Tag Archives: rationalist writing

Chapter 38: Learning from Failure

The wind sends rippling waves through the field of grass around Leaf, tossing her hair back over her shoulders. She instinctively raises a hand to keep her hat from blowing off before remembering that she put it away.

Joy, Leaf’s freshly named wigglytuff, stands mute and waiting, its wide, beautiful blue eyes peering cheerfully around. Leaf walks a slow circle around her pokemon, staying just within range to return her if needed. Meanwhile, her eyes scan rippling fields of grass.

Her phone vibrates, and she checks Blue’s message:

4th speaker set

That was the last one for him. Now Red just has to get his fourth in position, and they’ll start.

It took them over an hour to meticulously comb through the central circle where they plan to drive the abra. There were a few pokemon that fled from them, but Blue did manage to catch a venonat, which he traded to Leaf after she and Red caught a pair of bellsprouts. She knew Grass types are going to be especially useful to him in the next Gym battle, and some quick research showed her that venonat and its evolution venomoth have a lot more non-lethal attacks than the bellsprout family.

Now the field is as empty as they can make it to ensure there aren’t any pokemon around that might resist Joy’s singing.

Leaf checks her phone as it buzzes again. Fourth speaker ready.

Ready when you guys are, she texts back, pulse picking up. She puts her phone away, sets a vibrating alarm on her new watch, and sticks her earplugs in. “Joy,” she says, voice muffled and distorted in her head. “Sing!”

Her wigglytuff bounces and twirls happily, then opens its mouth wide and fills the air with its haunting melody. Muted through her earplugs, just barely audible enough for Leaf to know if it’s still going.

Somewhere, Red and Blue are returning to the inside of Joy’s singing radius, after which they’ll activate the speakers to begin transmitting various sounds of one of abra’s natural predators: an umbreon.

It wasn’t a perfect choice, Red admitted. Ideally they would want one that would neither scare off or attract the plant and bug pokemon in the area. But they had limited options when it came to local pokemon that wild abra might encounter and be wary of, and umbreon was the most neutral of those.

Leaf doesn’t know when it’ll start working, if it even does. But after about two minutes, once she’s gotten a pair of vibrations indicating the activation of the speakers, she enlarges a pokeball in either hand, then begins turning in a slow circle, taking deep breaths as she scans the fields around her. The tall grass rustles silently as she passes through it, as high as her knees. Hopefully any pokemon lurking in it that weren’t scared off by her approach are asleep now.

Remember,” Red said in the taxi ride over. “Since there’s no guarantee they’ll fall asleep right away, there might be a few moments where they sense our minds. Blue is safe from that, but the two of us need to be focusing on projecting feelings of calm and safety and peace as much as we can, or we’ll spook them into teleporting again before they get knocked out.”

What about you?” Leaf asked. “Isn’t it hard for you to engage a psychic mind?”

Red smiled. “As long as it’s only for a few seconds at a time, I’ll be fine.”

He sounded confident at the time, and Leaf let it go.

Now that they’re here, doing it and waiting for the first abra to show up, her mind has nothing better to do but feed her all sorts of worst case what-ifs, and one she keeps coming back to is Red’s exposure to the abra being too much for him to handle, maybe even causing him to pass out.

A drop of sweat slides down Leaf’s back. The risk for Red seems too big, suddenly, he should have stayed out, he should have-

Stop! Your mind is supposed to be calm. An abra might show up at any second, so get to soothing!

Leaf takes a deep breath, then focuses all of her thoughts on things that comfort her. A warm bedroll to keep out the morning chill. The sound of rain on a roof, far off thunder. The smell of grandpa’s travel bag. Mom’s voice, singing to herself as she worked.

It feels a bit forced, but hopefully it’s better than nothing.

The wind lifts Leaf’s hair again as she continues her slow spin, smelling acres of grass as she breathes in, then out. In the corner of her eye she sees a minute pass on her watch, then another, and imagines what might be happening elsewhere: abra, teleporting around the field as they go from one area with the umbreon cries to another. Surely some will teleport into their middle circle, rather than out of it… and of those, at least one or two should be near the center where she and Joy-

A flash of yellow, and Leaf’s heart leaps into her throat. Her body reacts automatically, running in its direction as she quickly scans the area around her to see if the area is safe for her to leave Joy alone. The spot of yellow in the thick grass resolves itself into the top of a head, and Leaf grins as she recognizes it as an abra.

She quickly focuses on projecting calm thoughts again, but it doesn’t seem to matter: the abra is completely still as she approaches, and with a wide grin she points the ball at it and, after counting down a few seconds to ensure it locks, lobs it gently underhand.

There’s a flash of light as the ball bounces off the abra’s head, and by the time it begins to fall, the pokemon is gone. Leaf quickly grabs the ball out of the grass and tucks it into her backpack, then dashes back toward Joy, practically skipping. It works! IT WORKS!

She keeps her vision moving to try and catch any new abra that appear as she returns to Joy and begins circling around her again. Red and Blue should be moving in a slow circle from opposite ends of the singing zone to catch any abra that teleported in and are dozing in the grass. When her watch vibrates, she resets the countdown on it and dashes over to her wigglytuff.

“Joy, stop!” she yells once she’s close.

The pokemon’s muffled song fades away. Leaf rubs Joy’s soft fur and feeds her a berry, eyes on her watch. When 30 seconds have counted down, she says “Sing!” and backs up again, returning to her position of slowly circling Joy as she watches the surrounding field.

In their last test, Joy maintained a song for nine minutes and fourteen seconds without pause. It left her breathless and tired, and she needed over twice as long to rest before she could do it for anywhere near the same length again.

But, when they tried giving her a breather every few minutes, she was able to sing for an hour and a half. They realized they could probably stretch it longer, but that was about when they lost patience with the test. They were aiming for as little downtime as possible in any case.

Leaf keeps cycling Joy through quick moments of rest as she patrols the area, waiting for the next abra to appear. We should have cut the grass around here, she thinks as she tries to spot another glimpse of yellow in the rustling green stalks.

She’s just starting to wonder if she should message the others and see if something’s gone wrong when the second abra pops into sight, close enough for her to actually see it displace the grass around it as it appears.

Leaf raises her pokeball, careful not to make any sound, but stops cold as it vanishes.

She stares, wondering for a brief moment if she imagined it, then lets out a muffled cry of frustration. She forgot to maintain the calming thoughts! Even a couple seconds of wakefulness before the singing puts them to sleep is enough to let the abra escape, and if it’s particularly resistant and takes a few seconds…

Leaf closes her eyes, not caring that she might miss another abra showing up. She needs to exude comfort and calm, or the only abra she’ll catch are the ones that fall asleep quickly or are too far to sense her before they’re affected.

Warm blankets. Hugging gramps. Rain on the roof.

She focuses on each memory until she feels calmer, then opens her eyes and tries to walk around again. The note of discord in the back of her mind is still there however, and when the next abra appears and disappears again within seconds, her calm shatters.

A wave of panic threatens to crush Leaf as she feels her breathing become quick and shallow. She can’t mess this up for everyone. Hopefully the next abra appears far enough from her to fall asleep before it senses her mind, but how many more will she lose because she can’t keep herself from stressing out?

Leaf gives Joy another quick break, then walks in growing circles around her pokemon to try and find abra that appeared without her noticing and are napping in the tall grass.

As she continues to turn in a slow circle, she checks her watch through the corner of her eye. 2:17. Red timed the whole operation around a nearby Ranger Outpost sending a patrol out that would pass by the outskirt of the speakers’ radius. A final safety measure, ensuring that Rangers will be nearby if something goes wrong and they need to call for help. But the window of time left to have them nearby if something goes wrong is shrinking.

If she’s going to do something risky, now’s the best time.

Leaf breaks into a run. Grass whips by her knees as she keeps turning her head left and right, covering almost every angle of sight to ensure that she’s not missing any. The wind whips her hair into her face as she keeps turning in her slow revolution, and one hand dips into her pocket before tying her hair back into a ponytail. She starts to leap into the air to get a better view, and on the third jump she spots a flash of yellow to her left.

She takes a quick second to reorient herself relative to Joy, then dashes for the yellow. Seconds later she sees it: a sleeping abra almost completely hidden by the grass. A quick scan and capture, and she’s running back toward her wigglytuff to give her another rest, heart pounding as she catches her breath along with her pokemon.

Okay. Two captures isn’t bad. Still, how many more is she missing out on?

Leaf wonders if Red is having better luck. She knows his idea for calming them down was never a sure thing, but if it’s not possible then they’re going to lose out on a lot of potential captures.

She has to resolve the problem. If she accepts the premise that the abra are reading her thoughts on a surface level and reacting to what they find, what can she be focusing on that might slow them from teleporting away for at least another second or two, to give Joy’s song a better chance to put them under?

Maybe a sense of safety instead.

She tells Joy to resume singing and takes off again, running through the grass and focusing on memories and sensations of being safe. She tries to dismiss all the thoughts and worries about her circumstances, making herself feel as safe and carefree as she can while running, turning, and leaping around the field.

Another flash of yellow, this time far off to the right of Joy. She wonders if she should leave it: it might be close enough to be in Blue’s path. She turns toward it anyway, knowing that every potential catch is worth pursuing over more fruitless searching.

She’s panting hard by the time she arrives at the slumbering abra, and wipes sweat out of her eyes with one hand as the other aims a pokeball and tosses it. She tucks the third abra away, slightly more at ease and focusing hard on feeling safe and carefree as she makes her way back toward Joy.

When the next abra appears a stone’s throw away she’s ready for it, holding still and maintaining her sense of confident safety. Barely a second passes however before it vanishes.

Dammit,” she yells as she jogs back toward Joy with a scowl. What’s she doing wrong? Maybe nothing, maybe it’s just the presence of a nearby human that’s enough to send them off, but admitting that would mean there’s nothing she can do about it, and she’s not about to give up.

All of these emotions aren’t genuine. I need something I really feel, something effortless.

Leaf reaches Joy and gives the wigglytuff another quick break, spraying a bit of ether into her mouth to make up for the longer singing period. What do I want right now? Why am I doing this?

Not just for the money. Not just because Red needs help with it. Deeper. Why do I want to be a trainer at all? She could be a groomer or breeder if she just likes spending time with pokemon.

Leaf commands Joy to start singing again and resumes her spiraling outward walk. What are her priorities? Too many. Focus. Simplify. Find the inverse. What would have to be true for me not to want to be a trainer anymore?

Put like that the answer is obvious. If she knows, for sure, that being a trainer is worse for pokemon than not being a trainer… not just pokemon in general, but her pokemon… she wouldn’t be able to do it. She loves her pokemon, and even when she’s training them or using them to defend her from wild pokemon, their well-being is at an equal priority with her own. Staying alive and becoming a better trainer means continuing to help them live longer, safer, happier lives.

Leaf feels something loosen inside herself, and smiles. This she could do effortlessly, and with all her heart. Loving pokemon is her default emotion at any given time: she just has to bring it out.

She begins to jog again, thinking over all the adorable and fun and fascinating pokemon she’s cuddled and played with and learned about. Pokemon are awesome, pokemon are fun, and she can’t wait to make more pokemon friends today to save them from a dangerous wilderness full of predators and other trainers that might be less interested in their well-being.

It takes two revolutions for her to find another abra, far off to her left. This one’s already fast asleep too, as is the next one she encounters. It makes sense: the longer the trial goes on, the more likely the abra are to bounce around into the song’s area of influence. She might not have the chance to test her new mood on a conscious abra, but is too thrilled at the double capture to care, and keeps maintaining it anyway.

Leaf dashes back to give Joy another quick rest, then checks the time. 2:41. The Rangers should be heading past the edge of their outermost circle now. No more running around: time to play it safe.

She begins walking again once she finishes catching her breath. She finds her sixth abra after starting some controlled hop-spins to get a better view of her surroundings, and her seventh after she gets dizzy and goes back to simple patrolling.

It isn’t until she gives Joy another rest and begins patrolling again that the next abra appears near her. Leaf reinforces her feelings of love and caring, mentally throwing her arms wide and letting them thunder through her whole being as she stands completely still and waits.

A heartbeat later, the abra is still there.

Two heartbeats later. Three.

Its head dips beneath the grass, yellow ears the only thing visible.

Chest bursting with gratitude and happiness, Leaf finally steps forward and captures the abra, smiling down at its ball before carefully putting it in a separate pocket from the others. Maybe it was a fluke and her emotions had nothing to do with it staying, but this abra she would keep for herself.

Leaf keeps walking through her spiraling route, beaming out love for all to feel.


“Dad… Come back, dad… please…”

Red’s fingers curl in the grass, forehead pressed to the ground. His mind feels wobbly, like a mound of gelatin on a plate just a bit too small for it. Tears drip from his nose and chin as he tries to even out his breathing.

Ten abra-filled pokeballs are in his bag, a source of distant, hollow joy compared to the soaring triumph that filled him from his first capture. He rode that feeling all the way through the next two captures, until the first abra popped into existence near him, and the connection of its mind took his breath away.

It teleported away a couple seconds later, but he stood rooted, gasping at the sudden, crushing sense of despair. The next few abra he caught helped renew his spirits, until the second awake encounter left him quietly weeping, unable to stop himself even through his next captures. The third one drove him to his knees, chest heaving with sobs that felt like they would break him in two. It took him almost three minutes to force himself back to his feet, trembling and scared of what the next encounter would bring.

At first he thought the abra were actually attacking him, using a Confusion attack or something. But each only stayed for a couple heartbeats before they teleport away, and besides, these were nothing like his spinarak’s Night Shade, where he was forced to feel memories he couldn’t identify, and actively remembering the encounter caused echoed effects.

He knows exactly what’s happening, for once. He might be glad for that, if it wasn’t so terrifying: his partition is being rapidly eroded by the abra’s coupling. Where Psychic Ayane’s mind approached his like a ship docking at harbor, throwing out ropes one by one before sidling alongside the pier, the abra minds couple with his in binary states: one second absent, the next second fully there.

Whether it’s the strength of the connection or the sudden speed, his psychic abilities seem unable to balance their work. All the memories and emotions behind his partition come pouring out every time, a flood that fills him for the second or two the abra is around, then vanishes as they do.

Leaving a backwash of loneliness. Shock. Despair.

Grief.

He was able to catch three more sleeping abra before the fourth awake one leaves him a sobbing heap on the ground.

“Please, dad, you promised! Please… I miss you so much…”

Red doesn’t know how many minutes pass, but eventually the sobs grow weaker, then fade. He raises his head and wipes at his face with one hand as his other picks up his hat from where it fell. His hands knead the bill rather than put it back on, and he pulls in a trembling breath. When no new burst of sobs come out with it, he relaxes a little.

Red lets his head hang back, wind blowing his hair and fresh tears streaming down his face as he watches the clouds drift across the pale blue sky.

This was a mistake.

Psychic Narud was right. Red’s partition is essentially a type of selective amnesia that leaves him with the memories of his father’s passing, but just a shadow of the emotions.

No wonder he still can’t think about it for too long without having to shift his thoughts away. He hasn’t been able to for years, but this is different. It’s not a memory or an echo: he feels almost exactly the same way he did right after his dad died.

Fragile?” his therapist asked. She stared at him with gentle but intent eyes, her tone curious. “In what way?”

Like I’m made of glass.” Red sat hunched in the chair, gaze down. He barely saw the office around him, barely took note of anything for longer than a moment. It was his third session, and he was just beginning to respond in more than single words, when he responded at all.

Your mom says you don’t react to hugs anymore. That you go stiff. Is that why? Because you think you’ll break?”

Red shook his head. “Already broken.” His voice sounded rusty to his own ears, hollow from being so long unused. “Full of cracks. Ready to… fall to pieces. Shatter, if the wind blows too hard. Or someone touches me.”

Her eyes were full of too many things: detached calm, gentle compassion, clinical interest. Red kept his gaze down. He just wanted to make her understand, so she and his mom would leave him alone.

Wow. That sounds pretty shitty.”

Red felt something at that. It wasn’t much: just a flicker of surprise, deep down. But it was more than he felt of anything besides anger or sadness or emptiness in awhile.

Unable to muster the energy for a response, he just shrugged.

It also sounds like you need time, Red. Nothing wrong with wanting breathing room to let the pieces settle. “

Red lets out a shaking breath. “Let the pieces settle.” That’s what he thought happened, over the years. Apparently not as well as he thought.

Red’s phone vibrates in his pocket. He takes it out and stares blankly at the message from Blue until a thread of alarm finally penetrates the fog around his mind.

3rd speaker offline. dunno if glitched or some wild got it.

Red wipes his face again, then slowly gets to his feet and begins walking, one arm wrapped around his stomach as if it’ll help hold himself together. Tears continue to track down his cheeks as he makes his way across the grassy field, intent to keep sweeping his path of the abra landing zone. If he holds still too long Blue will finish looping around and come up behind him.

He has to catch as many as he can. The longer the speakers are in effect, the more abra should be already in the middle zone and asleep, rather than popping in. If he’s lucky, he won’t encounter any more awake ones.

But he needs to be ready in case he does.

At first Red tried to prepare his mind for abra contact the same way he prepared for Ayane’s: by mimicking the state of mental connection enough that he could get used to it, and keep his mental footing when she linked with him.

Now that he knows that’s not going to work, what’s left?

Red spots another pair of abra ears sticking out of the tall grass and walks over to capture it. His arm trembles as he holds the pokeball toward it, and fresh tears slide down his cheeks as he remembers standing with his dad in their backyard and mimicking his ball-throwing motion.

Red’s ball pings its lock, and he gets closer before tossing it underhanded to ensure it doesn’t miss. After he tucks the new capture away, Red checks the time. 2:31. An hour left. He doesn’t know if he can make it that long.

He tries refocusing on the basics as he walks. The air rushing into his lungs, the beat of his heart, both seeming louder than usual thanks to his plugged ears. His attention shifts to the feel of the wind on his skin, pressing his shirt to his body… then to the hollow pit in his chest, sucking inward, a constant, aching pain that completely breaks his concentration.

Red scowled and opened his eyes. “I can’t do it,” he said, voice sullen even to his own ears. He pushed himself off the floor anyway, returning to the comfy chair as his therapist stayed on the floor with her legs crossed. “I can’t concentrate, I keep thinking of… other things.”

She nodded. “That’s understandable. As I said, it takes time and practice. It’s okay to be distracted when you first try.”

It’s not okay! Easy for you to say to ‘let it go,’ it’s not something stupid like thinking of a math test that’s distracting me!” Red realized he was shouting and forced himself to stop, fuming silently in his seat. It was only his sixth session with the therapist, but suddenly the whole thing felt like a waste of time.

What is it that’s distracting you, then?” she asked, still serene.

You know what it is,” he snapped, but he could already feel his anger leaving him. It took too much effort to hold onto emotion, even anger. Everything got sucked down the empty void in his chest eventually. “The point is I’m trying to stop feeling this way, having these thoughts. It’s totally stupid to say it’s okay to be distracted by them while trying to stop being distracted by them.”

She raised an eyebrow then surprised him for the second time in their sessions together by nodding and getting up. “I think you’re right, meditation probably isn’t the answer right now.” She returned to her chair. “So, let’s see what else we can try.”

Red takes a deep breath, not breaking stride as he tries to ignore the pain. If it’s one thing he learned in those sessions, it was not to give up on searching for answers. To not get stuck on one solution just because it worked before, or angst about how hopeless everything is. His therapist never let him dwell on his failures, or her own. She just kept engaging him, pushing them both to try new things, until something helps, even a little… and then to keep finding new things to build on the successes. A sort of inverse of the “death by a thousand cuts” concept.

A thousand small braces and splints and bits of glue tacked onto every part of him, so he could keep moving, keep walking forward, into the wind, without it blowing him to pieces.

He draws on those memories again now, the ones he could apply in the moment. Comfort foods are out, even in moderation. Same with music, since he has his earplugs in. He’s already being physically active, but maybe he can step it up.

Red forces himself into a jog, trying to kick some adrenaline into his system to help chase the depression away by brute force. It doesn’t feel like it’s helping, but he keeps at it anyway. If nothing else it’ll help him cover more ground.

In the meantime he still needs a mental defense in case he encounters another abra. How else can he use his powers to help him?

Red feels frustration welling up, a frustration that hides a familiar hopeless apathy at its core. He doesn’t know enough about how his powers work to fashion a solution. He only knows a couple tricks, one trick, really, just copying mental states. If he had any experience utilizing his powers from the ground up-

Stop focusing on problems. Focus on solutions.

Mimicking mental states. His first, balancing-on-a-tightwire, didn’t work, but he also copied a weak form of Ayane’s ability to block physical pain. Could he use many-mirrors-and-a-dim-room to ignore emotional pain too?

Now wouldn’t be a great time to get nauseous and throw up again, but it’s worth trying, even for a moment.

Red focuses on the sadness and loss that reverberate through his chest. He pictures the black hole centered there, just below his heart, scraping everything inside him raw as it pulled and tugged in pulsing aches.

It’s surprisingly easy, maybe too easy. The sensation seems to amplify, his focus and attention making the feelings more pronounced, and Red slows to a stop, breathing hard as his lip trembles, eyes welling with tears.

Some distant part of him cries out in alarm, worried that he’s actually feeding the sadness with his psychic powers. It doesn’t matter, though. None of it matters. His dad’s dead, he’s gone and never coming back, even if Bill’s right and people eventually cure death, his dad will be forever in the past, his mom probably will too, and…

And me… one day, I’ll die too, and there’ll be nothing, just blank absence of everything I am…

Red sees his dad a dozen times a second, in the kitchen with his mom in the morning, training with his pokemon, coming home for the weekend, carrying Red on his shoulders, leading him through the forest…

Red falls to his knees, pokeball dropping from his hand as he rests his palms on the grass, catching himself as he begins to weep again.

If you’re going to put yourself through this, at least let it be worth something. Try the experiment, just so you know if it works.

Red sucks in a long, shuddering breath, then closes his eyes, concentrating on the gaping black hole inside him. He pictures his psychic powers like vibrant colored lines around it, streaks of gleaming light that connect in a hexagon, keeping the effects of the hole from reaching past to the rest of him.

Red winces as the ache continues, and the image falls apart. Ayane’s skepticism comes back to him: “It’s not enough to simply imagine yourself doing something with your powers, or a psychic’s life would be far easier.” She’s right: it’s one thing to mimic a state of mind he felt and come up with a metaphor afterward: doing it in reverse would be pure wish fulfillment.

NO! That’s loser talk!

Red blinks, tears trembling on his lashes. That mental voice sounded oddly like Blue. He wonders if he’s starting to crack up.

You’re not concentrating. You lost the mental state when you imagined the black hole, before you even started with the lines. Try again, something easier.

Red feels a gust of wind blow his hair against his wet face, and tugs his hat down lower to keep it from blowing off. Ok. Something easier. He can do this.

The black hole is there, he doesn’t have to imagine it any clearer. Instead he focuses on his heart: a glowing source of warmth in his chest, being worn away by the sucking, empty void. Red imagines the blocking lines around his heart instead, and at the same time shifts his thoughts to all the memorized points of many-mirrors-and-a-dim-room, then-

wait what if that takes away all feeling-

-inverts-

who cares that’s better than this-

-it into a single island of light inside him, everything else going dark as he gives them over to the void.

Red’s trembling stops. He breathes deep a few times, surprised at how… quiet isn’t the right word, with his earplugs in everything’s quiet, but still his emotional state feels.

The depression is there, the sucking ache in his chest is there, and, yes, the nausea is there. It’s just all… distant. Dim, like the pain in his arm was.

Red smiles. It feels strange on his face, strained and oddly disconnected from his inner self, like the muscles of his face are reacting independently. But he finds he can’t stop.

He figured something else out with his powers. Neat.

Red gets back up, and picks up the pokeball he dropped. He starts walking again.

Things feel strange. Not just emotions, but things. The feel of his clothing on his body, the wind on his skin, the sunlight. It’s all muted.

Why isn’t he moving?

Oh right. He stopped walking.

Red looks around. Nothing of particular interest is going on.

What’s he doing again? He knows what he’s doing, obviously, but what’s the point?

Shit. This is what it’s like to not feel anything, isn’t it?

But that’s ridiculous, he clearly still wants things. He doesn’t want to get hurt, for example. Dropping shining-mirror-in-a-dim-house would make the hurting feelings come back.

He had a purpose in doing that though. To keep catching abra unimpeded. It would all be rather useless if he didn’t keep catching abra, right?

Red keeps walking. Eventually he finds more abra and catches them. He doesn’t know how long he walks, but nothing exciting or interesting happens. He just keeps walking and catching abra. Eventually his phone vibrates, though he barely feels it.

It’s probably not important.


Blue stares down at the broken speakers with a frown. He hoped it was something he could fix, but this thing is utterly trashed. Looks like something really heavy smashed it over and over again.

Blue looks around. Nothing but grassy fields. Whatever pokemon did it is long gone.

He sighs and jogs back toward the abra landing zone. The gap in their circle of speakers will make it easier for abra to slip free, but they only have about 30 minutes left before Joy gets tired anyway.

His bag jostles with over a dozen expanded pokeballs in it, most of them filled with abra. There was another bellsprout that wandered into range of Joy’s singing after it had started, and now that he has two he feels much more prepared for his battle with Misty.

He keeps an eye on his GPS as he moves, and relaxes when he reaches the landing zone again. It’s a nice feeling, being able to walk through fields of empty grass and not worry about pokemon jumping out and attacking. Relaxing, even.

Most of the abra he encountered were already asleep, but a few popped into existence within his line of sight. He just stood completely still for a few seconds until it was clear they were out of it, then caught them too. He hopes whatever Red and Leaf figured out works too, because if they’ve caught as many as he has…

Blue grins. They’re going to make so much money off of this.

He spots another pair of yellow ears sticking out of the grass and changes course to catch it, cheerfully lobbing the pokeball underhand after giving it a moment to lock. He really has to hand it to Red, he really struck gold with this idea. They’ll be able to control the market on abra for a bit before it gets flooded, and combined with the cash from their clefairy trades, make enough money to not have to worry about their allowance restrictions for months.

He’s already thinking of all the TMs and training tools he’ll buy, along with maybe a competitive pokemon or two. He probably won’t be able to afford a larvitar or anything crazy like that, but with his eye on the next couple gyms, he could use a solid Ground or Fire type.

Blue reels himself in before he goes too far down that imaginary road. He already comes from enough of a privileged position, with the Oak name and connection and resources at his back. Beginning his journey with a premium starter, instead of a rattata or meowth or whatever most people could get, is usually grudgingly accepted by the less fortunate masses, but only as long as skill is still shown. No one cares that Lance started his journey with one of his clan’s dratini, because he raised it himself, without even using a pokeball. As long as Blue doesn’t throw money around enough to seem like a “spoiled rich kid,” he could use it for a number of helpful boosts.

Blue checks his supply of pokeballs. He has nineteen left before he has to start using the more expensive balls. He doesn’t think he’ll need them all, but it would be nice to cap out.

The next few minutes are spent continuing his circuit, occasionally spotting an abra and detouring to catch it. He finds a rare hill, really just a small elevation in the grassy field, and stands at the top as he takes out his binoculars and looks around.

Hmm. One abra there, another about a 120 degrees from it. He’ll pick up the farther one first, since the closer is on his way forward.

He catches both and keeps walking, wondering how far ahead or behind Red is. Hopefully they kept about the same pace with each other, but his detour to see the speaker might have closed the area of their search a bit.

Blue finds Red’s GPS position and sees it’s not far in front of him. Huh. Guess he got delayed by something too.

Better slow down a bit. Blue looks for another hill to spot from, and a few minutes later he finds one, taller than the last. He runs to the top and lifts his binoculars again, looking around. There’s an abra, aaaand another… and…

Blue lowers his binoculars, then lifts them back up. Shit. He checks his GPS. “Shit!”

He lifts his binoculars again, pulse quickening as he watches the loudred walking steadily toward the center of the field, a small group of whismur following it. They’re not heading directly toward Joy and Leaf, but they’re moving in their general direction.

There are only two pokemon families in the area that might be completely immune to Joy’s singing: hoothoot/noctowl, some of which don’t sleep, and whismur/loudred/exploud, who are immune to sound-based attacks. The former rarely travel during the day, and the latter mostly stick to the caves that dot the surrounding mountains, only occasionally migrating. Still, knowing that they’re attracted to loud sounds, Red and Leaf planned for this.

Blue takes out his phone and sends them a warning.

Got it. Leaf sends back. Heading back to Joy to move us. Let me know when you guys are ready for the song to end.

might not have time for that if they get close enough to fight. maybe we cancel the song and hit them together?

Let’s avoid battling a group please, especially since we have no Fight/Rock/Steel pokemon.

we can put them to sleep another way, bulbasaur and zephyr with sleep powder?

Maybe. What do you think Red?

Blue taps his foot as he waits for Red to respond, and looks around. Should he rush over to the abra he saw and catch them? He picks up the binoculars and tracks the loudred’s progress until it’s out of sight.

careful leaf it’s close

red you there?

shit

RED

Have you talked to him recently?

no

he’s close though gonna find him

Blue takes off, nearby abra forgotten. Come on man, answer. He keeps checking his GPS as he runs to see if Red is moving. Finally his phone buzzes again.

I’m here.

Blue slows to a stop, breathing hard. the hell man?

Are you okay Red? Leaf asks.

Fine. Stop the song, relocate somewhere safe until they pass through.

you’re not going to use charmander’s smokescreen?

Red takes his sweet time responding again. Blue wonders if he’s actually hurt after all, and is about to send another message when Red says No need. It probably broke speaker. Without singing it’ll go for another.

Blue frowns. we can take them, if the three of us are together.

Sound based attacks. Too risky. Stick to abra catching.

Shit, he left two of them back there. Rather than argue, he turns and rushes back in the direction one of them was, knowing he won’t make it to both on time before Leaf stops the song.

Red better have a good explanation for what’s going on with him.


Red stands in front of the sleeping abra, and waits.

The phone’s continued vibrations grew annoying eventually, and he took it out of his pocket to turn it off. Seeing the screen made him hesitate, and some part of him reacted with enough horror to what he almost did to snap him out of the mental state.

Returning from it was like getting a bucket of cold water dumped on his head. He trembled as the aching sadness filled him again, and in fear of how far he almost sank into total apathy.

Still, he knew he had to return to it. He has to test if it works on awake abra.

So he ran until he found one. He holds a pokeball pointed at it, already locked on by now. He knows he’s risking throwing away a capture, and wants to at least try to get it if he can.

The seconds crawl by as he waits for Leaf to end Joy’s song, and as he does he sinks back into the apathetic state, trying to remain focused on his singular goal: catch the abra after it wakes.

Catch the abra after it wakes.

Catch the abra. After it wakes.

Catch the ab-

Its mind is suddenly there, sleepy at first, but alert within a second. Red groans as despair floods him, pushing past the numbness and breaking his concentration. He throws the pokeball as he doubles over and clutches his torso with both arms, but the abra vanishes before the ball reaches it.

Red sobs in a mix of grief and frustration. Not enough. All that effort and risk for nothing. He can blunt his feelings, but they’re still just a portion of what’s behind his partition when it comes down.

Somehow he manages to keep his feet as the storm of sobs wrack him, but when they pass he feels utterly hopeless. If coming up with a whole new mental state wasn’t enough, then he’s out of tricks. He tried, and he failed.

Why do you think of that as failure?” His therapist seemed genuinely curious, the way she always did when asking questions no matter how obvious or pointed the question might be.

What do you mean, why? It’s the definition of the word.” She stayed quiet, waiting, and eventually Red searched for something else to say. “If I passed the class, I would have succeeded. I didn’t, so I failed. It’s not complicated.”

But why do you think of that as failure?”

Red frowned. “You can’t just emphasize a word and repeat the question as if that changes the answer.”

Doesn’t it?”

No,” he said, ignoring the dissonance he felt. “I think of that as failure because that’s what failure is, to everyone.”

I see. So if a scientist tests an idea and doesn’t get the result they want, did they fail?”

Obviously.”

What if they learned something from it?”

Well, good for them, I guess, but they still failed.”

Do you think they could ever be happy they failed, if the thing they learned ended up being more important?”

Red sensed the trap, but he couldn’t ignore his inner agreement this time. “Sure, I guess. So what did I learn from failing a class? Since, you know, failing a class comes from not learning?”

“I thought you failed because you didn’t do the work,” his therapist said, but continued on before he could answer. “But if you failed because you didn’t learn the subject, then at the very least, you learned what doesn’t work for you, right?”

Red rolled his eyes. “Right, I learned that staying in bed all day and not doing the homework won’t pass the class. I’m a genius, now.”

She leaned forward, resting her chin on one fist. “What if you also learned that you can’t force yourself to be productive when you’re feeling shitty? That maybe you have to focus on feeling better first?”

Sounds like an excuse to not even go to class next quarter. I’ll take it, thanks.”

Maybe you shouldn’t. Do you want me to call your teachers?”

Red’s eyes widened. “Uh. No, that’s okay.”

“Are you saying that because you think you’ll get in trouble? Because I promise you won’t. I’ll speak to your mother about it too if you want.”

Red fidgeted in his chair. “I can’t just miss a whole quarter.”

“Why not? You’re not going to pass it anyway.”

Red felt like arguing, but caught himself. Why was he trying so hard to stay in school? But the implication that he wouldn’t pass… it bothered him, even though he didn’t care a moment ago. “What are you trying to do, here? Get me to skip a quarter, or push me into trying to pass it?”

His therapist cocked her head to the side. “What do you think I’m trying to do?”

Red stifles a sob before it can escape his lips, and breathes deep, smelling the fresh green grass all around him. Change a failure into a learning opportunity.

So. What did he learn?

He learned that the loss of the partition is more impactful than a change to his mood. So what he needs to do is keep his partition from mattering.

Start at the beginning. What are his tools? What can he do?

He can mimic mental states influenced by psychic powers. He can mimic his own from specific stimuli, and others’. What does that leave him with?

Red keeps breathing in and out, focusing on the thought. What other psychically influenced mental state can he mimic? If only Ayane had used her power in a way to make her mind “healthy” or “stable” or-

Red’s eyes open as his breath catches. I don’t need Ayane’s mind in that format: my default state is a psychically sculpted stable one!

He doesn’t waste time wondering if it could work. Red drops into the lotus position, evening out his breaths as best he can. One arm rises to impatiently rub his face dry, then again as fresh tears appear at the ache of sadness that goes through him. Nevermind. Let it go. He waits until his awareness is mostly drawn inward, then begins shifting his attention to different parts of his mental state. He’s emotionally sad, but his thoughts aren’t being overwhelmed with negative associations like when the partition is down.

For a glimmering second, Red almost grasps what Elite Agatha meant when she insisted to Professor Oak that there’s a distinction between mental and emotional pokemon attacks.

Then it passes, but he’s still able to reach far enough to work with the distinction.

No set of words seem fit to describe it, however. How would you describe your default mental state? It’s just “existing normally.” But that still has markers, anchors, a framework he can remember and nail into place.

It doesn’t feel like anything has changed. He hasn’t made the partition stronger, and he isn’t using his powers to do anything. He’s just… focusing on keeping everything as it is.

He stays that way until his phone vibrates again. He checks it and sees that the first speaker he put down is offline. The loudred got another one, he sends. We should be clear.

Okay, Leaf says. Summoning Joy. Earplugs back in, if you took them out.

Red puts his phone away and focuses on the mental state again, waiting until it feels stable before he gets to his feet and resumes walking. Every so often he feels as though he’s lost it: trying to consciously hold onto a “default” feels like trying to cup water in his hands, but he keeps reinforcing it every so often, retracing his mental path around the touchstones of how he thinks, around the gap between what he feels and his memories of his dad’s death.

He eventually spots a sleeping abra and catches it. A few minutes later he finds another. Part of him is glad the system’s still working with two speakers down, but he begins to grow impatient as he walks, checking the time occasionally. He needs to find another awake one. He needs to know if this works.

When there’s just fifteen minutes of singing left, Red starts to seriously consider sending one of his captured abra back out and waking it up himself. He’s still talking himself out of it when he feels an abra pop into existence nearby, its mind suddenly “next to” his.

He freezes, eyes flicking around. He can’t see it, it must be behind him… but-

Red’s mind wobbles, a mass of gelatin on a small plate again as the abra… tries to reconnect. It’s almost like the mind bounced off, then came back again. He focuses on his mental state, keeping all the anchors in place, all the parts of his mind that make up just-being-normal-Red…

And a few heartbeats later, suddenly as it started, the sensation is gone.

Red waits a few more seconds, pulse pounding in his ears, and finally, slowly, looks around. He spots the abra a few paces behind him and to the left, practically in arm’s reach.

Red slowly extends his pokeball turning it so the lens aligns with the abra. He counts to three. He throws.

The ball flashes, snaps shut, and rolls onto the grass.

Red falls to his knees once again.

The ache is there. The grief. The pain. The loneliness. The despair. The wind blows, feeling extra cold on the tear tracks on his face.

But still, for a moment, he smiles.


“Are you kidding me?” Red asks. “You got them to stay with the power of love?”

“It’s not that simple.” Leaf pauses, then smiles. “Okay I guess it is that simple, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. It took a few tries to actually figure it out.”

Red grumbles. “Well, it probably wouldn’t work for me anyway. And I figured out my own solution, eventually.”

“Good, because when we do this again I expect you guys to get on my level,” Blue says as he cheerfully fills his corner of the table with pokeballs almost twice as fast as them. He can already tell he got a lot more than they did.

They sit in one of Bill’s living rooms, placing a growing collection of balls on the table after registering each pokemon in their dex. There’s a fruit bowl in the middle that Blue quickly has to move elsewhere to make more room. His stomach grumbles, and he picks out an apple before resuming work one-handed.

Once they finish emptying their bags, the three put aside the other pokemon they caught until just the abra are left, then start counting. Blue glances at Red every so often, noting the tautness of his features. When Red explained what happened to him, he made it seem like his experimental mental states were temporary. But there’s something distant and off about his friend’s gaze, and Blue wonders if Red understated how strong the renewed emotions are, or how he’s managing them.

The final tally is 19 for Red, 24 for Leaf, and 31 for Blue, a few of them temporarily in greatballs.

“I got one more.” Leaf holds the ball up. “But I’m keeping it.”

“Yeah,” Red says. “I’ll keep one too, once we finish analyzing them all.”

“How long do you think your study will take?”

Red shrugs. “A week, maybe? The only reason the last one took so long is because I had to wait for people with spinarak to come to me. Now I have a big sample ready to be tested.”

Blue studies Red’s face again. He sounds almost… uninterested. “Well, it’ll take at least that long to study the market and come up with a good plan to sell them,” Blue says. “So no rush on that.”

“I’d like to vet my buyers personally anyway,” Leaf says.

They look at her in surprise. “What, you’re going to meet each one?” Blue asks.

“Maybe not meet in person, obviously, but at least check them out online, maybe give them a call. I want to at least try and make sure the people who buy mine are going to take good care of them.”

Blue shrugs. “As long as we agree on how we price and list them, then your pokemon, your rules.”

His hands move out among his collected pokeballs, straightening each one into a uniform pattern, enjoying the sight of all of them. It’s a bit hard to believe how many he got. Hearing the other two talk about their struggles to catch the awake abra showed how being Dark has its advantages, but now that the catching is over and he listens to the other two discuss how they’ll train their abra, all the great uses they’ll have for them, Blue feels the warm glow of contentment fading away. He always wanted an abra when he was younger. The idea of being able to teleport, or share the thoughts of one of his pokemon, always seemed so cool.

But he’ll never have that, no matter how many abra he catches.

Blue’s jaw sets as he picks one of his abra’s balls up. Leaf has gone around to get the bowl of fruit, and is sharing it with Red. Blue waits until they’ve picked something out, then says, “I’m going to keep one too.”

Red and Leaf look at him in surprise. Dark trainers don’t use Psychic pokemon. It’s just not done: without the ability for their pokemon to sense them, they would be incredibly hard to interact with, let alone train.

Blue meets their gazes, waiting for their skepticism and questions.

“Wouldn’t the time be better spent training others, though?” Red asks. He holds a palm up to stop Blue’s response. “I’m just curious. I don’t doubt you can do it. You’re the most determined person I know, and a great trainer. I’m asking from an efficiency perspective.”

Blue relaxes slightly, and smiles. It means a lot, hearing Red say that. Not that Blue would ever admit it out loud. “It won’t be efficient, no,” he says. “I don’t fully know how I’ll do it yet. Maybe in the time it takes I could train two other pokemon instead. But I’m going to do it anyway.”

“Strategic advantage?” Red asks. “Having a psychic will surprise people who know you’re Dark.”

“Optics,” Leaf suggests instead, munching on a strawberry she liberated from the bowl. “A Dark trainer with a powerful, well trained Psychic pokemon… I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone like that. It’ll really make you stand out.”

Blue nods. “You’re both right. But most of all, it’s-”

“To prove you can,” Red says.

Leaf smiles and adds, “To yourself as much as anyone.”

Blue grins back. “You guys know me so well. Can I count on your help?”

Red extends a fist, and Blue bumps it, glad to see the gesture. Blue then extends his other fist toward Leaf. She grins and taps her knuckles to his, and Red and her extend their other hands at the same time to complete the triangle. Blue feels a bit better seeing Red smile, even though it fades a second later.

“Today was… a good day,” Red says, keeping his fists out.

Leaf nods. “To Red, for his great idea.”

“Hear, hear!” Blue says.

His friend flushes. “To Bill,” Red says. “For letting us use his land.”

“Hear, hear!” the other two repeat.

“Welcome,” the speakers above them says, making them all jump and lower their arms at last.

“And to me,” Blue says with a smile, “For catching Joy and making it all possible.” He ducks as the others toss fruit at him. “No need for thanks, folks, my bigger catch is thanks enough. And next time, I’m going to be bringing more pokeballs.”

16 – Serial Fiction, Part 1

Daystar and Alexander discuss serial fiction’s history, pros and cons, and how to navigate scheduling.

Co-hosted by Alexander Wales

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected

Links

We’re Alive

The Green Mile, by Stephen King

John Dies at the End, by David Wong

 The Martian, by Andy Weird

Timestamps

0:45 Features and History

10:30 Pros

15:31 Cons

18:14 Transitioning to Publishing

21:00 Scheduling

Advertisement

Alexander recommends Accelerando in today’s post-outro Audible advertisement.

http://www.audibletrial.com/rational

Thanks for listening!

15 – Multiverse

Daystar and Alexander explore the different types of Multiverse stories, and how to make them compelling and rational.

Co-hosted by Alexander Wales

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected

Links

Sliders

The Merchant Princes, by Charles Stross

Two Year Emperor, by Eaglejarl

The One

Fringe

Rick and Morty

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Demon by Jason Shiga

The Last Action Hero

Timestamps

0:40 Why we enjoy multiverses

5:54 Types of multiverse stories

10:58 Realism of multiverse stories

16:16 Multiverse and Fanfiction

19:53 Bound vs Unbound Multiverses

34:22 Writing Multiverse Stories well

Advertisement

Daystar recommends The Dark Tower Series, specifically The Drawing of the Three in today’s post-outro Audible advertisement.

http://www.audibletrial.com/rational

Thanks for listening!

Chapter 37: Resolve

Blue looks exhausted when Red and Leaf find him at the Trainer House in Cerulean North, but he still exudes a self-satisfied pride, even sprawled on a couch.

“You did it, then?” Leaf asks as she and Red sit in the nearby chairs. “Finished the screening matches?”

“Hit the top. Misty’s Second wasn’t in town, still gotta schedule a match with her, but then I can go for the badge. I think I’ll be ready in a couple weeks.”

“Congrats!”

“Tougher than Pewter, huh?” Red asks.

“Yeah. A lot of that was just testing me to make sure I wasn’t some scrub with a pidgey wasting everyone’s time. These people went hard. Very first match was against Amy.”

Red smiles. “Our Amy? From Viridian? Cool, how’s she doing?”

“Good. She got her badge already, staying on at the Gym for a bit. Sends her regards.” His eyelids are drooping down.

“You should head to bed,” Leaf says as Red checks the time. Only nine, but they’re still on a traveling sleep cycle, getting up and bedding down with the sun. “We can talk tomorrow.”

“No, I want to hear what you guys did first. What did Bill want?”

Red and Leaf exchange a look. “Uh. A soda, basically.”

Blue stares.

“Also maybe something else,” Leaf says. “He forgot. But he showed us around a couple of the labs and we talked about a bunch of stuff.”

“But he approved the plan,” Red says. “Said we have a week to practice before we try for real. There’s something else I want to talk to you guys about, though…” He leans toward Blue. “You know how your sister is competing in the Pokemon Coordinator Contest next week?”


August 1st

It takes most of the morning for Red to search the local advertisements and find a psychic who matches his budget. With the coming windfall, he can afford to spend some now if it’ll give him a leg up. As he waits for a response, he tries meditating again. His ability to focus isn’t much better than the first time, but he keeps practicing throughout the day, determined to make some measurable progress from one day to the next.

He also looks over the map of Bill’s property the inventor sent him. After calculating how far the sound of the wigglytuff’s singing will travel, he scrolls through the map from one corner to the next, trying to find a location with the ideal conditions: the right amount of empty space surrounded by naturally obstructing hills or trees, but with more open space beyond that for the ring of sound. He wants to do it as close to the Ranger Outpost or Bill’s house as he can, and quickly narrows his options down to three possibilities.

He takes a quick break for lunch, where he meets Blue and Leaf at a nearby cafe to show them his notes and hear about their respective days training at the gym and reading the local news. They also check the clefairy markets together, carefully marking the ones they want to buy and timing who will buy which of them when, spacing out the purchases. Afterward it’s right back to the Trainer House for more meditation practice. He picks his clefairy up from the transfer PC in the lobby, putting it immediately into storage. Much as he’d like to meet his new pokemon, he reminds himself not to get attached.

That night he finds a private workroom in the Trainer House and stares at his phone, working up his courage. This will be painful, and manipulative. But he has to tell her sooner or later, and this is when he can make the most good come of it.

Red takes his hat off and runs his hands through his hair, gripping it for a moment between his fingers. Then he drops his arms, picks up his phone, and dials his mom.

The pleasantries go by quickly, and soon he finds himself stumbling over his words.

“What is it, hon? Spit it out.”

Red takes a deep breath, and explains what he learned from Narud, including how the “psychic partition” that might be keeping him from fully getting over his dad’s death.

“Oh, Red… hon, I’m so sorry… I know you must be thrilled that you’re a psychic. After you were so excited from learning grandma was one… I remember how disappointed you were. But…” He can hear the tearful breath she takes, and feels a stab of guilt. “This thing with your father…”

“I know. It’s… a lot to take in. I didn’t want to believe it at first, but there’s definitely something stopping my powers from manifesting, and the feeling of that Night Shade… I’m scared, mom. I don’t want to face something like that again, or worse… have the partition break down like Narud said, and… relive losing dad again…” Red wipes a tear away, voice hoarse as pain and loneliness wells up inside him. In a way, it’s a relief to know that he’s not lying to her. He shoves the feelings down, waiting until he has control of himself again before he continues. “I really think I need to get a handle on this now.”

“Of course, sweetheart. Of course. What can I do?”

“I need lessons. I need to start learning how to use my powers. It’s expensive, though.”

“How much is each lesson? I can pay for them-”

“No! Thank you, but… I just need access to my account.”

“Oh no, Red, not your savings. I’ll be okay hon, I have some extra saved up. Let me help you with this. Just tell me how much you need and I’ll send it to you.”

Dammit. If she pays for the lessons directly, he can’t get the clefairy. He was hoping to get another two before the contest, but it would totally empty his account, and take a bit of borrowing from Blue or Leaf: he has almost exactly $1,800 to his name. Not enough for two clefairy and psychic lessons… It would be better to wait on the lessons until after he sells the clefairy. But he can’t empty his account without showing a bill to his mom, and he did want to start the lessons as soon as possible.

Well, buying one extra clefairy is better than none. “I’m still looking for the best deal, and some of them give bulk rates if I schedule more than one session at a time. Other lessons may be cheaper if I buy them on short notice, when they have a sudden opening from a cancellation. I did a lot of negotiating with psychics in Pewter for my paper, and I have to be careful to make every dollar count to get as many lessons as I can.”

“I still want to help, Red. I can’t let you pay it all yourself, you might need that money for your travels!”

Red sighs. “Okay, how about we go a half and half then? Let me use my savings while I’m in Cerulean, and I’ll send you the bill afterward, so you can put half back in my account whenever you have a chance.”

“You’re such a sweetheart. Alright, if that makes you happy. I love you, Red.”

Red runs his fingers through his hair as he rests his forehead on his palm, eyes closed. “Thanks, mom. I love you too.”

He spends the rest of the night reading local CoRRNet reports to brush up on wild pokemon in the area, and falls asleep with herd movement patterns floating behind closed eyelids.


August 2nd

Psychic Ayane is dressed very casually compared to Narud or Ranna. Her purple hair is cut short around her ears, her navy top is a simple shirt that bares a bit of her midriff, and her matching navy pants end just below her knees. She looks ready to go for a jog or have a pokemon battle rather than sit cross-legged and meditate, and yet that’s exactly what she does once Red signs the consent form.

“Our first lesson will involve Reception,” she says once they’re both seated across from each other in lotus position. Red finds it less uncomfortable than he did the first time, and wriggles his toes as he lets the tenseness out of them, hands facing upward briefly before he flips them over to mirror Ayane’s. “I don’t know how your ‘block’ operates, but it shouldn’t interfere at all with this aspect, if you were able to feel a psychic mind touch yours before.”

“I did, but it… wasn’t a pleasant experience,” Red says, taking measured breaths to prepare himself and slow his racing heart.

“I’ll attempt to be as gentle as possible,” she assures him, and closes her eyes. He does the same. “Are you ready?”

“Uh… give me a second.” Inhale… two… three… four… exhale… two… three… four… inhale… “Ready…”

“First, I want you to understand what I’m doing. My mind is aware of others who pass nearby me, but that awareness is not connection. It’s the difference between seeing someone in your peripheral vision and locking eyes with them. By focusing on one of the minds I sense, I can project toward it. Beginning… now.”

Even braced for it, Red feels his skin break out in bumps as the “second mind” appears next to his own, almost entangled with it. He tries to focus on his breathing past the vertigo. After a few seconds pass, the sensation isn’t any better, but it stops growing worse. He feels like he’s balancing on a tightrope with one foot in the air.

“Are you able to continue, Mr. Verres?”

“Yes,” Red says between breaths. He keeps his voice quiet, his eyes closed. Sweat lines his brow and drips down the back of his neck. Every thought he has feels like it echoes, rebounding off the second mind beside his own, transferred along gossamer strands that connect them. “Is this… normal…?”

“No. Whoever told you about your partition was correct. Virtually all of your powers are being used to simply maintain it, and drawing them away to other tasks, even automatic ones like forming a connection, is taxing you beyond your endurance.”

“Should… we stop…?” Red asks, breath hitching between the words as a his stomach cramps. He expects a flashback to the spinarak’s attack to come at any moment, but it seems like the aftereffect really has faded. Maybe he should start training it now and make sure.

“Not unless you want to.”

“No.”

“Alright. I’m going to send across a feeling. I want you to tell me what it is.”

Red tries to prepare himself as he continues to focus on his breathing. He’s proud of himself for not quitting despite the strain. This isn’t so bad, actually, and now that he has the hang of it and knows what to expect, he’s sure he can handle more. In fact, this whole ‘partition’ thing probably isn’t a big deal either, with a few weeks of training he’ll be able to get rid of it and-

Oh.

“Optimism,” Red says, breathing out, then in again. “Confidence?”

“Hope,” Ayane says. “Good. Next.”

Red breathes out, wondering if he’ll notice his thoughts changing as they’re not influenced anymore. He’s vaguely worried about the notion that his emotions are being manipulated by an outside force: as if having biases isn’t bad enough, his unrealistic expectations of fixing his mental block in just weeks seem silly in retrospect, Narud implied it would be much harder… wait, is she projecting the opposite of hope now? Despair? Or is he just returning to his baseline? It’s so frustrating not knowing if his emotions are his own, if he could just think clearly for a moment he’d be able to-

His breathing is too fast, he’s not focusing on it anymore. He can’t slow it down though, a hot flush going up his neck. “Frustration?”

“Anger. Very good. Next.” Her words are clipped, and he opens his eyes to see her expression is cold. As he watches her however, her face relaxes into a more calm expression. He closes his eyes again so he doesn’t cheat by observing her.

He’ll have to write about all this, a journal, to keep the experience of cycling through emotions from outside influence fresh. It would be amazingly useful for awareness therapy and techniques, he’s surprised more psychics don’t go into therapy, though if they’re a standard subsample of the population there’s no reason to think any more of them would be interested or qualified for the job than non-psychics, proportionally. Still, it’s got to be easier for them, right? He wonders if a psychic therapist would have helped him more when he was young. He liked his therapist, but he would have discovered he was a psychic much earlier if one had tried something like this with him…

Breathing slowly in and out isn’t so difficult now. His shirt is sticking to his back with sweat and his stomach is still fluttering with nerves, but Red barely notices as he thinks about various applications of psychic powers in exploring the mind. Eventually he remembers he’s supposed to be trying to think of what emotion he is experiencing, but honestly he doesn’t feel anything unusual. He wonders if this is a “control” test, if she’s not projecting anything to see how he reacts. Should he peek? How long would she wait before he doesn’t get it? Maybe he just has to admit it himself.

“Don’t feel anything,” Red says between breaths. “Supposed to?”

“Yes.”

Red frowns, trying to focus harder. What is it? What’s he missing? He should list his emotions.

I’m uncomfortable, physically. I’m nervous and anxious, but that’s the partition thing, I don’t think it’s changed. I’m a little frustrated, but not a lot, yet. Am I less frustrated than I would otherwise be? Is she projecting calm? Is calm even an emotion? It’s just the absence of other emotions, isn’t it? Can you project null-emotions?

His thoughts run along those lines for another dozen breaths, and he finally shakes his head. “I give up.”

“Curiosity.”

Red opens his eyes to see her smiling slightly. “Curiosity is… an emotion? Nevermind… ‘course it is. I feel silly… but in my… defense…” He takes a deep breath to get the next part out all at once. “I’m pretty naturally curious all the… time,” he gasps, one trembling hand rising to wipe sweat from his forehead before he returns it to his knee.

“I sensed that, yes. That’s why I tried it. Remember, projections are stronger, more naturally communicated, if you build upon what is already there.”

“Noted.” The feeling of balancing on a high wire becomes more pronounced as he feels his mind wobbling, trying to shy away from the second consciousness. It’s so strange having the feeling of two minds without actually getting input from the second one at all… just echoes and undetectable projections. “So… next?”

“Are you able to continue?” He gives a jerky nod. “Alright then.”

They run through another few emotions before Red feels his whole body start to shiver uncontrollably, at which point Ayane withdraws her mind and he sags, breathing hard. His muscles feel loose and watery, his mind like it’s in a soft shelled egg.

“Well done,” his instructor says. “I didn’t expect the lesson to be so taxing on you, but you were still able to recognize most of them. Improving awareness is the first step: when you’re training your abra, being able to recognize when the emotions you feel are your own and when they’re your pokemon’s is vital.”

“Is the connection necessary?” Red asks as he slowly regains his composure. “If my partition is stopping me from passively sensing other minds around me, does that also stop me from receiving emotions from my pokemon?”

“No. Your pokemon will attempt to merge its mind with you regardless. It’s instinctual, a part of how they communicate and interact with others. Now at least you will know what to expect.”

Red grimaces and lifts one hand to his collar to peel his shirt away from his sweaty back. “If it feels like this, I’m not going to be able to train my abra at all. It was hard enough just sitting still. Are my powers like undeveloped muscles? Can I overcome this with practice?”

Ayane’s fingers drum on one knee. “Your ‘psychic muscles’ are not weak. They are constantly contracted, like a fist that has been closed around a ball for years. It has become stuck in position, any movement painful. In time it will become easier.”

“But too much relaxation and I’ll drop the ball?”

“Yes. You must learn to either juggle, or put the ball down.” She purses her lips. “That analogy doesn’t quite work anymore.”

Red smiles. “Yeah, it’s coming apart a bit. I think I get it though. The ball is fragile. Dropping it is bad, putting it down is safer. Any idea how to do it?”

“The simplest way is to learn how to manipulate your own memories, and simply clean out whatever is behind the partition. But that can take years to learn well. You can pay someone else to do it for you, if you trust them and are not averse to side effects. I would advise against this option unless your need is desperate. The safest route is to relax it little by little, adapt, repeat.”

“And how long would that…?”

Ayane spreads her hands. “As long as it takes.”

Red nods wearily. “Well, better get started then.” He straightens and puts his hands back on his knees, taking a deep breath. “Ready when you are.”


August 3rd

“Time!”

Blue presses the button on his aquascope, signalling Maturin to swim back to the surface. His squirtle rockets back up with a powerful kick of her legs and swish of her tail. Blue raises his eyes from the goggles in the scope, losing sight of her beneath the water just in time to see her round blue head breaking the surface of the pool. She opens her mouth wide, panting for breath.

“One minute rest, then back down. Set your own mark.”

Blue sets the timer on the aquascope, then tosses his pokemon a berry, which she quickly snaps out of the air. As she rests, Blue looks around to see how the others are doing.

The training room is filled with a series of isolated pools, each with a trainer standing beside them, aquascope in hand. Their pokemon bob at the surface of their pools, catching their breath from being submerged during their underwater exercises. Among the numerous classes designed for teaching them how to train their pokemon underwater, this one is particularly for amphibian pokemon, who also need practice staying under for extended periods of time.

Blue was having trouble getting Maturin to stay underwater for long enough to be a reasonable threat to water-breathing pokemon. This class is supposed to help him ease the squirtle into staying down longer and longer, but he finds the pace frustrating. He used a simulation program to try and train Maturin to stay underwater longer, but it only helped a little.

When the timer hits 0, Blue sends his pokemon back down along with the other trainers. He gives Maturin various commands to practice while she’s submerged, and keeps his eye on the timer that’s counting up now, waiting for the five minute mark. Squirtle can stay underwater for much longer if they don’t move much, but to fight down there, she needs to be able to stay submerged for as long as possible.

Blue presses his eyes to the scope to see Maturin swimming through the series of hoops spread out in the narrow, but deep, pool. He uses various buttons on the handle to send clicks through the water, directing his pokemon down one hoop, then up through another two.

“Time!”

Blue pulls his head up in irritation to check the timer. Only five minutes. He’s sure Maturin can stay down longer.

As the other pokemon begin appearing on the surface however, he can see the instructor looking at him, and presses the button to recall Maturin back up. His pokemon takes deep breaths and snatches more berries out of the air, then lies on its back and gurgles as it swims in lazy circles.

“Another one minute break!” The instructor yells out to the room, then walks toward Blue. He’s an older man, trimmed beard going grey.  Only one arm comes out of his shirt sleeves, the other sleeve folded and pinned around a stump. “Trainer Blue, was it?” he asks when he gets close enough, voice low so as not to carry to the closer trainers.

“That’s me.”

“You didn’t bring your pokemon back up right away. First time here, right?”

“Yeah. She seemed fine.”

“Seemed fine, sure. Pokemon worth a damn follow orders, even if it’s painful or dangerous. What do you want, your squirtle to come up without you telling it to? Not going to get it to learn that way. Worse, it might stay down. Get itself hurt trying to please you.”

Blue frowns at Maturin, who ducks her head into the water and kicks her legs to do a quick dive before coming back up. “She’s smart enough not to do that.”

“Hey, it’s your pokemon. I guess you’d know.” The instructor’s voice doesn’t change tone, and Blue fights down his defensiveness.

“When do we do practice matches?” he asks.

“Aquatic combat is lesson seven. In this gym we do things in the right order. Relax, you’ll be there by the end of the week.” He claps Blue on the shoulder and heads up the aisle to inspect and speak with the others.

Blue looks at Maturin again to make sure she’s okay, and snorts as she spits a harmless spray of mist up at him. He chucks her another berry and tries to fight down his impatience as the timer hits 0 and he tells her to go down again.

He’s committed to putting in the time at this gym and training his pokemon right: a first time win against Misty is the only way to make up for his loss against Brock. The new narrative he would shape about learning from his mistakes wouldn’t work if he commits too early and loses against Misty again.

But he can’t afford to spend too much time taking the safe route that he loses momentum either.

In Pewter he learned a bit from the lessons, but the most progress was made by finding good training partners. Blue examines his neighbors. One is a guy about his age, a serious look on his face as he trains a seel. The other is an older girl with a totodile that looks nearly as bored as he does. He waits till after the lesson is finished, then withdraws Maturin and approaches her.

“Hey. I’m Blue.”

She turns to him in surprise. “Hi. Mary.”

“This is my first time at one of these. Do you know if the pace picks up eventually? I think my pokemon can handle more.”

“No, this is my first one too,” she says as she withdraws her pokemon. “I know how you feel though, this is a lot more basic than I thought it would be.”

“I guess they have to make sure everyone has the fundamentals first,” Blue says. “I like learning from battles, personally.”

She hesitates. “I’ve never done a water battle before. But I guess neither have you, if you’re here?”

“Yeah, we’ll both be rookies, so it should be okay.” He gives her a moment to think about it, but she still seems reluctant. Blue smiles. “Nah, you’re right. Maybe later.” He turns away, looking for someone else to approach.

“Hey, wait.” He looks to see her smiling back. “You’re on.”


August 4th, Morning

Leaf throws the ball at her pokemon as hard as she can. “Bulbasaur, catch!”

Bulbasaur wraps a vine around the ball mid-air as it sails overhead, slinging it back and around to reduce its momentum without letting it go. Leaf opens her left palm wide, leather glove stretching the mesh between her fingers, and raises her bare right hand. She snaps her fingers, then points at her glove. “Throw!”

Her pokemon whips the ball at her hard enough to make her palms sting through the protective leather, and she grins. “Good boy!” She laughs as her pokemon gambols around a bit, rear feet kicking at the air. She waits until he calms down, then throws the ball back with another “Catch!”

The sky is bright and blue above the park, acres of grass and trees acting as an island of nature in the heart of the city. The past few days of reading made Leaf a bit stir-crazy, and she decided to take the day off to stretch her muscles and train her pokemon.

Of course, the best training is more like playing.

After another half hour of catch, she goes for a jog with Scamp running at her heels and Crimson looping around overhead as she tosses berries to each. Her phone occasionally buzzes, and she checks her messages to see if anyone important enough has messaged her.

Her current problem is simple. She wants to write another article, something with enough depth and importance to shift attention away from the ongoing situation in Pewter. But she has no leads beyond what she can pick up from news stories that are already published. The obvious solution is to get some from the local reporters, but they’d expect something in return.

Luckily, she happens to have something to trade. She just needs a good offer first.

By noon she’s hungry and exhausted. She brings all her pokemon out to rest for a bit, then heads back to the Trainer House. Her mind is on the shower waiting for her upstairs when a woman stands up from one of the couches in the entrance hall and approaches her.

“Hello Miss Juniper. My name is Zoey P-”

“Palmer, yeah, I know who you are,” Leaf says, smiling. It seems today might be her lucky day. “I’ve been reading your articles since I got to town. It’s good to meet you.”

The reporter raises an eyebrow. “I’m flattered. Assuming you liked them?”

“Yeah, they were great.” Leaf expected an email or phone call like all the other reporters used, but clearly Miss Palmer prefers the more personal touch. “Were you waiting for me?”

“I was. Do you have a minute to talk? Maybe have coffee or lunch? My treat.”

“I’d love to. I’m sorry, I don’t know how long you’ve been waiting, but could you give me another twenty minutes? I was just on my way up to shower and change my clothes.”

The reporter checks her phone, then says, “Of course. If you don’t mind, I’ll send you the address of a nearby cafe, and you can meet me there when you’re ready.”

“Sure. See you there.”

Leaf gets the address and rushes through showering and drying off, sitting on her bed in her towel and looking through her notes. She’s been hoping for something like this to happen all week, and wants to make sure she doesn’t mess it up. She was planning on going over the maps Red sent her for the abra hunting, but she’d have to do it after the meeting.

Ten minutes later she finds the reporter sitting outside the cafe. Leaf sits across from her, reminded of the immersive hologram at Bill’s house. “Hi. Sorry for the wait.”

“No problem. I ordered us some tea.”

“Thank you.” Leaf takes a sip from the mug in front of her, happy to discover that it’s chilled. She takes a moment to study the older woman. Miss Palmer wears thin and stylish sunglasses, and is dressed in a grey blazer that makes her look very professional and casual at the same time as she leans back in her chair, tea cradled in both hands on her lap. Leaf tries to mimic her casual posture, and wonders if she’s sitting too straight. She ends up staying mostly the way she is rather than fidget too much.

“I’ll let you find something to order, and then we can talk. I’m sure you’re curious to know why I asked you here.”

“I think I have an idea, actually. And I’m ready to order whenever the waiter arrives.” Leaf gives the menu a perfunctory look through, then puts it aside. She’s glad she can get a good salad fairly easily in most places in the city, but today she’s in the mood for something else. Especially since the reporter offered to pay.

Miss Palmer smiles. “I see. Were you expecting me?”

“Not you specifically, though I hoped for someone of your caliber. I have a friend, kind of a mentor, and your name was one of the names she suggested.”

“Why didn’t you reach out to me directly, then?”

“I figured it’s better not to be the one to ask.”

“You figured right.” She sips her tea, then returns it to her lap. “Well, this does put a different spin on things. When I realized that no one managed to get an interview out of you yet I figured you were just oblivious, but you were filtering, weren’t you? And the Oak kid not giving interviews either, is that related?”

“We have an agreement,” Leaf says. “Besides, he’s been busy.”

“Of course. Well, I guess I’ll cut to the chase then. What are your conditions?”

“I want leads.”

“Ah. That’s not a small thing to ask of a reporter, as I’m sure you know.”

Leaf remains silent, tasting her drink, then adds some sugar and puts the rest away. The waiter arrives, and Leaf orders some avocado and cucumber rolls.

After Miss Palmer orders and the waiter leaves, the reporter pours herself some more tea, taking her time. Leaf doesn’t rush her, and finally, after putting the kettle back, she speaks. “First, tell me something. Are you here to stir up trouble in my city, too?”

Leaf remembers what Laura said about getting a feel for a journalist by their work. What kind of person is Zoey Palmer? Leaf thinks back over what she read, the articles and interviews, the passion in some of Zoey’s work that’s not there for most of it. It’s like she thinks the only story worth putting real effort into is the kind that pisses someone in power off.

“If trouble needs to be stirred,” Leaf says at last.

Miss Palmer smiles and takes her sunglasses off, folding them and placing them on the table so that her piercing blue eyes meet Leaf’s. “Good answer.”


August 4th, Evening

The House common room is packed on Saturday night, with trainers of all ages gathering around the wide TV screens as the Pokemon Coordinator Contest gets underway. Some of them cheer on their favorites, while others exchange bets or just watch and chat. The trio managed to arrive early, and claimed seats in the middle of a couch directly in front of a screen. As more and more people crowd in around them, Red and Blue keep the encroaching bodies on either side from further squishing them together as Leaf sits between them with a bowl of popcorn in her lap.

Red enjoys the opportunity to relax with his friends, but even as he applauds and cheers for the various performances along with everyone else, a part of him is impatient to see how well their investment is going to pay off. He takes popcorn with his right hand as his left keeps his phone out, watching as the prices of various pokemon fluctuate after each performance. Most only get a mild bump: the highest so far was a 7% bump for ninetales after a trainer sent hers jumping through self-made spinning wheels of fire mid-air, and about a 10% jump for magneton, electabuzz, and raichu after a trainer used his to put on a laser-light show with eerily accurate electric bolts to pre-arranged equipment around the stage, accompanied by music and coordinated with a conductor’s baton.

By the time Daisy and Moonlight are next, the crowd is eager to see what could top that. Contest workers completely clear the stage to open up as much room as possible, then unpack some containers and assemble six large, colorful pinwheels in a circle around the middle.

Red and Blue clap along with the audience as his sister takes the stage, and the conversations of the girls around them suddenly shift to Daisy’s dress: a slim but complex, layered gown in various shades of pink that makes her look like a fairy princess. “Ooo, she looks gorgeous!” Leaf says, leaning forward. Red is similarly entranced. She’s done something with her hair, looping it back behind her head in the outline of wings. Red feels a warm glow in his chest as the remaining spark of his crush briefly rekindles.

The judges introduce her, then signal for her to begin. She releases Moonlight with a flourish, sending the ball straight up into the air so precisely that it smacks back into her open palm a moment later, arm staying straight up until her clefairy flutters to the stage from mid-air with its small wings.

The crowd is absolutely silent as trainer and pokemon turn to face each other. The camera focuses on Daisy’s face as she closes her eyes, tilts her head back, and begins to sing.

There’s no amplification in the exhibition center. Instead her microphone transmits directly to the earpieces of the thousands of viewers in the contest hall, and directly to the live feed. For Daisy and Moonlight, there’s just the strength of her own voice, and shortly after, Moonlight’s, her own microphone attached around her neck.

Red tunes out the occasional murmurs of everyone around them as he lets himself get drawn into the trainer and pokemon’s haunting song and perfectly choreographed (if silly looking) dance. It quickly becomes clear as she and Moonlight hop around in a circle that Daisy’s dress, frilly though it is, has been tailored to avoid impeding her movement at all.

“Met-ro-nome,” Daisy says, and points, and a moment later a gust of wind from Moonlight sets one of the pinwheels spinning. As it does, gleaming sparkles of every color are flung out into the air, falling slowly in a rainbow haze.

“Met-ro-nome,” Daisy says again a few moments later, in the exact same pitch and tone, and a second pinwheel is blasted with wind.

Red feels his excitement and awe growing as a third gust is sent out, then a fourth. If the metronome ability is dictated by the way the word is said, then Red expected a few mess ups along the way, like his mom reported from seeing Daisy practice. Six pinwheels, for six gusts of wind… but in a row? Yes, there’s the fourth…. Then the fifth…

Murmurs of surprise and disbelief are growing around the room as the trainers all watch Daisy instruct her pokemon to use the notoriously random and unpredictable Metronome ability with consistent, pre-planned results. Red grins wide as the sixth pinwheel is hit, sending its own shimmering lights into the air. The first pinwheel is still spinning, though it’s slowing down, and there’s a period of about ten seconds where the trainer and pokemon dance and sing in the middle of a dazzling cloud of multi-colored sparkles.

As the pinwheels slow to a stop one by one, Daisy and Moonlight’s song quiets before finally reaching an end, and there’s a moment of silence and stillness as the last of the glimmering sparkles fade away.

Then the Trainer House and contest hall explode in applause and cheers at the same time. Blue sticks two fingers in his mouth and whistles, and a buzz of conversation quickly breaks out as people discuss what they just saw. The panning cameras in the contest hall show faces that aren’t just dazzled but shocked, and Red can hear the wonder in the voices around him.

“-six times, can’t believe-”

“-trick maybe? New TM?”

“-obviously chose a safe move to demonstrate, but what else can she-”

“-can’t wait to try it-”

Red grins at his phone’s screen as the prices of clefairy quickly jump beyond the small increase they got just from Daisy’s reveal of what pokemon she was using. He tracks the cheapest offers and watches the prices going up as some of the lowest ones get quickly bought out and others are taken down and relisted. $983… $1,022… $1,127… $1,232…

Leaf leans over to watch, still applauding. “How’re we doi-woah.”

“Yeah,” Red says as he puts his phone away and finally relaxes, a giddy feeling in his stomach as he grabs some popcorn. “That’ll do.”

The last price he saw at the bottom of the listings was $1,312, and the highest were over $3,000. Blue bought four clefairy, Leaf three, and Red used his savings and borrowed whatever leftover cash the other two had to get himself two, giving him a total of three. Three clefairy that he could sell for at least $4,000.

“That’ll do just fine.”


August 5th

“You’ve been practicing,” Psychic Ayane says as soon as he opens the door to let her in.

Red smiles, breath trembling slightly as he exhales. As far as greetings go, it’s gratifying that she noticed right away. “Wasn’t easy.”

“No, I don’t imagine so.” She follows him into the room and sits, folding her legs beneath her. Red does the same, carefully. His body isn’t weaker when he’s like this, but it’s harder to control appropriately, as if the signals from his brain are being occasionally scrambled on the way. “I commend your progress, but is it wise to tire yourself just before our lesson?”

Red shakes his head. “I didn’t just start. I’ve been like this all morning.” He breathes in deep as he settles into place.

Her eyes widen. “Explain. And calm yourself before you do, please.”

Red grins and does so, breath coming out in a whoosh as his mind and body relax. “It was simple enough, once I put the hours in,” he says.

When her mind was entangling itself with his to project onto him, it weakened his partition automatically as it drew his psychic ability away. After their second session, when she taught him about how the state of one’s mind could be influenced by the perception or memory it experienced, he saw the connection with his experience of his spinarak’s attack, and how just thinking about the effects made a weaker form of them trigger.

“You called it an ‘impression,’ but I felt like that wasn’t giving it enough credit,” Red says. “When we think of something sour, like biting into a lemon, our jaw doesn’t ache because of a memory. We’re actually re-experiencing it. There’s a physical response from a physical change in our brains. So I figured that if thinking about the Night Shade was enough to mimic the feeling, it must also have mimicked the mental state of whatever it did to my psyche. Why not apply the same thing here and imagine entangling our minds, even while you were gone?”

“That shouldn’t work,” Ayane says, brow furrowed. “It’s not enough to simply imagine yourself doing something with your powers, or a psychic’s life would be far easier.”

“Well, a couple things. First, maybe this was easier than other things would be because, like you said, I’m not actually using my powers, I’m just relaxing them. Second, I didn’t just ‘imagine’ it. It took me the better part of the past two days, hours of concentrating, to really immerse myself in each individual feeling I had, all of which I could vividly remember.”

“I… see. I suppose it is not so unusual compared to the other feats I have seen those with the Gift accomplish. My surprise is mostly to see it from a novice who is new to even basic meditation.”

Red shrugs a shoulder. “I actually found it a lot easier than meditating, honestly, because I had a clear goal. I know theoretically what the end state of meditation is supposed to be like, but I can’t just force myself to think that way because I haven’t before. This, on the other hand, I have, so it wasn’t hard to alter my perspective.”

“Is altering your mental state something you do often, in other contexts?”

“I guess you could say that. Modelling different thoughts and feelings is an important part of being a rationalist.” Red smiles. “And I’ve always had a good imagination.”

Ayane’s lips quirk. “Perhaps it is a ‘gift’ of your own, then, that you bring separately into the wider expression of your Gift. In any case, it is good to see such progress. Have you noticed any improved stamina for maintaining the relaxation?”

Red’s smile fades. “Not really? It’s hard to tell. I got used to maintaining it for longer, but the effects feel about the same, and I have to take breaks when it gets bad.”

“Ah. Is it possible then that rather than manually weakening your partition, you simply trained yourself to mimic the physical symptoms?”

Ice floods Red’s stomach. “I… didn’t think of that. I don’t think that’s the case though, it really does feel like…” He realizes how silly he sounds. “Can you check?”

“Certainly. Enter the state again, and I’ll begin.”

Red nods and closes his eyes. He focuses on his breathing, then begins to shift his consciousness into what he’s been calling “balancing on a tightwire.” He goes down the mental checklist that he wrote out in his notebook after his first lesson and memorized after his second when Ayane told him about impressions and he decided to try inducing it himself.

First the sensation of the second mind approaching his, taking up residence in his own, separate and alien. A thrill of nerves goes up his spine as he imagines it there, in his head, watching, waiting…

Then the feeling of it echoing him, muted reflections of what he thinks and feels over threads like fiberglass wires…

Red’s breath stutters in his throat as he finally feels his mind tilt and his skin horripilate. He focuses on his breathing and waits until he feels stable, then says, “Ready.”

The pseudo-mind he imagined is almost immediately replaced by a real one, twisting in his thoughts as he lets out a shuddering breath. So, I can still tell when a real psychic mind is connecting to mine. Good.

“Is there any additional strain?”

“No, it’s fine,” Red says between breaths as he opens his eyes. “Same as usual.”

“Excellent. And your thoughts do not seem as distracted or unstable.”

“Really?”

“Haven’t you noticed that your speech isn’t as impaired?”

He blinks. “I haven’t really been talking while trying it before. Huh. I guess it really has been helping. This is great!”

She nods. “It’s quite encouraging. Now, let us continue our lesson… oh? You have something else in mind?”

Red feels chagrin at the reminder that she can sense the surface of his thoughts. “If you don’t mind… now that I know I’ve successfully mimicked a brain state, would you mind if I try some others to see if I can do the same for them?” He takes out his notepad and pencil. “I want to try and collect as many as I can to practice them between lessons.”

“Hmm. These ‘brain states’ are the result of your mind exercising its powers in a different way. I would have to draw them into another configuration for you to experience a new one.”

“Is that bad?”

“There are very few positive ones I could invoke in you, and even fewer I could teach without you first mastering your own powers. Of those remaining, all are much more taxing, and would likely result in your partition breaking.”

“Well, why not just teach me enough reception to project your own mind in another state, so I can copy that?”

Psychic Ayane’s fingers tap her knees. “I believe there are one or two, yes. But improving your active reception enough to receive thoughts in more fidelity is an advanced technique, and might also require your powers to be taxed too heavily. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather continue learning to strengthen your passive reception awareness first? It’s a vital foundation for any psychic’s ability to interact with their pokemon, or other psychics.”

Red hesitates, then nods. “Okay, I guess you’d know best. But maybe at the end of the lesson we could try one?”

Ayane smiles. “As you wish. I believe I can think of one that might be interesting to you.”


August 6th

“Go, Maturin!”

Blue’s squirtle materializes next to the pool and burbles in excitement upon seeing it.

“Looks like we had the same thought,” Mary asks with a smile from the other side of the training room. She takes out a dive ball and summons her totodile from it.

Blue reclips his new dive ball to his belt. “Yeah. I was planning to upgrade her ball to one eventually anyway, and I’m coming into some money soon, so this was a good excuse to do it.”

“Did you just pick it up? I thought you’d be here earlier.”

“Sorry about that, I was running an errand for a friend.” Red had him and Leaf doing drills in preparation for the abra catching. Three trainers running around Cerulean Park with earplugs in as they made hand signs at each other and their pokemon had certainly drawn a lot of stares. “Ready?”

“Yep. Third hit again?”

“What do you say we make it first blood?”

She glances at him in surprise as she puts her bag on the ground and kicks off her sandals. “Trying a new attack?”

“No, just want to get her used to more dangerous fights.”

“Sure, I guess.”

Blue smiles. The two of them have jumped leagues ahead of the other newbies at the Gym, even with some mistakes early on. He empties his pockets and shucks off his shirt and sandals too, then puts his goggles on and bites down on the mouthpiece of his oxygen tube. After giving her a thumbs up, he jumps into the water feet first.

The water is cool without being cold. Blue breathes out through his nose, bubbles rising to the surface as he sinks lower. He looks up and sees Mary adjust her own oxygen mask, then dive in across from him and kick down to the floor. Once she’s there, she flashes him a thumbs up.

Blue returns it, then lifts the clicker from his necklace where it sits next to his flute. Their pokemon swim about on the surface until he brings Maturin down with a few quick clicks. Mary uses a copper tube that rattles when she shakes it. Over the past few days he’s seen her become more and more adept with it, spinning it through her fingers like a baton to send particular commands.

Once both pokemon are in battle positions in front of them, Blue presses a button on his mask and starts the timer for Maturin, then presses another one for his own. He flashes Mary another thumbs up, and when she returns it, the battle begins.

Three quick clicks, and Maturin thrusts forward headfirst. Mary swipes her tube to the left, and her totodile dodges to the left as Maturin sails by. A quick forward shake of the tube and he goes after her, mouth wide.

Blue nudges the button on his clicker to change its pitch and presses it down, prompting Maturin to duck into her shell. Blue swims forward and up to get a better look as the totodile tries to snap at Maturin’s underbelly. With a click from Blue, Maturin swipes a leg out to nudge her out of harm’s way.

Blue’s pulse is steady as he breathes in through his mask and out through his nose, watching, waiting. They’re approaching a wall of the pool, and Blue knows he can’t let it limit Maturin’s mobility. He waits through another two bites, looking for the perfect opportunity…

There. Maturin’s head has rotated toward the totodile just as he goes in for another bite, and Blue clicks to direct her into a tackle.

Mary is ready with a shake, and her totodile shoots straight up and over Maturin. His bite is a bit too slow to catch the squirtle’s tail, but he immediately follows her, and Blue is forced into another Withdraw. At least he got away from the wall.

The timers continue to count up past the two minute mark, an eventual cap on the duration of the match: if either pokemon has to go up for air, they lose… but ending it before it gets to that point is the safest way to ensure neither trainer feels pressured into keeping their pokemon down for too long.

Blue continues to avoid and defend, playing to his pokemon’s strength to counteract the more offensive totodile’s. If he felt sure of his pokemon’s lung capacity, he’d have the advantage… but he’s not, and in their last match he was forced to send Maturin up before Mary sent her totodile.

The next snap of the totodile’s jaws almost catches Maturin’s foot as it kicks out to spin her away from him, and Blue realizes he’s still playing as if it’s a contact match. He needs to risk a hit to get first blood, but he can’t do it on Mary’s terms.

Blue’s next clicks send Maturin into a dive, barely dodging the totodile as it snaps forward. Blue changes the pitch and clicks twice, and Maturin’s mouth opens wide to expel a cloud of bubbles that slowly rise.

Mary swipes her rod to the right. Her pokemon tries to abort his dive by swerving to the right as well, but two of the bubbles pop as they catch him on the foot and thigh. The force of them sends him tumbling off course in a spin, and Blue quickly clicks to send Maturin after him.

The totodile twists around and snaps at Maturin, catching her on the shell over her foreleg, while Maturin bites his arm. The two get into a quick and vicious tussle that sends air bubbles up as Blue and Mary immediately signal their pokemon to disengage. Instead the two continue to struggle against each other, and a trickle of red begins to diffuse into the water around them. After they ignore a few more orders, Blue tells Maturin to Withdraw, and the squirtle immediately pops her head and limbs back into her shell. Mary’s totodile disengages after that, and swims back to her, trailing blood from its arm. Mary quickly returns her pokemon to its ball, then heads for the surface.

Blue examines Maturin to make sure she’s not hurt, then lets his breath out all the way and starts swimming up, signalling Maturin to follow.

After he pulls himself up the ladder, he takes out his mask and lifts his goggles, wiping his wet hair away from his eyes. “Good girl,” he tells Maturin, and snaps for her to come out of the water. She leaps out onto all fours, and he feeds her a berry before withdrawing her. “He okay?” Blue asks as he turns to Mary, and his eyes widen as he sees her glaring at him.

“What’s wrong with your pokemon?” she asks, crouched beside her totodile as she sprays potion on his arm.

“Hey, woah, what are you talking about? It wasn’t her fault!”

“His arm’s broken! We said first blood!”

“Yeah, and I told her to come back, same as you did with him. Their blood was up, it happens.”

“You had to get her to Withdraw before she would listen. He had no trouble pulling away once his arm wasn’t trapped in her beak.”

Blue feels confusion turn to anger, almost baring his teeth as the heat sears through his chest, hands balling into fists. He almost hears an arcanine’s growl, and for a moment thinks he might have actually made the sound.

Calm down. Don’t make an enemy here. Mary’s been a good training partner up until now, and he doesn’t want to spoil that. More, he doesn’t want her to leave thinking he can’t control his pokemon, maybe even telling others not to train with him. He takes a deep breath, and lets it out in a searing wave. “Look… I’m sorry. It’s the first time something like that happened. Let’s get him to a pokemon center, okay?”

Mary looks away from him and finishes examining his wound. The mark of Maturin’s beak on his arm is still visible, but it’s mostly healed, and continues to fade as they watch. The totodile still holds its arm out awkwardly however, and Mary kisses its snout before standing and returning it to its ball. “You don’t have to come,” she says, voice curt as she gathers her things.

You agreed to first blood, you shouldn’t have if you weren’t ready for your pokemon to get hurt. “I want to.” Waste of time… He takes another deep breath. “Please.”

Mary glances at him as she slings her bag over her shoulder. “Fine,” she mutters, and heads for the door, sandals squeaking on the wet tiles.

Blue quickly grabs his things, breathing out again as the prowling arcanine in his chest lies back down. His lip twitches as he follows her out. At least we won.


August 7th, Morning

Leaf sits across from Zoey at another restaurant, inside at a booth this time, reading the article the reporter wrote about Leaf’s account of the Renegade incident. Leaf’s pulse speeds up as she reaches the narrow miss of the graveler’s explosion, and feels again her dread and helplessness as she waited for help to arrive while the Renegade was asleep, constantly looking over her shoulder. The recount of the witnessing event brings back the sickness in her gut and claustrophobia, and she has to force her shoulders to relax as she finally passes the tablet back to the reporter.

“It’s good,” Leaf says.

“I know that.” Zoey spreads butter on her toast. “Is it acceptable?”

“Yes, I meant that in both senses,” Leaf says.

“Fantastic. Then on to my part of the bargain.” Despite her general brusqueness, Zoey turned out to be a warm interviewer, guiding Leaf through the events at her own pace, asking for detail on points that she felt were too detached even when she ended up cutting down to the basics where Leaf meandered a bit. Leaf learned a lot from being on the other side of the notepad this time… though she did have her own out too, which the reporter had smiled at but not commented on.

Leaf eats from her fruit bowl as she considers the questions on her mind. Their agreement had included more oversight from Leaf over the final article than Zoey had wanted, and in return she was allowed only two leads, and not even exclusive rights to them.

It wasn’t greed, Zoey insisted, that kept reporters and journalists from sharing details of stories they’re working on. Or not entirely greed, anyway. There’s obvious rivalry and desire to get rewarded and recognized for one’s hard work, but there’s also professional integrity: when she works on stories that matter, Zoey said, she wants them done right, not botched by someone looking to make a quick headline with some sparks rather than taking the time to ensure it starts a blaze.

So if Leaf wants to get solid leads with lots of info on them, she’ll have to prove that she’s not going to just grab a scrap of info and run with it. And doing her own research in preparation for what sorts of questions she’d ask is part of that.

“So there are four stories that I think are important and potentially worth digging into,” Leaf says, taking a folder out of her bag and placing it on the table. “I have their notes in here. If we talk about a story and you mention something that’s already in here, I’m not going to count it toward my two.”

Zoey bites into her toast, hard to read behind her sunglasses. She took them off during the interview, but apparently prefers them even while indoors. “Sounds like you’re ready to fish for info at no cost.”

Leaf smiles. “I just want to make sure I get something I can use. You’re welcome to check them over to make sure I’m not over reaching.” Zoey offers her palm, and Leaf tips the folder back up. “After you’ve told me something about one of the stories.”

Zoey smiles back. “Deal. What’s the first story you want to hear about?”

Leaf considers her options a moment. “What’s the deal with the Silph and Cerulean General merger that so many people are concerned about? From what I read it seems like there’s some corruption going on behind the scenes, but I didn’t dive into the legalese. I don’t want to commit more time to it unless I know something important is going on.”

“That one’s a bit dense, yes. Silph’s market share is already growing dangerously close to monopoly status, and even if it brings lower prices in the short term, people are concerned at how easy they seem to find it to get laws changed to their benefit.”

“There’s no actual proof of backroom dealing, though?”

“Some hints, but not enough for anyone to take action.”

“What about the Harton scandal? The timing was convenient.” Harton was a member of the regulatory board who had emails leaked showing him attending illegal pokemon fighting rings.

Zoey lifts her cup of juice and takes a sip. “You put that together?”

“It wasn’t hard. I just made a list of all the people in positions of power and checked if anything happened to them or their families. I was thinking of blackmail being followed up on, but that one seemed more direct.”

Zoey nods. “Yes, it’s suspicious. Harton won’t talk though. If he was brought down for getting in their way, there must be something more they have on him that he’s worried about.”

Leaf sighs. “That’s about what I had on that. You can check if you want.”

Zoey flicks her hand to the side. “I gave you nothing even if you didn’t have anything. Not a bad story to pursue, but I’ve got nothing on it, or I’d be doing it myself.”

“Well, I’ll probably still do some digging just in case. Let’s see, what else…” She taps her foot against her chair leg as she spears some honeydew on her fork and bites into it.

“I was expecting something a bit more high profile, especially if you’ve been paying attention to my stories and recent activity. Like the Leader’s disappearance on the day of your adventure.”

“What, the rumors of a dangerous pokemon sighting?” Leaf shakes her head. “I’m not really interested in that.”

“Misty and her Second go off the radar for hours just as a Tier 1 event takes place on Mt. Moon, and you’re not interested?”

“Not really, no. I don’t know what they were doing, but I’m sure Misty had good reasons.”

“And good reasons not to tell the public?”

Leaf frowns. “She’s your Leader. If you don’t trust her to have the best interest of your city at heart… I mean, who can you trust?”

Zoey laughs, an oddly merry sound considering her normal tone. “Ah, youth. Here I had you pegged as a proper cynic. You’ve still got a ways to go it seems.”

“Hey, I’m not saying they’re perfect or anything. But really, what are you expecting? Do you actually have any evidence that she was doing something shady? Because if so, then yeah, I’m interested.”

Zoey shakes her head, voice lowering slightly. “Nothing on that, yet. But our dear Leader isn’t as guileless as you might think.”

Leaf leans forward, voice lowering slightly to match hers. “Okay, that sounds like a story. What do you mean?”

Zoey spreads butter and jam on another piece of toast, taking her time. Leaf fights down her impatience, seeing the thoughtful expression on the woman’s face. Rushing her wouldn’t help anything.

“I wasn’t going to bring this up,” Zoey says at last. “Not unless you asked about it specifically, though I admit I would be very shocked if you did. This is not only private knowledge, it’s from a proper private source whose career is at risk if it gets out.”

Leaf takes out her notepad and flips it open. “You have my interest.”

“I don’t know if I should bring you in on it. It’s rather close to you.”

Leaf’s pulse picks up. What could she possibly mean by that? “No need to draw it out, okay? I admit to intrigue. You’ve built suspense up properly. Now what is it?”

Zoey is quiet again, chewing on her toast. Leaf feels her impatience growing again, and just as she feels like she won’t be able to keep quiet a moment longer, Zoey says, “The Renegade’s execution. Do you have the notice?”

“No, my friend Red received it. He was one of the witnesses.”

“Check the time on the alert. Then find out what time the meeting that Misty attended on the mountain ended. You’ll find your answer there.”

Leaf’s heart is pounding. Is the reporter saying that the notice was sent early? Late? “Why not just tell me?”

“Like I said, I got this information from a source who risked a lot to tell me. I can’t jeopardize that.”

“But you’re saying something was off about the execution. Okay. That’s ominous and all, but I don’t know if it’s a story or not.”

“It’s a story,” Zoey says, tipping her head forward so she can peer over her sunglasses. “Trust me. A hell of a story. Now, what else do you want to ask about?”


August 7th, Evening

Red’s sits in lotus position with his eyes closed on the floor of the workroom he used with Psychic Ayane, and goes down the mental list.

First identify the pain.

He’d nicked his arm with a small cut, just small enough to sting without bleeding.

Then identify the “path” the pain is travelling.

Ayane had described this as a glowing yellow light in her mind’s conception of her body, but to Red it’s more of a pulsing, jangling vibration of a long, imaginary nerve connecting the cut to his brain, even though he knows that isn’t how nerves work.

Picture the path. Ease the discordance. Feel it fade.

Red doesn’t actually follow that step, though. Instead of feeling his pain fade, he remembers the sensation of feeling Ayane’s pain fade, and what her mind was doing as she did. The way her mind seemed to split itself, the way her stream of thought, far too faint and swift for Red to pick up on, bent around a sudden dark spot in the sparking, twisting thundercloud of her mind.

Red smiles at the memory, sweat dripping down his face. Being able to sense another mind is so cool. Even if it makes him nauseated. And feel a lurking emptiness in his mind that threatens to boil over at any moment. And even if he often feels like he’s just imagining everything he perceives.

Why does that matter?” Ayane said. “You think in metaphors all the time. Is it so strange your powers would manifest in them?”

No,” Red admitted. “But I was kind of hoping for a peek into some objective truth with them.”

Ayane merely smiled and said, “Then perhaps it is seeing the two as incompatible which is at the heart of your difficulty.

Which was a fancy way of saying not much at all, other than maybe there is no objective reality, and screw that mystic nonsense, thanks very much.

But either way, when he felt her mind shift into its new arrangement, the pain from the pinching hairclip on her finger did indeed fade away to nothing.

Red mimics that mental state now, mind teetering into what he dubbed “many mirrors and a dim room.” That last part was the important one, and he feels it when he separates the part of himself feeling the pain from the rest of his mind, and dims it, until suddenly the stinging pain is gone.

Ha! Red grins wide even as his mind slips past some tipping point and he snaps back to himself, the stinging back in his arm and an empty, cold void rising up in his mind.

He leans forward and throws up into the bucket he placed in front of him.

Head and heart pounding, he slumps onto his side, still smiling as he breathes deep and waits for his pulse to slow. He did it. He used his powers to change something in the world, even if it was just his perception of his own body. “Mind over matter” is more than just a motivational phrase to him, now.

His elated giggles are interrupted by a knock on the door, followed by Blue and Leaf walking in. They both immediately rush over, making noises of alarm that makes his head hurt.

“Shh, shh, it’s okay, ow,” Red says as Blue lifts him into a sitting position. “Oh, that does help, actually, thanks.”

“Red!” Leaf cries out. “You said you’d be careful!”

“I was! I put the bucket here, didn’t I?”

Blue snorts and shakes his head. “Idiot. Is that why you had us meet you here, in case you made yourself too sick to move?” He puts the nearby lid on the bucket and nudges it to the corner of the room with his foot.

“No, I just wanted to use whatever time I had before we met.” Red reaches to the side and unscrews the top of a water bottle, drinking once to wash the taste out of his mouth and a second time for his thirst. He feels clammy with sweat, but more mentally stable, now.

“Do you want to postpone this?” Leaf asks as she sits in one of the chairs.

“No.” Red struggles to his feet and sinks into another chair, while Blue finds his own between them and turns it backward, tilting it against the edge of the table. “We’re ready.” Red takes the sheets of paper out of his bag on the table and spreads them out in front of his friends. “We have our location, our pokemon picked out, and our backup on board. Tomorrow afternoon, Operation: Abra is a go.”

Chapter 36: The Shape of Things to Come

Red watches the clefairy walk away, mind stuttering and restarting between thoughts.

I notice…

No seriously what-

IT’S A TALKING CLEFAIRY

…that I…

-is that a talking pokemon I didn’t see its mouth move-

CATCH IT NO WAIT BRAIN DAMAGE(?!)

-but the sound definitely came from it or maybe the house behind it-

…am confused.

“The fuck,” Leaf finishes in a deadpan voice.

And then the clefairy reaches the front door and vanishes.

Red’s brain finally lurches back into gear as it processes this final bit of information, and everything snaps into place.

Red glances at Leaf, whose expression of sudden understanding mixed with both relief and disappointment makes him suddenly begin to giggle.

Leaf looks at him, then begins to giggle too, until they’re both laughing full out. Red falls to one knee and Leaf stumbles over to the wall to lean against it, face turning red as she struggles to stay standing.

“Your… face…” she eventually says between bouts of smothered giggles. “It was like… your brain was melting!” And then she’s laughing again.

Red picks his hat up and wipes a tear away, still giggling. “You weren’t much better,” Red gasps, trying to catch his breath. “I think that’s the first time… I heard you curse.”

Leaf shakes her head, still giggling. “Nope. You didn’t hear anything.”

“Fair enough. And I definitely didn’t almost think I saw a talking pokemon. In fact, as far as anyone else will ever know, we both comported ourselves like the intelligent, level headed trainers we are.”

“Agreed.” She takes a deep breath, then pushes away from the wall, testing her balance for a moment before being satisfied. She turns to the front door, still smiling. “Why does he even have a clefairy hologram outside his house in the first place?”

They both jump as an arbok suddenly appears in front of them, swaying from side to side with its hood flared. “Would you have preferred something like this?” the voice says. “The point was to bring you this way without making you feel threatened.”

“W-why wouldn’t you just use the speakers instead?” Red asks, pulse once again dashing frantically at the sudden appearance of the arbok. Red can definitely tell the voice is coming from the direction of the door now.

“The answer will be obvious once you step inside. Which you still haven’t done. Now hurry up.” The arbok vanishes.

Red and Leaf exchange a look.

“Think whatever he’s using to watch us has a recording of us losing it?” Leaf asks, face straight.

“Almost certainly,” Red sighs. “Ah well. So much for secrecy.”

Leaf nods sagely. “Fuck it.”

And the two begin giggling again as they step toward the door, which automatically opens to reveal a straight, bare hallway.

The temperature inside is cool, the lights dim but steady. At the end of the hallway the clefairy waits for them, and in the dimmer light it’s easier to see the latticework of thin colored beams coming down from dots on the ceiling to make the image. As they approach, it takes the left hand path, leading them through a living room. There’s an attached kitchen, and the clefairy stops outside it.

Red and Leaf stare at it a moment, and then Bill’s voice makes them both jump. It’s loud, coming from all around them. “Grab me a soda, would you? Feel free to help yourselves too.” He sounds distracted, and Red hears the hum of an open mic for a moment before it cuts.

The two exchange glances, then Leaf slowly steps forward and opens the fridge. “Um. Preference?”

“Uh, anything’s fine.” Red takes the can and looks around. He spies a bathroom through an open door, and a bedroom in yet another. All of the rooms are barely furnished with bare walls. “Should we wait here?”

“This way.”

The clefairy walks toward a stairway in the corner, and disappears. Red wonders if it would reappear at the bottom, but when he and Leaf descend, they find themselves facing a door made of some strange, opaque glass. A red beam quickly scans them from head to toe, causing both to recoil and wince, and then the door begins to make pneumatic noises as it unlocks, shifts in place a bit, then slides open.

The first thing that Red notices is the music, a light and quick instrumental song, mostly composed of the violin and piano. It’s loud enough that Red is surprised he didn’t hear even a bit of it before the door opened.

Red and Leaf stare at the laboratory beyond the doorway. Rows and rows of work tables, stocked with every kind of biochemical equipment known to man… and quite a few that look completely alien to Red.

The rows of different microscopes are easy to identify, but next to them is something that looks like a cross between a fridge, an incubator and a thermocycler. Meanwhile, the actual thermocyclers are on their own table next to some vortexers.

The most extraordinary sight, however, is the sheer movement of the lab.

Centrifuges are spinning, racks of stoppered vials shift up or down, contents plucked by robotic arms and placed in temperature controlled containers or other equipment.

The music cuts off, and Bill’s voice fills the room. “Well? Come in.”

The two step over the threshold together, and the door closes behind them in a way that Red can’t help but find ominous. All the strangeness is starting to worry him. How much does anyone really know about Bill, anyway? The guy is notorious for being secretive, yet he invites two strangers into his lab without apparent reason? Professor Oak wouldn’t send us here if Bill was some crazy hermit…

Unless Bill went crazy recently.

“Uh. Hi, Mr. Sonezaki,” he says. “Are you here?”

The clefairy appears ahead of them, floating over a round indentation in the floor and ceiling. It doesn’t move, but merely points an arm. Apparently the hologram network isn’t as extensive here. Red studies the indent in the floor as they pass it, but can’t see anything that explains its purpose.

They pass rows of freezers and other chemical storage containers, all labeled with a dizzying amount of materials. Electrophoresis boxes, fume hoods… is that a hazchem suit draped over the back of that chair?

“Just one person works here?” Leaf asks as they pass some NMR and chromatography work tables, with enough spectrophotometers to take up their own wide table.

Red stops moving for a moment to study a series of 3D printers set against one wall. “I don’t think even Pallet Labs has this much equipment.” He keeps walking, then has to resist the urge to stop again and study what look like automated DNA extractors. “I knew he was rich, but the amount of money he could make renting this place out…”

“I think I have a new definition of the word,” Leaf murmurs as they pass from one section of the lab to another. Another holopad appears every so often, with floating clefairy pointing them first one way, then another as the lab continues to expand in different directions. One finally points them to a man, sitting in front of over a dozen glass boxes.

“Give me a minute,” the man says, back to them. “You can pour the soda in here.” He tilts his head to the side to indicate an empty cup with a straw in it.

Leaf and Red approach to look over Bill’s shoulders at his work station. Screens show each box containing a large petri dish with small, thin teal vines, all roughly the same size. As they watch, a drop of purple liquid falls onto each from small droppers suspended over them. Another drop falls, then another, then another, every few seconds.

“What are you doing?” Leaf whispers, both cans of soda still in her hand.

“Testing…” Drip. “The regenerative power…” Drip. “Of tangela cells.” Drip.

Red leans closer. “What’s in the-oh.” Red watches on one of the screens as a drop of the liquid hits a vine and makes a part of it wither, the vibrant teal turning brown… for a moment at least, until it suddenly fills out and regains its color again. Red watches the liquid etch a scar down either side of the vine to collect in the edges of what he originally took to be a petri dish: instead it’s a plastic lid over some kind of drain.

“Roserade acid,” he says, typing with one hand and reaching for his cup with the other. “They look like they’re fully recovering, but they weren’t always this small. Biomass decrease has been mostly linear. We should be near the end soon… Hey, the soda?”

“Oh!” Leaf says. “Right.” She opens a can and pours it into the cup, slowing as the foam builds up.

“Thanks.” He immediately turns his head a bit and begins drinking from the straw.

Red watches him, feeling a bit surreal. Whenever he imagined someday meeting Bill Sonezaki, it was never like this. Up close, the legendary inventor appears older than in videos and pictures. Though still in his mid thirties, there are already silver streaks in his hair, and deep lines around his eyes. He has a few days worth of scruff on his cheeks, and there’s an odd device around one of his ears, attached to a small screen in front of his right eye. It looks familiar to Red, and after a moment he realized it reminds him of an anime where people had devices that would “scan” a pokemon’s “power level.” He can see data on the lens, though he can’t read it, and watches Bill’s eyes as they alternate between watching the camera feeds on the monitors and going out of focus to read the smaller, closer screen.

“So, uh. You said you needed help with something? Is it this?” Red leans down to get a closer look at the thin vine.

Bill sucks the last of the soda from the cup, and straightens. “Ahhh. Nope, just wanted a soda. Thanks.” He belches. “‘Scuse me.”

Red stares. “A soda.”

“Yeah, I didn’t want to leave in the middle of the trial.”

“But… Professor Oak called me over an hour ago,” Red says, speaking slowly. “You’ve been sitting here that long?”

“Oh, hell no.”

“Ah, then what-”

“I’ve been here about… how long is it now, Eva?”

A woman’s voice speaks all around them, causing Leaf and Red to jump. “Three hours, seventeen minutes and thirty seven seconds.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right. This latest sample blew past my expectations, or I would have brought more to drink.” Drip… drip… drip… “Looks like they need a refill.” He gets up and goes to each container, refilling their drippers with wide vials of bright purple acid.

I thought Bill lived here alone? Red’s about to ask about it, when Leaf speaks up. “Um. Mr. Sonez-”

“Just Bill is fine.”

“Bill, okay. So, um, why did you invite us here?”

“Hmm.” Bill continues to drip the acid with one hand as the other changes the magnification. “You know, I can’t remember. There was something I wanted you to do for me, but I was a bit preoccupied with this when Oak called. And thirsty.”

“Was it about the abra?” Red asks. “I want to use your land, to catch some. I have an idea to-”

“No,” Bill says, frowning. “I don’t think that was it.”

Red’s stomach turns to lead, and he exchanges a look with Leaf, who gives a helpless shrug. “Are you sure? The Professor said-”

“Right, right,” Bill says, gaze still on the screens.

Red blinks, waiting for more. He wonders for a moment if Bill is carrying on two conversations at once, through his earpiece. “So… was that a yes? On the abra thing?”

“Acoustic displacement, right? Herding them into a hazard zone? Yeah, sounds fun.”

Relief floods through Red, and he sees Leaf hesitate before saying, “Sooo… the thing you asked us here to do for you… Could it have just been to bring you a soda, then?”

“No, no.” Bill slowly refills the acid in one of the drippers, one hand leaving the beaker for a moment to scratch his hair. “Maybe.”

They stare at him.

“A bit. I’m sure there was something else too though.” Bill checks the amount in the dripper feed, then moves on to the next box. “Eva, did I set a memo?”

“No, sir,” the voice says.

“Damn. Memo, Eva: ‘Make more memos. Especially after phone calls.’ Maybe if I listen to a recording of the call I’ll remember.” He continues his work silently for a moment, then shakes his head. “Nope, didn’t help.”

“I can start naming things?” Red asks. “Free association?”

“Go for it.”

“Something to do with pokemon. Something to do with catching them. Catching abra. Psychics Types. Something to do with us. Leaf Juniper? Red Verres? Um.”

“People, places, things,” Leaf says. “Pallet Town, Pewter City? Maybe about what happened with us at Mt. Moon?”

Bill stops shaking his head, brow raised as he lifts the acid container and looks at them. “Wait, what happened at Mt. Moon?”

“You didn’t hear?”

“I don’t really follow the news. And by really I mean pretty much ever.”

“Um. Well it probably wasn’t that then.”

“Was it an activity you wanted to do?” Red asks. “Talk to us about something? Our journey? The new pokedexes?”

“You know, I’m starting to think it might have been the soda,” Bill says, voice thoughtful as he finishes with the last container.

“You didn’t invite us all the way out here just to give you a soda,” Red says. He’s not sure if he’s trying to convince Bill or himself. “Inviting strangers into your house, just for that? Aren’t you a really private person?”

“Ha. The media just say that because I won’t let them step foot on my property. Or grant interviews.” He returns to his desk and types something out that brings up a bunch of graphs, displays of the weight of each sample over time. “Also might be because I don’t go anywhere. People tend to irritate me. Well, I’ll figure it out. You guys are welcome to hang around while I finish this.”

“Is this… something you do often?” Leaf asks as she circles a container, then kneels a bit to look under the dish. Red wonders how she feels about watching a piece of a pokemon get experimented on. Maybe it’s not so bad since it’s just a vine, and tangela lose bits of them all the time… though Red has to wonder how big this one was when it started.

“Yes, but normally it doesn’t take so long. This new strain is definitely going to shift priorities around. Hopefully I can get this all fully automated by the end of the week, so I can start the next trials soon.”

Red blinks. “New strain? You made this vine?”

“Tweaked it. Tangela cells are pretty efficient at regeneration, and occasionally you’ll find one in the wild that heals at ridiculous rates. I just had to find out which genetic markers were different between them and the others, and see if I could improve it further.”

“That’s amazing,” Leaf says as she watches a vine regenerate over and over again. “Are you trying to design a better potion formula?”

“Nah, I’ll leave that to Devon. I’d rather just give people these abilities instead.”

The lab is silent but for the movement of machinery, and Bill’s fingers moving over his keyboard. Red and Leaf both stare at him, then look at each other. “Is that… possible?” Red asks at last.

“Possible? Sure, why not. Probable? Dunno. But regenerating cells is something our body knows how to do already, and if we can make them better at it, the payoff would be huge. Rapid healing, disease resistance, limb regeneration, and if we’re lucky, even stop the effects of aging. Maybe eliminate them altogether.”

Red tries to wrap his mind around humans having such powers. It would be… amazing. Just one of those would make people so much safer, reduce so much suffering. But all of them, together? It’s like something out of science fiction. He can’t help but be skeptical, but if Bill Sonezaki thinks it can be done, is committing his time and energy to doing it…

“And pokemon?” Leaf asks. “Are you trying to give them these abilities too?”

“Naturally.” Bill frowns at a screen, then brings up a code editing window and examines it. “I’ve spent half my life writing TMs to give pokemon new abilities. Mostly for combat, because that’s what the market wanted. But this has combat value too. The next steps are to try and spread this regeneration to other plant pokemon, then non-plant pokemon, particularly mamm-Ooh, yes, that’s it.” He sits forward, eyes on a new window that popped up on his screen.

Leaf raises her head from the box she was examining. “What-”

“Shut up, I need to concentrate.”

Leaf’s mouth drops open, eyes wide. “I… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

“Shhh, shshshsh…”

Red feels anger boiling up in his chest. Don’t upset him, we’re guests, he might kick us out, the abra- “Hey! There’s no reason to be so rude after she came all this way to bring you a soda!”

Leaf rapidly shakes her head at him while Bill frowns, gaze still on the screen. “Okay, sure. Please shut up, would you? Go explore the lab for a bit. Don’t touch anything.”

Leaf is already moving toward Red before Bill finishes speaking. She takes his arm and drags him away before he can say anything else. “It’s okay, really,” she whispers. “I don’t think he means to be rude.”

“That’s not really an excuse,” Red whispers back as they leave Bill behind. “Who goes from a normal conversation to telling people to shut up without warning?”

“Someone without people skills. Maybe something important came up. Come on, let’s look around.”

He and Leaf make their way back through the lab, and before long the music comes back on through the speakers all around them. They drink their soda and find some more automated equipment to study, watching on monitors as data is gathered and recorded throughout dozens of trials. The sheer scope of the research Bill is getting done here makes Red envious.

“And this is just one building,” Leaf says. “We haven’t crossed over into one of the others underground, have we?”

“No, I think they’re all something different.” Red looks at some transfer slots, silver container balls resting in their docks. He can imagine Bill ordering the equipment he needs into them for easy distribution around the lab. “All this stuff has been just for biochem.”

It takes almost half an hour for Bill to join them, and they still don’t manage to see everything in the lab. He walks toward them with a purposeful stride, then passes right by. “Walk with me. There were other things I planned to do today before that took up my whole morning. Luckily none of it is time sensitive.”

They follow him through the lab as he checks on equipment and the results of certain trials, occasionally muttering to himself. Red realizes he’s probably talking to the woman, Eva, whoever that is. During one of the silent stretches, Red summons the courage to ask, “So, is it okay if we speak now?”

“Speak about what?”

“I mean ask questions. Talk.”

“Sure, why wouldn’t it be?”

Red sighs. When he imagined meeting Bill, he always expected someone a bit more like Professor Oak than Blue. “So, that clefairy hologram. Why, exactly?”

“The external holograms are useful in general for scaring off pokemon that get too close to the buildings. The clefairy is just the least threatening one I have, so I use it to interact with people without having to go up.”

“Right, but why not use yourself instead of a clefairy?” Leaf asks.

“They’re modeled after the pokemon that have been rendered for sims. I never bothered to digitize myself.”

They reach a door like the one they entered. Red’s pretty sure it’s not where they came in, and sure enough when it opens they face a completely different type of lab from the first one.

Instead of chemistry equipment, this area seems to be full of computers and robotics. There’s a lot less movement of ongoing experiments, but a lot more visibly identifiable projects. One desk is cluttered with parts for what looks like a new pokedex prototype, while another has a dissected pokenav. Each table has mechanical arms situated around them, most of them motionless.

As they enter, the music around them changes, this time to some electronic song with an industrial sound and heavy beats. After a moment Bill mutters something, and its volume drops to a background whisper.

“Is this where you work on storage?” Red asks. Bill’s development of the interregional storage system is what he’s most famous for, but Red doesn’t see anything that looks like it would be related.

“No, storage and transmutation tech is in the physics lab. This is where I study machine learning, particularly improving narrow AI and solving alignment problems.”

“Narrow AI?”

“Weak. Focused. Able to hold a conversation or perform tasks about just a few specific things, no matter how deep that thing is.”

“Opposed to being able to learn everything?”

“Yeah. Like your pokedex. It’ll tell you all you want to know about pokemon, but ask it how to cook your breakfast and you’re out of luck.”

“Oh. Isn’t that pretty easy to program in though?”

“Sure, you could program it for any number of tasks, hardware permitting. But it’ll never learn new ones on its own. You don’t know all this? What are they even teaching in schools these days, just how to throw a pokeball?”

Red flushes. “That, and how to stay alive.”

“You’re one of Oak’s though, aren’t you? I figured you’d know more than that.”

Red catches Leaf’s glance, and takes a breath to calm himself. “I never really studied computers much. Mostly psychology, physics, chemistry, and pokemon biology.”

Bill tsks. “All that’s not going to matter much if AI keeps improving at its current rate. Should’ve studied computers.”

“I did, a bit,” Leaf says before Red responds.

“Juniper, right? I helped design your granddad’s species tracking algorithms.” Bill leads them past more machinery and electronics, then stops at a holopad and pulls on some gloves that go to his elbows. “Fun guy to work with. Even funner to drink with.”

“Thanks. I think.”

“So tell me, spawn of Cedric, what you think you know about AI, and how you think you know it.”

Red blinks. He’s only ever read that phrase in Giovanni’s writings, and those that read him. He wonders if Bill does too.

“Well,” Leaf says as Bill mutters something, and the hologram suddenly comes to life, showing some complex shape Red can’t make heads or tails of. It looks like three series of spheres spaced out with lines drawn between them in three dimensions. “I guess the first thing I think I know is that general AI is hard. And the reason I think I know that is that if it wasn’t, we would have figured it out by now.”

“Go on,” Bill says as he studies the hologram a moment. Spheres and lines shift as they watch, and eventually Bill extends a hand and casually waves it along the side of the projection, shifting the whole image to view it from “below.”

“General AI would be… well, like a person. It would be able to think for itself, or at least think so broadly it might as well be considered conscious. But it would be smarter than us, be able to think thousands of times faster. All the speed of a computer with all the flexibility of a human mind.”

“And what would this AI do?” Bill asks.

“Well, whatever we ask it to. It could run tests faster than us, solve coordination problems, collate all the data in the world and examine it objectively to make connections we wouldn’t.”

“Mhm.” Bill turns the hologram again, then reaches in and manipulate some of the lines and orbs around, faster than Red could follow before pulling back out to look at it again, and watch how it changes in response. “So you’d just use it as an Oracle?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh boy. Okay, let’s keep this basic. There are a few ways to classify AI. Some popular ones are Oracle, Genie, and Sovereign. Oracles are basically question boxes. They can’t act in the world other than to transmit information. You give the AI a set of data, ask it a question, and have it tell you the answer. Basically like the pokedex, but more broadly intelligent. Able to figure out answers you didn’t explicitly program it with.

“Genie aren’t contained. Hook a Genie up to a robot, give it a blueprint, and tell it to build you a house according to the blueprint using the materials you put in front of it, and if it’s made well, it’ll do that, then stop and wait for further orders. Or, to use an example of what’s coming soon to roads near you, put the Genies in cars that will drive you around anywhere you tell them to. A narrow Genie might choose from a set of predetermined routes to preset locations, but a more general intelligence auto could figure out its own route to custom locations. Tell it to drive you to a lake in the forest, and it’ll do it.

“And Sovereigns are the least tightly bound AI. They can take more complex orders, and carry them out in novel ways, without waiting for human approval at every step. Instead of giving the Sovereign the materials to use, you’d ask it to build you a house with whatever it could find. And if you’re not blisteringly stupid, you would put limitations on it to ensure those materials aren’t people, or pokemon, or from other houses.”

Red frowns as he watches Bill change the color of two of the spheres, which drastically alters the arrangement of the lines before he changes them back. “Are there any machines like that yet? Sovereigns?”

“Sure, in the narrow sense. Any machine that works independently on loose goals is a Sovereign. Computers trying to maximize returns in the stock market, for example. They have a goal and that’s about it.”

“Seems like a fine line between a Genie and a Sovereign,” Leaf says.

Red turns to her. “I think it’s about level of control, not intelligence. Sometimes they’re tangible, like, an Oracle like the pokedex can’t open doors or move anything, so it’s obviously constrained that way. But a Genie like an automatic car might have to ask you for permission and show its route before taking it, so you can stop it from driving you through a river. Whereas a Sovereign wouldn’t have to ask permission, it would just… do things?” He turns to Bill questioningly. “Why would anyone make a Sovereign, anyway?”

“Because sometimes you don’t know how to get to your goal at all. Remember, if AGI is being used, it’s being used to do something humans can’t. If you ask it to figure out a way to stop humans from aging, it might do it by manipulating our genetic code, or it might do it by synthesizing some wonder drug. You don’t actually know what you want it to do, you just know what you want done. It’s up to the machine to figure out what your actual desire is, your coherent extrapolated volition.” Bill frowns at his holograph, tweaks one more thing, then makes a gesture with his arm that shuts off the display. “Eva, prepare some food for us above the computer lab. Twenty minutes.” He strips the gloves off and sticks them in his pocket as he starts walking again.

“Certainly, sir. Preference?”

“Steak.”

“We have tauros and bouffalant in stock.”

“Tauros. What do you guys want?”

“Uh, anything’s fine,” Red says in surprise.

“Come on, kid, pick something.”

“Um. Come back to me.”

“No pokemon for me, please, Eva,” Leaf says, voice raised.

“Understood. I can prepare a salad of mixed greens with tangerine slices, walnuts and feta cheese to ensure a balanced nutritional meal. Is that acceptable?”

“Very acceptable, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Well?” Bill asks as he pauses to watch a mechanical arm disassemble and reassemble a series of small, complex metal pieces. It keeps trying new permutations, and Red is distracted by the blur of movement for a moment before he realizes Bill is talking to him.

“Oh, uh, pidgey burger? Please?”

“Certainly.”

“Thank you, Eva,” Red says, looking around for a camera or microphone to direct his attention to.

“You’re welcome.”

“So is Eva a Genie, then?” Leaf asks, and Red suddenly feels very stupid. “Since she—it—can’t act independently, and just follows your direct orders?”

“Yep, though she has a number of autonomous routines, as you’ve seen,” Bill says as he types something into the console beside the robotic arm, causing it to stop moving and reset back to a resting state. He then leads on, walking deeper into the lab. “As far as I’m aware she’s one of the four strongest AI in the world, but that just makes her less narrow than the others. She’s still a long way from true general intelligence.”

“So you’re trying to make her smarter?” Red asks. “Win the race for AGI?”

Bill barks laughter. “Fuck no, and I’ve had to sabotage a number of projects trying to win that race. Haven’t you been listening?”

“I think so? Wouldn’t strong AI help you out a lot? I mean, you’re not, uh, ‘blisteringly stupid,’ right? Eva’s not going to turn us into hamburgers just because she, I mean it, runs out of pidgey meat.”

Bill sighs. “Ok, let’s see how smart you are, Mr. Verres. What do you want? What’s your goal in life?”

Red pauses a moment to consider how this might be a trap, then says, “To learn. Specifically, I’m most curious about the origin of pokemon species. Study how they arise, where they come from.”

“That’s it?”

Red blinks. He’s not used to people dismissing his aspiration as too low. “It’s one of the greatest mysteries in the world. And… there are so many hypotheses and beliefs out there, none with any real evidence to support one theory over another. Learning the truth about reality is important to me.”

“One of Oak’s, alright. But try to dream a bit bigger. What do you really want, if you could have anything, even supposedly impossible things?”

I want my dad back.

It takes Red a moment to shove that thought away, after the pain of it echoes through his chest, again and again and again, reverberating with his heartbeats. He puts on a thoughtful face until it passes, breaths suddenly shallow.

He knows Bill said “impossible,” but the impossible has a quality to it that the merely improbable lacks. Even if a computer could reverse engineer his dad’s genetic code from his and his mom’s, then flash grow a clone, at best the new Tom’s experiences would be made up of imperfect and disjointed memories from those that knew him. It could reassemble Tom Verres atom by atom, but where would it get an image for the brain? Short of time travel or some evidence of an afterlife, Red’s father is dead, and no scientific breakthrough, no matter how miraculous, is going to change that.

Once the ache fades, Red says, “I guess ending death would be the most important thing. Not just aging and disease, but also pacifying all wild pokemon. Make the world a truly safe place to live.”

“Fine, great, you’re an enlightened humanist. Now, what are your challenges, if you use AGI?”

“Um. Can I have a minute to think about it?”

“I would be disappointed if you didn’t take at least five.”

Red ponders this as they continue to walk around the lab. Leaf asks some questions about the future of human interface virtual reality while Red tries to think it through. He takes out his notepad and starts writing down ideas.

“Isn’t that kind of important though?” Leaf asks. “People could use that to train their pokemon so much more safely-”

“Yeah, but it’s kind of boring.”

Leaf’s eyes widen.  “Boring?”

“It bores me.”  Bill watches a group of small robots navigate a maze for a moment, then pulls up the past trial data from the screen beside it.  “So I don’t do it.”

“But… it could solve so many problems! Help so many people!”

Bill shrugs, eyes on the screen. “So let someone else figure it out. I’ve got more important things to deal with.”

Leaf frowns. “So is it because it’s boring, or because it’s not important?”

“Both. Have you noticed that people have a hundred new problems and crises every year? They never stop finding new limits that they need someone else to help them overcome. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with it all.”

Leaf watches a robot stop moving as Bill types something on the keyboard, then start its maze over by trying a completely different route. “You talk like you’re not one of them.”

“I try not to be, when I can help it. I moved out here to get away from all their pointless needs.”

Leaf frowns. “Why bother with any of the things you do, then?”

“Because the problems I’m trying to solve matter. And before you ask, yes, I’m qualified to determine that. Especially since it’s my time and money I’m spending.”

“I didn’t mean to-”

“Yes you did, but it’s fine,” Bill says as he closes the program and starts walking again. “You’re still young. And that’s not an ageism thing, it’s just an objective metric of life experience.”

Red is only half listening to their conversation as he finishes sketching out his thoughts, but he catches the look from Leaf and smiles at her.  “People skills,” he mouths, and her expression clears as she smiles back. “I think I’m ready,” he says.

“Alright, walk me through it.”

“Ok, so I’m not using a Sovereign at all. If I just say ‘Figure out a way to stop people from dying,’ it might just start capturing everyone in pokeballs. If I explicitly rule that out, it might make a nanobot army and go around knocking people out to put them in suspension pods that keep them alive indefinitely. If I add qualifiers like ‘make sure nothing else about them changes,’ it might find a way to stop people from dying that keeps aging. If I explicitly include a stop to aging in the requirement, it might make us stop being able to change at all, because I said ‘nothing else about them changes,’ and technically that could be interpreted as literally, everything else has to stay the same. There are just too many ways it might go wrong.”

Bill nods. “Basic, but you get the point. There are way worse things it could do.”

“Like what?”

“Remember that it’s a machine, not magic. It has to have the resources to accomplish whatever it sets out to do. It has to prioritize. Should it go for the big win that stops everyone from dying, or go for faster, smaller wins? Maybe it cures diseases first to save those people, then changes human genes to cure wounds in seconds to stop those deaths, then tries to stop aging to save the older people from dropping off.”

“None of that sounds bad,” Leaf says. “It might not be the most efficient, but it’s still saving people. Actually, it might be the most efficient after all. It’s smarter than us, isn’t it? Maybe its method of deciding would be better.”

“Better by what values? Is the life of a great grandmother with advanced dementia as valuable as the life of their great granddaughter? Even if we all agree that’s the case, and we input different weight to every category imaginable, ever see an AI play Chess, or Go?”

“Right,” Leaf says, speaking slowly. “It’ll start making decisions that don’t make sense to us.”

“It might even seem like it’s malfunctioning,” Red says. “How would we know? It might decide the main priority to save humans from dying is to stop the sun from eventually expanding, and waste all its time and the planet’s resources pursuing a path to stopping that. To us it would just look like it’s crazy and we’d pull the plug.”

Bill nods. “All this, of course, changes the more human-like the machine is in its intelligence. And it’s why it’s absolutely essential that it can communicate its intentions and actions clearly. We need to be able to understand what it’s doing and why, at all times. But that leads us to the question of autonomy. Who, ultimately, is it explaining its actions to? Who’s giving it orders? Its creator? Lot of power to put into one person’s hands. A committee? Just kill me now.”

“What about itself?” Leaf says quietly. “If it’s truly sapient, anything else would be slavery.”

“Give the girl a star!” Bill is getting more and more animated as the conversation goes on, and paying less attention to the various tasks he stops to do around the lab. Red wonders how often he has visitors, and if he misses company to talk with, even if they’re not his peers. “If we’re talking about a truly sapient machine, that’s a whole different mess. Me, I’m not bothered by the moral question as much as I am the security risk it poses. Anything with sapience and even the slightest bit of self-preservation is going to pose enormous existential risk, even if it’s just a box with a text screen.”

“But even without sapience, a strong enough AI could end humanity by accident,” Red says, thoughts spinning. “Why haven’t I heard about all this, anyway? An existential threat this big…”

“It’s too big,” Leaf says. “People can’t grasp it. It’s like worrying about a meteor strike.”

“But we know this meteor strike is coming, and soon,” Bill says. “Sure, ‘soon’ may be twenty years, or it may be fifty, or it may be a hundred. But it’s not an if, it’s a when. So, knowing all that, Mr. Verres, you still haven’t finished your explanation.”

“Right. Well. Sovereign is out, like I said. But so is Genie. Even if it’s one task at a time, that’s all it takes sometimes, especially if I’m not the only one with access to the AI. The more people it might take orders from, the higher the chances that it does something wrong, or does something the wrong way. I’m sticking with an Oracle. I teach it everything we know about biology, and ask it to tell me the instructions for designing a retrovirus that will end mammal aging. When it does, we study the design, and if it seems okay, create a batch and test it on pokemon. If it seems to work, test it on human volunteers.”

“And that’s how you would word it? ‘End mammal aging?'”

“Yeah. Even if it decides that killing something ‘ends aging,’ we’ll know from the pokemon trials before we try it on humans.” Leaf makes a face, but Red just shrugs. “Whatever the problem is, just keep re-iterating until we get it right.”

“And what if it’s communicable? You said ‘end mammal aging.’ Sounds to me like you want to end all mammal aging on the planet.”

“We’d test it in sterile chambers,” Red says. “Obviously.”

“Obviously. So, you’ve maybe got a beginning of an idea of one of the problems we face with advancing AI technology. And you started with Sovereign and worked your way down, which is the ideal way to think about AI safety.”

“There’s more to it than that though, right?” Red asks as he thinks through all the complications in designing a system that can think and act on its own “What about incentives? If it’s sapient, how do you get your machine to want to do things for you? Once you program its values, how do you program its incentives? There are so many ways it could go wrong!”

“Now you’re getting it.” Bill smiles. “I’m glad inviting you here wasn’t a waste of time.”

“I’m still stuck on the whole ‘slavery’ thing,” Leaf says. “There’s no way to actually stop an AI from becoming sapient accidentally, is there?”

“Not unless neuroscientists isolate what exactly consciousness is, and the brain structure responsible for it,” Bill says as he leads them to another door. Red wonders if they’re about to enter another lab or go upstairs to eat. “Until then, for all we know it might just be an emergent property of sufficiently broad intelligence, and could arise on its own if we make a computer that’s smart and flexible enough.”

The door opens to reveals a flight of stairs, leading them into a living room that looks exactly like the one they first entered to go into the biochem lab.

Bill walks into the kitchen, where three plates of food sit waiting, with a can of soda sitting beside each… the same flavors that they took earlier from the other fridge. “Help yourselves,” Bill says as he takes his plate over to the table, and Red and Leaf follow to do the same. Now that he has a moment to study it, Red notices there’s barely any room in the kitchen for someone to cook or move around: most of it is filled with a series of machines that Eva uses to prepare meals. Red looks up and sees motionless mechanical arms attached to rails on the ceiling.

“What do you guys want to look at while we eat?” Bill asks once they sit down. “Beach?” The walls suddenly have yellow sand, rolling blue waves, and piercing blue skies projected onto them in every direction, as if the three sit on a tiny island. “Forests?” The oceans are replaced with endless brown and green, and the slow roar of crashing waves is replaced with birdsong and wind rushing through countless leaves. “Cafe?” Now the walls show bustling sidewalks in Cerulean city, the forest sounds replaced by ambient chatter and traffic.

Red stares, mouth open mid-bite at the changing environment around them. “Is this… live footage?” he asks, watching a woman in a long coat with an eevee perched on her shoulder walk by on the wall to his left. If he pays attention, he can just make out the fuzziness of the image as it’s projected onto the blank walls.

“Nah, goes for about thirty minutes before it loops.”

“It’s awesome,” Leaf says. “This one’s fine with me.”

Red nods, finally biting into his burger. It’s delicious. “I think this is the coolest house I’ve ever been in,” he says, mouth full. “And the coolest labs. Thanks for inviting us here, Bill, even if it was just so you could get a soda.”

“I know there was something else,” Bill says as he starts to cut his steak. “It’ll come to me. In the meantime, let’s talk about your plan to catch abra.”

Red pulls his gaze away from watching someone ride by the street next to them on a tauros. “Sure. So, we’ve got some speakers, and I figured we’d use them to set up a field-”

“I know the basics. What I wanted to see for myself is what kind of person you are. Oak doesn’t give licenses out to just anyone, but it’s always good to be sure.”

“And… what kind of person am I?” Red asks.

“The kind who probably won’t get himself killed on my property and make me have to deal with the media. So when do you want to do it?”

“Oh. Well I figured we’d wait for Blue to finish at the gym for today, unless he gets out late. In which case, tomorrow?”

“No.” Bill shakes his head. “If you’re doing this on my land, you’ll wait till next week.”

Red blinks. “Um. Sure, if you insist. Why next week?”

“Because you’re going to spend the time between then and now preparing. You’ll find the best spot to do it, set up mock trials, and practice drills. Once you’ve got an idea of what to expect and how to respond, then you can try for real.”

“Yeah, okay, that makes a lot of sense. Are you going to determine if we’re ready or not?”

“Ha. Like I have time for that. No, I’m not going to babysit. You’ve got the land and the time you need to figure it out. The rest is on you.”

Red nods. “I appreciate it. More than I can say. Is there anything you want out of all this? Some of the abra, maybe?”

Bill waves his knife to the side dismissively. “Let’s just say you’ll owe me a favor. Nothing particularly dangerous, and nothing illegal. It’ll probably be whatever that thing is that I can’t remember wanting to ask you to do. Sound fair?”

“Yeah, more than fair! Thanks again.”

“Don’t mention it. Oak said you’re doing this for research, right? Not just to get rich quick? Because it’s a great idea for that.”

Red swallows his mouthful and washes it down. “Yeah.” He explains his ideas, and is surprised to see Bill’s attention sharpen away from his meal.

“No luck with the research journals so far, huh?” Bill asks, tipping his soda can back as he takes a swig.

Red shakes his head, suppressing a sigh. “I probably should have taken Professor Oak up on his offer.”

“Don’t let it get you down. The whole system’s broken, believe me: I’m self funded, sitting on top of a dozen new breakthroughs a year, have an AI to make writing research papers a breeze, and I still get frustrated by how broken the world of science publishing is.”

Red stares at him. “Uh. How is that supposed to not let it get me down, again?”

Bill purses his lips, then shrugs. “Alright, so it should probably get you down. If it helps, it’s just another problem I’m hoping will be solved soon.”

“How?”

“Something called Raikoth that should turn the scientific publishing world on its head.”

“Is it a research Oracle?”

“In a different sense. Think of a system of linked prediction markets. Kind of complex to get into right now, and probably a few years away from ready. But in the meantime, if you ever manage to find something solid in your research, let me know. A better understanding of psychic phenomenon might be enough for me to build a whole new lab.” Bill rubs his chin. “I’ve thought about diving into it before, just didn’t think it was worth it.”

“Well, if you want to fund some exploratory research…” Red grins.

Bill chuckles, shaking his head. “You can use my land, but without some solid justification that your idea has merit, even a few hundred dollars is money I have better priorities for. No offense.”

“No, I get it,” Red says, feeling only a little disappointed. It was a long shot, but now that he knows what Bill spends his time working on, Red can’t begrudge him higher priorities.

“Are you interested in psychic research to help with AI value alignment?” Leaf asks as she spears a tangerine slice with her fork.

“That and I’d like to be psychic, if I can. How’d you know?”

She smiles. “Seems like the best way to make sure it understands what you really want.”

Bill nods. “Find out how psychic communication works biologically, and we may be able to get it to work mechanically. Not only could we control machines telepathically, we could ensure that our actual CEV is more likely to be followed.”

“CEV?”

“Coherent extrapolated volition.”

“You mentioned that before,” Red recalls. “I understand the words individually, but as a phrase I’m not sure I get it. It’s just what you want? Making sense of your will?”

“It’s Yudkowsky’s term for the ‘end game,’ so to speak. Remember when we were talking about oversight? Who’s the computer listening to? Eventually we should probably make sure that one person can’t use the machine for evil, which means programming it with the ability to make all the best decisions for everyone, itself.”

“I can’t imagine people being happy with that,” Leaf says. “They’re barely content with other humans that they elected deciding things for them.”

“Again, end-game. You wouldn’t design your first AI to do this, it’s at the end of the hierarchy of getting it to do what you mean, and not just what you say, to the point where you may not even have to say anything anymore.”

“That would mean getting every part before it right,” Red says. “Not just what you value, but also what you will value, which means… knowing how you think? How you will think, in any given situation?”

Bill shakes his head. “More than that, even.”

“What can be more than that?” Leaf asks.

“Okay, so first you want to make sure the machine knows what you consider important, so it can avoid altering those in the wrong way, or let you know if something you ask it to do will require it to. So if you ask it to find a way to clean pollutants out of the air, and it knows that you care about there being a certain amount of oxygen in the air for humans to breathe, then it won’t use a solution that alters that.

“Second, you want the machine to be able to model and understand what you believe, so it can tell you if something you believe is wrong. If you ask an AI to find a way to undo the effects of a human entering a pokeball, the AI should be able to understand that you’re under the assumption that they’ll be restored back to their former self.  If a treatment the AI comes up with would restore a human’s intelligence but wipe out their memories and personality, it should know to let you know that.

“Third, you want the machine to be able to model your desire in asking them to accomplish something. This is the classic idea of a wish being granted in a literal fashion rather than in the way the wisher intended, and of course, it’s incredibly complex and difficult. Like before, this is the machine knowing that when you ask it to end aging, you meant that you want to end the negative effects of aging on your mind and body.

“And finally, coherent extrapolated volition. Not just what you want, given the knowledge and beliefs you have, but what you would want, if you had all the knowledge the AI does, and could better consider arguments for and against your beliefs, and could better judge and understand yourself and your desires.”

“That… sounds incredibly hard. And dangerous,” Red says. He stopped eating while he listened, and brings the burger halfway up to his mouth before lowering it again, still deep in thought. “You’d need to teach the machine ethics that everyone can agree on.”

“Meta ethics,” Leaf says. “The very idea of how we know what right and wrong even are…”

“Bill, who else is working on this?” Red asks. “Not just you, right?”

“No, I mostly just fund research and do some consulting work once in a while. Bostrom, Müller, Amodei, Taylor, Russell, and many others are doing the heavy lifting. As you saw, I’ve got too many other projects to work on.”

“How much more important can they be?” Red asks.

“Well, first off, I want to live long enough to see the singularity,” Bill says as he inspects a slice of the meat and mutters something to himself, or probably Eva. “Which means I need to help make sure society doesn’t come crashing down from a series of catastrophic pokemon attacks. Improving trainer tech makes for a fun hobby, and is economical to boot, which means more money I can donate to fund other worthy causes. Then there’s solving the actual dying problem itself, whether from some antibiotic resistant pandemic, a degenerative disease, or just old age.”

Leaf twirls her fork around on her plate, looking pensive. “I have a question.”

“What’s up?” Bill asks as he uses a piece of bread to start sopping up the juices on his plate.

“When AI is built, it’ll have a body, right? Even if it’s just a box, there’s a physical location that is, in essence, it.

“Yeah, and it might actually be pretty big too, depending on how powerful it needs to be. Might be a literal box, like the old computer towers that sat beside people’s desks.”

Red sees where Leaf is going. “Oh, shit. What happens if that physical object becomes a pokemon, like beldum?”

Professor Oak told him about that: the interregional panic during his school days, when a library in Hoenn was destroyed overnight from within by a swarm of the new pokemon. Investigations showed that the computers in their lab were all gone without a trace, and endless steps were taken worldwide to try and find out what happened, either to replicate it, or avoid having the same thing happen elsewhere. Efforts on both sides met with limited success.

Bill nods, face serious as he toys with the last of his food, gaze down. “It’s been talked about, believe me. Best case scenario is we get something like a super metagross, smarter than most. Worst case, well…”

“It might be sapient,” Red says, feeling a chill.

“With the way inanimate objects gain sentience when they become pokemon, it’s distinctly possible. AGI is frightening enough when it’s just limited to what computers and machinery can do. A pokemon that’s smarter than a human, and has Electric or Steel or Psychic powers? Arceus help us all… and I don’t even believe in that thousand-armed horse.”


A week, Bill said, before Red could try his abra catching experiment.

Sometimes a week feels like a lifetime. This one, Red knows, would be the blink of an eye.

As he and Leaf ride back to the Trainer House from Bill’s, his thoughts are still on all they learned from the inventor. There’s a sense of emptiness in his stomach that his burger is doing nothing to combat.

“You okay?” Leaf asks as they cross Nugget Bridge. “You’ve been quiet since we left.”

“Just thinking.”

“Your notebook isn’t out.”

Red looks at her. She’s smiling, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “It bothers you, huh?”

He snorts. “What, the part where everyone’s going to probably die in a generation or two?”

“Or the part where stopping that from happening will probably involve enslaving a newly created, intelligent being?”

“Or the part where the vast majority of people don’t care enough to do anything about it?”

Her smile is more genuine now. “Or the part where if you do anything else with your life, it might all just be meaningless?”

He chuckles. “Or the part where all our other problems are ‘boring’ and unimportant?”

“Are they, though?” she asks, turning serious. “Is he right?”

Red stretches his arms over his head and leans back. “I don’t know. Maybe he is. If so, I should probably just abandon what I’m working on now and start studying computers.”

“What if you’re not good at computer stuff?”

Red smiles. “I guess I’m just not that important then. What about you, you said you liked it well enough. Are you going to change your goals, now?”

“Ha! No way.” She shakes her head, tossing her hair over her shoulders as her eyes gleam in the passing street lights. “The weeks I spent in Pewter, learning about people, how to change their minds, write in a way that speaks to them… None of the things I’ve tried before have felt as right.”

“Or as important?”

“Yeah. I want to be influential enough to make a difference in how people think about pokemon, and maybe get more people to treat them like I do. Stop people from eating them, or glorifying battles for sport. And I’m still going to do that, if I can. But why stop there? If I can convince people to stop eating pokemon, why not also convince people to take existential threats more seriously? I’m still going to make a difference, and I’m going to do it my way.”

Red watches her, chest warm with admiration. “You’re pretty awesome, you know that?”

Her cheeks color as her eyes widen. “Um. Thanks.”

Red looks away. “Sorry. I was just… I was having trouble with it. But hearing that helped.”

“Well. Uh. Good. I’m glad.”

They ride in silence again, and after a few moments Leaf pulls her phone out and begins typing on it. Red stops trying to look casual and at ease, and eventually his awkwardness fades as he considers what Leaf said. There’s no reason to give up what he’s good at, what he’s passionate about, if it means he can make a difference in his own way. He’s not going to stop trying to learn about where pokemon come from, and the best path to figuring that out for now is still in trying to understand what psychic phenomena are. Bill even said that would be useful for potential value alignment in AI.

But what Bill talked about still makes him feel small. Helpless.

Red feels his fingernails cutting into his palms, and looks to see them clenched into fists.

…for the clever mind does naught with thought but lights a shuttered room…

He slowly forces them open.

…with these handsspeak ‘break!’and split the world in two…

Red takes his phone out and sends a message to his mom. A few seconds later she responds:

Hey Red, how are you?

Good. Just checking in.

Thank you hon. Are you enjoying Cerulean City?

Yeah. I met Bill! His house was nuts… he has like five of them, all connected to labs.

Exciting! What’s he like?

Red smiles. Unique. He had a hologram outside his house of a clefairy, and when he spoke through the external speakers Leaf and I thought it was talking at first!

Ha ha! That must have been fun for you 🙂

Almost had a heart attack xP But also it reminded me, you said you found a good price for a clefairy, right?

Yep, still watching it for you. No one bought it. Want it now?

Yes please. Send it to Cerulean North’s Trainer House.

Will do. After vetting it should be available by tomorrow.

Thanks mom. Love you lots.

You too dear, say hi to the others for me *kiss kiss*

Red exits the messenger and immediately opens the pokemon market app. He checks the clefairy entries, and refreshes until he sees the one his mom mentioned disappear.

Nine hundred dollars. He told his mom he wouldn’t sell it unless he caught one at Mt. Moon… which he hadn’t.

But that was before he and Leaf nearly died in the forest fire. Before his first research project was so inconclusive. Before he found out how expensive psychic training was. Before he lost his rattata and spearow. Before Blue and Leaf almost got killed by a Renegade.

Before he met Bill, and learned just how small his ambitions and goals might actually be.

He can’t afford self-imposed disadvantages like this. He really wouldn’t mind having a clefairy of his own, but that $900 investment would easily fetch three times the price once Daisy reveals her new routine at the next Coordinator event, which will be at the end of the month, if Red remembers right.

He’ll need every resource, every scrap of luck or talent he can leverage, if he wants to make a difference in the world of today, and the future that’s coming.

Sorry, mom. He tucks his phone away, staring outside the window as the cab navigates the lively nighttime streets of the city. He rests his forehead against the cool glass and closes his eyes. I warned you I wouldn’t live up to your expectations.

9 – Antagonists, Part 1

Daystar and Alexander explore what makes for compelling story antagonists, and discuss some of their favorites.

Co-hosted by Alexander Wales

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected

Links

The Stand, by Stephen King

Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King

Timestamps

0:34 What Makes an Antagonist?

2:38 Shallow antagonists

9:06 Favorite Antagonists: Randall Flagg

12:41 Favorite Antagonists: Lex Luthor

17:54 Basics Do’s and Don’ts

25:16 Creating Motivations

(32:15 Seriously guys please don’t blow anyone up)

34:10 Favorite Antagonists: Magneto

Advertisement:

For those of you who somehow haven’t heard of Audible yet, it’s a great platform for finding and listening to audiobooks. You can help finance the podcast and other projects like it by starting a free trial with the link below. You even get one free download!

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Thanks for listening!

5 – Rule of Cool

Daystar and Alexander discuss the Rule of Cool trope, and how rational fiction tries to create organically cool moments without sacrificing the story’s integrity.

Co-hosted by http://alexanderwales.com/

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected

Timestamps:

0:40 What is the Rule of Cool? Is it inherently good or bad?

5:45 Swords vs Guns, Lightsabers, Waif-Fu

11:07 Why avoid it in Rational Fiction?

13:00 Ways to minimize negatives of Rule of Cool

19:20 Breaking the world

26:40 Is it better to fully explore an idea, or minimize its

role so as not to “cheat” the plot?

29:40 When to kill your darlings

34:15 When to run with the craziness

37:55 Recap of the three approaches to mitigating loss of coolness when rationalizing.

0 – History

A brief history of the Rational and Rationalist fiction genres, their roots in the LessWrong community, and the influences from flagship authors of HPMOR and Luminosity.

Co-hosted by http://alexanderwales.com/

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected

Websites mentioned in episode:

www.lesswrong.com

https://www.reddit.com/r/rational

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationalilty

Luminosity

Friendship is Optimal

Transcript by an anonymous fan:

[The intro plays.]

DayStar Eld: Hello and welcome to Rationally Writing. I’m DayStar Eld.

Alexander Wales: And I’m Alexander Wales.

DayStar Eld: And this is a brief history of the rational and rationalist writing genres. A great place to start I think is with Eliezer Yudkowsky, who you will probably hear referenced a lot on this podcast, either by name or just as EY. He is currently a research fellow at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and is one of the founders of the LessWrong website.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. 2006, I believe, is when LessWrong is created. He started that after he was on Overcoming Bias with Robin Hanson. And then Overcoming Bias became Robin Hanson’s personal blog. LessWrong is a community blog: Elizier, Yvain, AKA Scott Alexander–

DayStar Eld: Who runs Slate Star Codex.

Alexander Wales: Luke G, Alicorn and Gwern.

DayStar Eld: And the main point of LessWrong was to help people learn about rationality, share their thoughts about rationality, improve their thinking, comment on each other’s attempts to improve thinking. And the Sequences by Eliezer Yudkowsky were a major part of that effort.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. And they spread out in a lot of different directions. Like artificial intelligence, and many-worlds theory, and things like that. And there’s a heavy focus on computer science as well. Rationalist fiction as a named thing begins in March of 2009. Eliezer posted on LessWrong about rationalist fiction. He named Null-A and David Sling as works that evoked that rationalist aesthetic and encouraged rationalist thinking.

DayStar Eld: Yup. And LessWrong is also where Eliezer posted his first published rational fiction, The Sword of Good. Which was a very short story, satire of a lot of fantasy novels where someone from our world goes to another one and is told “Hey, you’re the long lost king. Go kill this evil wizard and take the throne”. And it examined the story elements of that through a rational lens. And the next one he published there was Three Worlds Collide, an eight chapter science fiction novella exploring metaethics and rational conduct through the implications of humanity making first contact and meeting aliens. And after that he started HPMOR on Fanfiction in March.

Alexander Wales: March 2010 is when the first chapters of HPMOR — Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality — was posted under the pseudonym LessWrong, but everyone knew that it was Eliezer by chapter five.

Daystar Eld: Right. On fanfiction.net it’s still LessWrong. But…

Alexander Wales: Yeah.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. And HPMOR was essentially a reimagining of the world where Harry is raised by Petunia, and Petunia instead of marrying Vernon Dursley marries an Oxford professor who teaches Harry all about science and rationality so that when he gets his letter from Hogwarts he approaches the world of magic with a scientific rationalist perspective. There’s a lot more to it than that but that is the ten second pitch of what the story is about.

Alexander Wales: Right. And it’s quite long. There’s a lot of stuff in it. And well worth reading in my opinion.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. I’ve recommended HPMOR to basically everyone I know, even people who were never big fans of the original Harry Potter. And I’ve gotten- I want to say at least half of my wider social circle and friend group into it.

Alexander Wales: So it ran from 2010 until 2015. There was a long period of slowdown, I think about a year where it wasn’t updating at all. The HPMOR subreddit in that time was quite active with people talking and theorycrafting and recommending other stories. Both of us were heavy posters there.

Daystar Eld: Right. This was a very — to me — enjoyable community to be a part of, because I’ve been part of communities about ongoing fiction works before obviously, but this was the most involved one that I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t just people posting “Oh, you know this artwork reminded me [of something]” or “This guy made some fanart” or “This person met the author and interviewed them and these are some questions and answers”. It was actually a lot of analysis, it was a lot of deep reading, it was a lot of questions and discussion surrounding the characters, their motives, the plot. Which I think can really only be fully done in the more complex works I’ve read. Books like Song of Ice and Fire series have a very vibrant and in-depth community about that because George R.R. Martin does a very good job of foreshadowing, planting clues, having complex characters. And the amount of foreshadowing and clue-dropping in HPMOR is truly impressive.

Alexander Wales: And you know I’ve been on lots of subreddits and community sites and stuff like that. And most of them in the off-season — which was basically what HPMOR had — it just, they turned to crap really, really quickly. A Song of Ice and Fire is not one of them. That’s a rare exception. But a lot TV shows just, the off-season is the time to unsubscribe if you don’t want to see just, ridiculous stuff that has only tangential relationship [to the content].

Daystar Eld: But the HPMOR subreddit and wider community stayed very involved and very interesting to be a part of and I enjoyed my time there quite thoroughly and apparently enough people did where eventually a subreddit spun off. But I think that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. The next thing in our timeline is Alicorn posts the first chapters of Luminosity, which is basically a reimagining of the series Twilight, where Bella is a rationalist rather than her sort of braindead canon self.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. I enjoyed Twilight. I’m one of the few people I know who actually read the whole Twilight quartet, and I’ve got serious criticisms of the series as I’ve written on a number of places on the Internet. But the core idea behind it, the worldbuilding that it did had a lot of potential and I think Luminosity really delved into that potential and brought it to great fruition and had wonderful examinations of the side-characters and made them all work really well with each other and with the new and improved and rational Bella.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. I actually sort of liked Twilight too. I actually did read all four books as well. I thought a lot of the side characters in Twilight were more in-depth and well-rounded than Bella. Bella was my big problem with the series.

Daystar Eld: Absolutely. Yeah. Luminosity basically took the integral weakness to Twilight and made it a strength so that everything kind of clicked into place once that was done.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. So it was Luminosity, and then Radiance is the sequel to that. And that’s the first of I guess what I would call…

Daystar Eld: Inspired-by works?

Alexander Wales: Yeah. It’s this rational character who comes in and sees all this crazy stuff and analyzes it and then it diverges pretty wildly from there.

Daystar Eld: Yeah, yeah. The logical consequences of the changes in the canon start to expand to ripple effects that affect everything. Again, to great effect. This is one of those stories where everything seems to change from the canon but still make sense based on the canon. You can have characters that are reacting to new situations and new circumstances that are going on but don’t feel out of character, they still feel like themselves. Which I think is one of the rarer things about fanfiction and one of the things that to me at least made Luminosity such a great fanfiction. And I would say that Luminosity being as good as it was is part of what made the rational fiction genre begin to open up because people saw HPMOR and they’re like “Wow, this is a great Harry Potter fanfiction about rationality”, and then they saw Luminosity and they’re like “Oh look, this is a great- you can make a rationalist Twilight fanfiction and make it really good, there’s nothing you can’t make rationalize and make good, potentially”.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. Which brings us to November 2012, when Iceman posted Friendship is Optimal. I believe that was all posted over the series of a few days, this was all prewritten. But Friendship is Optimal is about these people developing a My Little Pony MMO type thing and it becomes this sentient artificial intelligence. And it’s not actually fanfiction. I get into that discussion with people a lot, I had some disagreements about whether or not it qualifies as fanfiction. But that was well loved, spread a lot around the LessWrong crowd, and I think that became one of the primary things that people would recommend when you were on the subreddit or on LessWrong. People were like “I’m up to the in-progess point on HPMOR. What do I read next?”

Daystar Eld: Right. It was much shorter than HPMOR and Luminosity, which cover a number of themes. Friendship is Optimal covered the AI theme very powerfully and very well. So it was a great introduction also into the wider discussion of artificial intelligence risk for a lot of people. And to this day every time I have a conversation with someone who doesn’t really understand artificial intelligence as an existential risk to humanity, I still think, “You know, why don’t you check out this short story?” And it’ll do a pretty good job of priming you towards the real questions and real struggles and concerns in the community.

Alexander Wales: So May in 2013 is when Lighting Up the Dark got released by Velorien. In HPMOR there are two, possibly three chapters where there are omakes, which is a Japanese term from manga and anime, it just means bonus or extra. They are non-canon, small segments that are like several paragraphs long, rational takes on The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the Lord of the Rings, and a bunch of different things where problems can be solved in a matter of seconds. So I think that Lighting Up the Dark is probably the first- it’s a Naruto fanfic that specifically in the author’s notes at the beginning says that it was inspired by the Naruto omake in HPMOR. I think that’s probably the first of the more widespread progenitors. The foundational canon of rational fiction, when it actually started to get a canon. Because you had HPMOR, Luminosity, and maybe Friendship is Optimal as things that people would recommend. Lighting Up the Dark is when I think that started to become a canon of work instead.

Daystar Eld: You can also say it was one of the first fan[works].

Alexander Wales: Yeah. It was HPMOR-originating rather than LessWrong-originating.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. And once the first of the people who read HPMOR and possibly Luminosity and Friendship is Optimal said, “Let me try my own hand at this”. That really- then the floodgates opened.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. And 2013 was during the slump in postings on HPMOR. And May was Lighting Up the Dark. And I’m not one-hundred percent sure that’s the first one, but internet archaeology is fairly hard.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. It’s possible there were other stories between those but as far as I’m aware, that was the main one that was completed. And following that one came Branches on the Tree of Time which you wrote and put up on Fanfiction, about the Terminator world and a rationalist computer programming Sarah Connor who actually addresses what it’s like to fight an artificial intelligence. And addresses what it’s like to have time travel as a reality in the world and a tool to use at your disposal. So that was again really fantastic, really explored the themes in a way that to me in any case, ruined the Terminator series forever. If the next Terminator movie — I know Genesis came out somewhat recently and it was from all accounts fairly shitty, but- I mean, okay, most Terminator movies past the second one are fairly shitty in my opinion but — if the next Terminator movie is not Branches on the Tree of Time or something very similar to it, there’s really no reason for me to watch another Terminator movie because the — in my opinion — best exploration of artificial intelligence plus time travel is your story, so.

Alexander Wales: I really liked the Terminator canon. They’ve got a comic book series that’s collected in two anthologies that I mostly enjoy but it’s one of those things where you don’t want to look at the background all that heavily or it starts to really confuse you, at best. So, yeah. I wrote that in September of 2013. And then in October you post the first chapter of Pokemon: Origin of Species. Which I thought was much closer to HPMOR I’d say, in terms of vocabulary and the way it’s approaching the world.

Daystar Eld: Yeah definitely more inspired by HPMOR and Luminosity in the sense of, take a canon, find a protagonist, make them a rationalist, see what happens.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. And that’s sort of where we get our rationalist/rational distinction from, is between those two types of work. Because I wouldn’t call, for instance Branches on the Tree of Time rationalist because it’s not trying to much to teach anything.

DS. Right. Sarah Connor is a rational person and she is — well, she actually may be considered a rationalist herself — but she is a rational person who is using the tools at her disposable in a rational way. But she is not explicitly thinking about or communicating rationalist ideas. So it would be a gray area in my opinion but I’m okay with calling it either rationalist or rational.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. Whereas Origin of Species is much more rationalist. It’s got things to teach in most chapters, right? So then in December of 2013, there had been very many posts about “What should I read next”, or “What are things like HPMOR”. In December is when the rational subreddit was created. Which I really wish that they’d gone with rational fiction instead, because that’s caused many problems down the line with people just being like “Oh yeah, let’s just post things that we’d post to LessWrong”, which was not really what the subreddit was taken over for.

Daystar Eld: Right.

Alexander Wales: So that was December 2013. The initial mods, I think it was…

Daystar Eld: Eatyourbrains, I believe?

Alexander Wales: Yeah. It was Eatyourbrains and Seraphnb, I think. Who has now deleted their account. I think those were the founding two. The mod team is currently myself and PeridexisErrant. Who actually might have been one of the original mods too. This all happened following a post in HPMOR in December, where it was asking what are the characteristics of rational stories. And there was this post by Vivificent who basically laid out what is currently the sidebar of our rational. And that’s changed a little bit as time went on. Things were added and removed to that. But I think it’s fairly close to being the same as his initial comment.

Daystar Eld: Right. So the subreddit was created. A lot of the recommendations that people have been making over the months get posted there including Branches on the Tree of Time, your other story The Last Christmas. I start posting Origin of Species around that time, and originally I was posting a chapter in both HPMOR and rational, but then after the fifth or six chapter I was just posting it in rational. Because a lot of the people in the HPMOR subreddit had subscribed to rational by then, so it was essentially the same community.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. That was our feed population, was HPMOR. There are some people now, I occasionally see comments with people who don’t know what HPMOR is and have never read it.

Daystar Eld: Which is great, because now they’re one of the lucky ten-thousand.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. And there was a post on the subreddit recently talking about what is the point of entry, and it’s sort of grown beyond HPMOR because people disagree on whether that’s a good point of entry to the genre. Even if it’s like, the Ur-example. Which I’m sort of on the fence about.

Daystar Eld: I mean yeah, I kind of just maybe out of personal preference, I would like everyone to read HPMOR if they’re at all interested in rationalist fiction just because I feel like it’s such a good example of it. But I definitely understand if some people aren’t huge Harry Potter fans or get turned off by the… well, that’s a different…

Alexander Wales: Yeah. That’s a different episode.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. Around this time also Yudkowsky recommended Worm, which is not a rationalist fiction. Kind of but not really a rational fiction. I would be okay with calling it a rational fiction but I’m okay with other people saying it’s not too.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. This is one of the things you can get in fights with people on the subreddit about. Whether or not Worm is rational. And I don’t think it is, partly because I know wildbow, he’s expressed some hesitance about that label. And I think that if you’re an author and you say “Well, I don’t think that label applies to my work”, especially for a label like rational, I think that’s your prerogative. I’m willing to accept it in that case. I think that the label got applied to Worm by a lot of people, not Yudkowsky and himself.

Daystar Eld: Right. I definitely wouldn’t want to pull anyone into our community against their will. But I’m more than happy to recommend it to people in our community as something they’re probably going to enjoy. First off, it’s a superhero fiction where essentially the idea of what happens if superheroes are real really is explored from top to bottom. At the basic kids in high school that wake up one day with superpowers, to the how governments interact, how governments treats the superheroes, how superheroes interact with the government and civilian populations, privatized, public, all that stuff. Everything’s examined. Everything is interacting with each other. And in and of itself, it’s just a great character-driven story, plot-driven story, amazing fight scenes, all that good stuff. And what gets it called a rational fiction a lot or a rationalist fiction by some people even, is the fact that the main character is, in all respects intelligent, thoughtful, and good at examining how to get the most out of her powers or the powers of those around her. She’s a munchkin. A term that generally just means someone who uses the rules of the game to their advantage. And in some respects maybe cheats the rules a bit, uses loopholes, things like that. And she’s able to get quite a lot out of her essentially not on it’s face impressive power of controlling insects. And that’s really one of the things that makes it such an enjoyable read for a lot of rationalists or rational readers.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. And I think a similar one that I don’t- it doesn’t come from inside the genre, it comes from outside the genre. Mother of Learning was not written as rational fiction. It sort of adopted that label, or gotten into it. Harry Potter…

Daystar Eld: And the Natural 20.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. Harry Potter and the Natural 20 has similarly been called rational but it wasn’t written as rational fiction and I kind of prefer not to try to interpret works as rational if that’s not what the author has been intending because I think that’s part of the reason for wildbow’s hesitance there is that a lot of people come in and they say “Oh, this isn’t rational and this isn’t rational”, and it’s like, well, that’s not what it is.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. Harry Potter and the Natural 20 is a delightful read, very funny. It’s a great examination of the rules differences between the DnD and the Harry Potter magic system. But it’s main character Milo is a munchkin first and foremost, not a rationalist. Not a rational character in many respects.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. The Two Year Emperor, also.

Daystar Eld: Yup.

Alexander Wales: I am pretty sure that was in late 2013, but that was one of the early ones and sort of widely talked about in rational subreddit.

Daystar Eld: The Two Year Emperor is a…

Alexander Wales: A portal fantasy.

Daystar Eld: Portal fantasy, yeah.

Alexander Wales: And it goes into DnD “rules as written”, which is a sort of a term that came out of the character optimization boards. And if you take the DnD rules as written, they are absolutely insane. And Two Year Emperor has a lot of fun with that. I think 2014 is sort of when we get into the sort of mainstream current history. In May I wrote A Bluer Shade of White, which is a Frozen fanfic that I originally wrote for a bitcoin bounty. Someone had offered a prompt with a bounty if someone could deliver, so I wrote A Bluer Shade of White. I never got that bounty because it took me more than the stated week, but then I wrote, or I posted the first chapter of Metropolitan Man.

Daystar Eld: I have to admit that I have not read A Bluer Shade of White. I actually haven’t seen Frozen. So I’ve been kind of waiting until the inevitable “Oh, I guess I should see Frozen”.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. You should see Frozen. Frozen is a good movie. I would say it’s in the top twenty-five percent of Disney movies. I like Frozen a lot, but it also, like a Disney movie, doesn’t really care about a lot of things.

Daystar Eld: I know at the very least that there is a lady who has ice powers and at some point creates a sentient talking snowman and this is not explored at all in the story.

Alexander Wales: Right. He’s comic relief.

Daystar Eld: Right. I fully look forward to seeing how you expand on that which I’m sure you do. But Metropolitan Man was again, just another amazing exploration of Superman. The golden age superman specifically, back in the forties, fifties?

Alexander Wales: Yeah. Well, golden age is forties/fifties, Metropolitan Man is actually set in the 1930s. I think it’s ‘34 and ‘35.

Daystar Eld: So, right. So Lex Luthor is the main character. He’s a rational protagonist who is examining this alien god who has come to Earth and is dispensing justice. And it does a great job of examining why Lex Luthor is not an evil insane person who just wants to stop everything good and just about the world for no reason. He is someone who is on the less empathetic side, doesn’t really care about killing people if they get in his way or, having people die as a result of his plans. But his main concern is the continued existence of planet Earth and its people. So when he sees Superman show up and understands what it means for there to be a 0.1% chance even of Superman at some point destroying the world realizes, okay, it’s probably best to kill Superman. And it was widely received fairly well. It’s another story that I recommend to most people I know. Most people enjoy it.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. The reaction was — I don’t want to say mixed, but — a lot of people had the reaction of, “I liked that story but I’m never going to read it again”.

Daystar Eld: Ha, that’s what I always wanted to do with the ending. But I’m not going to, I don’t know if we should say that because of spoilers, spoiler alert. Most people have mixed reactions to the ending.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. I mean we can talk about that at a later point.

Daystar Eld: Absolutely. I’d be thoroughly happy to have an episode about Metropolitan Man.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. But that basically brings us up to — I think — current history. The stories I’m following right now is Animorphs: The Reckoning, there’s a lot of Worm fanfic, I think that’s pretty common. It’s Taylor with a different powerset.

Daystar Eld: Yeah. And there are a number of other stories, we can’t really name all of them. But just off the top of my head, I remember there was a Death Note fanfic that was doing pretty well. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Unfortunately, it seemed to have been discontinued at some point.

Alexander Wales: The Waves Arisen. That’s complete now, and that’s one that I recommend.

Daystar Eld: Yeah, another Naruto fanfic. And there’s a number of stories now that you can find on the subreddit r/rational. We’ve got everything there from fanfiction to original fiction, from short stories to web serials, one-offs. Scott Alexander from Slate Star Codex is writing Unsong.

Alexander Wales: Yeah. That’s one of the ones I would not consider rational. But I don’t have any qualms about that being on the subreddit. I just would like people not to take it as rational fiction. Because I think if you come into it with that mindset you’re not going to enjoy it as much.

Daystar Eld: Right. I was just going to say. One of the things about the community now is that it’s fairly open. We don’t need to restrict necessarily the works that are posted to the subreddit, as long as we know the difference between them and they’re clearly marked. So I’m always happy to talk about and engage in conversations about stories that are enjoyed by the community and see people talk about them. As long as the tags and the guidelines and things like that make it clear what is and isn’t rational and rationalist fiction, you can go to the subreddit and enjoy a wide variety of stories without necessarily thinking, “Oh well, if something isn’t rational I can’t post it here and talk about it with other people who enjoy rational fiction”.

Alexander Wales: Yeah.

Daystar Eld: So that’s pretty much the recent history of the still fairly new rational community. I should say rational fiction community, the rational community is a much wider thing. And it’s not exactly important to know for people who are getting into the genre, but if you ever plan on going to the subreddit or are wanting to discuss the topics or the stories that lead you there with other people, that’s just an idea of where it came from and what it meant to at least two of the readers and participants in the community. It’s at the very least been a positive and constructive influence on my life, so I’m happy to be part of it.

Alexander Wales: Yeah, me too.

Daystar Eld: Alright. Thanks for joining us, and starting with episode one, we’re going to start discussing in more detail what the rational fiction genre is, what the rationalist fiction genre is, how to tell the difference. And from there go on to giving advice and discussing the stories and genres. So hope you’ll join us for that.

Alexander Wales: Yeah.

[The outro plays.]

1 – What is Rational Writing?

Webserial authors Daystar Eld and Alexander Wales share their thoughts on what rational writing is, and describe the Rational and Rationalist writing genres.

 

Co-hosted by http://alexanderwales.com/

Websites mentioned in episode:

https://www.reddit.com/r/rational

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RationalFic

http://hpmor.com/

http://www.thebayesianconspiracy.com/

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected