”

“No,” Jason says, while Satori shakes her head.

“Great.” Rei starts typing out the last assignments. “Does three days seem like a reasonable amount of time to meet again and see how we’ve progressed along each of our experiments?”

“I would request longer,” Satori says, which takes Red by surprise. After a moment he realizes he hadn’t expected her to care enough about his idea to actually give it a fair shot. She looks at Jason. “Unless three is enough?”

Jason is quiet a moment before saying, “I think I can do it in four.”

“Four, then,” Rei says, and closes her laptop. “Thank you all, and good luck. Red, would you mind staying a minute?”

Red nods as everyone else files out, Jason pausing to grab an orange from the fruit bowl on the way out. “What’s up?” he asks once they’re alone. “Do you want to start now?”

“Yes, but not yet.” She considers him a moment, and he senses one of her blunt statements coming a moment before it does. “I was wondering why you wanted to go last.”

Ah. He supposes they’ll be talking about this after all. He briefly considers making some excuse, like he just wasn’t ready to talk about his idea yet, but she chose to work with him, and he doesn’t want to lie for such a petty reason. “I just thought it might be easier to get people to want to work on my idea if it was last, instead of yours taking up the whole last part of the meeting.”

Her brow furrows briefly, and then she snorts quiet laughter. “I see. And here I was thinking that by saving my ideas for last, people would already be invested in the others.”

Red shifts slightly in his seat. “Ah.” He’s unsure whether that’s what the actual effect would have been, and more importantly, whether she’s being honest about her intentions, but he feels like an ass regardless. “I guess I must come off as pretty selfish…”

“I don’t know if I’d say that.” She folds her hands in a bridge below her chin, watching him. “I realized after your visit last night that the model of you that I had was incorrect. I assumed you were meek and reserved unless in an intellectual debate, but if that were true you would never have tackled a social problem head on like you did. Not particularly gracefully or skillfully, mind you, but with no harm done.”

Red feels his cheeks burning at the semi-compliment. “I have a friend who helped me to push past some social comfort zones, and also helped me realize my, ah… ‘hustle’ isn’t as good as it should be, for what I want to accomplish in life.”

“Well, today you ended up fighting for your own idea without letting your desires get in the way of the optimal strategy. Be sure to give yourself credit for that.” She gives a rare smile that’s full enough to show her teeth. “Do you have anything planned this afternoon?”

He’s still processing her comment, and it takes him a moment to answer. “No, my next class is tonight.”

“Then let’s meet at the cafe across the street so we can begin.”


Red stops at his room to get his shoes, then takes the stairs down to the bottom floor, leaping from the steps halfway down each flight. Yesterday he was worried that he would be largely ignored for this project, but his idea was given just as much consideration as anyone’s. He’d still prefer to be working on it himself, but the fact that the others are actually making an honest effort to test it really drives home how much his earlier worries seem to have been for nothing.

Of course, it’s not just relief that’s fueling his energetic movements. A mix of excitement and nerves sit uneasy with the bagel in his stomach as considers the fact that he’ll be spending extended time working with Sabrina’s most senior student. He doesn’t want to embarrass himself, of course, but he also has to make sure he doesn’t over-exert himself and erode the partition before nightfall. His lesson tonight is pretty basic, just some meditation techniques to novice psychics, but if Mopey Red takes over he might just stay in his room, or half-ass it.

The sun has just barely cleared the skyline to the east as he reaches the cafe and sits across from Rei beneath an umbrella’d table, where she’s typing on her laptop. He can see from the angle he approaches that she has one of those screens covering her monitor that blur anything on them when viewed from an angle. “Hey.”

“Hello. I’ve thought of some initial tests we can run. I’d like to use this opportunity to improve my own ability to mimic mental states in case the perfect shield requires a mix of skills that I can learn, but first let’s test the obvious.”

“Yeah, alright.” Red sits and scoots his chair forward, wiping sweaty palms on his pants. “What’s first?”

“Pick someone to merge with,” she says, throwing a careless hand to the side. “I’ll ask you a question about your mental state or mood, and you report theirs as if it’s yours while I’m merged with you. If it passes as an honest remark, I would consider that mild evidence that this sort of technique could be used to build a perfect shield.”

Red slowly nods, suppressing his discomfort with her cavalier approach to merging with strangers. He should have seen it coming, really, how else would they do this? Instead he just closes his eyes and sorts through the mental impressions his psydar pulses give of those around him, trying to find one that stands out. He eventually identifies a mind with a distinctly restless signature, its attention jumping from one thing to another, and merges with it to feel the man’s nervous impatience.

Red spreads his awareness throughout his body and mind, locking down each part of the mental state and then releasing the merge along with a breath. “Okay… I’ve got impatience. Copying…” He feels the butterfree fill his stomach again as he mimics the experience and makes it his own. “Go ahead.”

He feels Rei’s mind merge with his before she asks, “Are you waiting for something?”

“Yes,” Red says, foot bouncing beneath the table. “I think.”

“Waiting for someone?”

That feels more true. “Yes.”

Rei withdraws her mind, and Red releases the mental state and opens his eyes to see her shaking her head. “Both answers were detectably off. You’ll have to practice getting a better handle on what the specifics of the emotion are.”

Red frowns slightly, unsure that’s relevant but unwilling to argue it after just one test. “Alright.”

“I’ll try now.”

Red waits for her to find a mental state to use, then waits some more as she sits with her eyes closed, probably attempting to mimic it. By the end of their first lesson together it was clear that Rei is better than most at adopting the skill, on par with Sabrina. Daniel is swiftly catching up and may even surpass her soon, but this extra practice will likely keep them neck and neck. There’s a part of Red that worries about his value fading once the others learn his techniques, which in turn drives him to work hard to learn theirs and keep developing his abilities. At least so far no one has made any progress on copying his mental shield.

“Ready,” Rei says, voice a little… brighter, than usual. Red closes his eyes and brushes her mind, then merges with it and immediately shares in her flimsy, fragile joy.

He’s been told that merging with him while he’s imitating a mental state is incredibly difficult to differentiate from when he’s not, but the reverse is certainly not true. To Red, sharing Rei’s emotions while she imitates someone else’s is like looking at a picture of a rainbow with a bright yellow filter over the image. With just a bit of analysis he can recognize all the emotions underneath, and while some are blurred and blended by the false mental state, he can still adjust for that and guess what the confusing mess of feelings are meant to be, for the most part.

“Are you happy?” he asks, trying not to delve too deep into Rei’s real emotions, but he can’t help but feel them too; tension, anticipation, something like calculation, all in minor amounts around her primary sense of DETERMINATION. He doubts he would have been able to recognize so much before his time in Saffron.

“Yes,” Rei says, and a new emotion blends with the others. Not even an emotion, really… more a sense that gets implanted into Red’s awareness as simple as a flashing light in his face, a sense of falseness. Of being aware of misleading or aware of artifice, and that feeling is connected to another related one that he wasn’t spending much time focusing on, but which now feels highlighted in some way…

And then her shield goes up, booting Red out of the merger. He must have gotten close to something private. Red opens his eyes to see Rei watching him. “No?” she guesses, and Red shakes his head. “How could you tell?”

“Well I could tell it wasn’t your real emotion, but even aside from that, some part of you was just so obviously aware that what you were saying wasn’t the truth. Maybe because I imagine it takes an enormous effort to maintain that overlay.”

Rei raises a brow, but accepts the compliment with a minor nod, perhaps because she recognizes his sincerity. “It does.”

“What about me? How does that feel?”

“It felt like your real emotion to me, but for both responses there was an added, almost contextual emotion of being deceptive.” She’s typing as she speaks, and purses her lips thoughtfully. “That might just be from you being a terrible liar.”

“You have no idea,” Red says, thinking of his attempt to cover up Pikachu’s unexpected evolution on the S.S. Anne.

She gives him a look he can’t quite decipher. “Something to work on, then.”

“You want me to work on becoming a better liar?”

“To solve this puzzle, yes. It’s possible this hypothetical psychic is just so naturally capable of deception that he simply deceives himself in the moment he’s speaking by modeling the mimicked mental state as his own. A lie isn’t a lie if the speaker believes it, after all. Ready to pick another?”

Red is still mulling her words over, and why they feel related to the flash of emotion he detected from her. She’s misleading him in some way. The question is whether it’s for an innocuous reason or not. Maybe he can learn more the next time they merge… “Yeah, one sec.” He closes his eyes and casts his thoughts about until he senses a mind flickering through intense emotions he can’t quite decipher. He merges with her and—

roiling anger, paralyzing indecision, beneath it all a twisted pain and self-loathing, despair pounding through him with every heartbeat—

“Red?”

He lets the merger go with a gasp, tears in his eyes as he reflexively looks in the direction of the mind. He sees a young woman with her hands balled up in her lap. She stares down at them with an absolutely desolated expression, and he wonders how she’s not already crying… but he felt that too, the sheer willpower going into her restraint not to lose control in public.

Rei turns to follow his line of sight, and Red suddenly wishes he didn’t look, didn’t reveal the girl to someone else. Rei may even now be merging with her mind to see what he felt, though there’s no physical reaction from her to indicate it if so. Maybe she’s skilled enough to recognize the emotions without a full merger.

This…

His imagination is in overdrive, providing not memories but extrapolated imagined circumstances from the emotional map of what she’s feeling, as if he can’t help but try to figure out what happened to make her feel that way. He’s glad he’s not a better psychic so that all he got were emotions rather than any images or thoughts, but the fact that he now knows this thing about her, incomplete as it is, bothers him…

This is wrong.

It also bothers him that it took this to remind him of that. He told Dr. Seward and Leaf that he’s worried about losing himself, and it’s not hard to imagine what Leaf or Blue or Aiko would think if he was doing this sort of thing regularly on their journey.

“Do you ever feel like this isn’t right?” Red asks, and Rei looks at him with blank curiosity. He waves a hand around. “This, the breach of privacy. If this were an actual scientific experiment, no ethics committee would allow us to do this.”

“Not particularly. People speak in public without knowing whether someone nearby has acute hearing, and everyone is aware that psychics exist in the world.”

“Hearing is passive, more akin to just sensing minds.” Which wasn’t before, of course; he remembers how much effort it used to take. But ever since he developed psydar it’s effectively automatic; he has only to wonder whether people are nearby or what someone is feeling and he’ll get a glimpse, though it still takes concentration to interpret what he senses most of the time. He imagines it’s much the same with other psychics who have been practicing longer. “But merging like this… it used to bother me more, before it got so easy to do myself.” He remembers how significant and important it had seemed when he signed the paper giving permission for Narud, but now that he’s in the world himself he can see the polite fiction for what it was.

“I don’t see what the alternative is,” Rei says, seeming puzzled. “Perhaps one in a hundred people could even notice that a psychic is merging with them, even if everyone is trained to defend against it. Any law that would try to restrict it is utterly unenforceable, and if people were aware of the degree to which we can sense them, and how often we do it…”

“I know.” It wouldn’t be as bad as if it got out that influencing people’s beliefs turns out to be possible, but it would still be pretty bad. “I’m not trying to make some sweeping normative judgement that everyone has to follow.” Mostly. “Just… It makes me uncomfortable, knowing such intimate things about people who have no idea that I know.”

“You’ll never even meet them again.”

“We can’t know that, and even still, it feels wrong.”

Rei is frowning at him, and after a moment he feels her mind brush his. He lowers his shield and projects his discomfort, as well as his nervousness for challenging her. Her frown deepens. “You’re not just trying to get out of working on this project?”

Red blinks, letting her feel his honest surprise as he says, “No, not at all! Is it that strange to care about this sort of thing?”

“I suppose I’ve forgotten how new you are to all this,” she says, and withdraws her mind from his before gazing silently off into the distance and leaving him to try and decide whether to take offense or not. “What do you propose, then?” she asks after a moment. “I can’t practice this on my own, and no one’s mimicry is as developed as yours. We may see benefits from practicing consistently using the already established mental states, but eventually we will need to try new ones.”

“I could take mental states from the others, when they’re not busy.”

“But they will know you’re doing it, which will alter their mental state. It will be useful for testing the effectiveness of a willing accomplice, but not for the true hypothesis.”

Red knows she’s right, and sighs down at his hands. “I don’t know what the right answer is yet, but I’ll try to think of something.”

Rei is quiet for long enough that he starts to worry that he’s upset her, but he’s not going to go back on what he says. He’s just starting to think that he should ask if she wants to try with one of the previous mental states when she closes her laptop starts to put it in her bag. “I have a solution.”

“You do?”

“Your main complaint is that they are not consenting, correct?” She gets to her feet and starts walking, and he quickly follows her.

“Uh, yeah, basically.”

“Then we will go somewhere that will require implicit consent.”

It takes Red a few steps to get it. “The gym? Why would that require implicit consent?”

“Because we will put a sign up that makes it so. Over the cafeteria, for example, so that there is no disruption of the gym’s main functions.”

Red isn’t sure forcing people who want to eat to subject themselves to mental merger is justified, but he’s already made enough trouble for further objection, and just silently matches her quick stride. He supposes it’s a fair enough compromise, and he really should have thought of this before agreeing to help. He’s still grateful that she wants to work with him at all, considering what she said last night about…

…not trusting him.

Red regards the blonde from the corner of his eye as they walk. The sense he got from her before, of her seeming to be hiding something from him, and the way she dropped her shield to check whether he was just making an excuse, make it clear she still has reservations about him, which makes sense… But then why work with him at all?

Unless she just wants to keep an eye on him.

As Saffron Gym comes into sight, he decides to just ask, knowing that she’ll detect something in his feelings the next time they merge anyway. “Is this all a test for you to ensure I’m not actually the psychic Sabrina was talking about?”

“Partially,” she says without pause or hesitation. Because of course she knew that he sensed it in her, and was just waiting for him to piece things together. “If your technique is the key to unlocking the perfect shield, I want to be there to notice the transition when it develops.”

A ball of dread and hurt forms in his stomach, heavy enough to slow his steps. She doesn’t slow with him, and Red forces himself to speed up again. “What about Rowan?” Red asks, then realizes before she can answer. “Nevermind. He wouldn’t let you in anyway, and I’m also capable of manipulating partitions, and…” He feels like such an idiot. “…you don’t know if he’s already capable of it from his practice last night, or even before that, but there’s still time to learn if I am.”

“You also happen to be the best suited for this particular experiment,” she says, tone only mildly conciliatory. “I’m not just using you to ensure that Sabrina is aware of potential perfect shields among her students.”

Red stops entirely, then watches her continue to walk without him. For a moment it seems she will just continue on and enter the gym alone, but then she slows, looks back, and stops as well.

What she said makes sense, but he doesn’t believe her. What he felt from her wasn’t an urge to protect, or serve, or even just curiosity. It was goal oriented toward her own benefit… and now that he knows she’s not being honest, he would be an idiot to take her words at face value.

They must look strange to the people passing by, a young boy and an elegantly dressed woman over twice his age, just staring at each other. Eventually he feels her mind brush against his. After he doesn’t shield, she merges with him, and he focuses on his feelings of indignation and challenge and skepticism and resolution.

He knows he’s the youngest of Sabrina’s students, and likely the weakest. But whether by accident or effort or some combination, he has unique abilities that she’s already admitted she finds valuable. Not to mention that he’s survived a pikachu swarm, helped stop a paras migration, and saved multiple lives from a Stormbringer. At his core, arrogantly or otherwise, he feels capable of at least being Rei’s equal, and if he was willing to leave his journey with Blue and Leaf after Blue stopped treating him as one, he’s not going to let Rei treat him as a subordinate, let alone a potential enemy.

After nearly a minute he feels Rei’s mind leave his and merges with hers instead so he can contemplate her own mental state, which he finds unshielded.

Wariness… uncertainty… suspicion… surprise… worry?

Rei finally brings her shield back up, and Red walks toward her until they’re standing an arm’s length apart. “What are you so scared of?” he asks, eyes shifting between hers.

Rei glances away, or rather just around them, checking that no one is in hearing distance, and when she speaks her voice is low. “Sabrina has a secret, and I want to find out what it is.”

Red’s brow rises. Whatever he expected, it wasn’t that; Rei has always seemed so loyal to the Leader. “The place she disappears to?”

“Yes. She’s been doing it for years, before she was even Gym Leader. I respected it for a long time, thinking she would eventually share it, but if she does it’s with none of her students except perhaps Rowan, or her gym Second and Third. Perhaps not even them.”

Red is frowning now. “What does this have to do with me, or the assignment?”

“I think every student Sabrina takes on has some specific purpose. She is expanding her skills to build toward something, I just don’t understand what. I thought when you arrived that your partition was a way for you to hide something relevant from the rest of us.” Her gaze is steady on his. “I can’t quite square all your behavior from last night and today with this hypothesis, and your emotional state and thoughts.”

Red feels… well, he doesn’t know how he feels. Uncomfortable to be talking about Sabrina behind her back like this. Worried that Rei is plotting something harmful… or worse, that Sabrina is. It’s all too much for him to quite process right now, and he glances at the gym behind her. “So you want to go to the gym because… what, you think there’s evidence there or something?”

“No, it’s a reasonable solution to your moral quandary. But the cafeteria is within my psychic range of the administrative offices where Tetsuo and Keiji are, and it will be a good excuse to study their shields.”

Red’s sense of worry inches toward panic, and he resists the urge to take a step back from her. “Why are you telling me this? If they or Sabrina merge with me—Wait. How do you manage not to give some sense of this away?”

“I have built a narrative around myself of being obsessive and curious about anything related to Sabrina. It was not difficult, since it’s true. The line between suspicion and curiosity is blurry enough that as long as they do not ask me direct questions about it, all is well.”

“Hang on, just… give me a moment.” Red’s heart is pounding, and he closes his eyes as he tries to take in this flip of circumstances and perspective. It takes a few deep breaths, and concentrating on the feel of the sun on his face and sound of the city around him, before his thoughts slow enough for him to realize his most important thing to update on is that Rei has revealed herself twice in the past few minutes to be someone who readily hides multiple purposes and motivations into her actions, and that she is telling him all this.

“You haven’t been checking my mental state,” Red says, opening his eyes. “What if I go tell Sabrina all this now?”

“I suspect I’ll be released as her student.” Rei shrugs. “My tutelage with her has hit large diminishing returns, and I was ready to leave months ago. Only my curiosity in this, and whatever abilities her new students might bring, interest me now.”

She could be lying, but if so he can’t see what the purpose would be yet. It’s hard to remind himself again that he’s talking to someone who’s smarter than him, and far craftier than he’s ever had a reason to try to be. “So what happens now? You recruit me into your investigation?”

“No, not unless you would like to join it. Now we simply have a better understanding of each other, and can more effectively work together. This is what you wanted when you came to my room last night, yes?”

Red doesn’t trust for a moment that this is her entire reason for sharing this, but he nods, still feeling like he’s struggling to keep his head above water. “Where you told me you can’t trust or respect people with partitions.”

“I’ve been biased by my experiences with Rowan and some others,” she admits. “I’m not claiming to trust you now. But I’m willing to extend some if you are.”

“Give me a minute.” Red closes his eyes and imagines the table from his dream. Okay guys, huddle up. We need to talk.

Future Red and Past Red show up at either side of the table, or rather, he imagines they do, and he does his best to model their perspectives as best he can with his partition up. This is a horrible idea, Past Red says. We’re here to learn to be a better psychic, not unearth some conspiracy.

But we did want to form better relationships with the others, Red points out. She’s not asking us to help her or anything.

Future Red shakes his head. She made us complicit by telling you what she plans. If you don’t report her now, we could get in trouble later if it’s discovered we knew. There’s nothing we gain out of this.

But maybe we could, Red thinks, and senses agreement from Past Red at the idea of fulfilling his previous goals. Future Red is more wary, but reluctantly agrees as well, and Red opens his eyes to see Rei patiently watching him.

“I want to help Satori and Jason with my idea, not just work on this one with you,” he says.

“Really? You’re turning this into a negotiation?” Rei shakes her head. “You make it seem like you have leverage. Would I have given you all that information if I feared you using it against me?”

“No,” Red says. “But this isn’t blackmail. You’re getting a lot more out of us working together, and I’m just trying to make things more equitable.”

Rei considers him a moment, then nods. “Very well.”

“You should help us too.”

Her grin is brief. “Don’t push your luck, Verres.”

He grins back and shrugs. “Just saying, I’m pretty sure we’ll learn a lot from it, and you would be a huge help.”

“I’ve got my own projects to tend to. But you’re free to pursue both hypotheses as long as this one has priority.”

He holds a hand out, and after a moment she takes it. They shake, and walk side by side into the gym’s air conditioned lobby.

So we’re really doing this, huh? Future Red sighs. You’re getting blamed for this if everything goes sideways.

Works for me. If anyone asks I’ll just say I was spying on Rei’s activities for Sabrina.

There’s no way that would work.

Well you’d better hope so, because it’ll be your problem.

Rei leads them up to the administrative offices, where they find Tetsuo at Sabrina’s desk. The Gym Second looks up from his computer with a raised brow as they enter, then pauses whatever video he’s watching (sounds like a gym battle) and turns his attention to them.

“Hello Rei, Red. Was wondering how long it would take. What do you need?”

Rei looks at Red, and after a moment it’s clear she expects him to speak. Which is fair enough, since it was originally his request, but also feels unfair given the fact that she’s getting something out of the venue choice. He ensures his shield is secure and takes a breath. “Would it be okay if we put a sign on the cafeteria entrances? Something like, ‘Ongoing psychic experiment occuring inside, anyone entering is subject to unannounced emotional reading?”

Tetsuo frowns, leaning back in Sabrina’s chair slightly. “Just emotional merger?” Red isn’t sure if the Second is simply confirming, or wondering why they would need a specific place for that. He just nods, and Tetsuo rubs his neck. “Well, we sell nearly at-cost so it’s not like it’s a significant income stream, but I’m still hesitant to risk discouraging people from eating. Hungry trainers are less focused trainers. How important is this?”

“It’s… uh…” Red is aware of Rei still looking steadily at him, making it clear that this may have been her idea but it’s his concern. “It’s mostly a matter of principle,” Red says, struggling not to mumble.

“Hm.” Tetsuo taps his fingers on the table as he glances at Rei, then back at Red with measuring eyes. “We can set it between meal times, and put warnings up today so people can plan around it tomorrow and onward. I’m worried that people will continue to think it’s happening even after the signs go down, though.”

Red considers this a moment. “We can sit in an obvious place? So everyone can see us, and once we’re gone it’s more clear the experiment is over.” Red glances at Rei to check if she’s okay with that, then back at Tetsuo.

“Yeah, could work. Alright, you have my permission. Hope it’s helpful; most people who go in will probably be dark or psychics capable of shielding, but you may get a few people who see it as a thrill, so don’t be surprised if that influences what you end up with.”

“Right,” Red sighs. Having principles sucks sometimes. “Thanks.”

Tetsuo waves a hand as he turns back to his computer. “No problem.” Red has already turned toward the door when the Second starts his video again, then says, “Oh Verres, what’s your take on all this?”

Red turns back as the monitor is rotated to face him, and feels his face go blank as his curiosity is replaced by a stew of conflicting emotions.

Various scenes play out on the screen from different camera angles, trainers and their pokemon in the middle of some battles, and he quickly recognizes Blue dressed in the Vermilion Gym uniform, as well as others; Glen and Elaine are there, as well as Lizzy, Taro, and Chie, along with perhaps a dozen others whose names Red can’t remember or whom he never met.

It quickly becomes clear that the trainers are all involved in the same group battle, but not like any Red has seen before. Their surroundings aren’t a traditional pokemon arena, but a much wider area with what seems to be a rough ring of various objects, from boulders to tree trunks to the concrete barricades used during the storm.

“Figured he might head here next. Any idea if he’s planning to spread stuff like this to other gyms?”

It’s a natural question to ask. They started their journey together, were on the news together after catching the abra, and it’s not like they made some official announcement of why they split up. Or that they’re not talking anymore. He’s not sure what Blue tells others when the subject comes up, but for his part…

“I don’t really talk to him about trainer stuff anymore,” Red says. The camera shifts to show an overhead view, and Red can see now that one group of trainers form a small outward facing ring around a cluster of pokedolls in the middle of the battle area, while the rest are spread out around them in a wider ring facing in. “Been trying to stay focused on my psychic training and research.”

“Right. Figured with how much time you spend here that might change eventually.” He turns the screen back and intently studies whatever is happening on it. “Good luck with the experiments.”

“Thanks.” Red heads for the door, and Rei follows silently at his side.

“You really are a terrible liar,” she eventually murmurs as they walk through the halls.

“What are you talking about?”

“Your face, when Mr. Oak showed up on screen. Why the animosity? Didn’t you two grow up together?”

Red knows his shield was up the whole time, and he didn’t feel even a tentative probing. If she gathered that much just from his face, he really does need to learn to lie better. “We used to be friends,” Red says as they step into the elevator. He presses the bottom button first before correctly hitting the ground floor’s, distracted by thoughts of simpler times that feel particularly distant right now. “A long time ago.”

Chapter 70: Mind Boggling

It takes ten minutes for Red to notice he’s going about things all wrong.

What’s more concerning is that after realizing that, he can’t get himself to stop.

His foot bounces against the floor as his thoughts keep jumping to solutions. Hypotheses to suggest, experiments to run, ideas to research, crosscheck, pare down. It’s not until he’s pacing around his room that he realizes he needs to calm himself, and meditates to take a step back from his thoughts and examine them as they stream by, breath by breath.

The pressure to solve this feels immense. It wouldn’t just be an (almost) novel and groundbreaking discovery, it would also give him the credibility he needs to have more time with Sabrina, and to set more lesson goals with everyone.

But he’s not going to do that by just mass guessing, and that’s really all he’s done so far. Giovanni often points out on his blog that people shouldn’t commit all their resources to finding solutions until they have reason to be confident they understand the problem, and that’s something Red completely lacks.

If a non-psychic were to ask him to explain why it’s such a big deal that someone could have part of their mind think/feel something while the rest doesn’t, he’s not sure he could do it. He feels like he understands why it’s so bizarre, but “feels like” isn’t good enough, it’s following intuition, not knowledge, and while intuition can be valuable, it can also be misleading when not trained on good data. He doesn’t actually know why it’s so impossible, it just seems like it should be because that’s what he’s used to expecting from minds; a singular intention or thought process, with any internal conflict being apparent to psychic senses as internal conflict or dissonance.

He could do more research on the topic now, try to better understand brains and thoughts and minds and partitions (no, maybe not partitions, that would still be jumping to conclusions), but he feels too antsy to do something that passive.

As he continues to focus on his breathing, continues to examine the thoughts that come by and let them go with his exhalations, he starts to notice a pattern in what he’s worried about. It’s not just that he wants to solve the problem; what he keeps imagining are the others not listening to his ideas, or outright dismissing his feedback or participation. He knows it’s likely exaggerated, but he can see how the pressure to get this right comes in part from his social concerns.

Well, he did decide to focus on those too, didn’t he? Maybe he should try that first.

Red opens his eyes, then rises and goes to slip his feet into some sandals at the door before he makes his way to Rei’s apartment, gaze down. He isn’t used to being in a group with a hierarchy, and the more he thinks about it the more he dislikes it. He didn’t mind so much back at Pallet Labs, because it was clear there that he was subordinate and why. He wanted the adults to like him, but it was easy to get their approval and friendship; he just did whatever menial tasks they needed help on, happy to absorb all the knowledge he could along the way.

Compared to having to worry about and navigate the social politics among the other students, Red finds himself missing the equal footing he was on with Blue and Leaf, even if the memories with Blue are bittersweet. He knows Blue’s new traveling group will have a hierarchy, he felt it in those days when he went to train with them at the gym; those with more badges had more status, with Blue at the top despite only having two, and Red somehow just below him despite having none. Even with his privileged position it had felt strange, and he’s glad to be out of it, even if he can admit to himself that he sometimes misses the battling and camaraderie.

For Sabrina’s students, the hierarchy is less clear. Rei and Rowan seem the most respected, but they don’t seem to get along, and Daniel is often at odds with Satori and Jason, who Red feels are the most distant from everyone but Rei, including each other. And Tatsumaki is just… there, fairly respected but not interested in anyone. As for Red, he feels like he might have the best chance befriending Rowan or Daniel, but he doesn’t particularly like Daniel, and the most valuable friend he could make would likely be Rei. It makes him feel slimy, thinking of things that way, but he reminds himself that this doesn’t mean he’s not going to try befriending the others too, and he’s definitely not going to pretend to like her if he has no reason to.

Red steps in front of her door and takes a breath, patting down his hair and checking his clothes one last time, then drops his mental shields and knocks.

The probe comes immediately. Rei tests his mental presence, and upon finding it unprotected, merges for a moment to fully sample his mood before withdrawing.

“Enter.”

Red opens the door to Rei’s apartment, which is sparsely furnished but comfortable looking, with a pair of huge beanbags taking center stage. Rei is on one of them, sitting lotus position in what looks like silk shirt and pants that seem much more comfortable than her kimono, but still elegant and expensive, with a stylized xatu embroidered on them.

“Yes?”

“Hello. I’m sorry to bother you, but I was hoping you’d have a moment to talk?”

“I hope this isn’t related to Sensei’s assignment.”

“No, nothing like that. Well, a little related, but we agreed not to discuss the issue itself.”

She nods, then gestures with an open palm. “Please, sit.”

Red walks over to the beanbag across from her, and sinks into its warm cover. “Thank you.”

“What’s on your mind?”

As if she hadn’t just checked. Red has gotten good enough at controlling his thoughts and purposefully redirecting them that he no longer worries about others reading secrets he has, which means that on occasion he’s willing to engage in “open communication,” where psychics leave their shields down so their conversation partner can sense whatever genuine emotions they want to show or thoughts they want to share. It’s occasionally broken up by shields coming up, or sudden flashes to a meticulously remembered image or song, but this is understood as an integral part of retaining some privacy, and the social norm is to not assume that the person is being dishonest in those moments.

It’s almost like learning a second language, but not one that’s mutually exclusive. Any non-psychic listening would think they’re just talking in unown, but would miss all the mental communication overlaying the spoken words and threading the silences between.

Normally it would be hard to voice what’s on Red’s mind without him worrying about sounding antagonistic, or petulant, or paranoid. But with his mind unshielded, he trusts that Rei can “hear” more than the words he speaks. “I’ve only been here about a month and a half,” he says, letting his emotions of uncertainty and curiosity and good intentions stay clear at the surface of his thoughts. “And I’ve never been in a setting like this before. So I know I might be jumping to conclusions. But I just thought I’d check whether you dislike me, in case I did something wrong?”

A hint of fear and hurt at the end makes it hard to keep his gaze on hers, and his shields down. He sees her own surprise, quickly schooled, and feels the tentative touch of her mind become more firm, reading both his anxiety and sincerity.

She takes a breath, then slowly lets it out. “I did not intend to be rude, and apologize if I have been,” she says with such careful tact that Red’s worry doesn’t decrease. “But I suppose it’s fair to say that I don’t particularly have an interest in speaking to you, or spending time with you.”

Despite having suspected as much, Red still feels hurt by hearing her say it, and has to remind himself that he’s being stupid, and obviously she has no particular reason to feel friendly or interested in him. “Oh. Okay.”

“But that’s not what you asked,” she continues, still meeting Red’s gaze and sending out a brief projection of apology. “Not wishing to befriend someone is different from disliking them, and it’s also fair to say that I disrespect you.”

Red blinks at her, says “Oh,” and then just sits there a moment, absorbing that. He’d planned for her to say something about him that bothers her, but it still feels disorienting hearing her put it so bluntly. He realizes that despite considering it as a possibility, he hadn’t actually expected it, and he struggles not to hide his sudden inner turmoil behind a shield. “Why?” he finally asks.

“You feel fake,” Rei says, voice and face still calm. “It’s hard to trust those who use a partition to lock away a part of themselves. It’s like talking to someone wearing a mask, except the mask is real, and they may have any number of them they can put on at any time. I do not believe Leader Sabrina was referring to you or Rowan when she mentioned a psychic who could evince false emotions, but I cannot completely dismiss the possibility.”

Red’s throat is dry. “I don’t… I didn’t choose this,” he whispers, stung by the unfairness of it even as part of him feels guilty. Past Red is definitely going to throw this in his face the next time they “chat.”

“Intention has little to do with it.” Rei shrugs, and he senses her regret. “Perhaps my opinion of you will change, when you have more control. In any case, it isn’t personal. As I indicated, I feel similarly about Rowan, who molds his mind intentionally.”

Red hesitates a moment. “I can bring my partition down, if you want to talk to…” He can’t say the real me. It doesn’t feel true, and would just be confirming Past Red’s perspective. “Me without it.”

“I see little point in that,” she says, apologetic. “Since you would not keep it down. It would be like speaking with someone else entirely.”

Red resists the urge to slump in his beanbag, knowing he’s radiating disappointment and closing himself off as he sighs and nods. “Well. Thank you for your honesty.”

“Of course. I do hope you resolve the issue soon.” Rei tilts her head slightly, considering him. “If I may ask… why do you want to be my friend?”

Red blinks. He hadn’t expected her to ask that, and he’s glad his shield is up so that none of the immediate thoughts come to mind. But he can’t keep it up while he answers if he wants to be taken fully honestly…

He thinks it over a moment, everything he knows about her as compared to the other psychics, and to his surprise actually thinks of something genuine. He lets his shield drop. “Other than the social benefits, you read Giovanni’s blog, and are one of the few others I know who actually tries to put the ideas there into practice. It would be nice to talk about it with someone…” again. His shield comes up as his thoughts turn suddenly to Aiko.

Rei smiles slightly. “Well, that seems a reasonable request. Perhaps we could, after Sabrina’s assignment.”

Red takes it as the dismissal it is, and says goodbye. He walks down the hall without really thinking for a bit, replaying what happened in his mind and wondering if there was something else he should have said. Eventually he’s back at his door, and only then remembers he planned to visit the others.

Tatsumaki and Daniel aren’t home when he knocks, so he goes down a floor to see Satori. There’s silence for a moment after he knocks, and once again he feels his peer mentally touch his thoughts before the door opens. Satori is dressed as she was at the meeting, her torracat padding around her skirt, its tail brushing her waist. Both look at him inquisitively, their heads cocked to the side at the same angle.

He quickly redirects his thoughts from the disquiet of the image.

“Hey!” She’s not inviting him in like Rei was. Maybe he should just cut to the chase. “So I was thinking, if we’re all going to be working together on this project, maybe we should get to know each other better? I don’t feel like I’ve got many friends here, and I would like more. Do you want to hang out a bit? I’m happy to do anything, or just chat while you go about your business, if it’s not private.”

Saying the words makes him feel anxious, and he does nothing to hide that feeling. He’s used to feeling excluded from the other kids at school, to feeling different, but it was easy not to let that bother him while he had Blue to hang out with. This is the first time he can remember that he’s actually come out and asked someone to be his friend. It makes him feel like a kid again, and he’s sure he appears even younger to Satori, whose closeness in age feels all the more significant suddenly.

Satori shakes her head. “I’m sorry, I’m trying to finish a project with my pokemon, and find other people distracting.” She closes the door before he can respond, and without lowering her shield to express any regret or other emotional signal.

Red sighs, then moves on. He supposes it’s nice that she even answered, considering how much she generally keeps to herself and sensed his intentions through the door…

When he knocks on Rowan’s door and gets a muffled “Busy!” in response, he moves on without much regret. Rowan seems nice enough, but he often feels slightly off, making Red question his memory of who he interacted with before meeting the “new” Rowan, and ah yep that’s what Rei meant…

Red tries to think of something to talk about on the way to Jason’s, something they wouldn’t normally talk about during their lessons, since that clearly hasn’t helped. So far Jason has been trying to learn to mimic different mental states while Red attempts to get as good at detecting and deciphering emotions as Jason, and so far they haven’t had much success.

Or any, really. Their sessions have all ended in quiet frustration for both as they seem to keep talking past each other while trying to explain what they did in their own terms. Red tried being as precise and clear as he could, like “imagine that mental state and anchor it in your memory through what your body feels,” while Jason spoke through metaphor and symbolism, such as “follow the echo my emotions are leaving in the astral realm” which didn’t really mean anything to Red, no matter how much he tried to pin down what an “echo” is or feels like, or what the “astral realm” is. He’s wanted to ask the others if they find their lessons with Jason more productive, but worried he would seem incompetent or like he’s badmouthing his peer.

So clearly he needs another topic to focus on, and after a moment he finds one. Like Satori, Jason is a pokemon trainer in addition to a psychic. Maybe they could discuss that. He specializes in ghost pokemon, which Red thinks he would find interesting enough to talk about.

When he knocks on the door he doesn’t sense any mental probe from Jason, and the medium answers his door with a cautious look on his face, dressed in the same clothes as earlier in the day. “Hello. Did you come about our assignment?”

“No.” Red smiles, trying not to let his earlier failure color his attitude. “I was just hoping to talk for a bit, if you’re free.”

“I was just finishing a cleansing ritual.”

“Oh.” Red only has a vague idea of what that is; some spiritual practice to ensure an environment or person is free of negativity? He’s not sure if Jason is saying that the ritual is already finished, or if Red had interrupted. “I can come back later?”

He steps back, preparing to leave, but Jason’s frown stops him. “Are you projecting your emotions on purpose?”

Red blinks, then checks. His mind still isn’t shielded, but… “I don’t think I’m projecting them at all?”

“Ah.” Jason’s hand finds his prayer beads and moves over them as he sighs. “I suppose the ritual wasn’t working anyway, then.”

Red is about to ask how he would know if it had, then stops himself and focuses on his curiosity. “What do you sense?” he asks instead.

“It feels like you’re hurt and anxious,” Jason says matter-of-factly. “It confused me because you were smiling when I opened the door, so I thought you were trying to project those feelings to alert me that you need help.”

“Huh.” Red detected no mental merger at all, but this isn’t the first time Jason has shown that he can pick up complex and deep emotions from simple proximity, just the first time Jason is treating it as something out of his control.

He was hoping to avoid any discussion too similar to those in their lessons, but this doesn’t feel like something he can just ignore, and… maybe in a more casual setting like this, if he just stays open minded and curious, he can learn more about Jason’s perspective. “And your cleansing ritual is supposed to help keep you from feeling that?”

Jason nods. “It doesn’t always work, of course. Sometimes I do it wrong, or my spirit is too open to others. I’ll have to try again.”

“Can I… is it okay if I observe it?” He keeps his thoughts focused on his curiosity and interest in learning more about Jason’s views (and abilities, but he believes the two are linked so same thing (he wonders briefly if Jason feels any dissonance in him over that bit of rationalization, then focuses on the curiosity again)).

Jason looks surprised, and fidgets in place for so long that Red is about to apologize when he opens the door and steps back. Red enters to find a simple apartment much like his own, though with a strong smell of jasmine incense coming from a small shrine in the corner. The plumbing must have been done special, because beside it there’s a basin of running water flowing from the mouth of a small stone gyarados.

The whole thing is small as a bathroom sink, and Jason folds his legs beneath him to sit in front of it while Red sits on the floor to the side to observe.

“So,” Red says, as he watches Jason take the long wooden ladle in his right hand and dip it in the water. “I just came to talk because I realized we haven’t really spoken much outside of classes. I guess I got the impression you didn’t like me, and wanted to make sure that wasn’t just my insecurity speaking.”

Jason doesn’t respond, and simply pours the water over his left hand, then switches the ladle to it and pours some over his right, then switches again and pours into his cupped left. He brings the water up to his lips, then lifts the ladle so the remaining water pours down the handle and into the basin, and sets it face-down.

Red realizes he should probably have waited for the ritual to finish before saying anything, and just stays silent as Jason lifts a censer and moves it around himself. One hand stays on his prayerbeads, fingers moving from one to the next, and the other brings the censer first over his stomach, then his heart, then his throat, then his forehead, taking a deep breath of the incense each time. On the last exhale he puts the censer down and sits in stillness, eyes closed.

Red watches the medium’s face, the only motion of his body the steady rise and fall of his chest, and wonders what’s going on in his head. He knows better than to check in the middle of something like this, but the curiosity itches at him.

He never felt particularly comfortable with religious practices, but ever since he started learning to use his powers, and particularly practicing meditation, he began to see them differently. Even without any spiritual component, his own “rituals” to ground himself, or reflect on his internal state, or to execute a particular mental motion, are all useful to him, and result in real, tangible differences. And he knows how powerful placebos can be; maybe a lot of what Jason is capable of that Red isn’t genuinely comes from his different beliefs, or the meaning he ascribes to things like his clothing and prayers.

Red would like to think that any thoughts someone can have, however they have them, can be reasoned through and understood and shared by others. He would like to think that this applies to psychic powers too; that is why they’re all here teaching each other, after all, despite the fairly strong evidence of hard limits to what different psychics are capable of. But within those limits, he feels wistful regret at the idea that his method of thinking, as useful as it is to him, may forever keep him locked out of the kinds of insights and abilities that those like Jason have.

Until he remembers that he can just copy Jason’s mental state while he’s engaging in spiritual practice, if he really wants to understand it.

Red feels a creeping unease, and quickly brings his shield up. He’s never tried copying a mental state that was so fundamentally other. The closest thing was Leaf’s views on pokemon, and from what he remembers of the feeling, it was transformative. He can’t even say for sure that it didn’t permanently affect his views, though part of that is likely just entangled with his feelings for Leaf.

Still, does he want to risk some permanent change to his thinking that’s so… superstitious? What if some of it stays with him?

He tries to convince himself that it’s a silly concern, and that believing something temporarily, no matter how wrong it may turn out, doesn’t lead to bad epistemics. Hell, that happens all the time to him and his epistemics are great! Mostly, anyway.

But what if it’s more fundamental? What if it leads to the growth of certain neuron patterns that will make faith-based beliefs feel more justified?

Red shakes the thought away. He needs to talk to others before trying it, obviously. His ability to copy mental states isn’t entirely unique, there have been others with somewhat similar abilities that might be able to indicate probable outcomes. Maybe he can-

Jason’s eyes open, and he stretches slightly, rotating his shoulders with a sigh. “You’re shielding, right?”

“Yes.”

“Would it be okay to bring it down?”

Red takes a moment to refocus his thoughts, then does so. “Done.”

Jason closes his eyes, then opens them and nods. “Thank you. It worked.” He stands. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“No, I’m f… actually, black tea would be good, if you have it?”

“I do.”

A few minutes later they’re facing each other on the couch, tea in one cup and juice in the other. Jason looks calm, but there’s something about his body language that makes Red feel like he’s nervous. One hand keeps twitching up from his cup, then returning to it, as if aborting impulses to touch his prayer beads.

Red tries to think of how to fill a silence that quickly feels awkward. He’s just about to repeat what he said earlier when Jason clears his throat.

“I do not think it was just insecurity,” Jason says, gaze down. “But I wouldn’t say I dislike you. It’s just that your way of thinking often feels painful for me.”

Red blinks, opens his mouth, closes it. He hadn’t expected that. “Painful as in… physically, or emotionally, or…?”

Jason shrugs. “To be honest, I don’t always understand the difference. When people say physical pain, they seem to mean the result of being physically harmed. But if you describe emotional pain, there’s often a physical component, isn’t there?”

Red considers that, and feels an ache in his chest as he thinks of Aiko, or how much he wants to spend more time with Leaf, or the painful mix of anger and… something, that comes from thinking of Blue.

“Yeah,” he says after a moment. “I can see that. So… there’s a physical component to it, but it’s also tied to some emotional reaction?”

“That’s the closest I can come to explaining it.” Jason sips his juice. “It’s not just you though, I feel this way pretty often. I’ve been told it’s part of being a medium.” He shrugs. “I don’t know if that’s true.”

Red shifts in his seat. “Do you have any specific examples of what I’ve thought that felt harmful to your psychic senses?”

“They were not often thoughts themselves, more the underlying… perspective. And I don’t know that they are actually ‘psychic’ senses,” Jason says. “Elite Agatha said that what I do—what we do—it’s related to what psychics do, but distinct.”

“In what way?”

Jason gives him an appraising look, as if deciding how candid to be. “My connection is to the soul, not just the mind. But you don’t believe in souls.”

Jason still hasn’t uncovered his own emotions during the conversation, so Red isn’t sure how to take the statement, and he feels himself struggling not to respond in a challenging way. Is Jason trying to bait him into an argument, or just expecting one? He came here to be friendly, dammit!

“No, I don’t,” he finally says, speaking slowly. “I haven’t seen any evidence of it that can’t be explained by other things.” He’d resolved to stay curious, so that’s what he focuses on. “But I’ve never talked about it with a medium before. What makes you so sure?”

Jason blinks, gaze meeting Red’s for a moment before dropping again as he sips his drink. “Have you interacted with any Ghost pokemon?”

“No, but I was hit with a Ghost attack from a spinarak, once.” Even after all this time Red still occasionally feels a shadow of the pain and disorientation, though it’s not enough to really distract him.

Jason is shaking his head. “You need to be in their presence to understand.”

“You’re talking about surrealism.”

“I am. What do you know about it?”

Red recalls his research in Viridian Forest, after he caught his spinarak. “People often compare it to Pressure, though that just seems confusing, since it’s not as personalized or powerful, and only really affects you if you’re interacting with ghosts in some way rather than being around them.” And having recently experienced Pressure for himself, it’s hard not to dismiss anything else for not being as bad. “Common symptoms are headaches, disorientation, distrust of senses, all of which quickly goes away once their thoughts aren’t focused on the ghost anymore. It’s part of what makes it harder for non-psychic trainers to deal with ghosts, since it doesn’t seem to be worse for psychics and we’re already used to directing and focusing our thoughts and attention.”

Jason smiles slightly. “It sounds so simple, put like that. As I said, you need to experience it yourself to understand, which is another reason people often compare it to Pressure. But what do you make of surrealism, even having never experienced it? Doesn’t it mark such pokemon as different, in some way?”

Red shrugs. “Sure, and I think it’s significant.” It’s one of the main reasons he categorized Ghost as a substance over descriptive type: there’s clearly something fundamentally different about them. “But significant in what way is the question. It’s something we don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean we should jump to conclusions about its origin, or what it means about reality itself.”

“Hmm.” Jason slowly turns his cup in his hands, then sips from it. “I agree.”

Red blinks. “You do?”

“Yes. It makes sense, from your perspective, to be skeptical. I don’t believe as I do because I have answers to all the questions you’re carefully not asking. But my experiences are enough to point me along the way, and my faith acts as a bridge for the rest, to explain those experiences and overcome that skepticism.”

It sounds like the medium is using “faith” to mean the same thing Red would call a “theory.” It’s the first time he’s heard someone frame it that way… but scientific theories can be falsified, they contain specific claims about cause and effect that could be proven wrong. They’re not just an explanation that makes sense of phenomena, they allow people to make predictions about future ones.

He has to remind himself again that he’s not here to argue epistemics, but just learn more about his peer’s perspective. “By experiences, you mean your connection to Ghost pokemon,” Red guesses. “Did you really train one without a pokeball?”

“I didn’t train it,” Jason says, seeming a bit embarrassed by the myth of himself. “Only established a mental connection, without it attacking me. We formed what I would call a familiarity, if not a friendship.”

“That’s amazing. I mean with any wild pokemon, but with a Ghost in particular. How did you do it?”

Jason drinks as he considers the question, though surely he’s been asked it many times before. “I came to Kanto when I was about your age. I always wanted to be a trainer, but I already knew I was gifted, and my family considered that a stronger trait to explore, a more meaningful path. They hired a mentor for me to explore my gift, but I was still fascinated by pokemon, in understanding their thoughts and feelings. Lavender Town is a small, spiritual community, not particularly known for its trainers. I couldn’t find one to teach me, and while I could buy a pokeball and dex, there was no safe place I could reliably find pokemon that I would be able to travel to alone.”

“Except Lavender Tower,” Red says, smiling slightly.

“Except Lavender Tower,” Jason agrees. “The Rangers there ensure no wild Ghosts harm visitors or escape into the town proper, but there are often a few lurking somewhere inside, and it was easy to find them with my inner eye. After I experienced surreality for myself, sensed their strange minds, I became obsessed with Ghost pokemon in specific. There seemed a depth of mystery and meaning in their ‘otherness’ that I wanted to understand. I spent months being frustrated as they resisted my attempts to interact with them in a meaningful way, and even my psychic training did not help. Eventually I realized that perhaps I was the problem. That all of us are, that our view of them is what causes the tension in us, the disorientation, the pain. After all, they seem unharmed by interacting with us. Who was I to impose my flawed, human perceptions on them?”

Red slowly nods. “So you played with different perspectives until you found one that helped.”

Jason raises his brow. “No. I began studying religious beliefs, read the accounts of those like Elite Agatha and Leader Matsuba, and began practicing rituals to better connect with the spiritual world. And eventually I was able to look upon them without difficulty, and merge with them without tainting my spirit.”

“Huh.” Red drinks his tea and tries to accept the statements at face value, the mildly bitter flavor somehow calming. “But not everyone can do that, right? It’s also related to your abilities as a medium?”

“Ah, yes, I’m not claiming any unique piety or spiritual virtue. My gift enabled the connection in the first place.”

Red nods. Ultimately, there are three probabilities that he finds most likely. The first is that what Jason can do is semi-unique to him, whether it’s because of his connection to the “spirit world” or because he has a unique element in his psychic powers. The second is that the changes Jason underwent in his spiritual journey, the wisdom he gained, are just a perspective shift that could be learned, a lens to see the world through that could be put on and taken off. And the third is that his connection to Ghost pokemon and/or ability to sense deep emotions is something that operates on a level beyond intellectual understanding, something fundamental to the way he forms beliefs.

Maybe his own perspective would shed some light on it. “And what advice would you give, then, about Ghosts for those that don’t have your gift or faith?”

“The same as what I believe for myself. That we must resist our attempts to rationally understand them.” Jason shrugs. “More generally, that the very belief that we can truly understand anything is an illusion, though a useful one for our time in the material plane. But Ghosts are windows into something beyond the material, and so it is not useful to try and decipher them rationally.”

Red’s mouth twists to the side, torn between the multiple strong objections that rise up. And though it brings with it a flash of anger and sadness, Blue’s voice is clear in his head; Who cares if it sounds logical? If it works, it works.

And of course he’s right. Understanding the actual mechanism at work is important so he doesn’t believe extraneous things that are wrong, but if there’s a link between Jason’s epistemics and the outcome, Red has to be able to include that evidence in his theories, no matter how much it clashes with his own epistemics. It could be as simple as Leaf’s pure love of pokemon keeping abra from fleeing, but if it’s something deeper…

“I would like to learn more about your beliefs,” Red says. “And maybe even try to mimic your perspective psychically, eventually, if that’s alright with you.”

“You believe it’s my perspective, then, as Leader Sabrina does, and not my gift?”

“Maybe it’s both,” Red admits. “But it’s worth a try, and we’ve been having trouble during our lessons anyway, so I think better understanding your perspective could help with that too. Or at least, I’ve felt like we’ve had trouble?”

Jason nods, and finally brings his shield down for a moment, just long enough to signal a mirror of Red’s relief that it hadn’t just been him. “Alright. How would you like to begin?”

Red shrugs. “You’re the expert here. I’ll do whatever you think is best.”

“I would never claim to be an expert.”

“Relative to me, I mean.”

“Still, the word has… baggage. As I said before, it was not through understanding but the release of the need to understand that I finally found connection.”

Red is about to argue that it’s just a semantic point, and that all “expertise” means in this context is the person who has accomplished the thing being discussed, but then he imagines someone calling him an expert on mirroring mental states and kind of gets Jason’s point. “You’re right, word choice can influence perspectives. So as we are both seeking humility together, what would be the first step toward recognizing the need to be humbled at all?” He hopes that made sense.

Jason spins his cup again, face thoughtful, then brings it to his lips and tilts it back, draining it and standing. “Experiences are more important than words. If you’ve never encountered a Ghost before, then experiencing surrealism for the first time might be best. We can go to the roof, and I’ll summon my pokemon there.”

Red swallows his sudden nervousness along with a mouthful of tea. The things he’s read about surreality don’t seem quite as harmless as a moment ago. But it wasn’t so long ago that he overcame fear of a different pokemon on a different roof, and this wouldn’t be worse than what Donovan’s skarmory could have done to him.

Red remembers the discomfort of the spinarak’s attack again, and feels a thread of fear. Probably. “Yeah, alright.”

The medium goes to put his cup in the sink, then slips his sandals on while Red finishes his tea. Once Jason retrieves his pokebelt and ties it on, they make their way to the rooftop, which is fairly small but only has a small number of spots taken up for registered teleportation, namely those of the students and Sabrina.

The sun is setting, but there’s still enough light to illuminate the city. The city, as far as most Kantonians see it; the biggest and most populous, home to both its most prestigious pokemon contest hall as well as the world famous Silph Corporation. It’s a culturally powerful place that he’s just starting to consider a “home” of sorts, and he draws some strength from the sight of it in the day’s last golden light, like nothing truly bad can happen to him while he’s standing here atop the shining city.

He recognizes how silly that feeling is, especially since he was just worrying about downloading superstitious wetware from Jason, and has to check his rationale for doing this again before he turns to his fellow psychic and nods. “Ready when you are.”

“Alright. I’m going to summon a gastly. Pull back your mental senses.”

And now he feels less ready. “Okay. Uh. I could also go downstairs and get my gas mask, or should I stay upwind of it, or…?”

“No, there isn’t enough wind to affect it, and as long as you can’t smell it you won’t be harmed. Just stay at least an arm’s length from the visible parts.” With that, the medium braces his arm and says, “Go, Gastly.”

The pokeball snaps open and a blinding flash of light leaps forth… but unlike with most pokemon, it doesn’t coalesce into a sensible shape. Instead the afterimage behind Red’s lids when he blinks appear to be a wide, irregular cloud.

What takes its place a millisecond later is about half as big, at least as far as he can see; a purple discoloration in the air that hangs about six feet above the rooftop. Only the center of it is opaque enough that he can’t see through it, and from within that purple mass he sees a dark orb with—

—two gleaming white voids—

—the glint of… fangs(?)—

—Red blinks, then blinks again, trying to get used to what he’s seeing. In videos, gastly appear to just be a black ball surrounded by thick purple gas, with wide, solid white and somewhat disembodied “eyes” over a pink pocket that holds what looks like two sharp canines, just floating in the blackness of the orb. But without the abstraction of simple images, his mind is struggling to make sense of what’s in front of him, which is… very much not that.

Except what else could it be? He closes his eyes, imagining the slightly cartoonish mental image of a gastly that he has in his memory, then opens them to see… something else, something that he can only vaguely recognize as having the same features as the mental image he was holding onto a moment ago. If he hadn’t known what they’re “supposed” to look like, he wonders if he would even make this much sense out of it.

After a handful of heartbeats, his gaze flinches away, the disorientation fading once he’s not looking directly at it. He has to swallow, throat dry, before he says, “All ghost pokemon are like this?” He reminds himself to be on the lookout for a headache or any other symptoms.

“In their own ways,” Jason says, pokeball still in hand. “The ones that possess some physical object are easier to perceive, but those with the gift can still see through to what they really are.”

“And what is that?” Red asks. He glances back at the gastly and feels a chill go down his spine. From the corner of his eye it had seemed like the black sphere’s “eyes” were staring aimlessly into the distance, but as soon as he looked at it, its gaze locked with his. Is that the surrealism? Has it already started?

“The spirits of pokemon.” Jason says as Red starts to shift his head from side to side, experimenting. Its “eyes” (he can’t even think of them with that word without a sense of skepticism) stay locked on his perfectly as he moves and when he looks away, its features return to vague impressions. “Instead of moving beyond our world after death, a ghost is a spirit that has imprinted onto things in it, such as a candle or doll, or in gastly’s case, the decomposing gasses emitted by corpses.”

Unfalsifiable, Red immediately thinks. Spontaneous pokemon genesis occurs in other places, labeling the ones that appear near dead bodies ‘Ghosts’ does nothing to distinguish whether that’s true from a world where their origin is any different from something like a magnemite.

But he’s here to learn about Jason’s perspective, not argue against it. It takes Red a moment to word his response through how unnerved he is by the gastly, even after looking away. “I’ve heard that hypothesis,” Red says. “But I don’t understand what differentiates it from one you’d consider false.”

“Such as?”

“Well, I’ve actually thought a lot about pokemon origins,” Red says, glancing at the gastly again, then away. It’s difficult, like the dark sphere is a black hole whose gravity is pulling at his attention, but not physically, just from simple fascination, or maybe a mix of fascination and fear, like leaning over the edge of a building despite knowing the sight will scare you. The call of the void, he’s heard it called, and that’s what the gastly looks like, a void in the world—

“Red?”

Red blinks. “Sorry, I… what was I saying?”

“Pokemon origins. Do you want me to withdraw it?”

“No, I’m fine.” He turns his body solidly toward Jason. “Right. So… if I’m understanding your beliefs correctly, magnemite could be spirits of pokemon that attach themselves to metal objects too, right? But they’re not Ghost pokemon.”

Jason shrugs. “There are many potential answers. I am a spiritualist, but find no religious doctrine more convincing than all others. I have heard that everything has a spirit, even inanimate objects, and some things may attain enough spiritual energy to become living things. Perhaps the gods are still active in the world and decide by their own whims, or perhaps there are rules they have written to guide such events in their absence that we may one day deduce. But the unnatural sensation evoked by surrealism makes it clear that only Ghost pokemon are the spirits of the already departed, rather than new souls like any others we encounter.”

“I feel like you’re…” Red stops himself. “Sorry. I’m confused. My brain is insisting that maybe it’s the substance that’s inhabited that matters. Like… imagine a world where ‘Ghost pokemon are spirits of dead pokemon’ wasn’t true. What would you expect to see different in that world, that couldn’t be explained by the ‘spirit of candles’ or ‘poison gas’ also attaining enough energy to become living beings, for example?”

Jason is quiet a moment, and Red lets him think, looking back at the gastly for a minute to try to get a handle on the way it looks. He wants to try using his powers on it to see what its mind is like, but he’s still having trouble getting his mind to see its parts as distinct things, and he should probably do that first.

Suddenly Red sees the Gastly’s “mouth” open, and calling the slimy, squirming thing that briefly comes out a “tongue” doesn’t even occur to him until after it’s back inside the sphere and he can retroactively process what he saw. He raises a hand to wipe some sweat from his forehead, even though it’s rather cool outside with fall well underway. He knows it’s from exposure to the gastly, which…

…is it getting closer?

Red suddenly realizes he can smell it, a sickly sweet, cloying scent, and panic blooms in his chest as he quickly takes a step back—

“Red, look at me,” a voice demands, and Red snaps his gaze around to Jason, who has stepped to the side so that Red can’t see the gastly in his peripheral. The medium looks calm despite suddenly sounding like an entirely different person, his whole stance feels different as he holds Red’s gaze with his own. But it’s nothing overt; Jason’s hands are folded in front of him, his shoulders are relaxed. It’s Red’s perception that has changed, his need for something stable and reassuring.

“Everything is fine,” Jason says, calm but firm, like he’s talking to a skittish ponyta. “You’re experiencing the first stage of surreality. Just focus on me, and breathe.”

Red does as he instructs, despite his confusion. The literature said that surreality would manifest as something minor at first, like a headache or increased pulse or sweating… right, he was sweating. How did he forget that symptom? No, he didn’t forget it, he recognized it as it was happening, but then the panic hit and he couldn’t connect the dots.

“Better?” Jason asks after a moment, watching him steadily.

Red nods. He feels back in control of his thoughts, though there’s a part of him that’s still thinking about the gastly, hovering just out of sight, and wondering if it’s creeping closer. “Yes, thanks. Even expecting it, it’s like it went straight to my automatic reflexes.” He steels himself, then turns his head to look at the gastly. Still far away.

“I’m not sure what I would see different,” Jason says, drawing Red’s attention back to him. Not sure what…? Oh, right, about different worlds. “I guess if it weren’t true, then I would expect there to be nothing uniform between the different Ghost pokemon compared to other pokemon that are not Ghost types. A candle and a cloud of gas have no similarity to justify belief that both should evoke surrealism.”

“But that uniqueness is what we use to classify Ghosts,” Red says. “It feels tautological to say that because they have this unique attribute, they must share this unique origin that we identify through this attribute. Especially when we don’t even know what the origin of other pokemon without that attribute is.”

“Then what is your answer? What would you expect to see in a world where Ghost pokemon are borne of dead spirits, rather than by the same process as other pokemon?”

“Weeeell,” Red says, dragging the word out as he organizes his thoughts. “First off, wouldn’t we see an infinite variety of Ghost pokemon? And wouldn’t their different species be more widespread? We don’t have any phantump here in Kanto, but we have plenty of woods and forests. If we just put a pile of screws and magnets around some pokemon graveyards, what would you expect to eventually see? Ghost magnemite, or ‘regular’ ones?”

The medium is quiet again as he thinks, and Red resists the urge to look at the gastly again. “I believe I see your point,” Jason finally says, speaking slowly. “Perhaps… magnemite are the spirits of pokemon as well, and their natures have been changed by the objects they bound to. Rotom at least are examples of ghost pokemon whose nature changes while inhabiting different ‘bodies.’ Though…” Jason frowns. “It’s not a strong example, given that even though they can leave those bodies behind and inhabit new ones, we have never seen any other Ghost pokemon do such a thing, and of course Rotom are limited to electronic device that do not mimic any other known electric pokemon.”

Huh. Red hadn’t expected the medium to refute his own argument so well. He begins to grow hopeful about the conversation. “Right, as you pointed out, there’s no consistent pattern between what Ghost pokemon are embodied as. Cloth, candles, gas, plants, clay, metal… they’re all different substances, and there are also pokemon like jellicent and oricorio and decidueye that seem to be living creatures. Or do those pokemon not feel the same to be around?” If they don’t cause surrealism, they probably shouldn’t qualify as Ghost pokemon in the first place…

“No, they do, though it’s even less strong than Ghosts that inhabit objects,” Jason says. “Here, let me show you one of those… Gastly, return!” The beam of light spreads not from the gastly’s dark core, but from somewhere on the edge of the visible cloud around it, pulling it away in a mass of red light. “Go, Lampent!”

The sky is starting to darken, but Red can still make out the twisted black lantern that appears a few feet above the ground, its core illuminated by a bright blue flame. Red prepares himself for more surrealism, but… it looks totally normal.

Except for the fact that it’s clearly suspended in midair for no reason. Red knows it’s a pokemon, intellectually, but the way it looks like a simple object makes it hard to square with the fact that it’s definitely not supposed to be doing that. And then there are the yellow glowing eyes on the round, clear “glass” of its body, but those are only unsettling if he looks at them too long.

“Huh. Yeah, this is less extreme. Instead of doubting my whole perception of it there’s just this one thing I’m fixating on. Which is weird, since there are other pokemon that float that don’t make me feel like this…” He walks a few steps to the side, then back, gaze on the lampent. The effect is a little worse as he changes his reference frame and the lantern stays suspended exactly where it is, making it seem slightly unreal, like a hologram or computer graphic overlaid onto reality…

“Oh, there’s the headache.” He quickly looks back at Jason and the pressure at his temples starts to fade. “So you were right, it’s hard to understand how different Ghosts are without experiencing surrealism for myself. But the degree is different enough that I feel like this could be a different thing entirely, if I didn’t know already to start out thinking both are Ghosts.”

Jason nods. “Your mundane senses are more easily fooled. Use your inner eye.”

Red scratches his neck, curiosity more than a match for his nervousness. “That would be okay?”

“Just don’t merge. You’ll understand why.”

Red nods and closes his eyes, wanting to focus as much as possible on what his “inner eye” senses. His range and precision have expanded over the past weeks, and he immediately becomes aware of not just the gale of emotions in front of him, but also Jason’s watchful and expectant mind, and Rei’s unshielded focus, and Rowan’s shifting mood as he sets up and brings down partitions in some exercise or experiment, and Satori’s mind as it interacts with both her swellow and torracat at the same time, and the less Red focuses on that disorienting jumble the better…

Good thing he has a gale of emotions in front of him to focus on.

It’s like standing in a crowded room, except it’s all coming from one single mind. The lampent feels unlike any other pokemon or human Red has encountered, its emotions more alien than even Bug pokemon.

Red is still relatively new to deciphering emotions without a merge, but he recognizes desire burning off the lampent like a bonfire sheds heat. There’s no question in Red’s mind of what he’s feeling, it wants something, and it wants it badly. He’s never felt anything so strong coming from a pokemon, the closest were fear from abra and when he was merged with Charmeleon and projected sakki

“It’s hungry,” Red says, opening his eyes and taking an involuntary step back as he withdraws his mind again. As soon as he says the word, he identifies the feeling in himself, or at least as close an equivalent as he can understand. He feels his stomach rumble and twist. Is it projecting onto him? “No, starving… why…”

“It had a caterpie recently,” Jason says. “But it’s never enough.”

Red expects the hunger to fade once he brings his shield up, but it doesn’t. Both arms are pressed over his stomach now, and he sucks in a breath, tries to meditate on the feeling, dissolve it, but it feels real, like he needs to find food now or his limbs will start to shake…

Then Jason is in front of him, wooden beads looped around the fingers of one hand as he passes it over Red’s head. Red feels the medium’s mind brushing his through his shield, Jason doesn’t try to merge. Instead the feeling of hunger starts to dwindle in time with the scrubbing motion of his hand around Red’s chest, until he abruptly feels fine.

It all took place in the space of a few heartbeats, and Red slowly straightens. “You felt things like that?” Red asks, letting out a shuddering breath as he eases his arms down and looks back at the lampent. “For months?”

“I had some help. My psychic teacher knew, of course, from the emotional residue that would be left on me, which you experienced. She taught me how to manage it, as all gifted trainers of Ghost pokemon must, but it wasn’t until I began walking a more spiritual path that truly cleansing it became a possibility.” He tucks the wooden beads away in a pocket. “And by enduring it more, I found my own ability to detect emotions improving, though…” He shrugs. “It was no longer always intentional, or always accurate.”

“Then maybe that’s what happened,” Red says, pulse finally slowing down as he breathes in and out. “Everyone talks about how Ghosts twist our powers and turn them against us, maybe yours have changed permanently to better sync with them.”

“Perhaps,” Jason says. “But I don’t believe all mediums have gone through the same things. If that’s a viable path, would you try it?”

Red frowns, considering a moment. “Not sure. I’d have to know more about the side effects. But in the meantime, I still want to try adopting your perspective.”

Jason nods and withdraws the lampent, which relaxes something in Red he hadn’t realized was tense. “My perspective is to simply remind myself of what I do not understand. It is a genuine humility that only feels forced insofar as it fights natural instinct to create explanations for things, to grasp at facts we have heard and knowledge we believe we have. Knowledge that, upon further examination, is revealed to be just symbols between minds to imperfectly share disparate shards of reality.”

Uh oh. They’re back at deep sounding phrases that Red can’t quite parse. “Alright… so what should I do to help fight those instincts?”

Jason shrugs. “Remind yourself of what you do not know. Do not accept your mind’s attempts to insist otherwise. When you truly realize how complex all this is,” he opens his hands out to the sides, “It seems trivial to not also realize how impossible understanding it is.”

Red frowns slightly as he grapples with such a fundamentally different ideology. Sure, the world is complex, from the mind boggling vastness of space to the alien world of subatomic particles, but impossible to understand? No. There’s humility, and then there’s surrendering to ignorance, and he can’t accept that. It’s not a conscious choice; he just knows it, as surely as he knows his name.

But a scientist should be willing to embrace uncertainty, so maybe he can reach some understanding of the same “fundamental humility,” with effort.

“I’ll consider that,” Red says after a moment, and bows. “Thank you for your time, and patience with me.”

Jason bows back. “Thank you for your vulnerability, and your trust.”


Red stays on the roof after and watches the sun set over Mt. Silver, thinking about what he experienced and the goal he set out to accomplish. He isn’t sure if he made a friend, but it feels like progress at least. Now he should try talking to Rowan too, or get to work on Sabrina’s assignment.

Instead his mind keeps turning back to what Jason said. The medium seemed so certain that they can’t understand anything, and it bothers him the more he thinks of it.

Part of him wants to go back down to his apartment and knock on Jason’s door, show him, like, a simple algebra equation, or do some basic physics experiment.

He doesn’t understand why it’s so important to him that Jason see the flaw in his perspective, as stated at least. Maybe it’s more nuanced in his head, but Red can’t help feeling that the older boy is wrong and needs to know why, even if in the meantime…

…in the meantime, he can interact with Ghost pokemon without surrealism while Red can’t. And he was able to argue against his own ideas, so he’s clearly not lacking basic reasoning abilities either. So whose perspective is actually more useful? Or maybe both are useful in their own ways…

Remind yourself of what you do not know. Do not accept your mind’s attempts to insist otherwise…

He sees the wisdom in that, so maybe it’s not as far a step from recognizing the value of humility to what Jason has accomplished, without quite swinging as far on the actual epistemics.

Red watches the last sliver of gold light fade behind the mountain, and twilight cloaks the city. He shivers at the sudden chill, and abruptly feels sure that there’s a gastly behind him. Floating toward him, ready to envelop his head, ready to open its mouth and bring out that “tongue”—

Red spins and sees nothing but the empty rooftop, and lets out his breath in something more than a sigh. Great, now he’s going to be jumpy about that for a while too…

“Red?”

Red yelps as he spins to find Tatsumaki on the roof with an abra. She withdraws her pokemon and steps off the teleporting platform, frowning at him. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing,” he says, breathing deep to slow his racing heart. “I just… met my first Ghost pokemon and… I guess it left an impression.”

“Yeah, they’ll do that.” She looks around. “It wasn’t a wild was it?”

“No, Jason’s. I wanted to know what it was like.”

“Good to get it out of the way in a safe way I guess.” She sticks her hands in the pockets of her collared dress. “So, got any ideas about sensei’s assignment yet?”

Red hesitates. “We’re not supposed to discuss it yet…”

“Whatever,” she says with a roll of her eyes, and heads for the door.

Red stares after her a moment, then blinks. “Wait! If you want, we can talk about other things—”

“Nope,” she says, and mentally opens the door ahead of her, then swings it shut after passing through.

Red sighs and heads for the door himself. He doesn’t know if he should have just said yes, but he’ll have to have something better before he tries befriending her again.

A quick check confirms that Rowan is still messing with his partitions. Red is fairly confident Rowan will have one of the more promising ideas in the meeting tomorrow. He wonders if Rowan himself feels any pressure over that expectation.

Daniel still isn’t back, so Red goes to his room, sits at his desk, and takes out his notebook so he can try to decipher the problem again.

Brains. Minds. Hiding thoughts and emotions under others.

How?

Red stares at the paper, rapidly tapping both ends of his pencil against the desk as he shifts it between his fingers.

Don’t spend resources searching for an answer until you’re justifiably confident you understand the question.

It seems trivial to not also realize how impossible understanding it is.

Red wonders what Jason would say to Leader Giovanni. What the Leader would say to him. When it comes to the mind, it’s true enough that currently there’s no real understanding it. Red isn’t going to solve the question of consciousness in (he checks the time) five hours. But he could at least check how confident he should be that he understands the question.

Red’s pencil moves to the page. He’ll start with what he knows… Thoughts are patterns of neurons firing in a specific order and shape. Feelings are experiences… of physical sensation… His pencil slows as he frowns. What are emotions, really? He could write something down, something that sounds right, like emotions are certain neurotransmitters and the felt effects they have on the body, but is that a useful definition? How does psychic power hide or sense neurotransmitters, let alone the feelings associated with particularly complex emotions?

He realizes that if he’s satisfied with that answer, he would just be “accepting his mind’s attempt to insist he understands something he doesn’t,” and decides to drill down to basics. What is a brain? A collection of billions of neurons, tens of billions, which encode sensory experiences and process thoughts and send commands through the nervous system by chemicals and electrical impulses.

Where do the impulses come from?

He doesn’t know.

Are all emotions from neurotransmitters, or are some purely in the brain, if that even makes sense?

Maybe it doesn’t. Especially since he just thought of another problem, maybe more fundamental…

What is a mind? A self-reflective emergent property of the processes of the brain, which experiences feelings and memories and desires as fuzzy, indistinct things that are somehow independent of the absoluteness of the brain. (Why are minds so fuzzy?) There’s some inherent disconnect between what the mind is aware of and what the brain does and stores. Optical illusions are strong examples of this, as is the idea of a subconscious, or waking from a dream with just an emotional reaction but no memory of what happened… Self-awareness likely comes somewhere between the top-down predictions that are being made constantly but that we’re unaware of and the bottom-up observations of reality…

Red stops and puts his pencil down, staring at the sheet a moment.

Sure, brains are probably the most complex thing in the universe, and may be the only thing literally impossible to understand given that the thing it’s trying to fully understand is itself, and if it were good enough to do that it would just become even more complex.

But Red would have guessed he could have answered more about brains if asked. Now all he can think of are irrelevant factors that don’t actually explain how it works…

…and he suddenly feels an inkling of something different, in his mind. A new track being laid, maybe even the start of a new perspective. He’d thought of space as mind bogglingly vast before, but really, everything is so complex that it boggles his mind to think about them in sufficient detail.

Is this what Jason meant? Is he touching the same frame of mind, at least a little?

Red flips to a new page and decides to try testing what he really understands about something basic. Not math basic, but… well, maybe, actually, especially if even basic things are mysteries to him when he looks deep enough.

What’s a comparison to what Sabrina’s asked them to do that’s not about psychic phenomena? Some other “impossible” problem, like… if someone told him there was a plant that grows without water, and asked him to figure out how, would he be able to? He’s not even sure how bizarre that might be compared to the perfect shield, but whatever, he’ll try it.

What does he actually know about what plants need to grow? He could say “photosynthesis” and haltingly describe how light contains energy (is energy) and certain wavelengths can be harnessed by certain plant cells, all wavelengths but green, actually… wait, do flower petals do photosynthesis? Doesn’t matter, so without nutrients from water, plants get some from light… wait, nutrients? Is that right? How would light have nutrients in it, nutrients are just a word that means the useful molecules and atoms for a certain life form. That stuff must be gotten from soil… but there are some plants that grow in water and off sunlight… is there carbon in water? No wait, duh, the air, they get carbon from the air… somehow… okay he just realized he has no idea how plants breathe, and again, what’s the light for? Energy? Instead of using sugar, their cells absorb energy from lightwaves and use it to extract and repurpose the nutrients (useful molecules) they need from the air, water, and maybe ground?

That… sounds right. So a plant that grows without water must be getting enough of the nutrients they need from the air and maybe ground. If there are absolutely fundamental nutrients in water, then maybe there’s a lot of moisture in the air and that’s how they get it. If the question is specifying there’s no moisture around at all then he would say that… the plant must somehow be able to build itself from other materials besides the ones normal plants need from water.

After a minute of thought, he nods. That would be his hypothesis. Maybe it wouldn’t even be a plant, anatomically, maybe it would just look like one, or be some unique cross between a plant and fungus, or something. Of course, his understanding of how plants work could be flawed in some way. It’s been a while since he learned plant biology, and if he’s wrong in any single belief, then the whole hypothesis could be way off, might not even make any sense.

He realizes that the moment before has passed. He’s no longer as uncertain about what he knows, and the idea of the world itself as bizarre and unknowable has faded somewhat as he feels more like, as little as he understands, there’s still a way to understand, a path that he could follow.

But maybe that’s an illusion too, of sorts, if he keeps “boggling” at things enough to get down to the atomic and subatomic level, where reality seems to genuinely stop making sense to brains that evolved on such a different scale.

Red smiles slightly and turns the page to start again with something else. He’s not sure if he’s on the right track to the exact mental state Jason lives in, but he’s glimpsed what might be a lens of his own, and that’s worth pursuing too.